The focus of attention falls squarely on the Buffalo Sabres to kick off an NHL draft heavily themed by Michigan, mystery and the expansion Seattle Kraken.
General manager Kevyn Adams isn’t tipping his hand on whether Buffalo will use the No. 1 pick to select defenseman Owen Power, the consensus top prospect and one of three Wolverines players projected to be chosen in the first round Friday.
There’s even more uncertainty surrounding the Sabres, who have the potential of shaking up the draft order by adding an extra pick. Adams hasn’t ruled out doing so while juggling trade talks involving three key players, including captain Jack Eichel, who has questioned his future in Buffalo over a dispute with the team regarding how to repair his herniated disk.
“Lots of conversations. Lots of different scenarios,” Adams said Thursday of his bid to overhaul a franchise that finished last in the overall standings for the fourth time in eight years. “We’re willing to listen to every possible thing that’s going to get our franchise pointed in the right direction.”
The Sabres are picking first for the fourth time in franchise history, and second since selecting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin in 2018. They’re followed by the Kraken and the Anaheim Ducks in a two-day, seven-round draft being held remotely for a second consecutive year due to the pandemic.
Having added 30 players in the expansion draft Wednesday, the Kraken can now start stocking up on prospects.
“It’s obviously a different feel and a different entity, but equally as exciting coming out of the entry draft with players, some that may be able to help us sooner than later, no doubt, but definitely are the future of our team,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said.
In a season in which the Stanley Cup was awarded for the first time in July, COVID-19 has added an element of uncertainty in ranking prospects, many of whom had limited playing time because of constricted or canceled seasons in North America, or scrambled to join teams in Europe.
Add in the NHL’s annual pre-draft combine being canceled, and scouting staffs were forced to rely on limited game tape or lean more heavily on Zoom calls with prospects for their projections.
“There’s some mystery to this draft,” Colorado Avalanche scouting director Wade Klippenstein said. “It’s not ideal. It would be nice to have more viewing, live viewings especially, on players. But I think there’s incredible opportunity here this year.”
Michigan benefited from playing a 26-game season before the second-seeded Wolverines were forced to pull out of the NCAA Tournament following positive tests.
Listed at 6-foot-6 and 213 pounds, Power is the NHL Scouting Bureau’s top-ranked prospect, a fluid skater and playmaker who made the most of the larger European ice surface by helping Canada win a gold medal at the men’s world championships in Latvia.
He is joined by Wolverines forwards Ken Johnson, ranked third among North American skaters, and sixth-ranked Matthew Beniers. They have the opportunity to make Michigan the first college hockey program to have three players selected in the first round.
An 18-year-old winger, William Eklund, is the top-ranked international skater after earning Swedish Hockey League rookie of the year honors.
Mason McTavish, the second-ranked North American, joined numerous Canadians by playing in Europe. Forward Brennan Othmann, the eighth-ranked North American, did the same, using his father’s ties to play in Switzerland after the Ontario Hockey League season was canceled.
“I had a lots of buddies I played with and played against, and they can’t showcase themselves,” Othmann said. “That’s just disappointing for them and for me to hear that. We’ve worked our whole lives to get drafted in the National Hockey League.”
Central Scouting director Dan Marr acknowledged it’s more difficult to project this year’s class, while noting every NHL team faces the same challenge. The fallout might see more mid-to-late round selections blossom into NHL players.
“There’s going to be a lot of players in the top 60 that are going on to go and play,” Marr said. “But what we don’t know is that other group of players that we didn’t get to see much. ... The argument can be made there’s going to be a lot of mid-round picks that could play ahead of players taken before them.”
Another twist to this year’s draft class is the number of top prospects considering taking another year to develop before turning pro. Eklund said he intends on playing one more season in Sweden, while Power said he’s leaning toward returning for his sophomore college season.
That’s fine with Adams, who said it won’t factor into the Sabres’ decision.
“This is a tough league. So I think the one mistake we don’t want to make is putting someone in position that they’re just treading water,” Adams said. “We want them to be ready to play.”
Notes: Though there are now 32 teams drafting, the first round will feature only 31 selections with the NHL stripping the Arizona Coyotes of their selection (11th overall) for violating the league’s combine testing policy
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.