I never understood why some folks think that talking about the entry draft means you're giving up on the season. Aside from the speculation about where one's favorite team is going to pick, there's plenty of interesting things to chat about in the months leading up to the event.
This year the narrative has been Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel battling it out for top spot in the rankings, though it's becoming quite clear that McDavid is alone at the top. Noah Hanifin is the hands-down top blueliner available. This draft is also being touted as deep- not 2003 deep, mind you-but this is a good year to have lots of draft picks.
If the season ended today, and the last place team wins the draft lottery, the Jackets would have the fifth overall pick. This is just outside of the consensus top four of McDavid, Eichel, Hanifin and Dylan Strome. At five the Jackets have a handful of options: do they fill a major organizational need with a stud blueliner? Or perhaps a gritty power forward? Maybe another sniper?
I'm in favor of going defense. The forward pipeline has been well-stocked, and it's time to give Mike Reilly, Dillon Heatherington, Austin Madaisky and Olivier LeBlanc some help on the future back-end. There are two defensemen available that come highly-touted- Oliver Kylington and Zach Werenski. I'm relying on scouting reports for Kylington, because he was injured during the World Juniors, where most draft-eligibles get to shine on the big stage. I like what I read though, he's a smart puck mover and a good skater. Kylington is the top-rated European on the Mid-Term Central Scouting rankings. Werenski is a player I did get to see at the World Juniors, and I came away impressed. He plays a two-way style and isn't afraid of the rough stuff. He's currently playing for Michigan.
If the scouts desire a rugged forward that fits the CBJ mold, Lawson Crouse makes sense at five. He's a hard hitter with offensive ability. He and McDavid were the only underagers to make Team Canada at the World Juniors. For the record, I like Crouse, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to take him fifth overall. Another power forward option would be Mikko Rantanen. He was the best player on an underachieving Finnish squad at the World Juniors, and I remember being impressed with how good of a skater he was for a big man. Could this be the "Jarmo takes a fellow Finn" storyline that we'd all kind of like to see? At this point if the team goes forward, he's my choice.
Aside from blueliners and power forwards, there's a handful of forwards available, each bringing a different element: Pavel Zacha is already playing in North America and is a two-way threat with size; Mitch Marner is a prolific, but undersized scorer; Matthew Barzal is a top-notch playmaker (when healthy) and Timo Meier is a do-everything offensive forward who had a terrific World Juniors for the Swiss.
Though this is turning into a lost season thanks to the injuries to start the season, I think it's safe to say that this is just a temporary blip on the competitive radar. I liken it to the Canadiens having a down year in 2011/2012, allowing them to draft Alex Galchenyuk third overall in 2012. The very next season the Habs bounced back and were one of the elite teams in the league.
If by chance the Jackets win the lottery, they will take McDavid. No doubt about it, no argument. He's that good. If the team slips further in the standings, Eichel is a bit less of a sure thing, but not enough to pass on him at second overall. Hanifin and Strome are pick "ems at three and four.
Here's my current top-ten mock:
1) Buffalo Sabres: Center Connor McDavid (Erie Otters, OHL) Generational talent. Next!
2) Edmonton Oilers: Center Jack Eichel (Boston University) Though they need to upgrade their pathetic blueline, it may be too tough to pass on Eichel. I think they discuss moving down a slot to get defenseman Hanifin, picking up an extra asset along the way.
3) Carolina Hurricanes: Defenseman Noah Hanifin (Boston College) The Canes need an influx of talent on the back end, and Hanifin joins last year's first rounder Haydn Fleury as future compliments to Justin Faulk on the future Carolina blueline.
4) Arizona Coyotes: Center Dylan Strome (Erie Otters, OHL) He's been in the shadow of McDavid this season, but Strome is a high-end offensive forward who would give the Coyotes a great young player to kick off their rebuild.
5) Columbus Blue Jackets: Defenseman Zach Werenski (Michigan) Good size, lots of skill, great skater. Total package on "D". Pair him with Ryan Murray down the road and look the eff out.
6) Toronto Maple Leafs:Mitch Marner (London Knights, OHL) Marner has the potential to be Patrick Kane-lite, and his ability to put up major offense would be welcome in Toronto.
7) New Jersey Devils: Left Wing Lawson Crouse (Kingston Frontenacs, OHL) Crouse adds a power forward element to the Devils pipeline.
8) Ottawa Senators: Defenseman Oliver Kylington (Farjestad, Sweden) It must be tantalizing for Senators fans to think of the potential for an all-Swedish pairing of Kylington and Erik Karlsson. Kylington may not fall to eighth, but if he does I think the Sens would love to scoop him up.
9) Philadelphia Flyers: Center Pavel Zacha (Sarnia Sting, OHL) This Czech forward has size, skill and plays a two-way game. He'd be a terrific compliment to Jakub Voracek.
10) Los Angeles Kings: Right Wing Mikko Rantanen (TPS, Finland) I highly doubt the Kings will pick tenth, but if they somehow manage not to rise in the standings they'd love for a power forward like Rantanen to fall into their laps.