By Andy Eide
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The start of Friday’s NHL Draft first round at Rogers Arena went as expected with Jack Hughes being selected first overall by the New Jersey Devils.
Things continued on script as the New York Rangers then followed up with the selection of Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko.
Hughes becomes the eighth American born player to be selected first overall, the first since Auston Matthews in 2016, and the sixth to be selected by an American based club. The speedy center spent last season playing for the USNTDP where he set a new record for points with 160 in 74 games.
“I’m so excited,” Hughes said. “So excited to be a part of that organization. I’m really fired up right now. I was pretty confident (about going first overall), obviously Kaapo Kakko had a great year. There are a lot of good players in this draft, but I was pretty confident. Pretty calm, cool, and collected throughout the whole process.”
The Chicago Blackhawks answer the question about the third pick
With Hughes and Kakko the obvious top two picks, all eyes were on what Chicago would do at number three. Three players were considered in the mix to be selected with the pick. Vancouver Giants defenseman Bowen Byram, US born Alex Turcotte, and Saskatoon Blades star Kirby Dach.
Chicago answered the question by selecting Dach.
“The thing we liked about him, it’s obvious to see what he’s good at with his skill set,” Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “He’s got great hands, great playmaker. He can do everything, score some beautiful goals. He does all the stuff that can wow you, but he does all the other stuff too. He was great at stripping pucks, great at back checking, he was great at the physical play.”
Byram, who many thought should and would be the third pick overall, fell to the Colorado Avalanche at number four – something that sat perfectly well with him.
“I ended up in a great spot,” Byram said. “I’m super happy with Colorado. They have an unbelievable team right now. There’re so many superstars on that team. Now the biggest worry for me is working hard and trying to make the team.”
Turcotte would end up selected fifth overall by the Los Angeles Kings.
The question now turns to whether any of these players are ready to transition into the NHL next season.
“It’s too early to tell,” Bowman said about Dach’s chances. “I think we’re going to give him an opportunity and bring him to training camp. At that point he’s like every other player. He’s there to earn a spot on the team. I don’t want to put any expectations on it, he’s going to have a chance to make our team.”
Byram looks like a player who has all the physical tools to go straight from the Western Hockey League to the NHL. He’s got the size and the skill that helped him lead the WHL playoffs in scoring.
The defenseman isn’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s going to be a whirlwind,” Byram said. “I definitely have my work cut out for me. I’m confident in myself, I’m confident in my abilities but I know I have to get better too. It’s going to be a challenge.”
NHL Seattle at the NHL Draft
About an hour prior to the start of the draft, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke and owner Jerry Bruckheimer held a press conference for the assembled hockey media.
There was no news to break and the 20-minute scrum turned into NHL Seattle’s greatest hits.
“We’re here because we’re excited,” Leiweke said. “We’re here to learn. We’re also here to check out this event, we know they’re going to do a fantastic job and we might have that same opportunity in a couple years.”
Leiweke and Bruckheimer talked about the new Seattle Center Arena and the excitement brewing in the city over the coming franchise, that was awarded by the NHL last December.
Bruckheimer talked about when he first fell in love with hockey and about his star-studded recreational games he still plays in Los Angeles.
“There’s some actors, some agents,” he said. “We’re fortunate because a lot of players come through LA during the summer and join the ice with us. Last Sunday, P.K. Subban played in our game. We’ve had a lot of great pros come through that game. 6:15 on Sundays is pretty good.”
Leiweke was asked about their search for a general manager and if they were comfortable hiring one this summer.
“We’re prepared to make that investment if we land on the right candidate who says the right things,” Leiweke said. “We’re prepared to do that, part of what Jerry and I are doing is having dinners and lunches and coffees with folks, getting their takes.”
Ron Robison, the Commissioner of the Western Hockey League was at the draft and talked about working with NHL Seattle to help grow the game in Washington State.
He mentioned that there have been some preliminary talks with the club.
“I think they’re going to be great partners and I think they’re going to grow the game throughout the Pacific Northwest,” Robison said. “It not only will have an impact in Seattle, but that entire region. We can’t wait to get them started and helping us grow the game in that area.”
The Seattle group is hopeful that the NHL Draft will be hosted in Seattle in 2021 but Leiweke pointed out that they didn’t want to get in front of the league on anything. That was the mantra of NHL Seattle before they were awarded a franchise from the NHL in December.
For now, the club is focused on building up their hockey operations staff but there is no set timeline as to when that will happen.
“We have so much momentum as a franchise that we’re now to the end part where we get to start building up this enterprise,” Leiewke said. “We’re starting to very much focus on the hockey operations. The timeline is to get it right.”
Oh say can you see
It was a good night for USA Hockey and specifically the US National Team Development Program.
Seven players from the USNTDP U18 team were taken in Friday’s first round, which is the most in the history of the program. Hughes was the first, followed by Turcotte (5th overall to Los Angeles), Trevor Zegras (9th overall to Anaheim), Matthew Boldy ( 12th overall to Minnesota), Spencer Knight (13th overall to Florida), Cameron York (14th overall to Philadelphia), Cole Caufield (15th overall to Montreal), and John Beecher (30th overall to Boston).
The most American born players to go in the first round is 12 which happened in 2016. Three other drafts – 2007, 2006, 2010 – have seen 10 Americans chosen in the first round.
Knight is the 10th American goaltender to be drafted in the first round and the first since Rick DiPietro went first overall in 2000.
Draft continues Saturday
The 31 NHL teams will be back at Rogers Arena Saturday to conclude the draft with rounds 2-through-7, beginning at 10 am and will be televised on the NHL Network in the United States.