Five big questions heading into 2019 NHL Draft

Take a look at Jack Hughes and his family, and how the probable first-overall selection at the 2019 NHL Draft grew up surrounded by hockey.

The NHL Draft is coming up fast and the trade rumours and speculation are heating up.

Here are some of the bigger questions to consider before the fireworks begin:

WHICH PLAYER WILL BE CHOSEN FIRST OVERALL?

Jack Hughes has long been the projected No. 1 in this draft and, after setting a USNTDP scoring record, he’s still the favourite to walk to the stage first and join the New Jersey Devils.

But Kaapo Kakko has done just about everything he could to make a race of this thing. He was terrific at the world juniors, which is where the charge started, and then set a goals record for a player his age in Finland’s Liiga, the top professional league. And though he played wing this season, there’s reason to believe he could transfer to centre in the NHL eventually.

Look, we’re expecting Hughes to go first, but remember the last time there was legitimate intrigue at the top of the draft the Devils passed on long-time No. 1 prospect Nolan Patrick for the late-charging Nico Hischier. Sam Cosentino has Hughes going to the Devils as well in his mock draft, but on the Tape To Tape Podcast, he suggested that had another team won the lottery the outcome could have been different.

“I would venture to say at least half of the teams would have Kakko as their No. 1 guy,” Cosentino said. “Kakko’s probably more NHL ready. The other thing you have to consider is more teams put value on a centre as opposed to a winger and as it stands right now Kakko does not project to play centre where Hughes does.

“But we’re looking at a 50-50 split in terms of teams that would take Kakko at No. 1.”

There are a few reasons Hughes is still the favourite to go first.

There is already a relationship there between the GM and the Hughes family. Ray Shero was once a player agent and used to represent Jack’s dad, Jim, who was a minor-league defenceman. Also, Hughes plays a position that’s always in demand and he’s a marketable American star, which is going to be enticing for New Jersey. He’d be hard for them to pass up.

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WHERE WILL THE THREE WILD CARDS GO IN ROUND 1?

Some things in Round 1 are certain and some things are generally certain.

OK, that’s confusing, but here’s what I mean.

Hughes and Kakko will go with the first two picks. That is certain.

After that you have a deep collection of players who will follow. From Alex Turcotte and Bowen Byram to Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens and Cole Caufield, we know the second tier of players is about 10 deep, but we have no clue which order we’ll hear their names called. Picking at No. 10, the host Canucks could easily end up with a player they have ranked sixth.

Scrambling any attempts to predict the first round’s order even further are three players in particular who could best be described as draft day wild cards. Each of them have shown excellent performances and put up strong numbers this season, but have some gnawing concern that puts their stock into question.

Vasily Podkolzin: “Where he’s going to go is a massive, massive mystery to me,” Cosentino said on the Tape to Tape Podcast. “But there’s no holes in his game and he’s even grown. I saw him at the world juniors … then saw him at the NHL Combine, it looked like he gained weight, gained muscle, his hands are massive.”

There’s a lot to love about the Russian who turns 18 next week. He not only played for his country at the world juniors, but was trusted by his coach in key situations, rather than being buried at the bottom of the depth chart (or left off the team altogether) in favour of 19-year-olds as the Russian team tends to do.

He was mostly strong on the international stage and got some games in at the KHL level. In a vacuum, Podkolzin should easily be considered a top-five prospect in this draft, and maybe even third after Hughes and Kakko. But the issue is he’s under contract to SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL for another two seasons, so any team that picks him has to wait at least that long to get him. And even then, “The Russian Factor” will exist.

We’ve seen the likes of Alexander Radulov and Valeri Nichushkin get picked in Round 1, start their NHL careers, and then head back to Russia. In both cases they later returned to the NHL, but that is all rolled up in the dilemma on how to value Podkolzin. Just looking at his raw talent though, he’s lining up to be a steal for whoever wants to take the plunge.

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Raphael Lavoie: He’s a late birthday, just missing the cut for the 2018 draft by less than a week, so that may be part of what’s working against Lavoie. He’s put up 62 goals and 136 points in 130 QMJHL games the past two seasons, but he didn’t improve as much in 2018-19 as you’d hope to see from a high-end prospect. With his size (six-foot-four, 198 pounds) he can more or less dominate whenever he wants at the junior level, but that doesn’t always happen. There are some consistency concerns about his game, but after scoring 20 goals in 23 playoff games for the Halifax Mooseheads, he will be trending up coming into the draft. Somewhere in the second half of the first round the “take the best player available” theory will be put to the test – take the undeniable raw skill of Lavoie, or choose someone else with fewer worries.

Arthur Kaliyev: If I told you Kaliyev’s OHL goal-scoring totals in his draft year were comparable to Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Jeff Skinner and Alex DeBrincat in their first-time eligible seasons, you’d expect him to be a surefire top-10 pick at least, right? That’s not necessarily the case for Kaliyev.

He joined that list of players by having a 50-goal season in his draft year and he wasn’t only a sniper, Kaliyev had as many assists as goals and crossed the 100-point barrier. He can skate, has great vision and obviously a terrific shot. However, he did not have the best combine and his game at times has been described as “indifferent.” Like Lavoie, consistency has been an issue for Kaliyev, so there is some built in risk, but sky-high potential.

WILL THE TRADE MARKET BE HOT OR COLD?

We have some conflicting reports from NHL general managers themselves about how active the trade market is shaping up to be this weekend.

“I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” San Jose’s Doug Wilson said earlier this week. “There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

Wilson has been one of the busiest GMs already, trading away Justin Braun and re-signing Erik Karlsson. And, at this time of year especially, we’d expect GMs would be talking to each other – and if someone isn’t, they’re not doing the job all that well. But we heard plenty of rumours about big trades ahead of last year’s draft and though we did come away with one – Calgary’s blockbuster with Carolina – the trade market didn’t live up to expectation.

There’s a similar buzz this year, but there are a few GMs going against the grain.

“I think it’s actually the opposite; less talk than in previous years,” Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said Thursday.

This time there are two factors that could slow trade talk. First, we don’t even know what the salary cap will be for 2019-20 yet. Previously it was assumed to go up to $82 million, but now reports are coming out it could go down to the $81 million area. It’s hard to make any big moves when you don’t even know how much money there is to spend.

“It’s a good reason,” Bergevin said. “We should know today or tomorrow, but at this point it’s uncertain and it’s obviously a necessarily tool for us to use when handing out contracts.”

The RFA market that’s about to take off July 1 may be the bigger factor hindering player movement this weekend, though. We’ve talked all season about how this summer’s crop of restricted free agents may finally break open the offer sheet dam, not only because of the talent at the top (Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen among them), but also the secondary and tertiary guys (Timo Meier, Kasperi Kapanen) on capped out teams that would demand much less compensation.

None of these RFAs have signed yet and it’s hard to gauge what each will cost and what that market will look like. Mitch Marner could make $10 million or more, but how can Mikko Rantanen demand millions more than Nathan MacKinnon’s team-friendly contract? Same goes for Brayden Point in Tampa Bay – everyone else has taken a discount before him, so what does it mean for Point? One falling domino may not directly lead to another.

Flames GM Brad Treliving told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis he believes all this RFA uncertainty will have a dampening effect on the draft weekend trade market.

“You can’t go out and buy all sorts of cars before you know what the mortgage payment is … People have got to take care of that piece. Until you have some certainty there it’s hard to chase a bunch of things.”

Perhaps the kind of trades we do see Friday night are pick swaps to move up or down the order. Since there is no order consensus after the first two picks, a team may see a player it loves fall and feel the urge to move up to get him, while another may feel comfortable to move down and still get a player they desire.

“The first round of the draft is probably going to be beauty in the eye of the beholder,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said Thursday. “You might see some movements up or down there because I think teams are going to value their lists a little differently. There could be some intrigue there. As far as actual player trades, sometimes it’s just foundation that gets laid and something happens later.”

IF THE DRAFT REALLY STARTS AT THIRD OVERALL, WHAT WILL THE BLACKHAWKS DO?

In our pre-draft NHL Insiders roundtable with Elliotte Friedman, Jeff Marek and Sam Cosentino, each of them agreed the draft really will start at the third-overall pick.

By draft rankings, USNTDP centre Alex Turcotte is the favourite to go third overall and has a two-way game some compare to Jonathan Toews. WHL defenceman Bowen Byram is also in the running at three, though Chicago has picked blue-liners with each of their past three first round picks. In Sam Cosentino’s mock draft, he has another USNTDP centre, Trevor Zegras, going to the ‘Hawks.

Stan Bowman said on Thursday he was also open to dealing the pick, though that’s more along the lines that he’d trade it if someone blew him away with an above market value offer. It’s unlikely this pick will get traded.

In fact, it seems Chicago has already made up its mind on the third overall pick, and are ready to make the announcement Friday night.

“There seems to be an understanding of how those first two picks will go,” Bowman told NHL.com. “We’re going to pick one of three players. There will be two guys gone and then we’ll get to choose who we like. From that perspective, it’s refreshing knowing that we don’t have to do as much guess work.”

WHO IS GOING TO GO AGAINST THE GRAIN AND TAKE A GOALIE IN ROUND 1?

Spencer Knight is an excellent netminder out of the USNTDP and he just had a strong showing at the NHL Combine. There’s no doubt he’s a high-end NHL prospect, but conventional wisdom has shied away from taking goalies in the first round of the NHL Draft. You can bet Knight’s name will be called Friday night though.

Just two goalies have been taken in the first round over the past five years: Ilya Samsonov was picked 22nd overall in 2015 and just finished up his first pro season in North America with AHL Hershey – and Jake Oettinger was taken 26th overall by Dallas in 2017, but he just wrapped up his college career.

Of the 17 goalies who played for any extended period in this year’s playoffs only Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tuukka Rask and Marc-Andre Fleury were picked in the first round – and if you extend that to Round 2 goalies you’d only add Robin Lehner. Every other playoff goalie was picked from the third round on. And when you think of this year’s two most notable rookie goalies – Carter Hart and Jordan Binnington – they were second- and third-round picks respectively. There is value to be found at the position later on.

Take a look back at the 19 goalies that were taken in the first round since Marc-Andre Fleury went first overall in 2003 and you’ll see more who whiffed than hit. For every Carey Price or Cory Schneider you have a Mark Visentin or Riku Helenius. Jack Campbell was the 11th-overall pick in 2010 and just this season, nearly a decade later, did he become NHL relevant in Los Angeles (who did not make that selection).

Everything about Knight looks like a can’t-miss prospect, but goalie is a volatile position. Maybe it’s one of the four teams with multiple first-rounders who feels it has more freedom to take this swing that will call Knight’s name, but Cosentino has the goalie going to the Florida Panthers.

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