If you thought the 2019 NHL Entry Draft left much to be desired, particularly in the extra-curricular department, then you’re not alone.
The draft kicked off just as many expected it would: U.S. center, Jack Hughes selected first overall, making it four-straight seasons with a non-Canadian prospect picked atop their class and the eighth American to go first overall in the history of the entry draft. Winger, Kaapo Kakko, was scooped up one pick later–the fourth-straight year with a Finnish-born prospect going inside the top-three. For the Devils and Rangers, the one-two punch should help re-ignite the Hudson River rivalry and help the fortunes of two franchises in the midst of rebuilds.
“He can be a star, no different than s0me of these kids in this draft,” Devils general manager, Ray Shero said about Hughes. “With Jack, we’ve watched him a long time–no different thnan a lot of teams. We got really fortunate on April 19 to win the lottery. It’s a special day for our franchise. He thinks the game at such a high level–his skating, his instincts, the will to win and he’s going to develop. We’re going to be patient with him, but he’s stepping into a really good situation.”
The Athletic’s hockey prospect writer, Corey Pronman, who broke down the NHL draft early this month, has described Hughes as a player able to immediately crack the club’s top-six and one eligible to be “the cornerstone of the franchise’s rebuild.”
Rangers GM, Jeff Gorton, who saw his club also jump up in April with a lottery leap of four spots for the right to select second overall. Like Shero, he sees the pick as an enormous step in the right direction for his franchise.
“We all saw what he did over the course of the season,” Gorton said following the pick of Kappo. “We saw that he won a few championships and excelled at every one of them. It’s an exciting day for us. You won the lottery all those months ago and finally you get to call the name. It’s an exciting day for us.”
Many believe Kakko, who is measured at six-foot-two, 194 pounds, might be the most NHL-ready prospect of the 2019 class, many impressed with the Finn’s skillset. Gorton among them.
“He does a lot of things well,” he said. “He creates space for himself with his body. He’s able to use his body to shield people off and find himself with a little extra time that other players aren’t able to do. He can make plays really quickly and identify where they are and he’s a threat to score from far out. Which is a unique in this day and age. There’s a lot he can do.”
But outside the expected, there was still some intrigue in the first round, despite the absence of much on the tradespeare. Let’s review.
1. The Night Belonged to the USNTDP
Hughes might have started the night off for the U.S. program when he went atop the draft, but he was just one of a long list of Americans drafted in the first round. A record-shattering eight USNTDP players were announced on stage on Friday night: Hughes, Alex Turcotte (5th, Kings), Trevor Zegras (9th, Ducks), Matthew Boldy (12th, Wild), Spencer Knight (13th, Panthers), Cam York (14th, Flyers), Cole Caufield (15th, Canadiens), John Beecher (30th, Bruins).
“It’s been very demanding, with that high reward comes a lot of management,” he said. “I think with this group, they’ve done a great job of making the coaches have to adapt and having a relationship with player-coaches. They’re the ones providing inspiration, it’s not just the other way around. The players are offering up opportunities for the coaches to graspt. It’s not always verbal communication, but you watch a player do something that they need or need a fresh approach or a twist of something within the system to keep it unpredictable for the opposition.”
Even more Americans from the program are expected to go early in the second round including defensemen, Drew Helleson, Henry Thrun, Alex Vlasic and Marshall Warren.
Perhaps…no wait, definitely, the biggest surprise of the first round came at sixth overall when longtime Wing turned new general manager, Steve Yzerman said “from Mannheim.” Moritz Seider is a six-foot-three, 204 pound blueliner. For what he lacks in offensive upside, he seems to make up for with his defensive IQ and a strong level of compete. Pronman noted his potential to be a big minute-eater, who skates well and has an impressive wingspan.
Still, the pick came as a shock to all parties–including Seider.
For years in Tampa, Yzerman helped build a strong stable of prospects, so his critics might be somewhat silenced at another gutsy pick by the veteran GM.
“We think he has excellent hockey sense–he’s a big kid, a real good skater,” Yzerman said. “Our opinion is he was one of the top defensemen in the draft. We pick at sixth and 35, we had to make a decision and he wasn’t going to be there at 35. We explored options to possibly trade back, but weren’t able to do that. But we’re pretty excited to get him.”
At sixth, Seider was the second blueliner selected following Bowen Byram at fourth to Colorado and followed by Philip Broberg (8th, Edmonton) and Victor Soderstrom (11th, Arizona), a pair of Swedish defensemen who also saw themselves go higher than initially ranked. In total, 10 first round picks were defensemen. That’s four less than 2018’s first round and one more than 2017.
3. The Home Team Splash
Only one thing was less surprising than Hughes and Kakko going one-two in the draft. That of course being NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman greeted to a plentiful supply of boo-birds. The league’s top boss, who seems to embrace the reaction, settled the crowd down with the introduction of Canuck greats and recently retired, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who went second and third overall to Vancouver 20 drafts ago.
Vancouver, who had reportedly been shopping their 10th overall pick, kept it and selected Russian winger, Vasily Podkolzin. The pick could have the potential to be one of the great steals of the opening round, but concerns over Podkolzin’s immediate availability with a two-year KHL contract saw him slide considerably, though it wasn’t all that unexpected. He split his 2018-19 campaign in the KHL, VHL and MHL while also appearing at the U-18’s and U-20’s for Russia.