Being a die-hard fan of a terrible, terrible hockey team, I must admit that I always love counting down the days until the NHL Entry Draft, as pathetic as that may sound. Unlike baseball (where nobody cares about the draft), basketball (smaller rosters means a ton of emphasis on the top guys, and then a massive dropoff), and football (best of the NCAA drafted across all sorts of positions), there’s just something magical about the NHL draft. Maybe it’s the fact that rarely do draft picks see immediate playing time: most are stashed away back in the junior leagues for a couple years until they’re ready. Maybe its that there’s basically only three positions: forward, defense, or goaltender. Maybe it’s the exhaustive coverage the wonderful people at TSN provide, picking apart everyone’s game. In any case, I love the hell outta the NHL draft, and here’s my mock to give you a refresher on the top young hockey players in the world.
- Edmonton Oilers – Nail Yakupov, forward. This will be the third consecutive year the Oilers have the first pick. Last year, they grabbed center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the year before that, winger Taylor Hall. Add those two with other potential forward superstars like Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner, and you wonder why the Oilers are still terrible. One, although the kids show potential, they haven’t hit their full stride yet. Two, the Oilers defense is pretty terrible. The obvious move would be to use the number one pick on the best defenseman available, right? Many fans and pundits are calling for this, but others advocate the best player available, and many agree the best player available in this draft is a Russian winger named Nail Yakupov. The temptation of yet another franchise player is simply too much for Edmonton – if these kids turn out as good as advertised, we could have the makings of another Edmonton dynasty like the one that ruled the NHL in the mid-80s. The previous Edmonton dynasty was full of elite forwards – names like Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, and Mark Messier. Don’t get cute with the number one pick – especially with the increase in head injuries – you can never have too many elite forwards.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – Filip Forsberg, forward. The big x-factor going into this draft is known as “The Russian Factor”, and no team should be more afraid of the Russian factor than Columbus. Although the National Hockey League is the top league in the world, no doubt about it, the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia provides a tempting alternative for young Russian players. Eager for top talent, Russian owners have no problem opening up their wallets, paying much more than the rookie contracts the NHL mandates. Columbus also has a history of using early picks on Russians that haven’t turned out: Nikolai Zherdev (4th overall in 2003) and Nikita Filatov (6th overall in 2008) were both busts, and surprise surprise, both are currently under contract to KHL teams. This draft features four top tier forwards: Yakupov, Forsberg, Grigorenko, and Galchenyuk. Of the four, only Forsberg, a Swede, has no ties to Russia, which makes me think Columbus will play it somewhat safe.
- Montreal Canadiens – Alex Galchenyuk, forward. Galchenyuk is the true wildcard of the first round. Born in Milwaukee, his family emigrated to Russia when Alex was young, so he’s just as much of a flight risk as Yakupov and Grigorenko. He played for the same junior team as Yakupov, and the two would have put up amazing numbers had Galchenyuk not been injured for the majority of the year. Despite this, a lot of people, including myself, still see a potential #1 center in the kid. The Canadiens have done well in previous drafts taking quality defenseman – not to mention guys on the team like PK Subban and Josh Gorges. Sitting pretty at #3 means that I’ll be shocked if the Habs don’t select one of the top four forwards – it’s just a matter of who falls to them, and who they think has the most potential.
- New York Islanders – Ryan Murray, defenseman. Okay, full disclosure here. Ryan Murray may go 1st overall to the Oilers, who need defense. He might go 2nd overall to the Blue Jackets, if they decide they’d rather take a safe Canadian kid over a European. But man, this guy would be perfect anchoring the defense for my hometown Islanders. Most scouts indicate Murray is NHL-ready: he needs no more seasoning in juniors. In fact, Murray was named to Team Canada at the World Championships this year, which shocked a lot of people: usually those rosters fill with NHL superstars whose teams don’t make the playoffs. The conspiracy theory is that Kevin Lowe, GM of the Oilers and Team Canada – brought him onto the team to scout him and determine if he’s worthy of the 1st overall pick. Murray does have his detractors – one TSN scout has him as the 13th best player, and 8th best defenseman of this draft. Others say his game is, well, boring: very sound defensively but he doesn’t wow you with his play. At any rate, I see the Islanders going defense, and why not take the best defenseman available?
- Toronto Maple Leafs – Mikhail Grigorenko, forward. Just a few months ago, the Canadian media was making a big deal outta “Nail or Mikhail”. Like Luck or RG3, Oden or Durant, sportscasters wanted a battle between two prospects for the honor of being drafted 1st overall. Things change. More than Yakupov or Galchenyuk, Grigorenko seems the most likely to bolt for the KHL, in fact rumors surfaced of a Russian team preparing a sizable offer. You don’t wanna waste a high draft pick on a kid who’ll never step foot in North America, y’know? But the Maple Leafs aren’t any organization. They’re the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees of the hockey world, except, well, they kinda suck. Despite their on-ice troubles, Maple Leaf tickets are still real hard to come by, and they have no problem attracting free agents to the so-called “Mecca of Hockey”. There’s a certain draw to playing in Toronto, as opposed to Columbus, Long Island, or Minnesota, and general manager Brian Burke should feel comfortable that he can keep Grigorenko around, for the chance to be the new franchise player for the Leafs. Then again, Grigorenko could fall outta the first round altogether, if GMs know something about this kid that this hockey blogger doesn’t.
- Anaheim Ducks – Morgan Reilly, defenseman. It’s always rough to finish as the 2nd worst team in your conference. Even rougher when your cross-town rivals, the Kings, hoist the Stanley Cup in the same season. This draft has a lot of good defenseman, and even though the Ducks would have loved to add one of the top four forwards, they are all off the board by the time they pick. So, they decide to go with Morgan Reilly, who like Galchenyuk, was injured for the majority of the year. When the Ducks won the Cup in 2007, they did it with two of the games best defenseman playing at their prime: Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. Niedermayer has since retired, and Pronger, currently a Flyer, suffers from concussion issues and may never play again. Like Galchenyuk, although Reilly doesn’t have much game tape from this year, many scouts rave about his potential, and him plus 2010 12th overall pick Cam Fowler could be a very tempting franchise pairing for the Ducks.
- Minnesota Wild – Mathew Dumba, defenseman. The Minnesota Wild are kinda like the Kansas City Royals of the NHL. Minnesota itself is a great hockey state: it sucked when the Minnesota North Stars relocated down to Dallas, but the expansion Wild who took their place are still struggling to find an identity. Their top players are Mikko Koivu, who sadly is still in the shadow of his older brother Saku, and Dany Heatley, a former superstar who seems to regress every year. The Minnesota fans deserve better, and Dumba is the kind of player who could become the face of the franchise, the star player, the guy whose jersey every kid in St. Paul covets. He checks like an animal, and his offensive game is damn good as well. There are concerns that Dumba’s game won’t translate to the pros: will he still have the same ferocious checking ability when he’s going up against men instead of boys? But Minnesota needs a little bit of everything, and I can’t think of a better way to start rebuilding this team than with a dynamic defenseman who can kick butt on both ends of the ice.
- Carolina Hurricanes – Teuvo Teräväinen, forward. Carolina is in a weird position at number 8. They need to draft a forward, badly, but unless Grigorenko falls, they’re probably not going to be in contention for the top 4 unless they decide to trade up. If they stay at 8, I could see them taking Teräväinen, a finnish forward who has been slowly climbing up draft boards. Some are even saying the big four is Yakupov, Forsberg, Galchenyuk, and Teräväinen, leaving Grigorenko out of the mix entirely. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes much earlier than this, but I would be surprised if he goes later. This kid is definitely trending upward.
- Winnipeg Jets – Jacob Trouba, defenseman. After a successful relocation to Winnipeg – does anyone still mourn the Atlanta Thrashers – the Jets had a decent first season, but still couldn’t make the playoffs and now find themselves drafting 9th overall. Luckily for Winnipeg fans, there should be quite a few potential franchise players left on the board, and the best one left is Jacob Trouba. Winnipeg isn’t particularly weak at defense – they have Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien (who won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks… as a forward), but Trouba adds a tough, defensive element and could be drafted before Murray, Dumba, and/or Reilly.
- Tampa Bay Lightning – Griffin Reinhart, defenseman. That would be four defenseman coming off the board in the last five picks, but that just proves the defensive quality available at the top of the draft. Although his name sounds like something you’d hear in Game of Thrones (“Griffin Reinhart, you are the noblest knight in the kingdom”), he’s got a lot of great qualities. Size (at 6’3 he’s taller than the four defenseman I have going before him), great defensive skills (put up a sparkling +23 plus/minus), and offense. There are four top-tier forwards, and five top-tier defenseman: make no mistake, Reinhart is in that top tier, and the Lightning would love to see him fall to 10th overall.
- Washington Capitals – Cody Ceci, defenseman. Washington has two picks in rapid succession here, this one originally belonging to the Colorado Avalanche. If Washington wants to, they can dangle picks 11 & 16 to a team selecting in the top 5, looking for a high-end superstar instead of depth. If they do choose to keep their picks, with defenseman flying off the board left and right, I have Washington using this pick to take the best defenseman left, Cody Ceci. Ceci brings size, skill (60 points in 64 games! For a defenseman!) and also the name “Cody”, which is generally only reserved for absolutely awesome people. Some Capital fans may want two forwards with their two picks, especially with Alex Semin all but assured to be leaving Washington this offseason, but I’ll take a balanced draft, with the skilled Ceci at 11.
- Buffalo Sabres – Radek Faska, forward. Like the Capitals, the Sabres have two mid-round picks, and the potential to trade them both to move up is certainly a tempting one. With center Derek Roy being involved in seemingly every trade rumor that pops outta Buffalo these days, I gotta think drafting a big, skilled center would be a priority. One of the many teams taking defense might just decide they’d rather take a chance on Faska, but Buffalo would be happy to take him if he falls. I still see him as a step below the other forwards taken so far, however other teams may just want to take a chance on this kid, especially because that 6’3 frame is very tempting to a general manager.
- Dallas Stars – Zemgus Girgensons, forward. First off, in a draft full of awesome names (Dumba! Trouba! Teräväinen!), Zemgus Girgensons is my absolute favorite. But let’s not judge the Latvian kid on name value alone: let’s judge what he can bring to the ice: a strong two-way game and possible long term replacement for Brad Richards after he bolted for the Rangers in free agency. He’s committed to play for the University of Vermont, which means he’ll need a few years before he’s ready, but the reward of waiting for this kid to develop seems like he’s worth it. Zemgus could emerge as the top power forward in this draft class.
- Calgary Flames – Olli Maatta, defenseman. It always sucks to finish with the best record for non-playoff teams. You don’t get the thrill of the playoffs, and the Los Angeles Kings, who got just 5 more points than the Flames, went on to win the Stanley Cup. Sadly, this Flames team is rather old, and years of Jarome Iginla, while great for fans of Calgary, have left their cupboard rather bare. As the top hockey teams get younger and younger, Calgary relies on aging, 30+ veterans like Iginla, Jokinen, Cammalleri, and Tanguay. Their defense is particularly messy: without the play of their goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff (35 years old, mind you), this team could have been one of the worst in the NHL. So, they restock their defense with Olli Maatta, a two-way player with very few flaws. Maatta is a safe pick, mind you, but the Flames need to draft a safe pick to prepare for what happens when their stars can no longer play.
- Ottawa Senators – Slater Koekkoek, defenseman. Okay, this guy can give Zemus Girgensons a run for his money in the “best name” department. But the Senators have one young offensive defenseman who is already a top star (Erik Karlsson), as well as a defensive defenseman with a bright future in Jared Cowen. They had a third in David Rundblad, but traded him to the Coyotes in a move that had many Senator fans scratching their heads. Koekkoek (pronounced like “cuckoo”, which makes it even cooler) has been injured, but he’s a real solid pick at this point in the draft.
Tomorrow, we will give you the second half of our mock draft. See how the rest of the NHL will play catch up to the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings!