The NHL draft turned Michigan maize and blue Friday night. There’s a Hughes sibling reunion set to happen in New Jersey.
The blockbuster of the first round, however, might’ve come on its penultimate pick.
Whatever challenges the coronavirus pandemic presented scouts in grading prospects, many of whom played shortened seasons, was unable to put a dent on the Wolverines’ hold on the top rankings. Four players with ties to Michigan were taken among the top five selections, and a fifth, commit Mackie Samoskevich, went No. 24 to Florida.
The run began with the Buffalo Sabres selecting defenseman Owen Power first overall, and immediately followed by the expansion Seattle Kraken choosing Michigan center Matthew Beniers at No. 2. It marked the first time since 1969 that teammates went with the first two selections.
Things developed so quickly, Beniers was in the middle of an interview when he watched a third Michigan player, forward Kent Johnson, get selected fifth by Columbus.
“I think it’s so unbelievable watching them get drafted,” Beniers said. “I’m kind of lost for words right now. I’m just so excited for my teammates and for what’s next.”
The trio made Michigan college hockey’s first program to have three teammates selected in the first round.
That wasn’t all, however. Luke Hughes, who is committed to playing at Michigan this season, was chosen fourth overall by the the Devils, where the defenseman is united with brother Jack, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.
Hughes watched the draft on his family’s living room couch with both of his NHL-playing brothers, rounded out by Quinn, who was selected seventh overall by Vancouver in 2018. Jack Hughes immediately jumped up and began hugging Luke upon hearing Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald announce the pick.
“I think Jack’s even more excited — that might be the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” said Luke Hughes, who spent last season playing for USA Hockey’s developmental program. “It’s a dream come true to play in the NHL and it’s also a dream come true to play with your brother. Both those things are happening tonight.
Ontario junior center Mason McTavish was the only player without Michigan ties to round out the top five, after he was selected third overall by Anaheim.
NHL scouting officials entered the draft expressing concern of projecting prospects because of a lack of playing time due to COVID-19 and after the combine was canceled for a second consecutive year.
Michigan played 26 games before its season abruptly ended with a series of positive tests just before the start of the NCAA Tournament. The Ontario Hockey League, by comparison, had its entire season canceled.
The difference in playing time was reflected in the leagues represented by the top picks. Michigan, USA Hockey, and the USHL combined for seven of the first 15 players selected, while there were four players selected from the Canadian junior ranks, and three from Sweden.
The draft was held remotely for a second consecutive year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with commissioner Gary Bettman hosting the draft in New Jersey, where he introduced teams to make their selections from their home arenas.
On a day the Sabres traded Rasmus Ristolainen to the Philadelphia Flyers, general manager Kevyn Adams continued his offseason bid to overhaul a struggling franchise by choosing the stalwart defenseman’s heir apparent. Power is listed at 6-foot-6 and 213 pounds and was the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau’s top-ranked North American prospect. After scoring three goals and adding 13 assists in 26 games during his freshman season at Michigan, the 18-year-old Power cemented his draft stock by helping Canada win the world hockey championships.
From Mississauga, Ontario, Power is leaning toward returning to school for his sophomore season, something Adams has said would not play a factor into his selection.
“Not thinking about it too much right now, trying to enjoy the night. That’s something I’ll worry about later,” Power said of his future, while surrounded by his family and friends in his aunt’s backyard about 40-minute drive from Buffalo.
Power was the third player drafted first directly out of college, joining Michigan State forward Joe Murphy in 1986 and Boston University goalie Rick DiPietro in 2000. And he became the 16th defenseman to go No. 1 since 1970, and first since the Sabres chose Rasmus Dahlin at No. 1 in 2018.
Power and Dahlin have similar two-way, play-making skills, and will have the opportunity to form the backbone of a retooled defensive unit for years to come.
Beniers was ranked sixth overall among North American prospects. He had 14 goals and 24 points in 24 games for the Wolverines.
In 1969, Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif were Montreal Junior Canadiens teammates, who were selected with the first two picks by Montreal. In 1963, Garry Monahan and St. Michael’s Juveniles teammate Peter Mahovlich were selected first and second.
The first European players selected were from Sweden in back to back selections. Defenseman Simon Edvinsson went sixth to the Detroit Red Wings, followed by under-sized forward William Eklund, who was chosen seventh by the San Jose Sharks.
The Arizona Coyotes had their first-round pick, 11th overall, stripped by the NHL for testing players in violation of league’s combine policy. Arizona however traded back into the first round by acquiring the ninth pick and select Canadian junior forward Dylan Guenther following a five-player trade that sent Arizona captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson to Vancouver earlier in the day.
The Detroit Red Wings moved up eight draft spots in a trade with Dallas to make WHL Edmonton’s Sebastian Cossa the first goalie selected. The selection came a day after Detroit acquired rookie of the year finalist goalie Alex Nedeljkovic in a trade with Carolina.
At pick No. 20, Minnesota moved up two spots and ahead of the Bruins in a trade with Edmonton to make Jesper Wallstedt the first Swedish goalie to be selected in the first round.
The night’s final blockbuster came at pick No. 31, when Montreal chose defenseman Logan Mailloux from the Ontario Hockey League despite the teen asking teams not to draft him. Playing in Sweden when the OHL canceled its season, Mailloux took nonconsensual photos of an 18-year-old woman performing a sex act on him, then shared them with teammates.
After the story broke last week, nearly a dozen teams took Mailloux — convicted in a Swedish court in December of offensive photography constituting an invasion of privacy and defamation — off their draft boards even before his request, according to reports. The Canadiens were not among them.
“The Montreal Canadiens organization not only selected a promising hockey player, but also a young man who recently admitted to making a serious mistake,” the team said in a statement immediately after the selection. “The Canadiens are aware of the situation and by no means minimize the severity of Logan’s actions. . . . We are making a commitment to accompany Logan on his journey by providing him with the tools to mature and the necessary support to guide him in his development.”
After the conclusion of the first round, ESPN reported multiple teams “had indicated they might pick” Mailloux in the second round. He was 23rd on NHL Central Scouting’s last pre-draft list of North American skaters.
2022 draft at Montreal
Bettman said the plan is to hold the 2022 NHL Draft at Bell Centre in Montreal, which is where the 2020 event was scheduled to take place before the pandemic forced the festivities online.
The 2021 draft was the second to be held virtually with team staff in their home cities. Bettman ran the draft from the NHL Network studio in Secaucus, N.J.