There wasn’t much drama initially, as Rasmus Dahlin was selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the number-one overall choice at the 2018 NHL Draft Friday night, but there were a number of surprises after that.
Dahlin, the smooth-skating defenceman of Frolunda Gothenburg, became the first Swede to go first since Mats Sundin in 1989, and just the second ever. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that he would wind up in Buffalo after the Sabres won the Draft Lottery in April.
“It’s amazing, I’ve finally put on the Buffalo Sabres jersey,” said Dahlin, who helped Sweden win silver in Buffalo at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship and was there again several weeks ago for the Draft Combine. “I’ve been there twice and I love that city. I can’t wait to get everything started. It’s been long waiting, but finally today, I can plan my future.”
Also as expected, Russian right winger Andrei Svechnikov, who played for the OHL’s Barrie Colts last season after going through the junior system of Ak Bars Kazan, went second to Carolina.
“It feels great and I’m super happy. It was my dream and it came true and just the best moment of my life,” Svechnikov said. “I was there a couple weeks ago, and I think it was fine and the team looks like going on the way up and just suits me. It comfortable and easy to talk to those guys. Yeah, it was fun.”
Then the surprises started, with Assat Pori centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi of Finland, who was ranked 16th by the International Scouting Services (ISS), going third to Montreal.
“I was a little surprised,” admitted Kotkaniemi, who scored three goals and nine points while helping Finland win the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in April. “But I heard that they are looking for a centre, so I hoped that they choose me. I’m so excited at the moment.”
Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin indicated that he chose Kotkaniemi because hopes to build a strong group of centres.
“I’m really happy for the Montreal Canadiens moving forward,” Bergevin said. “With (2017 first-round choice, 25th overall, Ryan Poehling of St. Cloud State) coming and him, I think we’ll have a solid down-the-middle line for years to come. The future at that position, which is a very important position, I think is bright.”
The next pick followed expectations, as the first non-European came off the board when Brady Tkachuk of the Boston University was selected fourth overall by Ottawa.
“I’m super happy right now and I’m super excited to celebrate this with my family and friends. They are run by great management. There’s great facilities. I was super happy leaving there and it was definitely a spot I wanted to go to,” Tkachuk said.
He was the first of six Americans taken among the first 22 selections (four in the top 14), five of whom trained at the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Defenceman K’Andre Miller, who went 22nd to the New York Rangers, talked about how special the NTDP was to his development.
“To be a part of that team, it’s been really cool,” said Miller, who helped the U.S. win silver at the U18 World Championship. “To represent my country every day, coming to the rink pretty determined, and getting to put on that USA jersey every day with your 22 brothers, after those two years (are over), it’s pretty sad. And to see some of those guys getting drafted tonight, and others (likely) drafted in the later rounds, it’s pretty cool.”
The next surprise came at number five overall, when Arizona chose centre Barrett Hayton (Canada) of OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie, who was ranked 12th by ISS. He was the first of 10 Canadians chosen.
“I got a great feel from Arizona through the interview process, so I knew there was a chance,” Hayton said. “When I heard my name called, it was unbelievable. I feel they have an amazing future ahead.”
Like Bergevin, Arizona GM John Chayka cited the desire to build a strong corps of centres, trying to follow the blueprint of recent Stanley Cup champions such as Pittsburgh and Washington, as the motivation to pick Hayton.
“I think you look at the teams that have won championships and how they’ve won it, and when we look at our group now, and we’re trying to build through the middle, we think we’ve got great centre ice depth,” Chayka said. “When I look at that and I look at how you build foundations of a team, I’m really excited about the future.”
Those unanticipated centre selections dropped Czech left winger Filip Zadina of the QMJHL’s Halifax from the third or fourth spot down to sixth, where Detroit snagged him.
“Yeah, obviously I was kind of surprised, but I’m happy that I could be here, so it’s an awesome team. So I’m just excited to go with them and hopefully it’s going to go well,” Zadina said. “I don’t want to call it that I fall to sixth. It’s a draft and I am in Detroit, so I don’t care what position I’m in. I’m a Detroit player. I just want to prove to Detroit that they have done a pretty good decision, so I’m just glad that I could be here.”
American player Quintin Hughes (Vancouver) and Swedish player Adam Boqvist (Chicago) followed. The next surprise pick came at No. 9, where the New York Rangers took the second Russian player, right winger Vitali Kravtsov of the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk, who was ranked 35th by ISS.
“I’m so happy,” said Kravtsov, whose stock undoubtedly improved after scoring six goals and 11 points in 16 KHL playoff games this spring. “I’m ready for this. I’ve worked for this.”
Continuing a trend, there were a few other centres that made big jumps to land among the top 21 selections. Ty Dellandrea (Canada) of OHL Flint went 13th to host Dallas, despite ISS ranking him at 42, OHL London centre Liam Foudy (Canada) was ranked at 45 by ISS but got selected No. 18 by Columbus, and centre Jay O’Brien (USA) of Thayer Academy was picked 19th by Philadelphia after being ranked 46th by ISS.
After that, it was defencemen moving up, as No. 47-ranked Ryan Merkley (Canada) of OHL Guelph was chosen 21st by San Jose, QMJHL Drummondville’s Nicolas Beaudin went 27th to Chicago while ISS ranked him at 77, and Lulea’s Nils Lundkvist (Sweden) was picked at No. 28 by the Rangers while being ranked at 57.
In total 14 defencemen were selected in the first round – a new draft record. And the Swedes matched their previous record with six first-round selections.
On the flip side, there were several players that were ranked highly that dropped significantly, or weren’t chosen at all (yet). The most surprising drop was experienced by QMJHL Drummondville center Joe Veleno, who was slotted at No. 10 by ISS but sat in the stands waiting until Detroit picked at 30.
“It was a big relief when I heard my name get called,” admitted Veleno, who had a group of about 20 friends and family in attendance with him. “It’s a day that I want to remember. You never know what’s going to happen in the draft, so it was just being patient. A lot of people helped me to enjoy the moment, so just being patient and praying for my name to be called.”
Other higher-ranked players who weren’t chosen were OHL Oshawa right winger Serron Noel (Canada), who was ranked 14 by ISS, Linkoping defenceman Adam Ginning (Sweden), ranked at 17 by ISS, QMJHL Halifax defenceman Jared MacIsaac (Canada), ranked at 21, his Halifax teammate, centre Benoit-Olivier Groulx (Canada), who was ranked at 22, and No. 23-ranked defenceman Bode Wilde of the U.S. National Team Development Program.
The other surprise of the night was that there weren’t any significant trades. There were only two deals made on the draft floor, none of which involved any players. The Rangers moved the 26th overall pick and their second round choice (at 48) to Ottawa for the 22nd selection, where they chose Miller.
Then St. Louis moved up four spots (from 29 to 25), sending the 29th pick and their third-rounder (76) to Toronto for the ability to select German right winger Dominik Bokk, who plays for Vaxjo of the Swedish Elite League.
“They said that to me yesterday, so I had a really good idea that they were going to pick me,” Bokk said of the Blues.
Bokk became the first German first-round pick since Leon Draisaitl four years ago. And with his pick, players from seven different countries were selected in the first round – a new record.
Overall, the breakdown by nations saw Canada with 10 selections in the first round, followed by Sweden and the United States with six each, Russia with four, Finland and the Czech Republic with two, and Germany with one. That’s a good mix of 16 North Americans and 15 Europeans, with the Europeans more dominant in the early picks having had the top-three and six top-10 players.
That was it for the first round. The draft continues with rounds 2-7 on Saturday where players from even more countries are expected to be drafted by an NHL team.