10 Takeaways from Round 1 of the 2020 NHL Draft
While the opening night of the 2020 NHL Draft was unconventional, that also certainly made it a lot more unforgettable.
The NHL held the first part of its annual draft on Tuesday, more than four months after it was initially scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And instead of being in the intended host city of Montreal in a building full of executives, media and fans, the draft was held remotely, with the announcement of the picks, the reactions of the players and the broadcast analysis all coming through a series of isolated video streams.
Nevertheless, the NHL still found a way to make it all work out. In the end, the futures of many NHL organizations were altered significantly, and those of us who watched were treated to some unique entertainment and a number of very memorable moments.
Here’s a rundown of 10 noteworthy things that happened during the opening round on Tuesday night:
- A start with few surprises
The first big chunk of the evening unfolded pretty much exactly as expected. Alexis Lafreniere going No. 1 to the New York Rangers, Quinton Byfield going No. 2 to the Los Angeles Kings, and Tim Stutzle going No. 3 to the Ottawa Senators were all scenarios that had been heavily predicted for months. Those same sorts of expectations weren’t as prominent for the next four picks, but Lucas Raymond, Jake Sanderson, Jamie Drysdale and Alexander Holtz all going in this range elicited little surprise. Last year’s draft saw a real stunner when the Detroit Red Wings selected German defenseman Moritz Seider at No. 6, but there was no such off-the-board pick near the top this time around (though that can’t be said about the back half of the opening round).
- Two Ottawa 67s get picked, but not in the expected order
The first surprise of the night came with the No. 8 pick, as the Buffalo Sabres chose Ottawa 67s winger Jack Quinn. Not only was Quinn No. 20 on FCHockey’s Final ranking for the 2020 draft, his Ottawa teammate Marco Rossi came in much higher at No. 5. Rossi was taken with the very next pick, No. 9 to the Minnesota Wild. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too overly surprised by this move: high-end goal-scoring is always hard to find, and the Sabres seemed pretty excited about the chance to bring in a 50-goal OHL scorer like Quinn so that he might play with Jack Eichel and Dylan Cozens down the road.
- Nashville isn’t scared of a little voodoo
Drafting a goaltender in the first round is, statistically speaking, a risky venture. The success rate for doing so over the past 20 years is a lot worse than drafting for forwards and defensemen. Goalies are voodoo, as a popular saying goes. But it has been said by many scouts in the industry that Iaroslav Askarov is the best goaltending prospect to come along since Carey Price in 2005, so it is fitting that the right-catching Russian ended up being the highest goaltender picked since Price, at No. 11 overall to the Nashville Predators. Whether the Predators end up blessed or cursed by this decision won’t truly be known for a long time, but you have to respect them making a calculated risk here.
- Health of QMJHL stars not too much of a concern
It was a long and arduous year for both Hendrix Lapierre and Justin Barron. The two QMJHLers entered 2019-20 as highly regarded prospects who could challenge for spots in the top 10, but both suffered serious health scares that knocked them out of action for most of the season (Lapierre with neck issues, Barron due to a blood clot). While they did ultimately end up sliding, both players were still selected in the first round, with Lapierre going No. 22 to the Washington Capitals and Barron going No. 25 to the Colorado Avalanche. There’s no doubt that those two teams did their medical homework leading up to yesterday.
- The surprising Russian, Part 1
The next big surprise of the evening came with the New Jersey Devils at No. 20, when they selected Russian defender Shakir Mukhamadullin. Mukhamadullin was No. 46 on our final list, and was selected ahead of different blueliners that we had ranked higher, such as Lukas Cormier, Helge Grans, William Wallinder and a few others. However, he has been playing regular minutes in the KHL so far this season, which is pretty rare for an 18-year-old defensemen, and he also has six points in 14 games so far to show for it. You have to wonder how much that early success and the fact that he’s actually playing meaningful hockey right now while most of his peers aren’t factored into New Jersey’s decision-making process.
- Minor wheeling and dealing pays off for the Flames
The Calgary Flames got their man, and added a couple extra goodies along the way. The team originally held the No. 19 pick, but traded it to the Rangers for No. 22 and No. 72. Shortly after they flipped that pick to the Capitals in exchange for No. 24 and No. 80. The end result? Taking Connor Zary, a prospect that the Flames were still very high on, with two additional valuable picks as icing on the cake. “Connor (Zary) was a guy we were targeting. He was in a group of guys because if you move down you have to have options. We can use the age-old line: we can’t believe he was there,” Flames general manager Brad Treliving told Sportsnet 960 afterwards.
- The surprising Russian, Part 2
Hands down, the most shocking moment of the opening night of the 2020 draft came at No. 21, when the Columbus Blue Jackets selected winger Yegor Chinakhov. Now, the Jackets and their GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, have something of a reputation for making ballsy picks, including Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall in 2016 and Alexandre Texier No. 45 in 2017. But this? This was a massive swing unlike anything in recent draft memory. Chinakhov was a re-entry who went unpicked in the 2019 draft and spent the vast majority of his 2019-20 season in Russia’s top junior league. To give you an idea of how out of left field this pick was, we had him almost 200 spots lower, at No. 214 on our list. When his name was called the talking heads on Sportsnet couldn’t hide their lack of information about him, laughing because they simply didn’t have the words. If all of that wasn’t enough, Kekalainen also said afterwards that Columbus had him in the top 10 on their list. Nobody knows how everything will unfold, and Kekalainen could end up looking like a genius for this move, but the surprise factor here was off the charts.
- Ottawa and New Jersey bolster the foundations of their rebuilds
Last night could be the kind of night that ends up being a pivotal moment in the fates of many franchises, and this thought is especially true for the Senators and Devils, who each plucked three players out of the first round (Stutzle, Sanderson and Ridly Greig for Ottawa, and Holtz, Dawson Mercer and Mukhamadullin for New Jersey). The draft is the best way to build a Stanley Cup contender, and both teams each adding three potential core roster players last night acts as laying some incredible groundwork. If one of those teams wins a Cup in the not-too-distant future, their decisions on Tuesday night will surely have been a key step in the process.
- A CHL sweep
It was a huge night for the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization that encompasses the OHL, WHL and QJMHL, with a total of 19 picks coming from those three leagues (seven each from the OHL and WHL, five from the QMJHL). That total is notably higher than what it was in recent drafts: in the prior two years that number was 13 picks, in 2017 it was was 14, and in 2016 it was 15. On the flip side, after being responsible for a whopping eight picks in the 2019 draft, the storied USA Hockey National Team Development Program only saw one player from this draft’s roster (Sanderson) getting chosen within the first 31 selections. That being said, all the early signs point to them having yet another strong class when the 2021 draft rolls around.
- The most touching moment of the first round
The most heartwarming moment of the opening night of the draft came right at its end. When Doug Wilson Jr. of the San Jose Sharks called the name of forward Ozzy Wiesblatt for the No. 31 pick, he also made sure to communicate the message through sign language. Wiesblatt’s mother, Kim White, is deaf and was watching live from home with Ozzy and their family. Talk about a special way to introduce a player to his new organization.