WASHINGTON -- While the NHL's expansion is widely blamed for watering down the game, there is a positive side to the trend. Teams are now much more willing to take chances on players once excluded from the league because they were perceived as being too small or too slow.
Everyone from expansion teams to elite franchises such as Dallas and Detroit is taking a closer look at players who once would be labeled as strictly minor league material.
In Washington, 25-year-old rookie Glen Metropolit is getting his first taste of the NHL. Stan Drulia, a longtime player in the International Hockey League, is contributing in Tampa Bay.
Boston took a flier on 27-year-old Finn Mikko Eloranta with the 247th pick in June's draft and he's playing on the Bruins' checking line. Undersized journeyman Stacy Roest cracked Detroit's lineup last season, and Marc Rodgers, who played 471 minor league games over seven seasons before making his first NHL appearance this season, has filled in after injuries struck the Red Wings.
Last season, the expansion Nashville Predators, led by former Capitals general manager David Poile, gambled on projects such as 28-year-old Rob Valicevic. Valicevic is the team's second-leading goal scorer after bouncing among three minor leagues. The Predators also took a chance on a smallish Swedish defenseman drafted 250th overall in 1993 by Los Angeles. Now, Kimmo Timonen, in his second season, is one of the scoring leaders among defensemen.
"I think we opened some eyes around the league," Predators Coach Bary Trotz said. "Some of the coaches I spent time with last season like (Vancouver's) Marc Crawford, all of a sudden you see guys like (5-foot-5 Steve) Kariya and (5-9 defenseman Greg) Hawgood on that team. You probably wouldn't have seen that a year ago. That's the way the league is going and hopefully we had something to do with it."
Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell took a similar approach in assembling his expansion team. He looked at several older European players who were drafted late and never signed by their original NHL clubs. Swedish forwards Andreas Karlsson (24, taken 148th overall by Calgary in 1993) and Per Svartvadet (24, taken 139th by Dallas in 1993) are among the team's most promising players.
"We think they both are going to be good players in this league for a long time," Waddell said.
Washington Capitals director of hockey operations Shawn Simpson said he made a list of 10 quality veterans while scouting in Europe last season -- eight were signed over the summer.