Inside the NHL
Oh, did the Kraken come tantalizingly close Wednesday to pulling off one of those debut NHL coups for which the Vegas Golden Knights became famous for four years ago.
Not that landing the No. 1 overall pick in next month’s NHL entry draft would have equaled Vegas making the Stanley Cup Final its inaugural 2017-18 season. But the Kraken just missed causing weeks of sour-grapes grumbling among existing NHL teams by nearly winning Wednesday’s draft lottery in Secaucus, New Jersey, before dropping into the No. 2 overall slot behind the Buffalo Sabres.
“I wish it would have been us,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis said after the top 15 slots for the July 23-24 virtual draft were unveiled on NHL Network following the closed-door lottery. “But based on where we were, the fact that we get to move up is exciting for us, our fans and our ownership group.”
The Kraken will already benefit from the same favorable expansion draft rules the Golden Knights parlayed into their Cup Final appearance. That draft takes place July 21 and will see the Kraken pick one existing and unprotected player off the rosters of each of 30 other NHL teams not including Vegas.
And now, two days after that ends, the Kraken will have a shot to add a top-two, likely-NHL-ready amateur prospect to that mix. The most recent Seattle team in the four major men’s professional sports leagues to draft this high was the Mariners in 2009, taking Dustin Ackley at No. 2 overall. The NBA’s Sonics in 2007 picked Kevin Durant from the same slot.
The Sounders had a No. 1 overall selection in 2009, used on Steve Zakuani, and the Storm picked Jewell Loyd first overall in 2015 and Breanna Stewart from the same spot in 2016.
Buffalo entered Wednesday with a 16.6% chance to land the top pick, the highest of any team courtesy of finishing with the league’s worst record. The Kraken, which hasn’t suffered through the on-ice misery of the Sabres and others vying for that top selection, nonetheless received the third-best pre-lottery odds of 10.3% as one of several favorable perks for the record $650 million expansion fee it paid to the league.
Vegas had similar odds in its first draft lottery but tumbled all the way to No. 6 once the balls were dropped. Recent changes to the format this year guaranteed the Kraken could place no worse than No. 5, and moving up to No. 2 should clarify things immensely for Francis ahead of possibly the trickiest draft in recent memory.
“We knew we would be in the top five, so we were zeroing in on players we think could be in the top five,” Francis said. “Now that we know we’re at No. 2, we’ll even tighten that up a little more to make sure we’ve got it right.”
Defensemen and centermen are generally the most coveted positions come draft time given the unpredictable nature of young goalies. This year’s top 10 should feature several players at both positions, but only a handful are generally viewed as likely to make the NHL right away.
University of Michigan defenseman Owen Power is widely seen as the most likely to go No. 1 overall, given what has been described as NHL-ready poise, maturity and superior puck movement. Other defenders on top-five radars include Brandt Clarke from the Ontario Hockey League and Simon Edvinsson from the Swedish junior circuit.
Assuming the Sabres take Power at No. 1, Clarke presents the Kraken with an interesting choice, given he’s a right-handed shot — a rarer commodity in the NHL than lefty-shooters — and did well during a professional stint in Slovakia this past season. Clarke played there after the OHL season was canceled due to COVID-19, though his 26 games were about a third of what he’d ordinarily play and be judged on in the junior ranks.
Those well-versed in advanced hockey analytics are impressed with Clarke and suggest he could make a pro leap sooner than some expect. Francis was known for using high-round picks on defensemen as Carolina’s GM, and he reiterated Wednesday that he prefers building teams traditionally up “the middle” with goalies, defensemen and centermen.
But the lack of playing time for Clarke and numerous other top prospects due to COVID-19 scheduling restrictions has created challenges for those doing the drafting.
“It’s been a crazy year to say the least,” Francis said. “It’s been a crazy year for the entire world. We had leagues that didn’t play. Leagues that started late. … Our guys have done a great job in doing what it took to watch players play. Whether that was on video, or whether that was finally getting to see players play live.”
If Francis opts for a non-defenseman, a centerman would be next on his team-building model. Power’s Michigan teammate, Matthew Berniers, performed well for Team USA in winning gold at January’s world junior championship.
Completing a trifecta of Michigan players expected to go in the top 10 is Kent Johnson, also listed as a center. Of the pair, Berniers is seen as the most likely to stick to the center spot in the NHL, where prospects often get converted to wing.
Johnson played left wing for all of his recently completed NCAA season.
Francis wasn’t tipping his hand Wednesday as to whether getting the No. 2 pick had at least clarified the position on which he’ll focus.
Instead, he repeated a familiar pre-draft GM line about taking the “best player available” and left it at that. As for how soon before the draft he’ll have a coach, Francis reiterated he’d like one by month’s end.
He’ll conduct a second interview Thursday with former teammate and ex-Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet. But whoever the coach winds up being, he’ll inherit a roster that likely just got better with Wednesday’s lucky lottery ball bounce.