By Andy Eide
Friday night in Vancouver’s Rogers Arena the greater hockey world will meet for the 2019 NHL Draft. It’s the one time of the hockey year when the NHL gets together with players from junior hockey, NCAA hockey, and Europe.
What was once an event that took place over one day, and without much television or media coverage, has now become a full-blown event spanning two days. The first round of the draft gets underway Friday night with rounds two through seven conducted Saturday.
When its all over, 31 teams will have stocked up on prospects that they hope will one day help them win the Stanley Cup. There will be busts that come out of the draft — there is every year — and there will be diamonds in the rough that blossom into top players.
It all starts Friday night and here are five story lines to watch for over the weekend:
Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko for top pick?
Hughes and Kakko have been ranked as the two top draft prospects for the past 12 months and they will go one and two, Friday. Hughes has widely been considered the front runner and should be selected with the first pick by the New Jersey Devils which would mean Kakko ends up in New York with the Rangers.
Kakko is the bigger of the two players, weighing in at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, compared to Hughes’ 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds. He played most of the past season against older players in the Finnish Liiga where he potted 22 goals and 38 points in 45 games. Playing on the wing, he’s strong on the puck, creative, and known for making highlight reel plays. While Hughes is still the favorite to go number one, Kakko impressed at the IIHF World Championships and may have closed the gap.
The Finn might be in a position to transfer his skill into the NHL quicker than Hughes, but the latter appears to have a higher upside and as a center, more value.
Hughes spent this season splitting his time between the USNTDP Junior and U18 team. He combined to score 46 goals while piling up 160 points in 74 games — a new U.S. record for points. He’s a quick and fluid skater who elevates his teammates with elite vision and play-making ability.
“Growing up you always dream about your draft year,” Hughes said back in December during the USA World Junior camp in Everett. “For me, I’m just taking it all in and enjoying the process. Not just wanting to get by or thinking about lists, where I’m going. I’m just having fun with it and playing my game, that’s all I have to worry about.”
The real fun begins with the third pick
With Hughes and Kakko locks for the first two picks, things get interesting when the Chicago Blackhawks come on the board at three.
There are many ways that they could go and depending on which draft prognosticator you prefer, it could be one of three players. Vancouver Giants defenseman Bowen Byram could be picked here. Byram looks like a number one NHL blue liner already and is coming off a monster year with the Giants that saw him score 26 goals in the regular season before leading the league in playoff scoring.
Chicago has taken three defensemen in the last two first rounds — Henri Jokiharu in 2017, Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin in 2018 — so they may look at another position. If that’s the case, they could nab U.S. born Alex Turcotte or Kirby Dach from the Saskatoon Blades. Turcotte is committed to play at the University of Wisconsin next year and was a teammate of Hughes’ this past season. The center scored 39 times with 57 assists in 53 games for the USNTDP.
Dach is a center who stands over 6-foot-3 inches tall and potted 25 goals last year for Saskatoon. Whichever way the Blackhawks go, they’re going to get a good player but their pick will help set up the rest of the first round’s top 10.
Where will the goalies go?
Goaltender is one of the toughest positions to project and as such, NHL teams often are hesitant on using a first-round pick on one. That could change this year as U.S. born Spencer Knight is ranked as a potential first-rounder.
In the past 10 drafts, five goaltenders were selected in the opening round and none have gone in the first 20 picks since Tampa Bay took Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th in 2012. Could Knight buck that trend? Another guy from the USNTDP, Knight has the size at 6-foot-3 and recorded a .913 save-percentage last year.
No other goalies are projected to go in the first round in what is being considered a down year for net minders.
Let’s make a deal
One of the highlights of every draft is when Commisionar Gary Bettman takes the podium and among the boos that usually accompany him, announces a trade.
There have been some moves leading up to the draft but with all 31 general managers sharing the floor at Rogers Arena, we can count on more transactions coming. The host Vancouver Canucks have been rumored to be kicking the tires on a number of players and their pick at 10 could be in play.
Other teams to watch include the Colorado Avalanche who pick fourth and 16th, which gives them some flexibility if the right offer is there. The same could be said for the Buffalo Sabres who pick seventh and 31st.
Northwest players on the list
None of the WHL’s U.S. Division teams have players who are ranked as potential first-rounders but the five clubs do have players who should hear their names this weekend.
Seattle’s Henrik Rybinksi seems the most likely Thunderbird to get picked although Matthew Wedman and goalie Roddy Ross stand an outside chance. Everett Silvertips goalie Dustin Wolf and defenseman Gianni Fairbrother look like surefire draft picks with Bryce Kindopp perhaps getting a look. Down I-5, Portland’s Reece Newkirk is in the draft crosshairs as is Tri-City’s Sasha Mutala.
In Spokane, both Adam Beckman and Luke Toporowski should have some anxious moments during Saturday’s draft session.