The NHL draft was held over the weekend in Philadelphia, a fact that would have been hard to miss if you were a hockey fan in the city. If the bright orange draft-themed banners that seemed to have been hung on every square inch of available space didn’t tip you off, the steady stream of hockey personalities who took over much of the downtown area would have.
They were everywhere. There’s Gary Bettman wandering by a hotel. There’s David Poile chilling out on a patio. There’s some random teenager who you don’t recognize, but his neck is the width of your chest so he’s clearly going in the first round. At some point, your brain switches over to assuming that everyone in the city is secretly an NHL employee, and you start eavesdropping on random conversations in hopes of overhearing some top-secret info. (One guy even managed to get this strategy to work.)
The opening round was held Friday night, just 24 hours after the NBA held its draft in New York City. The leagues share some common traits when it’s time to divvy up the next generation of players, but the NHL draft is distinct in several notable ways. For one, there’s no guarantee a Canadian will be picked first overall. More important, the teams themselves play a much more prominent role in the NHL draft than in any other league. The front offices and scouting staffs fill up the draft floor, with GMs (or other team personnel) announcing the first-round picks themselves. That creates a fun dynamic and offers up plenty of opportunities for the host team’s crowd to play a role. Did I mention this year’s draft was in Philadelphia? Yeah, Flyers fans were going to make themselves heard.
That became clear almost immediately, before the draft had even officially begun. Minutes before the first pick, the NHL attempted to run through a quick roll call, giving each team the chance to confirm its presence and inform the league of who’d be making the picks. It’s supposed to be a formality. Flyers fans had other ideas, quickly deciding to greet the announcement of each team with loud “SUCKS” chants. They weren’t equally distributed — the Kings actually got some tepid applause and the Penguins, naturally, got it worst of all — but it set the tone for what was to come.
(And by the way … why does the NHL have a pre-draft roll call? I get that you need to know who’s authorized to make each team’s picks, but that seems like something that could be handled with an email. Are they concerned that the Carolina Hurricanes might not show up? Do the Dallas Stars sometimes wander in late to these things? Did the Winnipeg Jets’ mom forget to let the league know about their dentist appointment? It’s very confusing.)
After warming up, the Philly crowd got down to the real order of business: mercilessly booing Bettman every time he got near the lectern. The crowd gave it to him with both barrels, and they didn’t even let up when he tried one of his now-traditional cheesy jokes (“I thought this was the city of Brotherly Love?”). It was a strong performance, but not a perfect one, because they still let themselves get suckered in by the now-traditional sight of GMs thanking the host city for its hospitality. The supposedly hard-nosed Flyers fans went for it every time, rewarding the gambit with cheers, which resulted in more and more teams pulling it out as the night went on. You are only encouraging them, Philadelphia. If you don’t boo them for transparently sucking up to you, how will they ever learn?
Once the GMs managed to make their picks, the first round played out largely as expected. The Panthers held on to the first overall pick despite spending the week teasing the hockey world with talk of trading down. They chose Aaron Ekblad, a well-rounded defenseman who’d emerged as the consensus top player on most draft boards.
Ekblad was followed by the “big three” centers: Sam Reinhart (to Buffalo), Leon Draisaitl (to Edmonton), and Samuel Bennett (to Calgary). That set the tone for a first round that was dominated by forwards, with 25 of 30 picks being used on centers or wingers. The other five picks were defensemen; no goalie was taken until Saturday, when a mini-run on the position opened the second round.
Mix in a disappointing lack of trades — there were a few, which we’ll get to in a second, but nowhere near the parade of blockbusters we’d been hoping for — and you had a first round that didn’t offer up much in the way of shockers. That may explain why the fans were as loud as they were; once they realized the league’s GMs were planning on business as usual, the Flyers faithful decided to make their own fun.
Speaking of which, here’s a quick power ranking of draft announcement performances by GMs and others:
5. Rick Tocchet, Penguins: Pittsburgh made the unusual choice to have an assistant coach approach the lectern. It was an obvious attempt to earn some mercy from a hostile crowd, given that Tocchet played 11 years in Philadelphia and was one of the team’s most popular players. It was a good plan. It did not work. Flyers fans hammered him, causing him to turn to GM Jim Rutherford and mutter, “I told you this was a bad idea.”
4. Ron Hextall, Flyers: Needless to say, the rookie GM got a big ovation. That was mostly because he’s a beloved former player from the home team, and perhaps just a little bit because the Flyers’ draft table was probably the most ridiculously intimidating collection of people ever assembled. The Expendables 4 is just going to be the world’s most famous action heroes getting beaten up by the Flyers’ front office. The movie will last three minutes.
3. Dale Tallon, Panthers: All the speculation about trading the top pick worked to mask the Panthers’ actual intentions, and when Tallon took to the stage, we still didn’t know whose name he’d announce. So he trolled us all by declaring that the Panthers would take, from the Ontario Hockey League … and then pausing dramatically, leaving everyone to wonder whether the pick would be Ekblad or Bennett. It was a fun moment, but Ekblad hadn’t been told he was the pick, and he later told reporters that he was “freaking out there for a second.” Tallon later explained, “I thought we were in show business.”
2. Tim Murray, Sabres: No thanking Philadelphia. No congratulating the Kings. No shout-out to the draft party. Just business. Murray is here to trade good players and draft prospects, and he’s all out of good players.
1. Stan Bowman, Blackhawks: The Blackhawks GM worked in an aside about how “it’s nice to be back in Philadelphia.” Most of the fans cheered. It was only later that most realized the “back” part was probably a reference to this. Stan Bowman: NHL GM, son of a legend, Stanley Cup champion, and expert-level troll.
When team officials weren’t sparring with Flyers fans, they were chatting with each other. A big part of the fun of attending the draft live comes from watching the various team personnel interact with each other. Everyone mills around and makes small talk, occasionally breaking off into small discussion groups. It’s impossible to resist the temptation to assume every conversation will result in a blockbuster trade — Dave Nonis is talking to Marc Bergevin! Phil Kessel for P.K. Subban! — even though they typically just end up in dinner plans.
Also milling around the draft floor: children. Dozens and dozens of children. Apparently the NHL draft also doubles as the league’s “take your child to work” day, because they were everywhere. And they were all wearing brand-new team jerseys, which would have been cool except almost all of them had been given adult sizes, which left them looking like they were wearing dresses. A few kids had child-size versions, and the jealousy was palpable. The rest of the kids probably would have started throwing punches, if any could get their fists out of the sleeves they were dragging on the ground.
But while the league’s child fashion consultant had a tough weekend, I strongly enjoyed the work of whoever was in charge of the overwrought music to accompany each first-round pick’s march to the stage. Imagine somebody hearing the Jurassic Park soundtrack and thinking, It’s nice, sure, but could we get something a little more melodramatic? If you’ve ever wanted to watch a teenager hug his mother while a string orchestra accompanies drunken fans screaming at him that he sucks, Philadelphia was the place to be Friday.
The players picked on Day 2 didn’t get the musical treatment, because Day 2 freaking moves. After taking more than three hours to do one round Friday, the league powered through six more in just four hours Saturday. Picks were coming less than a minute apart. I’m fascinated by that. I can’t get anyone in my fantasy football league to make a pick in less than 15 minutes, but a professional league can slip into rapid-fire mode with no problem.
(One fun side effect of the heightened Day 2 pace: Prospects still get to do the whole “stand up and hug your family” routine, but they run the risk of being cut off by some other family celebrating the next pick before they’re done. It turns into a contest to see which family can cheer loudest, and let’s just say it’s not hard to see where these kids get their hyper-competitiveness from.)
By the way, the NHL arranges the draft tables based on draft order, with the teams that pick early sitting up front. That seems like a lazy way to do it, and a wasted opportunity. I’d suggest arranging everyone based on the week’s trade rumors. The Senators want to trade Jason Spezza? Squeeze them in awkwardly between the Blues and Ducks. Make the Panthers walk past every team that was bidding on the first overall pick, just in case anyone wants to try to tackle Tallon. Also, a team’s recent success should dictate its table size. The Hawks and Kings should get fancy oak boardroom tables, while the Sabres and Oilers should have to crowd around a little TV tray. I may have spent too much time thinking about this.
Despite the lack of strategic table arrangements, the weekend did see a handful of trades and other transactions, including some major ones. In the weekend’s biggest deal, the Canucks finally moved disgruntled center Ryan Kesler to Anaheim in exchange for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa, and a late first-round pick. That’s not the sort of haul Canucks fans were hoping for. But Kesler had a no-trade clause, and the Ducks were his preferred destination; some have suggested they may have been his only one. Under the circumstances, Vancouver probably did the best it could.
In another deal involving a former All-Star, the Penguins sent James Neal to the Predators in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. This one’s also getting decidedly mixed reviews, given that Neal’s averaged a half-goal per game over the past three seasons. He immediately steps into a first-line role on a Predators team that’s struggled offensively for years.
Also traded to Nashville: Spezza, apparently, until he used his no-trade clause to veto a deal Saturday. He has that right, of course, because the Senators negotiated that no-trade clause into his deal. But given his apparent desire to move on from Ottawa, his decision isn’t likely to play well with fans. Sens GM Bryan Murray seems frustrated by the lack of bidding for Spezza, and this one looks like it has some potential to get ugly.
Speaking of ugly, the Coyotes announced they’ll buy out Mike Ribeiro. That’s a mild surprise coming just one year into a four-year, $22 million deal. But the real stunner came when Coyotes GM Don Maloney discussed the move. He explained that the decision was motivated by “behavioral issues,” all but telling Ribeiro not to let the door hit him on the way out. The Coyotes filled their vacancy at center quickly, acquiring Sam Gagner from Edmonton via Tampa Bay in a two-part deal last night.
A less controversial (but probably more important) buyout followed Sunday, as the Sabres announced they’d part ways with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. That ends his time in Buffalo just three years into the 10-year deal he signed as free agent in 2011. That deal was heavily front-loaded, so Ehrhoff makes out like a bandit here. He’s quite possibly the best blueliner available on the free-agent market, so it won’t be long before he gets yet another big contract.
Let’s wrap up with a few other tidbits from a weekend in Philadelphia:
• Islanders GM Garth Snow had a big night Friday. He made two first-round picks, grabbing Michael Dal Colle with the fifth pick and then trading back into the first round to take wild card Joshua Ho-Sang. That latter pick drew oohs and aahs from the crowd and earned Snow an invite to appear on TSN’s broadcast to explain his thinking. Which he did, by dropping a four-letter expletive on live TV.
• The draft’s shortest-lived controversy: Was Draisaitl throwing some sort of gang sign in his post-draft photo ops? Answer: no. Germans use their thumb when signaling “no. 3.” And with that, we all learned a little something about cultural differences.
• Finally, Maple Leafs first-round pick William Nylander’s Twitter handle is “snizzbone.” I don’t know what a snizzbone is. I don’t think that I want to know. Should I Urban Dictionary “snizzbone”? I believe I should not.
The draft was finished Saturday afternoon, and by Sunday morning the league had deserted the city (although the banners were still everywhere). Things move fast in the NHL this time of year, and we’re already focusing on the start of free agency tomorrow. We’ll have a rundown of the action later this week.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I haven’t seen my wife and kids in four days. After a weekend spent in Philadelphia, I’m really anxious to get home and boo them.