Now that most teams have passed the halfway point in this shortened NHL season, we're starting to see some -- but not much -- separation in the standings. But while the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks are soaring to the top, there have been others that are in the midst of a forgettable post-lockout campaign. The good news for those franchises is that this season's draft, set for June 30 in Newark, N.J., promises to be an exceptionally memorable one.
This year's crop of draft-eligible players is both elite at the top as well as deep overall. To help set the table, we're offering up our first mock draft of the year.
A few housekeeping notes to get out of the way. First, to project this order, we used the standings from the morning of Tuesday, March 12. The order is obviously going to change between now and the end of the season. Even then, with all 14 nonplayoff teams now getting a chance in the lottery at the No. 1 pick, absolutely nothing is set in stone. The purpose of this mock draft is to give you an early look at the range where certain prospects could fall on draft day, and a look at how certain players match with certain organizational needs. That leads into another key point.
While team need can influence a pick, nine times out of 10, teams will take the best player available (BPA) on their big board. Developing prospects takes time (with the exception of a few elite talents each year) and a hole on the current NHL roster is much more likely to be filled with a prospect already in the pipeline (or via trades/free agency) than with a draft pick -- even a first-rounder. Holes in the prospect pipeline, not on the NHL roster, are what really dictate team need.
A few key themes before we dive into the picks:
• Despite the acclaim Halifax center Nate MacKinnon has garnered throughout a storied junior career, he is not a lock to go No. 1 overall. Not only could American defenseman Seth Jones take the top spot, but MacKinnon's teammate, winger Jonathan Drouin, is also garnering strong consideration. And there could even be a dark horse from Russia starting to emerge in the No. 1 conversation.
• Unlike last season, when we saw nine defensemen selected in the first 10 picks, this year's forward crop should supply most of the early selections.
• It's not a particularly strong year for goalies. As you'll see below, I think the only teams that will even consider a netminder with a first-round pick are franchises who are already sufficiently deep with skaters and can afford to plan for the future a little more. Goalies always take time to develop.
• If the Columbus Blue Jackets are going to compete in their new realigned conference against the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Atlantic Division teams, they need to find some franchise pillars in this draft. Fortunately for the Jackets, they have three first-round picks in what might be the deepest draft since the legendary 2003 class that produced 19 NHL All-Stars in the first two rounds.
Enough table setting, though, let's dive in.
MORE NHL DRAFT CONTENT:
Seth JonesFlorida Panthers
TEAM: Portland (WHL)
Pick analysis: Florida is having a tough season after making the playoffs last campaign, and injuries are being blamed for much of the team's woes. The fact is that the Panthers lack depth on the blue line. Never mind that Jones is possibly the best player in this draft, he is the perfect pick for Florida. His size, skill and skating -- along with his ability to break out of his own zone -- make him a great fit. Brian Campbell will provide the leadership needed on the back end, and this son of former NBA player Popeye Jones can be groomed with Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov. Adding this kind of skill to the back end will fit in nicely with the Panthers' forwards, who are led by rookie sensation Jonathan Huberdeau.
Nathan MacKinnonBuffalo Sabres
TEAM: Halifax (QMJHL)
Pick analysis: The Sabres have fooled a lot of people this season with their poor play and placement in the standings. Longtime head coach Lindy Ruff was fired and others may follow in his wake if the tide doesn't change. MacKinnon, who is capable of playing next season, could provide the necessary spark. There is little doubt that Buffalo has a lot of pieces in place to win games, but something is just not right. A shakeup is needed, and as we have seen in Montreal, a youth movement can speed up that process. MacKinnon will add speed, an excellent work ethic and disciplined play, all while providing an offensive punch. He would look great developing with 2012 first-round pick Mikhail Grigorenko, who seems lost in all of the turmoil surrounding the Sabres.
Jonathan DrouinTampa Bay Lightning
TEAM: Halifax (QMJHL)
Pick analysis: The Lightning have greatly disappointed this season after making a solid playoff run last season and getting off to a solid start in 2013. Adding another dynamic offensive forward may seem like the last thing they need, but this offensive, point-producing machine is simply too good to pass up. Some scouts have suggested that Drouin is the best player in the draft, as his vision and passing skills are off the charts. Plus, playing Drouin with Steven Stamkos, perhaps the best shooter in the league, could create instant magic in Tampa Bay.