The 2020 NHL draft is in the books, with 217 selections made over the course of two socially distanced, Zoom-filled days. There were also 27 trades made, although the vast majority were simple pick swaps, as most of the players rumored to be on the trading block remained with their current teams.
As always, there are teams, individuals and trends that made out better than others. Here are some winners and losers from this year’s draft.
Winner: Quinton Byfield
Taken at No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Kings, Byfield made history as the highest-drafted Black player ever in the NHL. (His father, Clinton, is of Jamaican descent.) Landing in a U.S. market like Los Angeles is going to make his impact on hockey even greater. As Karl Subban, father to NHLers P.K. and Malcolm Subban, told NHL.com: “Whenever you have a player like that who has the potential to go [No.] 1, 2 or 3 and he looks like me and my boys? Wow,” he said. “It’s good news all around, not only for the young man and his family, but for a lot of kids who share his dreams, share his hope and share his aspirations.”
Loser: U.S.-born prospects
The U.S. ruled the first round of the 2019 NHL draft. For the first time in history, seven of the first 15 selections were American, including No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes, who was from Florida, no less. But the red, white and blue wave never reached the shore in 2020: Defenseman Jake Sanderson (No. 5 to Ottawa) and Brendan Brisson (No. 29 to Vegas) were the only two American players drafted in the first round this season. That’s the lowest total since only two were drafted in the first round in 1994.
Winner: Alex Trebek announced a pick!
The Ottawa Senators — specifically, owner Eugene Melnyk and GM Pierre Dorion — have been accustomed to taking public relations hits over the past few years. So it was nice to see the Senators get a reprieve for good vibes when they invited everyone’s favorite game show host to announce the No. 3 pick, which was a surprise highlight of the first round. The 80-year-old Trebek, who is a recipient of the Order of Canada, has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He stood behind his typical “Jeopardy!” dais, on the show’s usual set. Selecting “NHL” as the category, Trebek read the clue and then announced German-born forward Tim Stutzle as the correct response. Stutzle was then shown with his family back in Germany, sporting a huge grin. What is a heartwarming moment we’ll remember for a long time.
Loser: The rest of the draft was super boring
The NHL poured a ton of energy and resources into creating two bubbles for the NHL postseason, which was both exhaustive and time-consuming. The Stanley Cup was awarded eight days before the draft began. So it’s understandable the league didn’t have a ton of bandwidth for this year’s draft, which was held virtually instead of in Montreal as planned. The NHL also understood it was going up against an absolutely loaded sports schedule, so ratings were always going to be low.
But it felt like the NHL simply gave up, from an entertainment perspective. There were glimpses into the top prospects’ homes, but the feeds were often shaky or poor quality. The best moments in the first round were team-created initiatives (like Trebek announcing Ottawa’s pick, or Doug Wilson Jr. using American Sign Language while selecting a player whose mother is deaf). What’s more: Day 2 dragged on mercilessly; the second round alone took more than two hours. Throughout the afternoon, viewers were regularly treated to live look-ins of draft rooms that featured … a bunch of men sitting around and waiting.
Check out the best of Alexis Lafreniere representing Team Canada, showing why he is the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL draft.
Winner: New York Rangers not blowing it at No. 1
The Rangers lucked into the No. 1 pick of the 2020 draft — despite qualifying for the expanded 2020 postseason — and good on them for not overthinking it. Despite hearing a few offers for the top pick, New York kept it in selecting Alexis Lafreniere, who many experts believe is the only player in this draft ready to make an immediate impact (as in, score somewhere around 60 points as a rookie). For the Rangers, overthinking it could have also meant snubbing Lafreniere, a left wing, for bigger positional areas of need like center or defense. In Lafreniere and Artemi Panarin, the Rangers have two foundational wingers around whom to build. Couple that with the fact that they cut in front of the rival Devils to select tough-as-nails defenseman Braden Schneider later in the first round (whom New Jersey reportedly coveted, and was looking to draft) and this was a big week on Broadway. The Rangers got another winner with second-round pick William Cuylle.
Loser: Arizona Coyotes not picking until No. 111
The Coyotes are in a state of transition, parting ways with GM John Chayka this summer and bringing in Bill Armstrong, the former assistant GM in St. Louis. Arizona is also transitioning to life with a relatively new owner and team president. Just one issue: The new guys inherited a bit of a mess. Armstrong sold himself in the interview process as someone who could nail the draft and build the team up that way. But the Yotes weren’t able to pick until No. 111 — thanks, in part, to sanctions levied by the NHL for illegal prospect testing during Chayka’s tenure. As Armstrong lamented about having to sit idle on Tuesday: “This felt like Christmas for everybody else, and it felt like the 28th of December for us.”
Winner: Sharks welcoming committee
The moment @ozzywiesblatt was drafted was absolutely amazing 💙 pic.twitter.com/UXBC3cXWSa
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) October 7, 2020
Ozzy Wiesblatt was the last pick of the first round, No. 31, but the Sharks treated him like he was first overall. In announcing the pick, Doug Wilson Jr. used American Sign Language to spell “Ozzy,” as Wiesblatt was raised by his mother, who is deaf. Wiesblatt learned ASL before he could talk, and uses it regularly to communicate with his family at home. Then the Sharks had him on a Zoom call with the media, and stars Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and others dropped into the chat to welcome him to the team. The Sharks have a league-wide reputation for being an organization that’ll go the extra mile, and you can see why.
Loser: Graduation Day fun
Like so many other graduation days in 2020, this was a socially distanced and muted affair. You have to feel for these prospects, who have been looking forward to all the trappings of the draft day experience: The moment when your name is called in the arena, the hugs with family before walking to the stage, the team owner giving you the jersey, photos and congratulations, before head off to meet your new bosses and then get the most positive press coverage of your career. Instead, it was streaming draft coverage in their living rooms and then a series of Zoom calls. The silver lining: They were drafted by NHL teams. That’s the dream, even if the conditions weren’t what they had dreamed about for all of these years.
Winner: Pierre Dorion
The Ottawa Senators GM has taken his lumps over the years. The Senators were one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, and are now in a gut renovation three years later. There was also that moment in 2018 when Dorion was asked for one thing he was optimistic about for the Senators, and the only response he could muster was: “We’re a team.”
But after many trades brought Ottawa many picks, Dorion made nine of them in two days, giving the Senators ample materials for their rebuild. Among the highlights: German forward Tim Stutzle (No. 3), U.S. defenseman Jake Sanderson (No. 5), and good value picks in defenseman Tyler Kleven (44) and forward Egor Sokolov (61). Plus, Dorion made one of the draft’s only significant trades, sending a second-rounder and forward prospect Jonathan Gruden to Pittsburgh for Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray, a 26-year-old restricted free agent. Great week, bright future and they’re a team all right.
Loser: Mock drafts vs. Russian reality
The first 13 picks of the NHL draft were fairly uniform among the pundits, with some variation on which teams made which selections. But after that it was thunderdome, and some of the mock drafts missed completely when it came to KHL products. The New Jersey Devils drafted KHL defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin at No. 20 overall, a player none of the mocks had going in the first round. Columbus followed that stunner with one of its own, taking KHL forward Yegor Chinakhov at No. 21. GM Jarmo Kekalainen said he was in the Blue Jackets’ top 10; he wasn’t in the top 100 for many draft experts. Through five rounds, there were 11 players selected from the KHL or its minor league.
Yaroslav Askarov was taken No. 11 overall in the 2020 draft. AP Photo/Petr David Josek
Winner: A first-round goalie!
We’ve been hearing whispers for months now: This year’s draft features the best goaltending prospect since Carey Price. That would be Yaroslav Askarov, an 18-year-old who has shined for Russian national teams, and is already thriving in the KHL (so far this season, he’s 2-1-0 with a 0.74 goals-against average, .974 save percentage and one shutout for SKA St. Petersburg). Teams have recently shied away from picking goalies highly, as it can be a finicky position to project. But the Predators view Askarov as “an elite, elite prospect.”
“We compare his athleticism to that of Pekka Rinne or Jonathan Quick, and he’s mature beyond his years in terms of his compete level and mental makeup,” Predators assistant GM Jeff Kealty said. “Even at such a young age, he’s proven himself in a men’s league by playing in the KHL over in Russia. We believe he was the best player available, and if you have a franchise goaltender on your hands, which we do believe he will be, you’re in a very good situation.”
There’s been an invasion of 26-and-under Russian-born goalies in the NHL. Headlined by the most recent Stanley Cup champion Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ilya Samsonov (Capitals), Igor Shesterkin (Rangers) and Ilya Sorokin (Islanders) have all been anointed as the future face of their franchise in net.
Loser: Clarity on the goalie market
If there’s one distinctive feature of the 2020 offseason, it’s the overabundance of available goalies. Thanks to a myriad of factors — the flat cap and upcoming expansion draft among them — we’ve never seen this many accomplished goaltenders potentially on the move. On Wednesday, Matt Murray was sent to Ottawa (a trade for the two-time Stanley Cup winner was inevitable once Pittsburgh re-signed Tristan Jarry) which somewhat set the wheels in motion. We also got word that Henrik Lundqvist intends to sign with the Capitals. However, that won’t be official until free agency. The draft promised to bring us some action, but we’re going to have to wait until Friday (or even longer) to see if Marc-Andre Fleury or any of the half-dozen available trade candidates end up on new teams.
There were five Lukes drafted. That includes Luke Evangelista (42nd) and Luke Prokop (73rd) in consecutive rounds by the Predators, and Luke Reid (166th) later by Nashville; bear in mind that this is the same team that earlier in the day acquired Luke Kunin from the Wild in a trade. We assume this will please Predators celebrity fan Luke Bryan.
Loser: The Original Trilogy
Will Cuylle, big Star Wars fan. #NYR pic.twitter.com/wTD7T5EJGc
— Here’s Your Replay ⬇️ (@TheReplayGuy) October 7, 2020
On NHL Network, Rangers draft pick William Cuylle had one of the most delightfully weird interviews of the draft. Hosts Jamie Hersch and E.J. Hradek made note of his “Star Wars” fandom, and asked him his favorite movie in the series. He responded that it was “Revenge of the Sith,” Episode III in the much-maligned prequel trilogy. (Apologies to Episodes 4-6.) The interview grew weirder still when Cuylle was asked about the toughest question he’s been asked as a “Star Wars” fan, which led to the OHL winger going into great detail about Anakin Skywalker’s complicated origin story. Our research department notes that this is the first documented instance of “midi-chlorians” being referenced during the NHL draft.
Winner: Getting drafted while on the ice
The 2020 draft was unique for many reasons, but one of them is that it didn’t occur in a typical “offseason.” Many leagues around the world have already started their seasons, and plenty of those rosters feature NHL hopefuls. One of them is Roni Hirvonen, a center playing for Assat in Finland’s Liiga. Assat’s game began on Wednesday night local time, just as the second round of the NHL’s draft began. In the middle of the game, the Maple Leafs drafted Hirvonen with the No. 59 overall pick. He found out when game operators flashed the announcement on the video board.
“I was pretty nervous before the game, but I think I played pretty well,” Hirvonen told reporters afterward. “It was the third period when they called the draft on the big screen, and I saw for the first time I was drafted by Toronto. It was an unreal feeling.”
Then there’s Jake Boltman, who was at practice with his USHL team, the Lincoln Stars, when he was drafted No. 80 overall by the Calgary Flames:
The moment @Boltmann10 found out he was the newest member of the @NHLFlames … #AllAboard🚂 pic.twitter.com/UUYn2Iu0Kq
— Lincoln Stars (@LincolnStars) October 7, 2020
Loser: Not knowing when you’ll be able to join your NHL team
Ahead of the draft, the NHL and NHLPA announced that they are now targeting a Jan. 1 start to next season, adjusting their original target of Dec. 1. And while Gary Bettman still insists he’d like to have a full season, in front of fans, the truth is we still don’t know much about the format or schedule for next season. The league and union will begin discussions shortly after free agency.
Since many prospects — specifically those in Europe — have already begun their 2020-21 seasons, most NHL teams won’t have typical development camps. And a lot of top draftees won’t be invited to NHL training camps this winter, as they typically would, so that they can keep getting meaningful playing time. As with everything this year, it appears that flexibility and adjustments in uncertain times will be what win the day.