The Future Five: The Draft Lottery Effect
Welcome to the Future Five, a new column featuring five thoughts on the future of the New Jersey Devils franchise.
This week, we’re looking at a few effects of last month’s draft lottery win, when the New Jersey Devils received the first overall selection in the upcoming NHL entry draft.
1. The Draft Lottery Effect
One day before General Manager Ray Shero appeared on television at the NHL draft lottery, he was explaining the need for “more talent”. It’s no coincidence that the same words had been used earlier by all-star forward Taylor Hall at his end of season press conference - acquiring more talent on the roster is the primary goal for this offseason in order to convince Hall, who will reach UFA status at the end of next season, to sign an extension now.
Winning the lottery is an obvious boon for the Devils, who will likely select centre Jack Hughes from the USNTDP or forward Kaapo Kakko from TPS in Liiga. Jack Hughes, off of a historic U18 tournament, entered the IIHF World Championship as the #1 ranked prospect by most major outlets, but Kakko’s recent play (5 goals in 3 games played) has caused Devils fans to waiver. The second overall pick is held by the New York Rangers, which makes the matter of Hughes or Kakko that much more stressful for fans.
As Todd Cordell of HockeyBuzz writes, there simply isn’t anything new about Hughes’ and Kakko’s performances to justify a huge change of opinion based on a few World Championship games. We knew Kakko was more mature in his physicality and build. We knew Hughes’ skating, vision, and hockey IQ were off the charts, even if he was less physically mature than Kakko. The scouting staff has been watching these players for at least two years, and won’t let a single tournament dictate their judgements of ability, value, and potential.
Whichever way Ray Shero and Paul Castron go, we know that we have one immediate impact player ready to join the roster as soon as next year. Both Hughes and Kakko will play, and whichever player the team drafts will count towards the influx of “talent” we will see in Newark over the summer.
As for me? I’m about 95% sure that we’ll see Jack Hughes in a Devils sweater next season. I think he is both the best player available and fills a position of need, which is the ideal combination of factors for a draft pick. I won’t be disappointed if we select Kakko, who will be a star in the league, but I will be surprised.
2. Centre or Wing?
One of the biggest points in the Hughes vs. Kakko debate surrounds position - Hughes has played centre consistently throughout his career, where Kakko only played perhaps a dozen games at centre this past season. There has been some talk about whether Kakko could play centre in the National Hockey League, but his lack of experience at the Liiga level has raised doubts about that path forward. A few thoughts:
On the most recent episode of NHL Draft Class Goran Stubb, the NHL’s Director of European Scouting, said that Kakko ultimately does have the potential to play centre at the NHL level, and that the ultimate deciding factor would be the NHL team’s comfort level and need.
We’ve seen other high profile draft picks make the transition successfully, notably Pierre-Luc Dubois. He was an established winger who made the transition to centre partway through his draft year. He was a surprise pick at #3 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who confirmed that they were drafting him to play centre with only 6 months of experience at the QMJHL level.
I’m not suggesting that Kakko will be a centre in the NHL, or even that position will ultimately be the deciding factor. It’s one piece among many that will make up the rationale for the Devils’ pick in June. It’s hard not to think about position though, as a young elite centre to slot in behind Hischier would provide a foundation for a potential contender. It would also have the effect of solidifying our centre core for the next few seasons, and likely push Zacha to the wing where he could focus on developing and using his offensive tools.
3. Jesper Boqvist
As we start to picture what the top-9 might look like next season, consider Jesper Boqvist. He was selected 36th overall in the 2017 entry draft, and is coming off of an excellent 2018/19 season with Brynäs of the SHL. He finished the season with 35 points in 51 games, and was second in the league in even-strength scoring, all at the age of 20. Of Corsi has a good analysis of Boqvist’s even-strength play.
The Devils want to sign him, and he has expressed a desire to play in the NHL next season. The only thing holding up the discussion was his desire to make the Swedish World Championship team after his season ended. As a surprise cut from the WC roster, I expect we’ll see him signed before the draft.
He has the potential to slot into the top-9 as soon as next season, and is currently the team’s best forward prospect.
4. Fighting for Roster Spots
34 skaters played at least 5 games for the Devils this season due to injuries, trades, and more injuries. We saw a mix of veterans, prospects, and AHL regulars cycle through the Devils line up, which contributed to inconsistencies in lines and skill levels on a nightly basis. It also decimated the Binghamton Devils roster, which led to another disappointing season in the AHL.
With a few notable departures already taking place in Binghamton (John Ramage and Yegor Yakovlev), Shero and Assistant General Manager Tom Fitzgerald will need to address the AHL squad by adding some veteran pieces and a goalie to assist the crop of young players likely to stick in the minors.
One effect of the draft lottery win, and the mandate to add more talent, is that it will force more fringe players, whether young prospects or veterans, back into Binghamton to fight for a call up. Think about it, we have 10 forwards that are likely to stick at the NHL level next season in Hall, Hischier, Palmieri, Bratt, Zajac, Zacha, Coleman, Wood, Boqvist, and one of Hughes or Kakko. That leaves two spots for a wide group of players:
Maltsev (Rookie, recently signed with European assignment clause)
Rooney (AHL veteran)
And that’s without bringing in another forward, whether top or bottom 6, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Devils add Boyle on a short contract if he wants to return (his son is seeking medical treatment in the area). There is going to be a huge amount of competition for a small amount of spots at forward, which means good things for Binghamton, and ultimately for the development program the Devils are trying to build.
The situation at defence is an even bigger question mark that will be addressed in a future post.
5. Phone Him Daily
Hockey can be a ruthless sport on the ice, but it can also be ruthless and opportunistic at the executive level. GM Ray Shero has proven that he has no problem holding his own when it comes to trades, with most people holding the Taylor Hall/Adam Larsson swap as the prime example. While the famous “one for one” swap remains one of the most important trades in recent franchise history, the Marcus Johansson trade also shows how opportunistic Shero can be.
Shortly after the Capitals found themselves cap-strapped after Evgeny Kuznetsov signed a larger contract than the Capitals had hoped for, Shero was on the phone offering them cap relief by trading forward Marcus Johansson for picks. The Capitals secured their cap structure and received fair (but likely under market-value) compensation, and the Devils got a potential 60-point forward. While the trade didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped, the bet was a smart one.
On the podcast we’ve done lots of talking about PhDs, or “Phone him daily” - the teams or GMs that are in tough spots that Shero should be talking to regularly. Before his firing, Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli was prime PhD material for obvious reasons. This summer, I think Ray Shero should be phoning a few cap-strapped teams in the west such as Nashville (David Poile) and Winnipeg (Kevin Cheveldayoff). The problem is both GMs are shrewd, and Chveldayoff in particular is excruciatingly patient, so we shouldn’t expect fireworks, even if a deal surrounding RFA defenseman Jacob Trouba could be interesting.
One last thing to keep in mind is that Shero and Poile have a good relationship, going back to Shero’s days as an Assistant General Manager in Nashville. The Devils got a favourable return on forward Brian Boyle, but I suspect that had more to do with Nashville’s desire for that particular player than any favouritism between Poile and Shero.
A more recent addition to the PhD list would be Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton. Hired in May of 2018, Fenton has had a full year to evaluate his team, and has recently begun cleaning house. Most recently, his team let go Assistant General Manager Shep Harder, Director of Player Personnel Andrew Brunette, and Lead Hockey Researcher Andrew Thomas. After Thomas’ contract wasn’t renewed, Hockey Operations Analyst Alexandra Mandrycky declined a new contract - the two co-founded war-on-ice.com together. There have reportedly been more firings and departures within the scouting department.
Fenton has already made a surprise move in trading forward Nino Niederreiter, and could be looking to further shake up the organization. Niederreiter, a longtime analytics darling, could signal the beginning of a larger exodus of players to go along with recent staff changes. If the Wild are looking to start next season with a clean slate, the Devils should start phoning them daily about players such as RD Jared Spurgeon and LD Jonas Brodin. Spurgeon was listed as the best comparable for Devils prospect Ty Smith at the draft, and has been the subject of trade rumours by Elliotte Friedmanon the 31 Thoughts Podcast (at 59:30 mark) as recently as last week.
Welcome to the club, Dr. Fenton.