As I write these words, April is winding down. The first round of the NHL playoffs are behind us. So, too, is the NHL Draft Lottery. The first period of the opening game of the second round series between Colorado and San Jose has just ended with the Avalanche and the Sharks knotted at one goal apiece.
The final order of the first round of the NHL draft is not fully known (I’m not even discussing trades here) but the picture is clearer. The lottery has laid out the first 15 picks of the festivities in late June in Vancouver. The final four picks will belong, in descending order, to the Conference Final loser with the worse regular season record, the other Conference Final loser, the Stanley Cup runners-up, and the Stanley Cup winners. The remaining 12 picks will line up from worst regular season record to best.
This is the first of three mock drafts that I will be publishing on Rotoworld. The players I am lining up with the teams is based on my knowledge of the drafting histories of the General Managers and Scouting Directors who pull the trigger on draft day and the organizational depth of the 31 teams. Of course, the mocks will also lean heavily on the scouting performed by the McKeen's Hockey international and domestic scouting staff, who have been providing scouting reports on the 31 players listed here, as well as many, many others who will hear their names called out between June 21 and 22 at the Rogers Arena in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. Don’t forget to buy your McKeen’s Draft Guide here.
I am not – nor will I through these mocks – try to predict who the teams will draft. I am looking at who they should, bearing in mind the known tendencies of the men (women are gaining foot holds in NHL front offices, but none are yet decision makers in draft matters) who are calling the shots.
In predicting draft order, I will, for now, at least, assume that the home ice favorites win out over the rest of the playoffs, giving Boston the 31st pick, San Jose’s pick – already traded to Buffalo – would be 30th, the St. Louis pick, which belongs now to Anaheim, will be 29th and the Islanders will have the number 28 selection. I am pretty sure that the final draft order will deviate from that in one, two, three, or four particulars, but I have no clue which ones.
With those caveats in minds, let’s gaze into our crystal balls and see what the future has in store.
1. New Jersey Devils – Jack Hughes, C, USNTDP (USHL)
Looking at Hughes’ performance at the U18 tournament, it is safe to say that he can show up for the big moments just as easily as he can dominate the relative minnows he sometimes faces in the USHL. Through the end of the quarterfinal round of the tournament, he leads the field in scoring with a whopping 16 points in five games. Earlier in the season, I had thought that the worst-case outcome for Hughes was a development path like that of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, with an upper tier more closely resembling Patrick Kane. As the months have passed, I am much more firmly convinced that he will be closer to the latter than the former. He is among the more agile skating prospects I have ever covered, if not the most, and his puck skills and hockey IQ are in the elite range. Hughes should be New Jersey’s #1 C within one season of being selected.
2. New York Rangers – Kappo Kakko, RW, TPS Turku (Liiga)
Theoretically, a team should never draft for need in the first round (or any round, really) of the draft. You should always take the player that your scouts have identified as the best available. Once in a while, particularly as more and more players are off the board, it makes some sense to consider player style or position when your scouts have them very closely ranked. In this draft, in this position, there can be no question. There can be an argument for taking Kakko over Hughes (I don’t fully buy it, but I can understand it), but there is no argument for anyone else over those two. The Finnish winger is NHL ready, with a pro-sized body, a mature game, near elite puck skills, and powerful skating and shooting ability. He generally plays on the wing as a teenager in Finland’s top league, but there is some belief that he could work as a center down the road.
3. Chicago Blackhawks – Kirby Dach, C, Saskatoon (WHL)
Here is where things get tricky. Hughes at one and Kakko at two are the chalk picks. Chicago has a pool of five or six players that they could and should be looking at here. I’d expect them to pass on Byram as they have taken blueliners with their top two picks in both of their two last drafts. Podkolzin as well, as the Hawks have rarely drafted Russians in the Stan Bowman era, drafting only four since 2010. So now they can either look for a big pivot from the WHL or a smaller, more offensively dynamic forward from the USNTDP. Some of the former group could play immediately in the NHL (at least theoretically), while the latter group would need at least one or two seasons of college hockey before turning pro. The Hawks do not typically rush prospects, but I think the 200-foot versatility offered by Saskatoon’s Kirby Dach will win out. His ability to slow the game down, vision and play making ability will allow him to start down the lineup and gradually move into a more central roll.
4. Colorado Avalanche (from Ottawa Senators and the ill-fated Matt Duchene trade) – Vasili Podkolzin, RW, SKA-1946 St. Petersburg (MHL)
First about the Russian factor, as there have been loud whispers about Podkolzin wanting to stay in Russia for an additional two or more years. They may be true, for all I know. And those types of fears have kept many teams away from Russia players, but Joe Sakic’s Avalanche have not been one of those teams. Colorado drafted three Russians last year and two others the year before. Two additional Russian players were selected by the Avs in 2015 as well. Podkolzin is more of a two-way threat with size and skill than a purely offensive dynamo. More of a Landeskog than a Rantanen, if you will. Podkolzin plays a physical game and has made a rather rapid advancement in the Russian ranks in the past 12 months alone, moving from U17 hockey to cameos in the KHL in a single season, although most of his draft year was split between the MHL (U20) and VHL (minor pro). He has enough not-fully-tapped-into skill that I expect the production to follow the game as he settles in more at the higher levels starting next season.
5. Los Angeles Kings - Bowen Byram, D, Vancouver (WHL)
As Los Angeles continues to transition from the big, forechecking team that won a couple Stanley Cups in the last decade into a more modern speed and puck movement approach, they will need more blueliners who can kick start the transition. In Drew Doughty, they have one of the best in the NHL roster and he will continue to be there for a long time yet. They do not have another defender projected as a potential first pairing player in the system. Byram is easily the top defenseman in this draft class. He skates like the wind, can quarterback his team, and as evidenced by the 33 goals he has scored through the WHL Conference Finals (including regular season), he can score from the blueline. He is also not a “mere” offensive defenseman, as he is poised in his own zone and does not shy away from physical play. He has #1 D capabilities, but with Doughty on board, the Kings could ease him into the lineup. He could instantly change the team’s complexion as soon as he reaches the NHL.
6. Detroit Red Wings – Alex Turcotte, C, USNTDP (USHL)
Considering their extreme proximity to the USNTDP home base in Plymouth, Michigan, it is surprising that the Red Wings draft from the elite program as rarely as they do. Unless I missed something, the Wings drafted from the USNTDP only once in the last decade. That pick, Dylan Larkin, has worked out pretty well. At this stage, all of the top players on the board are centers and Turcotte seems to fit the Steve Yzerman style most closely. Size is not a factor, although Turcotte is not undersized by today’s standards. He has the best blend of skill and hockey IQ on the board. He is a natural center who also sees time at left wing. Although his top speed is only around average, perhaps a little bit above, he gets there really quickly. He struggled with lower body injuries at times this year, but when he played, he produced, out shining Jack Hughes on a point per game basis. He will spend one or two years in Madison, Wisconsin before turning pro, but this is a high-engine, top-two center that any organization could use.
7. Buffalo Sabres – Dylan Cozens, C, Lethbridge (WHL)
Through two drafts at the helm of the Buffalo Sabres, GM Jason Botterill has yet to select a single player from any of the CHL leagues. That is too small a sample size to read that much into it and it probably changes in Vancouver. There is no reason why not to break the mold right away, giving the Buffalo organization the type of player that it lacks on the team, in a big physical player with abundant skills. Cozens needs to add more bulk to his frame, but he can play both at center and at right wing. He has great puck skills and uses his size effectively to protect the puck while driving the net. He is an accomplished passer and is committed to being on the right side of the puck at all times. He is also the type of player who needs very little room to release his deadly wrist shot, making him a permanent threat in the offensive zone.
8. Edmonton Oilers – Trevor Zegras, C, USNTDP (USHL)
In giving a player to Edmonton, we have no history to work from. At the time of writing, the Oilers have still not yet announced their new GM, with interim man Keith Gretzky at the helm. He had a big role in a few drafts for Boston, but not knowing the role he will play in the next Edmonton regime, it is folly to assign any weight to Gretzky’s proclivities. Also, considering that the Oilers don’t really have any organizational areas of great depth, it makes sense at this point to give them our best player on the board, no other questions asked. Zegras has played everywhere along the forward lines for Team USA this year. He is a natural center, but has made a prolific partnership with Hughes when he plays on the wing. Zegras is a great north-south skater and has plus edges. He has exceptional hands and can carry the puck through a maze of sticks and then backhand saucer the puck to an open linemate on the other side of the slot. He makes his linemates better.
9. Anaheim Ducks – Philip Broberg, D, AIK (Allsvenskan)
The last blueliner Anaheim took in the first rounder, Jacob Larsson from Sweden, finally found a home in the NHL in his fourth year after being selected. Broberg, despite some strong showing at the U18 tournament, is still figuring out what kind of defenseman he will be at full maturity. He reads the game well at both ends but has yet to consistently bring the offensive game that he shows at the junior level to the men’s game. Still, the fact that he has more than held his own as a 17-year-old in Sweden’s second highest league is its own form of praise. Broberg’s main selling point as a prospect is his skating, as his straight line speed is near elite. His size is also pro-ready and he can hang in when the going gets rough. His skating gives him an NHL floor, but he has shown enough flashes of more that he could conceivably be a good #2 at his peak.
10. Vancouver Canucks – Cole Caufield, RW, USNTDP (USHL)
It would not surprise in the least for the draft hosts to go for a big splash with their first pick. What better way to make a big splash than with a small winger who has broken goal-scoring record after goal-scoring record with the U18s, including setting a new record for goals scored at the U18 World tournament, after scoring twice against Russia in the semifinals to break Ilya Kovalchuk’s record from 2001. Caufield succeeds despite his tiny stature (5-7”, 165) thanks to skating prowess, a super quick release on his shot and a poacher’s instincts, and surprising strength for his size. He escapes physical punishment through his shiftiness and balance. He also has soft hands, enabling to make something from nothing with regularity. To his credit, he manages to score plenty even without frequent linemate Jack Hughes. After every NHL team passed up on Alex DeBrincat in the first round a few years ago, the league won’t make the same mistake with Caufield this year.