Grantland logo

The Draft After Dark

Boos for Gary Bettman, cheers for Martin Brodeur, and a big afternoon for this year’s top NHL prospects in Newark, New Jersey.

Nathan MacKinnon

It was Donovan McNabb, of all people, who most aptly described one of the most fun quirks of the NHL entry draft. From inside Newark’s Prudential Center, where he was attending Sunday’s event in support of his nephew Darnell Nurse — a young defensive prospect — McNabb told the NHL Network that the vibe at his draft had been pretty different. NFL prospects wait back in a green room, while at the NHL draft, the kids and their families sit right up in the stands. And they aren’t the only ones on display. Rather than being squirreled away in “war rooms,” as they are in a number of other professional sports, in the NHL each team’s brain trust operates collectively and live and in person from the arena floor.

“Here, it seems like you can look at every single owner or general manager of every team,” said McNabb. “Just kinda waaaave, smile, and kinda get their feelings.”

It’s quite a sight, watching hockey operations in their natural habitat. The GMs glad-hand and the coaches mingle and the children of owners sit in oversize jerseys pecking away at their smartphones, everyone just inches from everyone else. (Lean too far back in your chair and you’re suddenly infiltrating the airspace of an enemy team.) The drafted players are stripped of their jackets, put into team sweaters and hats, and led around the arena on a whirlwind tour of radio hits, TV appearances, unbelievably awkward photo shoots, and stints in the media interview area.

“We’re even,” said Nurse of his uncle, in one of his many interviews after being drafted seventh overall by the Edmonton Oilers. “Because he went higher than me, but I didn’t get booed at my draft.”

On one end of the floor is the big stage upon which the newly picked prospects smile for photos; on the other is a fence against which the media strain for a view like tourists along the route of a parade. And in the big flat middle, you have Alain Vigneault chatting it up with Claude Noel, or Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the Bruins staff struggling with a technology snafu, or Claude Loiselle and Stan Bowman making trips to the central registry desk that are promptly (and accurately) reported as evidence of an impending trade.

This year’s draft was expected to be particularly crazy and downright drunk from the potent lockout-induced cocktail of a reduced salary cap for next season, the ability to amnesty player contracts, a particularly well-regarded class of prospects, and a condensed schedule that crammed two days’ worth of deliberations into one night. But though a lot of the biggest trade talk never came to fruition, and none of the top three picks ended up dealt in some blockbuster deal, the day nevertheless had its share of memorable moments. Here, in no particular order, are a few:

Devils fans booing Gary Bettman

As we know, public airing of grievances with (dis)respect to the commish is certainly nothing new. But you had to appreciate both the sheer, giddy lust with which the fans at the Prudential Center booed Dear Leader, and the relatively good humor with which he received it. By the end of the night it bordered on a childish puppy love; the kid pulling pigtails to get attention.

There was one exchange in which Bettman appeared onstage to announce a trade; the crowd booed, Bettman smiled, and, with all the patronizing patience of a preschool teacher, said, “Do you wanna hear the trade?” The fans, almost in spite of themselves, yelled back “YEAAHHH!!!” (He hammed it up when he announced the Cory Schneider–to–New Jersey trade, too, teasing them with a “I think you’re gonna want to hear this.”) Another noteworthy exchange occurred early on when Bettman paid his respects to agent Don Baizley, who died last week. The Bronx cheering ceased for a round of genuinely appreciative and respectful applause for the man who once represented Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, and Joe Sakic. And then the moment passed, Bettman began speaking again, and the booing resumed — even more loudly.1


1.

Another little detail I enjoyed was Devils fans reappropriating the whistling “Rangers suck!” chant (which itself reappropriates the whistling “Potvin sucks!” chant done by Rangers fans) into a “Bettman sucks!” Bonus points for local flavor.

And then there was the fan reaction when the Colorado Avalanche took the stage to make the first pick. Upon seeing Patrick Roy, the franchise’s new head coach and VP of hockey operations, fans at Prudential Arena came at him with a “Marty’s better!” Which brings us to …

The uncertainty of the first few picks

This year’s draft was one that had been anticipated for quite some time; even during last season, it had more hype than the then-impending 2012 draft. That’s due in large part to the envisioned one-two punch of Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones, who for the last two years have been considered the yin and yang of an outstanding 2013 prospect class. In MacKinnon you had the Canadian forward (from the same town as Sidney Crosby!) putting up monster numbers in major junior hockey; in Jones you would be getting a young American defenseman who came up through the USA Hockey development system and, oh, by the way, is the son of the NBA’s Popeye. The debate raged for years.

Enter Jonathan Drouin. Already highly regarded as a “complete package” player, the 5-foot-11 forward, a teammate of MacKinnon’s for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, had a breakout season this year. He was one of just two “underage” players to be invited to play for Team Canada at the World Juniors this January in Ufa, Russia — MacKinnon was the other one — and he dazzled as one of Team Canada’s brightest spots in an otherwise disappointing showing. By the end of the tournament he was playing on the top line. Suddenly, in the months leading up to the draft, there was now a trio of players who could battle for the first-overall spot.

Or perhaps a foursome. Aleksander Barkov was well known to followers of overseas hockey and had been rated the top European prospect by the Central Scouting Service. The Finnish-born player (whose father is Russian) became in 2012 the youngest Finnish player to score a goal in the World Juniors; in this year’s tournament he finished with seven points in six games. He plays in Finland’s SM-liiga, one of Europe’s most highly regarded leagues, and was second on his team in scoring. A recent shoulder injury provided some level of uncertainty, but Barkov was considered a probable fourth pick by the Nashville Predators after the trio of MacKinnon, Jones, and Drouin were gone from the board.

It had seemed, even a month or so ago, like Jones was destined to go to Colorado first overall. It had the makings of a great story — as a kid, he had been turned on to hockey when he went to an Avs game and saw them win the Cup. His dad had asked Joe Sakic, now the team’s executive VP for hockey operations, for advice on how to nurture his son’s new obsession. (Sakic’s advice was to sign him up for skating lessons and focus on the hockey stuff later.) Jones, who is biracial, would have been the first African American to go first overall.

“Yeah, it definitely sounded too good to be true,” Jones said on Sunday. “It turned out that way.”

Instead, the Avalanche chose MacKinnon, explaining that they considered him the best player available regardless of position (his Memorial Cup performance spoke volumes), something they’d certainly been telegraphing over the past few weeks. No one knew whether it was subterfuge or genuine, though, including MacKinnon himself.

“They didn’t tell me to my face that they were going to take me,” said MacKinnon. “Obviously they said it in the media but didn’t want to get my hopes up for anything. Definitely a little bit more nervous than I expected to be a couple minutes before the draft.”

Then the Florida Panthers zigged instead of zagged and went with Barkov over Jones. “Very much sun and good beaches and warm weather,” Barkov said when asked what he knew about Florida. Another Sunshine State team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, selected Drouin with the third pick — they had been expecting him at no. 3 all along, really, just as the conventional wisdom had the Predators thinking they’d wind up with Barkov.

Instead, Jones fell into their lap. “This is the first time we’ve ever gotten the top player on our list,” said GM David Poile. “I wish we had the no. 1 pick so then I wouldn’t have to say ‘I can’t believe the player was there!’ We had Seth Jones rated number one.” For some Nashville fans who had been looking forward to drafting a young offensively minded center, Jones represented more of the status quo — a franchise that is obsessively skilled at developing defensemen (and goalies). But with the loss last summer of Ryan Suter to free agency, Jones has the potential to fill an important role, and if he’s anything as projected, he has the capacity to be a generational talent. Drafting him also gives them more flexibility to deal other defensemen and find the forward they need.

The names

Hockey player names are the best, full stop. This year included the envy of the Kardashians, all selected in the third round: Keegan Kanzig, Kurtis Gabriel, Keaton Thompson. There were Connor Crisp, Connor Clifton, and Christopher Clapperton; Connor Hurley lacked only the symmetric monogram.

The Edmonton Oilers drafted Bogdan Yakimov, who one hopes will become comical best friends with Nail Yakupov. Then there were the names that sounded familiar: Max Domi (son of Tie), Eric Comrie (half brother of Paul and Mike, and thus half brother-in-law to Hilary Duff),2 Jordan Subban (brother of P.K. and Malcolm), Adam Tambellini (son of Steve), and so on.


2.

It’s always surprising to see how young a lot of the draftees look, but it was really jarring to see Eric Comrie.

In conclusion, I hope there’s a fight one day between Mackenzie Skapski and Hudson Fasching.

THE TRADE

One of the biggest story lines of last year’s draft in Pittsburgh was what the Vancouver Canucks would do with goalie Roberto Luongo. They had made it clear that Schneider had earned the team’s starting role and that they were actively shopping Luongo, but they had also made it clear that he would command a steep price. The problem was that his high cost was also literally true: Luongo was saddled with a monster contract, suffocating in riches like that poor Bond girl. The bid-ask spread between what other teams offered and what Gillis would take led to exactly zero volume on that particular trade market.

One of the other biggest story lines in Pittsburgh was the draft-day trade of Jordan Staal, who had won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins but was seeking to break out of the perpetual role of third-line center and had rejected a healthy contract extension from the team the day before the hometown draft. He was unloaded to Carolina to play alongside his brother Eric, and the trade (for Brandon Sutter) was announced to a surprised but ultimately approving crowd.

The trade of Schneider from Vancouver to New Jersey in exchange for the ninth overall pick was both of those stories combined. It was the latest chapter in the Canucks’ goalie saga, though in no way was it a resolution. This is an epic that will last at least decades. It also gave the Devils fans attending the draft a fun bit of drama. ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the deal was made between Mike Gillis and Lou Lamoriello on Saturday night, but the Devils GM squelched any leaks in fear that fans wouldn’t attend the draft if they knew New Jersey wouldn’t have a first-round pick.

Sean McIndoe has more on this trade, so I won’t repeat him too much, but a few observations:

• Lamoriello equated the trade to actually using the first-round pick. If the Devils thought there was a surefire NHL-caliber goalie on the board at no. 9, they would have drafted him, Lamoriello explained. Instead, they got a proven one in Schneider.

• Here’s how funny and fraught the issue of goalies can be: I went back and listened several times to my recording of Lamoriello’s press conference because I wanted to parse whether he called Martin Brodeur a no. 1 goaltender or the no. 1 goaltender. Big difference, right? Here’s what Lamoriello actually said: “Marty is still no. 1 goaltender, there’s no question about that.” The man is a master.

• It seems like every player involved was completely surprised by the trade. Schneider learned about it when someone texted him and told him to turn on TSN as the news was announced. Luongo told James Duthie that he was “in shock” and declined comment; later, he finally made his much-anticipated first tweet: “#NOtradeclause.” (Team owner Francesco Aquilini supposedly flew to Florida to meet with him.) Brodeur and his backup (the 40-year-old Johan Hedberg) were standing together when the announcement was made, and he said they were “both shocked.” (As Seth Jones sagely explained in his scrum, referring to his own situation, “it’s a business.”)

• Schneider will be a free agent in two seasons. Will one of those seasons be spent in weird goalie limbo with Brodeur? (“He’s going to have to fight me for it,” Brodeur said, laughing.)

• With the pick, Vancouver selected Bo Horvat, an OHL playoffs MVP who scored 23 points in 21 postseason games for the London Knights. Vancouver assistant GM Laurence Gilman called him “future captain material” and “a big-game player.” “We didn’t think there’d be any chance that a player of that caliber would be there at no. 24,” Gilman said. There were rumors that Edmonton, which had the seventh pick, was also interested in making a trade for Schneider, but that the Canucks asked for a higher price because they play in the same division and nothing got done.

Marty Brodeur beginning and ending the whole damn day

It’s kind of crazy how much Brodeur IS the New Jersey Devils. The draft day was preceded by the news that the 41-year-old goalie would be the next cover athlete on EA Sports’ NHL 2014, began with the opening “Marty’s better” chant, was dominated by the Schneider trade and discussion of What It Would Mean for Marty, and was just four more picks away from ending when the announcement came that the L.A. Kings had traded their seventh-round pick to New Jersey and a special guest would be making the selection for the Devils.

Then there was Brodeur at the table, gawked at in the middle of the zoo-like draft floor. “The Devils are proud to select,” he said, “from Shattuck-St. Mary’s … Anthony Brodeur.” Then he beamed like the proud parent that he was.

Everything else

• Just as the draft brings into close contact fans, GMs, owners, players, family, and coaches, it also introduces the amusing dynamic between two sets of writers: the ones who cover prospects and minor league hockey and do scouting work throughout the year, and the NHL writers who are often hearing most of these names for the first time. This leads to scrums in which one question will be something super insidery about an assistant coach a kid played for when he was 14 and the impact he had on his development, followed by someone piping up, “So, ya ever been to Columbus?” (Oh, and if you put money on someone asking a Nashville Predators draftee whether he likes country music, you’d hit it every time.)

• There were some fun “local kid” stories throughout the draft Sunday. The Buffalo Sabres picked up Justin Bailey in the second round; he grew up in the Buffalo area (his father is former Buffalo Bill Carlton Bailey) and had special relationships with players including Matthew Barnaby and, later, Pat LaFontaine. “You grow up and you’re playing hockey and especially for me loving the Sabres, quoting Rick Jeanneret when I was younger,” an ecstatic Bailey said. Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Windy City native Ryan Hartman with their first-round pick, while the New Jersey Devils took Steve Santini, who hails from Bronxville, New York, and had to make a quick transition upon hearing the news. “I converted 15 minutes ago to be a Devils fan,” said the now-former Rangers supporter.

• The best exchange of the day came when Nurse misheard a question.

Q: You said you play with a bit of an edge. Do you think you have a take-no-guff attitude when you play?

DARNELL NURSE: Techno? Like the music? That’s soft music, so I hope that doesn’t mean soft … but, guff? That sounds pretty tough. I think I have a little bit of jam in my game. I’ve always had it. Like I said, it’s better to give than receive.” (Later, The Sporting News‘s Jesse Spector followed up, asking what music would describe his game. “You put on some classical music? Maybe it would be the opposite of that,” Nurse said.)

• A few interesting picks from the day: The Dallas Stars were delighted that Valeri Nichushkin (this year’s officially designated Enigmatic Russian™) was still available at no. 10, while the Canucks found Hunter Shinkaruk still available at no. 24 … The Columbus Blue Jackets, who had three first-round picks, were especially excited about Finn Alexander Wennberg3 … Anton Slepyshev, who some thought could go as early as the first round last season and ended up completely undrafted, went to the Edmonton Oilers in the third round … No one drafted Sergey Tolchinsky, but the New York Rangers announced at the end of the night that they had invited the Russian forward to their development camp this week … Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers was on hand to chat about their draft pick Samuel Morin, a defenseman whom Pronger helped scout … The Minnesota Wild and New York Islanders made an interesting trade that was overshadowed by the Schneider news, swapping popular brawler Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick for Nino Niederreiter, whom the Isles picked fifth overall in 2010 but have battled with since.

My bus ride back to the hotel


3.

ESPN.com’s Grant Sonier gave the Stars, Blue Jackets, and Sabres A+ grades in his draft report card.

After the draft ended, I got on what I thought was the media shuttle but was actually a bus that was transporting everyone. Which is to say that when I looked around me I saw I was surrounded by the Subban family — P.K. snoozing in the back seat, a newly drafted Jordan wearing his Canucks jersey and looking content, their father, Karl, surveying the scene — and directly across the aisle from Paul MacLean and his mustache. On our way out of Newark, we passed by a car that had burst into flames near a sidewalk. Just an absurd and glorious end to the night, a fitting nightcap to the draft after dark.