NHL Draft Weekend Takeaways: The Canucks are gambling

Jim Benning discusses Vancouver Canucks picking Vasily Podkolzin with the 10th overall pick in the NHL Draft.

The NHL Draft didn’t come through with the trade fireworks that were being talked up in the week leading to it, but there were more than a few notable moves and decisions from the event.

Despite that lack of action, the host Vancouver Canucks turned heads taking a few big cuts with their first-round pick and a Day 2 trade to try and accelerate their rebuild. The Leafs and Predators made deals to free up cap space that reminded us how valuable that room is to NHL teams these days. The Wings sent shockwaves through Round 1, Colorado continued its fearsome build up and the USNTDP dominated.

Before we focus in on the next week and the countdown to free agency, here are some of our takeaways from draft weekend in Vancouver.

KAAPO KAKKO WANTS TO MAKE THE DEVILS REGRET THEIR CHOICE

Had a team other than New Jersey won the draft lottery, there’s a very real chance Kakko would have gone first overall and Jack Hughes would be the one driving to prove someone wrong. Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino noted on the Tape to Tape Podcast that it was his belief up to half of the league would have picked Kakko first — it really was legitimate to wonder if Hughes could have been dethroned this weekend.

Hughes should become the first player drafted out of the USNTDP to step right into the NHL and Kakko should also be in the Rangers’ lineup next season. Cosentino called him the most NHL ready out of this year’s draft class and after Kakko set a Finnish-league goal-scoring record for a player his age, he could have one of those instantly impactful seasons.

Don’t be surprised if Kakko is a Calder finalist next April. He’s playing with a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove his new geographical rivals made the wrong decision to take Hughes first.

“I hope so, that’s the goal,” he told Tara Sloane.

AVALANCHE WILL HAVE A BLUE LINE TO BE FEARED

We know GM Joe Sakic wants to be aggressive in free agency this summer. The Avalanche seem on the cusp of breaking through, but there’s still work to do before then. They have to add scoring depth to their forwards, but can at least hang their hat on having Nathan MacKinnon on the most team-friendly contract in the league.

Even as the Avalanche can think about making bold moves to try and firmly enter the “contender” category, there is still a very positive long-term outlook that could pay off here. This is a young team at the NHL level and there is an exciting crop of prospects still coming behind them. You saw one of them get a taste of pro hockey for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, and Cale Makar was electric. He’ll be one of the top Calder favourites next season.

The marquee names out of Colorado these days are the three big forwards, but in short time it’s the blue line that could be the envy of the league. On top of 20-year-old Makar you have 21-year-old Sam Girard already on the roster. In the system there’s 20-year-old Conor Timmins, who missed the entire 2018-19 season to a concussion, but the season prior he was one of Canada’s top three players at the WJC and better than point-per-game player for the OHL’s Sault Greyhounds. For veterans, Erik Johnson is 31 years old and signed through another four seasons.

Oh ya, and Tyson Barrie is still with the team, though he’s a year away from from free agency and has been in every rumour mill for the past few months. That could be the chip Sakic uses to trade for forward help. We’ll see.

Although there were centres Alex Turcotte, Dylan Cozens and Trevor Zegras available to them, the Avs went with Vancouver Giants defenceman Bowen Byram fourth overall, who led all players in WHL playoff scoring. He was third among all WHL blueliners in regular season scoring with 71 points in 67 games and is a terrific skater who models his game after Maple Leafs No. 1 defenceman Morgan Rielly. Not a bad addition to what’s already there.

It’s hard to believe that prior to the Matt Duchene trade the Avs were derided for a lack of talent on the blue line. They’ve completely reloaded and now are one of the teams best set up for success on the back end heading into the future with all sorts of fleet-footed puck-movers.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

WILL THE SURPRISE MORITZ SEIDER REACH PAY OFF?

It was fitting that, this being the 2019 draft, the first player picked by Steve Yzerman as GM of the Detroit Red Wings donned the No. 19 when he was called to the stage.

But Moritz Seider going sixth overall was the shock of the first round — even he was surprised to hear his named called there. After the second pick there was no consensus as to how the next 10 or so selections would unfold, and although Sieder was a significant rankings riser in the second half, he leapt from an expected mid-round pick to being the second defenceman off the board.

“It’s not a curveball in our estimate,” Yzerman told Elliotte Friedman on the draft floor. “I know Moritz wasn’t rated highly in all the mock drafts, but we felt the top five kinda went as we thought it would, but it was only an educated guess. And after that this next group of players, whether they’re forwards, wingers, centres, or defencemen there’s a good group and we thought it could go in a lot of different directions.

“We had a chance to get a big, intelligent, smart, good-skating defenceman and we feel they’re hard to find so we stepped up and took him.”

Yzerman noted he did try to trade back for another asset and still land the defenceman, but when he couldn’t find a partner the Red Wings GM felt comfortable choosing a player he wanted.

Seider is coming out of Germany’s DEL, where he played for Mannheim. That’s not the same as someone coming out of, say, Finland or Sweden, but there’s something to be said about any teenager who spent a full season playing against full-grown professionals and held their own. The thing most prospects need to do as they rise through the professional ranks is get stronger physically, but Seider already has NHL size at six-feet-four and 207 pounds. He’s also a right shot who can move the puck and with the potential to be a top-pair NHL blueliner one day. Though this pick was a Day 1 surprise, he very well may end up as the best defenceman out of this draft.

He was also a draft-combine favourite. Stylish and with a fun personality, Red Wings fans will find Seider very easy to cheer for — he may even become a fan favourite one day.

VASILY PODKOLZIN COULD BE A GRAND SLAM PICK FOR CANUCKS

“This is a man. He’s NHL ready,” Brian Burke said of Vasily Podkolzin after the Vancouver Canucks nabbed him 10th overall.

It wouldn’t be fair to call him a polarizing player because just about everyone agrees he’s a future NHL talent. He can skate, score, play with some sandpaper and won’t be stood up by anyone. At six-feet-one, 196 pounds, he already has an NHL body or close to it and perhaps if he was drafted out of the CHL instead of the KHL, he may have gone to Chicago third-overall or Colorado fourth-overall.

But the issue with Podkolzin, and what made him a draft-day wild card, was that he still has two years left on his KHL contract with St. Petersburg and has said he intends to see that through. So whoever took him had to accept the fact there will be a little bit of a delay here.

With that in mind, it made sense to look for teams that had success at bringing players out of Russia in the past as potential Podkolzin landing spots. Detroit and Florida came to mind as possibilities. The Canucks certainly didn’t. In the salary-cap era Vancouver has taken just three players right out of Russia, the earliest being Nikita Tryamkin in the third round. Our own Iain MacIntyre described Russia as an historical “wasteland” for Canucks picks, but that didn’t dissuade this front office from taking a cut on a high-end talent who has a desire to come to the NHL.

“Absolute steal in my mind, he’s a top five player in this draft class. There are no holes in this young man’s game and he’s got a lot of compete,” Sam Cosentino said after the pick.

The stated goal for Vancouver is to get back to the playoffs next season, but while Podkolzin won’t help them there, the upside he offers down the line is tantalizing to project out.

THE IMMENSE VALUE OF CAP SPACE

There were again all sorts of trade rumours coming into draft weekend and while we were disappointed in the lack of movement on Friday, Day 2 started with a couple of noteworthy moves.

We really anticipated a blockbuster in Vancouver. Big names all over were bandied about and, just maybe, we’d see something on the scale of last year’s Day 2 trade between Calgary and Carolina in which five players were swapped in a hockey deal. But the P.K. Subban trade to the New Jersey Devils and the Patrick Marleau trade to Carolina were reminders of just how valuable cap space is.

Although various Canadian teams were reportedly in on Subban — and the Leafs you’d think would have been motivated buyers — the Devils were able to swoop in and land the exciting 30-year-old blueliner for what amounts to fringe assets: Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies and a couple second-round of picks.

The Predators did not retain any salary and so will shave $9 million off their cap hit right away. Given they are still loaded on the back end with Dante Fabbro also on the cusp of full-time NHL duty the Predators have more pressing needs up front, plus Roman Josi is a year away from being UFA eligible and needs a pay increase. Kyle Turris was a massive disappointment in 2018-19 and the power play left a lot to be desired, so you can expect GM David Poile to get busy upgrading parts of his forward group. Dropping Subban’s cap hit gives him way more freedom to act.

Right away Nashville becomes a favourite to land pending-UFA Matt Duchene, who can start talking to clubs other than Columbus on Sunday. But how much will he cost? Kevin Hayes just got a $7-million AAV from the Philadelphia Flyers and it’s fair to assume Duchene will come in at least a million above that.

The Leafs are facing their own cap crunch. The good news is they leave draft weekend reportedly close on signing both RFAs Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, but the bad news is there’s no news on Mitch Marner. Meanwhile the defence is screaming for help and since the salary cap will come in under the expected $82 million, there’s not much room for GM Kyle Dubas to make improvements.

Marleau was a good bet to move somewhere this summer, but that Toronto had to trade a first-round pick to erase his $6.25 million from their books was a tough sacrifice to make. That’s one fewer valuable asset to use towards a roster upgrade along the lines of Jake Muzzin, but that’s the cost of business sometimes for a capped-out team that wants to contend.

USNTDP OWNS THE FIRST ROUND

The US program is here to stay. It probably won’t set records for early first-round picks again next season (Canada should again be a big factor in 2020 with Quinton Byfield and Alexis Lafreniere at the top), but you can get used to the Americans challenging Canada for most players chosen in the first round of future drafts.

The 2019 class was certainly a special one for the USNTDP. Hughes was the unsurprising first overall and the program accounted for seven of the first 15 players chosen in the draft, setting a record for the amount of players picked off the same team in Round 1 of the draft — across any sport.

The Canadian contingent made up some ground in the second half of Round 1 and in the end, came out tied with the USA for most players chosen Friday night. But the Americans keep coming and as grassroots programs in states such as Florida, Arizona, Texas and California continue to grow, this trend should only pick up steam.

The USA won’t always own the top of the draft as it did in 2019, but the country should more regularly challenge Canada as the dominant country in the NHL Draft.

ARTHUR KALIYEV, BRETT LEASON, RAPHAEL LAVOIE: THIS YEAR’S JOE VELENO?

In the 2018 draft, Joe Veleno was a shocking faller, dropping all the way to Detroit at 30th overall. Veleno was the first player ever granted “exceptional player” status and granted early entry into the QMJHL and he produced near point-per-game numbers on a strong Saint John team. Part of the reason his offensive totals weren’t better was because he was low in the depth chart, behind older players as the Sea Dogs went for league championships. But when Veleno was traded to Drummondville and given more ice time midway through 2017-18 he notched 48 points in 33 games. This season, he finished with 104 points.

There was no exceptional talent who fell in 2019, but there were three names who many thought would be called in Round 1 that all slipped to Saturday.

Among our five big questions heading into the draft, we recognized Arthur Kaliyev and Raphael Lavoie as real wild cards. Both have immense goal-scoring upside — Kaliyev joined a short list of players that includes Steven Stamkos and John Tavares who scored 50-plus goals from the OHL in their draft year, while Lavoie went on a playoff tear by scoring 20 times in 23 games for the Halifax Mooseheads. But in both cases concerns about their skating and consistency turned off everyone from taking them too early. Despite the two being late first-rounders on most mock drafts, Kaliyev went to Los Angeles at 33rd overall and Lavoie to Edmonton at 38th.

At that value, despite any detractions, players with their raw goal scoring skill and pro potential are worth taking a shot on.

As for Brett Leason, his age may have been a factor behind his fall. Twice passed over at the NHL Draft, Leason carved up the WHL and was absolutely dominant at times. He started the season with a 30-game point streak, earned a role on Canada’s WJC team and led the WHL champs in scoring. But he is 20 years old and has a six-foot-four, 201-pound frame, so that performance maybe doesn’t stand out as much as it would for a player two years his junior.

“I think this could be the steal of the draft,” Sam Cosentino said on the broadcast after Leason finally went 56th overall to Washington.

The bonus with Leason, too, is that he can advance up your pipeline faster than most players out of the CHL. Since he’s already 20, Washington can put him right on its AHL team if it wants, rather than being forced to choose between having him in the NHL or CHL next season. There’s a chance Leason even gets a look on the NHL team at some point in 2019-20.

CANUCKS MAKE RISKY BET ON BEING A PLAYOFF TEAM IN NEXT TWO SEASONS

Vancouver hung around the playoff race longer than most thought they would in 2018-19 and so now expectation within the team is starting to turn towards actually being one of the West’s top eight in April. But how much of this off-season would be about pushing ahead at the expense of a gradual build up was uncertain.

On Day 2 of the draft Vancouver signalled its intent and expressed how far along the management team believes this group is by sending a conditional first-round pick to Tampa Bay for J.T. Miller.

Basically what that means is the Canucks are betting on making the playoffs if not in 2020 then absolutely in 2021. This comes on the heels of the team striking a two-year extension with Alexander Edler who will continue to anchor the blue line with big minutes as Quinn Hughes finds his footing in the league.

In one weekend, the Canucks’ rebuild has leapt from promising with plenty of runway to make it work to one that now enters a vitally important two-year window. Everything now becomes a little more urgent for GM Jim Benning, who you’d think needed to get this team into the playoffs by 2021 to keep his job anyway — now if they fail to do that, though, his replacement will be working in a less-than-ideal condition.

Vancouver now risks succumbing to the same over-evaluation the Ottawa Senators did when they doubled down on a surprising conference-final appearance by trading away their first-rounder to Colorado before the team was ready for that kind of commitment. The result was the Avs got to pick fourth overall and took Bowen Byram this weekend, which is now the nightmare scenario being presented in front of Canucks fans.

Had Elias Pettersson not exploded the way he did and won the Calder Trophy, this trade probably doesn’t happen. But his quick emergence as an elite scoring centre has emboldened the team to bet on the rebuild being a little ahead of schedule. Brock Boeser is a good bet to hit 30 goals for the first time and Bo Horvat complements Pettersson to make a legitimate one-two centre punch. Benning has talked about wanting to bring in more size to this lineup and though Miller isn’t Tom Wilson massive (six-feet-one, 218 pounds), he does have a physical edge and strong net-front presence that is along the lines of what Benning was talking about.

In no way are we knocking Miller. He is a strong transitional player, can be used in any forward position, in any situation, and is a playmaker first that should complement some of the snipers high up the lineup. He’s also signed through another four seasons so he brings cost certainty. But we do have to wonder if he is the kind of player who, at this point in Vancouver’s re-armament process, is worth giving up a first-round pick to acquire.

The Canucks don’t have to make the playoffs this season because the pick is lottery protected, but if they whiff in 2021 Tampa Bay is going to walk out of this as a massive winner. The Lightning had to shed some salary this summer and it’s not often a team in that position is able to recoup a first-round pick out of it. The Canucks and Benning are assuming all of the risk in this swap.

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