MY FEARLESS (AND LIKELY WRONG) PREDICTIONS FOR CANADA’S NHL TEAMS AT THIS YEAR’S NHL ENTRY DRAFT
Finally, the 2016 NHL Entry Draft is here. Months of speculation and waiting are over and the new date on the NHL’s calendar for change and upheaval is upon us. I’ve made predictions who the Canadian teams would (or should draft) the past two years, to varying degrees of success (last year I went one for seven-only correctly predicting that the Edmonton Oilers would draft phenom Connor McDavid first overall-a prediction a blind man could have made). So the question is will my take on this year’s crop of new NHLers turn out any better, especially in a year when all the Canadian teams are drafting in the top twelve?
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs rebuild took a giant step forward last April when they won the Draft Lottery and kicking off Draft weekend by calling out Auston Matthews name first overall tonight will herald a new era for Leafs Nation. Don’t let their last place finish fool you; since the Leafs began their rebuild in earnest a little over a year ago, they’ve done an outstanding job collecting quality prospects and picks and Mathews will be the crown jewel in their budding collection. Matthews is a total package of size, skill and smarts and there’s a reason he’s been the consensus No. 1 pick all season. And while many feel that Finnish left winger Patrick Laine may have just as strong a case to go first overall, when all things are equal, you choose the franchise center over the winger.
Winnipeg Jets: The Jets have a growing wealth of young talent as well, and adding Patrick Laine to their already embarrassing riches could provide some much needed comfort to Jets fans after a disappointing 2015-16 season. Finland had a huge season in international play and Laine was a big reason why. He was an important part of their gold winning World Junior Team, their silver medal World Championship team (where he was named the best forward in the entire tournament) and he’ll be one of their top forwards at next September’s World Cup. Coming into this season, most scouts had him ranked the third highest prospect available; he’s now in a lot of conversations for the first overall pick. A super talented power forward who can play either wing, Laine has drawn a lot of comparisons to Alexander Ovechkin, arguably the greatest goal scorer of our generation. Winnipeg would do well to drape a Jets jersey on the future franchise forward’s shoulders for as long as they can.
Edmonton Oilers: Speaking of disappointing seasons . . . Despite winning the lottery of a lifetime last season by nabbing Next One Connor McDavid first overall, the 2015-16 season was one nightmare after another for the Oilers and their new team brass. Whether it was the broken collarbone that forced McDavid to miss three months (suffered just as he was heating up), any of the team’s other endless barrage of injuries or their second last place finish, nothing went the way Oilers management or fans had hoped. Drafting London Knights defenseman Olli Juolevi could prove to be a suitable painkiller for their suffering. There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding Edmonton’s pick and of all the selections owned by Canadian teams this year, the fourth overall has the highest odds of being moved. And if the Oilers elect to keep it there will be plenty of attractive options at forward left on the board. But the Oilers need D big time, and the best way to get an elite defenseman in today’s NHL is to draft and develop one. Like Laine, Juolevi was an integral part of Finland’s WJC gold medal last January and he overtook Jacob Chychrun to become the top rated blue liner on most scouting reports this year. Juolevi isn’t elite at any one particular thing, but he’s excellent at everything and he conducts himself with poise and confidence. Exactly what the Oilers blue line called for.
Vancouver Canucks: Whether they want to admit it or not, the Canucks’ window of Stanley Cup opportunity has closed shut and they are a far cry from the team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup final in 2011. The fact that 2016 was the second time in the past three seasons they failed to qualify for the post season is evidence of that and that the Sedins (who have carried this team offensively for the better part of two decades) are past their prime doesn’t help. When the eventual rebuild does come, already having a few useful building blocks on defence gets you out of the gate faster (just ask Edmonton). That’s why when Canucks GM Jim Benning steps to the podium to announce who Vancouver’s selecting with the fifth overall pick, he should call Windsor Spitfires defenceman Mikhail Sergachev’s name. Big and already plenty strong, Sergachev has lots of offence in his game and can handle business in his own end. He could one day be an ideal power play quarterback to an attack featuring the likes of Bo Horvat, Jake Virtanen and Brock Boeser.
Calgary Flames: Odds are slim that Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward Pierre Luc Dubois will still be available when Calgary drafts sixth, but if he’s still on the board they should waste zero time making him Flames property. Dubois is big, he can score (42 goals and 99 points in 62 games) and he plays a physical, complete game. He can play all three forward positions, he loves the game and has a compete level that ends somewhere in the stratosphere (he was suspended twice last season). He would be a perfect compliment to Calgary’s other stable of young forwards (Gaudreau, Monahan and Bennett) and is the kind of player that makes Brian Burke drool like he needs a bib.
Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price’s lengthy injury exposed plenty of weaknesses in Montreal’s game last season, and since you can’t draft a new coach, they can come away from this weekend with a solution to their next biggest problem; a skilled power forward. And Windsor Spitfires centre Logan Brown is just what the doctor ordered for a diminutive Habs attack. Brown isn’t just big-at 6’6 he’s practically goliath-but he’s an accomplished playmaker as well. With an NHL pedigree (his father is defenseman Jeff Brown), Brown probably needs some seasoning before becoming a full time NHLer, but within a few years he could emerge as one of the most physically dominant pivots. Just imagine a one two punch down the middle consisting of Brown and Alexander Galchenyuk . . .
Ottawa Senators: Beyond having one of the best hockey players in the world in Erik Karlsson and a very solid Dion Phaneuf on their blue line, the Ottawa Senators are desperate for quality defensive depth. Beyond the aforementioned duo and young blue liner Cody Ceci, the Sens have little to offer on their backend and a significant injury to Karlsson would spell certain disaster for this team. Penticton blue liner Dante Fabro could be a long-term solution to that problem and should be available when the Sens draft twelfth. Considered one of the safest picks in this season’s draft and with his immediate future committed to Boston University (a school notorious for producing quality professional defensemen), Fabro has been compared to Brent Seabrook; a smart player who can help you at both ends of the ice. Now imagine Fabro tutoring beneath Karlsson in a few years (when the slick Swede is still in his prime). Worse things could happen to your blue line.