In our continuing series about former draft picks, and in thinking about the coming draft at the end of next week, we choose two forwards to look at–Lauri Korpikoski and Hugh Jessiman. Both were highly-touted and both were first-round picks that did not work out for the Blueshirts.
Each is a cautionary tale (different cautions, but important none the less).
Korpikoski was a Rangers first-round selection in 2004, the 19th overall pick in the entry draft. New York had already picked netminder Al Montoya with their own selection (6th overall and the subject of a future article), and then had obtained the 19th overall selection as the result of the March 2004 trade that sent Brian Leetch to Toronto. (FYI, the Blueshirts received the 24th overall pick from Toronto; the day before the draft, New York moved up to 19th in a deal with Calgary by sending #24 and their second-round compensation pick received for failing to sign RJ Umberger to the Flames.)
At the time of the draft, Korpikoski, a Finnish center, had just emerged on the international scene. He had just completed an outstanding U18 World Juniors, in addition to a great Five Nations tournament. He was a very good skater and had good two-way skills. How his performances in the tournaments would translate was far from certain, but he had a great work ethic, obvious big game instincts, and Korpikoski was willing to come to North America after another year of junior hockey in Finland.
Less than two years later, after another outstanding WJCs (this time the U20s), “Korpedo” finished the regular 2005-2006 season in Hartford. He had completed his Liiga season, and, on April 12, 2006, signed with New York. Even though he put up excellent numbers in Hartford, Korpikoski then proceeded to languish in the AHL for two seasons. It was a time when that seemed to happen to many European players, and it is amazing that he got a chance in New York at all (so many talented Euros signed by New York wound up going back to Europe without getting much opportunity to play in the NHL). But Korpikoski did get his chance. One has to wonder if his “development” had been hindered, but Korpedo was not successful offensively in his rookie 2008-09 NHL season (14 points in 68 games). Relegated to a motly defensive forward role, the Rangers had no confidence that Korpikoski would develop further.
On July 13, 2009, they traded the now RFA Korpikoski to Phoenix. Signed to a two-year extension shortly thereafter, Korpikoski became a .5 ppg player for a couple of years and has settled into a .333 ppg forward. (He can take face offs and play the PK, overall a very serviceable and fairly inexpensive NHL player.)
So, who did the Rangers get in return for Korpedo? This was a straight up trade with the Coyotes for Enver Lisin, a winger who was on the New York roster for one year (and did not do well) before he returned to his native Russia, never to be seen again.
And what about Korpikoski? After signing a very favorable four-year contract extension with Arizona in 2013, he was traded to Edmonton, who bought out that contract in 2016. After a tryout last fall, he signed a one-year deal with Dallas, played well there, and then was sent to Columbus as part of the Blue Jackets playoff desire for a depth forward. He did not score in any of his nine regular season games for Columbus and did not appear in any post-season action for the Blue Jackets this spring. He is now a 30 year-old UFA.
Hugh Jessiman is an entirely different story. Just the mention of his name causes a rise in the blood pressure of Rangers’ fans. Which is a shame, because if, during the time he was a prospect, you ever spoke to him for more than five minutes, you would definitely think that he was a guy that you would want on your hockey team–a character kid, who was very bright, but did not have first-round talent and just did not have a place in post-lockout hockey.
Let’s start at the end with Jessiman and say that after playing a couple of years in Europe, the now 33 year-old man is retired from playing the sport professionally. He is involved in insurance, and has gotten his degree in history from Dartmouth. He is doing okay–but, he has been through a lot.
Fans will say that they have been through a lot too. It’s a ridiculous comparison, of course, but the pick of Jessiman at 12th overall in 2003 is still the topic of conversation among fans–a conversation that never ends well for anyone. There is no question that 2003 was one of the best first-round drafts in NHL history, and that Jessiman was, for a long time, the only player not to play in a single NHL game. Although that is no longer true (he appeared in two games for the Florida Panthers during the 2010-11 season), he is certainly one of the few drafted in that top 30 that did not to have an extended NHL career.
Jessiman did become a successful minor league player (in a total of 498 regular season AHL games, he posted 228 points and 849 penalty minutes), but he never made more than $105,000 per year under an NHL contract. So, in 2013, he went to Europe and signed a contract to play in the KHL. The level of play was somewhat higher than the AHL and the money better, but Jessiman played in the KHL for only a single season and stayed in Europe for only for two. He left after a 2014-15 season when he played in Vienna, retiring from professional hockey at age 30.
Recounting this, you see that Jessiman did not have a terrible minor league career–he played until he was thirty, made decent money for a minor leaguer, and got out mostly intact. But it was not was what both the Rangers and Jessiman expected from the 12th overall pick in an outstanding draft. So, what happened and why?
Jessiman was big (6’5″ at the time) and was more of a set-up man at Dartmouth than a scorer when he was drafted. Plus, he had skating issues. A character kid, who grew up loving the Rangers, but should not have been a first-round pick in this draft. Although the Rangers could not necessarily have foreseen the changes that would take place in the game over the next few years, what they should have seen was that despite this player’s size, Jessiman not have the mobility nor the scoring ability that they were looking for in a first-round pick. They were mesmerized by his size and his smarts. But, he was not going to be able to get to the net fast enough to crash it at the NHL level, and he was not physical enough to be able to dig pucks out of the corners and maintain possession of it.
What the team needed at that point was a blue chip first-line NHL forward, but what they selected was a player who could push people around, stick up for teammates, and sometimes use his size at the net. This was no fault of Jessiman, who just did not develop as he and the Rangers hoped to. The blame rests directly on the scouts and men running the draft at the time. It was a horrible mistake and one that cost New York for years thereafter. It was instructive, but did not prevent a similar mistake only six years later–this time with defenseman Dylan McIlrath.