CHICAGO - Barring a trade or trades, the Coyotes will make two selections in the first round of the annual NHL Entry Draft for a third consecutive year on Friday at the United Center in Chicago.
The hype surrounding this year's draft has been curbed somewhat because the players who are expected to be taken high in the first round are not considered franchise-changing players. However, Arizona's brain trust is convinced this draft is ripe with talented prospects who could someday be key parts of what they are trying to build.
"This draft ranks right up there, except for the top end, which has been discussed a lot," said Tim Bernhardt, the team's Director of Amateur Scouting. "Unfortunately it's getting beaten up because there isn't a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews in it. But that's not really fair. We think it has some good depth to it and compares very well to any of the other drafts, except at the top end."
Arizona chose forwards Dylan Strome (third) and Nick Merkley (30th) in the first round in 2015, and forward Clayton Keller and defenseman Jakob Chychrun, seventh and 16th, respectively, in 2016.
This year, the Coyotes are slated to pick seventh and 23rd in the first round. The latter pick comes via a trade Arizona made with Minnesota just before the trade deadline that sent forwards Martin Hanzal and Ryan White to the Wild. On Saturday, Arizona is set to make five additional picks over Rounds 2-7.
"When you're looking at our group you see a lot of good forwards," General Manager John Chayka said of the team's current roster/prospect pool. " ... And then last year we addressed defense at the draft and took all defensemen (except for Keller). Going into this year I don't really see a clear-cut need. I think you are always trying to favor those premium positions and trying to build through the middle with centers and defense or goalies. At the same time, we are trying to draft the best player available."
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Chayka made trades during last year's draft, his first as an NHL general manager. The big one came during the first round when he brokered a deal with Detroit on the draft floor to move up from pick No. 20 to No. 16 so the Coyotes could select Chychrun. The deal was a success as Chychrun not only made the team, but averaged 16:40 of ice time in 68 games, and ranked seventh among rookie defensemen with 20 points and second with seven goals.
With that in mind, Chayka is prepared to make more deals at this year's draft should opportunity to do so arise.
"A lot of the draft is luck in terms of getting the player in the right spot, and a lot of the time there are circumstances around that with teams picking around you," Chayka said. "I have looked into trading up and down with both (first-round) picks to target the players we are excited about getting, and I think that is the key to this draft. We left with Keller and Chychrun last year and we were excited about that, and that is the feeling I am trying to recreate this year."
Like Bernhardt, Chayka thinks this year's draft is getting a bum rap because the premiere players - Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier - are not McDavid and/or Matthews. Plus, experts insist none of the players grouped just after Patrick and Hischier have separated themselves as the clear No. 3 pick, No. 4 pick, etc.
"I think the confusion is over the lack of consensus and it's seen as a weaker draft," Chayka said. "I don't think that is fair to the players. It's not their fault we can't clearly define where everyone is going, so that is where maybe there is a misconception. In my mind there are a lot of really high-end players in this draft. Where they go I am not exactly sure, but I'm only concerned with two picks in the first round and making sure we get really good players with those picks."
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The Coyotes drafted five players at last year's draft and four were defensemen. Logic suggests the team will turn its attention to forward this year, but Bernhardt says that's not necessarily the case.
"I think our prospect pool is in pretty good shape so we are just going to look for the best player," Bernhardt said. "There are no players that are going to come in and make an immediate impact, so we are looking at filling any position that we can. We're looking for good players and good people, and we're not too concerned with what position they play."
He added: "It's about picking good players. Last year we took defensemen because they were the best players that were around when we were picking. We're sticking with 'let's just get good players that are good people' and accumulate as many good players as we can."
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