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Is There a Draft in Here? Yes!

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ /

The future stars of 31 NHL teams will be selected June 21-22 in Vancouver, BC during the 2019 NHL Draft.

As draft weekend unfolds, intrigue runs high at the top of the first round while imagination takes center stage for hundreds of NHL hopefuls and millions of fans waiting to hear who their club will select.

The first bit of intrigue is whether the American-born Jack Hughes will be the first overall pick with his top-rated skill or if Finnish phenom Kaapo Kakko's star play during the 2019 IIHF World Championships will convince the New Jersey Devils to choose the European for their roster.

Most NHL scouts suspect Hughes will be New Jersey's choice, even if Kaapo was scoring highlight reel goals as Finland won the world title. For his part, Hughes notched three assists in the World Championships and said he learned "how to be a pro" from Chicago Blackhawks' future Hall of Famer Patrick Kane, a first-overall pick in 2007, and the Buffalo Sabres' 21-year-old captain Jack Eichel, a second overall pick in 2015. Hughes has captained both the Under-17 and Under-18 squads of the U.S. National Development Team (USNDT).

Video: Who to pick at No. 1 in the 2019 NHL Draft

Let's just say that whichever player "falls" to the New York Rangers, who hold the No. 2 pick, will not disappoint the Original Six franchise's front office and coaching staffs.

We will all be able to find out who gets selected first on Friday night, starting at 5 p.m. PT on NBCSN. Rounds two through seven will take place Saturday starting at 10 a.m. PT on NHL Network.

Intrigue hits full stride at No. 3 in the Draft order. Chicago can choose top-rated defenseman Bowen Byram of Canada or one of the four centers ranked 3-4-5-6 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting (more about that org in a minute).

Two other names have emerged as possible Blackhawks picks: Russian right wing Vasili Podkolzin and U.S. right wing Cole Caufield, who at 5-foot-7 is No. 8 in North American rankings and routinely compared to Chicago's Alex DeBrincat, another 5-foot-7 forward who scored 41 goals this season. Caufield scored 72 goals in 64 games for the USNDT. The USNDT, by the way, has a record 19 players ranked, 17 skaters and two goalies.

"It's going to be fascinating," said Craig Button, former general manager for the Calgary Flames, scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs and current analyst and scout for Canada's TSN sports network. "It's important to understand that teams look at a group of players, then make a decision on what fits. Chicago could go with the consensus top-pick defenseman Bowen Byram, but I think they are set up to take a center, a younger player who can learn the position under Jonathan Toews [another Blackhawk destined for the Hall of Fame]."

Button likes Alex Turcotte, a Chicago-area native: "Why not? He draws comparison to Toews."

As for the Colorado Avalanche, Button predicts another center chosen with the No. 4 pick, this time Kirby Dach, a 6-foot, 200-pound Canadian who with his size can help "ease the load" of Nathan MacKinnon, a dynamic goal scorer who is a marked man for many opponents.

"Then LA takes the top d-man, Byram," said Button. "Who better to work under and learn from than Drew Doughty [Kings all-star and two-time Stanley Cup champion]."

Imagination kicks in as fans, hockey analysts, NHL GMs and scouts alike predict not just the draft order, but which players will eventually shine in the NHL. This year's top prospects will turn 18 during the 2019 calendar year. That age leaves plenty of room for imagining growth in height, weight and what people who know the game liked to call "hockey sense."

"Some prospects are 18 and look 23," said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. "Others are 18 and look 15 physically and by maturity level. There's a lot of projection involved."

For instance: the NHL's Calder Trophy is awarded to the top rookie each season. This year's nominees are Elias Pettersson, the Vancouver Canucks center who was drafted fifth overall in the 2017 Draft; Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who played in his first NHL season after being selected first-overall in 2018, and St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington, who was drafted 88th in the 2011 Draft and, oh by the way, just won the Stanley Cup as a 25-year-old rookie goaltender.

Last year's Calder Cup winner was Mathew Barzal, who starred for the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds as a junior player and went No. 16 overall to the New York Islanders in 2015.

A lot of scouts credit the Islanders for not rushing Barzal to the NHL, allowing him to develop for two additional seasons with the Thunderbirds, where he won a WHL championship in 2017.

The Thunderbirds have two players listed in the Central Scouting rankings this season, Henrik Rybinski at 123 in the final rankings and Jake Lee at 146. The Spokane Chiefs have the highest ranked player among Washington state WHL teams, Adam Beckman at 34, while team Luke Toporowski checks in an even 100. Everett Silvertips defenseman Gianni Fairbrother is ranked at 50, while teammate Bryce Kindopp lands at 170. The Tri-City Americans placed four players in the NHL official rankings, led by Sasha Mutala at 79.

Marr heads up eight full-time scouts and 16 part-timers in North America. That adds up to about 3,000 games scouted in person. Marr also oversees a Europe-based scouting group, which adds hundreds more games scouted and dozens more young players added to the Central Scouting database. Updated rankings are provided to NHL teams every month while fans get access to the rankings list mid-season and in April.

"Teams know our rankings are 85 to 86 percent accurate [to who will be drafted over seven rounds], and we are 94 to 96 percent accurate with our ABC list [which identifies which players are first-, second- or third-round quality," said Marr.

Marr noted that NHL clubs use Central Scouting as a "backdrop" to their amateur scouting efforts.

"We do a lot of legwork, get a head start on the summer camps and Tier 2 [lower levels of junior hockey]," said Marr.

Marr's group runs the NHL Combine each season in early June. It provides teams with "most important" medical reports, 1-on-1 interviews with the players and fitness testing. Marr pointed out that the fitness test timing is not ideal, since some prospects just finished a playoff series while others have not experienced game action since April.

Even so, NHL teams employ strength coaches who view more than just results at the Combine. Those coaches can be spotted watching every move prospects make, from how they walk into a room, their posture, if they use proper technique and their natural balance. Part of the strength coach's job is to determine how much more that player can grow in physicality and in their training acumen.

While the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft will be primary source for stocking NHL Seattle, the quick-to-follow 2021 Entry Draft will commence the acquisition and development of future stars. Marr and Button both urge fans to allow at least a year and maybe two or three (consider Mathew Barzal) before forwards become regulars at the NHL level. Tack on another year for most defenseman prospects because, according to Button, the position requires more refinement..

"It's a longer path for most players," said Button. "This is not like the NFL where you are asked to come in and be a starter."

Yet Button says the League is trending younger for a reason.

"Players are better prepared, they watch so much video," Button explained. "They better understand how fast the game moves and can pick up the nuances more readily with the video work. They are getting to the NHL level more quickly."

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