Craig Button knew what he was seeing when he scouted Swedish forward Henrik Zetterberg in the late 1990s.
And he liked it.
Most of it, anyway.
"I can go back to notes I had on him," Button, who was director of scouting for the Dallas Stars in those days, said recently. "'Good player. Smart. Quick. Size? Good player. ... Size is a concern.'
"I got all hooked on the size thing."
Many teams seemed to have had similar concerns about Zetterberg, who was listed -- perhaps a bit generously -- as being 5 feet 11, 195 pounds when Detroit claimed him after 209 other prospects had been selected in the 1999 draft.
The Red Wings were guilty of passing over Zetterberg for six rounds, but eventually landed the rights to a guy who has produced 624 points in 668 regular-season games.
He turned out to be a nice bookend to a guy they had picked with choice No. 171 a year earlier, a Russian fellow named Pavel Datsyuk, who has been one of the game's premier two-way players and has 718 points in 732 games.
While it might be years before it's known whether a world-class talent slipped to -- or all the way through -- the later rounds of the draft that will be conducted Friday and Saturday at Consol Energy Center, Zetterberg and Datsyuk hardly are the only prospects who weren't fully appreciated in their draft years.
"At the end of the day, it's still an inexact science, this drafting," Phoenix general manager Don Maloney said, smiling.
Always has been, which is why prospects such as Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Luc Robitaille were chosen so late, and why the likes of Joe Mullen, Adam Oates and Dino Ciccarelli didn't get claimed at all.
There are, of course, perfectly valid reasons that some players were taken much later than their professional achievements suggest they should have been, or were not chosen at all.
A few decades ago, some European players were bypassed for political reasons. When the Iron Curtain was in place, drafting a Czech or Russian did not guarantee he would be allowed to play in the NHL.
There also have been times when players went undrafted on a technicality. Wayne Gretzky, for example, was one of Edmonton's "priority selections" when the Oilers moved from the World Hockey Association to the NHL, and thus never made it into the draft pool.
More often, players get overlooked simply because their talents have not been accurately assessed or projected. Or, in some cases, because they are too much of a work in progress when their draft year rolls around.
Prospects whose games were ordinary, at best, in their late teens can mature into major contributors by their mid-20s.
"Some players legitimately just develop late," Button said. "[Penguins winger] Chris Kunitz is a good example. You talk to Chris Kunitz, and he knows he wasn't a good player at 19."
A lack of exposure to the scouts who make personnel recommendations to NHL general managers used to be a factor for some players, as well. That was particularly true of players competing on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.
When Mark Kelley, Chicago's director of amateur scouting, worked for the Penguins, he was their man in Europe.
Not one of their scouts. Their scout. The guy responsible for Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and everywhere else on the continent where the game was played at a high level.
That was the rule, not the exception, in those days, so it's easy to see how good prospects could slip through the cracks.
"We'd have 20 guys to cover North America," said David Conte, New Jersey's longtime director of scouting. "And one guy to cover Russia."
Scouting operations in Europe are more sophisticated and thorough now, so it might be a while before there's another Zetterberg or Datsyuk.
"Those days are gone," St. Louis scout Ville Siren said. "Every team has so many scouts, and there's the Internet. Everything is a lot more open now, the scouting world. There aren't too many secrets anymore."
Chances are, though, there always will be surprises. Players whose professional productivity far exceeds the potential they were perceived to have as teenagers.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published June 19, 2012 4:00 AM