PHILADELPHIA — The order was always going to be the biggest story.
In one of the more fluid drafts in memory, one without a clear-cut franchise player, there were surprises galore with the top picks.
North America’s No. 1 ranked player, Sam Bennett, fell to fourth. Hadyn Fleury, a stay-at-home blue-liner from Red Deer, jumped to seventh. The Maple Leafs passed on hulking Nick Ritchie to go for slender skill in William Nylander, and the Winnipeg Jets did the same, picking Danish speedster Nik Ehlers of the Halifax Mooseheads.
So as it turned out, other than Florida picking first and nabbing defenceman Aaron Ekblad, the uncertainty going into the draft translated into a curious draft order that will take a while to both understand and evaluate.
For Canada’s teams, of course, this was an enormous year. Only Ottawa, without a first round pick, and Montreal, back in the bottom part of the first, didn’t pick in the top 10 this year. So the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Leafs and Jets all believe that in Jake Virtanen, Bennett, Leon Draisaitl, Nylander and Ehlers, respectively, they’ve added a player who will, at the very least, get them back to post-season play.
Oddly, it might be Ekblad (first) and Ritchie (10th, to Anaheim) who may have the most immediate impact, and the Ducks, after adding Ryan Kesler from Vancouver earlier in the day at a most affordable price, are a team that hopes to play into June next year.
The Canucks did three deals on the day, shipping out Kesler and Jason Garrison and bringing in winger Derek Dorsett as new GM Jim Benning begins the expected housecleaning. What’s unclear is how much further Benning will go, with a slew of no-trade and no-movement clauses littering his payroll.
Pittsburgh, facing cap problems, dealt scoring winger James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nik Spaling, putting a hole in new head coach Mike Johnston’s lineup before he calls a single practice. Jason Spezza, meanwhile, remained a Senator as the first round moved along, with nobody yet willing to meet Bryan Murray’s asking price.
The same was the case for Florida GM Dale Tallon and what he wanted for the first overall pick. Tallon actively shopped it and got two serious offers, but decided to draft Ekblad and save cap space to, we expect, be an aggressive player next week in free agency.
In the day’s most controversial story, the Arizona nee Phoenix Coyotes bought out veteran centre Mike Ribeiro and kicked him on the way out the door, saying they were dropping Ribeiro because of unspecified “behaviourial” problems. Ouch.