Much like their winter-arena-sports counterparts in the NBA, the NHLers are in draft-mode tonight. The first round of the NHL Entry Draft is tonight in Los Angeles at the Staples Center, and our own Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in an interesting position with the #4 pick.
Now that their coaching search is complete, all eyes have turned to the draft for Columbus. The chance is there to get a real first-year impact player, and if they stay put that player will most likely be on defense. And, if you watched this team at all last season, you know that defense is by far the biggest area of overall need (with apologies to that elusive, play-making centerman they covet).
So, what does this draft look like at the top, and where does Columbus fit in?
There are essentially two “top tier” players in this draft: left-winger Taylor Hall, and center Tyler Seguin. They are widely regarded as “1A” and “1B” with a can’t-go-wrong-with-either kind of outlook. Word is that Edmonton will take Hall with the first overall pick, and Boston (sitting at #2 after swindling Toronto’s first round pick for Phil Kessel) will be happy to snatch up Seguin to add to their playoffs-caliber roster. Florida sits at #3, and that’s where things will start to shake out and dominoes may or may not fall for Columbus.
The next “tier” of prospects in this draft is a suite including three different defenseman of varying skills-sets: Erik Gudbranson, Cam Fowler, and Brandon Gormley. Also in the mix is winger At 6’3” / 195#, Gudbranson is widely viewed as the most likely to grow into that big mauling defender a la Chris Pronger that has skill to go with size and a bit of a mean streak. Hockey’s Future says of Gudbranson: “His game is a combination of skill, toughness and leadership that most teams desire in a defensive prospect.” The Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline has this to say: “I’ve covered 10 NHL entry drafts. Gudbranson is the most impressive prospect I’ve ever dealt with.”
I throw out all of these platitudes for one reason: almost everyone now believes that Florida will take Gudbranson with the #3 pick. This, then, puts Columbus on the clock at #4 with a few options. They can stand pat and select from either Fowler or Gormley, or they could look to trade down to the 7-10 range as there are still plenty of solid players to be had along with gathering additional picks. GM Scott Howson is known as somewhat of a pick-hoarder, so this is not outside the realm of possibility.
If they stay put, they have a couple of choices. Fowler is a bit smaller than Gudbranson, but not too terribly much: 6’2”, 190#. He’s got a right-handed shot, which is something the Blue Jackets have always coveted for Power Play purposes, and he’s widely recognized as the most polished offensive-defensemen in this draft… yet another thing the Jackets covet. Hockey’s Future says of Fowler: “Fowler is an offensively oriented defenseman in the mold of a Scott Niedermayer. He is an excellent skater and puck handler, and his instincts and hockey sense are as good as any defenseman in his draft class. Fowler isn’t all offense, however, as his play in his own end is usually solid.” High praise indeed.
As for Gormley, he’s a year younger and less polished, but is viewed as a solid pick for his instincts and more-solid defensive play. Hockey’s Future describes him as the better defensive bet: “Poised is the best way to describe this 18-year-old defenseman. Always making the safe play in his own zone to effortlessly break up chances and rarely making a poor decision when contributing offensively, Gormley’s steady play is an integral part of Moncton’s success. Though he is thought of as primarily a defense-first player, Gormley’s ability to read the play makes him a key part of the Wildcats power play as well.”
I’ve been inclined to think the Jackets will stay put at #4 and select Fowler, and here is my reasoning for that. Fowler is more polished than Gormley; he’s a year older, and has been playing in a higher-level junior league. The Jackets have just hired a head coach who has said he wants to be more offensively aggressive, and new defensive assistant Brad Berry wants to “push it” as well: “Berry, who will coach the Blue Jackets’ defensemen and run the penalty kill, said he wants to see the Jackets’ defenseman involved in the action offensively, moving forward with the puck and pushing it up the ice with fervor.” Sounds like Fowler’s offensive game would fit right in there.
Add that in with Kris Russell (who took a large step forward and has shown the ability to join the play and at times skate circles around good NHL players), last year’s #1 pick John Moore (also of the solid-skating offensively-able defenseman mold), and Anton Stralman (definitely more of an offensive-minded player, and a guy widely credited with helping to improve the Power Play this past season), and Fowler would give them a core of young, puck-moving defensemen.
Again, that’s just my personal reading of the tea leaves. The Dispatch published three mock drafts, and the two reporters from the paper both have them taking Gormley. Only “guest fan mocker” Dan Edwards—a trivia contest winner—has them taking Fowler.
Now, back to the idea of a trade-down. As most Browns fans know, it’s one thing to rationalize a trade down from such a high pick and to pick up additional assets, but it’s another thing to do it. As Mr. Portzline reports:
The Blue Jackets are trying to move down in the draft order, but so far there hasn’t been much action. That will change, if not before the draft begins then certainly after the No. 3 pick is taken by Florida on Friday night. Clearly there’s a player who will be available in the 7-8-9 range that the Blue Jackets like as much as the defenseman they could grab at No. 4. So why not trade down, add a player or a draft pick, and get the guy you want? That’s called maximizing a commodity, and — as you should know by now — that is GM Scott Howson’s passion in life.
The tier of players just below the three defensemen includes several forwards, including Brett Connolly, who some have said would be in the top-overall-pick discussion if not for a hip injury this past season that limited him to only 16 games with his junior club. So, if the Blue Jackets get a solid offer and believe that a forward (there are some options at center in there) helps them as much as a defensemen, why not make a move? It’s possible another team may covet Fowler or Gormley enough to trade up in front of the New York Islanders to grab one of them.
Personally, I’d rather they stay put and bolster their blue line, as it was clearly the weaker unit last season, and the defensemen have a chance to help a bit sooner. In theory, though, when you’re picking this high it’s tough to go wrong.
At any rate, the drama will unfold beginning at 7 PM tonight.