With the 2015 NHL Draft in the rear-view mirror, hope and optimism abounds among NHL organizations and their fans. It’s truly a great time of year, and with 211 picks in the books, this draft should be remembered for years to come.
There are numerous avenues that lead to the NHL, and while it’s very early in the evaluation process, assessing the draft comes down to the winners, honorable mentions, and those teams whose drafting left something to be desired.
1. New York Islanders
Leave it to New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow to break the mold yet again and be aggressive in pursuing the exact players he wanted. Just like in 2014, where the team traded up to acquire Josh Ho-Sang, Snow was again aggressive in dealing former fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart to the Edmonton Oilers for a pair of picks. Coming into the draft, Mathew Barzal was considered a top-10 talent, but fell to the Islanders at 16th overall. Then, nearing the end of the first round, the team traded up to acquire Anthony Beauvillier, an impressive package in his own right.
The later rounds went to adding defensive depth, as all five of their remaining picks went to the blueline. They took a chance on versatile and engaging Mitchell Vande Sompel from the Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals, and another potential faller in Parker Wotherspoon. Sticking with the aggressive overtone, the Islanders pushed to trade up again in the fifth round to select Ryan Pilon, who is the cousin of Rich Pilon, a veteran of 12 seasons on the Island. Finally, Snow closed out the draft by selecting Andong Song, the first Chinese-born player to be drafted in NHL history.
The Islanders’ consistently aggressive approach to the draft has paid off in recent years, and this year was no different, as Garth Snow is quickly earning a reputation as an astute evaluator and a friend to his scouting staff.
For a team that doesn’t officially employ a General Manager, the dynamic duo of Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter didn’t waste any time putting their stamp on the organization. Having long been connected to London Knights forward Mitch Marner, they made the selection official at fourth overall and then made a series of moves to acquire additional talent. Originally slotted to pick 24th overall, the Leafs traded down twice and added two more picks to finalize the return from the Cody Franson deal. The Leafs continued their tradition of drafting from the OHL’s Erie Otters by taking defenseman Travis Dermott, and then closed out the second round on undersized but dynamic winger Jeremy Bracco.
The Leafs continued to draft for skill, finally putting the antiquated notion that size was of great importance by selecting high-risk, high-reward forwards in Dmytro Timashov and Nikita Korostelev, both widely considered to be selected much higher than they actually were. The organizational shift in assessing and evaluating talent resulted in one of the best drafts the Leafs have had in recent memory.
It’s hard to argue that any other team got more value for their picks than Toronto, who managed to select a number of players in this draft more than 50 spots behind where they were ranked by NHL Central Scouting. With Brendan Shanahan guiding the team, Dale Hunter and Kyle Dubas splitting draft duties, and prized Head Coach Mike Babcock on the staff, the Maple Leafs may finally be turning a corner.
3. Winnipeg Jets
He may have an odd aversion to making player trades, but Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has a pretty good handle on the draft. With one of the top systems in the league already, the Jets bolstered their forward corps with an impressive haul of prospects. The team had two first round picks and landed Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic, both speedy, competitive forwards who play a nearly complete game.
The Jets took Jansen Harkins, who has an edge to his game that will be beneficial in the rough and tumble Western Conference. Beyond that, the team added two more USHL talents in Erik Foley and Mason Appleton, who both possess decent offensive upside. One player who really highlighted this group is Michael Spacek, a Czech Republic native who shined on the international stage and against professionals in the top tier at home.
The Jets have a handle on the draft and have one of the best systems in the league. With the Jets on the verge of consistently being a playoff team, all the work that has been done over the last few years will start to pay off as their prospects begin to graduate to the professional ranks.
The current iteration of the Blue Jackets may not inspire confidence in their chances moving forward, but it is a young and improving group with a deep prospect pool. The two men leading the charge are General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen and Head Amateur Scout Ville Siren, and the two once again led the charge for another blue-chip draft. Obviously looking for a top defenseman, they were patient and landed Zach Werenski and Gabriel Carlsson in the first round, quickly shoring up a previous area of concern.
Other notable picks were Paul Bittner, who spent time this season opposite Columbus prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand, continuing a solid run of lauded prospects from the Portland Winterhawks. Later on, two impressive prospects that stuck out were Veeti Vainio, the classic Siren selection, a projectable two-way defender. Lastly, hard-nosed Russian re-entry Vladislav Gavrikov was a nice addition later on, and could head right into the AHL as early as next season.
This was a notably impressive draft, adding to what is already a deep group of prospects. Columbus continues to succeed at a very important part of building a franchise, and are no longer looking for stopgap solutions, instead trusting their scouting staff and two phenomenal leaders to light the way.
2. Arizona Coyotes
Despite pressure to possibly select another London Knights forward in Mitch Marner or Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin, the Coyotes turned down all comers and decided to keep the third overall pick to take Erie Otters center Dylan Strome. That appears to be a wise decision on first impression, as the Otters forward projects as a top-line center and a type of player the organization has been longing after for years. It’s decidedly early to look at the 2015-16 season as a loss, but if that’s the case, pursuing 2016 draft-eligible center Auston Matthews might be easier with childhood best-friend Nick Merkley on board with the last pick in the first round.
Beyond those two, the Coyotes took two U.S. U18 forwards in Christian Fischer and Brendan Warren, while also coming away with Portland Winterhawks goaltender Adin Hill, who will vie for attention at the top of the Coyotes goaltending prospect pool. Another notable selection is re-entry forward Conor Garland, who consequently tied with Strome on top of the CHL’s scoring lead thanks to his dynamic and shifty playmaking abilities.
Arizona is not expected to be in contention for the playoffs next season, as seen by their trade to acquire cap space just to meet the NHL’s required salary floor. With a top-heavy 2016 crop ahead, the Coyotes have been wise to let their prospects develop instead of rushing them to the NHL.
The Flames kept it short and sweet this year after dealing three surplus picks to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Dougie Hamilton, one of the league’s premier young defenseman. Perhaps by design or the best player available adage, the Flames didn’t miss having their own first-round pick by using two second round picks on Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, two offensive-defenseman that had polarizing seasons. Andersson is a true puck-mover with an aggressive undertone that just finished his first season in the OHL with the Barrie Colts. Kylington was among the draft’s biggest fallers, especially considering that he was formerly ranked as the best European prospect by NHL Central Scouting. While both defenders have some deficiencies, the team can afford to be patient with both as they attempt to reach their high ceilings.
The team should also be rewarded for a couple home-run style prospects later in the draft. Sticking with the Barrie Colts, the Flames took Andrew Mangiapane, one of the best re-entry prospects available in the draft and among the most improved players in the OHL. While he may not ever hit the scoresheet, Riley Bruce is an intriguing prospect, standing at 6’6” and 205 pounds, he might just make his way to the Flames if he can continue to expand his game.
While it is hard to pick from a couple other candidates, it would be hard to say that any team improved more than the Calgary Flames this weekend, just from making one trade. Acquiring Dougie Hamilton for slightly more than what an offer sheet would cost is phenomenal asset management. Beyond that, adding Andersson and Kylington to a team that already boasts defensive depth is beyond exciting for the “C of Red.”