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NHL’s selection derby is more than a 1-2 punch

MIAMI – Just because the entire hockey world knows who’ll be picked No. 1 and No. 2 hardly means the next couple of days at the NHL Draft won’t be full of intrigue. 

The run-up to Connor McDavid earning his Edmonton sweater and Jack Eichel donning his Sabres blue and gold figures to fascinate with trade talk. And things could really heat up once Eichel steps off the stage at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

This draft essentially begins at No. 3 with the Arizona Coyotes, still licking their wounds after the lottery results ruined their tank, trying to figure out what direction to turn. In the last few days, it was interesting to hear chatter General Manager Don Maloney would be open to trading out of No. 3 to get some NHL-ready talent.

Still, the likely scenario has the Coyotes keeping the pick and taking Erie Otters center Dylan Strome. McDavid’s junior teammate is coveted by the Toronto Maple Leafs but if Mike Babcock & Co. don’t get him, that will lead to a hugely interesting pick at No. 4 by the Leafs. Do they go with Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin or London Knights speedster Mitch Marner?

You don’t have to look hard to find scouts who tell you Hanifin should be the No. 1 pick in the draft, non-McEichel Division. We just saw in the Stanley Cup final how important your back end is (think Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, among others). The Leafs already have budding blueline standouts in Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, and Hanifin could make for quite the trio.

However, remember that Leafs player personnel director Mark Hunter is in charge of the draft and he joined the club last fall from the OHL’s London Knights. His star player in London? Marner, who possesses the kind of shiftiness on the wing that draws Patrick Kane comparisons. 

If the Leafs pass on Hanifin, you wonder if he continues a slow descent down the draft board and then makes people shake their heads about it in coming seasons. Think Seth Jones. How did he slip to No. 4 two years ago? The Nashville Predators are still thanking their lucky country tunes for that one.

The Arizona-Toronto draft picks are just one key storyline to a draft that will be full of them. Here’s more of what to watch for:

• The Sabres are one of five teams with four picks in the first two rounds, joining Arizona, Calgary, Columbus and Edmonton. The chances of Tim Murray actually making all four picks seems close to nil. The time to stockpile draft picks is pretty much over for this organization, with Murray looking to use the picks to get some NHL-ready talent.

After taking Eichel, Buffalo owns the No. 21 pick in the first round as well as the top pick in the second round (No. 31 overall) and the No. 51 choice. Buffalo had No. 31 last year and chose Brendan Lemieux, eventually spinning Lemieux off to Winnipeg eight months later in the Evander Kane trade.

So does Murray come home with Cam Talbot, Eddie Lack or Robin Lehner as his No. 1 goaltender for next season? From the sounds of things, No. 31 could take care of that as a key part to any package. Does the long-rumored Ryan O’Reilly trade with Colorado go down? The Avs need a left-shot defenseman and Nikita Zadorov fills that bill, but the Sabres or any other O’Reilly suitor need to know if they can sign him to an extension before making the deal.

• The names that could be traded in the next couple days will dwarf the weak crop of free agents that will sign post-July 1. The Leafs want to move Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, and perhaps Joffrey Lupul. The Blackhawks’ post-Cup cap purge will likely start with Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell but there could be others (Brent Seabrook?). 

Boston needs to find a way to pay Dougie Hamilton before he gets offer-sheeted (the Sabres should think hard about doing that, if not to simply jam up a division rival’s cap even more). The Bruins might have to move Milan Lucic to make room and you would think former Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, now in Edmonton, would want to get in on that action. The Islanders are reportedly willing to part with rugged winger Kyle Okposo, who would give the Sabres a lot of jam up front.

• It’s been funny to read about all the firings going on in the Edmonton scouting department this week and see social media immediately theorize the scouts all wanted Eichel instead of McDavid and got whacked for their opinions.

Sorry, folks. If the Oilers ever took Eichel and passed on McDavid, the city would have to secede from Canada. And don’t tell me about Eichel’s performance at the NHL Scouting Combine at HarborCenter. This isn’t the NFL, where top picks are made or devalued because of what happens on the field in Indianapolis.

No one does any hockey drills in the NHL combine. It’s all about interviews and some physical testing. Sam Bennett couldn’t do a pullup – not a single one – last year in Toronto. And what did he do this season? Score goals in the playoffs for the Calgary Flames while Sam Reinhart was getting in a couple games in Rochester after spending most of the winter back in junior.

Sounds like the Edmonton purge was Chiarelli using the incumbent staff to get his pre-draft work done and then excising them, perhaps so they could head to the draft themselves and find new employment. Among those let go were head pro scout Morey Gare (Danny’s younger brother) and pro scout Dave Semenko, the longtime Oilers tough guy from the Wayne Gretzky era.

• The NHL’s free agent negotiation window opens Thursday, allowing teams to interview players and agents in advance of the July 1 signing date. Murray said last week he gets less and less encouraged by the free agent crop each season, and there’s certainly not much up front this year.

Move further back on the ice and things get more interesting. You wonder if the Sabres might be interested in a veteran free agent defenseman such as Chicago’s Johnny Oduya or Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin. And if they don’t swing a trade for a goalie, do they investigate the UFA route for someone like San Jose’s Antti Niemi or Calgary’s Karri Ramo? 

The most interesting UFA goalie on the market could be Minnesota’s Devin Dubnyk, who wants to get paid after his great half-season with the Wild. From an $800,000 goalie dumped by Arizona, the word from the Twin Cities is Dubnyk wants to see about a deal in the $5 million per season range. That seems more than a tad unrealistic. 

• Thursday’s NHL schedule release should be hugely interesting for Sabres fans, and not just because it will reveal the date of Eichel’s presumed debut. It will also be the announcement of the first McDavid-Eichel dates with Edmonton, Eichel’s first trip to Boston, the Dan Bylsma return to Pittsburgh, the Evander Kane return to Winnipeg, the Tyler Myers and injury-delayed Ryan Miller return to Buffalo, the Patrick Kane/Blackhawks visit and the showdowns with the Babcock-led Leafs. A lot of calendar circling to come.

email mharrington@buffnews.com

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