With only hours remaining before the first round of the NHL Draft, many hockey players are preparing for what could be one of the most important days of their young lives. By now, the highly touted prospects have a general idea of where they will fall in the draft, but year after year, there is always the draft day surprise or two. The talk around the hockey world for the last few weeks has been how unpredictable this year’s NHL Draft appears to be. There appears to be no consensus No. 1 overall pick, nor seemingly any idea of who will be picking first on tonight’s stage.
The Florida Panthers won the lottery for the first overall pick back in April, jumping ahead of the Buffalo Sabres for the right to have the top pick in this draft. At the time, it was believed that defenseman Aaron Ekblad was the obvious choice to be drafted first overall, considered the most NHL-ready player in this draft class. However, recent comments from Florida’s general manager, Dale Tallon, have brought up questions whether the Panthers will be making the first choice after all.
“You can only dress six [defensemen],” Tallon said. “Might be able to package one or two defensemen for a young forward, somebody who’ll be with us seven to 10 years. Maybe we can package assets to get that goal scorer. We’ve been building the foundation. Now we’re deep enough.”
It is true that the Panthers have stockpiled young, talented players over the past few years. Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov look to be solid, first-line players once developed, assuming they can remain healthy enough to do so. On defense, Erik Gudbranson should just now be reaching the age where most defenseman really start to make strides, and the Panthers have Alex Petrovic and Mike Matheson waiting in the wings. Florida can afford to move the first overall pick for a big boost to their roster, if that is the route they choose.
Rumors have multiple teams making offers for the first overall, but it is believed that only two or three have made serious offers, including one that Tallon has called “above and beyond” his expectations. Whether this offer exists or is simply a ploy by the Florida GM to raise prices will be determined tonight. It has been reported that the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs have made offers for the No. 1 pick, likely involving their own first round picks (the 6th and 8th pick respectively) plus significant roster players.
The Panthers are not the only team that will likely be busy at tonight’s NHL Draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with new general manager Jim Rutherford at the helm, have a few decisions of their own to make. The most important might be what to do with 40-goal scorer James Neal. The preference would be to keep Neal, as his chemistry with center Evgeni Malkin has lit the lamp quite a few times over the past few seasons. However, if the price is high enough, Pittsburgh could very well move the winger to find help for Sidney Crosby, whose frustration was evident after last season’s early playoff exit.
Rutherford has also stated that he is not opposed to moving Pittsburgh’s first round pick this year, No. 22 overall.
“We will trade that pick if it can help us get a player who can help us immediately,” Rutherford said.
While the pick by itself will not earn much return, if packaged with another young player like Brandon Sutter or Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh could get the help for Crosby without sacrificing Malkin’s partner in crime in James Neal.
The unpredictability of the NHL Draft is what makes it worth a watch every year. With 30 general managers in one room at the same time, wheeling and dealing players and picks becomes much easier. Given the consensus that this year’s draft class is weaker than some of the previous year’s, draft picks no longer hold the same value as they might for next year’s draft (where Connor McDavid is already being touted as the next generational player). With many players rumored to be on the move, tonight’s NHL draft may not be the deepest, but it may be one of the busiest the hockey world has seen in a long time.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner