NEWARK, N.J. – Like the season itself, the NHL draft was compressed. But a rich crop proved to be long on talent and familiar names.
The Colorado Avalanche were true to their word Sunday, taking stylish centre Nathan MacKinnon first overall. But the Florida Panthers sprang a surprise next, choosing Finnish centre Aleksander Barkov over defenceman Seth Jones. The top-ranked North American skater according to the NHL Central Scouting Bureau eventually went to Nashville fourth overall after Tampa took winger Jonathan Drouin.
“This a franchise-type player,” Nashville GM David Poile, delighted to have a six-foot-four, 205-pound defenceman drop in his lap, said of Jones. “So I really feel good about our defence right now.”
Nashville already has Shea Weber, a difference-maker on the blue-line. They lost another stud defenceman prior to this season when Ryan Suter signed with the Minnesota Wild.
The Avs, who won the draft lottery over the Florida Panthers, said they liked Jones but thought it prudent to draft a forward. Colorado wanted offence, noting that four of the five top scorers this season were No. 1 overall picks.
While the Avalanche knew who they wanted, the teams behind them thought long and hard who they wanted. It made for some early intrigue at the Prudential Center.
The draft, a one-day affair this year instead of split over two days, was a love-in for Devils fans who booed their local rivals at every turn.
As the draft ended some seven hours later, there was a moment to savour for the locals in the seventh round when 41-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur took the stage to announce New Jersey was taking his son Anthony, also a goalie, with the 208th pick.
The Devils had made an even bigger goalie splash earlier in the day when they announced the acquisition of Cory Schneider from Vancouver for the ninth overall pick.
A gracious Brodeur Sr., saying he wasn’t going to play forever, thought the deal was good for the Devils. He has one year left on his contact and said he would push Schneider for playing time. But he sounded like he had seen the writing on the wall, calling Schneider a “top-five” goalie.
It was a day where the future looked bright for all 30 teams, although Poile noted that after Jones, all his other picks were prospects.
And it was a draft full of names from the past, both distant and recent.
The first round saw London Knights forward Max Domi, son of former Leafs enforcer Tie Domi, go to the Phoenix Coyotes and Windsor winger Kerby Rychel, son of former NHLer Warren Rychel, taken by Columbus. Anthony Mantha, grandson of four-time Stanley Cup champion Andre Pronovost, also went in the first round to Detroit.
Others names of note called later at the podium included Tyler Bertuzzi (nephew of Todd Bertuzzi), Brendan Burke (son of Sean Burke), Cole Cassels (son of Andrew Cassels), Greg Chase (son of Kelly Chase), Eric Comrie (half-brother to NHLers Mike and Paul Comrie), Ryan Fitzgerald (son of Tom Fitzgerald), Peter Quenneville (second cousin of Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville) and Jordan Subban (brother to NHLer P.K. Subban and 2012 draft pick Malcolm Subban) and Adam Tambellini (son of Steve Tambellini and brother to Jeff Tambellini),
Jones took his slight slip down the draft ladder with grace. But asked if it might motivate him, the Portland Winterhawk didn’t miss a beat.
“Yeah, well I’m competitive, I have a competitive nature. And I get that from my parents,” he said. “You definitely want to prove them wrong. You definitely want to show them why they should have picked you. That’s not my only goal next year but it’s definitely on my list.”
Jones, 18, has ties to Colorado. He took up hockey as a kid there while his father, Popeye Jones, was playing for the Denver Nuggets.
The six-foot, 182-pound MacKinnon, who does not turn 18 until Sept. 1, is mature beyond his years on and off the ice.
Still he admitted he kind of lost it when he got on stage after being drafted by the Avs.
“I kind of blacked out for a second, but it’s so cool,” he said. “They have such a promising team and such good young talent, and hopefully I can be a part of that.”
He led the Halifax Mooseheads to the Memorial Cup, topping the tournament in scoring with 13 points (seven goals and six assists), including a hat trick in the championship game, and was chosen tournament MVP.
The native of Cole Harbour, N.S., scored 32 goals and added 43 assists in 44 regular season games.
“What makes Nathan stand out is that he has a real quickness with his read and react: his hockey sense, how he sees the ice and his vision,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “That is something special in a player. He is continuing to physically mature, but already he’s got a lot of grit in his game and he is a competitive player.”
Drouin, who was a linemate of MacKinnon with the Mooseheads, was delighted to land in Tampa.
“I think it’s a good fit. They’ve got a young prospect, great old players, too, that are experienced, and I think it’s the best fit for me.”
Barkov has been playing in the Finnish Elite League since he was 16.
“I played already two years against men in the Finnish Elite League, very good league and very good players, and I think it helps me very much,” said the confident Finn, whose father played hockey for Russia.
The selection of MacKinnon and Drouin marked the first time since 1983 that two players from the QMJHL were among the first three players chosen in the draft. Sylvain Turgeon went second that year to Hartford, ahead of Pat LaFontaine in third to the Islanders.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman got a rude reception as the draft opened.
“Good afternoon,” said Bettman, almost drowned out by boos as the draft began at 3 p.m. ET. “I love your energy.”
Bettman took time out to mourn the passing of well-respected player agent Don Baizley, which slowed the jeering. But only temporarily.
It’s been a tough week for commissioners. David Stern got the Bronx cheer every time he stepped to the podium during the NBA draft in Brooklyn.
After working through their own anti-commissioner feelings, Devils fans chanted “Marty’s Better” in honour of Martin Brodeur as Colorado coach Patrick Roy took the stage.
Calgary was the first Canadian team to pick, taking Ottawa 67s forward Sean Monahan sixth overall. Edmonton then took Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenceman Darnell Nurse.
Vancouver, selecting ninth, chose London Knights centre Bo Horvat while Winnipeg took Prince Albert defenceman Joshua Morrissey with the 13th pick. Ottawa used the 17th selection to pick up Edmonton Oil Kings forward Curtis Lazar and Toronto, with the 21st pick, chose Rimouski centre Frederik Gauthier.
The Flames, who had three picks in the first round, took Gatineau winger Emile Poirier 22nd and Regina winger Morgan Klimchuk 28th.
The Canucks, with their second pick of the first round, chose Medicine Hat forward Hunter Shinkaruk 24th overall, ahead of Montreal taking U.S. under-18 winger Michael McCarron at No. 25.
The 30 players selected in the first round were born in seven different countries: Canada (17), United States (four), Austria (two), Finland (two), Russia (two), Sweden (two) and Switzerland (one).
Canada led the way with 96 of the 211 players chosen. Some 57 were born in the U.S. and 23 in Sweden.