That was fun.
The Hockey Writers did a mock NHL Draft last week and — as a freelancer with them since January on the Los Angeles Kings beat — I got to join in the festivities and make some choices that Kings fans might be able to get excited about with hockey on pause for who knows how long due to the COVID-19 health crisis.
Related: THW’s 2020 Draft Guide
And I gotta say: Even though there was no time limit and no worries that I could be saddling the Kings and their fans with a major draft bust, there was pressure being on the clock.
A bunch of the veteran THW writers — many who judge hockey talent at all levels with an intense passion — were involved in this. Oh, yes, I judge hockey talent, too, but living in Hawaii, um, it’s kind of hard to see up-and-coming NHL talent. There is only one ice rink and a beautiful two-rink inline facility over here on the island of Oahu. Sure, there are some great hockey players around, but it’s not like there are any college-level or minor-league games going on.
So, these THW guys can spot a pretender a mile away, for sure. And I fit into that pretender category simply for the reasons stated above. I’m just not a (please excuse the term) draft geek. But give me a year or two!!
OK, so the first round comes up, I’m on the clock trying to think like Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, and the other participants surely don’t want me to be slowing down the process. Gone are consensus No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere (Rimouski Oceanic, QMJHL), a winger, and consensus No. 2 Quinton Byfield (Sudbury Wolves, OHL), a center, along with the top-ranked defenseman in the class, Jamie Drysdale (Erie Otters, OHL) at No. 3.
Hoho, luckily for me, there were a few messages in Slack (THW’s communication vehicle) that mentioned a couple of mock draft possibilities coming up — Tim Stutzle, Lucas Raymond, Marco Rossi. At least I have somewhere to start. So, I quickly go to the video highlights of those guys and some others who are expected by various websites to be high picks.
Pretty soon into this limited research, I notice center/wing Stutzle (Adler Mannheim, Deutsche Eishockey Liga) is super creative, constantly developing in the offensive end and making great passes with many successful forechecking forays. Stutzle wins the eye test over the others so I take him for the Kings at No. 4 overall.
It’s definitely not a bad pick. I can see him fitting into what is (based on the Kings’ farm system, where a ton of dynamic forwards with scoring talent reside) expected to be an explosive Kings offense in a few years’ time. He’s a fine, fine playmaker and can score. And he looks like a really nice fit to play alongside the Kings’ other up-and-coming offensive talent such as Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo, Tyler Madden, Rasmus Kupari, Akil Thomas, Gabe Vilardi, and Jaret Anderson-Dolan as well current stars and top performers like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alex Iafallo and Jeff Carter, among others.
So now, even though I didn’t know a lot about Stutzle before, I will continue to watch him and see where he ends up and how he does in his career. The same goes for Lafreniere, Byfield and Drysdale and many, many others now that my radar is kind of geared toward this kind of stuff.
Real Kings Management Is Targeting Defense
One thought at the time of making that first pick was that the Kings can wait on defense. The back-end has not been the problem in the last few seasons.
Related: 10 Greatest LA Kings of All Time
Ahhh, but sure enough, just a few days later, the real-life Blake came out in the media saying that the franchise is targeting defense in the draft (whenever the NHL decides to hold it; everything is up in the air due to the COVID-19 health crisis). Still, in the real draft when it happens, I truly think that if Stutzle is actually available and those top three mock-draft picks aren’t, then taking him is a good way to go.
Drysdale, by the way, might be that franchise-changing type of player. So yes, definitely, if he is available in the real draft, then I would go with him. Eh, as I said, I’m no draft junkie (but I might be when the 2021 edition rolls around). This stuff is more interesting than I could have imagined.
It should be noted that at this point, I think my job as a pretend general manager is done. It was clear, I thought, that it was one round only. Man, I can handle that. But then a few days later, I get a message on Slack: I’m on the clock. They changed the format and added more rounds. Cool, I guess, but let’s not get too deep into this, eh boys and girls?
Wowzers. I’m truly locked in now. So, I go back to the videos and take a look at some of the players mentioned on the hockey websites, including THW, as possible high draft picks who are still available. And a couple of defensemen — since the Kings want to go that way — look super good.
No Guts to Choose Offensive Defenseman Poirier
One is Jeremie Poirier, who is an offensive wizard, and the other is Lukas Cormier, who seems like a real leader and skilled in all aspects of the game but on the small side at 5-foot-10.
Digging deep into Poirier’s game, it becomes crystal clear that he is a liability on defence because he often gets caught flat-footed. That’s not immediate NHL material right there. But, oh, the stickhandling!! Unbelievable. Truly uncanny. Go check him out.
Another thing about Poirier stands out. He tends to hold the puck too long. That also is not going to cut it in the NHL. But ohhhhh — the stickhandling. I almost take a chance and grab Poirier, but what a risk!! Not only that, the ridicule that would be coming my way, possibly, right? Still, a defenseman who can’t play defense was the final thought. I take Cormier at No. 35 overall. The other possibility (in my limited looking) was Daemon Hunt, who has good size, skills and can hit, which is a trait that is becoming less and less valuable, it seems, as time marches on. This is not your father’s NHL.
Sure enough, a little later in the second round, someone takes Poirier, and he does so with trepidation. But at least he, unlike me, had a little guts to bet on Poirier’s eventual transformation into a complete player. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to see how this kid Poirier does, though. Maybe he can find the right coach, who can get it across to him that he’s got to get rid of the puck faster in some situations and he’s got major defensive improvement to make his mark in the NHL.
Two Picks Done, It’s Weasel Time
And once again, I thought my mock drafting was done. These hockey nuts at The Hockey Writers, are crazy about their beloved sport. There’s no hockey to watch, right? So, plenty of time to speculate. But, boom, a couple of days later, there’s the new message. I’m on the clock. Again. Two more picks late in the second round. Man, the Kings can really stock up. Thank goodness I had a few other things needing my attention that day. And, thank goodness for Jack Dawkins, one of the THW writers who is part of the Kings’ coverage team and was willing and able to continue for me.
Weaseled out of it. But, man, next year … dude … I’ll be ready.
Dawkins continued to make Los Angeles’ two later picks (Nos. 48 and 55 overall) in the second round and beyond. He had an interesting thought on one aspect of the Kings’ needs.
“My gut is the Kings have to get one of the top goalies available in the draft,” Dawkins DM’ed me. “I honestly might have reached for (consensus No. 1 goaltender Yaroslav) Askarov at 4 because their prospect pool is utterly dynamic everywhere but goaltender. So by the time they pick at 55 they’ve drafted 3 other players before the pick and it might be a bit of a reach but if they’re zeroed in on a goaltender that they like, I think that’s where they have to take him.”
Dawkins takes sniper Ty Smilanic (Quinnipiac commit), a center, and goaltender Drew Commesso (Boston University commit) at No. 55. Both are USNTDP players. He was surprised Smilanic was still available and chose Commesso over Joel Blomqvist, who plays in Liiga.
“I think Commesso’s NCAA development path makes him a bit more draftable to the Kings than Blomqvist’s Liiga/Mestis development,” Dawkins wrote. “You know Commesso is going to be able to compete for the starting job at BU and you know he’s facing top-end NCAA competition when he plays. No insult to (Mestis or Liiega), but Commesso will face more future NHLers in the NCAA than Blomqvist ever will in Mestis or Liiga.”
Veteran poise is what I call it. Not Commesso nor Blomqvist. I’m talking about Dawkins for barely hesitating with two picks so deep into the pool.
What Lucky Team Will Get Drysdale?
Oh wait, now that I have the chance, I would like to say — based on my expertise as a sports reporter since 1981 and covering all kinds of sports and athletes — Lafreniere looks like a great player, supremely masterful in many areas.
Byfield looks like Evgeni Malkin, but with maybe a little more skill (amazing, if true) and physical presence (if you can believe that).
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And Drysdale is a can’t-miss superstar, in my opinion.
But, after watching all three extensively, I’m not convinced that Lafreniere is going to outdistance the other two when all is said and done. He’s more dynamic than Byfield (so at this point, I would take Lafreniere first), but Drysdale’s skating and stickhandling are — to me — where the NHL is headed, with mobility and elusiveness on the back line at the forefront of value. Dare I say it, Drysdale might end up being a better player than Lafreniere.
This type of rating-the-athletes stuff is why the mock draft is fun — and not simply a way to, um, mock my lack of knowledge. And then there’s Stutzle, who I will forever root for and watch, no matter where he ends up. My pride is on the line.
>> Sports journalist since 1981
>> Grew up in Marlboro, Mass., and live in Mililani, Hawaii
>> “I always play to win when it comes to skin and bones.” — Bill Lee/Warren Zevon
>> No coach ever screamed “pass the puck” at me