Down Goes Brown: Assessing NHL Draft moves on the Surprise Scale

Sportsnet Hockey Analyst Jeff Marek joined the Jeff Blair Show to discuss the Dougie Hamilton trade with Carolina that went down on day 2 of the NHL Draft.

Well, that didn’t turn out the way we expected.

Of course, draft weekend never does. Every year, the hockey world churns out weeks of speculation over who’ll go where and what kind of deals will be struck. And every year we end up having at least a few curves thrown our way.

But not all surprises are created equal. So today, let’s sort through the weekend that was by breaking out the Surprise Scale. We’ll start with the key moments that played out exactly the way we all figured they would, and work our way down to the ones that left us scratching our heads.

The Sabres take Rasmus Dahlin: 0/100

Some drafts have all sorts of suspense and intrigue around the first-overall pick. This was not one of those drafts.

With only one sure-fire franchise player on the board, the Sabres weren’t facing an especially difficult choice. We didn’t even get the usual round of “The pick might be in play” rumours. Just a simple, straightforward choice of the best player available.

Sometimes simple and straightforward is the way to go, and after years of misery and instability in Buffalo, boring probably suits this organization just fine. Dahlin should be great, and him feeding long breakout passes to Jack Eichel for the next decade or so should be all sorts of fun.

The only surprise here was that nobody from the league ran up to the podium to interrupt Jason Botterill, explain that they’d just discovered that there had been a mistake during the lottery, and award the first-overall pick to someone else. You had to figure Sabres fans were at least half-expecting it.


The Hurricanes take Andrei Svechnikov: 3/100

The other pick that we all pretty much knew in advance. The only reason we’ll bump this up a few points on the surprise scale is that you never know when Tom Dundon is going to do something unusual. He did, but it was just having his daughter announce the pick, which was fine.

Now we find out if this is one of those drafts where nobody remembers No. 2. Fans of the franchise are probably hoping so.

Not ranked: Gary Bettman gets booed

Occasionally, we see something that doesn’t even register on the surprise scale at all. That’s the case with the reception Bettman got on Friday from the fans in Dallas, who pretty much booed him all night long. It’s a scene that’s played out plenty of times before. The commissioner arrives, makes the same old “I do appreciate your enthusiastic welcome” joke he makes every time, a handful of fans and media fawn over how he’s having fun with the vitriol, and then Bettman gets so flustered he can barely make it through the rest of whatever he’s supposed to be doing.

This year, the reception came with some controversy, as Bettman’s initial appearance was part of a tribute to the Humboldt Broncos and the presentation of the E.J. McGuire Award. That led Bettman to make the reasonable request that fans hold off on the boos, which they mostly did.

All in all, the situation was handled about as well as possible, and the Humboldt tribute was beautifully done. Could it have been introduced just as well by someone that hockey fans haven’t spent decades being trained to have a visceral reaction to? Probably, but the league made its choice, and the results were predictable.

None of the top picks were traded: 10/100

Just like every draft, there was plenty of chatter over high picks being in play. Just like every draft, there were good reasons to believe that some of the teams holding those picks would be better off making a bold move.

And just like every draft, none of those moves actually happened. Everyone in the top 10 used their pick. In fact, we didn’t see a pick traded on the draft floor until the Senators flipped No. 22 to the Rangers for No. 26.

Was that a surprise? Given all the talk, it seemed like it. Should it have been? Not at all. We do this every year, and we almost never see any of the rumoured deals actually happen.

It’s now been 10 years since a top-five pick was traded on the draft floor, dating back to the Leafs/Islanders deal in 2008 that saw Toronto move up to take Luke Schenn. We’ve had one top-10 pick dealt in the last five drafts — last year’s Coyotes pick that went to the Rangers in the Antti Raanta deal. You have to go back to the Cory Schneider deal in 2013 to find the one before that. These deals are exceedingly rare.

Will we remember any of this next year? No, we will not. I’m already hearing that the first-overall pick could be in play, you guys.

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The Kings land Ilya Kovalchuk: 25/100

Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL wasn’t any kind of a surprise, since we’d known for months that he was on his way back. His destination turned out to be only a mild one, since the Kings had been rumoured to be in the mix all along, and had been trying to make this happen since way back in 2012.

The Kings ended up giving him a three-year deal with a reported $6.25-million cap hit, which is risky for a player who just turned 35, and it means the Kings won’t get any cap relief if he retires or is bought out. But it’s a risk that could pay off, given how Kovalchuk has produced in both the NHL and KHL throughout his career.

Some teams reach, some good players fall: 30/100

The first truly surprising moment of the actual draft came when the Coyotes grabbed Barrett Hayton at the five spot; most lists had him pegged to go near the end of the top 10, if not later. The Rangers also appeared to reach by taking Vitali Kravstov with the ninth pick, the Stars raised a few eyebrows with Ty Dellandrea in the 13 spot, and the Wild went well off the board for Filip Johansson at 24.

When some players are going earlier than expected, that means somebody else is falling. The main beneficiaries were the Red Wings, who landed the heavily hyped Filip Zadina with the sixth pick and later added high-scoring QMJHL star Joe Valino all the way down at number 30. The Oilers had to be happy to see Evan Bouchard on the board at No. 10, and the Islanders got a pair of consensus top-10 prospects in Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson with the eleventh and twelfth picks.

While some of the individual names were surprising, this is the sort of stuff that happens at most drafts. Time will tell whether any of those reaches were actually mistakes, and whether the players who slipped make anyone regret it. In the meantime, at least it’s nice to know that NHL teams aren’t all working off the same lists quite yet.

John Tavares hits the market: 40/100

For the last few weeks, all signs have been pointing to Tavares staying with the Islanders. The hiring of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz seemed to shift the dynamic, and in recent days there had even been rumours that a deal might already be done.

But it wasn’t, and Tavares has officially made it to the negotiation window. That means he can talk to other teams, and has reportedly scheduled meetings with at least five beginning today. He and his agent are headed out to hold camp in L.A., apparently with Lamoriello right behind them.

That’s at least a mild surprise, although we shouldn’t go overboard on what it means. Steve Stamkos reached the window in 2016, only to quickly re-sign in Tampa after hearing from potential suitors. It’s still likely that Tavares does the same. But even if he has his heart set on staying put, it makes sense to at least hear what other teams have to say, if only to confirm that the Islanders are the right choice.

The big question is when we’ll hear that Tavares has made up his mind. Stamkos re-signed on June 29; if he’s staying in New York, you figure Tavares would commit around the same time. If we make it to July 1 without an extension in place, Islanders fans can feel free to panic.

Not ranked: Garth Snow shaves his beard

Lamoriello is the best.

The Senators keep their pick: 50/100

There really was no right answer here. Thanks to the Matt Duchene trade, the Senators had to either surrender the fourth-overall pick to the Avalanche or cough up next year’s unprotected first-rounder. For a team that’s headed towards what could be a painful rebuild, neither option would be all that pleasant.

There was a good argument in favour of giving up this year’s pick, if only to get the whole thing over with. But in the end, Pierre Dorion did what he said he would do and used his pick, taking power winger Brady Tkachuk. That made sense, and potentially gives the Senators a young player they can sell to their fan base right away. But it sets up the worst-case scenario of a miserable 2018–19 season that ends with the Avs using Ottawa’s pick on a blue-chip prospect — and maybe even phenom Jack Hughes.

If that happens, Dorion may figure that it will all be some other GM’s problem. In the meantime, he has plenty of work cut out for him over the coming days and weeks. Whether it’s draft picks, contract extensions or franchise players, there aren’t many easy answers in Ottawa these days.

The Capitals trade Philipp Grubauer but keep John Carlson: 55/100

We figured this trade was coming, although the form it took was at least a little bit interesting. With Braden Holtby locked in for the long-term, it made sense for the Caps to move Grubauer to a team needing help in goal. Some assumed that would be the Islanders, and that the asking price could be as high as late first.

Instead, Brian MacLellan used the deal as an opportunity to unload salary, packaging Grubauer with Brooks Orpik and sending both to Colorado. That dropped his return to a second rounder, but freed up enough cap space to get the John Carlson extension done on Sunday night. The Caps could even end up re-signing Orpik at a lower price point after the Avs buy him out.

As for Colorado, they upgrade their goaltending without surrendering any critical assets. Call it a win for both sides.

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Montreal does… not all that much: 65/100

The Canadiens didn’t do anything all that surprising, which was kind of surprising.

Taking Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third pick might have ranked as an unexpected move a few weeks ago. But in the lead-up to the weekend, all signs pointed to Kotkaniemi being Montreal’s top choice, even though most pre-draft lists had that rated as a minor reach.

But was Marc Bergevin just throwing us off the scent? Would they trade down and pick Kotkaniemi later while adding an extra pick or two? Would Montreal use some of their stockpile of second rounders to get another first? Was this the weekend where we’d finally see a Max Pacioretty deal, perhaps for that elusive top-line centre the team has been chasing for years?

Nope. They stayed at No. 3, picked Kotkaniemi, used three of their four second-rounders and sent the other one to Edmonton for a third and fifth. Not a bad weekend’s work by any means, but a relatively quiet one for a team facing major off-season expectations.

If anything, the biggest Habs news to come out of the weekend might have been word that Pacioretty has switched agents. We’re not sure yet what (if anything) that will mean to his long-term future in Montreal, but it’s a development worth watching.

Brian Burke’s rule against hats: 70/100

Are you enjoying the “Brian Burke in the media” era? I am. On Friday, we got Burke’s take on various issues from his days as a GM, including his ban on draft picks wearing hats for their post-selection photos. Why? Because they looked better showing off their draft haircuts. Huh. Apparently there was a time when Brian Burke could appreciate a decent haircut.

But you know what? I think he’s right. Maybe I’m just old enough to remember the Great Mats Sundin Disaster of 1989, or maybe I’m just jealous that I don’t know how to spend five minutes bending a ball cap into the perfect shape like today’s kids do. But I’m with Burke on this one. Ditch the hats.

(This is the first known instance of a Maple Leafs fan agreeing with the way Brian Burke manages a cap.)

The Flames and Hurricanes pull off an old-school blockbuster: 75/100

Emphasis on the “old-school.” No picks, no rentals, no cap shenanigans. Just five players changing hands, and two teams that both think they’re getting the better end of the deal.

That’s not to say the names involved were a surprise. We’d been hearing that both Lindholm and Hanifin were on the block, and Hamilton was one of the biggest names being floated. But seeing them all rolled into one deal was unexpected, and a sign that new Flames coach Bill Peters has some strong ideas about what was and wasn’t working at his old job.

So who won the deal? The initial consensus seemed to settle on the Hurricanes getting the best of it – they not only landed the best player, but managed to get the Flames to throw in the trade’s only prospect in the process. There may have been some mitigating factors in Calgary, with rumblings that Hamilton may have been part of the team’s dressing-room issues and that Fox may have been tough to sign. If so, maybe this was simply the best the Flames could do. But that doesn’t mean it makes them any better, which means Brad Treliving has plenty more work to do.

Not ranked: A GM lied about a player on the block

From Thursday:

Stunning. If you can’t trust an NHL GM in the days before the draft, who can you trust?

Pretty much nothing else happened: 90/100

All in all, the weekend was quiet. Maybe too quiet.

No Erik Karlsson blockbuster. No Ryan O’Reilly deal. Nothing new on Drew Doughty. No news on Phil Kessel or Artemi Panarin or Milan Lucic or Jeff Skinner or Chris Tanev. No new contract for Tavares or any other big-name UFA aside from Carlson. Nothing unexpected with someone like Jacob Trouba or Corey Perry or P.K. Subban.

Instead, we had just two meaningful player trades, and even the pick-for-pick deals were all the standard-issue moves we always get at a draft. After weeks of speculation involving some major names, just about every team left Dallas in more or less the same shape they’d been heading in.

That could be good news for hockey fans, because it sets up a busy week ahead. Remember, we’ve seen several recent blockbusters go down in the days right after the draft, including the Phil Kessel trade in 2015 and those infamous 23 minutes in 2016. So it’s quite possible that the groundwork for something big was laid over the last few days, and we won’t know it until the bombshell drops.

Or maybe not. Maybe this is just the latest chapter in NHL GMs’ ongoing descent into a timid, stay-the-course philosophy. Maybe the rumour mill was right, and there was plenty of pre-draft talk, but when push came to shove most of these guys lost their nerve. Maybe your favourite team’s GM has already talked himself out of making any major moves, and is going to try to stay as quiet as possible while hoping you don’t notice. Maybe that’s just how the NHL works these days.

Not ranked: When some major blockbuster happens three minutes after this post goes up and makes everything in that last paragraph irrelevant

But try to act surprised.

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