The NHL draft rarely plays out as anticipated.
The actual order often varies greatly from the so-called consensus rankings.
Most of the mock drafts that you’ll see over the next couple weeks will be fairly similar, fairly in line with the consensus. Even my own, as hard as I tried to be different here or there, wound up being a bit lame. Well, a bit tame anyway — see for yourself once it’s released, on the morning after the Stanley Cup is awarded. I was hoping that would have been today, but the San Jose Sharks had other plans.
No spoilers on that front and very little crossover but, as unrealistic as these suggestions might seem, I was determined to think outside of the box in coming up with five potential draft surprises.
Let’s start at the top, shall we . . .
Matthews falls to No. 3, to Columbus
It’s almost written in stone that Toronto will take American centre Auston Matthews with the first overall pick, and that the Winnipeg Jets will follow with Finnish winger Patrik Laine at second.
Nobody has really challenged that train of thought, aside from Laine pleading his case to go No. 1. Most mainstream media, connected to sources in Toronto and Winnipeg or not, have laughed off that notion and just considered Nos. 1-2 a foregone conclusion.
I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case. The Leafs’ brass have yet to come out and say “Matthews is our man.” Maybe that is a matter of saving some suspense for draft day. Or maybe there is more to it?
The Leafs need a No. 1 centre more than anything, but they would be foolish not to take the best player available at No. 1, if Lou Lamoriello, Mark Hunter and their scouting staff believe that is Laine. I wouldn’t rule it out that Hunter specifically prefers Laine and that Toronto could end up taking him. Both Mitch Marner and William Nylander have past experience as centres and could shift to the middle, with Laine flanking either one of them.
If that bombshell were to drop, everyone would automatically assume Matthews to Winnipeg at No. 2. It would be unfathomable for the Jets to pass on him, right?
Again, I’m not so sure. The Jets really seem to like Jesse Puljujarvi, the other Finnish winger.
To some extent, and from some interviews, it sounds like Winnipeg is still a bit torn between Laine and Puljujarvi. Leaning towards Laine, presumably.
Puljujarvi is so underrated in this draft. Everyone talks about Matthews or Laine. In reality, many outside media had Pulj ahead of Laine
— Jacob 🥅 (@paddle_down) April 30, 2016
Granted, there has been recent speculation that Puljujarvi could drop out of the top three — that Matthew Tkachuk could overtake him — but Kevin Cheveldayoff was in North Dakota for Puljujarvi’s hat trick in the gold medal game of the Under-18 World Championships, and Winnipeg’s general manager was blown away by the big Finn’s dominance there.
The Jets have likely familiarized themselves more with Puljujarvi than Matthews, based on the common belief, ever since the draft lottery at the end of April, that Toronto is taking Matthews, leaving Winnipeg to pick between the two Finns.
Still, if Matthews is somehow available, the Jets have to take him, right? Well, Winnipeg doesn’t necessarily need another top-six centre. Mark Scheifele’s skill set is already similar to what Matthews would bring — albeit a poor man’s version — and Kyle Connor is looking like something special after lighting up the NCAA ranks as a freshman and then signing his entry-level contract to turn pro next season.
Puljujarvi could be the perfect fit alongside either Scheifele or Connor, so maybe just maybe Winnipeg would do the unthinkable and not take Matthews at No. 2.
The odds of that scenario occurring are one in a million. There’s a better chance that Gary Bettman will get struck by lightning at the podium upon announcing that Toronto is on the clock to start the draft.
However, if it happened, Matthews wouldn’t fall any further. Columbus, at No. 3, desperately needs a centre after trading away Ryan Johansen. The Blue Jackets have even contemplated moving down to get a guy like Pierre-Luc Dubois or Logan Brown, or reaching for one of them at No. 3, so Matthews would be a pleasant surprise to say for John Davidson, Jarmo Kekalainen and John Tortorella.
Wishful thinking though . . . or is it?
2 goalies go in the 1st round, 1 in the top 20
As many as five goaltenders could go in the top 60, but none are really expected to go in the top 30.
I’ve probably checked out 50 or more mocks and I can count on one hand the number of netminders that I’ve seen in the first round. Almost nobody has a goalie going in the top 30 — let alone two, that’s unheard of. And I’ve yet to see a puck-stopper in the teens.
Yet, there are five teams with two first-round picks each this year. So, we shouldn’t rule out a goalie going to those teams — Arizona (7, 20), Carolina (13, 21), Winnipeg (2, 22), Boston (14, 29) and Toronto (1, 30). Winnipeg and Boston appear fairly set for the foreseeable future, but so did Montreal when the Canadiens stunningly selected Carey Price fifth overall in 2005 despite Jose Theodore appearing to be in the prime of his career.
Of those teams, Carolina and Toronto would seem the likeliest candidates to take a masked man with their second selections. But they are not alone, with other clubs potentially being in the market for a goalie as well.
Minnesota, Detroit and Nashville — picking at Nos. 15, 16 and 17, respectively — might be tempted, depending who’s left for forwards and defencemen at those spots. Dallas, at No. 25, will certainly give some level of consideration to a goaltender. And if Anaheim and Tampa Bay plan to part with a ’tender this offseason, those teams may be sleepers to add one early in the draft.
I’ve just rattled off eight teams (arguably 11) that could stand to benefit from picking a goalie in the first round. Could two of them act on that potential? Absolutely.
If a goaltender were to go in the teens, it would almost certainly be Carter Hart or Filip Gustavsson. The other three — Evan Fitzpatrick, Tyler Parsons and Mikhail Berdin — are better suited to the second round or at least the twenties, but nothing is impossible.
Minnesota and Detroit could have Gustavsson in their sights or on their shortlists. Nashville could be targeting Hart, as could Anaheim and Dallas. Toronto could totally take Parsons, possibly even making him the first goalie off the board with the final pick of the first round. Berdin is a real wild-card, but Dallas and Tampa Bay both like their Russians. Fitzpatrick could be a fit for Carolina.
Who really knows, but the potential is there.
Chychrun and/or Nylander go outside the top 10
This one is much more believable, or a little less farfetched — however you want to see it.
At one point, even after Christmas and the World Juniors, both Jakob Chychrun and Alexander Nylander were considered locks for the top 10.
That is no longer the case. Many of the latest mocks now have at least one of them dropping into double-digits. Some of the bolder ones have both in that 11-15 range.
I’ve yet to see a mock with either Chychrun or Nylander falling past 15, but I’m sure somebody will be brave enough to go to those extremes — to get some extra hits if nothing else, for those of us paid by traffic.
I, personally, wouldn’t go that far . . . I draw the line at Matthews falling to third overall.
Bean, Kunin and/or Gauthier go in the top 10
Jake Bean, Luke Kunin and Julien Gauthier. Those are the three toughest prospects to rank or project when it comes to making a mock draft. Not that Chychrun and Nylander are easy, either.
I know for a fact that there are NHL teams with each of those guys in their top 10. You’d be surprised how many teams have Bean there. He really could be this year’s surprise pick, reminiscent of Thomas Hickey back in 2007.
For those who don’t remember, Hickey was taken fourth overall by Los Angeles despite being ranked in the later teens by most scouting agencies. Bean arguably improved more than any other blue-liner over the course of this draft year. Bean made massive strides and if he can continue that trajectory as a late bloomer, Bean could be an NHL all-star in three years.
Some team might see it that way and make Bean the first defenceman of the draft, perhaps going sixth to his hometown Calgary Flames? Unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility.
Kunin is drawing favourable comparisons to Dylan Larkin and he didn’t disappoint at the combine, with a vertical leap that left jaws on the floor.
Not that long ago, Kunin was considered a fringe first-rounder by most. Sure, Central Scouting had him 11th among North American skaters in their final rankings back in April, but that was generally seen as too high.
Not anymore. Now, more and more mocks are finding a way to work Kunin into the teens and it’s only a matter of time until he sneaks into someone’s top 10. If that someone is an NHL general manager, then it’d be quite the jaw-dropper indeed.
Gauthier is trending in the other direction — down, down, down — but it only takes one team to keep him near the top of their list.
In the early stages of the season, Buffalo scout Kevin Prendergast was quoted as saying Gauthier could go as high as second overall.
Now, in the aftermath of the season, it seems more likely that he’ll go closer to No. 20 than No. 2. But what if Prendergast’s opinion hasn’t changed? Or hasn’t fallen off as much as others? The Sabres are picking eighth but are believed to be more interested in the defencemen.
Calgary and Montreal could take a liking to Gauthier too. You just never know what these teams are thinking. Trust me, they aren’t all thinking the same.
5 defencemen go in the top 10 . . . or none
This is widely considered a forward-heavy first round, especially at the top end.
I have yet to see a mock with a defenceman in the top three. Again, I’ve seen upwards of 100 mocks and not a single one predicting that.
No way, no how. But starting at No. 4, all bets are off. From that point on, it’s a guessing game if it isn’t right from No. 1.
I’ve actually seen mocks without any defencemen at all in the top 10. Matthews, Laine, Puljujarvi, Tkachuk, Dubois, Nylander, Brown, Tyson Jost, Clayton Keller and somebody else like Michael McLeod, Kunin or Gauthier. Maybe even German Rubtsov, Max Jones or Riley Tufte. I just rattled off 15 names of forwards who could potentially go in the top 10 with no mention of a defenceman.
Forwards are the sexy picks, so they do tend to dominate mock drafts. The vast majority of 2016 mocks have at least seven forwards in the top 10, leaving room for three or fewer blue-liners.
However, in real life, the age-old saying is that defence wins championships and some GMs show up to their draft table with that thought process in mind.
So, once that first blue-liner is off the board, we could see a run of them in quick succession. That happened in 2012 when there were eight in the top 10 and seven in a row starting at No. 4. As a result, projected top-five picks Filip Forsberg and Mikhail Grigorenko fell to Nos. 11 and 12, respectively.
Drawing parallels to 2016, Forsberg and Grigorenko were touted along the lines of Tkachuk and Dubois. I haven’t seen a single mock with Tkachuk or Dubois outside the top 10, let alone both, but the same could have been said about Forsberg and Grigorenko in regards to 2012 mocks.
What if Edmonton takes a defenceman at No. 4? Vancouver could certainly use one at No. 5. Calgary doesn’t have the need, but Arizona, Buffalo and Montreal all do in varying degrees at Nos. 7, 8 and 9. Colorado too, at No. 10. Count them up and that’s five or even six.
Struggling to wrap your head around that possibility? Here’s one way to imagine it: Mikhail Sergachev to Edmonton at No. 4 because he’s capable of playing the right side, Chychrun to Vancouver at No. 5, Bean to Arizona at No. 7 if Calgary doesn’t get him first, Olli Juolevi to Buffalo at No. 8, and Montreal takes its pick of Charlie McAvoy or Dante Fabbro at No. 9. Another name to consider: Logan Stanley, who partnered with Sergachev in Windsor and reminds some of Tyler Myers based on his size, tipping the scales at 6-foot-7 and 224 pounds at last weekend’s draft combine.
That is actually seven names of defencemen counting Stanley and, yes, stranger things have happened.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.