Analyzing NHL draft weekend’s winners and losers

Sportsnet's John Shannon and Faizal Khamisa breakdown the latest news at the NHL Draft, including the Flames and Hurricanes trade, as well as the future of John Tavares in New York.

Every year the entire league congregates in one city for the draft, and every year we hope their close quarters and needs for change will lead to fireworks on the trade front.

The track record of the weekend actually delivering on that hype, though, is mixed. While last year’s draft provided us with a flurry of moves, this go around quickly fizzled out and was largely uneventful until the very end.

Let’s take a bigger picture view of the things that did materialize, and what they mean for the fortunes of the parties involved by highlighting some notable winners and losers coming out of 2018 draft weekend.

A Good Old Fashioned Trade That Helped Both Parties

The writing was on the wall for this one, essentially ever since Philipp Grubauer understandably opted not to file for arbitration as a restricted free agent last summer, instead taking a one-year extension that would open more doors for him if he continued to prove himself.

Once he did — posting a .923 save percentage in 35 appearances, many of which came in the final two months of the season — the question promptly shifted from ‘if’ or ‘when’ he would move on to a new team that could provide him with an opportunity to play more, to ‘where’.

Whenever a player with Grubauer’s resume becomes available, it presents a fascinating risk versus reward dilemma for any potential buyer.

On the one hand, the thought of investing any capital of consequence in a player with such a limited sample size is a scary one. Just 101 games, only 79 of which were starts, doesn’t provide us with nearly enough looks to be able to comfortably suss out true talent level and say with any confidence what the next 101 games will look like. Compounding that volatility in plausible outcomes is that the goaltending position provides its own set of unique challenges.

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All that said, an above average netminder is undeniably an immensely valuable asset, and the potential benefits of landing one at a discounted price is ultimately why we won’t see teams stop trying to mine the mid-20s backup goalie market anytime soon.

The optimistic view for Grubauer and the Avalanche here is that whenever he has had a chance to play with the Capitals, he’s made the most of it. Since becoming Holtby’s full time understudy three seasons ago, no goalie has stopped a greater percentage of the shots they’ve faced at five-on-five than Grubauer. While it’s not necessarily a guarantee this will translate in his new setting, a goalie that’s stopped pucks at a high rate in the past is generally a better bet to continue to do so in the future than one who hasn’t.

Player Games Played 2015-2018 5v5 Save %
Philipp Grubauer 81 93.45
Antti Raanta 102 93.43
Sergei Bobrovsky 165 93.28
Corey Crawford 141 93.24
Devan Dubnyk 192 93.13
Carter Hutton 79 93.07
Ryan Miller 133 93.04
Brian Elliott 134 92.94
James Reimer 127 92.94
Pekka Rinne 186 92.9
John Gibson 152 92.9
Jonathan Quick 149 92.86
Braden Holtby 183 92.84

The fit between player and team seems like a sensible one on paper. Unlike if Grubauer had gone to a team like the Islanders or Senators, the Avalanche presumably won’t rely on him to more than double his workload in his first season. With Semyon Varlamov on the books for another year, the two goalies will likely split starts fairly evenly, which given the incumbent’s injury history and the newcomer’s inexperience will likely do them each some good. In terms of Grubauer’s new contract that accompanied the trade, the three-year deal is a reasonable middle ground that provides the Avalanche with an out if things don’t go smoothly, and the $3.3 million cap hit is in the ballpark of other tandem goalies like Thomas Greiss, James Reimer, and Brian Elliott.

While the thought process behind the move and the potential upside makes this a worthwhile home run swing for the Avalanche, the Capitals come out looking good here as well. Grubauer was a nice luxury item for them this season, but with a top prospect in Ilya Samsonov on the way now, as well as Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley already in the system, they should be able to serviceably piece together enough competitive games behind Holtby to make it work.

Most importantly they cleared Brooks Orpik’s $4.5 million cap hit in the process, clearing up enough money to tend to their off-season wish list – signing John Carlson and Tom Wilson, potentially retaining valuable contributors Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly, and filling out the rest of the roster on the margins. Given Washington’s current financial situation, finding a suitor for the dead money locked up in Orpik’s contract was of utmost importance, and giving up an asset that was more of a luxury than a necessity to facilitate it was a commendable piece of GM triage performed by Brian MacLellan.

Whenever a trade is announced, people typically gravitate towards hot takes that pronounce one team as getting robbed and the other coming away with a decisive win. If you’re looking for that, this really isn’t the trade for you. But if you’re in the market for a good old-fashioned swap that accomplishes something laudable for both teams involved, you’re in luck.

Calgary’s Weekend from Hell

Things went about as poorly as they could have for the Calgary Flames this weekend. To summarize:

1. Because of the wacky nature of how the top of the draft board unfolded, they had to sit there and watch Noah Dobson unexpectedly fall right into the laps of the Islanders in the 12th slot the Flames would’ve picked at had they not traded for Travis Hamonic last summer. Just how highly Dobson should be rated relative to his peers in this year’s loaded defence class is open to debate, but even his biggest detractors across the industry still typically agreed he was a top-10 talent in the pre-draft process. Our very own Jeff Marek had him going fourth overall to the Senators in his mock draft.

2. Because of the collection of picks they forked over for Hamonic and Mike Smith, the Flames didn’t get in on the action until the middle of the fourth round. When they finally made their first pick, they curiously used it on a prospect that averaged north of five penalty minutes per game last season.

3. After being relegated to sitting on the sideline and watching other teams add players and participate in the draft weekend festivities, they atoned for it by going out and pulling the trigger on a blockbuster five-player trade with the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday afternoon. As it turns out, maybe sitting out of the action and staying pat wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

There’s one point that bears further repeating and apparently needs to be said louder for those in the back: Dougie Hamilton is a tremendously effective hockey player, and the off-ice smear campaign against him that continues to persist is equally puzzling and immaterial.

In his three seasons with the Flames, when Hamilton was on the ice at five-on-five the team controlled 53.9 per cent of the shot attempts, 54.4 per cent of the shots on target, 52.1 per cent of the goals scored, and 53.4 per cent of the expected goals. Paired alongside Mark Giordano predominantly over the past two years, that combination was arguably the most dominant duo the league had to offer. All of those figures skyrocketed to jaw-dropping splits of 56.9 per cent, 56.9 per cent, 58.1 per cent, and 56.2 per cent. It was a symbiotic partnership with Giordano’s own individual excellence certainly playing a role, but it’s also worth noting Hamilton’s presence lifted the Flames captain to whole new heights as well.

Despite the fact that Hamilton’s coaching staff was still routinely underusing him in favour of significantly inferior options, you can count on one hand the number of blueliners who generated more total offence during that time:

Player 5v5 Minutes 5v5 Goals 5v5 Points 5v5 Primary Points
Erik Karlsson 4662.52 28 114 71
Brent Burns 4557.78 41 104 79
Victor Hedman 4165.17 27 85 59
John Klingberg 4328.8 13 85 54
DOUGIE HAMILTON 4000.18 26 79 51
Roman Josi 4098.13 15 77 57
Dustin Byfuglien 4413.62 28 74 53
Alex Pietrangelo 4400.13 19 73 51
Dmitry Orlov 4217.23 23 71 49
PK Subban 3870.1 19 70 48

Based on all empirical evidence available to us, Dougie Hamilton is an elite right-handed defenceman (during a time where the league treasures them), who is currently in the thick of the prime of his career, locked up at an incredibly team-friendly figure for three more seasons. It’s genuinely dumbfounding that he’s now been traded twice for pieces that didn’t amount to the value he was providing.

The take-home message here is that on his way out of town you will hear and read lots about how Hamilton’s personality didn’t fit in with the rest of the room in Calgary. Even if that’s true, there’s no evidence to show it manifested itself on the ice by negatively impacting the performance of the team.

The Flames were significantly better with Hamilton on the ice than when he was on the bench. You’d like to think that’s the standard we should be using to evaluate the performance and capabilities of a hockey player, and not all of the other fluff about where they like to eat their meals and how they like to spend their time away from the rink.

The Return of Ilya Kovalchuk

It’s understandable why certain teams would’ve balked at the idea of giving a 35-year old who hasn’t played at the NHL level since 2013 a third contract year and $18.75 million as the Los Angeles Kings dished out to Ilya Kovalchuk.

When a great player loses their fastball they can lose it very quickly, and in a very pronounced fashion. The risk of it happening to Kovalchuk at some point during the life of that contract is a very real possibility to be acknowledged, especially considering his age and the cumulative amount of mileage he’s put on the odometer.

While it’s certainly plausible Kovalchuk’s stint in the KHL, where he was only playing 50-60 games per season, could help extend his longevity, it’s somewhat counteracted by the truly insane workload he was shouldering throughout his prime years in the NHL. In his last two campaigns with the Devils, he was playing 24:44 and 24:26 per game respectively. To put that into context, the following players are the only other forwards to log north of 24 minutes on average in a season since 2000:

Pavel Bure: 25:01(!) in 2001-02, and 26:52(!!) in 2000-01
Mario Lemieux: 24:20 in 2000-01
Rod Brind’Amour: 24:18 in 2005-06
Martin St.Louis: 24:09 in 2006-07, and 24:17 in 2007-08
Brad Richards: 24:07 in 2007-07
Alexei Kovalev: 24:03

The effortlessly smooth skating stride and playing style that allowed him to eat those type of minutes and remain productive is one of many things that made Kovalchuk a one of a kind player in his prime. Hit lethal combination of shooting efficiency and volume was also at another level, and has only really been replicated by names like Steven Stamkos and Patrik Laine since.

The question is ultimately how much of that player is still left, and in turn how productive he’ll be at this point of his career. All we really have to go off are rough equivalency conversions based on his offensive totals over the past five years in the KHL. Those are certainly encouraging, but the conversion is far from an exact science — especially in this case, considering he was playing on an All-Star team that undoubtedly skewed the totals to a degree.

Season Games Played KHL Points NHL 82 Game Equivalency
2013-2014 45 40 54
2014-2015 54 55 62
2015-2016 50 49 60
2016-2017 60 78 79
2017-2018 53 63 72

Kovalchuk will presumably be put in a position to replicate those numbers and thrive atop the Kings lineup, landing in an awfully cushy spot on Anze Kopitar’s left wing. With all due respect to Alex Iafallo, Kovalchuk’s presence on that line instantly elevates its ceiling to new levels, providing them with a better chance of converting all the opportunities Kopitar and Dustin Brown tend to generate because of their tenacious puck possession skills. Not to mention that the Kings also benefit from the fact they took Kovalchuk away from a divisional competitor, as he reportedly was being heavily pursued by the San Jose Sharks.

As much as Kovalchuk’s unique set of offensive skills could help the Kings next season, let’s be clear about something: the biggest winners here are North American hockey fans. Assuming he still has enough left in the tank to look like something resembling the player he was the last time we saw him in NHL games, Kovalchuk’s return is an overwhelming net positive for the league’s entertainment level.

On a personal note he’s as fun a player as I’ve seen in my lifetime, capable of making the impossible look easy every single time he steps on the ice. It seems crazy that it’s been five whole years since we’ve gotten to watch him work his magic on a nightly basis, and hopefully there’s still some more of it to go around.

The Unpredictability of the Draft

The amount of attention and interest devoted to pre-draft preparation has been progressively escalating year over year, with people wising up to the inherent value that exists. Particularly on the front of statistical analysis, with the projections and historical comparables that have come from it being something of a godsend for those that don’t have the time or resources to be closely watching Major Junior, NCAA, and professional leagues overseas on a daily basis throughout the season.

There are so many tremendous resources available these days. With so many outlets and differing opinions that accompany them, a consolidated set of rankings such as this one proved to be a rather necessary tool. Now that we know how the draft has actually played out, it’s interesting to look back and see how things differed from our collective expectations:

Pick Player Pre-Draft Ranking
1 Rasmus Dahin 1
2 Andrei Svechnikov 2
3 Jesperi Kotkaniemi 8
4 Brady Tkachuk 6
5 Barrett Hayton 14
6 Filip Zadina 3
7 Quinn Hughes 4
8 Adam Boqvist 7
9 Vitali Kravtsov 15
10 Evan Bouchard 9
11 Oliver Wahlstrom 5
12 Noah Dobson 10
13 Ty Dellandrea 29
14 Joel Farabee 11
15 Grigori Denisenko 22
16 Martin Kaut 20
17 Ty Smith 12
18 Liam Foudy 43
19 Jay O’Brien 42
20 Rasmus Kupari 17
21 Ryan Merkley 27
22 K’Andre Miller 26
23 Isac Lundestrom 16
24 Filip Johansson 66
25 Dominik Bokk 18
26 Jacob Bernard-Docker 51
27 Nicolas Beaudin 38
28 Nils Lundkvist 36
29 Rasmus Sandin 25
30 Joe Veleno 13
31 Alexander Alexey 34

What immediately sticks out is that people were right to be caught off guard by how the top of lottery played out. Largely due to teams rather questionably prioritizing organizational need over the ‘best player available’ approach, there was quite a bit of top flight talent that dropped further down the ranks than we anticipated.

The biggest beneficiaries of teams going off the board and reaching for players early on were the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders.

The Red Wings arguably got the biggest steal of the draft in Filip Zadina, who was simply too skilled to pass up on at No. 6 despite the team presumably entering the draft expecting to come away with whichever defenceman out of the top ‘Non-Rasmus Dahlin’ tier fell to them. For whatever reason people started to overthink things with Zadina — after having him as the consensus third-highest ranked talent in the class for the majority of the season, draftniks began nitpicking various things about his game while elevating others as the pre-draft process dragged along.

He’s already on the record saying that he’s going to prove those people wrong, and it’s easy to believe him. Blessed with a skill set that not only translates to the next level, but should consistently make him a top flight scorer in a league that needs more of them, he’s positioned to do just that. With Zadina, and the combination of Joe Veleno and Jonatan Berggren falling past their draft slots, the Red Wings have a case for being the team that squeezed the most value out of the assets they had coming into the weekend.

The only other team that can really refute that are the New York Islanders, who somehow managed to nab two consensus top 10 talents in this draft without having a pick inside the top 10. After entering the day figuring to be the most likely candidate to turn draft capital into present day help via trade, it’s impossible to quibble with their decision to stand pat and take advantage of the mistakes the teams picking ahead of them made.

There’s a John Tavares-sized elephant in the room, with his upcoming decision ultimately deciding whether or not this off-season was a success for the Islanders. But for the first time in a long time things are moving in the right direction for the team, with seemingly everything going their way ever since Lou Lamoriello took over. If you believe momentum is a thing, they certainly have it right now.


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