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NHL Draft: Big-stage bump vs. the day job

Top prospects can boost their draft status with strong showings at marquee events – but consistency is key, too.

New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero is in an enviable position: armed with the No. 1 selection in the 2019 NHL draft, he gets to decide whether Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko will wear his franchise’s sweater next season. And thanks to some lottery luck, it’s the second time in three years Shero has been in this situation.

Shero and the Devils also had the first overall pick in 2017, opting for Swiss sensation Nico Hischier over Canadian two-way center Nolan Patrick. Hischier burst onto the mainstream hockey scene at the world juniors that year as a one-man offensive attack for Switzerland. Thanks to his devastating speed and talent, the young pivot nearly pulled off a quarterfinal upset of Team USA by himself. And while the Americans eventually prevailed 3-2, Hischier had officially planted his flag in the 2017 draft conversation. For Shero, however, Hischier’s work with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads was just as crucial. “It was really how he played in the Quebec League,” Shero said. “That Halifax team wasn’t supposed to be good that year. The world juniors was his coming-out party, but with his league play, he drove that team.”

Playing well at a big international event can provide a nice bump in profile for a prospect, but for the teams scouting them, it’s all part of the puzzle. “Now you’re seeing it on a bigger stage with more stress and pressure,” said Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka. “You want to see how guys respond, basically. We have a pretty detailed analysis going into those events of what we’re looking for, so seeing how they react in those environments is the main thing.”

The final main scouting event of the season is the world under-18s in April, and a good showing there can confirm some of the inklings a team may already have on a player. “It’s the cherry on top,” Chayka said. “We want to win a Stanley Cup, and in order to do that, you need guys who can perform on big stages. If they have a history of doing that, it’s a positive. Clayton Keller is a good example. Obviously he had the body of work, and then to do it against top competition at the under-18s (in 2015 and 2016) and perform at that high level added value to a player we highly coveted to begin with.”

For the players themselves, competing in the spotlight of those big tournaments can have an impact, too. Nathan MacKinnon was only a bit player on Canada’s WJC team during his draft year, but he was a lion at the 2013 Memorial Cup that spring, beating Seth Jones’ Portland Winterhawks to win the championship. “It’s a big stage,” MacKinnon said. “Everybody is watching, and I remember it felt like a massive event, which it is. It prepared us well, those of us who went on to NHL careers. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Back in the day, teams could also find value at the World Championship, where many of the best European players were thrust into the spotlight. Shero, who was the Ottawa Senators’ assistant GM for five years in the 1990s, remembers drafting previously passed-over talents such as Magnus Arvedson and Andreas Dackell on the strength of their performances at the worlds for Sweden. Now, the vast majority of Europe’s best free agents are picked off by NHL teams before the worlds even start. The tournament is not without its merits, however.

This year’s worlds saw Kakko put on an early clinic for Finland, which eventually led to a gold medal. Hughes also suited up in the tournament for Team USA, with less of an impact, albeit on a team with a lot more NHL talent. But the Devils GM isn’t getting caught up in all the internet buzz that was calling for Kakko to go first overall. “The last impression could sway things, but I’m not so sure that’s a good way to go about it,” Shero said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, who the heck is this guy?’ Obviously, Kaapo played really well in a big tournament, but Jack Hughes was fantastic at the under-18s. His body of work is very good, just like Kakko’s body of work.”

Back in 2017, the Devils kept their Hischier-over-Patrick pick hidden until Shero made the podium announcement. And while it really seems like Hughes is their guy this year, Shero once again isn’t making any public pronouncements. “Let’s put it this way, there’s no rush,” he said. “And it adds a little intrigue.”

Stealing the Spotlight

A breakout performance at one of these events can do wonders for a young draft hopeful.

Hlinka-Gretzky Cup
The pre-season under-18 showdown has been a great kickoff event in recent years. While Canada won gold again, Swedish defenseman Philip Broberg burst onto the scene with his mobility and offensive prowess, and Russian power forward Vasili Podkolzin tied for the tournament lead in scoring.

World Juniors
Finland nabbed gold in Vancouver, but it was a couple of Russians who saw their stock spike thanks to their play. Speedy right winger Kirill Slepets was a constant scoring threat, while under-the-radar Pyotr Kochetkov earned Top Goalie honors. Both had been passed over in the draft, but that won’t happen again.

World Under-18s
While Team USA fell short of its annual gold-medal goal, two of its top forwards went off in Sweden. Jack Hughes and Cole Caufield combined for 38 points in seven games, proving once again why they are rated so highly in 2019.

World Championship
Yes, Kaapo Kakko was great at the world juniors, but he really shook foundations at the men’s worlds, leading the gold-medal Finns with six goals in 10 games. Meanwhile, defenseman Moritz Seider gave scouts some extra material to work with by playing for Germany at the tourney. The 2019 draft prospect missed time due to injury during the regular season, so the exposure at the worlds helped.

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