The thought of an early June draft seemed like a distant possibility when the NHL hit pause on its season due to the coronavirus. But things seemed to have changed over the last week, with the league sending a memo to teams making a case for the draft to take place early next month.
There are a host of problems that could arise, like what to do with draft picks that were acquired through trades and have conditions on them. There was immediate pushback from plenty of NHL teams, but in the New Jersey Devils’ case, it should be the opposite. Here’s why they should be one of the few teams clamoring for the draft to happen early in June.
Why Devils Should Favor Early June Draft
There are quite a few things that will change if the draft is held in early June before the NHL concludes its season. For starters, the draft lottery would revert to how it was done before 2012, meaning only one team would get a chance to move up, and they could only move up four spots. For example, the Devils have the sixth overall pick, so they can only move up to second.
That means they’ll be out of the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes. But it would give them the chance to take Quinton Byfield, who’s the second-best player in this class. On the flip side, it also means they can’t fall any further below the seventh overall pick since only one team can win the lottery and move them down a spot.
Another item that could have a significant impact on the Devils is conditional picks acquired in trades. They obtained the Coyotes’ first-round pick when they traded Taylor Hall to Arizona. They also have the Canucks’ first-round pick, which they received from the Tampa Bay Lightning when they moved Blake Coleman at the trade deadline.
But the conditions on those picks shouldn’t be met with too much resistance. We’ll start with the Coyotes’ pick, which is lottery-protected if they end up in the top three. However, an altered lottery means they could only move up as high as sixth overall. The pick would slide to 2021 if they choose to keep it this year, but it wouldn’t have any lottery protection on it. My guess is the Coyotes would rather keep the unprotected 2021 pick. Otherwise, the Devils may seek compensation in the form of a top prospect if the Coyotes want to retain this year’s pick.
The Canucks are a bit further down the list, as they’d have the 18th overall pick based on points percentage, which is how the draft order would be determined for an early June draft. And TSN’s Pierre Lebrun reported they’re one of the teams who may not be opposed to it.
From the Canucks’ point of view, this makes sense for them. While they took a step forward this season, they’re in no way a guarantee to make the playoffs in 2020-21. If they end up in worse shape next season and have a shot at a lottery pick, they’ll be kicking themselves for giving the Devils an unprotected draft choice. So this should be an easy transfer to the Devils, giving them three first-round selections.
But there’s one last thing. Let’s say the NHL resumes its regular season but only completes 5-6 of the remaining 13 games. Now let’s say the Devils, Canucks, and Coyotes win enough of those games where it hurts their draft positions. The opposite can happen, too, but that’s a risk and no guarantee it occurs, either. And with two top 10 picks and a top 20 pick as it stands, that gives the Devils more reason to push for an early June draft.
Strength of 2020 Class Suits Devils
The Devils’ farm system has improved quite a bit, partly because of picks they’ve made, but also because of trades where they’ve acquired prospects like Nolan Foote and Janne Kuokkanen. Those two forwards, along with Jesper Boqvist, are the best in the organization’s pipeline, but they’re not game-breakers. Fortunately, game-breaking forwards are the strength of this class.
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And with the sixth pick, the Devils will have no shortage of those to choose from. Lafreniere and Byfield are as good as locks for the top two picks. Tim Stützle is also a pretty good bet to go somewhere in the top five. That should leave one of Alexander Holtz, Marco Rossi, Cole Perfetti, and perhaps Lucas Raymond available to draft. It’d be pretty hard to get the pick wrong with one of those players too.
The 10th pick is where things get a bit more tricky, depending on what happens in between then and the Devils’ first pick. If Yaroslav Askarov — the draft’s top goaltender — is still on the board, it’d be tempting to select him. But the Devils could still use another forward at this point, and they’d likely get more value drafting someone like Anton Lundell than Askarov with this high a pick.
The 18th pick is where the Devils will have a few options. They possibly go for a third forward if someone like Jack Quinn or Seth Jarvis is still available. But this could also be a spot where they take their first defenseman of the class. Kaiden Guhle — the top defenseman from the WHL — would be someone worth considering. Helge Grans, a late-rising defenseman from Sweden who moves the puck effectively, had a strong season in the SHL and should be on their draft board also.
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Another option for the Devils with the 18th pick would be to trade down. They don’t have a second-round pick in this year’s draft. And teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens, who have multiple second-rounders, could be trade partners if they’re looking to move up. Some talented defensemen could still be available early in round two, and it also doesn’t hurt to accumulate more picks.
Pros Outweigh Cons for Devils
The Devils’ biggest need in their prospect pool is for high-end, offensive forwards, and the 2020 class’s strength is just that. That won’t be the case in 2021, as that’ll be a defense-heavy group, at least in the first round. It may sting they won’t have a chance to draft Lafreniere, because of the proposed lottery changes. But there are more positives than there are negatives for the Devils in an early June draft. They’d have two top 10 picks and a third one at the tail end of the top 20. And in a draft where its strengths fit their needs so well, that’s more than enough reason to be all-in on getting it done next month.