Under normal circumstances, we’d sort through winners and losers as soon as the first round finishes at an NHL Draft. But with virtually nothing of consequence coming from the primetime proceedings in Vancouver on Friday, and a trade boom to follow Saturday in the speed rounds, it was best to delay evaluations until now.
Winner: U.S. National Development Program
There wasn’t much for competition, but the story from Round 1 of the 2019 NHL Draft was the record set by USA Hockey’s Under-18 program. Eight players were drafted in the first round, smashing the previous high from the program with three first-round selections. The most prized American-born prospect was, of course, Jack Hughes, who the New Jersey Devils selected with the No. 1 overall draft pick. Six more from the program were taken in lottery position after Hughes, before the Boston Bruins dipped into the talent pool once more, making John Beecher the second-to-last selection of the first round. Producing seven of the first 15 picks is a tremendous accomplishment for the Michigan-based program, and a warning for other nations ahead of next year’s world juniors.
Winner: The New Jersey Devils
Whether they made the right choice by preferring Hughes over Finnish star Kaapo Kakko will remain up for debate, but there’s little argument to be made for another team improving as much as New Jersey did. Hughes is an immense talent who the Devils will stack through the middle of their depth chart with the No. 1 overall selection from 2017, Nico Hischier. But what has changed the narrative in terms of the Devils’ immediate outlook was the unexpected trade for P.K. Subban. A unit desperate for talent, Subban re-shapes the look of New Jersey’s defensive pairings. And while he will cost the full $9 million in real dollars, Ray Shero parted with very little in terms of assets to acquire the veteran right-shot defender. There are some red flags with Subban: he’s now been traded twice, and he’s not quite the force he once was. But with just three years remaining on his current deal, his money will seamlessly come off the books in time to pay Hughes out of entry level. There’s not much risk here as the Devils do their best to piece together the most competitive roster they can in their efforts to retain Taylor Hall.
Undetermined: Nashville Predators
If the Predators do sign Matt Duchene after trading P.K. Subban, it will be one overpay in for one overpay out. I suppose with the talent and depth Nashville has beyond Subban on the back end with Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and Dante Fabbro, that premium might be better paid at the forward position.
Winner: The Carolina Hurricanes
Though it might not satiate those with a strong appetite for seeing the Maple Leafs suffer, Carolina’s willingness to facilitate Patrick Marleau’s Toronto exit was no bail out. Like vultures, the Hurricanes circled in on a tremendous asset in a future first-round pick from the Maple Leafs, all through weaponizing their cap space on the draft floor. It’s wonderful asset management, but the most encouraging thing from a fan perspective is that with the future buyout, ownership has essentially agreed to purchase the pick for $6.25 million. Demonstrating both a willingness to make that sort of investment, and the trust in management to deliver on the opportunity, is a considerable step forward.
Loser: The Toronto Maple Leafs
The alternative was far worse, of course, but you cannot excuse the fact that the Maple Leafs surrendered a first-round draft pick just to erase an unforced error in free agency two summers ago. You would feel a lot better about the situation if the money shed was enough to satisfy the restricted free agents negotiating new contracts, but there’s still no promise that salary cap hell will be avoided.
Loser: Vancouver Canucks
It’s not inconceivable that Vancouver returns to the postseason either this year or next. But it’s equally likely that the Canucks fail to do so — and in that case the trade for J.T. Miller would go down as an utter failure. Acquired for a conditional first-round pick to be paid out in either 2020 or 2021, the Canucks have potentially spent an asset that could amount to be much more valuable than the one they have received in return. Miller is a useful forward on a nice deal, and he should find a productive home as a member of the up-and-coming top six with the Canucks. But Miller’s presence alone probably isn’t enough to elevate the 23rd-best team from last season into the top eight in the Western Conference. Belief within hockey ops that he might could set the Canucks back again.
Winner: The Colorado Avalanche
It’s been apparent for a while now that the Avalanche were going to cash in on the Matt Duchene deal on the 2019 draft floor. Selecting Bowen Byram, the top-rated defenseman in the class, and adding him to already immensely talented back end, turned out to be quite the coup for Colorado, a team undoubtedly on the rise.
More NHL coverage on Yahoo Sports