The Biggest Surprises of the NHL Draft’s First Round

For the past few weeks, The Hockey Writers have been bringing you a series of articles detailing several intriguing aspects of the 2016 NHL Draft, including Five Potential Draft-day surprises and Three potential sleepers for the two-day event. With the big day finally in the books, here are several players who ruined quite a few mock drafts with their surprising draft slot. And of course, be sure to check out THW’s 2016 NHL Draft Guide to see how we did.

Zach Senyshyn was arguably the biggest draft surprise of 2015's first round (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)
Zach Senyshyn was arguably the biggest draft surprise of 2015’s first round (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

After months of waiting and anticipation, the NHL Draft kicked off last night and the first 30 picks of the 2016 NHL Draft are now in the books. Not unlike last year when the Boston Bruins went off the board with three straight draft picks in the middle of the first round, there are surprises and top prospects that fall down draft boards every year.

After the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and Columbus Blue Jackets, respectively, won the three coveted draft lottery spots in 2016, it was all but concluded who the top three picks were going to be. Past those top three consensus picks, however, the draft became much more difficult to predict, with a couple of trades and teams with multiple picks in the first round changing the landscape of the first round. Here are the biggest steals and reaches of the NHL Draft’s first round from Friday night.

Edmonton Selects RW Jesse Puljujarvi 4th Overall

Jesse Puljujarvi
Jesse Puljujarvi surprisingly fell out of the top three (Photo courtesy Finnish Ice Hockey Federation)

Long thought to be a top selection in the 2016 NHL Draft, Puljujarvi was upstaged by Patrik Laine late in the season as Laine won World Championship MVP and helped his Finnish team Tappara to a Liiga playoff win over Puljujarvi’s Karpat club. However, Puljujarvi’s great season went somewhat under the radar in comparison to Laine, as Puljujarvi captured both World Junior Championship gold (with an MVP nod as well) and World Under-18 gold as well.

His all-around game is arguably the second best in the draft behind first overall pick Auston Matthews, and he’s a perfect fit for the plethora of young forwards being assembled in Edmonton. The Oilers had success with their previous Canadian-Finnish connection (Gretzky-Kurri), and Connor McDavid will be a happy camper with this fantastic Finn on his wing.

Minnesota Selects C Luke Kunin 15th overall

It’t no secret that the Minnesota Wild had been searching for a young, potential top six centre to become the heir apparent to longtime captain Mikko Koivu. Luke Kunin, as one of the youngest players in NCAA Division 1 hockey, impressed as one of the top players on the University of Wisconsin. However, Minnesota may come to second guess their pick in the middle of the round in the near future, as GM Chuck Fletcher passed up on several highly-touted players in favour of the late-blooming Kunin.

Despite their immediate need for young help at centre, the Wild turned their collective noses up at BCHL defender and Boston University commit Dante Fabbro, highly regarded Russian centre German Rubtsov, and Sarnia defender Jakob Chychrun, among other players who were expected to go much higher than the St. Louis native. Kunin could end up being the long-term answer to the Wild’s search for a top-tier centre, but at the moment, it looks like they could end up regretting passing on someone with the high ceiling of Chychrun.

Arizona Selects D Jakob Chychrun 16th overall

Jakob Chychrun slipped in the NHL Draft (Metcalfe Photography)
Jakob Chychrun slipped down the NHL Draft rankings (Metcalfe Photography)

Widely expected before the season to be in the mix for one of the top three selections, Jakob Chychrun endured a trying draft season with the Sarnia Sting and ended the season slipping down draft boards. However, Chychrun is a physical marvel at his age, and excelled playing in every situation for one of the OHL’s top teams in Sarnia.

At the cost of taking on Pavel Datsyuk’s contract in exchange for moving up four draft slots, new GM John Chayka made a draft day splash by jumping up to select the strapping young defender out of Boca Raton, Florida. After taking undersized, dynamic forward Clayton Keller earlier in the round, the Coyotes fill their need for a blue-chip defense prospect with the former first overall pick in the OHL Draft. With their offense set for the forseeable future, Arizona takes a big step in the right direction in building their defensive corps with Jakob Chychrun.

Related: Jakob Chychrun – The Next Ones: NHL 2016 Draft Prospect Profile

Detroit Selects D Dennis Cholowski 20th overall

The Red Wings were able to accomplish one of their biggest draft-day goals when they were able to move the contract (and subsequent cap hit) of the now-departed Pavel Datsyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for moving down four draft slots, in addition to some other moving parts. Ken Holland entered Friday night preparing for his 19th NHL Draft as the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, and his track record in the draft speaks for itself.

Dennis Cholowski
Dennis Cholowski was the biggest riser of all NHL draft prospects (Garrett James Photography)

However, his first selection on Friday night certainly raised some eyebrows. With the 20th selection, the Red Wings went slightly off the board and took Chilliwack Chiefs defender Dennis Cholowski. After starting the season ranked by NHL’s Central Scouting as a ‘C’ prospect and a potential mid-round selection, Cholowski’s play at the World Jr. A Challenge and in the BCHL playoffs landed him firmly in the discussion to slip into the first round of the NHL Draft.

The Red Wings have shown no hesitation to take understated prospects, and their success in the draft has earned them the benefit of the doubt. However, Cholowski’s quite a raw prospect and will likely require several years of development in order to be ready to play in the NHL.

Related: Dennis Cholowski – The Next Ones: NHL 2016 Draft Prospect Profile

Florida Selects C Henrik Borgstrom 23rd overall

The Panthers, fresh off of their first Atlantic Division title last season, are flush with young talent at both forward and defense, leaving them in a perfect spot to take the best possible player they could with the 23rd pick. With several highly-regarded and quality prospects still on the board such as London’s Max Jones and Swedish speedster Rasmus Asplund, the Panthers and newly minted general manager Tom Rowe made the first truly off the board pick as they took lanky Finnish centre Henrik Borgstrom.

Borgstrom, a 1997 birthday who was eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, had really put himself on the prospect map with an outstanding season in the Finnish junior leagues after being passed over in 2015. Ranked 9th among European skaters and expected to be drafted in the second to third rounds, Borgstrom didn’t really sneak onto the first round radar until the past few days.

The Panthers seemed to be higher on this Denver University commit than most teams. Though they passed on several players who seemed to be primed for more success in the near future than Borgstrom, the Panthers are one of just a handful of teams that can afford to take a risk on a project with a high ceiling such as this player.

Boston Selects C Trent Frederic 29th overall

The Bruins continue to restock their cupboard after last year’s trades of Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic. After taking a solid defenseman with high upside with their first selection, the Bruins go off the board a little bit with their second pick in the first round. Trent Frederic, who’s committed to play with fellow first-rounder Luke Kunin at the University of Wisconsin next season, produced less than stellar offensive numbers with the USNTDP this season.

Trent Frederic
Trent Frederic was a surprise pick at 29th overall (Rena Laverty/USA Hockey)

The Bruins are set at the centre position for the foreseeable future with perennial Selke contender Patrice Bergeron and former Conn Smythe winner David Krejci patrolling the middle of the ice for the next six years. However, they lack depth in their prospect pool, as two of their three first round selections last year were wingers and none of the three were centres. Frederic could definitely use some time to develop in university and may not ever be a high-scoring threat, but he seems to have a high floor as a bottom-six player with a high motor.

The Bruins’ style of play under head coach Claude Julien has been infamously tilted towards big, physical players over highly skilled guys. Frederic, while he’s super-athletic and is a safe bet to crack a pro lineup in the future, seemed to be more well-suited to be a late second rounder or even a candidate to slip into the third round. Instead, the Bruins reach down the list a little bit and grab a player that could develop into a solid two-way player for them.

Related: Trent Frederic – The Next Ones: NHL 2016 Draft Prospect Profile