The first round of the NHL Draft kicks off this evening in Los Angeles. The first round of the draft is always unpredictable--weeks of meticulous planning and pontificating go out the window with the first trade--but this one almost seems even more unpredictable than usual. What makes it so unpredictable this year is that there are so many interesting question marks surrounding players, and it's impossible to tell how each team will react to them.
With that in mind, instead of giving you a mock draft that is sure to be horribly wrong, I thought I'd share some of the storylines that I'm curious to see unfold this evening.
1. Taylor vs. Tyler
This has been done a million times before by everyone else so I won't belabor the point. I've made it clear that my personal opinion is that Edmonton has to pick Taylor Hall, and have pretty much maintained Hall would go number one all year long. I rubbed some people the wrong way here back in October when I said the race between the two was manufactured drama, and heading into Draft Day, it kind of looks that way with Hall being nearly everyone's heavy favorite. But stranger things have happened, and it will be worth watching to see who goes number one.
2. What Order Will the Top D Go?
More interesting than spots one and two in the draft are the defensemen that could go three, four,and five in the draft: Cam Fowler, Erik Gudbranson, and Brandon Gormley. Fowler has been the heavy favorite all year, but in the past couple of weeks, it has become trendy to downgrade Fowler and move the other two past him. Personally, it's hard for me to go against Fowler, having watched him so many times over the past couple of years, but I can also see the drawbacks to that selection. I don't envy the guys that have to put their jobs on the line to make that pick.
You can also throw two American defensemen into the mix in Derek Forbort and Jon Merrill. Popular theory is that they're a notch below the other three, but both are ranked higher than Thomas Hickey or Blake Wheeler was when teams jumped up to grab them in the top five.
3. The Russian Factor
There are five talented Russian players that could go in the first round of the draft: Alex Burmistrov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko, Stanislav Galiev, and Kirill Kabanov. Kabanov will likely fall out of the first round for a myriad of red flags beyond his nationality, but it will be interesting to see how teams handle the other players.
Personally, I'd be extremely nervous about taking any of those players early. Even if they swear they want to play in the NHL--which some have--I don't think any have the ability to step into the NHL next year and make a contribution. If they don't make the NHL right away, you have to worry about the player getting frustrated working his way up through the minor leagues and going home, or deciding to cash in on a big payday in the KHL.
It's going to be a high-stakes game of chicken as teams try to decide what the tipping point is where the talent those players have finally outweighs the risk involved. A big factor could be the position that team's GM is in. If he's on the hot seat, I could see him shying away from the risk of having a first round pick not report to the team, while a team on safer ground may be more willing to take the chance at a potential home run player.
4. The Little Guys
Little guys Jeff Skinner, Mikael Granlund, and Jaden Schwartz could all be selected in the first round of the draft. While teams are still always looking for big players, it's nice to see that players that bring electrifying offensive ability to the game are getting more serious looks from NHL teams.
5. Big Points vs. Big Competition
There are four late '91 birthdate forwards on the fence for the first round, and it will be interesting to see who gets their name called tonight. On one side, you've got Brock Nelson and Beau Bennett, two players who put up eye-popping stats against a fairly weak level of competition. On the other side, you've got Tyler Pitlick and Riley Sheahan, two players with modest numbers, but who played against high quality competition at the NCAA level next season.
Nelson and Bennett are often considered as having more "upside," though Pitlick's senior year of high school compares pretty favorably to what Nelson did this year, and Sheahan scored only slightly less often than Bennett in his final year of junior hockey. Could either of Nelson or Bennett done what Pitlick and Sheahan did in college hockey this year? It's tough to say.
Jack Campbell seems a lock to go in the first round, and most recent chatter has him going very high in the first round of the draft. Calvin Pickard could also sneak late into the first round. The problem is that analysis and statistics suggest that it is not a good idea to take a goalie in the first round, or even in the top 100 picks of the draft.
Some team will take Campbell in the first round. It's just a question of which teams is brave enough(stupid enough?) to take that risk.
This year, more than any other, players seemed to suffer long term injuries that severely impacted their draft status, starting with Brett Connolly, who started the year ranked fourth in the draft thanks to a great first season in the WHL, but missed most of the year due to a nagging hip injury. He should still go in the top ten, but may go towards the lower end of that.
Teemu Pulkkinen is a first round talent, but has already had three surgeries on three different parts of his body. Also, this gets buried under the multitude of other problems he created for himself, but Kirill Kabanov missed a good chunk of this year with a broken wrist as well.