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Kotkaniemi Was The Center Of Attention

Dallas – – There’s a tired cliché used by GMs, players, and media alike that goes along the lines of, “You never know what can happen at the draft.” If the first round of the 2018 showed us anything it’s that there still remains a great deal of truth to that maxim. No one could have predicted how Friday played out.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Everyone and their grandmother knew that Swedish wunderkind defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, would go 1st overall to the Buffalo Sabres, and most were pretty sure that Russian sniper Andrei Svechnikov, would follow quickly to the Carolina Hurricanes. Through that far, most predictions got that down correctly. After that though, all proverbial Hell broke loose.

In a draft crop that was long understood to be short on talent at the center position, yet heavy in wing and d-men, it wasn’t the amount of pivots taken that was unexpected but at the positions that they were, and the resultant effect on the rest of the order. Though only eight centers were selected in Round 1, compared to 16 and 13 in 2017 and 2016 respectively, the three taken in the opening half created a cascade of value to the draft spots of those after them. One thing remained readily apparent; NHL front offices still heavily value that positional importance over equal or greater talent elsewhere in the line-up.

The trend to ‘reach’ for centers was set early when the Montreal Canadiens took late-rising Finn, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, at the 3rd slot, a franchise long in search of a foundational 1C, rumors to which had been spreading like wildfire all week. Many thought that might have been smoke and mirrors by the organization though, or that, if he was the player being targeted, they would attempt to trade down to a spot that appeared more in line with pre-draft assessments of his later availability. That 3rd spot, the general thinking went, belonged to one of two wingers, Filip Zadina or Brady Tkachuk.

Tkachuk, did in fact go next, to the Senators, which left most assuming that the Coyotes couldn’t then pass on the uber talented Czech from Halifax at 5th. That didn’t happen though. Instead they went for center, Barrett Hayton out of the Soo in the OHL, a shock to most of those watching in the arena and at home. That left Zadina to drop a full three slots to Detroit at 6th, an almost unthinkable scenario only two weeks prior. That cascade continued to the Canucks at 7th who, in a draft lauded for top-end talent on the backend, found themselves with the pick of the rest of the defense after Dahlin. That player, for them, was the offensive, fluid skating Quinn Hughes.

That kicked off a minor run of blueliners and wingers, though not as long might have been supposed, that is until 13th when the hosting Dallas Stars took the 3rd center in Ty Dellandrea, to the audible gasps and din of the crowd.

Whereas both Kotkaniemi and Hayton, even if taken earlier than expected by pundits, were at least in the same range as pre-draft lists, the Stars took the middle-man far ahead of where the majority had him ranked. This author spoke to many media at the American Airlines Center who didn’t have him even in the 1st Round. Local writers commented that the pick reminded them of Denis Guryanov at 12th in 2015, one which has yet to produce any fruit and looks more dubious today than it did three years ago.

The next four players taken immediately afterwards, Farabee, Grigoranko, Kaut and Smith, were unanimously agreed by those in attendance to have been superior bets to be impact players in the NHL, than the Dellandrea selected, one which had the recognizable stench of a ‘reach’ pick based on position. From those watching, it was hard to figure that Dallas could have believed the Flint Firebird to be the next most talented player. If it was a ‘mistake,’ it was a very high position for them to take such a large gamble for positional need.

Three of the remaining centers selected came in a row a short time later, at 18 through 20, in the form of Liam Foudy, Jay O’Brien, and Rasmus Kupari, followed not far after Isac Lundestrom at 23rd. Though there were some raised eyebrows by a few, the general consensus was that those were fine slots for those players likely. What it did continue to do was push other highly thought of players even further down the draft board, chiefly K’Andre Miller, Dominik Bokk, and Rasmus Sandin.

Conversely, one name that had the attention of many, due to its notable absence, was Drummondville’s Joe Veleno, a center whose quality had become widely divisive across a wide range of scouting services. Some believed he was a near top 10 player, possibly the 2nd best C in the class, and others felt he wasn’t worth even a 1st round pick. Apparently, in line with the majority of NHL clubs, the latter were vindicated in that measurement. Or… maybe not. Veleno may have simply been a victim of a draft class with widely different evaluations by NHL clubs who simply had another player as the next best on their lists.

The long and short of Day 1 from the draft, is that whether players were expected to go earlier or later, the lack of quality centers left its mark. That appears to be equally true for the early part of Round 2 as well, as a valid argument can be made that more deserving prospects were passed over because teams value the center ice position so heavily. If this trend continues on Saturday, teams may be clamoring to get their ‘faller.’

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