WHO IS TRUE NO.1?
This year’s NHL draft has more question marks surrounding top prospects Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier
A year ago at this time, you wouldn’t have had time to read this story. You’d have been far too busy clicking on the NHL draft lottery simulator — over and over and over again.
It’s what Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan admitted to doing. It’s pretty much what every NHL fan in the country was doing. Part of it had to do with the potential of selecting a generational talent in Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine. But the bigger reason was that with all seven Canadian teams out of the playoffs, winning the lottery was the next-best thing to winning the Stanley Cup.
So when the Maple Leafs were awarded the No. 1 pick and the Winnipeg Jets moved up four spaces to win the No. 2 pick, it was almost parade-worthy.
“They needed some good news,” Shanahan said at the time. “I hope they’re out in the streets of Toronto right now just feeling a little bit better.”
This year’s NHL draft lottery, which takes place Saturday night in Toronto, is different.
While Vancouver finished with the second-worst record in the league and Winnipeg was 20th, five of the seven Canadian teams — Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto — qualified for the playoffs, with the Oilers and Senators advancing to the second round.
Fans in Vancouver are no doubt playing the simulator, given the Canucks have the second-best odds of picking first (12.1 per cent). But nationally, the landscape doesn’t seem as dire now that so many Canadian teams have already won.
“Last year’s lottery will always be a good memory for this organization as far as the opportunity to acquire a very special player,” said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, whose team has a 2.7-per-cent chance of winning this year’s lottery. “But obviously, the feel around the team last year was different than we are today.”
The feel around this draft is different as well. The last two draft lotteries were game-changers. Connor McDavid won the scoring title and led the Oilers to the second round of the playoffs just two years after being selected first overall, while Matthews finished second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 40 goals and led the Leafs to a playoff spot as a rookie.
This year, there is no McDavid, no Matthews. There might not even be a Jack Eichel or a Patrik Laine or even a Matthew Tkachuk at the top of the order. Instead, there are question marks surrounding top prospects Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.
“We’re excited about the top five, but I don’t know that there’s that generational player that we’ve seen the last couple of years with McDavid and Matthews and Eichel and Laine,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “But we think those top two players (Patrick and Hischier) are both real good players in their own right and conceivably could come to training camp and compete for a job on the team next year. But I feel comfortable that we’re going to get a real good player.”
In some ways, this year’s draft resembles the 2012 draft, when Nail Yakupov went first overall and many players were coming off a season where they had missed time with significant injury. There was still plenty of talent, including Morgan Rielly (5th overall), Hampus Lindholm (6th) and Filip Forsberg (11th), but there were no slam dunks.
You had to do your homework, while also crossing your fingers. This year is more of the same.
“This looks more like an average draft,” said North American Central Scouting’s Mark Seidel. “You’re still going to get a solid player that can become a really good player in the league. But certainly it’s a step down in the draft from previous years.”
The biggest question is who will go first: Patrick or Hischier?
Both play centre, but play the game differently. Patrick, who had most of his year with the Brandon Wheat Kings wiped out because of injuries, is more of a two-way forward. Hischier, who lit up the Quebec league with the Halifax Mooseheads, is flashier and more offensive-minded.
After those two, the draft could go anywhere.
Will teams look past Gabe Vilardi’s unnatural stride? Can Owen Tippett be as natural of a scorer as Phil Kessel? Can any of the defencemen in what is considered to be a weak draft class actually play in a top pairing?
There are no guarantees. And maybe that’s a good thing. It means that like last year, when Columbus chose Pierre-Luc Dubois over Jesse Puljujarvi with the thirdoverall pick, and Vancouver chose Olli Juolevi over Tkachuk with the fifth-overall pick, the drama will not begin and end with the draft lottery.
“This year’s a little bit unique in that there are injuries that have affected the players at the top, like Nolan Patrick. There’s a different feel in that regard,” said Cheveldayoff. “But I don’t think you can ever underscore the importance of the lottery. As a franchise, we certainly did benefit from it.”