There was little surprise at the very top of the NHL’s pandemic-delayed draft Tuesday.
The New York Rangers chose star winger Alexis Lafreniere, the presumptive No. 1 pick since January, with the first selection.
But following a just-completed season like no other — one suspended in March, restarted in August and completed late last month inside a tightly-controlled bubble without fans thanks to COVID-19 — there were bound to be twists with teams and NHL hopefuls linking up remotely instead of being under one roof at Montreal’s Bell Centre.
First there was some timely draft history, then an appearance by a Canadian celebrity, and finally, an emotional selection made by the widow of a hockey icon.
To start things off, however, the night belonged to Lafreniere, a star winger from the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He registered 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games before the 2019-20 season was cancelled because of the pandemic.
“It was an unreal feeling,” Lafreniere, sporting his new team’s hat and jersey, said on a video conference call from the family home in St-Eustache, Que., after having his name called first. “The New York Rangers are a great organization.”
WATCH | Rangers make Lafreniere top pick:
Just the second back-to-back recipient of the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year award, following in the footsteps of fellow Rimouski captain Sidney Crosby in 2004 and 2005, Lafreniere was NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater and long-viewed as the consensus choice at No. 1.
The draft, which was originally scheduled for June 26 and 27, continues Wednesday with rounds two through seven before NHL free agency opens 48 hours later.
“We’ve been waiting for a long time so it was something really special,” added Lafreniere, the first Canadian to go No. 1 since the Edmonton Oilers selected Connor McDavid in 2015. “We’re all really excited.”
Before the Lafreniere pick, commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league and players are now focused on starting next season on Jan. 1 after previously aiming to get things going Dec. 1.
The Los Angeles Kings had the second selection and chose six-foot-four centre Quinton Byfield of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves. Byfield became the highest Black player picked in NHL draft history after Evander Kane (2009) and Seth Jones (2013) each went fourth overall.
“That definitely means a lot to me,” Byfield said. “Being in the record books for anything is super special, but that especially.”
WATCH | Byfield makes history at second overall:
The Ottawa Senators used the No. 3 selection, which they acquired from San Jose as part of the Erik Karlsson trade two years ago, to grab shifty German winger Tim Stuetzle, with University of Ottawa graduate and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek announcing the pick in a pre-taped appearance.
“I didn’t know like 100 per cent what was going on with [the No. 2 and 3] picks,” Stuetzle said. “It’s just a big honour to play for the capital of Canada.”
General manager Pierre Dorion said Trebek’s appearance was the idea of team owner Eugene Melnyk, adding the gameshow icon recorded versions for Lafreniere, Byfield and Stuetzle.
Trebek’s inclusion even got a thumbs up from Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas.
“One of the highlights for me in all my time watching drafts,” Dubas said.
WATCH | Alex Trebek announces Senators’ 1st pick:
The top-ranked European skater, Stuetzle spent this season with Adler Mannheim in his country’s top professional league, where he was named rookie of the year. He’s also the third German-trained player to be drafted in the top-6, matching 2020 Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl’s selection at No. 3 by Edmonton six years ago.
“I want to win Cups in Ottawa, and I want to play in the NHL as fast as I can,” added Stuetzle, who admitted with a smile he doesn’t watch “Jeopardy!”
The Detroit Red Wings, who dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the first phase of the NHL’s draft lottery in June, got Swedish winger Lucas Raymond with their pick.
Ottawa was back on the clock with its own selection at No. 5 and chose blue-liner Jake Sanderson from the U.S. under-18 program to become the first team since 2000 to make two picks in the top-5.
The Senators, who have largely made headlines for all the wrong reasons since getting within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup final, hope securing Stuetzle and Sanderson will accelerate a rebuild that saw a roster once led by Karlsson — the team’s captain and a two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman — torn down to its studs.
“It’s one of the biggest nights in this franchise’s history,” Dorion said.
The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson took in proceedings with his family from a suite at the University of North Dakota’s home arena where he started his first semester this fall.
“It’s a little bit different draft this year,” Sanderson said. “But I think it’s kind of special in its own way.”
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The Winnipeg Jets had Crystal Hawerchuk, wife of the late Dale Hawerchuk, make their selection of centre Cole Perfetti from the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit at No. 10.
Dale Hawerchuk, who became the face of the original Jets en route to the Hall of Fame, died in August at age 57 after a battle with cancer.
“Just the raw emotion that everyone feels and then the love that we feel for Dale and his family,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said when reflecting on the moment. “Just the way the stars aligned in our 10th year when we had the opportunity for the 10th pick, we had the idea of who better to make it than the greatest No. 10 in the Winnipeg Jets history?”
“It just felt so special.”
The Oilers took centre Dylan Holloway at No. 14, the Leafs selected Russian winger Rodion Amirov at No. 15 and the Montreal Canadiens snagged defenceman Kaiden Guhle at No. 16. Earlier in the day, Montreal traded forward Max Domi and a third-round pick to Columbus for winger Josh Anderson.
The Calgary Flames traded down twice from No. 19 to No. 22 and then finally to No. 24 where they took centre Connor Zary.
The Senators selected centre Ridly Greig at No. 28, which originally belonged to the New York Islanders. The Vancouver Canucks, meanwhile, don’t have a selection until Wednesday’s third round.
Unlike their NFL or NBA counterparts, NHL teams are usually seated at tables on the floor of one of the league’s 31 arenas for its draft, but the 2020 edition saw general managers and much of their scouting staffs spread across North America.
Cheveldayoff said it was nice to be able to talk out in the open and not have to try and hide his draft list, but there were downsides.
“There’s nothing like being able to meet the player right away, give him the jersey, have him put it on and just feel their excitement,” he said.
The prospects set to take their first steps into the NHL, meanwhile, all watched proceedings away from the usual bright lights. First-round hopefuls were each sent gear from the league’s 31 teams so they’d have some swag once their names were called.
Lafreniere and his counterparts didn’t get the normal thrill of climbing on stage in front of friends and family, but the night will be memorable nonetheless for every player picked.
“It’s different, and we didn’t expect that a couple of months ago,” Lafreniere said. “Growing up, you’re dreaming of being drafted.
“And for me today, it’s amazing to go first.”