White Cover Magazine
You’ve heard this is a weak draft. Don’t believe it.
Sure, the past two years hurled sure things at the four teams lucky enough to snag top two picks in back-to-back drafts – Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in 2015, then Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine in 2016. Of those, only Laine isn’t a centre, meaning his franchise player potential for Winnipeg has a ceiling. But lucky for the Jets, Laine can shoot a beach ball through concrete and Mark Scheifele’s got the middle covered. (NOTE: The first link in the past sentence is not an actual video of Laine shooting a beach ball through concrete, which is physically and anatomically impossible. It’s just a clip of him shooting a puck really well.)
And yes, the top of 2017’s first round – the very top – has question marks. Nico Hischier has risen just a little too fast and a little too early to be considered a bonafide phenom like any of the aforementioned budding (or bloomed) superstars, and Nolan Patrick – the only available player this year with a junior pedigree that could compare to past No. 1s – hasn’t played completely injury-free and without injury re-risk since Manitoba was a postage stamp province.
But this draft is depend there will be prizes dotting the entire landscape of the first, and some of the second, round. Read on…
1. New Jersey Devils – Nico Hischier (C)
Hischier is the pick for the moment. Or, rather, he’s auditioned best on the biggest stages this season – he was dominant for an over-achieving Switzerland at the World Juniors, he scored a YouTube-worthy tally during the CHL’s Top Prospects Game, and (most importantly) his stats were eye-popping for most of his season in the Q with the Halifax Mooseheads. (He tailed off a little towards the end, but was still excellent. Any thought that his play dropped off after Christmas is probably due to our un-managed expectations.)
Hischier’s the best fit for the Devils, even if I’d have him ranked behind Patrick overall (and I would). I’m not sure he’s a for-sure top-line NHL centre, but his speed and dynamic style of attack would pair well with Taylor Hall and the team’s cast of one-way talent – Kyle Palmieri, Pavel Zacha, Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, and the rest.
The Devils, like most teams at the top of any draft, need help in every area. And even where they don’t need it, they could use it. So instead of taking a flyer on Nolan Patrick’s rugged prairie playmaking, they’ll make Hischier the highest-drafted Swiss player of all-time and watch him re-insert whatever offence they lost when Zach Parise bolted for Minnesota.
2. Philadelphia Flyers – Nolan Patrick (C)
You can’t pass on Patrick’s potential here, and the Flyers – who already have immediate top-line future in players like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Ivan Provorov – should be thrilled to snag a hard-nose, intelligent, overpowering talent.
3. Dallas Stars – Gabriel Vilardi (C/W)
Seems like a weird one. With questions over his speed (he doesn’t have a lot) and his production (not many have brought this up actually, but his point totals with Windsor weren’t nearly as impressive as those of many others ranked right around him), Vilardi could easily drop to the lower end of the top 10 if he isn’t taken by Dallas here. Same deal with a guy like Alex Nylander last year, who was on most top five lists throughout the season before Buffalo snagged him eighth, or Jakob Chychrun, who collapsed from an early-year No. 2 overall slot and was selected 16th by Arizona.
But I like Vilardi a lot, and Dallas can afford to wait on his progression – unlike some of the other teams near them, who need to hit and hit bullseye. He’s only 17 and won’t turn 18 until August, meaning he’s nearly a full year younger than most others he’s competing against in the top of the first round. Consider that fact for a second… Vilardi’s draft year should be next year, analytically speaking, and he still had 61 points in 49 games in the OHL. (Many 17 year olds don’t explode, stats-wise, until they’re a good year older than Vilardi is right now.)
There are no questions about his character, his commitment, or his positive affect on the game or his team’s possession and production. His IQ and his on-ice vision are his strongest assets. And, in Dallas, he doesn’t need to shatter the ice with his speed. The Stars already have Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn to the break the game open, but they do need someone to ease out Jason Spezza and fill in down the middle, and Vilardi could bring the size and skill to Dallas’s second unit that someone like Leon Draisaitl brings to Edmonton’s.
4. Colorado Avalanche – Miro Heiskanen (D)
All that talk about how Colorado has so much young talent and that they should be better than the standings show… it’s a lie. Maybe not a lie, because a lie is intentional. But it’s foolish.
Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Barrie… good for the Avs, they’ve been collecting names. But there’s no heart here, no central nervous system, no plan. Joe Sakic and the Avs’ front office have shown no recognition or understanding of their team’s or players’ value, a mental deficiency which was unearthed when they basically asked for an entire farm system in return for Duchene, and showcased a couple years ago when they signed an old, slow Jarome Iginla and expected him to gel with a young and blistering collection of shooters and skates.
They need help everywhere. Even up-front. But their greatest, most obvious need is on the back-end. And they have enough speed and saucer passes already, so someone like Cale Makar or Timothy Liljegren can salt someone else’s shuffleboard.
Heiskanen is the top-ranked blueliner in this draft, a steady and stoic two-way tower that perfectly fits the bill that Colorado has accidentally ordered up and have to expense.
If the Avalanche don’t overthink it, and there’s a chance they will, they’ll select the Finn and celebrate.
5. Vancouver Canucks – Cale Makar (D)
Generally accepted ‘wisdom’ says the Canucks need a No. 1 centre, which means they should draft a No. 1 centre. I mean, the math adds up.
And there are top-line doughnuts available here at fifth, or they will be – and if it shakes out like I’ve predicted so far, the Canucks and their fans would be thrilled to have a coin toss choice between Casey Mittelstadt and Cody Glass. And let me say, I’d be thrilled with either. They’re different centers but they’re excellent in their own ways, and either would give Vancouver a hopeful long-term stalwart down the middle.
But Vancouver, cliche coming, needs help everywhere. And drafting and marinating top defenders isn’t a fad or a trend, even if the conversation around currently successful models like the ones in Nashville, Anaheim, and Ottawa sometimes takes that tone. Building around the blue line has always been important – every Cup champion in recent memory has won because of their deep D-core and their goalies, from Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronwall with Detroit in 2008, to Keith, Seabrook and Co. in Chicago (2010, 2013, 2015) and especially Doughty’s Kings in 2012 and 2014. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be exceptions to this golden rule, but Vancouver won’t have a decade-plus dynasty with Crosby and Malkin to build around.
And Cale Makar isn’t just your default defensive selection. He doesn’t just fill a hole.
He’s an offenceman, the kind of blueliner who could create more offence than he stuffs it, and he’s the kind of talent the Canucks, quite frankly, can’t afford to pass on.
Taking Glass or Mittelstadt would answer a need. But combining Makar with Olli Juolevi, Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher, perhaps Chris Tanev and maybe Nikita Tryamkin (one day in an alternative future) could be a grab-bag of luxury that leaves other Western teams as envious as the shade of green on Vancouver’s sweater.
6. Vegas Golden Knights – Casey Mittelstadt (C)
I spoke about Mittelstadt in the paragraphs above. His skills is obvious and you can’t copy and paste what he brings – speed, stick handling, Nosferatu levels of prediction and playmaking, and surprising size (he’s only 6’1″ but he’s already weighing in at a stocky, study 201 pounds).
Vegas has the longest, hardest climb of any team in this ‘article’. The expansion draft will give them first (and last) crack at a collection of third-liners and No. 5 defencemen, and sixth spot in the draft will give them first (and last) crack at whoever falls out of the top five.
That said, the Jets got Scheifele in the second half of the top 10 in 2011, and he’s evolved into a better player than anyone taken ahead of him. So there’s a way for the Knights to make this work for them, as long as they steer into the skid.
Making Mittelstadt, the dynamic American, their first-ever franchise draft pick could be a home run – and it’s a swing worth whiffing on. There’s a chance Mittelstadt is the best player to come out of this draft, and it’s a reality he’s not far behind Patrick or Hischier already.
7. Arizona Coyotes – Cody Glass (C)
Yeah, Arizona needs help defensively. But, I mean, every team could use some.
And I’m not certain the Coyotes have the power up-front they think they do. Dylan Strome has yet to show he was worth a third overall pick, or will be worthy of being appointed or anointed to Arizona’s top line. Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, and Clayton Keller are all highlight-creating set pieces, but are they foundational players? And with Chychrun and a still-very-young Oliver Ekman-Larsson manning their back-end, Arizona should be looking for insurance.
Cody Glass, who could be taken anywhere from third to here or later, may vault to the top of Arizona’s centre prospect watch immediately after his selection.
8. Buffalo Sabres – Timothy Liljegren (D)
The Sabres end the free-fall and select the Swede who started the year as the co-No. 1 with Nolan Patrick.
Mono and inconsistent ice time (early this past season) have fostered the perception that Liljegren has regressed, but there’s little evidence to suggest that’s true. Heiskanen and Makar have rocketed up the rankings while Liljegren flat-lined, but his skills and the reason for his near-phenom status a year ago haven’t gone anywhere.
Buffalo already has Eichel and a lineup of terrific forwards to build around – Sam Reinhart and Ryan O’Reilly especially, and perhaps a maturing Evander Kane among them. Robin Lehner was just fine last season, and pairing Liljegren with Rasmus Ristolainen will round out the edges on Buffalo’s uneven roster.
9. Detroit Red Wings – Elias Pettersson (C)
This seems like a reach if you’re thinking that most of the players still available here – Owen Tippett, Michael Rasmussen, and especially Martin Necas – have been ranked higher than Peterson all season.
But this light and not-so-secret gem in the rough would be a terrific grab for the Red Wings. It feels very Detroit, as the franchise has a long and infamous history with Swedes and deep European dives, but Pettersson is super-skilled and he’ll fill out his 6’1″ frame. He’d also give the Wings another nice piece to grow in their garden, which needs more bloom than the treading-water Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, and Tomas Tatar have shown so far.
Peterson could be a long-term solution down the middle for the Wings, and would take some pressure off their talented an aforementioned young starlets. Detroit’s entering a Colorado-like era where quantity and pool depth are the way out of the waves.
10. Florida Panthers – Owen Tippett (W)
Snipe, snipe, snipe.
Florida’s unfortunate season gives them a fortunate chance to add more firepower to a forward core that is already pretty darn good. Aleks Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trochek, probably Jonathan Marchessault, Nick Bjugstad, maybe Reilly Smith, Mike Matheson, Keith Yandle, and Aaron Ekblad are a solid group already, and Owen Tippett gives them a hungry, heat-seeking goal scorer.
The challenge for Florida will be getting Tippett – or whoever they pick – into the lineup asap, because the Cats are in win-now or win-soon mode. But in three years, when Crosby’s beard is grey and Ovechkin’s hair is platinum silver, the Panthers could be ready to pounce on the East with Tippett riding shotgun.
11. Los Angeles Kings – Martin Necas (C/W)
And with complete awareness of how silly it is to burden a potential top 10 or 15 pick and future prospect with that comparison and (therefore) expectation, you can see the reasoning. Necas is shifty and creative offensively. He’s not small but not going to physically empower anyone. He has a motor – he’s a tireless worker and contributor. His size, style, and best attributes are similar to Giroux’s. And Necas, most importantly for the Kings, brings variety. He will play the wing or center, and he’ll find a way to contribute even if he can’t leapfrog the established depth chart ahead of him right now (or ever).
This is paramount for a team like Los Angeles, which is entering salary cap hell, if it’s not there already. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Jonathan Quick are all stars and studs in their own right, but none are getting younger and all – proportional to their age and the rest of their roster’s decline – are getting more expensive. At least, they’re not getting cheaper. Then consider they’re locked into a useless Dustin Brown for $5,875,000 a year until 2022, plus Marian Gaborik at $4,875,000 a year until 2021, and consider their depth is non-existent past a few players who were really important in 2014, and the Kings need young talent that can play up-and-down and across their lineup as much as any club in the ‘Chel.
They’ve got it with Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, they seem to have something with Adrian Kempe and Kale Clague, and they’ll get it with Necas, too.
The Czech national is a top five talent to some. For L.A. to get him at 11th, that’s a terrific consolation prize for a team that tried (very hard) and failed (quite decisively) to make the postseason.
12. Carolina Hurricanes – Eeli Tolvanen (W)
When most teams say they’re in position to “take the best player available,” regardless of position, it’s not a good thing. It means they need help everywhere, or that they’re high enough in the draft that they just can’t afford to miss or bust, and mostly it means they’re afraid to fuck up.
Not so for Carolina. On D, they’re good. Justin Faulk is a trade suspect but they’d be better to keep him without a good package or prize coming back, and Noah Hanifin is in the show and elite-ing more and more by the month. He also headlines a group yet to make the NHL, led by Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown. Up front, Nicholas Roy was a steal and Sebastian Aho is already a top-line talent. They join Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner, Teuvo Teravainen, and Victor Rask in a solid nucleus.
They need goalies, but not this early. And who couldn’t use more talent? Hence, best player available.
So, the Canes pick Eeli Tolvanen – once thought to be a top five pick, even higher – and watch him rip holes in water bottles for the next decade.
*Alternatives here would be Klim Kostin, Nick Suzuki, and Kailer Yamamoto.
13. Winnipeg Jets – Callan Foote (D)
Jeeze, another right-handed defenceman? Didn’t they have a big problem last year, when Jacob Trouba tried to flee after the Jets wouldn’t anoint him above Dustin Byfuglien or Tyler Myers on the food chain?
Well, here’s the thing about today – very soon, it’ll be tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes, who knows if Byfuglien or Myers – or Trouba – will be playing in Manitoba.
The Jets have almost too much yet-to-bloom talent up front, and it’s mathematically impossible for all of their simmering prospects to boil – forwards Petan, Connor, Harkins, Roslovic, Spacek, De Leo, Lemieux, Tanev, Dano, Armia, and Kosmachuk should all be expected to push for big-league jobs and most slots are filled for the foreseeable future. Scheifele, Laine, Ehlers, Wheeler, Little, and maybe Perreault will all be in Winnipeg again (if Perreault isn’t claimed by Vegas), and guys like Scheifele, Laine, Ehlers, Connor, Roslovic, and Petan could all be top six fixtures.
So, take Foote. He’s not as mean as his dead but he’s large, in charge, and has a lot more offensive jam than he’s getting credit for – Foote had 57 points in 71 games with the Kelowna Rockets last season. Think Brandon Carlo or Dougie Hamilton, if you’re looking for player comparisons and best-case projections.
It’s hard to just take experts’ predictions and laminate them, but Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek call Foote “a 12-year NHLer. A really solid, safe pick.” The Jets could use that.
14. Tampa Bay Lightning – Nick Suzuki (C)
For sure, one of the biggest risers in this year’s draft, Suzuki could easily be a top 10 pick by some team that values his game and has scouted him enough to wisely ignore concerns about his size, which probably exist – he’s only 5’10” and 185, which isn’t Lilliputian but is certainly under the ideal height and weight for someone who plays down the middle.
But Suzuki is a dynamic attacker and playmaker, a 200-foot player, and he’d be a sweet bonus for a Lightning team that was crippled and should have been the playoffs this past season. He put up 45 goals and 96 points in just 65 games for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack last season, and he could be a sweet replacement for someone like Ryan Callahan, who the Bolts should be trying to move, for a long time in Florida. Line him up behind Stamkos, Kucherov, Drouin, Brayden Point and the rest, and let them blow your hair back.
This is a roster that’s already able to contend for a Cup, or at least a conference final, and they have a terrific opportunity to do something here – either by drafting Suzuki or someone else, like Kailer Yamamoto, Kristian Vesalainen, or Klim Kostin, or by moving this pick for something to help them right away.
I’d think the Lightning are looking to move this pick for a slick defence man, either a scorer or someone who can transition (Vancouver’s Chris Tanev would be a perfect pluck to move this pick for). But if not, why not invest more in what Yzerman’s been building? Tampa needs to score to shine, and Suzuki (or the others listed above) would put a few behind the goalie.
15. New York Islanders – Klim Kostin (C/W)
It always seems like it’s one step forward, two steps back on Long Island.
The ownership/management and arena always seem to be a circus, captain and franchise player John Tavares says he wants to stay but may not actually do so, and it feels like they’ve just been throwing high-end prospects on a pile for years now… but hey, why not another?
Kostin will drop on this draft, mainly because he’s Russian and a bit of a mystery. But his skill and potential is undeniable, and his size (6’3″, 185 pounds) gives him a powerful presence if his production can’t keep up. There are other options here – on defence, Jusso Valimaki and Nick Hague would be solid mid-round grabs, while Ryan Poehling and Yamamoto could be NHLers tomorrow. But Kostin’s a gamble the Isles can and should bet on.
Talent is talent and it’s premium, no matter what trends may come. It looks like the Isles got it right when they chose Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvilier in 2015, and Kiefer Bellows is a promising snag from 2016. If the d-men available here aren’t worth this early a selection (if Foote, Liljegren, Makar, and Heiskanen are all gone), Kostin will bring size and soft hands on the flanks.