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.

Shayne Kempton




English: Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karls...

English: Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson prior to a National Hockey League game against the Calgary Flames. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now wasn’t that an interesting couple of weeks, hockey fans?  From a draft that was considered deeper than any other in the past decade, to a free agent pool that was originally considered weak but picked up steam as teams shed salaries via compliance buyouts in the days leading up to the June 5th free agent feeding frenzy with an interesting trade or two thrown in for good measure, there was plenty for hockey junkies to sink they’re teeth into.  Many teams aren’t done yet, there are some who shouldn’t be done yet and still more who should call it quits (but probably won’t), but for the time being I’ve decided to take a look at some of the big changes made by the Canadian teams so far this summer and how they’re looking now.

CALGARY FLAMES:  Flames GM Jay Feaster had three first round picks headed into the entry draft and a cupboard bare of elite prospects.  Feaster kept his picks, using the sixth overall selection to nab Sean Monohan, a player that made Flames’ management drool.  The Flames have made no secret that the former Ottawa 67s captain will probably be in their lineup next opening night, possibly joining Corban Knight, a promising college prospect the Flames pried away from the Florida Panthers just before the draft.

But what should concern Flames fans is the lack of depth Calgary has to surround their young building blocks with.  The Flames sent forward Alex Tanguay and defenceman Cory Sarich to Colorado for forward Ryan Jones and defenceman Shane O’Brien, arguably downgrades at both position.  They added T.J Galiardi and tough guy Brian McGratton to beef up their shallow forward corps, but neither one is going to appear on the score sheet often (or in McGratton’s case, the lineup).  The Fames D is looking pretty weak in the post Jay Boumester era, despite adding Kris Russell.  Unless Karri Ramo miraculously morphs into the next Martin Brodeur between now and October, the Flames are going to be seeing a lot of rubber filling their net next season.  Neither the young Finn nor veteran backup Joey MacDonald appear up to the challenge of adequately replacing the recently retired Mikka Kiprusoff.  Right now, it looks like Year One A.I. (After Iginla) is going to be a long, painful one for the Flames and their fans.

EDMONTON OILERS:  Newly minted Oilers GM Craig MacTavish told long-suffering Oilers fans to expect bold things in the near future.  They didn’t have to wait long.  MacT resisted the urge to trade the seventh overall pick for immediate help or to use it to take yet another skilled forward, opting instead to draft promising young defenceman Darnell Nurse, a future cornerstone of the blue line.  Then things got interesting.

MacTavish managed to move captain Shawn Horcroff and his considerable salary to Dallas in return for young depth defenceman Philip Larson and also signed promising young defender Anton Belov out of the KHL.  He signed Jason Labarbera and Richard Bachman to solidify the Oilers goaltending behind Devan Dubnyk and added veteran Andrew Ferrence to stabilize their shaky blue line (though he raised more than a few eyebrows by signing the 34 year old to a four year deal that included a No Movement Clause).  Free agent addition Boyd Gordon is the defensive minded faceoff specialist the Oilers have needed for years and MacTavish followed his free agent adventures by trading for left-winger David Perron to increase the Oilers firepower.  But perhaps the Oilers biggest move was replacing head coach Ralph Krueger with the highly sought after Dallas Eakins, a former AHL coach who has a record of getting promising young players to perform.  On paper, the Oilers may be a better team than they were two weeks ago.  But two weeks ago, they were really, really bad.

English: Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff...

English: Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff prior to a National Hockey League game against the Calgary Flames. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


MONTREAL CANADIENS:  The Montreal Canadiens went into the off season with two objectives in mind; get rid of Thomas Kaberle and his ridiculous contract (check) and add size to a forward corps that, while deep and fast and skilled, was too often pushed around, particularly by the Ottawa Senators in the 2013 playoffs.  That last one looks like it will still need some time.

Bergevin went with size and character at the draft, adding prospect Michael McCarron with the 25th overall pick, but his decision to bring in skilled but undersized Danny Briere after the Philadelphia Flyers bought the veteran out left a few Montreal fans scratching their heads.  There’s no doubt Briere brings an abundance of talent and heart to the Habs, but he’s collected quite the list of injuries over the last few seasons (including a handful of concussions) and at five-foot-ten, the fragile forward could find that regular contests against Boston and Toronto and Ottawa’s blue lines might drive him to drink.  The Habs brought in pugilist George Parros, but he’s a thirteenth or fourteenth forward who will be of little use when the Habs need talent on the ice as well as grit.  Vincent Lecavalier would have been the perfect addition to this team, and you have to wonder what went wrong with the Habs plans to sign him.  Or if they had any plans to sign him at all.

OTTAWA SENATORS:  No other Canadian team saw as much drama on July 5th as the Ottawa Senators.  Sens fans were thrown for a Mount Everest sized loop when Daniel Alfredsson, the face and heart of the franchise, a Sen for the past seventeen seasons and the team’s captain for the past fourteen, decided to play what will probably be his final season in the NHL wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey.  While Ottawa fans were digesting that bitter pill, Sens GM Bryan Murray pulled off the biggest trade of the day, acquiring Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks in return for young forward Jacob Silverberg, prospect Stefan Noesan and a first round pick in 2014 (a bit of an overpayment in my opinion, but when a GM’s just lost his franchise’s most popular and beloved player, I guess he isn’t in his most logical frame of mind).  The Sens also added skilled grinder Clarke MacArthur from the rival Maple Leafs and essentially replaced Sergei Gonchar on their blue line with former Sen Joe Coro (at about the fifth of Gonchar’s price).  The Sens are probably set for now, even though they have plenty of cap space left.  The franchise will probably spend the rest of the summer signing their few restricted free agents and answering questions about both Daniel Alfredsson’s abrupt departure and some uncomfortable rumours about Eugene Melnyk’s finances.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:  While Ottawa may have had the most dramatic off-season so far, the Leafs have had the busiest.  Toronto GM Dave Nonis

Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

surprised more than a few pundits and fans alike when he acquired goalie Jonathan Bernier from the L.A. Kings just before the draft, but when he stole centre David Bolland from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and selected hulking forward Pierre Gauthier 21st overall, he laid out the schematic he hopes will lead the Toronto Maple Leafs back to Stanley Cup glory.  And while everyone expected the Leafs to buy out expensive AHL defenceman Mike Komisarek, Nonis had another trick up his sleeve by buying out popular centre Mikhail Grabovski as well (Grabovski had more than a few colourful parting shots for Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle on his way out of town).  Nonis then won a bidding war against the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers for free agent power forward David Clarkson and he brought back forward Tyler Bozak for a much more reasonable price than what Bozak had originally been demanding.  Nonis and the Leafs will now probably spend the rest of the summer getting Nazem Kadri and their other restricted free agents signed to new deals.  And that ticking you hear?  That’s the countdown for the beginning of the Dion Phaneuf trade rumours.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS:  To put it simply, this franchise is a mess.  The Vancouver Canucks got the ball rolling by firing head coach Alain Vigneault, eventually replacing him with people person John Tortorella.  The Canucks upgraded the bottom six of their forward corps by replacing Ian Laparierre (who signed with the St. Louis Blues as a free agent) with Brad Richardson and adding depth forward Mike Santorelli.  They added blue liner Yannick Weber while buying out veteran defenseman Keith Ballard to free some cap space, easing pressure to deal someone expensive like Alex Edler.  Now, could there have been anything else on Vancouver GM Mike Gillis’ to do list?

Oh yeah, solve Vancouver’s prolonged goaltending saga.  Gillis had all but guaranteed that embattled starting goalie Roberto Luongo would be starting the 2013-14 NHL season somewhere other than Vancouver.  Whether through trade or a compliance buyout, everyone and their second cousin figured Luongo was going to be forwarding his mail to a new address sometime very soon.  And to solve all his crease problems, Gillis dealt goalie Cory Schneider to the New Jersey devils for the ninth overall pick in the 2013 entry draft (and used said pick to select Bo Horvat).  Yep, after everything that’s happened, Roberto Luongo remains a Vancouver Canuck (you can see my additional thought on the whole shebang here  Who else is willing to bet real money that emotional bull-in-the-china-shop, “my guys stink” coach John Tortorella is just the man to rebuild all the burnt bridges and heal the damaged egos in Vancouver?  Anyone?

WINNIPEG JETS:  The Jets could literally smell a playoff spot last April before blowing their last few games and falling just outside the post- season bubble.  But the Jets positioned themselves well for this free agent season and have taken advantage of teams looking to unload heavy contracts to squeeze under the reduced cap (like prying Devon Setoguchi away from a cap stressed Minnesota Wild or Michael Frolik from the Chicago Blackhawks for instance).  While disgruntled forward Alex Burmivstrov is headed back to his native Russia for the next two years (at least), the Jets added gritty forward Matt Halischuk and depth defenceman Adam Pardy.  Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff also managed to add excellent blue line prospect Josh Morrisey with the thirteenth overall pick at this year’s entry draft while defenceman Jacob Trouba, their top pick from the 2012 draft, is expected to make an immediate impact on an already deep Winnipeg blue-line next season.  The Jets have plenty of cap space left after letting the likes of Nik Antropov and Ron Hainsey go via free agency, although they’ll need most of it to sign their own RFAs.  Still, you get the feeling Cheveldayoff isn’t done yet.  The Jets are one team to keep your eye on for the rest of the summer.

Shayne Kempton