Kraken general manager Ron Francis didn’t take long Saturday to deliver his first big surprise of the NHL entry draft, taking Regina Pats defenseman Ryker Evans with his second-round selection.
The Kraken had the third choice of each of the draft’s final six rounds after using its No. 2 overall selection Friday on University of Michigan center Matty Beniers, a move most pundits saw coming. But few expected the 19-year-old Evans, a 5-foot-11, 181-pound left-handed shooter who led all Western Hockey League blue-liners with 25 assists in 24 games last season, to go anywhere near as high as 35th overall.
“It should be exciting to get started with this brand new franchise,” Evans said. “A beautiful city. Playing there against the Seattle Thunderbirds, they’ve got some of the best fans in the league. Just knowing that, I’m excited.”
On a day the Kraken announced previously reported free-agent deals for goalie Chris Driedger and defensemen Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak, Francis completed the franchise’s first entry draft by adding three more forwards, two defenders and a netminder to the initial Beniers selection.
Francis said afterward that Evans, a strong-skating, puck-moving defender who went undrafted a year ago, could be ticketed for his team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Palm Springs, California, as early as 2022-23 if he progresses enough, or stay in the WHL an extra overage season. Despite generally underwhelming draft projections for Evans elsewhere, Francis said his staffers saw enough to worry he might be gone had they waited until the third round.
“We had a lot of viewings in person by a lot of our different scouts — a lot of guys with a lot of experience,” Francis said. “And we went through that. Where do we think he’s going to go? This is kind of a unique draft with COVID-19 (impacting in-person scouting) … and we looked at some teams that we thought might be looking at taking him.”
With its third-round pick, the Kraken took two-way center Ryan Winterton, 18, of the Ontario Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Winterton’s OHL season was canceled for pandemic concerns, and his only serious playing time came in April with Team Canada at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship in Texas, with Francis and Kraken scouts in attendance.
Francis said his staff “felt pleasantly surprised” that Winterton was still around by the 67th overall choice. NHL Central Scouting ranked him the 33rd-best North American skater, so his lack of playing time likely frightened teams off.
“We certainly had him higher on our list,” Francis said. “It’s a tough year, because you don’t get to see him play live in the Ontario league, but we did go back and watch video from seasons before.”
And though Francis admitted it’s tough to base an evaluation off the lone Texas stint, where Winterton scored twice and added two assists in seven games, he likes his size and that he plays center, and he said there’s “a lot of upside” to be groomed next OHL season.
Winterton said his agents arranged three-on-three scrimmages for him with other players, but nothing like playing multiple times weekly during an OHL season.
“I’d rather be in Hamilton for sure, but that obviously wasn’t happening, so you’ve got to make the most of the opportunity,” Winterton said. “So it was just beneficial to me to be able to play five-on-five (at the Texas tournament). I know some people weren’t, so I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
The Kraken used its fourth-round selection, 99th overall, on Finnish defenseman Ville Ottavainen, 18, a right-handed shooter running 6-4 and 201 pounds. He played 2019-20 in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers, then for JYP of Finland on both its junior- and pro-level squads after the pandemic hit.
Jacob Melanson, 18 and a 5-11, 201-pound right wing from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was the Kraken’s fifth-round choice, 131st overall. Melanson’s junior playing time was limited by collarbone breaks twice in successive years, but he rebounded for 19 points in 18 games this past season.
Goaltender Semyon Vyazovoi, 18, from the Russian junior league was taken in the sixth round, 163rd overall. The seventh-round pick, 195th overall, was Minnesota native Justin Janicke, 18, a forward from the U.S. national team development program slated to play for Notre Dame.
Right before Evans was selected, the Anaheim Ducks tabbed Everett Silvertips defenseman Olen Zellweger, 18, with the 34th overall pick. Seattle Thunderbirds left wing Conner Roulette, 18, was taken in the fourth round, 111th overall, by the Dallas Stars.
Though there’s debate over whether Kraken first-rounder Beniers will return to Michigan or start his NHL career, none of the prospects taken Saturday will debut with the big team anytime soon.
Second-rounder Evans honed his speed under his father, a power-skating instructor in his native Calgary. Evans used the COVID-19 layoff to better his other skills ahead of the recent, pandemic-shortened WHL season.
“I was able to work on a lot of things that you never really get to work on during the season,” Evans said. “And that just allowed my confidence and my belief in my abilities to skyrocket.”
Evans projected as a mid-third-rounder at best on most pundits’ draft boards. NHL Central Scouting ranked him only 192nd among North American skaters.
But there’s sometimes a bias against older draftees in major junior hockey, where it’s assumed something’s off if a player isn’t taken by age 18. And the lack of playing time and in-person scouting caused by the pandemic has wreaked greater havoc than usual on projections.
Evans deploys his speed and pinpoint passing in a mature style of transitional game. He doesn’t panic when pressured, using the boards and passes as an escape valve.
“I definitely think skating’s my strong suit, so I like to play with speed, definitely, taking it (the puck) up into the (offensive) zone,” Evans said. “Creating those give-and-go’s and odd-man rushes is something that I contribute with my game.”
Kraken amateur scouting director Robert Kron said Evans was one of those rare prospects who united his entire staff.
“Scouts felt very strongly about Ryker,” Kron said. “We were lucky to see him live, and all of our scouts in Canada saw him live many times. So we knew what we had.”
Francis noted that Evans being a year older than most draftees “gets him under your (pro) control a little bit quicker” and added that he has filled out physically the past two years Kraken scouts monitored him.
“We grilled them on a lot of different things,” Francis said. “But they felt 100% comfortable that this is a guy that can play.”