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Who’s Ready For the NHL?

The 2020 draft was a highly anticipated event (only partially because COVID took everything else from us). As with every other year, the first pick was going to be the best of the best, ready to take on the NHL next season. But, who’s really ready for the big league? Will we see a year with few or many rookies? Is it too early to tell? Let’s take a look.

2015-2018 Drafts

This in no way is implying that the drafts with players still in the league before 2015 weren’t talented. What happened after the 2015 draft was, in my eyes, what has set the tone for first-round picks since. 

2015 set the peak for what first-round picks could do for their teams. Connor McDavid was slated to be the first overall practically from when he was in diapers; and if you look at the rest of the first round behind him, you’ll notice a pattern. Eichel, Marner, Hanafin, Provorov, Werenski, Rantanen, Crouse, Barzal, Connor, and Boeser were all picked that year. Of these names, two played a full season in the NHL immediately following their draft; the rest were on their respective rosters within two years following, with high rates of success.

2016 saw Matthews picked first, with Laine, Tkachuk, Puljujarvi, Dubois, Keller, Sergachev, and McAvoy in the mix as well. Matthews had a wild debut while Tkachuk broke 100 points in his first season.

2017 saw a slight decline in the number of players with an immediate debut, Hischier, and Patrick being the most notable. But, that draft also had Pettersson, Heiskanen, Makar, Suzuki, and Mittelstadt who waited a season to enter the league. Still impressive players, just a decline in number.

2018 is the first year whose draft picks we haven’t seen much of. Of course, that cannot take away from Dahlin, Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, and Kotkniemi’s performances in their 2018-2019 seasons. But after those guys, the only other first-rounder to make a splash has been Quinn Hughes, who waited a year to join the league. 

Who Was Even Drafted in 2019?

Maybe 2018 was a sign of what was to come. As far as 2019 draft picks went, the top three were the only ones to make a significant debut in the NHL this year. The first two, Jack Hughes and Kakko were highly anticipated to make big impacts on their teams, just as the draft picks of the previous 4 drafts had. Instead, they just did OK. Not what the organizations were hoping for, to be sure. And Dach, though still expected to make a splash, did about the same.

And those are it. Only two other players from the 2019 draft have played a game in the NHL, neither making notable contributions.

What Does This Mean For 2020?

So far, only 10 first-round picks from the 2020 draft have signed contracts, and only Lafreniere really is expected to make the roster for the upcoming season. What I think might throw a monkey wrench in the downward trend of early rookie seasons could be the static cap. There are nine teams over allotted cap space right now, while five are within $2mil of space (two of which under $1mil). One way to fill the roster while being mindful of limited cap room is entry-level contracts. They’re a gamble, as we’ve seen in the past two years especially, but, for under $1mil, you can take a chance on a player who might be the next Ovechkin or Josi.

It could also mean that we don’t see some players for another two or three seasons. Salaries aren’t a factor in Canadian Major Junior or the US Development Program. There are also many international leagues to choose from to be a training step to the NHL if or when their time in juniors runs out.

Personally, I expect to see Lafreniere on opening night at Madison Square Garden. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Byfield at center ice in the Staples Center next season, either. The only other first-rounder who I think might play in the NHL at some point this year is Rossi, but probably not a full season.

As always, I really hope these guys make me eat my words in January. 

Final Thoughts

Though it may sound like it, I don’t believe this trend of draft picks taking longer to mature is a sign of declining quality. I think this trend echoes drafts in years long past when guys weren’t even guaranteed to sniff the league until 25. That said, I also don’t think players will take that long to mature anymore, either. It’s hard to compare first-round picks of the past two or three years with players like McDavid or Matthews, who are kind of freaks of nature. Everyone develops differently. Examples like those put pressure on younger players drafted in the first round, and I think it’s healthy for teams to let their first-rounders take their time working on their game until they’re truly ready for the big league.

-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)

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Heidi Thomas

Armchair hockey coach, passive horse racing fan, full-time dog referee.

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