The annual NHL Entry Draft is set to begin in Sunrise, Florida on Friday night and who will win it just about everybody knows.
Edmonton will crow about its good-luck first pick Connor McDavid while Buffalo can rightfully brag that Jack Eichel might even be better.
In terms of our four New York-New Jersey teams, Buffalo leads with aggregate picks at eight while the Devils follow with six and the Rangers and Islanders are tied with a total of five each.
Meanwhile, the “Who’s Better — McDavid vs. Eichel” continues into the night.
Some experts such as hockey TV producer Tim Rappleye wax ecstatic over the Sabres’ man.
“Eichel was the youngest player at the World Championships,” says Rappleye, “averaging a point a game for Team USA against some of the NHL’s best.”
“His storybook OT buzzer-beater over Slovakia propelled USA to a Cinderella bronze medal. And he got better each night.”
So what happens after the Eichel second overall pick? Nobody really knows because this much-debated 2015 player exchange has been called “a crap shoot.”
Bill Torrey originated that immortal remark when he was the Islanders rookie general manager in 1972 and plucked right wing Billy Harris as first overall.
Cliff Fletcher, boss of the Atlanta Flames, went second and chose Jacques Richard.
Torrey won the crapshoot. Richard was a skating disaster. A serviceable scorer, Harris’ value rose historically after he was part of the 1980 deal in which he was traded to Los Angeles in the exchange that brought Butch Goring to the Island.
Plus four Stanley Cups for Torrey, coach Al Arbour and a cast of Hall of Famers led by another top draft pick, Denis Potvin.
The draft sure does produce champs. Chicago corralled its current captain Jonathan Toews third overall in 2006 and a year later nabbed Patrick Kane with the first selection.
Each already has three Cup rings.
For the Rangers, Islanders, Devils and Sabres, the current draft presents a chance for each club to fortify its future in a variety of ways.
What makes this draft so intriguing is the array of talent following the marquee magicians, McDavid and Eichel. And with the sixth overall pick, the Devils might find a gem to brighten their offensive picture.
In addition to the sixth overall spot, GM Ray Shero has two second round selections (36 and 41) as well as a third (67) fourth (97) and sixth-rounder (157).
As for his sixth overall pick, Shero oozes hope. “Any time you pick in the first round,” he asserts, “you have a chance to get an impact player.”
Among the lower-down, long-shot picks an interesting possibility is Freeport, Long Island native Jeremy Bracco.
His size is reminiscent of Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson. Scouts describe him as an elusive skater with blazing speed. Bracco is regarded as the top draft prospect from the New York-New Jersey area.
After Eichel, Buffalo gets the 21st pick as well as two more in the second round (31 and 51). Plus, one each in the fourth (92) fifth (122) sixth (152) and seventh round at 182.
Some scouts have called this draft the deepest in almost a quarter-century and that’s good for the Rangers and Islanders.
And unless Glen Sather engineers a deal, his Blueshirts’ first selection will come late (59) in the second round. Then they’ll pick again with one selection in the third (89) fourth (119) and sixth (179) rounds.
Meanwhile, Garth Snow‘s patience will be tried since his Isles won’t pick — barring a deal — until the third round when he’ll have two selections — 72 and 82. Snow will be at it again in rounds four (112) and six (172) as well as one pick in round seven — 202.
The following are The Maven’s thoughts about our quartet of teams and their draft ambitions:
The Sabres need scoring and that makes Eichel THE man. More important Sabres GM Tim Murray must persuade Jack the Prodigy to join the club this fall. After all, procrastination is the thief of time.
No less than an offense-boost, Buffalo also must emphatically bolster its goaltending foundation. Right down to the acquisition of Chad Johnson from the Islanders this past season, netminding became the bête noir of the club.
In terms of goaltending draft prospects the first name that emerges as a possibility is Mackenzie Blackwood of Barrie. CentralScouting.com likes him enough to have placed the 6’4, 215-pounder at the top of North American goalie prospects.
If another team nabs Blackwood before the Sabres do, there’s an appetizing alternate out of Quebec. In this age of oversized goalie, Callum Booth stands 6’3 and is placed second among the North American puck-stoppers.
Any Buffalo goalie will require more defense than was provided last season. If available, Jakub Zboril is worth a look. He starred on the St. John’s (QMJHL) blue line and is regarded as one sure NHLer in a year or two.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The new, New Jersey hockey era has dawned with Shero inheriting Lou Lamoriello’s baton. And while Ray’s focus is on bolstering the attack, he’ll opt for a defenseman if that player is “the best available at that selection.”
According to the Devils director of scouting David Conte, a few very gifted backliners might inspire his group to advise Shero to bypass a forward on their sixth pick.
“A defenseman is really in play,” Conte admitted. “How do you say no to a guy who is projected to be Drew Doughty? There are some very good defensemen involved in these top picks and I’m sure the teams ahead of us are thinking that, too.”
Conte is thinking about Noah Hanifin of Boston College who could go as high as the third pick right after McDavid and Eichel. Should that happen, New Jersey would have an excellent opportunity to grab the projected next-best. And that would be the Russian blue liner, Ivan Provorov who has starred for the junior Brandon sextet.
Some say that Provorov, who enjoyed a super WHL rookie season, is better than Hanifin although the latter is believed to have a more offensive upside.
Should Shero go with the flow and stick with the plan to pluck a forward, any of the following would be an appetizing choice — on the assumption that someone picking between three and five doesn’t get to him first.
DYLAN STROME: He centered Connor McDavid’s line in Erie and he performed admirably, with 129 points. Kid brother of the Isles’ Ryan Strome, the lad draws raves but will not necessarily go third.
MITCH MARNER: The Devils could use a right wing and this London Knights prize has drawn comparisons to Patrick Kane and Claude Giroux. That may be a long-range stretch but, hey, you never know.
PAVEL ZACHA: He’s described as pro-ready, boasting both size and skill. On the minus side, he missed a good part of last season in Sarnia due to a suspension as well as injuries.
LAWSON CROUSE: What Crouse lacks in overwhelming skill, he manages to compensate for in size and strength. He stands 6’4, 212 pounds and that translates into two words — power forward.
As for lower picks, here are some possibilities:
VINCE DUNN: Here we have an offensive defenseman who can move the puck. At some point he could be projected as sharing the blue line with Andy Greene.
MACKENZIE BLACKWOOD: Sure, Cory Schneider is the goaltender of the present and near future but, long range, New Jersey could use some crease insurance. Blackwood is big, quick and has been compared to Roberto Luongo.
ERIK FOLEY: The center had 27 goals and 27 assists in his first USHL season at Cedar Rapids. He’s a fast skater with a quick shot. Some scouts believe he’s good enough to be picked in the first round.
TOM NOVAK: A top scorer in the USHL, Novak is a playmaker whose specialty is the power-play. The Devils could use his passing skills but size and skating are possible debits.
The Devils have a pick in the third and fourth rounds and they should target forwards. With that in mind, keep an eye in later rounds on forwards Mitchell Stevens (Saginaw, OHL) who’s fast and competitive. Also, Michael Spacek, a quick Czech (Pardubice) with good hands and Gabriel Gagne (Victoriaville, QMJHL), a tall winger with a solid, all-round game.
NEW YORK RANGERS
President’s Trophy winners and one win shy of the Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers do not need much more than their present core. Their first pick arrives in the second round at 59. In round three, they choose at 89 with further selections down below.
What will they seek? As games five and seven of the Eastern Conference Final proved, the offensive machine could use another accurate gunner or two.
Despite the effective contributions of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller, the Blueshirts couldn’t deliver key goals when needed against Tampa Bay. Lightning shutouts in their last two MSG games underlined the point.
One solution might be in the organization. Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg and Pavel Buchnevich are all forwards in the system who could help the big club down the line.
With Ryan McDonagh anchoring the well-rounded defense, and Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, the Rangers have the potential to ice the best blue line corps in the NHL. Still, looking for another defenseman-of-the-future could lead Glen Sather to check out one prospect:
NICOLAS MELOCHE: He is a tall, hard-working defenseman who has an edge to his game. With Baie-Comeau in the QMJHL he had 34 points in 44 games. The Hockey News targets this big, physical specimen at 54 but that puts him in easy range of the Blueshirts’ pick at 59.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Islanders first pick is in the third round at 72 and 82. And while there likely are some diamonds in the haystack, careful digging will be necessary by head scout Trent Klatt and his crew
For starters, Klatt operates in a good position since the big club has a core of young forwards but they may add more. Their blue-line is stocked but could use one more not-too-old veteran in the free agent Johnny Oduya category; that’s assuming that Chicago fails to re-sign the Cup-hero defenseman.
In goal, the Isles are secure with vet Jaroslav Halak and there’s a bevy of prospects well in the background. The trick is that — at the moment at least — there’s no sure back-up unless Snow opts to return Michal Neuvirth for another season. Otherwise, they could look to Mikko Koskinen or Kevin Poulin; not to mention a large cache of free agent net minders.
Poulin only played in one NHL game this year but could be a back-up in the future, while Koskinen is developing his game in Europe.
If none of these potentials pan out, the Isles have Ilya Sorkin and Eamon McAdam to turn to within the organization.
Snow has done a masterful job crafting his team and, despite the lateness of his picks, some beauties may be found.
Finally, one name that keeps coming up has an NHL ring to it:
ADAM MUSIL: He’s ex-NHLer Bobby Holik’s nephew and plays like his uncle. He’s a big power forward with a decent set of skills who put up solid numbers with the Red Deer Rebels.
Make no mistake, whatever their choices, the Islanders have become a team that’s ready to contend and move past the first playoff round.
What’s most fascinating about this annual player market is that it tends to becloud the excitement that soon follows. That would be the free agent frenzy and an inevitable spate of trades.
In other words, the hockey season never really ends.