Emptying the 2019 NHL Combine Notebook

The 2019 NHL Combine is done. Over 100 prospects spent the week in Buffalo making their case in front of potential future employers. Then Saturday, they put their fitness skills to the test.

What happened this week? What kind of chatter was there? Who really stood out? It’s time to empty my Combine notebook out.

We will go over a wide range of topics in this piece from major stories to things under the radar. The big story for us was what the Chicago Blackhawks were thinking at third overall. I chatted with several folks at the Combine to get their sense of the situation. Let’s just say this will be one of the dominant stories leading to Vancouver.

Stan Bowman
Stan Bowman, the man of the hour in NHL Draft circles. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Blackhawks Draft

The 2019 NHL Draft will start with the Chicago Blackhawks at third overall. Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko are going 1/2 in some order. We believe Hughes will be a Devil and Kakko a Ranger, but stranger things have happened.

Now to the Blackhawks. Coming into the weekend, reports surfaced that six players were under consideration for this spot. My understanding of that list is as follows: Bowen Byram, Alex Turcotte, Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens, Trevor Zegras and Cole Caufield.

The Blackhawks are tight lipped in these situations as one would expect. But in talking to several folks Saturday, the general consensus seems to indicate it’s a three horse race between Byram, Turcotte and Zegras. Caufield said Saturday he feels he belongs in the discussion for third overall. He did nothing on Saturday to disappoint especially in the fitness testing. He might be small, but he is strong. He was one of a few prospects to complete 16 pull-ups.

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The Blackhawks will now go back and figure everything out. They will use Saturday’s results to possibly help determine their top candidates. All indications seem to say they will make the pick at third, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule out a trade just yet. If their guy can be had a couple spots down and get a good enough offer, they’ll consider it.

The Blackhawks are the ultimate draft wildcard and will take their time making an extremely important decision not only for themselves, but for teams right below them in the order.

How Deep Is This Draft?

The depth of this draft was another focus of ours. I posed this very question to Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino. He said this was in fact a deep draft.

What does that mean? In my mind, when you have a draft where there’s good depth in the top-93, more picks will be made later in the draft and less trades. There will be some trades, but if you can get a good player, you’ll make the pick.

The top-15 is in a class of its own. But then from 16 on, there’s talent to be found. The real winners of this draft will be those teams that can nail their picks from the middle of the first on. We know the Devils and Rangers will feel great about picking first and second. But they need to do well in the rest of the draft too. With the depth that’s available, they have that chance.

Bobby Brink of the Sioux City Musketeers
A player like Bobby Brink being available later in round one suggests this is a deeper draft. (Hickling Images)

Way Too Early Mock Top-10

Disclaimer: This is subject to change at anytime for any reason. But let’s give this a shot. Here is my current version of how the first 10 picks will shake out. I assume no trades for this list.

  • 1. New Jersey Devils: Jack Hughes
  • 2. New York Rangers: Kappo Kakko
  • 3. Chicago Blackhawks: Bowen Byram
  • 4. Colorado Avalanche: Alex Turcotte
  • 5. Los Angeles Kings: Dylan Cozens
  • 6. Detroit Red Wings: Trevor Zegras
  • 7. Buffalo Sabres: Cole Caufield
  • 8. Edmonton Oilers: Matthew Boldy
  • 9. Anaheim Ducks: Kirby Dach
  • 10. Vancouver Canucks: Alex Newhook

One and two are self-explanatory. In my mind, the Blackhawks must pick Byram here. Scoring goals is not their issue. Preventing goals is their issue. With a ton of miles on both Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, they won’t last forever. They need an elite player to eventually step in. Enter Byram. I know they’ve drafted defenseman in the last few years, but none of them are like Byram. He led the entire WHL Playoffs in scoring and played 30 minutes a night. He’s a workhorse. You won’t find guys like this too often outside the draft. The Blackhawks must pick Byram at this spot.

Colorado is in the driver’s seat. They can go any number of ways. But if Turcotte gets past the Blackhawks, this to me is a no brainer. The Avalanche need center depth behind Nathan MacKinnon. Turcotte has 1C upside. They can be patient with him as well. Win/win for all involved.

The Kings need young, impact players by the bushel full. Outside of Hughes and Kakko, I think Cozens is the next closest prospect to the NHL. In his own words at the Combine, if he has a great summer, he thinks he can make the jump right away. They’ll look at Caufield just like everyone else, but centers rule the day.

Dylan Cozens Lethbridge Hurricanes
(Robert Murray/WHL) Dylan Cozens says with a great summer, he could make the leap to the NHL next season.

Detroit needs offensive help too and Trevor Zegras would bring that in spades. According to Hughes, Zegras was the most creative player on the US Development Program. High praise indeed. His playmaking skills is a nice fit for the Red Wings if he’s still available in this spot.

The Sabres will jump for joy if this is how it breaks. They need goal scorers and you won’t get a better one than Caufield. If he’s there at seven, take it to the bank.

The Oilers are still looking for good forward help. They need impact guys that can fill the net. The choice here in this scenario would be between Dach and Boldy. Boldy is one of the smartest players in the draft. He can finish, make smart passes and prefers to play in front of the net. Oh and there’s this whole playing with Connor McDavid thing.

The Ducks need center help badly given Ryan Kesler’s health. With the Oilers passing on Dach, the Ducks say thank you very much. Dach has 1C potential and can play in all situations. He’s 6-foot-4 but plays with the skill of a smaller player. He’d be a perfect fit in Anaheim.

The home town Canucks need center help as well and can look right in the back yard of British Columbia for that help in Newhook. He has a rare combination of hands, vision and speed and used that to dominate in the BCHL in Victoria. Although his defensive game needs work, he’ll bring a jolt of offense that Vancouver desperately needs.

Alex Newhook of the Victoria Grizzlies
Alex Newhook will provide dynamic offense to the team who takes him. (Garrett James Photography)

Other Observations

  • Spencer Knight is a stud and deserves to go in round one, but who will make the leap? If I had a penny, I’d put it on Colorado with their second first rounder. Imagine them landing both Turcotte AND Knight? My goodness.
  • Vasily Podkolzin spoke Saturday and admitted he understood team’s hesitancy in drafting him due to his contract status. He has two years left in Russia. He hopes to hear his name anytime in round one, “it doesn’t matter the number” he said through a translator.
  • I was curious about the Columbus Blue Jackets and who they’d take time to interview. They interviewed many players including potential first rounders. Hmmm. With only two picks as of this writing, why would they do that? It’s simple really. Due diligence and finalizing their master list. They’ll still have their list. If a player they love is available in a spot where they can trade for the pick, they’ll do it. Interesting thing about the Blue Jackets, Jarmo Kekalainen and Bill Zito were not in the room in Buffalo. Both Ville Siren and Chris Morehouse ran the show. When Kekalainen says he let’s his guys do the work, he means it.
  • One more interesting note on Columbus. High performance director Nelson Ayotte was in Buffalo but not in the room with Siren and Morehouse. What was Ayotte doing? He was watching prospects do the fitness testing on Saturday. He would then take the results and submit his recommendations to the team to help create the final list. Why was Ayotte not in the room? They wanted an unbiased approach. Very neat to see the mindset of the Blue Jackets in this case.
  • Ryan Suzuki admitted he got a little sick of teams asking about his brother Nick. I like the honesty. He’s his own player. He was also asked to tell a joke. The St. Louis Blues was one of the teams asking prospects to tell a joke. Suzuki’s joke? What is orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot. Oh my goodness. That was bad. Suzuki admitted as much. But laughs were shared. And don’t count out the possibility of Montreal drafting Ryan to join Nick in the organization.
  • Speaking of Montreal, we must talk about their questions. They asked the python question and how prospects would handle a hungry snake outside the door. That’s not all. They asked prospects why a Honda Civic was better than a Ferrari. They also asked if you’d rather be the best or better than everybody. It’s getting deep here, folks.
  • How many tickles does it take to tickle an octopus? Tentacles. That was the joke John Farinacci came up with when asked to tell a joke. Not bad. One last joke: Why can you never trust atoms? Because they make up everything!
  • Have to say, this was one of the more “boring” Combines I have been a part of. This was my fifth time in Buffalo for this event. Why boring? Not really a lot of news. Of the prospects I spoke to, most knew where they were going to play next year without hesitation. No real Brady Tkachuk moments in sense of de-committing from a school. Obviously things could change anytime but nothing to report on that front.
  • Finally, the overall chatter league-wide is high. Kyle Dubas said as much this week. Will that mean more fireworks? Time will tell. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some high profile names end up moving on. And offer sheets? I’ll believe it when I see one actually completed.

And that’s that. We now start the countdown to the NHL Draft in Vancouver. What surprises are we in store for? We’ll know soon enough.

Our full list of heights and weights can be found here. And testing results can be found here.