The Surprising (and Not Surprising) NHL Draft WeekendDave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images
The NHL’s draft weekend is, in theory, a pretty straightforward affair. It’s the annual chance to divide up all the incoming young talent, with teams making their picks, posing for a few photos, and heading home.
In reality, draft weekend often ends up feeling like 90 percent of the league’s offseason crammed into a few days. The combination of having all 30 front offices in one city, incoming cap space, and free agency looming just days away builds up into a whirlwind of rumors, speculation, and (eventually) action.
Some of it works out the way we expect. Some of it doesn’t. So let’s take a look back at this year’s just-concluded draft weekend in stifling Sunrise, Florida, by breaking down all the major moves based on just how surprising they were.
Connor McDavid going first overall: 0/100 — No surprise here; we’ve known that McDavid would be the first overall pick of the 2015 draft for the last three years. He’s the most heavily hyped prospect since Sidney Crosby, and his ridiculous numbers in junior this year — he had 120 points in just 47 games — just reaffirmed his status as the game’s Next Big Thing.
The question now is this: How big? And how quickly? McDavid goes to an Oilers franchise that hasn’t been good at anything other than winning draft lotteries in almost a decade. His arrival, and the front office overhaul the franchise underwent while anticipating it, should spell the end of the Oilers’ misery. The question is how quickly he can get them into the playoffs, and then into Cup contention.
We have some history to look back on. Crosby had 102 points as a rookie in the high-scoring post-lockout 2005-06 season, but Pittsburgh didn’t return to the playoffs until the following year. The Penguins went to the Cup final the year after that, and then won it all in 2009. Alexander Ovechkin debuted the same year as Crosby, but the Caps didn’t make the playoffs until his third season, and they still haven’t been to a final. The Blackhawks debuted the double whammy of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2007-08, missed the playoffs, and had won their first Stanley Cup by 2010.
So if you’re an Oilers fan, there’s your realistic window: one more tough season, playoff favorite status the year after that, and Stanley Cup contention soon after. It’s no sure thing, of course, but I’m guessing long-suffering Oilers fans will take it.
McDavid’s selection was the least surprising moment of the entire weekend. Well, except for this one …
This whole thing being a disaster: 0/100 — Let’s play a game called “How the hell did this happen?”
Scene: League headquarters.
NHL executive: “So, Connor McDavid has finally arrived in the NHL. How can we make the best possible first impression with this incredibly marketable new asset?”
Intern: “Hey, has anyone checked to see if the owner of the Oilers would want to awkwardly corner him on live television, then babble on about how wonderful his terrible organization is while blatantly reading off a cue card?”
NHL executive: “Great idea. Did anyone check it with Connor?”
Intern: “Sure did. He said he’d spend the entire segment visibly trying to swallow his own tongue.”
NHL executive: “Awesome, let’s do it!”
Jack Eichel goes second overall: 1/100 — Eichel going second overall was the draft’s other sure thing, and the only reason it gets even one point on our scale is for the slim chance that Tim Murray would screw up the pick by just grunting into the microphone.1
In any other year, Eichel would have been an easy call as the first overall pick. This isn’t any other year, so there was some initial disappointment when the last-place Sabres lost the draft lottery and dropped to the second pick. But that won’t last long — Eichel is all but a sure thing, and Sabres fans will love him.
Devan Dubnyk re-signs in Minnesota: 5/100 — The only surprise here is how long it took; a deal that everyone assumed would be done quickly wasn’t signed until four days before the goaltender would have hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.
Instead, the sides agreed on a six-year, $26 million deal that was announced Saturday. The contract carries plenty of risk for the Wild — long-term commitments to goalies who aren’t established superstars always do — but after almost flushing a promising season down the drain last year because of their weakness at the position, they apparently felt it was a risk they had to take.
From Dubnyk’s perspective, he gets a deal that must have seemed impossible to imagine after he almost washed out of the league in 2013-14. He was one of the season’s best stories, and he won the Masterton last week in recognition of that. He also won’t have to pack up and move this summer, which is more than we can say for a whole bunch of his colleagues.
The goaltending market steals the show: 10/100 — We went into the weekend with an apparent glut of goaltenders available on the trade market and with plenty of trade rumors flying. The law of supply and demand seemed to dictate that prices would be low. One GM trying to trade a goaltender even acknowledged as much earlier in the week, with the Senators’ Bryan Murray cautioning that “it’s not going to be a satisfactory deal, there’s no question.”
And then came Friday, and the Senators found a team willing to part with a first-round pick for Robin Lehner, a 23-year-old who’s never been a full-time starter and is coming off a season derailed by injuries. The Sabres sent the 21st pick to Ottawa in exchange for Lehner, and even agreed to take on David Legwand in a contract dump.
Tim Murray2 has a history with Lehner — he was with the Senators when Lehner was drafted — and said after the deal that the big Swede was the team’s top target. It wasn’t a robbery by any stretch, but the price was higher than most expected, and the consensus was that Ottawa did very well.
With the Lehner domino toppled, the next goaltender to be moved was Vancouver’s Eddie Lack, who was traded Saturday morning in a disappointing deal that only brought back a third- and seventh-rounder. A trade had been expected, but the destination wasn’t: Carolina, who already had two goalies. That meant Anton Khudobin had to go, and he was sent to Anaheim … who also already had two goaltenders. While we waited for the Ducks to figure that out, the Stars got the negotiating rights to Antti Niemi, Cam Talbot went from the Rangers to the Oilers, and New York replaced him with Chicago’s Antti Raanta.3
The big one from that list is Talbot, whose value had skyrocketed after an excellent run replacing an injured Henrik Lundqvist. The Oilers got him and a seventh-rounder for a second-, third-, and seventh-rounder. That was a cheaper price than had been rumored — the Rangers apparently wanted a first-round pick, and on Friday the rumored price was two second-rounders. GM Peter Chiarelli is under plenty of pressure to turn the Oilers around quickly, but sometimes a little patience can pay off.
Gary Bettman gets a rough ride: 15/100 — Per tradition, the commissioner was booed by … well, saying he was booed by “Panthers fans” doesn’t seem quite right; the BB&T Center was packed with a surprisingly decent mix of fans from around the league. There were certainly Panthers fans there, as evidenced by the big cheers whenever a Florida player or pick would be shown, but they were at times overwhelmed by fans of other teams. On Saturday, the loudest cheers of all tended to come from Lightning fans. Apparently, in Florida, winning has its privileges.
But if there’s one thing that can bring all 30 fan bases together, it’s booing Bettman, and so he once again got it with both barrels from the assembled crowd. This wasn’t quite at the level of last year’s vicious Philadelphia crowd, but it was a solid outing.
So why does this rate even a 15? Because while we’re used to seeing Bettman take it on the chin from hockey fans, we don’t usually get to see him snubbed by the draft picks themselves.
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Smooth, Colin White. Real smooth.
Mike Richards gets bought out: 20/100 — The veteran center was placed on waivers yesterday, and, barring a miracle trade, the Kings will buy him out today. That marks an expensive long-term blow to the Kings’ salary cap, one they could have avoided by using a compliance buyout last summer.4 Instead, GM Dean Lombardi erred on the side of loyalty to a player who’d helped the Kings win two Cups, and he got burned badly.
Consider it a cautionary tale for every other GM in the league: In a salary-cap world, there’s not much room for sentiment.
The Coyotes stay put at no. 3: 30/100 — The Coyotes became this year’s obligatory team to follow a familiar script: get a high pick, spend the week leading up to the draft talking about how willing you are to trade it, get everyone all excited about what kind of deal you’re cooking up … and then just go ahead and use the pick after all.
Hockey fans are used to the drill by now, and we know high picks are almost never traded in the cap era. But while the Coyotes’ tease wasn’t a surprise, there was some intrigue over who they’d actually take in the third spot. With McDavid and Eichel locked in at no. 1 and no. 2, the consensus for the next tier came down to three players: defenseman Noah Hanifin and forwards Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner.
Arizona went with Strome, a big center who won the OHL scoring title this year. (Marner went fourth to the Leafs, while Hanfin went fifth to the Hurricanes.) Strome is an excellent pick, and he gives the franchise yet another good young forward prospect who’ll eventually create plenty of offense in Glendale … or elsewhere.
The speed of the second-day picks: 40/100 — I’ve mentioned this before, but the pace of the second day always astounds me. The league flies through six rounds in roughly four hours, meaning there’s a pick made every minute or two. Prospects hear their names called, and by the time they’re done hugging their parents and squeezing their way down the aisle, the league has already moved on to the next guy. I’ve been in office hockey pools that took an entire afternoon to get through 80 picks,5 but a professional sports league with millions of dollars at stake can somehow fly through the process.
How do they do it? Here’s my theory: Jim Gregory is a boss. Gregory is the long-time league executive who takes over the proceedings from Bettman for much of the second day. The 79-year-old is pretty much universally beloved in the hockey world. He also knows how to damn well keep a draft moving. I don’t know what his secret is — I like to think he’s discreetly tapping a small blackjack into the palm of his hand behind the podium at all times — but he could make a fortune every August by running fantasy football leagues on the side.
Colorado moves on from Ryan O’Reilly: 45/100 — In one of the biggest trades of the weekend, the Avalanche sent their talented two-way center and winger Jamie McGinn to Buffalo for three good young players and a second-round pick.
This move had felt inevitable for years, dating back to the near-disastrous offer sheet O’Reilly signed with the Flames in 2013. He’s a year away from UFA status and was going to be tough to accommodate for an Avalanche team with plenty of young talent on long-term deals. The Sabres are a great fit here; they got him at a reasonable price — they gave up top prospect Nikita Zadorov along with forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher — and won’t hesitate to plug O’Reilly in as their no. 1 center until Eichel is ready to take over the role.
From Colorado’s perspective, the return is about as good as could be expected given that its hand was partly forced. The odd piece of the move came in a separate transaction earlier Friday, when the team traded for center Carl Soderberg and then gave him a five-year contract worth almost $24 million. If you can’t afford to pay O’Reilly, who’s an excellent player, then it’s hard to figure out how you could find $4.75 million a year for Soderberg, who is not.
Still, the Avalanche had a big name to trade and they found a way to get it done. Not every team was so lucky …
The Maple Leafs come up small: 50/100 — The Maple Leafs went into the weekend with two first-round picks and a nearly infinite supply of trade rumors. They used one of those picks on Marner, and if you were going to design a player that Toronto fans will come to love, a local kid who grew up cheering for the Leafs and wore no. 93 for Doug Gilmour is a good place to start. They followed that pick by taking nine more prospects, leaning heavily toward small but skilled players with high upside. So far, so good.
But as for those trade rumors … well, we’re still waiting. Deals involving names like Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Tyler Bozak never materialized. The fan base has been demanding big changes to the core, and management had seemed to agree, but the weekend came and went without anything major. They were being patient, and patience is good, but as Bruce Arthur noted in the Toronto Star, “There are starting to be rumblings that the Leafs aren’t so much patient as they’re paralyzed.”
In a way, this all brings back memories of the Brian Burke era in Toronto. Burke was always promising big changes, and then nothing would happen, and fans would panic and scream and wonder if someone needed to go wake the old man up and tell him the ship was sinking. And then, when you least expected it, Burke would pull the pin on the grenade and walk away from the explosion in slow motion, sunglasses on and undone tie flapping in the breeze.
The Leafs haven’t quite figured out how to get to that second part yet. They still have the summer to do so, although it’s hard not to look at the league’s annual Torching of the Cap Space festival right around the corner and think that the clock is ticking.
Lawson Crouse drops out of the top 10: 60/100 — The power forward was a divisive player, but he’d been penciled in to go as high as no. 6 and seemed like a lock for a top-10 spot. Instead, he dropped down to no. 11, where the hometown Panthers snapped him up. That’s not the worst thing in the world, because guys like Crouse and fellow Friday-night droppers like Travis Konecny (no. 24, Flyers) and Nicholas Merkley (no. 30, Coyotes) now get to go into their careers with a “prove them all wrong” chip on their shoulder.
Still, it must have been tough for Crouse. You can just picture him sitting there waiting, sadly singing to himself. “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat … oh, wait, I already did that.”6
Kevin Bieksa doesn’t get traded: 65/100 — The rumored deal — Bieksa to San Jose for a second-round pick — had been mentioned so many times that you could be forgiven for having assumed it was already done. And then it wasn’t, as things somehow fell apart Saturday.
Deals fall apart all the time, but this one seems to have left some nasty feelings in its wake. Elliotte Friedman has a good breakdown of how it all went wrong, and what could be next.
But Carl Hagelin does: 70/100 — The NHL arranges its draft floor based on the order of selection, which meant the Ducks and Rangers were right next to each other in the back row near the media section. There’s a lot of idle chatter between teams as the draft wears on, so it wasn’t especially unusual to see officials from those teams chatting it up Saturday morning. But it quickly became apparent they were talking about more than dinner reservations, and soon we had a surprising trade to announce: Hagelin for Emerson Etem.7
The deal makes sense on paper; the Rangers are tight against the cap, and Etem is younger and cheaper than Hagelin. But Hagelin had been such an integral part of the Rangers’ recent success, playing 73 playoff games over the past four years, that it will be strange to see him in another uniform. The Ducks presumably see him as a replacement for Matt Beleskey, who’ll hit unrestricted free agency Wednesday.
Taylor Hall can make jokes: 75/100 — It’s always good when NHL players can laugh at themselves. When you’re an Oiler, it’s practically a mandatory skill.
Welcome to Edmonton, Connor. Don’t mess up everything we’ve built the last 5 years! #FutureIsBright
— Taylor Hall (@hallsy04) June 26, 2015
A goalie was picked in the first round by … wait, that can’t be right: 80/100 — We talked about the trouble with using high picks on goalies in the draft preview: They take a long time to develop and are notoriously hard to project. But this year’s draft featured some good ones, so it wasn’t a huge shock when Ilya Samsonov was picked in the opening round’s second half.
What was surprising was the team that took him, because the Capitals already have a pretty darn good goaltender just entering his prime. Braden Holtby seemed to officially ascend to superstar status after a very good season and excellent playoffs, and with other holes to fill, it seemed odd to see the Capitals already eyeing a possible future replacement.
The emphasis here is on future, since Samsonov will reportedly stay in Russia for at least three more years. A lot can change in that time, and it’s worth remembering that Holtby still needs a new contract. Still, you have to wonder whether the pick could have been part of a deal for a guy like Patrick Sharp who could have helped the Capitals right away. Patience is usually good, but in a wide-open Metro and with the Alexander Ovechkin window slowly closing, the Caps could regret this one.
The BB&T Center music guy is a jerk: 85/100 — Here’s the worst thing about the NHL draft: Pretty much any player who wants to come is invited, meaning the arena is filled with excited teenagers surrounded by friends and family. That’s wonderful in the early rounds, but as Saturday wears on, it gets very depressing to look into the seats and see dozens of prospects who just aren’t going to get picked. Most of them look crestfallen. A few usually cry. Some eventually can’t take it anymore and storm out early, sometimes leaving distraught parents scrambling up the aisle behind them.
All of which made it especially horrifying to realize that, as noted by Sporting News’s Sean Gentille, the music guy decided the seventh round would be a good time to play a song called “Slide.” In case you were willing to chalk that up as a coincidence, he followed that up with the sickeningly catchy “Best Day of My Life,” which is probably not what you want to hear during what may literally be the worst day of your life. He then broke out “The Final Countdown” with a handful of picks to go.
Sadly, the last few picks were wrapped up before he could get to his presumable closing playlist of “Hurt,” “All By Myself,” and “Loser.”
A player from China gets picked: 90/100 — In one of the cooler moments of the late rounds, the Islanders used the 172nd pick on Andong Song, who became the first Chinese-born player ever taken at the draft. The moment was carried live on Chinese television, and it represents a massive accomplishment for a player who spent his first years on skates without even having a full-size rink to play on.
Speaking of the Islanders, we might as well get this out of the way:
Garth Snow being really good at this: 95/100 — Admit it. When eccentric Islanders owner Charles Wang decided to name his backup goaltender the team’s new GM, you assumed the whole thing would end up being a disaster. And yet, Snow has somehow emerged as one of the better front-office minds in the game, building the Islanders into a very good young team that seems well-positioned to contend for years.
He kept up the good work over the weekend, managing to twice trade up into the first round. That included a surprising deal with Edmonton that saw the Isles send Griffin Reinhart to the Oilers for the 16th and 33rd picks. Reinhart was the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, but the defenseman’s stock has fallen since then, and there are concerns over whether he’s really still a top-tier prospect. Snow turned him into two picks, one of which he used on Mathew Barzal, an explosive center who was surprisingly still available at no. 16.
Barzal is just the latest good young offensive player to join the Islanders, as Snow continues to show he’s a guy who just doesn’t make mistakes.8
Chris Pronger gets traded: 99/100 — Hey, anytime you can trade for a future Hall of Famer, you do it, right?
The problem here is that the future could come as early as today, when Pronger is eligible to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It may surprise you to remember he’s still technically an active player, despite not having played since 2011 and currently being an employee of the league’s department of player safety. He’s also now a Coyote, thanks to a trade that sent him and Nicklas Grossmann to Arizona for Sam Gagner and a conditional pick.
I’ll just give you a minute to process that last paragraph.
This kind of thing is, of course, (1) ridiculous, (2) embarrassing, and (3) an unavoidable side effect of the weird way the league insists on handling the cap hit of injured players. While his career is over, Pronger never officially retired because he has a long-term contract and presumably enjoys being paid to do nothing. Because of that, his cap hit stays on the books, and it’s a significant one, at almost $5 million. The Flyers could use long-term injured reserve to escape most of that once the season began, but it still tied their hands during the offseason. So they found a way to dump the contract on the Coyotes, who’ll happily use it to reach the league’s cap floor.9
It’s all very silly, and it has more than a few fans howling. But the league’s way of dealing with these sorts of circumstances has always been screwed up — this is just an especially ridiculous way for the situation to manifest. And at least everyone is keeping their sense of humor about things:
Coyotes GM Don Maloney on acquiring Chris Pronger’s contract: “Part of the deal was my insisting he goes into the Hall Of Fame as a Coyote.”
— Craig Morgan (@craigsmorgan) June 27, 2015
The Bruins: 100/100 — That’s it. Just: The Bruins. What are you doing, Boston?
The Bruins got the weekend rolling with the draft’s biggest trade, sending stud defenseman Dougie Hamilton to the Flames for the 15th, 45th, and 52nd picks. That’s not much for a player like Hamilton, and the deal was viciously panned across the hockey world. It wasn’t a win-now trade, because the Bruins didn’t get anything back that would help them today. And it wasn’t a rebuilding move, because rebuilding teams don’t trade 22-year-old stars in the making. It was just … bad.
Granted, the Bruins were in a tough spot with Hamilton. The previous regime had left new GM Don Sweeney with a salary-cap mess to clean up, and with Hamilton a few days away from RFA status, the threat of an offer sheet was real. But even given that, the return for a guy who looks like he could win a Norris someday was unimpressive, bordering on awful.
And then, just as the “We have to consider that Sweeney may not know what he’s doing” train started pulling out of the station, the Bruins dropped another blockbuster: Milan Lucic to the Kings for the 13th overall pick, Martin Jones, and prospect Colin Miller.10 It was a great deal, one that arguably brought back a better package than Hamilton’s. Lucic has one year left on a deal that carries a cap hit of $6 million (the Bruins retained almost half of that in the deal) and then hits unrestricted free agency. Big and mean but past his prime and with declining offensive numbers, he’s exactly the sort of player that teams end up overpaying. Instead, Boston turned him into a nice package of assets, including a good young goaltender in Jones who they don’t really need but could presumably flip somewhere down the road.
That left the Bruins with three consecutive first-round picks, so maybe Sweeney was on top of things after all. But then he used the choices on three guys who all seemed like minor reaches, while passing on higher-ranked guys like Barzal and Kyle Connor.
Look, maybe all three guys end up being home runs. Maybe there was a bigger plan in play that fell through (the Bruins were widely rumored to be in the running for that no. 3 pick the Coyotes ended up keeping). Or maybe something else is going on behind the scenes — the traditional “knife the departing Boston player in the back on the way out” routine is already well under way.
But as the hockey world pulled up and made its way out of Florida on Saturday night and Sunday morning, the Bruins were the main talking point. What were these guys doing? What’s the plan? Do they even know?
It takes a lot to surprise the hockey world, but the Bruins pulled it off, and they win the crown as the weekend’s most perplexing team. Don Sweeney and friends better hope it’s not the last thing they win for a while.
Update: In a stunning twist, the Kings announced this afternoon that they weren’t buying out Richards after all — they’re terminating his deal entirely, citing an unspecified violation of his contract. Stay tuned on this one; it’s probably going to get very ugly.
Filed Under: NHL, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets