An NHL Draft Primer
The NHL draft will be held this weekend in Philadelphia. The first round goes Friday night, with the rest held throughout the day on Saturday.
Drafts are a fascinating business; everyone comes up with their rankings and mocks, and then inevitably some sure-thing prospect starts sliding, someone else goes too early, and some team comes along and blows it all up by going completely off the board.
That’s partly due to the inherent difficulty in scouting and projecting teenagers. But it also speaks to the different philosophies that organizations have when it comes to drafting prospects. So instead of running down each and every name that could go off the board, I thought it might be more interesting to focus on some of those key philosophical questions, and how they could impact tomorrow’s opening round.
So let’s take a look at 10 names that will factor prominently into the weekend’s action. These aren’t the 10 best players in the draft (I’ve left out some possible top 10 picks like Michael Dal Colle and Jake Virtanen), but they may end up being the 10 most interesting to keep an eye on. And where they end up going could tell us a lot about how teams think about the draft.
The player: Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie (OHL)
Ekblad is pretty much the unanimous pick as the top defenseman in the draft, and he may well go first overall. He’s got everything scouts love in a blueliner: size, vision, hockey sense, and a big shot that netted 23 goals last year.
Whenever his name comes up, the conversation inevitably turns to his maturity. Every draft class seems to have one player who seems 10 years older than everyone else (call it Landeskog Syndrome), and this year that’s Ekblad. The NHL brought a few of the top prospects to a few events during the Stanley Cup final, and at first I thought Ekblad was a league employee hired to shepherd the younger kids around. It’s increasingly rare to see a defenseman be able to step into the league and have any sort of impact right out of junior, but Ekblad could be the guy who can do it.
The bigger question: How do you feel about using a high pick on a defenseman?
If he goes first overall, Ekblad will be the first defenseman taken with the top pick since Erik Johnson in 2006, and just the second since a streak of three straight from 1994 to 1996. That’s largely because defensemen typically take longer to develop than forwards, making them tougher to project at this age. Everyone wants to build around a guy like Drew Doughty, taken second overall by the Kings in 2008, but the last decade has also seen teams use top-five picks on blueline disappointments like Cam Barker, Thomas Hickey, and Luke Schenn. Forwards can be busts, too, of course, but they’re generally the safer pick because they arrive closer to their NHL peak.
It’s possible Ekblad could face a situation similar to Seth Jones’s last year. Jones spent most of the season as the expected top pick, only to drop all the way to no. 4 on draft day as the Avs, Panthers, and Lightning all opted for forwards. It’s unlikely Ekblad will fall that far, since you’d have to assume the forward-heavy Oilers would snap him up if he fell to them at no. 3, but he’s far from a sure thing at no. 1.
The player: Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay (WHL)
Reinhart has been on the radar as a possible first-overall choice for years, and while Central Scouting has him ranked third, he could still go with the top pick. He’s not a can’t-miss prospect in the mold of Sidney Crosby or John Tavares (or even Connor McDavid, next year’s presumptive top pick). But he is an impressively complete player for an 18-year-old, and projects as a first-line center who’ll be able to play in all situations.
Reinhart’s brother Griffin went fourth overall in 2012. That seems to be the worst-case scenario for Sam, and there’s a decent chance he goes first. That could depend on the Florida Panthers, who own that pick right now but may not by the time the draft starts.
The bigger question: What should it cost to trade up to no. 1?
It has become an annual draft tradition: The team that owns the no. 1 pick advertises that it’s available, we all go into a frenzy of trade rumors and scenarios, and then the team keeps the pick after all. The first-overall pick hasn’t actually been traded since 2003. We may be headed down the same path this year, although the Panthers seem more interested in dealing down than most teams. It’s yet another new era in Florida, with new ownership and a new coach in Gerard Gallant, and GM Dale Tallon seems intent on improving the team right now. That could mean dropping down a few spots in exchange for some immediate NHL help.
As you’d expect, that has led to every team in the top eight being linked to some sort of deal with the Panthers. Determining draft pick value is notoriously difficult — this may be the best attempt I’ve seen so far — and that’s especially true when veteran players are added into the mix. Despite all the talk, the odds are good the Panthers end up keeping the pick. But if some team wants to move up and snag a potential franchise player like Reinhart, the Panthers swear they’re open for business.
The player: Sam Bennett, C, Kingston (OHL)
Bennett earned the top spot among North American skaters in Central Scouting’s final draft rankings. He’s unlikely to go first overall, but he seems like a lock to get chosen somewhere in the top four. He’s an excellent offensive playmaker with outstanding hockey smarts, and could develop into a solid defensive presence as well. He racked up 91 points in 57 games last year in Kingston.
The bigger question: How much do you care about the combine?
At this point, it’s pretty much impossible to talk about Bennett’s draft prospects without a mandatory mention of his combine performance.
Specifically, his failure to manage even one pull-up.
The combine is a relatively new NHL draft phenomenon; you never seemed to hear about it up until a few years ago, and now it’s big news. And some of this stuff just seems silly. Really, we’re going to worry about a hockey player’s vertical leap?
But that said … not even one pull-up? That seems like a bit of a concern. Of course, you could spin this as a positive for Bennett. After all, if he can play this well with spaghetti arms, some team might decide he’ll be even better once its strength-and-conditioning staff gets a hold of him.
The player: Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
Draisaitl can score; his 105 points tie Reinhart’s for the most of any draft-eligible player. He’s unlikely to crack the NHL next year, with most scouting reports agreeing he’ll need an extra year or two of development. But while he may fall just short of Reinhart and Bennett in terms of offensive upside and immediate readiness, he’s slightly bigger than either player and is still filling out. That size could make him an ideal fit for Brian Burke and the Calgary Flames at no. 4, which is where most mock drafts have him ending up. But it’s possible he could leapfrog one or both of his fellow centers and go higher.
The bigger question: Like father, like son?
Recent NHL draft history is filled with players with familiar names and proven bloodlines, and this year is no exception. Reinhart (son of Paul), William Nylander (son of Michael), Kasperi Kapanen (son of Sami), and Brendan Lemieux (son of Claude) could all go in the first round, and Ryan MacInnis (son of Al) could go in the second or third.
Draisaitl won’t have that same name recognition for NHL fans, but his father, Peter, played for nearly two decades in Germany and now coaches in the Czech league. Peter also played in three Olympics; Canadian fans may remember him as the German shooter whose final shot trickled to a dramatic stop on the goal line during the first-ever Olympic shootout in 1992.
The player: Nick Ritchie, LW, Peterborough (OHL)
Ritchie’s junior numbers are nice (39 G, 35 A, 74 PTS in 61 GP), but not quite as impressive as some of the other top forward prospects. What has some scouts drooling is his size — at 6-foot-2 and roughly 225 pounds, he projects as a prototypical power forward. In a league where every team seems to be looking for “the next Milan Lucic,” Ritchie could be it.
That said, he comes with some caveats. His skating isn’t great, he’s had an inconsistent junior career, and there are concerns about his injury history. Some experts have him going in the nos. 6-10 range; others think he could fall into the middle of the first round.
The bigger question: How much stock should we put in physical maturity when talking about 18-year-olds?
There are two ways to look at a kid like Ritchie who’s physically dominating in junior. On the one hand, he could be on the path to do the same at the pro level, which brings visions of guys like Brendan Shanahan or Cam Neely.
On the other, what happens when everyone starts catching up and he can’t run over his opponents at will anymore? Draft history is filled with can’t-miss power forwards who, in hindsight, were actually just dominating against fellow teenagers as result of physical maturity, without having the skill set to succeed at the next level.
The player: Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer (WHL)
Fleury is likely to be the second defenseman picked; the question is where. At 6-foot-2, he’s big enough to handle his own in the defensive zone, but he can also skate surprisingly well for a guy of his size. If Ekblad is the clear no. 1 at the position, Fleury has emerged as almost as clear a no. 2. That means he probably lands anywhere from no. 7 to no. 15, and he could be a target for a team looking to trade up.
The bigger question: Do you draft for positional need, or take the best player available?
That’s the eternal question in the NHL, where (unlike the NBA or NFL) it’s rare for players outside the top two or three picks to be ready to step into the big league roster. Does it make sense to worry about positional need when a player may not be NHL-ready for two or three years, and may not be an impact player until years after that?
Probably not, and at this time of year almost every team gives a pat answer about taking the best player available. But history tells us some teams can’t resist targeting one position, and they’re often willing to trade up to do it.
Fleury could be a perfect example. Any team whose prospect pipeline is thin at defense would love to have Ekblad, but that probably means trading up to the top two, which few teams could afford to do. Fleury would be a more realistic target, especially if he starts to slip past the top 10. Would a team like (just for example) the Lightning, already stacked with young forwards and in possession of an extra first-round pick to work with, be looking to move up eight or 10 spots to add a blue-chip defenseman? If Fleury gets past Toronto at no. 8, look for some phones to start ringing.
The player: Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Halifax (QMJHL)
If you want to go by the numbers, there may not be a player available in this year’s draft who had as impressive a 2013-14 season as Ehlers. His 49 goals in 63 games leads this year’s draft class, and his +65 rating will stick out to anyone who still puts stock in +/-.
But despite his stats, Ehlers heads into the draft as just the 13th-ranked North American skater. That’s still a big jump from his preseason rankings, and would land him in the middle of the first round, although some mocks have him going as high as no. 6 to the Canucks.
The bigger question: How much do you factor in a young player’s linemates?
If Ehlers’s offensive numbers are right up there with the draft’s best prospects, why isn’t he ranked at the top of the list? It’s partly due to playing in the high-scoring QMJHL, but also likely has something to do with his linemate Jonathan Drouin, last year’s third overall pick, who racked up 108 points in just 46 games played. Drouin’s considered a blue-chip stud, and is often listed as one of the best young players outside the NHL today. How much was his presence inflating Ehlers’s numbers? Scouts have occasionally been fooled by players with superstar linemates, so there could be some hesitation with Ehlers despite his obvious skill.
The player: William Nylander, RW, Sodertalje (Sweden)
Nylander’s stat line doesn’t look impressive — he’s listed as managing just one goal and seven points in 22 games. But that came in Sweden’s men’s league, where he was playing against opponents much older and bigger than he is. That he didn’t look out of place in an elite league at the age of 18 is a good sign, and he’ll probably go in the top 10 on Friday.
The bigger question: How important is size?
Nylander isn’t tiny; he’s listed at 5-foot-11. But at just 169 pounds, he joins Ehlers as the smallest of this year’s top prospects. In the past, that would typically have been enough for some teams to move him down their draft boards.
But in recent years, more teams seem comfortable with taking smaller, skilled players. Size will always matter, but the NHL is no longer a league where players need to fight through hooks and holds on every shift or drop the gloves several times a year. If Nylander were 20 pounds heavier, he’d probably be a top-five pick. That he isn’t could mean that some team closer to the bottom of the top 10 ends up getting a steal.
The player: Thatcher Demko, G, Boston College (NCAA)
Demko is the top-rated goalie in this year’s draft. He’s big (6-foot-3) and athletic, and is coming off a strong season at Boston College despite being the youngest player in the NCAA.
But despite that, he’s unlikely to hear his name called early in Friday’s opening round, and may not be picked at all in the first.
The bigger question: When should you pick a goalie?
We’ve already covered the risk involved in picking a defenseman over a forward, given the extra time most blueliners take to develop and how that complicates future projections. That risk is even more pronounced for goaltenders, and the track record of teams using a first-round pick on the position in recent years is ugly.
Despite goalie often being called the most important position in hockey, it’s unusual for a goaltender to be taken early in a draft. They’ve gone first overall twice in the modern era, and both picks look like mistakes — Rick DiPietro was a bust for the Islanders in 2000, and while Marc-Andre Fleury has been good for the Penguins, he came at the cost of the top pick of the absolutely stacked 2003 draft, which produced some of the league’s biggest current stars. The track record doesn’t get much better later in the round, with plenty of notable busts on display.
That’s not to say taking a goalie early can’t pay off, with guys like Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, and Semyon Varlamov all holding first-round status. But it’s also common for star netminders to be found much later, with guys like Jonathan Quick (third round), Henrik Lundqvist (seventh round), and Sergei Bobrovsky (undrafted) standing out as notable bargains.
It makes for a tough call for NHL GMs. If you don’t have a good goalie these days, you can’t contend. But if you use a high pick on one, there’s a good chance you whiff completely.
The player: Josh Ho-Sang, C, Windsor (OHL)
There may not be a more fascinating player in the draft, or one with a wider range of possible career paths. He could be the most naturally talented player taken this weekend, yet he’s a guy who plenty of teams apparently want no part of. He could go in the top 10 on Friday, or he might not hear his name called until Saturday. Ten years from now, he could end up being the best player taken in the whole draft, or he might never be able to stick in the NHL.
The bigger question: How much does character matter?
In a league where players are expected to stay quiet and blend in, everything about Ho-Sang stands out: his name, his race, his attitude, his emotions. As explained in this fascinating profile in the Toronto Sun, Ho-Sang’s reputation has already scared off several teams. He comes across as cocky, outlandish, and downright immature.
He’s also 18 years old. He’s supposed to be immature. But Ho-Sang is considered an extreme case for several reasons, not least of which is that he doesn’t seem to have any particular desire to go along with preconceived notions of what a hockey player should be. He’s apparently a smart kid, and could probably figure out how to fake it if he wanted to. He doesn’t seem to want to.
Ho-Sang may be this year’s ultimate high-risk, high-reward pick. Some team is going to take him eventually, and it may end up regretting the decision to burn a pick on a kid who just didn’t get it and never will. It may also wind up with a superstar. There are a million reasons not to call his name. It will be fascinating to see which team has the guts to do it anyway.