By Andy Eide
When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman opens the NHL Draft this coming Tuesday it will look different than ever before.
Instead of addressing the gathered NHL clubs and fans from a stage, serenaded by boos from the cheap seats, he’ll start the proceedings via an online stream. The cutaways to young players in the stands sweating it out in their newly pressed suits alongside their families will be replaced with web cams of prospects’ living rooms as they gather around a television.
That won’t assuage the excitement of the draft as hundreds of young players wait to have their dreams fulfilled. It will be a long couple of days for prospects but filled with hope of hearing an NHL team announce that they’ve been drafted.
Every draft has its unexpected or unpredictable elements. There will be risers and fallers, trades, and a number of surprises over the two-day event.
What we do know is that the New York Rangers have the first pick and will draft Alexis Lafreniere to kick off the opening round. With the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic, Lafreniere has been dominant. He played in 173 games over his three-year career with Rimouski and scored 114 goals with 297 points.
As NHL scouts might say, ‘that’s decent’.
The goals and points are impressive, and he’s got speed, skill, and the all-important hockey sense which makes him the clear pick. His major-junior days are in the past as the Rangers will add him to their roster next season.
The NHL will conduct the first round of the draft on Tuesday with the remaining six rounds conducted Wednesday. Here’s what to watch for over both days.
Is it Byfield or Stutzle at number two?
Often resembling a marquee horse race, the ‘battle’ between Quinten Byfield and Tim Stutzle to be the second overall pick has been fun to watch this season. Who goes number two depends on who you talk to, or which draft ranking you believe in.
The general consensus among the online scouts lean Byfield’s way but none of that matters. All that does is what the Los Angeles Kings – holders of the number two pick – think of the two prospects.
Both are great players and worthy of being selected at number two.
Byfield plays for the OHL’s Subdury Wolves and is coming off a monster year that saw him pile up 82 points in 45 games. He’s 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds and while he looks like a power forward, he has the skill of a smaller player.
The collector of bow ties can skate with the best of them and has the speed to pressure the defense. He’s also got a big shot, is a play-maker, and physically is ready for the NHL game now.
There was an outside chance that Stutzle could have played here in the Pacific Northwest during the past WHL season. Drafted by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the 2019 CHL Import Draft out of Germany, Stutzle weighed his options briefly and chose to play in the German pro DEL last year with Manheim.
Rather than play against his age group, he was able to compete against men in a pro league at 17-years-old and posted 34 points in 41 games. He doesn’t have the size of Byfield – listed at 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds – but he’s got speed, dekes, and the potential to be a dynamic scorer.
Stutzle played on the wing last year but has the ability to switch to center, something he did in his younger days and something that makes him a more valuable prospect.
Where will the prospects come from?
Last year’s draft was a boom for both the U.S. National Team Development players and the WHL. The American program set a new record by having seven players selected in the first round while the WHL led all amateur leagues with 28 players taken overall.
Who’s going to lead the way this year?
After a down year in 2019, the OHL looks poised to have a big draft, especially in the first round. NHL’s Central Scouting has nine OHL players ranked among the top 31 of North American players. Byfield leads the way but look for Jamie Drysdale (Erie Otters), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw Spirit), and Marco Rossi (Ottawa 67’s) to be potential top ten picks.
Stutzle’s selection will be the second German-born player to go in the first round in as many drafts after Moritz Seider went sixth overall to Detroit last year. Stutzle may not be the only German taken in the first round this season. Germany has another high ranked prospect, John-Jason Peterka, who could end up selected in the top 31 slots. Like Stutzle, Peterka played professional last year, in the DEL, with Munchen.
How high will a goalie go?
Drafting a goalie is an adventure. It’s a position that develops on a different trajectory than others and its rare that they end up in the first round, especially early on.
During last year’s Draft in Vancouver, Spencer Knight of the USTD was taken by the Florida Panthers 13th overall, which was the highest goalie taken since Tampa Bay nabbed Andrei Vasilevsky at 19 during the 2012 Draft. That pick worked out well for the Lightning.
The first goalie to go in next week’s draft will be Yaroslav Askarov. The Russian has already begun his season, playing with St. Petersburg in the KHL, and is off to a great start by sporting a .974 save-percentage. Not bad for an 18-year-old playing in a professional league with older, veteran guys.
Yaroslav Askarov shuts out Spartak with a 33 save performance as SKA takes the game 2-0 in his first KHL start of the season!
— TPEHockey (@TPEHockey) September 17, 2020
Will the team that takes him have the same outcome as the Lightning have with Vasilevsky?
Will there be trades?
Under normal conditions, all 31 NHL teams are at the draft. Tables are set up on the main floor and with that many general managers in close proximity to each other, trades happen, often completed with face-to-face conversations.
Teams will be hunkered down at their home offices this time around. Will that limit trades?
With a tight salary cap situation due to the flat cap, there will be trades next week. Teams will either look to unload a current player to stockpile picks and free cap space, or cash in draft assets for a player to improve their roster.
It can be hard to predict, but there are six teams who have 10 or more picks this draft year. Montreal has 14 selections and Ottawa has 13 picks on the books. They could be candidates to wheel and deal and pick up an NHL player who will help right away in exchange for a prospect who may never make it to the league.
How will the locals fare?
A year ago, seven players from the WHL’s US Division were selected in the draft led by the Seattle Thunderbirds who had three guys picked.
The Portland Winterhawks and Everett Silvertips will have the most players off the board this time around. Portland’s Seth Jarvis will be the first US Division player taken as the speedy forward (who scored 98 points last season) is projected to be a first-round selection.
Everett’s Ronan Seely and Kasper Puutio will go in the next couple of rounds while Spokane’s Jack Finley could be a second or third rounder. Seattle should see defensemen Simon Kubicek and Tryel Bauer taken as well while it doesn’t look like the rebuilding Tri-City Americans will have a player drafted this year.
He’s not in the U.S. Division but Medicine Hat Tigers forward Lukas Svejkovsy, who hails from Point Roberts, Wa, should hear his name called in day two.