AFTER THE OILERS SELECT CONNOR MCDAVID FIRST OVERALL, WHICH NAMES DO THE OTHER SIX CANADIAN TEAMS CALL AT THIS YEAR’S NHL ENTRY DRAFT?
As an Edmonton Oilers fan, the only date I’ve had circled on my NHL calendar for the past nine years is the NHL’s annual entry draft. It’s the price you pay for following a team that has innovated new and exciting ways to suck year in and year out. That annual anticipation went through the roof this year though when the Oilers won last April’s draft lottery and the right to drape a copper and blue jersey on phenom Connor McDavid, whose been anointed The Next One by none other then the Great Wayne Gretzky himself. But what about the other six Canadian teams? The 2015 draft is being heralded as possibly the best since the legendary 2003 draft (which is considered the best draft in NHL history), with a pair of generational talents topping the rankings. So here are my armchair predictions for which names Canada’s seven NHL teams should call out at the draft in Tampa Bay this Friday. I went two for seven with my predictions for 2014, and while people may scoff at a success rate of .286, you pull that number off as a batter in baseball and you’ll be pulling down a salary around twenty million a year. Or whatever Donald Trump spends on toupees. Either way, without further adieu, I present my totally unscientific and unfounded suggestions, recommendations and demands.
Edmonton Oilers: With the 1st overall the pick in this year’s draft, Edmonton will select Connor McDavid. Stop. End of story. TSN analyst (and former Calgary Flames GM) Craig Button perfectly described McDavid’s potential as a player, saying he combines the brilliance of Gretzky, the smooth hands of Mario Lemieux and the speed of Pavel Bure into a player never seen before. McDavid thinks the game at a higher level while skating at Mach speed. He’s been dominating highlight reels since he was 16 and his humility and sportsmanship off the ice has impressed scouts nearly as much as his sublime skills on it. Edmonton hasn’t even drafted McDavid yet and he’s already transformed the franchise, motivating desperately needed change in the most incompetent management and coaching departments in the NHL, and most importantly, getting emotionally exhausted fans excited again. Even Oilers players, who had given up on next season and were secretly hoping to be traded, are happy to be in Edmonton again. A cloud has literally lifted from this organization and its fan base. There is no other choice.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs kick off their picks by choosing 4th overall, and the Buds have plenty of holes in their roster to address. But the one need they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to solve the past few years is their lack of a top pivot. Dylan Strome may be the answer. Big (6’3), defensively capable and good on face offs, the younger brother of New Islanders forward Ryan Strome won the OHL scoring championship last year. And while many people will dismiss his scoring championship, claiming he benefitted from Erie Otters team mate and super prospect Connor McDavid (of course he did, who wouldn’t?), the same critics fail to point out that while McDavid missed twenty games with injury and representing Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championships, Strome was still producing at a one hundred point pace. If the Leafs can grab him (there are rumblings that Arizona may select him 3rd overall), they may be advised to give him a nine game taste of the pros next October before sending him back to junior, where he can dominate the OHL and represent Canada at the 2016 WJC. After next season, the sky may be the limit. Strome and 2014 8th overall pick William Nylander could form a dynamic duo down Toronto’s middle for years to come.
Calgary Flames: The Flames were one of the most surprising teams this year, making the playoffs and even advancing to the second round in a season where most people thought they’d be competing for the first overall pick. And the secret of this seasons’ success lied with a handful of young players they drafted and developed. The Flames attack boasted the likes of 2015 Calder Trophy nominee Johnny Gaudrea, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, as well as a handful of other rising young players. The Flames can also take pride in a cupboard full of promising young forward prospects as well, so with the 15th pick in this year’s draft they could do worse then select a defenseman to begin stockpiling a blue line to compliment their forward corps. And Jakub Zboril just might be the perfect defenceman to begin that process. A fiercely competitive, smooth skating, offensively skilled blue liner, Zboril’s skills in his own end are underrated and while he may not be big, he isn’t small and can be physically aggressive when he needs to be. He could be the first step in building a blue line formidable enough to handle the offensive juggernaut that’s taking shape just a few hours north in Edmonton.
Winnipeg Jets: Winnipeg is another club that’s managed to build a strong core of young players that was instrumental in their first playoff appearance since moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011. And adding center Colin White to that mix with the 17th pick would be another step in the right direction. A smart and hard working two-way center with decent offensive instincts and natural leadership abilities, White could well be this teams third line center and top penalty killing forward for years to come. But he also has second line potential and he could be the perfect compliment to Winnipeg’s eventual number one center, Mark Scheifele, for the better part of the next decade. White could be one of the safest, most efficient picks in the first round.
Ottawa Senators: The NHL entry draft has been very good to the Ottawa Senators over their modern history. The Sens have succeeded in finding and developing a wide range of players over the years. They struck gold with current team captain and two time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson (2008), blue liner Codi Ceci (2012) and forward Curtis Lazar (2013) in the mid to high teens of the first round, while uncovering 2015 Calder trophy nominee Mark Stone and forward Mike Hoffman in later rounds. The Sens are more then set for young forwards, both now and in the future, and have a crowded crease, so they should use this deep draft as an opportunity to began improving a middling blue line. Taking Swedish prospect Oliver Kylington with the 18th pick would be an excellent start. The super talented young Swede was originally projected to be a top ten pick (some scouts even had him as high as the top five) coming into this season, but a rough couple of months saw his stock drop. But he remains a smooth skating offensive defenceman with no shortage of speed, skill or confidence. Ottawa didn’t do too bad the last time they drafted an offensive minded Swedish defenceman and could you imagine having two Erik Karlssons quarterbacking their power play? Scary.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks roster is getting old fast. The core they’ve relied on for time out of mind is all on the wrong side of thirty (the Sedins will be 35 when the puck drops next October) and Vancouver may have to move out a veteran or two to become cap compliant this summer. While they have a few promising young forwards currently on the roster (Bo Horvat) and a few intriguing ones in the system (Jake Virtanen, Hunter Shinkaruk), their defensive prospects are underwhelming to say the least. That’s why they should take a good long look at Swedish blue liner Gabriel Carlsson when their turn to comes at 23rd. A stay at home behemoth, Carlsson plays with smarts and poise in his own end. Remember that offensive juggernaut we were talking about in Edmonton? Vancouver will be seeing a lot of Connor McDavid and the Oilers over the years and Carlsson could be one of the Canucks best weapons of mass defence. He may be a bit of a project, but Carlsson could one day be a blue line beast that spends thirty minutes a night devouring opposing forwards while anchoring Vancouver’s penalty kill.
Montreal Canadiens: The biggest flaw in the Canadiens roster was exposed during the playoffs when it became painfully apparent that the Habs need a big strong number one center to compete with the likes of Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers in the post season. The problem is that one of those won’t be available when the Canadiens step up to the podium to make the 26th pick. What will be available will be a promising young right winger named Daniel Sprong, who could one day allow the Habs to move promising young forward Alex Galchenyuk back to his natural center position, where he could become the big franchise pivot the Canadiens desperately need to compete in the East. Sprong isn’t big but protects the puck like a villain, is shifty when evading opposing defenders and is downright lethal on the power play. Sprong probably won’t be a first line sniper, but he will provide valuable secondary scoring and could be a fixture on Montreal’s power play for years.
Player To Watch: There is little doubt in the minds of most scouts that Russian goaltender Ilya Samsonov is the best goalie available in this draft. While a goaltender hasn’t been taken in the first round of the draft since 2012 (when Tampa Bay selected Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall and Boston selected Malcolm Subban 24th), there are plenty who believe that Samsonov is worthy of a first round pick, especially for teams with multiple picks in the first round and those squads looking for help between the pipes (and wouldn’t you know it, Edmonton fits both bills). But the “Russian Factor” is strong with this one, who is signed at least for the next two seasons with his KHL team. And while there are those who think that may be good for his development, spending the next two years playing against men in the world’s second best professional hockey league, the fact that he skipped the draft combine raised as many red flags as it did eyebrows. Samsonov is easily the biggest gamble in this draft.