THE marathon 2019-20 season is finally over — nearly a year to the day from start to finish. And just like that, we've flipped the calender to an off-season sprint like no other.
To get you set for a busy week, Winnipeg Free Press hockey writers Mike McIntyre and Jason Bell tee up the NHL draft, which begins with the first round Tuesday (6 p.m. Sportsnet) and concludes with Rounds 2-7 Wednesday (10:30 a.m. Sportsnet).

 

Mike McIntyre

Well, another September training camp is in the books, the exhibition games are behind us and it’s time to lift the curtain on what should be an exciting NHL regular season. It's about time...

Oh, wait. None of that has happened. Because 2020.

Sigh.

I suppose holding the much-delayed NHL draft is a decent consolation prize. It’s always been one of my favourite events on the hockey calender, even if the usual late-June event has now been moved to early October thanks to COVID-19. We would have been in Montreal for this year’s teenage talent show. Instead, we’re going to be sitting in our basements watching on television and conducting interviews via Zoom. Strange times, indeed.

There’s no question this is one of Kevin Cheveldayoff’s favourite events, as well. The bulk of his lineup is filled with players he drafted, then developed through the Winnipeg Jets system.

There’s a lot of intrigue heading into this one, with the Jets set to draft in the No. 10 spot, their earliest first-round selection since they plucked a kid named Patrik Laine with the second-overall pick back in 2016. Nikolaj Ehlers (ninth, 2014), Jacob Trouba (ninth, 2012) and Mark Scheifele (seventh, 2011) are the only times they’ve had a higher selection, and I’d say those all worked out pretty well.

No pressure, Chevy.

 

There’s no question the draft is one of Kevin Cheveldayoff’s favourite events.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES

There’s no question the draft is one of Kevin Cheveldayoff’s favourite events.

 

Jason Bell

I couldn’t agree more, Mike. In fact, I’ll freely admit my engagement level during the NHL playoffs was low, relative to other seasons. But the approaching NHL Draft and free-agency period will be like a couple of defibrillator paddles pressed to my chest, resetting my irregular hockey heartbeat to its normal rhythm.

By all accounts, the 2020 draft class is one of the strongest in recent years, particularly the top couple of dozen young players. Nailing down a definitive top-10 list in order, however, really gets tricky because after universally projected first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere of the QMJHL, it’s so tight within that talented group. There’s still debate raging on which centre the L.A. Kings take with the No. 2 pick, either Quinton Byfield of the OHL or Tim Stuetzle from Germany.

But what that means is the Winnipeg Jets are destined to pluck an A-grade prospect with their first selection Tuesday night.

It’s just comes down to the club’s own list — constructed by Cheveldayoff, director of amateur scouting Mark Hillier and a staff that has been monitoring the progress of teenagers around the globe. Is the guy they’ve targeted still available? Did a player they had rated much higher drop down and suddenly become available? Will Cheveldayoff do the almost unthinkable (judging by past behaviour) and trade the pick? That’s not something I see happening, although the team desperately seeks a second-line centre and a capable, heavy-minute defender, so a deal involving the 10th overall selection isn't entirely impossible.

 

Universally projected first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere.

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Universally projected first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere.

 

Mike McIntyre

As I drove back from Edmonton earlier this week after covering the most surreal Stanley Cup Final inside Rogers Place, it wasn't just a brisk westerly airflow at my back. No, those were trade winds blowing strong in the direction of Winnipeg.

Which adds another layer of intrigue to all this, doesn't it? The aforementioned Laine is said to be on the market, although I still find it hard to believe Cheveldayoff would pull the trigger on that. Unless Jack Eichel is the return, I'd be hanging up the phone.

If he's trying to bolster the club immediately — and you bring up a pair of desperate needs for the Jets — I say it makes far more sense to shop the first-round pick instead of a 22-year-old who already has 138 regular-season NHL goals under his belt and is still under club control for at least three more years. Heck, throw in a Jack Roslovic or Kristian Vesalainen if you have to enhance the overall package.

As nice as it will be to add a bright young prospect to the pool, aren't the Jets supposed to be in win-now mode? Whoever they get 10th overall isn't helping this coming season. Their surly captain, Blake Wheeler, isn't getting any younger. They have a Vezina Trophy winner in goal. A solid core of forwards that includes the likes of Laine, Scheifele, Ehlers and Kyle Connor. A stud on the blue line in Josh Morrissey.

Just ask the Tampa Bay Lightning how adding to an already strong core group worked out for them. I say the first-round pick in a deep draft is the real trade chip they should be peddling.

 

Defencemen Jamie Drysdale will probably be scooped up before the Jets are on the clock call.

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Defencemen Jamie Drysdale will probably be scooped up before the Jets are on the clock call.

 

Jason Bell

I hear you. But I also think there's a giant chasm between the Jets and the Cup-winning Lightning and challengers such as the Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights and Boston Bruins, and I don't get the sense from the hockey people I talk to that Cheveldayoff will peddle that high pick on any kind of a quick fix. I could be dead wrong but I don't see Winnipeg's boss releasing his grip on that valuable commodity.

It’s no great revelation to note defencemen Jamie Drysdale of the OHL and Jake Sanderson of the USA under-18 program, ranked third and fourth, respectively, among eligible North American players, by NHL Central Scouting will be scooped up before the Jets are on the clock call. Both are pegged as stars in the making and would be fit on any club’s bank end, but Winnipeg does possess two terrific defensive prospects in Ville Heinola and college star Dylan Samberg.

The Jets should zero in on a forward. The highest-ranked centres after Byfield are Cole Perfetti and Marco Rossi, both of the OHL, and Anton Lundell of Finland, while Winnipeg’s own Seth Jarvis, a right-winger with Portland of the WHL, is rated 11th. I see neither Perfetti nor Rossi — both small in stature but forecast as dominant future NHLers because of their skill and hockey IQs — falling to the Jets.

To me, Lundell is more of a smart but dependable middle-of-the-lineup forward, while Jarvis is a potential top-six line driver. For more on the sensational homegrown teen, check out FP writer Mike Sawatzky’s take. The Jets could also be staring at two Swedish-born wingers, Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz, along with Jack Quinn of the OHL when it comes time to pick and it’d be tough to go wrong with any of them.

How much homework have you done, pal? Who do you like at the 10 spot?

 

There’s still debate if the L.A. Kings will take Quinton Byfield with the No. 2 pick.

JEFF MCINTOSH / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

There’s still debate if the L.A. Kings will take Quinton Byfield with the No. 2 pick.

 

Mike McIntyre

Is Brayden Point available? Or at least a reasonable facsimile of him? What a player he's turned out to be — and one of the biggest steals you'll see, considering he was picked in the third round, 79th overall, of the 2014 NHL draft. He was my pick for Conn Smythe, even though Victor Hedman narrowly edged him out.

How different would this Jets team look if they had selected Point instead of a defenceman named Jack Glover with the 69th pick that year? From what I can tell, he spent last year playing in lower-tier men's leagues in the Czech Republic and Finland after never being signed by Winnipeg.

Ouch.

That just goes to show you what a crapshoot it is trying to predict the development path of teenagers. But to go back to my original point on Point, he's the type of player you need to win in today's NHL, and that's where Jarvis is perhaps the most appealing to me in terms of potential availability when the Jets are at the podium, or whatever is going to suffice as one in a virtual draft.

I don't imagine it would hurt future ticket sales for True North either, something that may actually become an issue down the road given the sad state of the economy.

However, I can't help but wonder if we're going to see the latest addition to Finn-ipeg in the form of Lundell. I do agree a forward should be the priority, but if Sanderson was still around I'd be in favour of calling an audible and grabbing him. He's got No. 1 defenceman written all over him.

And then maybe the Jets can find the next Point with one of their later-round picks. You know there are some future stars out there just waiting to be found.

 

Cole Perfetti is a high-ranked centre.

PETER POWER / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Cole Perfetti is a high-ranked centre.

 

Jason Bell

Pounce on either Sanderson or Drysdale, for sure, if they take a seemingly unthinkable tumble, or Rossi, who might be the only other player beyond the aforementioned trio of Lafreniere, Byfield and Stuetzle pegged as NHL-ready. But I'm enamoured by the thought of Jarvis — a good, local beauty, as my son would say —in a Jets jersey.

His stock rose considerably during the Winterhawks 2019-20 campaign when he upped his production from 35 points in his first 32 games of the year to a jaw-dropping 63 in the final 26 contests. Jarvis is consistently ranked just outside of the top-10 on most lists but his tremendous offensive potential and his edgy play might prove too intriguing to pass up on.

The Jets don’t make selecting Manitobans a priority, nor should they. For the record, only centre Jordan Stallard of Brandon (fifth round, 2016) and goalie Jason Kasdorf of Winnipeg (sixth round, 2011) have the distinction of being chosen by Winnipeg in nine previous drafts. Stallard played at Acadia University last season, while the former Portage Terriers puckstopper made news in February 2015 when he was shuffled to Buffalo as part of the Evander Kane blockbuster trade. Kasdorf last played pro in Germany two years ago.

Winnipeg hasn't even taken a kid from Canadian junior hockey in the first four rounds of the last three drafts. But selecting Jarvis might just stop that streak.

 

The Jets could use a middle man like Marco Rossi.

PETER POWER / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

The Jets could use a middle man like Marco Rossi.

 

Mike McIntyre

It would be a heck of story, which we love around here.

While the Jets have made hay in the first round, they've also uncovered some gems in later rounds. Which you really need to do in the salary-cap era in order to be successful. Adam Lowry (third round, 2011), Connor Hellebuyck (fifth round, 2012), Andrew Copp (fourth round, 2013), Tucker Poolman (fifth round, 2013), Mason Appleton (sixth round, 2015) and Sami Niku (seventh round, 2015) were all on the team's playoff roster this past summer.

With just four total picks next week — first, fourth, sixth and seventh round — Cheveldayoff and his scouts better hope they come up with quality, rather than quantity. Perhaps they'll try to deal their way into another selection or two to help re-stock the prospect shelves, which have been stripped rather bare in recent years with so many of the team's best young players now with the big club. See the struggles of the Manitoba Moose as proof of that.

Add it all up and the Jets are trying to get better now, and in the future. Along with the other 30 clubs in the NHL. Easy, right?

No doubt we'll have plenty of questions for Cheveldayoff when he joins us on a Zoom call Monday morning to set the stage for what should be a most interesting week that begins with the draft and ends with free-agent frenzy. And then after that? Who the heck knows?

Be still, your beating heart.

Jason Bell

Tough luck that neither of us is headed to an NHL town for draft weekend, but one doesn't need the credentials of Manitoba chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin or Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.'s top doc on infectious diseases, to understand why.

So, we watch the event unfold Tuesday night and resume Wednesday morning on the big screen, and then hear from the brand-new crop of Jets prospects and Cheveldayoff by video conference. Because, right, 2020.

I'd invite you over, Mike, to my basement draft bunker for pizza and wings as we collaborate our Freep coverage but that doesn't jibe with your whole new "my body is a temple" philosophy. So, stay home and remember to cut your raw carrots in small pieces to avoid choking and don't forget to add chia seeds to your smoothie.

You used to be fun.

 

Mike's best guess:

Welcome to Finn-ipeg, Anton Lundell. I'm sure you'll make yourself right at home, with the likes of fellow countrymen Patrik Laine (at least for now), Sami Niku, Ville Heinola, Kristian Vesalainen, Joona Luoto, Santeri Virtanen and Henri Nikkanen already in the fold, to varying degrees.

Anton Lundell, HIFK Helsinki, SM-liiga
C, 6-1, 185 lbs.

Anton Lundell is ranked third among International skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Anton Lundell is ranked third among International skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

Ranked third among International skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

A future top-six centre who is strong at both ends of the rink. An impressive resumé already at just 18, including the past two seasons in the top Finnish men's league where he had 10 goals and 18 assists in 44 games last season. Also had a goal and three helpers as the youngest player on last year's gold-medal winning World Junior team and will be a main part of this year's squad.

 

Jason's best guess: 

Unless they catch a falling star, the Jets use the 10th overall pick to select either Jack Quinn or Seth Jarvis.

Jack Quinn is ranked seventh among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

PETER POWER / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Jack Quinn is ranked seventh among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

Jack Quinn, Ottawa 67s, OHL
RW, 6-0, 180 lbs.

Ranked seventh among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

In the class of 2020, call him a later-bloomer. He made massive strides in 2019-20, scoring 52 goals and 89 points after potting just a dozen tallies the year before. The kid can score from anywhere on the ice.

 

Seth Jarvis, Portland Winterhawks, WHL
RW, 5-10, 172 lbs.

Ranked 11th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting

Fast, creative and powered by an engine that rarely sputters, the Winnipegger fired 42 goals in just 58 games for the 'Hawks last season.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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