All of the predraft puffery fizzled into just one blockbuster trade, but it was still easy to identify the big winner and the big loser.
The winner was Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, who wound up with a potential franchise defenceman in Seth Jones at the No. 4 pick in the NHL entry draft when the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning all opted for forwards with the first three picks. The loser, of course, was Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who lamely finished the goaltending mess he created a year ago by trading his youngest goalie for the ninth pick overall and keeping 34-year-old Roberto Luongo and his untradeable contract.
Despite more trade chatter than usual heading into the draft, thanks to the coming salary-cap dip that will force teams into difficult roster adjustments, the only big deal had Gillis send goaltender Cory Schneider, 27, to the New Jersey Devils for the ninth pick overall. That was greeted with a gasp and then big cheers from the capacity crowd at the Prudential Center when the Devils fans realized GM Lou Lamoriello had just solved his succession problem with Martin Brodeur in painless fashion.
The rest of the deals were relatively minor: The Toronto Maple Leafs got centre Dave Bolland from the Chicago Blackhawks for three picks, Michael Frolik went from the Blackhawks to the Winnipeg Jets for two picks, the Minnesota Wild dealt winger Cal Clutterbuck to the New York Islanders for prospect Nino Niederreiter, the Carolina Hurricanes got defenceman Andrej Sekera from the Buffalo Sabres for the 35th pick overall and defenceman Jamie McBain, and the San Jose Sharks acquired pending restricted free-agent forward Tyler Kennedy from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second-round pick in Sunday’s draft.
The surprise came in the draft when Jones, the son of former NBA basketball player Ronald (Popeye) Jones, fell to fourth place after spending most of the season as the projected No. 1 or No. 2 pick.
This resulted in a pleasant windfall for Poile, who saw it as the result of several factors, from the Avalanche winning the first pick over the Panthers in the draft lottery to the great performance of eventual first pick Nathan MacKinnon last month in the Memorial Cup.
Like everyone else, Poile thought for a long time that the Avalanche would take the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jones, considering he spent part of his childhood in a Denver suburb and is projected to be a fast, physical force who can take over games à la his new teammate, Shea Weber.
But once the Avs hockey bosses, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy, kept their promise to take MacKinnon and not Jones, the key player became Panthers GM Dale Tallon. His pick of Finnish centre Aleksander Barkov was a surprise, but not so much when his team’s circumstances were considered.
Along with the New Jersey Devils and the Phoenix Coyotes, the Panthers are one of the NHL’s three biggest financial headaches. By the time the Panthers missed the playoffs this season after a nice run in the first round the year before, they once again faced the prospect of acres of empty seats.
Desperate for scoring and for a reason to get someone, anyone, to buy tickets, Tallon opted for the player considered the most NHL-ready of this year’s prospects. Barkov, 18, played the last two years in the Finnish elite league and produced 48 points in 53 games against men. The Panthers also need a centre to replace Stephen Weiss, who will be lost as a free agent.
With Lightning GM Steve Yzerman already enamoured of Jonathan Drouin, that left Jones for the Predators.
“I know if you talk to Dale Tallon or Steve Yzerman, I don’t think it was clear-cut for anybody,” Poile said. “I think it could have gone any number of different ways. We just kept saying to ourselves, we can’t do anything about this, just be patient.”
Judging by his expression as the Avalanche, Panthers and Lightning passed on him in turn, Jones was not happy being the surprise of the day. He admitted as much, although he said he was excited to get the chance to play with Weber. But getting snubbed by three teams is incentive for Jones to make the Predators in his first year.
“Yeah, you definitely want to prove them wrong and you definitely want to show them why they should have picked you,” Jones said. “That’s not my only goal next year, but it’s definitely on my list.”
He will get the opportunity, Poile said. “We’re going to give him every chance in training camp to make our team.”