How to make the 2020 NHL draft work

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had a message for his general managers this week.

“We don’t live in a world of perfect anymore. We’re going to have to make adjustments,” he said. “If we can’t do ideal, if we can’t do perfect, then we’ll have to figure out what’s next to perfect.”

To apply that thinking: Holding the 2020 NHL draft without the benefit of a combine or a full season of scouting data isn’t perfect, but likely necessary. Holding the NHL draft in a truncated offseason ahead of a slightly delayed 2020-21 season isn’t ideal, but it would mean that the league thankfully found some way to complete this season, which was paused for COVID-19 on March 12.

But holding the NHL draft in June, before there’s any finality to the 2019-20 season, wouldn’t be ideal or perfect for even next to perfect. It would be calamitous to the things that make that event memorable, functional and fun.

What we know about the 2020 NHL draft: As this point, it’s almost a given that it’s going to be held remotely, much like the NFL’s this week. A room filled with tables of NHL executives, a hundred prospects and their agents — and oh yeah, thousands of fans — doesn’t exactly jibe with the constraints of a global pandemic.

“It’s a shame it won’t be the same. It’s a big day for all the scouts. Big day for all the players that have been drafted. It’ll be a shame if it doesn’t take place the normal way,” Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said this week. “We’ll certainly miss the festivities of it all.”

But as anyone who watched that video reunion with the 2011 Boston Bruins knows, virtual gatherings can be festive too. (In the case of the Bruins, very, very, very … like, almost too festive.)

The NHL is preparing for a virtual draft and is pretty confident that it can be a success.

“I actually think that’s pretty easy,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “It’s almost like [going] back to the future, right? Our draft, a long time ago, was held by the telephone. If modern technology can be used to create video images, it’s really no different than transmitted selections over an electronic medium. I think it’s pretty easy, actually.”

So the “how” appears easy. Especially when compared to the “when.”

As Bettman noted, there is virtue to holding the NHL draft in June rather than waiting until late summer or early autumn, depending on when a restarted season ends. “Are we better off waiting until after we conclude this season, holding the draft them, when the timetable is different?” he asked.

A June draft would give fans something fresh and exciting to focus on. It would remove a time-consuming event from what should be a very truncated offseason. European players who are drafted would have their eligibility and spots for next season sorted out in a way they couldn’t if the draft was held in, say, late August. As Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported, there’s also a functional need: “There are many scouts/executives working the draft who currently would not be on contract for a later-summer event.”

Beyond that, a June NHL draft is just fraught with issues.

The first and most obvious obstacle is draft position. If the draft is held before a restarted season, early indications are that the NHL would rank its teams by their points percentage at the time of the pause. Meaning that teams out of the top eight in each conference would be eligible to win the draft lottery. But what if the season is restarted and/or it is determined that the playoffs need to be expanded? In theory, a team such as the Blue Jackets could win both the draft lottery and the Stanley Cup. That concern was voiced to the NHL during its call this week. The possibility is slim, but that it’s a possibility should be concern enough.

That concern can be alleviated in a few ways. One mentioned by Bettman is reinstituting restrictions on the draft lottery, wherein teams can only move a few spots up from their ranking should they win it, rather than having a shot at moving into the top three. Those restrictions were lifted originally to make it harder on teams that tank. Perhaps this season’s Detroit Red Wings convinced Bettman it wasn’t working anyway.

Another way would be to just end the regular season with where things stand at the pause — which is a good idea for other reasons — and then declare which teams are in or out of the playoffs, thus taking them out of the lottery. Another way: The NHL completes its regular season in a summer restart and then holds the draft in the gap before those games and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A source tells me that is one consideration the league is mulling.

Again: It’s absolutely critical we know who’s in or out of the playoffs before the draft, not only for the lottery but also to calm the chaos of conditional draft picks.

The Blake Coleman trade is a good example. The New Jersey Devils acquired the Vancouver Canucks’ 2020 first-round pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning in that deadline deal. If the Canucks do not make the playoffs in 2019-20, the 2020 first-round pick will become a 2021 first-round pick instead. By points, the Canucks are out. By points percentage, they’re in. The Devils would have to know definitively before the draft. Same goes for other conditional picks.

But there’s one other issue with the June NHL draft idea that might be its undoing: What’s the sense of holding this event if no one can make any significant trades?

If the draft is held before the completion of the season, teams that are still active aren’t going to move players off their rosters, especially in a championship race. The trade deadline is over, so they can’t make deals to bolster their teams, either. The inability to trade players at the draft would severely limit teams’ abilities to move up and down the draft board, improve for next season or — most vitally, given the economic reality of the NHL — dump salary ahead of what we assume will be a flat cap heading into 2020-21. It’s hard to imagine teams making trades and hard to imagine the NHL draft serving its best purposes without them.

(Unless, of course, you are a “Joker”-level agent of chaos and want to see players who were traded at the June draft playing in the July playoffs against the teams that traded them. The implications for competition, potential for injury and overall camaraderie require mental gymnastics of such exertion that they would intimidate Simone Biles.)

There’s no envying the spot the NHL and its teams are in when it comes to completing this season, cramming in an offseason and planning for next season. Everything is, and should be, under consideration. But from a functional standpoint, holding the draft before the end of the season isn’t ideal. From a logical standpoint, it’s far from perfect. And if the ultimate goal is to “fire up fans” this summer, does it really make sense to drain the most fun aspect of that event — “We have a trade to announce!” — from an event that’s already a pandemic bummer?

Bettman called the idea of a June NHL draft a “trial balloon.” If it is, hopefully everyone sees that it’s one filled with lead.

The three people I’m thinking most about when it comes to the 2020 NHL draft

1. Alexis Lafrenière. The consensus first overall pick from Rimouski of the QMJHL. I genuinely feel for the kid. Even Sidney Crosby had the chance to walk on stage to applause back in 2005, when the post-lockout draft was held in a conference room at the Westin in Ottawa. (Guess there wasn’t a real estate seminar or bar mitzvah already scheduled for that weekend.) COVID-19 has ruined what should have been a rite of passage for Lafrenière. Instead of being treated like a hockey prince all weekend in Montreal, his introduction to the NHL will probably be on a Zoom call, with whatever city selects him green screened in as a background. We’re guessing it’s a cactus, given where human draft lottery talisman Taylor Hall currently plays.

2. Taro Tsujimoto, who doesn’t actually exist, but bear with me. The 1974 NHL draft was held via telephone because the NHL was trying keep its details away from the rival World Hockey Association. This slowed the selection process down to a slug’s pace, which annoyed Buffalo Sabres GM Punch Imlach and PR director Paul Wieland to the point where they decided to pull a prank on the NHL. So with the 183rd pick, the Sabres selected Taro Tsujimoto, a completely invented player for the Tokyo Katanas (Japanese for “Sabres”) in the Japan Ice Hockey League. The NHL wouldn’t figure out the scam until training camp of the following season. It’s a great story, and I can’t help but think that a virtual draft opens the door to more of that tomfoolery — either from NHL teams themselves or some agent of chaos that finds a way to hack the draft and force the Anaheim Ducks to use a sixth-round pick on Gordon Bombay.

3. Gary Bettman. The only tradition grander than fans booing the commissioner when he hands the Stanley Cup to the champions’ captain is fans booing him at the NHL draft. Also, the draft’s greatest charm comes from the puckish look Bettman gives when he is about to announce a significant trade. But mostly the boos. The NHL is certainly going to take some inspiration from the 2020 NFL draft. Let’s hope one of the things they borrow is this “boo the commissioner for charity” gimmick from Bud Light Seltzer:

Jersey Fouls

Matt Para has a Dave Tippett question:

The answer, of course, is that’s it’s completely fine to wear any Dave Tippett jersey in support of the Edmonton Oilers coach … almost. Obviously, if you wore a Tippett Capitals, Penguins or Flyers jersey to a game in which the Oil are playing one of those teams at home, you’re helping out the enemy fans, despite your best intentions. But if the Carolina Hurricanes are in town to face the Oilers, this falls under the Universal Whalers Exception Clause, in which any jersey that honors the mighty Whale is acceptable under any and all circumstances outside of greater Boston.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Really interesting episode this week, as Washington Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon joined Emily Kaplan and me to discuss life in the COVID-19 pause, his new teammates and TikTok stardom. Marisa Ingemi, formerly of the Boston Herald, talked about getting laid off, the Bruins and the future of women’s hockey. Plus some Gretzky vs. Jordan talk! Subscribe, rate and review here!

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: The 2011 Boston Bruins

The most fun we had this week in hockey was watching a bunch of old teammates tip a few back while watching an old game. The Bruins reunited on a Zoom call to watch a live stream of Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final on NESN, and it truly felt like being a fly on the wall of the coolest postgame hang you’ve never been invited to attend. Jokes were flying, some not very NHL approved — looking at you, Tuukka Rask. Insights about the series and the Cup win were shared. Toasts were made. It never really clicked until we watched this — and this is going to be absolute blasphemy for Boston fans — but this Bruins team reminds us of the 1986 New York Mets: Some all-time greats, some stars in their prime, some absolute goofball role players and an undeniable swagger about them. Just a great nostalgia trip …

Loser: Canucks fans

… for everyone outside of Vancouver. A Canucks fan watching the glorification of the 2011 Bruins must feel like Charlie Brown watching a tribute to Lucy’s skills as a holder. Especially when Milan Lucic, a Vancouver native no less, is dropping lines like: “Ask anyone from Vancouver, and I talked to a million of them: The referees were paid by the Bruins. They were on our side the whole time, just to let you guys know.”

Winner: Gregory Campbell

The man who once finished a shift despite a broken leg was the class clown of the call, ribbing every player in sight with some hilarious chirps. But his primary target was the man voted the league’s best (and worst) trash-talker, Brad Marchand. Campbell’s double-barrel attack? Taking a run at Marchand’s two lines, hair and clothing. “Buddy, you’re worth $ 60 million. Do you really need to do this? Like, have some respect for yourself.” Ouch.

Loser: Brad Marchand

After a chip like that, we have to list him here, but this also gives us a chance to acknowledge the interesting dynamic on the video call with Marchand and Seguin, who were 22 and 19 respectively when the Bruins won. Marchand became a target, rather than targeting others. Seguin was quiet and in the background for most of it. It truly was like watching a class reunion, as everyone slipped into their old roles.

Winner: The winning goalie in Game 7

No matter how you feel about Tim Thomas, hopefully we can agree that his revelations about dropping out of public life cast him in a different light; and that for a stretch with the Bruins, he was the best goalie in the world. That certainly included his Conn Smythe performance in 2011, and one of the more heartfelt moments of the call was the toast Lucic led in his honor.

Loser: The losing goalie in Game 7

Of course, not everyone was enamored with the call, as Roberto Luongo indicated:

Winner: Toronto women’s hockey

Potentially great news for women’s hockey, as the NWHL announced it was expanding to Toronto, with an all-women executive team: Johanna Neilson Boynton, a former captain of the Harvard’s women’s hockey team, is leading the ownership group for the league’s sixth franchise. Margaret “Digit” Murphy, the longtime Brown University and CWHL coach, is the team’s president, while Tyler Tumminia is a chairman.

Loser: Las Vegas’ mayor

By now, you’re probably aware of Carolyn Goodman’s infamous interview on CNN, where she offered to open up the city to be a COVID-19 “control group” for infections. “We’ve got major league sports here” was among the reasons she cited for wanting to reopen the hotels in Sin City. The Golden Knights have four home games left and then potentially playoff games. None of them are expected to be played in Las Vegas.

Winner: Alex Ovechkin

Whether it’s real or virtual, Alex Ovechkin rather loves scoring goals.

Loser: Neutral sites

The NHL’s plans to play in places such as the University of North Dakota and Manchester, New Hampshire, never really got off the drawing board. They just couldn’t work as a site for multiple teams, staffs and broadcasting crews. But it certainly was fun speculation while it lasted. Guess we’ll have to wait for another 20 rounds of expansion before we get to see the Stanley Cup raised in Grand Forks.

Puck Headlines

Division I programs are preparing for a shortened season in 2020-21.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were hit with a sexual assault lawsuit.

Remembering Tecmo Super Hockey, which is a thing that existed.

Social distancing with the Tkachuk family.

Interesting series from the Golden Knights, examining the paths their coaches took to getting to where they are today.

Ten hockey movies to stream. Points for including “The Rookies,” a really solid TV movie that usually gets overlooked.

What if the Blues had drafted Jonathan Toews No. 1 overall in 2006?

Here’s a weird hockey artifact: Brett Hull joins Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Herschel Walker in helping Goldberg fight the nWo on WCW Nitro.

Hockey TL; DR

The greatest New York-area NHL teams of all time. Notably, the 1994 Rangers are neither first nor second.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Emily Kaplan explores the world of inline skating for NHL players that are social distancing. – NHL