Welcome back to our series of features leading up to the 2021 NHL Draft. In case you missed our first two parts, you can read them through the links below.
For part three, we shine the spotlight on teams that are under the most pressure to find success at this NHL Draft. Whether it’s drafting the right players for their organization or making shrewd moves to help your team for the immediate future, teams have a variety of ways available to them in order to make July 23-24 a success.
In this space, we will share four teams under the most pressure along with three honorable mentions. Everyone is under some kind of pressure. But some feel it more than others due to their current circumstances. Let’s start with the obvious team right at the top of the list.
1. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres do own the number-one pick. So they have that going for them. They may end up getting another high pick if they are able to complete a trade involving Jack Eichel or Sam Reinhart. But all things considered, I’m not sure there’s a team under more pressure to find success at this draft than the Sabres.
Their franchise center is likely gone. Their other really good center is likely gone. But yet the consensus top pick in this year’s draft is defenseman Owen Power. I understand the take the best player available argument. But if you’re the Sabres, is that the right move at the right time?
Are they better off picking William Eklund or Matty Beniers first overall? What trades are they able to complete if any? GM Kevyn Adams has a ton of work to do. He has an opportunity to set his team on the right course. But there is a lot of pressure there on several fronts. When do you pull the trigger on a trade? Is it enough to offset the loss of a franchise center? Can your rebuild be around Power and Rasmus Dahlin?
Adams must find answers to these tough questions. It’s been a decade filled with frustration and consistent losing. If the Sabres hope to finally turn the page towards greener pastures, Adams has to hit all the right buttons. That includes everything from his picks to his trades. It will be fascinating to see how it all turns out.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
Any time a team owns three first-round picks in the same draft, there’s pressure to succeed. Thanks to two deadline acquisitions, the Blue Jackets will pick 25th and 32nd in the first round of the draft. It actually will be 24th and 31st due to the Arizona Coyotes’ situation. We’ll touch on them in a bit.
Along with those two later picks, the Blue Jackets pick fifth overall. They have needs everywhere within their organization. That makes them a true wildcard on night one. That also puts them under an extreme amount of pressure to not pull a Boston Bruins.
The Blue Jackets should get a really good player fifth overall. But it’s how they handle the other two picks that will go a long way in determining how successful this draft will be for them. They’ve been in this position before. Think back to 2013.
The Blue Jackets selected Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano in that 2013 draft. None of them are in the organization now. Wennberg enjoyed some success before ultimately being bought out. Rychel could never get on solid footing while Dano was ultimately included in a trade before coming back for a small period of time.
Having three picks can be great. But having those picks can be costly too if you miss. GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his team will try to make the best of those picks. Given what other things they have to do at this draft (trade Seth Jones, maybe a goalie), they’re under a lot of pressure.
The level of success at this draft should dictate how quickly the Blue Jackets recover and get back to being a contender. That seems a few years away at this time. They will be one of the most fascinating teams to watch at the draft giving everything at stake.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs
And then, there are the Toronto Maple Leafs. By definition, they are always under pressure to find success. However their playoff failures have put them in a tough spot especially when it comes to draft night.
The Leafs only possess three picks, a second, a fifth and a sixth. Their first pick is 57th overall.
Thanks to a lot of deadline deals trying to bolster their roster, the Leafs gave up precious futures in the hopes of making a deep playoff run. But as we all know, they still haven’t won a playoff round since 2004.
The Leafs acquired Nick Foligno at this past deadline for a first-round pick. That pick is 24th overall that belongs to the Blue Jackets. They’ve made other deals too. But when you have a situation like the one in Toronto with the Core-4 and they can’t break through in the postseason, you find yourself having to find creative solutions at the draft.
GM Kyle Dubas is going to have to find ways to either get more picks or perhaps make a hockey deal to get something out of this draft. Could they call the Blue Jackets about one of those late first-round picks? I would expect Dubas to explore every available avenue to acquire more picks so they have more than three.
But this is an interesting trend that has developed. They have elite offensive talent. But everything they’ve tried so far has failed. Perhaps with more experience that trend changes. But until they prove it, questions will persist and pressure will be immense. Expect the Leafs to be active at the draft in some way in order to improve their roster given the cap crunch they constantly face.
4. Arizona Coyotes
Their farm system is thin and they had to forfeit their first rounder. The Coyotes are in dire straits. When you are in that kind of position, there is pressure to find ways to overcome this mountain of a challenge.
Bill Armstrong should be one of the most active GM’s at this draft if for nothing else than to recover picks and to find ways to bolster their organization. To say it’s been a tough year on them is a big understatement. But with no first rounder and big trades coming (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phil Kessel among others), the Coyotes are under a ton of pressure to find a path out of their desperate situation.
The Coyotes have to start somewhere. Their first pick is 43rd overall. Can they find a good player that far in? Or will they have to get creative to gain some traction? This will be a must-watch situation once July 23 arrives.
- Detroit Red Wings
- Minnesota Wild
- New Jersey Devils
These three teams each own multiple first-round picks. They each face a different kind of pressure that make them all interesting to watch.
For the Red Wings, can they keep the momentum of their rebuild going? Will they take the dive and select Jesper Wallstadt sixth? And don’t discount Steve Yzerman using cap space to his advantage while gaining other assets. But that sixth pick is a wildcard. There is pressure to nail this pick.
The Wild just bought out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and have a tough negotiation with Kirill Kaprizov ongoing. They’re finally heading in a positive direction. Their challenge is to keep the momentum up. But you have to wonder what they’re up to after those buyouts. Is it Eichel watch? Maybe something else? There’s pressure here. Let’s see what Bill Guerin is up to.
The Devils too have pressure as they want to start turning the corner on their rebuild. With the fourth pick and another first, they can really solidify themselves for future seasons. But they do have a decision to make at fourth. They also will be interesting to watch in trades and free agency. There’s pressure to nail their first rounders.
Now it’s your turn. What teams do you feel are under the most pressure at this draft. Feel free to leave a comment or tweet your response.
The most successful teams are able to overcome the pressure of the moment. These seven teams and others will feel it once the Sabres are officially on the clock. Will they find the right moves? We’ll start finding out in a week’s time.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.