MY ARMCHAIR SELECTIONS FOR CANADA’S TEAMS IN TOMORROW’S ANNUAL NHL ENTRY DRAFT
Has it been a year already? It just seems like yesterday that I was cheering the Edmonton Oilers selection of Darnell Nurse in the first round (as a long-suffering Oilers fan, draft day is about the only I get to look forward to on the NHL calendar). Tomorrow marks the beginning of yet another busy off-season for the NHL as the league holds the first round of its annual entry draft in Philadelphia (rounds two through seven follow Saturday), and while there are always a few surprises on the draft floor (seriously, did anyone expect Seth Jones would fall to fourth last year?), this year promises a little more intrigue than most. The teams that finished in the League basement will be looking to pick up a future star or maybe even a franchise player to build around with an eye on a quick (or in the case of the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers and New York islanders an eventual) return to respectability while other organizations will focus on collecting assets and potential building blocks for the future. This draft is a little different though, as there’s no definite consensus name that tops the prospect list. Instead, a handful of players have emerged as potential first overall picks, making predictions even tougher. And since there are few things I enjoy more than playing armchair GM, I’ve decided to offer my totally unqualified advice on which young player Canada’s NHL teams should pick up in this weekend’s draft.
Edmonton Oilers: In an ideal world, the perpetually rebuilding Oilers would be able to draft Barrie Colts standout defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but the odds that the top rated d-man in this year’s draft will still be available when Craig MacTavish takes the podium to make the third selection falls somewhere between zero and none (and Florida’s asking price for the first overall pick is apparently stratospheric). But center Leon Draisaitl is a pretty nice consolation prize. He’s been described as the “German Gretzky” and the fact that 67 of his 105 points last season on a weak Prince Albert Raiders team were assists speaks volumes about his skills as a smart, slick playmaker. Draisaitl isn’t a power forward, but at 6’1 and 208 lbs., he has pretty good size and doesn’t get pushed around. He’s also drawn comparisons to Jaromir Jagr for how well he protects the puck and he looks like the kind of elite playmaking talent that could develop instant chemistry with a pure sniper like Nail Yakupov. Throw Taylor Hall on the left-wing of that line and the Oilers may just start to demand some respect from their opponents’ blue line.
Calgary Flames: With the fourth overall selection, the Flames will draft someone with the first name Sam. What their last name is depends on who’s still available. If Sam Bennett is still on the board, expect the Flames to pounce on the Kingston Frontenacs star, whose combination of skill, speed, tenacity, hockey I.Q. and sheer competitive spirit have drawn comparisons to Doug Gilmour (upon hearing the comparisons, the Hall of Famer replied that he was never as good a skater as Bennett). If Bennett’s gone when Flames GM Brad Treliving announces his pick, expect them to go with Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart. Reinhart’s older brother Max is already in the Flames system and was one of only two prospects to score 100 or more points with his junior team last season (both he and Draisaitl collected 105 last season) A natural center, Reinhart also plays a strong, smart two-way game. But rest assured, whichever Sam the Flames add will form a strong one-two punch with 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan down Calgary’s middle.
Vancouver Canucks: After years dominating the regular season (and only three seasons removed from being a Stanley Cup finalist), the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in uncharted territory with the sixth overall pick. A new regime is calling the shots in Vancouver, as longtime Canuck captain and fan favourite Trevor Linden has taken over the duties as President, Jim Benning has taken over as GM and John Tortorella has been replaced by Willie Desjardins as head coach. The most interesting one of the three is Desjardins, whose been described as a teacher who possesses strong communication skills with young players. And that’s why if I were the Canucks, I might take a chance on Nick Ritchie. The physically imposing right-winger is a beast (6’2, 230 lbs.) with plenty of hockey skill, collecting 74 points in 61 games with the Peterborough Petes last season. There have been some questions about his commitment on a nightly basis, but that’s where the Canucks new player friendly, communicating coach could come in handy. The Canucks need some talented size up front, especially with Ryan Kesler’s inevitable departure, and in a season or two, Ritchie could well be lining up on a line with the Sedins.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Odds are that the Leafs aren’t going to draft anyone with the eighth overall pick that will be able step in right away and be the difference maker they need at any position, but Toronto could do worse than drafting Red Deer Rebel defenseman Haydn Fleury. After Ekblad, Fleury is the next highest rated blue liner in this year’s draft and he’s an efficient combination of size (6’2, 205 lbs.), skill and poise. He’ll need a season or two before he makes the jump to the show, but he’s the kind of defenseman that plays his way into a team’s top four and stays there for years. And if Toronto’s late season implosion proved anything, it’s that defensive stability is something the Leafs are in desperate need of.
Winnipeg Jets: Winnipeg is in need of some elite scoring up front, especially if this is the summer they decide to trade much-maligned winger Evander Kane. If he’s still available, Willie Nylander (son of long time NHLer Michael Nylander) would fit that bill and then some. Not the biggest player at 5’11 and 170 lbs., Nylander more than makes up for it with his game breaking skill. His skillset is dynamic enough that he can play both center and right-wing at an impact level, making him even more valuable. Even though he spent all season playing against men for various squads in Sweden, he’ll probably need a season of North American hockey to adjust to the difference in speed and style. But once he does, watch out. He’d be the perfect compliment to Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg.
Montreal Canadiens: Not only has Montreal built the foundation of a strong team (they went from drafting third overall in 2012 to playing in the third round of this year’s playoffs), but they’ve guaranteed themselves a bright future by locking up most of their young pieces long-term (you can bet that when P.K. Subban signs on the dotted line of a new contract this summer, it’ll be for seven or eight years), as well as assembling a shiny collection of prospects. And if Red Deer captain Connor Bleackley is still available when the Habs draft twenty-sixth, they should think long and hard about adding him to their prospect cupboard. A natural leader with character, heart and work ethic, Bleakely is tailor-made to center a contending team’s third line (with second line potential) while wearing the C. This is the type of player teams need to win championships.
Ottawa Senators: As it stands, the Sens don’t have a first round pick this year (it goes to Anaheim as part of last summer’s Bobby Ryan trade) but if Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko is still hanging around when the Sens draft at number forty, they should definitely snap up the highest rated goalie in this year’s draft (remember, last year’s highest rated net minder, Zach Fucale, went 36th to the Montreal Canadiens, so crazier things have happened). If Demko is gone, the Sens should look at Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom or Finn Kaapo Kahkonen. Ottawa looks like they’re on the cusp of a rebuild, and successful rebuilds almost always start from the net out, so getting a strong goalie prospect or two right off the bat can’t hurt. The Sens would have the luxury of giving whichever goalie they draft a season or two of development before taking them pro, which is never a bad thing for any prospect but especially for the game’s masked men.