As usual, the boos started once Gary Bettman hit the stage at the NHL Draft. The commissioner has long been accustomed to loud jeering, and it was no different in New Jersey.
This time, however, Bettman had something to turn around the atmosphere. He had a trade to announce.
“I think you’re going to want to hear this,” Bettman said in a knowing tone.
He was right. The Devils had sent the ninth overall pick to Vancouver for goaltender Cory Schneider, the heir apparent to aging Martin Brodeur. With that, the hosts stole the show in 2013.
Drafts typically work that way. The home team or its fans embrace the spotlight and do something special.
In Pittsburgh in 2012, Penguins fans mercilessly jeered anytime in-state rival Philadelphia was on the clock, nearly drowning out the announcement of picks. Flyers fans returned the favor in 2014. When Montreal was up midway through the first round in 2008, fans knew hometown prospect Louis Leblanc was still available. Chants of “Lou-ie, Lou-ie” filled the Canadiens’ arena, and Montreal made the pick to the delight of the cheering crowd.
Buffalo is set to host the 2016 NHL Draft on Friday and Saturday in First Niagara Center. General Manager Tim Murray has shown he’s not shy about making a splash. There’s no guarantee of a headline-making moment, but it should be fun finding out.
The Sabres will welcome hockey’s top prospects for the third time. They also hosted the draft in 1991 and 1998, but this one should be more electric. Interest has grown exponentially since the last selection show in Buffalo. The small number of tickets not taken by season ticket-holders disappeared in seconds. An outdoor party in Canalside will add to the festive atmosphere.
“It bodes well for the game,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “The draft, the draft lottery, the combine, it’s become more and more open to hockey fans. They follow it. They want information on these young players. They are the future stars of our game.
“It’s just become part of the cycle of the hockey season.”
The draft has been integral to the hopes of Sabres fans for the last four years. Buffalo made two first-round picks in 2012 and ’13, then selected second overall in ’14 and ’15. The Sabres have the eighth pick this year, and options abound.
Murray can stay at No. 8 and draft an impressive prospect who has an outside chance of immediately making the team. The trade-happy GM also has 12 picks at his disposal, including four in the third round, so he might find a way to move into the top five and select an impact player.
The Sabres won’t be the only ones looking to deal. With the salary cap barely moving and an expansion draft looming next June, teams need to prepare by shedding dollars and players.
The depth at the top of the draft will also create movement. While there seems a consensus on the first four picks − Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Matthew Tkachuk − the teams’ lists diverge after that.
“This year’s first round is really strong right through the end, and that’s why it’s really hard to kind of project what the order might be,” Marr said. “It’s going to be very interesting to see who’s got 31, 32, 33rd pick here because there’s going to be a lot of players left over from the first day that a lot teams thought might be long gone, and that might generate some trade action, which is always fun.”
Forwards, including the aforementioned quartet, dominate the top. Others expected to go in the top 10 include Alexander Nylander, brother of Toronto prospect William Nylander, and Pierre-Luc Dubois, Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American.
The first four defensemen are similar in style and size, so Jakob Chychrun, Olli Juolevi, Charles McAvoy and Mikhail Sergachev could be plucked in any order.
“All these players here should project to be in a top-two pairing with an NHL club,” Marr said.
Fans will wait until the second day to hear the name of a goaltender. The first round will be conducted Friday night, with the second through seventh rounds starting Saturday morning.
“Goaltenders, they have to play,” Marr said. “A lot of times at this age, they’re not the No. 1 goaltender on the team so they don’t necessarily get the quality ice time. If you do a quick study of the top goaltenders in the league, just look at it based on salary, a lot of them weren’t high picks in the draft.”
The scouting director expects two trends to continue at the draft:
• Speed trumps size.
The success of dynamic, diminutive youngsters such as Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson and Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher has shown scouts that talent can overcome brawn.
“The game has changed,” Marr said. “You may have had more of a size-strength emphasis 10 years ago. Now you’re looking and it’s skill, it’s hockey sense. The speed of the game has changed the way you view players. Smaller players now are getting that opportunity, and they’re seizing that opportunity.”
• The second time is the charm.
The draft is essentially for 18-year-olds, but 19- and 20-year-olds who weren’t previously picked remain in the prospect pool. After getting another season of physical and mental growth, older players may seem more appealing to teams.
“It’s not deep at the tail end of the draft,” Marr said. “What you’d see there is there’ll be more 19-year-old players drafted and European players because there’s a four-year window where you can keep them in the bank a little longer.
“As you get a little deeper in the draft, teams are focusing on players who have been through the draft once, sometimes twice. I think that’s a little shift in the scouting philosophy from the past few years where more older players from the NCAA are being considered.”