The NHL is in a Vegas state of mind these days. The league is headed there for Wednesday’s awards show, and it will reportedly announce its intention to stick around, finally confirming the long-rumoured expansion team that will become the city’s first major pro sports franchise.
After that, it will be on to Buffalo for the entry draft. But Sin City is a town that tends to stick with you for a while, so with that in mind, let’s introduce a little Las Vegas flavour as we look ahead to the weekend. Here are a half dozen stories to watch at the draft, along with some betting odds just in case you feel like making a friendly wager or two.
Over/under on trades involving the top seven picks: 0.5
There’s plenty of trade talk heading into the draft, with the rumor mill ramping up and speculation that some of the high picks could be in play. Would the Columbus Blue Jackets really trade the third pick? Could the Edmonton Oilers move the fourth pick to acquire immediate help, particularly on the blue line? Are the Calgary Flames trying to move up from No. 6? And are we completely sure that the Arizona Coyotes won’t make one last Hail Mary attempt to jump up to number one and land local boy Auston Matthews?
It all makes for an intriguing build up. But there’s a problem: we go through this sort of speculation every year, and it almost never amounts to anything. It’s exceedingly rare to see a high pick traded in advance of the draft. According to prosportstransactions.com, we haven’t seen a known top-seven pick traded since 2008, when the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs flipped the fifth and seventh picks as part of the deal that saw Toronto move up to take Luke Schenn. (Picks like the number two overall in 2010 have been traded, but only well in advance, before their position was known.)
That one trade marks the only time that known top seven picks have been traded during the salary cap era; you have to go back to 2004 to find another example (when the Carolina Hurricanes moved up to number four to take Andrew Ladd). As for the sort of deal the Oilers and Blue Jackets are rumoured to be seeking, one that would see them trade the fourth pick primarily to get back a veteran player who could help right away, we haven’t seen that sort of move since 2002, when the Tampa Bay Lightning traded the number four pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Ruslan Fedotenko and two seconds.
Before the cap, it was relatively common to see high picks dealt; even the first overall pick was traded on the draft floor three times in five years starting in 1999. But as the salary cap took hold and young players on entry level deals emerged as the best value in the league, teams have held onto those high picks. Oh, teams still talk about pulling the trigger on a trade. But then the draft arrives and they never do.
Add it all up, and we’ll probably get all sorts of smoke over the next few days, but our odds of finding any actual fire are slim. Maybe this is the year the dams burst and we get some deals. But for now, take the under on this one.
Over/under on trades made involving picks outside the top seven: 5.5
Here’s the flip side of our first bet. While teams rarely trade high picks, it typically doesn’t take all that long before things really do get moving. And in recent years, the tipping point has come after the seventh name has been called; the eighth or ninth pick was traded on the draft floor three straight years from 2011 to 2013, in deals for Jeff Carter, Jordan Staal and Cory Schneider.
Last year, seven first round picks changed hands during the draft or in the hours leading up to it. Some of those were your garden variety deals where teams bundled picks to move up a few spots, while others saw big names like Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton and Robin Lehner on the move. (There was also the Griffin Reinhart trade, which was interesting.) That was up from the four first rounders that were moved in 2014, and three in 2013.
Let’s assume things stay busy this year, even if we don’t quite hit last year’s heights.
Over/under on total words spoken by Tim Murray when announcing the Sabres pick: 9.5
This may be the toughest line of all to set. In a world where NHL GMs still insist on annoying everyone by droning on about how they want to thank the host city, congratulate the champions and welcome the draft party back home while everyone screams at their TVs to just shut up and make the pick, Murray is infamous for getting right to the point. He clocked in at six words in 2014, and just four last year. Then he seemed to call his shot for this year, suggesting he could get it done in just two.
So the under here is a no-brainer, right? Well, sure, except that the draft is in Buffalo. Surely the Sabres’ own GM will have to say a few words to the hometown crowd, right? Granted, in Murray’s case “a few words” would literally be a few words, but even a sentence fragment or two would bump up his total to double digits.
My bet: Murray lets Terry Pegula or somebody else in the organization handle the preamble, then steps up and nails the promised two-word pick. And after that, there’s only one mountain left to climb.
First defenceman taken
A defenceman has gone in the top five every year since 2003. But that streak could be in jeopardy this year, with a lack of a clear consensus as the top blue liner and several forwards drawing more attention. Who’ll be the first defenceman to go?
Mikhail Sergachev (9-5): Sergachev seems to have settled in as a shaky frontrunner as the top defenceman, with some speculation that he could go to the Vancouver Canucks or Flames. But other experts have him as a mid-round talent.
Olli Juolevi (2-1): He seems to be right there with Sergachev. Several mocks have had him going to the Coyotes at number seven.
Jakob Chychrun (4-1): He headed into the season looking like a potential candidate to go first overall. That extra attention seems to have led to scouts picking his game apart, but he was still ranked as the top North American prospect at the position by Central Scouting, ahead of Sergachev and Juolevi.
Jake Bean (8-1): Everyone seems to like him, but he doesn’t crack the top 10 on many mock drafts.
Charlie McAvoy (10-1): The Boston University prospect is a dark horse. He’s not big, but he can move the puck.
Will a goalie be taken in the first round?: Yes (-115), No (+105)
We’ll make the “yes” side a slight favorite here, even though recent history has shown that teams are becoming more reluctant to use an early pick on what is ostensibly the game’s most important position. A goaltender was taken with a top-eight pick every year from 2000 to 2005, including twice at first overall, and four went in the first round in 2006. But since then, not one has gone in the top 10, and the position has been shut out of the first round altogether in five out of nine years.
It’s not hard to see why. Goaltending may be crucial but it’s also the hardest position to develop, and projecting an 18-year-old’s future impact is a crapshoot. The best forward prospects can step in and make an NHL impact immediately, and a handful of defenceman have been able to do the same. But the days of teenaged goaltenders playing in the league are all but over, and it’s not unusual for even top prospects to take four or five years to be ready for regular duty. Factor in the glut of NHL-calibre goaltenders available these days and the ability to stumble onto a gem later in the draft, and teams tend to prefer to use their early picks on players with less risk attached.
So what’s different about this year? For one, the top rated European goaltender, Swedish prospect Filip Gustavsson, looks like a first round talent; both Jeff Marek and Damien Cox have him going late in the first round of their mock drafts. Then there’s the Vegas factor; with teams knowing that they could lose a goalie in next summer’s expansion draft, they may be more anxious to build up some depth in the pipeline. With teams like Carolina and Winnipeg holding additional picks late in the first round, it’s not hard to imagine one being willing to gamble on goaltending.
Team to get booed the loudest during roll call
We know that Gary Bettman will be booed, because he’s Gary Bettman and that’s just how things work in the NHL. But a relatively new tradition has emerged in recent years: booing the reading of the roll call before the draft begins.
Why is there a roll call? Nobody knows. But the league takes the time to call out each team shortly before the opening round begins, and that gives the hometown fans a chance to let their most-hated teams hear it.
So who’ll get it worst of all on Friday?
Flyers (15-1). Hey, they’d boo you.
Hurricanes (12-1). Fun fact about Sabres fans: They’re not over 2006, and never will be.
Dallas Stars (11-1). They’re also not over 1999.
Pittsburgh Penguins (8-1). They remain one of the most divisive teams in the league at the best of times. As the reigning champions, they should get hit extra hard.
Sabres (6-1). Sounds crazy, right? But remember, there’s going to be a ton of Maple Leafs fans invading Buffalo for the weekend. Would they actually be so rude as to boo the host team? Have you ever met a Maple Leafs fan?
Oilers (4-1). Yes, Sabres fans love Jack Eichel, and many will swear they’d rather have him than Connor McDavid. But the resentment over the Oilers stealing last year’s top pick lingers on. If they’d won the lottery again, they’d be the favourite.
Toronto Maple Leafs (even odds). You saw the part about invading Leafs fans, right? Unfortunately for them, the list goes in alphabetical order, meaning Sabres fans who resent their presence will have a chance to retaliate, and they’re going to use it. Factor in recent history, ancient history, lottery luck jealousy, and the need to drown out those same Toronto fans who’ll be cheering, and this should be ugly.
On a related note: The Leafs-Sabres rivalry is going to be amazing in about two years.