NHL No. 1 draft choices were in the news this past week because so many of them were involved in the conference finals.
You had players ranging from Colorado’s Erik Johnson back in 2006 and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos in 2008 to the Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere (2020).
And of course, a few other prominent contributors in between: Connor McDavid (2015), Nathan MacKinnon (2013), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011). For that matter, if you want to get really particular, you can talk about the players who went No. 2 — such as Victor Hedman (2009) — that maybe should have gone No. 1. In some ways, the Colorado-Edmonton series is a chance to reassess the 2011 draft, where Nugent-Hopkins went first, the Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog went second, the Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau went third and the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad went sixth (to the Ottawa Senators originally). Re-ranking that draft class would be a fascinating exercise.
But one thing that’s changed over the years is how NHL teams make fewer mistakes than they once did when it comes to the high end of the draft. Every once in a while, they get a Nail Yakupov completely wrong — but even when they do, it’s generally from a draft class that doesn’t distinguish itself overall. If Edmonton had gone with their other choice, Ryan Murray, would it have made a substantial difference to their fortunes? Hard to say. Maybe in another universe, Murray stays healthy and his career arc is different. Right now, he’s a depth piece for Colorado.
Coincidentally, it’s also the week the NHL scouting combine is taking place in Buffalo, another sign that things are slowly turning to normal. After two consecutive cancellations because of the pandemic, there were 85 players going through fitness testing and interviews over a six-day period.
Increasingly, the combine has taken on a greater importance in the scouting world; it’s kind of a one-stop shopping opportunity for teams, and especially teams with multiple first-round picks. Not only do they get to assess the physical skills of a player, but it’s also a chance to meet them face-to-face and get a sense of their personalities.
More and more, teams are finding that matters. It’s that old saying: You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
I’ve been asking a few NHL executives what they wanted to hear from the prospects in these interviews and they said it’s getting more difficult to get a true read on the players because a lot of them are getting coached by their advisors and agents in terms of how to answer the anticipated questions.
Sometimes, that’s why teams try to throw a curveball at a prospect — just to see how he might react to a question he wasn’t expecting.
But overall, they want to leave the interview with a sense that the player is confident, not cocky, and ultimately concerned more about winning and the team, as opposed to individual goals. Also, they’d prefer if they understood that no matter how talented or successful they were in junior, college or playing for a team in Europe, the next step — to the NHL — is challenging, even for the most precocious of talents.
If I were writing the script for a prospect, it would go something like this: “It’d be an honor to go in the first round, or first overall, but in the end, it doesn’t matter if you go first, second, 10th, or 56th, it’s what you do next that really counts. The draft is only a beginning — not an end in itself, a first step. As a player, I know the hardest part of the journey is just starting. Some reporter is going to ask me if I expect to make the jump to the NHL right away and the answer is, ideally, of course, I’d like to make the team out of training camp. But I also know if I don’t, and I probably won’t, I can accept that as an honest evaluation of where I stand today, vis-a-vis my current age and physical maturity. In short, I will trust the team to make the right decision, knowing they have my best interests at heart. How do I know that? It’s because, at this point, we’ve formed a partnership. They’ve invested important draft capital in me, so I know they don’t want me to fail. I know it’s in their best interests that I succeed. And since that’s my goal as well, together, let’s make it happen.”
Because the one thing draft history teaches you is that some high picks become stars, some become good players, and some fizzle out. You just need to look at this year’s rookie crop, where you ran a genuine gamut of Calder Trophy contenders. There were the late bloomers (such as Tanner Jeannot or Michael Bunting), the top-10 picks (Trevor Zegras, Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond) and the players that fell out of the top 10, but look like shrewd choices now (Anton Lundell, Dawson Mercer, Matt Boldy, Peyton Krebs). Then there are a whole lot of players, sprinkled in between, that are still trying to sort it out and find their way to the NHL. Some will take longer than others and more than a few highly-anticipated and greatly-heralded young players won’t get there at all.
So, on to the combine, which can be a grueling exercise for teams but mostly for the prospects, who are shuttling from one interview to the next and trying to put their best foot forward.
“I’m not a big fan of these 20-minute group interviews,” explained a long-time NHL executive. “I don’t think it’s fair to the players. They walk in and there are seven guys all throwing a couple of questions at them. I think it’s a lot better to meet them one-on-one away from the rink, and just talk. I believe in the two-hour type of conversation, over dinner, so there’s a longer time frame and a more relaxed atmosphere. You find out their personalities a lot easier by just spending time with them and their interests.
“Because nowadays, they are so well-briefed. They know the set questions that they’ll be asked and so usually they prepare set answers. If they come up with the same cookie-cutter answers, do you really learn anything from them?”
Having said that, however, he added one interesting counterpoint:
“The one thing I’m really surprised about is, why doesn’t every team talk to every player? Because this is the one time you are free to talk to every player that’s out there. Once they become another team’s property, that option isn’t there anymore. So just because you’re drafting 28th doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to someone who’s going to go in the top 10. Because you never know what’s going to happen. Maybe you trade up in the draft. Maybe a player slips down and is available at a point where you thought he might be off the board. Then what?
“If your GM asks you about a guy and your answer is, ‘well, we didn’t really watch him that closely,’ that’s not a good outcome. Why wouldn’t you do a full-scale interview with every good player in the draft when you can? Because seven years from now they might be free agents, or you might get an opportunity to trade for them, or maybe you’re just buying them a free dinner. But I’m always surprised when a team says, ‘well, we don’t know much about this guy.’ That’s the thing about interviews that’s always baffled me. If the answer is, ‘we just didn’t bother,’ then the question is why? Why didn’t you? Why wouldn’t you want a face to face? And you can learn a lot about a player if they won’t want to talk to you. I’ve had players over the years who’ve said, ‘oh, you guys are picking 17th, I’ll be long gone by then.’ Well, you learn a lot from that answer, too.
“The other thing is, if you talked to a draft-eligible player in October by taking them out to dinner, then it’s a lot easier to talk to them throughout the year, after games, because they know who you are. You could learn their personalities over the course of a whole year, instead of in just a 15-minute snippet during combine week, when they’re tired and they’re talked to 15 teams and now they’re just bored with the whole thing.”
Talking to players, by the way, is allowed under the rules. The Arizona Coyotes were penalized a 2020 second-rounder and a 2021 first-rounder for illegally testing draft-eligible players in 2019-20 outside of the combine. That’s what made their actions verboten.
Within those informal chats, what information do teams genuinely want to glean?
“For me,” answered the executive, “it starts with a respect for the game. What are they saying about their teammates? Are they hockey fans? Do they know anything about the history of the game?
“When they eventually get to the NHL and you start to see them in the NHL locker room, the really elite guys were all really respectful of the whole game. They didn’t just walk into the Edmonton locker room or the Pittsburgh locker room and assume they knew everything and that they were the guys. There is something about acting like a pro and respecting your peers and respecting the game.
“The problem we’ve got right now is — and it’s not really the players’ fault — but they are put on a pedestal at such a young age, and if enough people tell you from the time you are 16 on that you are the best, it’s hard not to start believing that or that you have all the answers.
“I’ve always used someone like Matt Cullen as an example. They’re the greatest guys in the world when you meet them at 17, and no matter how much success they may have, their personalities never change, and everybody you ever talk to that had Matt Cullen on their team — whether it was a coach or a teammate – everybody says nothing but nice things about him. You couldn’t find anybody in any city where Matt Cullen played that had a negative thing to say about him. He was like that at the start of his career, and he was like that at the end of his career.”
Only 21 players in NHL history have ever played more than 1,500 regular-season games.
Instructively, Cullen was one.
“Maybe it’s because of social media today, where things have changed,” said the executive. “But I always thought you could watch a guy in your rookie camp or at a conditioning camp, and you could already see the special types of personalities emerge. These are players that respect where they are and don’t believe that something should be given to them. They’re honored to be there, instead of what sometimes happens now, where if a player shows up, sometimes they make you think you should be honored that they came.”
If there is a single overriding continuous storyline to these playoffs, it’s the number of teams that have had to fall back on their second and third choices in goal and then try to survive. The latest injury happened this week in Colorado, when Darcy Kuemper went down and the Avalanche had to turn to Pavel Francouz, who then proceeded to shut out the Edmonton Oilers and give his team a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference final. We saw this unfold earlier in the playoffs — Louis Domingue was good for Pittsburgh early, but faltered as the series against the New York Rangers went along.
Carolina had tremendous success in the regular season, with the combination of Freddie Andersen as the starter and Antti Raanta as the backup, and won the Jennings Trophy for the lowest overall goals-against average. The Hurricanes completely remade their goaltending tandem last offseason, knowing both Andersen and Raanta had durability issues, which is partly why each only got a two-year deal. Presumably, the Hurricanes hoped that if one went down, it would only be a short-term absence and the other would help them muddle through in the meantime. Which is what happened — until both went down, and they had to turn to Pyotr Kochetkov in the end. Kochetkov looks as if he could be their goalie of the future, but there was a deer-in-the-headlights quality to his play in the elimination game.
For Carolina, that’s a difficult way for a season that started with so much promise to end. It also makes advance planning so difficult because you can anticipate some of the ebbs and flows of a season, but if the goalies start to fall and especially if you’re a team that relies heavily on a single dominant starter, there isn’t a lot you can do.
Once in a great while, an unknown comes off the bench and stars momentarily, because they handle the pressure in the short term. But eventually, teams get a book of them, and they usually get exposed eventually.
It’s why just about every general manager of every winning team will acknowledge that at some point, you need a little luck on the way. Luck of your own. Or maybe some bad luck on the other side. If Kuemper is out for any significant stretch, can the Avalanche go all the way, riding Francouz? We’ll see.
Ultimately, three of the four regular-season division champions all fell in the second round — Florida, Calgary and Carolina — and those are probably the hardest deconstructs to undertake internally because, while you’re well aware that you didn’t win the big prize, you have the sense that you’re close and so now what?
Push a few more chips in, hoping that a tweak and greater good fortune turn the tables the next year? Or do what Carolina did in the recent past and make bolder decisions? Whatever you might think of the Hurricanes’ operating philosophy, they get far more decisions right than they do wrong.
Letting Dougie Hamilton walk because they didn’t want to ante up the dollars that New Jersey did to sign him as an unrestricted free agent (seven years, $63 million) turned out OK, especially since Tony DeAngelo — for all the off-ice baggage he carries — did virtually the same job of anchoring the power play, and did it at a fraction of the cost ($1 million on a one-year contract).
Now, the Hurricanes have to decide at what price they are prepared to pay to retain DeAngelo, who was on a prove-it-to-me kind of contract and returned 51 points in 64 games — tied for 15th in defensive scoring. For comparative purposes, Hamilton — in a year when he missed time recovering from a fractured jaw — had 30 points in 62 games for the Devils, tied for 60th in defensive points. DeAngelo averaged 0.80 points per game; Hamilton 0.48, playing roughly the same number of games.
DeAngelo is now a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and thus is in line for a hefty raise. The Hurricanes have six pending unrestricted free agents of some consequence, though the priority will surely be to get Vincent Trocheck signed to a contract extension.
Probably the most puzzling part of the Hurricanes’ second-round exit was how their two key offensive contributors — Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov — had very ordinary postseasons and didn’t step up the way, say, the Rangers’ Zibanejad has. Both are long-term pieces for Carolina, though it is instructive to note that Aho is only two years away from UFA status.
Yes, it may seem like only yesterday, but that controversial five-year, $42.295 million offer sheet Aho signed with the Montreal Canadiens happened three years ago already now. Aho is still just 24; Svechnikov is still just 22. The hope in Carolina is that maturity and just more time in the NHL get them to become more reliable and consistent contributors at crunch time.
Some weeks ago, the maturing process of the high-end prospect — which is where this column started — was a topic I broached with Craig Simpson, former Oiler player and assistant coach and now part of the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast team alongside Chris Cuthbert.
Simpson broke into the NHL with Pittsburgh in the Mario Lemieux era and had a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Edmonton with Mark Messier and the Oilers. We were talking specifically about how the Oilers’ McDavid and the Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau were both demonstrating more poise in every situation — on and off the ice — compared to the earlier, younger versions of themselves.
“I think you’ve seen that with many players, as you watched them grow, even Sidney Crosby,” said Simpson. “It’s understanding not to let things overwhelm you. You think about when they’re at their best as players, it’s when they’re calm and in control. And you can tell when they’ve become a confident, mature person as opposed to a young kid that’s reacting to everything — and maybe overreacting to everything. I think you see that maturity, especially (in) these moments now, in the playoffs, when it becomes more important. You can see their ability to process things so much easier and quicker.
“I love watching the progression of great players. They just keep finding ways of getting better every year. The kid at 18, 19 or 20 is just such a different player at 25, 26 and 27. It’s noticeable, and it’s fun to see.”
(Top photo of Shane Wright: Chris Tanouye / Getty Images)