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TEAMS PREPARED TO ENTER THE DRAFT ZONE

You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of "hockey sense;" a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are those of imagination, as expressed by scouting reports. That's the signpost up ahead -- the one written in English, French and Czech. Your next stop: the Draft Zone.

Don't be fooled by the jackets and ties, or by the monotone voices at the mike; this is a strange, chaotic place. Representatives of the 30 NHL teams will meet up on Saturday and Sunday in the Draft Zone -- located this year in Sunrise, Fla. -- to meet their respective destinies. For a couple of mind-bending days, these accomplished, middle-aged men will be transformed into schoolyard kickball captains, choosing sides while an assortment of fidgety 18-year-olds each silently prays not to be the last kid picked.

The rules of the outside world don't apply. Here, a year or two of college education can irreparably damage a resume, and a tendency toward violence is a good thing. Teams are rewarded for mediocrity and downright ineptitude, while veteran players are punished for their skill, exiled to the dregs of the league in exchange for human lottery tickets.

There is no road map through this often mystifying place, but, while the Buffalo Sabres ponder whom to select with the 22nd overall pick -- as well as their three second-round choices and all their later picks -- a few key factors likely will come into play.

Best buys. Advances in technology and politics have made bargain hunting more and more difficult. Every team can afford to send scouts everywhere, and superstars from the Eastern Bloc no longer get passed over because they are presumed unsignable -- the days of getting a Dominik Hasek in the 10th round, or a Sergei Fedorov in the fourth, are over.

Under the new world order, the best place to look for a hidden treasure is just below eye level. Teams remain wary of spending high draft picks on undersized players, leaving stars like Theoren Fleury (ninth round), Donald Audette (eighth round) and Doug Gilmour (seventh round) buried like truffles for scouts to sniff out. Eight skaters who played in the 2001 Stanley Cup finals stood less than 6 feet tall. Of those eight, whose draft years range from 1987 to 1999, only one -- league MVP and Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic -- was a first-round choice. Two -- New Jersey Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski and Devils center and Selke Trophy winner John Madden -- weren't drafted at all.

Expect the team that picked up 5-foot-8 forward Donald Audette in the eighth round of the 1989 draft to keep an eye out for more mighty mice this weekend. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff loves speedy skaters, and director of player personnel Don Luce has never been afraid of the little guys.

Haunted corridors. Up until the early to mid-1990s, teams had a tendency to look down their metaphorical noses at collegiate players. With a level of competition well below that of major junior leagues, the NCAA commanded little respect, and its player pool commanded little attention. But with expansion in the NCAA's hockey leagues and more high-quality players choosing college over junior, NHL scouts began to shed their collective bias against collegiate players as the decade went on.

Then, last year, a bogeyman emerged in the form of 1998 Devils draftee Mike Van Ryn. Drafted in the first round as a University of Michigan defenseman, Van Ryn left the school after his sophomore year to play junior hockey for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.

This had happened before, so it didn't raise any red flags until Van Ryn's agent began playing hardball with New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello, the toughest GM on the block. Van Ryn, it turned out, never really planned to sign with the Devils -- or anyone else -- for rookie money.

Here's where things get complicated. The NHL and NHL Players Association have established a set of guidelines governing how long teams retain the rights to their draftees. The rules vary according to the prospect's age, whether he plays in North America or abroad, the level of the league he plays in -- basically everything but his shoe size. In Van Ryn's case, the Devils felt he should be treated as a collegiate player, allowing New Jersey to retain his rights indefinitely; Van Ryn argued that, as a junior player over the age of 20, he should become an unrestricted free agent two years after having been drafted. An arbitrator agreed with Van Ryn, and he subsequently signed with the St. Louis Blues, who paid him a salary of $1.025 million last season.

The precedent didn't send every NCAA hockey player running across the Canadian border; free agency can be very risky for an athlete with no NHL experience, especially if he comes with a warning label reading "Difficult Child." But for highly rated prospects like Van Ryn, the payoff can be huge. Now that others -- including Barrett Heisten, the Sabres' first-round pick in 1999 -- are taking advantage of the "Van Ryn Rule," teams likely will hesitate to draft the most promising young collegians.

To date, Van Ryn has played one NHL game, earning a minus-2 rating. Heisten recently signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers for an undisclosed amount.

Submitted for your approval, with no bearing at all on the upcoming draft, here are a few bonus tidbits from Draft Zone history:

Wayne Gretzky, widely considered the best player in league history, was never drafted into the NHL. Gretzky began playing professional hockey with the World Hockey Association at age 17, when he was still too young for the NHL. When the WHA folded in 1979, Gretzky, then 18, remained with the Edmonton Oilers as the team joined the NHL.

When Mario Lemieux was the No. 1 pick in 1984, the draft order was worst-to-first. Lemieux was so clearly superior to the rest of his draft class that some fans and insiders urged New Jersey to throw its late-season games in order to beat out the Pittsburgh Penguins for last place. The Devils refused, and took Kirk Muller with the second overall pick. Pittsburgh went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, while New Jersey got past the first round of the playoffs only twice (1988 and 1994) in the 10 years after Lemieux was drafted. The NHL has since switched to a lottery system, similar to the one used by the NBA, for determining draft order.

In the "what were they thinking?" department, the 1988 draft saw defenseman Corey Foster selected in the first round, while fellow blue liner Rob Blake slipped through to the fourth round; the next year, 2001 Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom was chosen in the third round, behind such first-round defensemen as Adam Bennett and Jason Herter. It isn't just defensemen -- center Perry Turnbull was chosen second overall in the 1979 draft, leaving future league MVP Mark Messier available until the third round, and goalie Patrick Roy wasn't drafted until 1984's third round, 28 spots behind Craig Billington, who later would serve as Roy's backup.

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