The past two NHL drafts have seen wunderkind prospects at the top, considered ‘generational’ talents, in the form of Connor McDavid (2015) and Auston Matthews (2016). Some have suggested that certain teams embarked on a bit of a tanking effort ahead of such drafts (especially in 2015) in an attempt to secure – or at least increase their odds for – the first overall pick.
There were some obviously bad teams heading into each of those seasons, such as Buffalo and Arizona in ’15 and Toronto in ’16 who did indeed end up with some quality talent in those respective years. But looking ahead to the 2017 NHL Draft, there really isn’t a franchise savior quite like McDavid, Jack Eichel or Matthews — it’s really just center Nolan Patrick at the top.
Patrick is superb in his own right and has the potential to be a top-line center in the NHL someday, but he is nowhere near the level of the top talent in years past. Whoever ends up garnering the top pick next summer will surely walk away from the draft happy, but it won’t necessarily be worth the long, hard, dismal season that precipitates it.
Regardless, here are a few teams that seem to be the front-runners for a last-place finish in 2016-17.
To their credit, the Carolina Hurricanes seem to be on an upswing and finally have a sense of direction. Gone are the days of putting a group of guys on the ice who simply don’t cut it season after season, only to wallow in the mid-section of the league standings.
That created a severely disadvantageous situation for the organization for years, as they never finished high enough to make the postseason and never finished low enough to get an elite prospect.
General manager Ron Francis is turning things around, though, having drafted key players of the future like Noah Hanifin, Julien Gauthier and Jake Bean in recent years and having acquired a young guy with immense potential in Teuvo Teravainen.
The 2016-17 season could feature the departure of long-time rumor mill mainstay Jeff Skinner as the Hurricanes continue their youth movement, with the potential for an all-out draft pick-acquisition mission (similar to Toronto’s the past two years).
With most of their top prospects still playing junior, college or minor league hockey, the NHL roster in Carolina is looking very weak heading into next season, so they may be due for a down year. It certainly wouldn’t hurt them in terms of future consideration, as it could land them the elusive center of the future to replace Eric Staal.
Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets had a tough go in 2015-16, finishing in the bottom-five of league standings amid a season full of injuries and disappointing individual campaigns from some of their top players.
The only consolation was the fact that they moved up one spot in the draft lottery, grabbing the third overall pick; but that didn’t seem to matter when they went off the board anyway and selected center Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Right now, the prospect is their future No. 1 centerman, but on the current NHL roster, things aren’t looking so great for 2016-17. After trading Ryan Johansen mid-season, they still have a massive void to fill at the top of the lineup, with Alex Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky seemingly unable to fill the ‘top center’ role.
Beyond that, the defense is still young, with Seth Jones just rounding out into a franchise defender, Ryan Murray still getting acclimated to regular NHL life, and Zach Werenski about to embark on his rookie season. The forwards they count on most, such as Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno, need to do better than they did last season while guys like Scott Hartnell and David Clarkson are essentially just bodies on the ice.
Don’t expect 2016-17 to be the Jackets’ break-out from mediocrity – instead, look for them to enter the Nolan Patrick sweepstakes by the time the draft lottery rolls around (they could use another top-six center, anyway).
Where to even start with the Vancouver Canucks?
Jim Benning is lucky he has not yet been fired as the GM of this team. The Canucks organization has proven time and again to be totally complacent, having a lackadaisical approach to just about everything and anything that has to do with managing the team.
There was the time they traded Nick Bonino and a second-round pick for notable underachiever, bottom-six forward Brandon Sutter, then shortly thereafter handed him an overpriced five-year contract extension.
Or the time they traded away top prospects Nicklas Jensen and Hunter Shinkaruk, getting a far inferior return for each.
And then just recently, in May, the Canucks traded away top center prospect Jared McCann and another second-round pick for advanced stats nightmare Erik Gudbranson.
All that and the signing of aging forward Loui Eriksson to a big, six-year, $36-million deal came within the last calendar year. So yeah, things have gotten pretty hazy in British Columbia — gone are the days of finishing first overall in consecutive years and racing to the Stanley Cup Final, but the organization seems to fail to recognize that while the fans struggle to come to terms with a perpetually mediocre team.
It seems as though Benning, Trevor Linden and Co. are committed to the Sedin twins until they retire, so perhaps that is why they keep making these questionable moves in a desperate (and failed) attempt to keep the team competitive.
In reality, though, the Canucks are in dire need of a total rebuild, and they may have no choice when the team falls hard in 2016-17.