Photo by Brandon Titus / Inside Hockey

Options Await the Devils at Tuesday’s Draft

We’ve arrived to the pinnacle of the NHL offseason: the draft and free agency. More moves and team-defining decisions are made this week than any other time during the regular season. Of course, this offseason timeline remains in flux making this potentially the height of significant hockey transactions for the next five-to-six months. Not to mention, it could have a dramatic impact on the free agent marketplace and club’s proclivity to dip in during the opening hours and days of free agency, especially considering the absence of a free agent interview period. Still, it remains the NHL, and with one of the more solid crops of unrestricted talent on record, I wouldn’t overestimate GM’s abilities to simply sit on their hands.

Closer to home, this week may very well prove to be defining in the direction of the New Jersey Devils, who have struck luck in two of the last three entry draft’s, selecting Nico Hischier first overall in 2017 and Jack Hughes in 2019. The Devils, slated to select at 7, 18 and 20 in Tuesday’s first round, will have multiple first round picks for the first time since 1998–when they held the final two picks of the first round at picks 26 and 27, selecting Mike Van Ryan and Scott Gomez.

Assuming all three of their picks are used in the top 31, they’ll join the Rangers (’18), Vegas (’17), Boston (’15) and Calgary and Columbus (’13) as teams with three picks in the opening round. The Ottawa Senators also own the chance to select thrice–picks 3 (from SJ via Erik Karlsson deal), 5 and 28 (J.G. Pageau). Of course, that party can likely share some stories of highly anticipated evenings and the 3-4 years that followed.

New York, who went Vitali Kravtsov (9), K’Andre Miller (22–a trade up) and Nils Lundkvist (28), still have the jury out on their potentials. None of the three have yet to celebrate their 21st birthdays, though the trio is expected to be playing within the organization whenever the 20-21 season begins.

The Golden Knights helped kick off their expansion with three first round picks including sixth overall to select Cody Glass got their first look at the four-year WHL graduate in the AHL playoffs a season ago where he scored 15 points in 22 games en route the Calder Cup Final, where the Chicago Wolves fell in five games to Charlotte (then-Hurricanes affiliate). His 39-game NHL look saw 12 points, but most believe they’ve got something here. Nick Suzuki (17 via Columbus) and Erik Brannstrom (15 via the Islanders) were dealt for immediate talent as Vegas continues to surprise as an immediate contender, helping fetch Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, respectively. This ultimately might be the truest endorsement of why you want to fill the cupboard and manage your assets accordingly.

The Bruins, Flames and Blue Jackets have had mixed results from their three-pick showings. Jake DeBrusk has shwn that he can score a bit and is a quality NHL player; and Sean Monahan has emerged from the sixth overall pick to the second-best point getter from his class, trailing only Nathan MacKinnon. But the Bruins patience is waning thin on Jakub Zboril and Zach Senyshyn. Meanwhile Emile Poirier (22 in ’13) and Morgan Klimchuk (28) are no longer with the Flames’ organization after combining for 9 games in the show. The Blue Jackets, who hoped the ’13 draft would heal seemingly a franchise stuck in rebuild since its inception, swung and missed on Kerby Rychel (19) and Marko Dano (27). Alex Wennberg (14) has managed to be a regular, but his latest season, 22 points in 57 games is cause for concern and a buyout has been speculated.

If you’re not completely terrified yet, let’s talk about the 2020 Draft–what we presume to know and what we have to wonder about now several hours before the main event.

Also concerning the New York metropolitan area are the Rangers, who won the NHL’s second phase of the draft lottery, effectively on the clock since August. It would take a major haul to pry first and Alexis Lafreniere from John Davidson and Jeff Gorton. All signs point to the club welcoming their first-ever first overall pick to join the likes of Hart Trophy finalist, Artemi Panarin along with Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko. And when’s the last time a team holding the first overall pick appeared immediately poised to be a playoff team the following season?

The Kings, Senators (x2) and Red Wings will round out the top-five. Quinton Byfield and Tim Stutzle, according to those most connected, won’t be around when lottery-snubbed, Detroit steps to the virtual podium at four. Los Angeles’ interest in Stutzle has been well-documented by the likes of Sam Cosentino (Sportsnet). Both he and Bob McKenzie have the German left wing ahead of the OHL center. The Sens, who own fifth thanks to the Sharks, will have no issue with taking a six-foot-four center at three and the largest concession for sending away franchise defenseman, Erik Karlsson in Sept. 2018.

What can we expect from Steve Yzerman’s second draft with the Wings? The bar is already pretty high in the shock department after taking Moritz Seider sixth overall in Vancouver last June. There won’t be the same audible instant reaction if the club goes seemingly off-the-board once again. But even with Cole Perfetti, Marco Rossi, Lucas Raymond and Jamie Drysdale all likely left on the board, Jack Quinn has some buzz around his name after scoring 52 goals in 62 games on a stacked Ottawa 67’s club last season. He seems to be a consensus top-10 pick, but there’s some that wonder if he gets passed five.

Ottawa, who will pick fifth and 28th on Tuesday, don’t appear likely to dangle their own pick in this year’s draft. Even with some of the above-mentioned names available, what might they think of Jake Sanderson to add to an already US-heavy prospect pool? He doesn’t project to be as productive from the back-end as Drysdale, but rather could be a big-minute, two-way defender with enough offense to warrant a top-five selection.

That puts the next three suitors–Anaheim, the Devils and Buffalo in line to potentially reap the rewards just outside the top-five. Do the Ducks target defense at sixth after selecting forwards with all five of their first round selections since 2016? Their youngest NHL-caliber blueliner is Jacob Larsson, 23, who they selected in 2015. For all the talk surrounding the Devils and goaltending, is Yaroslav Askarov, the top-ranked goaltender in this year’s draft their prime target? While it’s conceivable, Tom Fitzgerald, overseeing his first draft as GM, offered praise to a variety of forward prospects last week.

“There’s a lot of talent, especially in the top 10 or 12,” he said. “The hardest thing is, they’re all different. They’re all very different. But very good, but very different. You’re trying to project which different will hit the ceiling. If you know this draft at all, you know every position is available and same positions are different players. You’re just trying to figure out which players you believe as an organization, you can get the most in return for.”

On Alexander Holtz:

“He’s a pure goal-scorer,” Fitzgerald said in his analysis of the Djurgarden, Swe., product ranked 2nd among European skaters, according to Central Scouting’s Final Rankings. “He’s got the great shot, skates well. I would call him a north-or-south type player. He does his best work in stride going north. He finds open seams and open areas in the offensive zone and when he does find space, it doesn’t take him too long to get that great shot off. He’s the best pure goal-scorer in the draft.”

On Rossi:

“He’s a great 200-foot player,” he said of the Ottawa 67, who tallied 120 points this season. “He’s a small player–he’s five-foot-nine, but he’s thick. He’s got a strong lower body, he’s got great leverage, a strong stick, he protects pucks extremely well. He takes a lot of pride in his play away from the puck. His coach has compared him to Nico (Hischier) and that’s a great comp. The biggest thing I take away from that is the pride that he takes away from the puck. He’s a player that the majority–if not all of his junior career–has been played as a center and that’s where he’s getting drafted as, a center. Can a kid like that slide over to the wing? I’m sure he could, he’s extremely smart, but he’s a good 200-foot center.”

On Raymond:

“He’s more dynamic than Holtz,” the GM said of the Frolunda listed center with 10 points in 33 games–ranked fourth among European skaters. “He’s more of an east-to-west player. He’s got more quickness. He’s not quite the goal-scorer that Holtz is, but he can score. He can drive offense play coming through the neutral zone with the puck, carrying it to the zone, pulling up, making late plays. He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten bigger. We’re able to watch him now and watch him in his league and see how well he’s doing and how adjusted he is to playing in the men’s league versus what he did in the past.”

The Sabres, who will round out the top-eight on Tuesday, are another team with a first-time GM at the helm of the draft. Kevyn Adams also has the task of trying to best utilize Buffalo’s six picks in the Draft after making significant cuts to their scouting department in the form of 22 scouts let go in June.

What do the Devils end up doing with their additional picks on Tuesday including 18th overall (via Arizona and Taylor Hall) and 20th (via Tampa/Vancouver and Blake Coleman)? It’ll be interesting to watch unfold. Here’s a few thoughts on what could be the options here.

  1. In Corey Pronman’s first round mock draft on The Athletic, he mentioned that the Devils could have interest in one of Sanderson or Drysdale. But, as mentioned above, there’s a potential that Ottawa and Anaheim go blueline back-to-back, effectively forcing New Jersey to take a forward or go for the goaltender–which I’m not fully convinced they’d do at seven. I’m equally hesitant to suspect Askarov would make it to 18–Minnesota (11), Carolina (13) and Edmonton (14) might all have levels of interest in upgrading their goalie cupboard. Could Braden Schneider, a 6-foot-2 inch, two-way defenseman out of Brandon (WHL), be around for the Devils’ second pick? If so, that would bring one of the top-five defensemen available to NJ, which doesn’t sound too bad if they miss out on the top of the class.
  2. They could potentially move down from 18, with a safety voucher in knowing that they’ll pick again at 20. The Devils are without another pick until 83. Anaheim picks at 27 and 36. Couple that with a future third and maybe you have something? Any move-down option for either of the picks would need to also include at least a first-half second rounder and there’s only a handful of teams that could make that work.
  3. They could look to utilize one or two of their picks to acquire current NHL talent. But who is available with term and fits the desired age group for the Devils of under 26? And absent a definitive start to the training camp and the regular season, even some teams with cap issues aren’t as handcuffed as they’ve been previously. Cap is still king, but there’s still enough up in the air to make some pause on their decisions here.
  4. Other potential options for 18 & 20: Rodion Amirov (LW, Ufa (KHL)–Good chance he goes higher than his TSN ranked-19. Big-time offensive producer–could even go in single-digits from what I’ve seen and heard.) Seth Jarvis (C, Portland (WHL)–Probably a playmaker, but he can score, too.) Brendan Brisson (C, Chicago (USHL)/Committed to Michigan (NCAA, Big 10)–Son of the Pat Brisson, agent for Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Patrick Kane, among others. Praised for his skating and skillset. Thinks offense a lot of the time and has a good shot. Maybe a bubble first rounder, but there’s enough interest.)

This and more will unfold in the next few hours. Even if it will look extraordinarily different, it’s draft day and maybe more now than ever, we all deserve a few hours to step away from the present and lock our minds to the future.