This year's draft is going to be a mess, plain and simple. The NHL draft is always a chaotic event, to a degree. Each team's scouts will have different rankings for each prospect, and the mock drafts thrown out by experts are useless to consult past the top 3 picks. This year, however, especially near the top of the draft, the executive decisions behind selecting the future stars of a franchise will be insanely muddled, for a number of reasons.
1) McDavid - Eichel
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel headline what is considered to be one of the deepest drafts in recent memory in 2015. Drafting 1st or 2nd overall guarantees a selection of either 1) the next Crosby or 2) a kid so talented he may be better than the next Crosby. The chance of drafting an elite player in 2014 or a generational talent in 2015 really would be a no brainier if not for the myriad of confounding variables in the mix. Where is the guarantee that the team will receive pick 1 or 2 next year?... Nowhere. Teams have to decide what exactly to do this year, for, if it doesn't put them in the playoff hunt next year, they would be better off finishing lower in the standings and having a better shot at McDavid or Eichel. Picking a player talented to contribute, but not quite talented enough to get results will lead to missing the playoffs and having low lottery percentages in the drawing. On the flip side, wasting a year of the team's talent by picking a player that needs development over a NHL ready prospect can result in missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs (during which, as we found out with the LA Kings in 2012, anything can happen). The balance between picking for success and picking to get a better chance at a generational talent is hard, especially when projections for talents must go almost a year in advance, making them essentially useless in determining playoff capabilities of a team.
2) Garth Snow's headache
When the New York Islanders traded for Thomas Vanek last year, part of the trade was either a first round draft pick in 2014 or a first round draft pick in 2015. At the time, this looked like a fine part of the deal. The Islanders were expected to be playoff contenders, challenging Pittsburgh and Boston and New York and Philadelphia for the top of the Eastern Conference, meaning the pick would be late in the round in 2014. As I mentioned before, year length projections make it impossible to predict the playoff capabilities of a team. The Islanders have had a dreadful season; they are eliminated from playoff contention and will be drafting, almost guaranteed, in the Top 5. This leaves the Islanders with a problem; which draft pick do they give to the Sabres? Do they give away a Top 5 draft pick, giving the Sabres 2 picks in the first 5 selections? Under this scenario, they get to keep their 2015 pick and hope they get a shot at McDavid/Eichel (see #1). If they don't get McDavid/Eichel, then they gave up a Top 5 draft pick unnecessarily. Conversely, they can take their Top 5 2014 pick this year, and give the 2015 pick to the Sabres. Here, the hope is that the Islanders are good enough to make the playoffs, eliminating the chance of their pick being the one to draft McDavid/Eichel. Keeping this year's pick, however, and losing McDavid/Eichel next year would go down as one of the biggest managerial blunders in history.
There's also the issue of tanking in this case. What kind of message does giving up the 2014 pick send to the players? It's essentially telling John Tavares and Kyle Okposo that "Uh, yeah, we need you guys to come in last place this year." Isn't the goal of operating an NHL franchise to compete for a Stanley Cup EVERY year? Sure, when the team assembled performs poorly and it's obvious that they are not going to compete, trading away veterans for prospects and picks (the Ryan Miller trade) is understandable. But deliberately sending out an indirect message to the players that the team is supposed to come in last place this season just isn't right.
3) Buffalo and it's choices
Let's face it, Buffalo will by far be one of the biggest winners of the 2014 NHL Draft. They are guaranteed a pick in one of the first two selections, and, depending on how Garth Snow deals with his headache, (see #2) could end up with two selections in the Top 5, or earn another draft pick for next year's McDavid/Eichel draft. Also, depending on how the St. Louis - Ryan Miller arrangement works out (the Sabres will get St. Louis's pick if any of the following conditions are met: 1) Blues advance to 2014 Western Conference Finals and Ryan Miller appears in at least 50% of the game minutes played by all Blues goalies during first and second rounds of 2014 playoffs, 2) Blues re-sign Ryan Miller prior to making their 2014 first round pick, 3) Blues trade Ryan Miller prior to making their 2014 first round pick) they could be looking at 3 first round draft picks this year.
This huge amount of options could result in something rare and interesting; a trade of one their first round draft picks on Draft Day. But not just a trade to move up, or move down in this year's draft. A trade to acquire another first round pick for the 2015 draft. Another chance to grasp at McDavid/Eichel. Here, the Sabres are not doing what the Islanders would be doing. They are not sending out a message to the players that "Hey, we want you to lose." Buffalo would instead be hinging on another team doing poor enough to give them the pick for Eichel or McDavid.
This is definitely a possibility, especially if the Islanders forfeit their 2014 pick and the Blues meet the conditions to transfer their pick. The Sabres would still have 2 picks if they traded one, and no matter which was traded, they would still be drafting at least once in the top 5. This just adds immensely to already confusing jumble of mess that Draft Day will see. One of the headline trades last year was Cory Schneider for New Jersey's first round pick. Imagine the headline if the top pick in the draft is traded for a 2015 draft pick.
4) Who is #1?
Before the season, this year's draft looked similar to the 2013 Draft in that atop the rankings was a fierce battle between two North American skaters. Last year, it was Mackinnon v. Jones. This year, it was Ekblad v. Reinhart. However, similar to last year's draft, where Jones fell to Nashville, the fourth selection, we have seen others rise up and contend for the top rankings headed into the draft. Sam Bennett and Leon Drasaitl passed Ekblad and Reinhart in the midterm rankings, and Michael Dal Colle, who rounded out the top 5, has been noted as having the chance to be remembered as the best player taken in the 2014 draft. The question for teams to deal with, then, is who to pick? Teams such as Buffalo, Florida, New York, Edmonton, and Calgary all have to figure out who exactly can benefit the team the most. Ekblad is the clear #1 defenseman; after him, however, there isn't a high caliber defenseman until Haydn Fleury, who isn't necessarily considered to have an elite level ceiling. So, after Ekblad is taken, the teams with the first 10 selections have a pressing problem, in terms of figuring out which forward is really better for them to draft. Even looking past the top 10, into people like Nikolaj Ehlers, Nikolay Goldobin, Ivan Barbashev, Connor Bleackley, and Alex Tuch, we see huge disparity in the rankings of these prospects across various scouting sources. The muddling confusion of the rankings of prospects in this year's Draft seems more chaotic than most, adding to the Great Puckery of it all.
5) Florida and Luongo
This concept is quite simple, really. The Panthers clearly are attempting to compete for a Stanley Cup, and soon. Their draft focus then, appears to be drafting a player that will be ready to contribute at an elite NHL level within the next 2-3 years, if not by next year. This could result in the Panthers picking a more NHL ready player over a player with a higher ceiling that will take longer to develop. Factoring this in adds even more confusion to the draft rankings (see #3), especially for the Panthers. Guessing who they pick this season may be close to impossible.
The Draft is always chaotic. The 2014 Draft, however, is going to be a mess. A glorious, spectacular, confusing jumble of ulterior motives and confusion that will be impossible to guess; the best that we can do is sit back and watch it happen.
(Title Credit to Genelle Samson)