The second-guessing came immediately after the Colorado Avalanche picked centre Nathan MacKinnon first and the Florida Panthers selected centre Aleksander Barkov second in the 2013 draft. Blue-chip defenceman Seth Jones was considered the top prospect by many scouts, and winger Jonathan Drouin was coming off a 100-point season in juniors.
Less than three years later, those decisions are still reverberating around the NHL.
MacKinnon is in line for a big contract like the $35.4 million, six-year deal Barkov signed with the Panthers on Tuesday. The Nashville Predators traded Jones earlier this month. And Drouin? He was suspended by the Tampa Bay Lightning after failing to show up for a minor-league game and he has demanded a trade from the defending Eastern Conference champion.
“The draft, as we all know, is an imperfect process, science whatever you want to call it,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “Let’s see how this plays out.”
So far, things have played out well for the Avalanche and Panthers with MacKinnon and Barkov. MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2013-14 as Colorado made the playoffs, and his 140 career points are the most in the talented draft class that also included Calgary Flames centre Sean Monahan and Carolina Hurricanes centre Elias Lindholm.
MacKinnon has turned into the kind of player Avalanche executives Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy expected. He said in November that he’d like a long-term contract — and the Avalanche have shown a tendency to lock up their cornerstone players with those kinds of deals.
So have the Panthers, who are betting that the 20-year-old Barkov keeps improving. Barkov will count $5.9 million against their salary cap through 2022.
“When you put a commitment like this on a young man like this, there are only a few people that can handle this, and Sasha’s unbelievable on and off the ice,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “I’ve never seen a young man at his age be so committed on and off the ice. He’s first on the ice, last off the ice. First in the gym, last out of the gym. Everything that we’ve asked him to do, he’s done it tenfold.”
The Panthers’ gamble to take Barkov over Drouin and Jones has paid off, and they lead the Atlantic Division going into the All-Star break. Still, Tallon didn’t want to proclaim that the Panthers won the 2013 draft.
“There’s a lot of great players in that draft,” Tallon said. “We got the player we needed at that time. So no, I don’t look at it like that. I’m just very happy that he was there and we got him.”
The Predators would’ve been happy to get him, too. In search of a No. 1 centre, they targeted MacKinnon or Barkov and never expected Jones to fall to the fourth pick for them.
“We were elated that day that he fell in our lap,” Nashville GM David Poile said earlier this month after trading Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for centre Ryan Johansen. “The goal for us, the hope for us was that we were going to get Barkov or MacKinnon, which would’ve been great and would’ve taken us in a different direction.”
All four teams at the top of the 2013 draft went in drastically different directions. The Lightning have enjoyed the most team success since, going to the Stanley Cup final last year with Drouin in and out of the lineup.
When Drouin was not a regular early this season, he asked Tampa Bay for a trade and that request became public Jan. 3 when he was sent to the American Hockey League. Last week, the Lightning suspended Drouin for failing to report to an AHL game and the situation seems irreconcilable.
“It is clearly in both sides best interest that the Tampa Bay Lightning trade Jonathan as there is no reason for Jonathan to continue with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in any capacity,” agent Allan Walsh said in a statement.
Yzerman said last week he would trade Drouin only when it was right for the Lightning. And the stalemate aside, Yzerman doesn’t suddenly believe Drouin was a bust as a No. 3 pick.
“There is not an exact progression for every single player,” Yzerman said. “If he becomes a very good hockey player, all will be forgotten, I assume.”