By Lori Bennett
National Sports Columnist
This week in the NHL completely revolved around the 2023 Entry Draft in Nashville, and the flurry of activity in the days leading up to it.
With so many teams crushing up against the salary cap, and with the cap only taking a small bump for the 2023-24 season, this summer has a new focus on trades as the pathway for teams to improve before the next season. There was a fair amount of trade action during the draft lead-up. Several players found new homes, with some significant names on the move.
Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, was acquired from the Boston Bruins by the Chicago Blackhawks, presumably with a view to mentoring their upcoming first overall pick. The Colorado Avalanche landed a second line centreman, getting Ryan Johansen from the Nashville Predators, and the St. Louis Blues picked up a discounted pivot, nabbing Kevin Hayes from the Philadelphia Flyers. All three, once highly touted, were moved for cents on the dollar.
Canadian teams also got in on the trade action.
The Winnipeg Jets were engaged in marathon trade talks with the Los Angeles Kings regarding centreman Pierre-Luc Dubois for several days. Meanwhile rumours were circulating that the Montreal Canadiens might still be trying to make a play for the power forward.
On Tuesday, June 27 the saga that has been ongoing since last summer’s draft concluded with Dubois headed to California with a package of Alex Iafallo, Gabe Villardi, Rasmus Kupari, and a second-round pick returning to Winnipeg.
The Jets are in a market where they need to sell tickets, so they limited themselves to a package of active players who could contribute immediately and keep them competitive, rather than a package built around future assets to support a retool.
Considering their self-imposed parameters, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did very well. After months of hearing how Dubois wanted to go home to Montreal, fans were left feeling disillusioned.
Canadiens GM Kent Hughes had other irons in the fire and made a deal of his own, using a late first-round pick he had acquired at last year’s trade deadline, a second-round pick, and a minor league defender to obtain Alex Newhook from the Colorado Avalanche. Just two summers ago, Newhook took the Stanley Cup on a hometown parade in downtown St. John’s after winning it all with the Avalanche. The Newfoundlander will get a chance at a bigger role with the Habs.
The Calgary Flames got in on the trade action, dealing goal-scoring forward Tyler Toffoli to the New Jersey Devils for the big young forward Yegor Sharangovich and a third-round pick. The Flames appear to be in for another summer of turmoil.
Then on Wednesday night, 32 young men had their dreams come true.
After honouring David Poile, the retiring general manager of the Nashville Predators, the draft got underway. As long anticipated, the Chicago Blackhawks selected generational talent Connor Bedard with the first overall pick.
The next three picks were expected to go to three centreman, with the order being the only genuine question mark. The Anaheim Ducks chose Swede Leo Carlsson, the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Canadian Adam Fantilli, and the San Jose Sharks picked American Will Smith.
Montreal was the first Canadian team to take to the podium, and they faced a giant decision. Russian prospect Matvei Michkov was still on the board, as expected, with all the talent in the world but shrouded in question marks.
Michkov is signed to a three-year contract in Russia, and teams had their first interviews with the player in Nashville with the assistance of an interpreter. In an era when scouting staff have had many exposures to every player they’re considering, there was just so much unknown about this young man.
To the dismay of fans, who always prefer the exciting goal-scorer, the Habs went with the top defenseman in the draft, Austrian David Reinbacher. He projects to be a top-pair defender, and right-shot blueliners are increasingly growing in value at the draft.
The Vancouver Canucks were the next Canadian team to pick, at number 11. They went the same route as the Canadiens, selecting a right-shot defender Tom Willander. At 16th overall the Calgary Flames picked a big Slovakian winger, Samuel Honzek. The Winnipeg Jets chose Colby Barlow, a winger from Ontario.
Next up among Canadian teams were the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they selected small, skilled centreman Easton Cowan from the London Knights organization. Fans will recall that this pick was possible because Kyle Dubas traded Rasmus Sandin at the trade deadline. The pick is absolutely a reach for the Leafs, with most scouting services having ranked Cowan well into the second round.
The Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers did not have a pick in the first round, having dealt their picks in previous trades.
With all the drama in the days leading up to the draft, the first round was completely subdued. Not one trade on the draft floor and nothing to speak of in terms of outrageous picks. A lot of good players picked, more or less where they were expected to be picked.
Rounds two through seven were due to get underway on Thursday, and business was expected to pick up. The last day for teams to complete contract buyouts was Friday, and free agency was due to open on Saturday.
Blue Jays Babble
At the halfway point of the season, the Toronto Blue Jays are hoping to get their season back on track. There is potential to take advantage of an easier schedule. In less than a month the trade deadline will be here and if this crew wants to see a post-season, they had better give management a reason to be optimistic in the next couple of weeks.
Last weekend the Jays welcomed the Oakland Athletics for a three-game weekend series. The good guys were able to win two of three games, including a true offensive breakout on Sunday for the 12-1 win in the rubber match.
The San Francisco Giants were next up for a three-game series. In the first game on Tuesday night, the Jays were shut out. Wednesday night was bullpen night, with Toronto still running a shortened starting rotation while Alek Manoah is out of the line up. But the short-shift pitching crew was strong and the result was a 6-1 win.
The rubber match was scheduled for Thursday, and on Friday the Boston Red Sox were due to be in town for an important weekend series. The Jays need to gain ground on these divisional opponents and solidify their place as a legitimate playoff option if they want their management to bet on them at the deadline.