The first pick in the NHL draft goes to … TBD
By Andrew Knoll
The NHL last Friday held the first part of its draft lottery, an annual ritual of pro sports leagues meant to lay out an order of business for the rest of the draft process. The night’s primary revelation, however, was that this year’s draft order is still as incomplete as the season itself.
Even the one thing the draft order was supposed to finalize — the destination of the consensus No. 1 pick Alexis Lafrenière — remains unknown after the NHL revealed seven teams that will select in the second through eighth spots, but held up a card bearing the NHL shield as a placeholder for the franchise that will win the first overall pick in another draft lottery. Phase 2 of the league’s selection process will be held between the qualifying and first rounds of the playoffs, with no date set yet.
“It’s a little strange when they flip it over and you have to process that there’s a secondary lottery that’s going to take place, or a ‘Phase 2,’ and not necessarily knowing the exact teams,” said Rob Blake, the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, the franchise that will select second overall. “Everything has kind of taken a different path since the pause and you maneuver your way around it.”
The No. 1 pick will be selected from among the eight teams that do not advance past the qualifying round of the playoffs, or the teams that acquire those picks via trade, with each pick from a losing team representing a 12.5 percent chance at the top overall selection.
The Ottawa Senators will select third overall, having acquired the pick in a trade with the San Jose Sharks, and fifth with their own pick. The New Jersey Devils will pick seventh but also own two picks of potential play-in losers, Arizona and Vancouver. The Detroit Red Wings, who had the league’s worst record, hold the fourth pick. The Anaheim Ducks (sixth) and Buffalo Sabres (eighth) round out the portion of the draft order that was completed Friday.
In a season that has seen play suspended, players test positive for the coronavirus and the league being creative in planning the summertime start of the playoffs from two hub cities still yet to be determined, it came as no surprise that the NHL draft and draft lottery have also been subject to unusual circumstances.
The draft itself will be a fall event and the combine appears to be on course to not take place at all. When the draft does happen, there is an excellent chance it will be held remotely, as the NFL, WNBA and MLB have already done this spring.
It will be headlined by Lafrenière, an 18-year-old wing who cemented his status as the top prospect by winning his second straight player of the year honor in the Canadian junior system, a feat matched only by the three-time Stanley Cup champion Sidney Crosby.
Lafrenière played for the same club, Oceanic Rimouski, as Crosby did.
Lafrenière excelled most prominently at the Under-20 World Junior Championships in January, scoring 10 points in five games and leading Canada to a gold medal. He was named MVP of the tournament.
He headlines a deep 2020 draft class that is bracing for the unique and sometimes confusing circumstances wrought by the pandemic.
Jamie Drysdale, who is expected to be the first defenseman selected, said: “I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit weird. I’ve played with some older guys and heard what they had to say about their draft day. Obviously this is going to be different. Everyone’s just waiting on when the draft is going to be, but for now it’s just a matter of preparing myself for anything.”
Forward Cole Perfetti, a projected top-10 pick, said he had to recalibrate his expectations for the moment that he longed for since growing up in Whitby, Ontario.
“You dream of having a draft day the same as every other pick: walking up on stage, getting the jersey and taking your photo,” Perfetti said. “Those are experiences and memories that we’re not going to get, but we’re going to get different ones.”
Quinton Byfield, a 6-foot-4-inch and 215-pound center projected by many as the draft’s second pick, had planned to buy a striking suit and wear one of his signature bow ties — he has a collection of dozens — but said he was unsure if he would display such sartorial flair from his living room.
Byfield, whose father is from Jamaica and whose mother is Canadian, could become the highest selected Black player in league history. Columbus defenseman Seth Jones currently holds the distinction, having been selected fourth in the 2013 draft.
“If I got drafted that high, being the highest player drafted with Black heritage, that would definitely be special, making a mark in history like that,” Byfield said.
Beyond the dizzying format changes and unforeseen delays to the NHL season, the process of evaluating prospects was thrown into flux after the NCAA, amateur leagues in North America and professional leagues in Europe canceled their seasons. The Under-18 World Junior Championships, which had been scheduled for April 16-26, were also canceled, a loss that Blake, the Kings general manager, particularly lamented.
“That’s where the collection of these players get to play peer versus peer and you get to watch it,” he said, “and see the difference from the beginning of the year to the end of the year what they’d done.”
Martin Madden, the assistant general manager for the Anaheim Ducks, said that his staff members tried hard to keep their number of viewings for each prospect at the same level it would have been for a full season. That meant deep video dives and conducting remote interviews with players as his scouts prepared as if the original June draft date would be kept.
Around the league, interviews with prospects are being conducted by videoconference, a departure from the rigid schedule at the annual combine, where interviews are usually timed to last around 15 minutes or can include many players in groups. Without a standardized length and with an unlimited number of participants — including executives, coaches and scouts — the process this year is allowing both team officials and players to get more profound looks at one another.
“The whole process of teams doing Zoom interviews with prospects was an opportunity for teams to really get to know players beyond what they’ve been able to do in the past,” said player agent Allan Walsh.
Some felt that the unusual circumstances would have a distinct impact on evaluating players and, ultimately, where prospects were selected. Walsh said the steep development curve of prospects meant they may have made serious strides between the suspension of play in March and the draft this fall. How fast a player may have developed is just one of the many unknowns the NHL is facing in a year that’s cloudier than usual.