Here are some of the trends, winners, and losers from the 2016 NHL Draft.
Boldest play: Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen
The draft started as has been predicted in the weeks since the lottery: Leafs with Auston Matthews at No. 1, Jets with Patrik Laine at No. 2. But then things went sideways in a hurry – remember the rumble about Winnipeg perhaps passing on Laine to take Jesse Puljujarvi?
The notion that Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen would pass on Puljujarvi to take Pierre-Luc Dubois didn’t even seem like a remote possibility – there didn’t seem any way that the Finnish-born GM would pass on a prospect projected as the second-best talent in this class last fall, a kid who led Finland to titles at the U-20s and the U-18s.
Everyone talked about the third overall being the easiest pick in the draft. Laine or Puljujarvi at No. 2, okay, you could have a debate about that, but whichever Finnish forward was still in the stands at No. 3 was guaranteed.
Until it wasn’t.
We who don’t sit in the NHL draft war rooms tend to think that executives and scouts pull for their own, the players from their hometown, their old teams, their home and native land. It might seem to be counter-intuitive but the opposite is probably more often the case: No one wants to be seen waving the pom-poms.
When teams are putting their lists together in the weeks before the draft, Canadian- and American-born scouting directors often build cases for prospects in European leagues only to have their Euro scouts tear them down.
They don’t want to own a pick that, if the player fails, will later be scrutinized and judged to have been made for the wrong reasons. That’s the stuff of which pink slips are made.
Now Kekalainen’s job wouldn’t be on the line if he had picked Puljujarvi and he was stuck in the AHL five years from now. No, I suspect anyone that unlucky would have been visited by an array of plagues and would already be long gone.
But Kekalainen raised the stakes in another way – he went against the consensus and thus he’s going to be judged on Dubois’ performance versus Puljujarvi’s. If he has in fact made the right call, he deserves a lot of credit and will get it.
If not, then his history with high picks will be cited, most notably, during his tenure as St. Louis Blues director of amateur scouting, the selection of Erik Johnson first overall in 2006, passing over Jonathan Toews. (In fairness, a lot of people had Johnson atop their lists, but then again, they didn’t own the pick, so it was simply a matter of professional interest. The future of their franchises weren’t riding on it.)
Some in the media have noted that Kekalainen has never drafted a Finn with a lead pick that he wielded in St. Louis or Columbus. I wouldn’t read too much into that without re-opening his history with picks in Ottawa, where he started out as a part-time scout 20 years ago and worked his way to up to director of player personnel.
The first pick in Ottawa that had his fingerprints on it was Sami Salo, a last-rounder on nobody’s radar. That’s sort of a fit – not that scouts pull out the pom-poms late, just that they’re not worried about being perceived to have done so when really they’re operating on an insider’s knowledge.
Out-of-the-box thinking: Toronto Maple Leafs and players in second and third years of eligibility
It’s not like the days of yore when you’d see an NHL team draft a European player in his 30s. (I used to look forward to the late rounds when Doug Risebrough’s Minnesota staff would call the name of a 31-year-old Euro vet like Lubomir Sekeras. Seemed like the Wild had one wild card every year.)
But now the rules of play have changed. Kids are eligible in their original draft year and, if not selected, in the year after that or, if again unselected, the year after that.
You wouldn’t think that too many players fall through the cracks in the first place – that somehow a player who’s not one of the 210 best in his class would look any better the next year or even further down the line. And really what seems like a very thin field to start with winnows even further, what with teams able to bring undrafted players into training camps and sign them as free agents.
Still how many could there be?
The Leafs think that this year there were three to start, having drafted forwards Yegor Korshkov of Yaroslavl (No. 31) and Adam Brooks of Regina (No. 92) in their third year of eligibility as ’96 birthdays and Vladimir Bobylev of Victoria (No. 122) in his second year as a ’97.
Having an open mind about those who have already been passed over must be one of the great challenges for scouts – I remember making the case for Ondrej Palat, who was passed over twice and selected by Tampa Bay in the last ten minutes of the draft in his third year of eligibility. He never made it onto a NHL Central Scouting list.
You imagine there are all kinds of ways that players get overlooked – playing in remote places, injuries, stuff away from the arena. In Palat’s case, you’d have imagined that he was just about impossible to miss – he was playing on a line with Sean Couturier, a kid ranked in the top four of the draft that year and seen every game by dozens of scouts. He was among QMJHL leaders in scoring. I happened to see him in a game that Couturier missed due to suspension and he was the best player on the ice. (Google search my name and Palat’s and you can find the story that came out of it.)
The Leafs banging the drum three times comes as a surprise despite the successes of Shaw and Palat. Korshkov isn’t quite such a big swing per se: He was 37th and 45th on NHL Central Scouting’s lists of European skaters going into the two previous drafts, but shot up to No. 7 in Europe in the last rankings.
Bobylev, who was ranked at 203rd on CSS’s list of North American skaters this year, might be the player whose case most resembles Palat’s – a European kid who’s adapting to a new game and new environment, he might be a late maturing kid, one whose success are easy to credit to surrounding talent.
Anyway, what happens with these three Leafs draft picks will be fascinating to watch. If one of these kids lands it’s a win. If either of the latter two does, teams will have to ask: How did we miss them and how don’t we miss the next ones?
Jesse Puljujarvi: There could be no better job in hockey that being Connor McDavid’s right winger. That’s what he’s looking at for the next 10 years.
Buffalo Sabres: They would have taken Alexander Nylander at No. 5.
Jakob Chychrun: I hate to say that a kid is a loser for falling in the draft after early hype. The huge Sarnia defenceman was a projected top-5 pick back in the fall, but his season disappointed most scouts (okay, all scouts I talked to) and Arizona called his name at No. 16.
It was a fall like Cam Fowler’s a few years back, though Fowler’s wasn’t really anticipated while Chychrun’s has been kicked around for months. The good news for Chychrun is that he’s going to a team that has plenty of emerging young talent and won’t be under the microscope. He’s not being brought in to be the man – they already have one in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. It would have been a long night for the kid but ultimately a good situation.
Alex DeBrincat: Chicago doesn’t miss with picks like this. (See: Brandon Saad.) Again, a great situation for a player who fell further than he hoped or expected. DeBrincat has done nothing but deliver and over-achieve through two seasons. His size hurt his stock but you never felt like he was fighting above his weight class.
Mike McLeod: The Mississauga centre is one of the fastest and hardest-working kids in the class but a lot of scouts wondered about his puck skills. The Devils took him at No. 12 – I had him further down in the second 10 based on conversations with those in the business. New Jersey must be confident that he’s going to figure it out.
Boston Bruins: I am done trying to figure out Bruins drafts. Not that they’re necessarily wrong. I liked Soo forward Zachary Senyshyn who they picked at No. 16 last year – but I just didn’t like him at 16. It seemed like an overdraft to me.
That’s how I feel about USDT centre Trent Frederic, selected by Boston at No. 29. There was probably a good shot that he’d still be on the board at No. 59. Boston took a safe pick with their pick at No. 14, BU defenceman Charlie McAvoy. But Frederic was way out of the box: 47th on CSS’s list of North American skaters.