Landing the best potential stars in the first two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft is challenging enough for any organization, but finding them in the last two rounds is the stuff of scouting legend.
Over the past 15 years, several players picked in the draft’s late stages have gone on to play in the NHL, but only a small handful became All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers. These are truly the draft's home-run picks -- players such as Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall in 1998), Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall in 1999), and the Rangers' own Henrik Lundqvist (205th overall in 2000).
A year ago, the Rangers traded defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti to Carolina in exchange for a 2010 sixth-round selection and a 2011 second-rounder later used to help obtain one of the world's top NHL prospects in 20-year-old defenseman Tim Erixon.
The sixth-round pick from the trade with the Hurricanes, No. 157 overall, was used to take an 18-year-old winger named Jesper Fasth. Relatively unheralded in his draft year, Fasth had been playing for the HV-71 junior team in Jonkoping, Sweden.
Fasth did not even appear on the NHL Central Scouting ranking of European skaters available for the draft, and if it weren't for his No. 110 overall ranking by the Red Line Report scouting service, most people researching 2010 NHL draft prospects might not have even heard of him. He certainly had some NHL scouts’ attention, however.
"I was very excited about being drafted, because my agent had told me I would probably be picked," said Fasth. "It was a shock that the Rangers picked me, because I had not talked to any of their scouts before the draft."
Rangers prospect Jesper Fasth, left, celebrates his goal against Team USA in the World Junior Championship bronze-medal game last January. Fasth tied for Sweden's tournament scoring lead, as he recorded four goals and two assists in six games. One of the reasons Fasth was largely under the radar was his birthday. Born on Dec. 2, 1991, he had missed the cutoff date for the 2009 draft and did not develop as the same rate as other 1991-born players because he was younger than almost all of them. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds in his draft year, it appeared Fasth needed to fill out his frame, too.
"He was not part of the Under-16, Under-17 or Under-18 Swedish national teams, but he has had a fabulous development curve, especially this year and even late last year," said Anders Hedberg, the Rangers' Head Professional Scout-Europe. "So he has taken huge steps in a positive way in his development."
Less than 12 months after the Rangers went "off the board" to gain his NHL rights, Fasth is starting to shape up as a possible home-run pick. He turned in a remarkable 2010-11 season and played a starring role on Sweden's World Junior Championship team, where he and Erixon were teammates. Fasth, who got his final goal of the World Juniors in a bronze-medal game loss to Team USA at Buffalo on Jan. 5, ended up tied for the Swedish scoring lead with four goals and two assists in six games.
Fasth projects as a skilled, offensive forward with the potential to score a lot of goals. He possesses extreme speed and remarkable stick-handling skills which led to highlight-reel goals for HV-71's Swedish Elitserien team and the World Junior squad.
In Fasth’s case, the thing that will almost surely make the difference in translating his game to the NHL is his exceptional speed on the ice.
"No pun intended, but he's very fast and he's got a great stick and he's got hockey sense. For a later pick like that to get a guy that showed what he showed as far as being successful wherever he went has been a good find," said Jeff Gorton, the Rangers' Assistant Director, Player Personnel. " ... The thing to be excited about is that he's a pretty well-rounded guy that can really shoot a puck and make a play, and he's got that great speed that you see in today's game. As we have seen in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, it's about speed, skill and hockey sense, and he's got all three."
Hedberg, a popular star with the Blueshirts from 1978 to 1985 before he went into scouting, is extremely impressed with Fasth and raves about his NHL potential.
"Whether you play in Canada, the United States or Sweden, it is the skills and the character that really count in the end. Because the NHL is a league of talented players with good character, mostly," said Hedberg. "His No. 1 asset is his speed, and that is usually the most important part. Most guys fail to make the jump from college or junior or Europe because they don't have the speed. But I have no concerns about his speed."
Fasth's rise in Swedish hockey circles over the past year has drawn considerable attention in his native country. Given a chance to play for HV-71's Elitserien squad during the preseason, he took full advantage of his opportunity and scored five goals and nine points in 11 games.
Jesper Fasth impresses scouts with his remarkable speed and potential to be a true scoring threat at the NHL level. Fasth is also a very hard worker off the ice with a lifelong goal of playing in the NHL. By the end of the preseason, Fasth was skating on HV-71's top line, and he opened the regular season there. Fasth struggled in the early going against veteran pros, and soon landed on the fourth line. After going nine consecutive games without a point, Fasth was sent back to the junior squad for a four-game stint in mid-October.
Back in junior, Fasth utterly dominated, scoring three points in his first game and registering 10 points in the six games before his permanent recall to the Elitserien on Oct. 26.
The breakthrough came on Oct. 28, when he picked up his first Elitserien goal in a home game against Timra. He started getting more ice time after that and was on the No. 1 line by Nov. 25. On Dec. 2, he erupted for a goal and two assists in a 7-3 win at Timra, and he remained on the top line until leaving to join the World Junior squad on Dec. 11.
At the World Junior tournament, Fasth was put on the No. 1 line alongside two players rated much higher than him in his own draft year -- Calle Jarnkrok, a Red Wings second-rounder, and Johan Larsson, Minnesota's second-round pick in 2010. It was a clear sign of just how much the coaches respected Fasth. He rewarded that faith in short order. After assisting on a goal by Erixon in his World Junior debut, Fasth went on to score in back-to-back victories over Russia and the Czech Republic, notching two goals in six shots vs. the Czechs.
"I play with a lot of speed and I use it to go hard to the net. The speed is my No. 1 strength," said Fasth. "... I know I can score goals, so it was good for me to see that I can score at that international level, too,"
Fasth's remarkable World Junior shooting percentage of 33.3 percent led Sweden and tied him for the tournament league among all players with at least four goals. He also handled all the intimidation that came his way, particularly in more physical games against the U.S. and Canadian teams.
"He was able to go in and play an important role for Sweden, which really opened our eyes because we were all there to see it live," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "He got cranked really early in the Canada game, and we were all sitting there and we wanted to see how he did with that, because it's going to happen more someday in the NHL. He just went back and collected himself and went right back out and went right back to it."
Although he grew up playing on big rinks in Sweden, Fasth felt at home on the NHL-sized rink at Buffalo and said it helped his performance.
"I like the smaller rink. I think it fits my style and how I play," said Fasth. "I play fast, and you can really go fast on a smaller rink, so it felt right for me playing there. ... I learned you need to be strong on the puck because you have to be able to play the puck with a defenseman right on your back a lot more on the smaller rink."
Although he is now one of the top Under-20 players in Sweden, Jesper Fasth was hardly a big-name prospect a year ago, which enabled the Rangers to gain his valuable NHL rights with a sixth-round pick. Returning to the Elitserien, Fasth skated on HV-71's third line and recorded points in three of four games before suffering a knee injury on Jan. 25 at Linkoping. He would miss seven games with the injury. Just over a week after rejoining the lineup, Fasth notched the OT game-winner in a 4-3 win over Gavle, helping HV-71 nail down the No. 1 seed for the playoffs, where they were stunningly swept in the opening round.
Only 19 years old when his first season in Sweden's top league ended, Fasth had scored seven goals and 16 points as the youngest player on his team -- a stellar achievement for a player considered a longshot to make the Elitserien powerhouse squad when the season began.
Fasth ended his season as a candidate for the Swedish World Championship team and represented the Swedes at the six-game Euro Hockey Challenge. Although he scored in the final game of that tournament, Fasth missed the final cut, and his eventful, breakout year ended on April 15.
Hedberg has been amazed by what others in Sweden say about Fasth's development, including HV-71 assistant coach Fredrik Olausson, a longtime NHL defenseman, and HV-71 manager Fredrik Stillman, a former Swedish Olympian.
"These guys brag about Jesper's dedication and personality within the group and what he wants to do with his hockey life," said Hedberg.
As a youngster, Fasth idolized Swedish NHL stars Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin and remembers being frustrated when he wasn't allowed to stay up late enough to watch them live on TV. The native of Nassjo, Sweden, became determined to one day play on hockey's biggest stage and has been working toward that goal for as long as he can remember.
Hedberg said Fasth’s work-ethic shows in his relentless commitment to train in ways that will help him one day be part of the Rangers roster.
"I have never met a player in the last 20 years that has this level of talent and is on this sort of path that doesn't have a burning desire and ambition to play in the NHL," said Hedberg. "There is no difference with Jesper. This guy wants to be an NHL player. There is no issue there. Whether you grow up in Connecticut or Quebec or even Smaland (a province in Sweden), where he grew up, the players like this know where they want to go -- and that's the NHL."
Fasth is especially looking forward to his first taste of the Rangers organization when he attends the team's Prospect Development Camp at the MSG Training Center later this month. He has no particular expectations either.
"I just hope to see how it works and get to know some people," he said.
Fasth is under contract to return to HV-71 next season, and said he is eager to continue honing his skills in the Elitserien. Other successful Swedish late-round draft picks such as Lundqvist and Zetterberg did not come over to North America until they had spent a few more seasons in Sweden, and Fasth will likely follow this route. Hedberg also feels this is the best thing Fasth can do for his development.
"I would say that it's better to arrive in North America a little bit too late rather than a little bit too early," Hedberg said of a prospect's transition from Sweden. "I have lots of examples of that. He's now 19, and I would think that he should probably play another two years in Sweden before he will really be ready for North America."
Keeping his Rangers ties strong, Fasth can learn more about the game from former Blueshirt Ulf Dahlen, who will be his head coach at HV-71 next season. In being able to chat with Dahlen and Hedberg, Fasth can develop a better sense of life with the Blueshirts even before he arrives on a full-time basis.
“I'll take it year by year,” Fasth said of his development. “But my goal is to be playing over there (North America) within three years.”
The future is never certain for any NHL prospect, but in Fasth's case it appears as bright as that of almost any other 2010 draftee. A player taken in the last two rounds is starting to look like he could easily have come from the first two.
What a difference one year has made in both the life of Jesper Fasth and an already strong Rangers pipeline.