The NHL draft was held over the weekend in Philadelphia, a fact that would have been hard to miss if you were a hockey fan in the city. If the bright orange draft-themed banners that seemed to have been hung on every square inch of available space didn’t tip you off, the steady stream of hockey personalities who took over much of the downtown area would have.
They were everywhere. There’s Gary Bettman wandering by a hotel. There’s David Poile chilling out on a patio. There’s some random teenager who you don’t recognize, but his neck is the width of your chest so he’s clearly going in the first round. At some point, your brain switches over to assuming that everyone in the city is secretly an NHL employee, and you start eavesdropping on random conversations in hopes of overhearing some top-secret info. (One guy even managed to get this strategy to work.)
The opening round was held Friday night, just 24 hours after the NBA held its draft in New York City. The leagues share some common traits when it’s time to divvy up the next generation of players, but the NHL draft is distinct in several notable ways. For one, there’s no guarantee a Canadian will be picked first overall. More important, the teams themselves play a much more prominent role in the NHL draft than in any other league. The front offices and scouting staffs fill up the draft floor, with GMs (or other team personnel) announcing the first-round picks themselves. That creates a fun dynamic and offers up plenty of opportunities for the host team’s crowd to play a role. Did I mention this year’s draft was in Philadelphia? Yeah, Flyers fans were going to make themselves heard.
That became clear almost immediately, before the draft had even officially begun. Minutes before the first pick, the NHL attempted to run through a quick roll call, giving each team the chance to confirm its presence and inform the league of who’d be making the picks. It’s supposed to be a formality. Flyers fans had other ideas, quickly deciding to greet the announcement of each team with loud “SUCKS” chants. They weren’t equally distributed — the Kings actually got some tepid applause and the Penguins, naturally, got it worst of all — but it set the tone for what was to come.
(And by the way … why does the NHL have a pre-draft roll call? I get that you need to know who’s authorized to make each team’s picks, but that seems like something that could be handled with an email. Are they concerned that the Carolina Hurricanes might not show up? Do the Dallas Stars sometimes wander in late to these things? Did the Winnipeg Jets’ mom forget to let the league know about their dentist appointment? It’s very confusing.)
After warming up, the Philly crowd got down to the real order of business: mercilessly booing Bettman every time he got near the lectern. The crowd gave it to him with both barrels, and they didn’t even let up when he tried one of his now-traditional cheesy jokes (“I thought this was the city of Brotherly Love?”). It was a strong performance, but not a perfect one, because they still let themselves get suckered in by the now-traditional sight of GMs thanking the host city for its hospitality. The supposedly hard-nosed Flyers fans went for it every time, rewarding the gambit with cheers, which resulted in more and more teams pulling it out as the night went on. You are only encouraging them, Philadelphia. If you don’t boo them for transparently sucking up to you, how will they ever learn?
Once the GMs managed to make their picks, the first round played out largely as expected. The Panthers held on to the first overall pick despite spending the week teasing the hockey world with talk of trading down. They chose Aaron Ekblad, a well-rounded defenseman who’d emerged as the consensus top player on most draft boards.
Ekblad was followed by the “big three” centers: Sam Reinhart (to Buffalo), Leon Draisaitl (to Edmonton), and Samuel Bennett (to Calgary). That set the tone for a first round that was dominated by forwards, with 25 of 30 picks being used on centers or wingers. The other five picks were defensemen; no goalie was taken until Saturday, when a mini-run on the position opened the second round.
Mix in a disappointing lack of trades — there were a few, which we’ll get to in a second, but nowhere near the parade of blockbusters we’d been hoping for — and you had a first round that didn’t offer up much in the way of shockers. That may explain why the fans were as loud as they were; once they realized the league’s GMs were planning on business as usual, the Flyers faithful decided to make their own fun.