Isles must weigh passing on top-5 draft pick

Scouts are split on whether Kingston’s Sam Bennett (L) will be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NHL Draft, whereas many are pegging Connor McDavid as a franchise player. (OHL Images)

In the course of an average season, it might be a little early to cast too far forward with projections of the likeliest landing places for the top draft-eligible players. After all, we’re staring at the pre-Olympic embargo on player movement before the still-a-ways-off NHL Trade Deadline Day.

There’s bound to be some seat-shifting, some flux in ownership of picks and movement in the standings. There will be some difficult calls in advance of the draft, maybe the toughest of all being on Long Island; if the draft were today and the lottery didn’t impact things in a meaningful way, then the Islanders would be looking at the No. 5 pick. With a pick in the top 10 (a mortal certainty), GM Garth Snow would have the option of dipping into the pool and putting off until next year giving up the conditional first-rounder packaged and dealt to the Buffalo Sabres for Thomas Vanek.

It would seem like a no-brainer to exercise the option except that things for Snow and company might actually get worse, if that pick ends up being not only in the top 10 of a draft perceived to be deeper than this one, but in fact gives the Sabres a shot at one of two kids projected as franchise players — Erie’s Connor McDavid or the USDT Jack Eichel. For the Islanders it’s a lose-lose proposition with the potential to be mitigated only marginally by any trade Snow can squeeze out of the unsignable UFA-to-be Vanek. For the Sabres it looks like, even at worst, a legacy trade for the pilloried and since-departed Darcy Regier.

Right now, though, the way it stands is: 1. Buffalo; 2. Edmonton; 3. Calgary; 4. Florida; 5. the Islanders. The Sabres and Oilers are in the turtle race for 30th overall and slots Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in the draft might shuffle but it would take a free-fall for any other non-playoff team, all over .500 at the moment, to land in the mix.

The Sabres would be inclined to go with either Sam Bennett from Kingston or Sam Reinhart from Kootenay. With a quick survey of a dozen or so scouts over the last couple of weeks, these were the two names that came up as the most bankable first-line-upside forwards in the draft and the scouts were pretty well divided on it. “Whichever one has a good spring figures to bump up,” one scout offered.

The Sabres are a throwback team — unfortunately throwing all the way back to the deadball era. Last in the league by an almost unimaginable margin in goals scored (108 to Calgary’s 132 with the Olympic break looming) offence is not just a need in Buffalo but dire need — you could make a case that the Sabres aren’t so far away on their own side of the red line even if Ryan Miller is moved. Though the scouts were split, those who backed Bennett at No. 1 were a little more adamant about it. “He’s a young Doug Gilmour, same sort of intensity and hockey sense,” said one scout referring to Bennett’s GM in Kingston.

With Edmonton, though, it’s hard to project No. 2 being the forward passed over by the Sabres — especially if it’s Bennett, given the surplus of young, smallish forwards in the fold. No, it seems like Barrie defenceman Aaron Ekblad would be the call. While this might look like need over-riding the ol’ BPA, at least a few scouts count him as the best player available, even with the first pick. “My favourite by far, ready to step in just like Seth Jones did,” said one scout whose team is in the hunt for a wild-card slot.

That, however, wasn’t the consensus. “I have trouble seeing him as a top-two D because of puck skills,” said a scout whose team is in the lottery mix. “I get the idea that he’s a kid who is physically more advanced than others his age and I wonder how much growth and room for improvement there might be there.” His scouting report would read something like: “There by the grace of God skates Erik Johnson. Or Victor Hedman.”

Maybe Ekblad will settle into something less than a franchise defenceman’s role but there’s no questioning his status as the best defenceman in this draft and the relative scarcity at that position will boost his stock.

So with Edmonton taking Ekblad sandwiched between the picks of Bennett and Reinhart (penciled in for Calgary for the sake of argument), the intrigue takes off. Four players would be in the mix for the next two slots.

One by one, in alphabetical order, here’s this quartet with a sampling of scouts’ comments on recent viewings.

Oshawa centre/LW Michael Dal Colle: “A very reliable kid, but I see him more as second-line upside. Someone that can help a winning team but not as a lead player.”

German-born centre Leon Draisaitl of Prince Albert: “On the perimeter and not involved or initiating for stretches too long for me. He has some nice skills but his skating looks stiff, not explosive to me. I would have trouble taking him at four or five.”

Finnish RW Kasperi Kapanen: “Very smart, sound skills, not going to step in for you next season, probably not the season after that. He’ll still be making his case at the Five Nations and U18s.”

Swedish centre/RW William Nylander: “The one (in this group) whose stock is moving up fastest. His puck skills and hockey sense could make him a special player in the league in the right situation.”

So this brings us back to the Islanders at No. 4 or 5. With the fourth pick, they might be awfully comfortable taking Nylander. If Florida picks in the fourth slot, though, and Nylander goes off the board, it gets complicated for Snow. With a pick for Vanek to a team that just misses the playoffs, the difference between the perceived value of the fifth overall pick and, say, No. 15 might have him considering swallowing the bitter medicine and giving up their first to Buffalo this year rather than risking a shot at McDavid or Eichel.

I’m only saying “considering,” mind you. It would get tabled but dismissed. Conceding defeat like that is a letter of resignation written in invisible ink sent off to an owner who owns a candle factory.

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