FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- What a week for the National Hockey League.
The NHL formally opened the expansion process in Las Vegas on Wednesday, virtually assuring that for better or for worse, there will be more teams populating the league in the next two to three years, with a new team likely destined for Sin City for the 2017-18 season.
This weekend, two players' fortunes and futures will be forever connected in a generational draft headlined by Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel as hopeful young men and their families flood into the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida. Round 1 is Friday starting at 7 p.m. ET; Rounds 2-7 start at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday.
Here are some of the potentially dramatic things that could happen Friday and Saturday:
McDavid will be first: We know the Oilers will use the first-overall pick to bring McDavid to the Edmonton Oilers, a team in the midst of a mighty renaissance, with structural changes from the top of the organization to the new arena being built downtown. Times are exciting in Edmonton, with new GM Peter Chiarelli in place and new coach Todd McLellan expected to bring a breath of fresh air coming over from the San Jose Sharks. But to be sure, McDavid might be the missing piece that finally helps restore the team to relevance after missing the playoffs every season since a surprise berth in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals.
And Eichel will be second: Fans are going to see two cornerstone, franchise-type players selected within minutes of each other Friday night, with Eichel expected to go to the Buffalo Sabres, another team that has floundered in recent years. We know that Eichel is a strong personality who will embrace the notion of proving that he, not McDavid, might be “the one” to emerge from this strong and deep draft class. Although we won’t see the regular clashes between McDavid and Eichel that we saw between rookies Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06 because the Sabres and Oilers play in separate conferences, it will be fun to watch their shared evolution. (As an aside, how much anticipation will there be next summer for the World Cup of Hockey when the two are expected to be teammates on the North American Young Guns squad?)
Dry times in the desert: The Arizona Coyotes, no strangers to drama -- especially in recent days as they try to sort through another clash with Glendale over the lease the team signed with the municipality two years ago -- are one of the most interesting teams coming into the draft and hold the No. 3 pick. Will they keep it and pick Noah Hanifin, considered by many the top defenseman in the draft? Or will GM Don Maloney parlay that pick into a veteran player who can help the Coyotes, desperate for an impact forward and, specifically, a center? The Coyotes really missed out on not nabbing one of the top two picks given their organizational needs, but this remains an important few days for Maloney and the beleaguered Yotes.
Lots of drama in Leafland So does the draft mark the moment that the true rebuild of the Toronto Maple Leafs takes flight? Under team president Brendan Shanahan, change has been promised. While there has been great change off the ice, with Mike Babcock lured to Toronto after establishing himself as one of the top coaches of his era with the Detroit Red Wings, new faces have also been added to upper management, including former NHLer Mark Hunter. However, as the draft weekend approaches, there is still no general manager (Kyle Dubas is handling GM-related calls from other teams). There is a preponderance of junior hockey, and specifically Ontario Hockey League, savvy among the Leafs' management team, but the group is distinctly lacking in NHL experience. So where does that leave a team desperate to change its core and hence its identity? As for player personnel, is there a taker for Phil Kessel? Dion Phaneuf? Joffrey Lupul? And if such moves aren’t made this weekend, when might they be made? There’s also the issue of the fourth-overall pick the Leafs possess, adding to an already pressure-packed draft for a team that has made the playoffs once since the 2004-05 lockout.
Blackhawks could be moved: Other prominent players could also be on the move this weekend for a variety of reasons. We know Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has to free up cap space with core players Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews about to start their new contracts in the fall. Patrick Sharp, a member of all three Blackhawks championship teams of the past six years, is a likely victim of the cap crunch, but where would he fit? The Pittsburgh Penguins are looking for a scoring winger for Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. And Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon loves his old Blackhawks and could use veteran ballast up front for a team on the verge of being a playoff contender. Who else might be peeled from the Blackhawks roster? Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg are possibilities, although not as intriguing as the 33-year-old Sharp, who has two years left on his deal and a $5.9 million cap hit (although his actual dollar value is lower). But the question is whether the asking price will exceed Sharp’s value as he was relegated to third-line duties for much of the playoffs.
Familiar faces in new places: Former Penguins GM Ray Shero is running his first draft as the New Jersey Devils' GM, and he’ll no doubt be looking for ways to improve his team’s offensive output. Don Sweeney will be overseeing his first draft after replacing Peter Chiarelli, who built a Cup winner for the Boston Bruins before assuming command in Edmonton (see above). Sweeney will have his challenges trying to fit the Bruins’ impressive young core under the salary cap, and on Thursday he traded the rights to Carl Soderberg, an unrestricted free agent who finished the season with 44 points, to the Colorado Avalanche for a sixth-round pick in the 2016 draft. Sweeney is also working to bring restricted free-agent defenseman Dougie Hamilton under contract amid rumors that teams might try an offer sheet for the young defenseman.
Will Saad get an offer?: Speaking of offer sheets, there are similar rumors that teams might try to pry Brandon Saad away from the Blackhawks via the offer sheet, even though they are expected to match an offer in order to keep the talented forward in the fold. Still, the offer sheet does have the potential to upset a team’s salary-cap cart, even if it does match. It’s worth watching to see if the strategy is employed in the coming days.
Hurricanes warning: Also wrestling with contract issues are the Carolina Hurricanes. Ron Francis, heading into his second draft as the Canes' GM, would love to divest himself of the ugly Alexander Semin deal (three more unthinkable seasons at $7 million per year), although to move Semin the Hurricanes would have to eat some of the contract and likely throw in assets to sweeten the deal or take back another onerous contract. Francis must also figure out what to do with core veterans Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward, who can become unrestricted free agents at the end of next season. Staal's situation is especially interesting because it’s clear the Hurricanes cannot afford to pay him at his current rate of $9.5 million (his cap is slightly lower at $8.25 million) or frankly anything close to that. Would he be willing to stay with the only NHL club he’s ever known for a significant hometown discount? Or would the captain be interested in pursuing a second Stanley Cup (he won with the Hurricanes in ’06) somewhere else and be willing to help facilitate a trade by agreeing to be moved? Lots of moving parts, but it’s worth remembering that Staal's brother Jordan came to Carolina during a big draft weekend deal back in 2012.