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The NHL draft starts tonight — and history could be made
The first thing you’ll notice is that the draft is being done virtually this year. So instead of everyone gathering in Montreal to make their selections, we’ll see something like that weird combination of TV show and work Zoom call the NFL gave us back in the spring. For the most part, team decision makers are stationed at their local facilities — except for the Vegas Golden Knights, who are set up at owner Bill Foley’s ranch-style resort in Montana. They’ll send in their picks to be announced by commissioner Gary Bettman. Most of the prospects will be watching either at home or at some kind of small private function. So the general vibe will be considerably more low-key than usual.
Round 1 is tonight starting at 7 p.m. ET. Rounds 2 and 3, which interest only the hardest-core fans, go tomorrow starting at 11:30 a.m. ET. Here are some other basics to know:
The New York Rangers have the first pick. Normally, the team in this spot is terrible. But New York actually made the playoffs. That would usually disqualify them from the draft lottery, but the rules were different this year. When the NHL returned from its pause, it expanded the playoff field from 16 to 24 teams and gave the eight losers from the “qualifying round” a chance to win the lotto. The Rangers got swept by Carolina and then received the ultimate consolation prize.
They’re expected to take Alexis Lafrenière. He’s the rock-solid consensus No. 1 prospect. The 18-year-old winger tore up the Quebec junior league over the last two years, joining Sidney Crosby as the only two players to win back-to-back QMJHL MVP awards. He was also named the MVP of all of Canadian major-junior hockey in both years. Last season with the Rimouski Oceanic, which was Crosby’s team, Lafreniere racked up 112 points (35 goals) in only 52 games. He also helped Canada win the world junior championship and was named MVP of the tournament.
After Lafrenière, there’s less certainty. For some reason, the NHL’s scouting bureau still ranks North American and European players separately. So the Los Angeles Kings, who have the No. 2 pick, are probably looking at either top European skater Tim Stuetzle (an 18-year-old forward who played in Germany’s top pro league last season) or second-ranked North American skater Quinton Byfield (a 6-foot-4, 215-pound centre who had 32 goals in 45 games for Sudbury of the OHL).
Byfield could make history. If he goes in the top three, that’ll be the highest a Black player has ever been picked in the NHL draft. Evander Kane (2009) and Seth Jones (2013) both went fourth.
The Ottawa Senators will be really busy. They hold the third, fifth and 28th overall picks. So they’ll likely end up with either Byfield or Stuetzle, plus another high-end prospect in the first hour of the draft. Ottawa has finished either last or second-last overall for three years in a row while alienating much of its fanbase with questionable and/or penny-pinching moves. Ownership and management have been pointing to this draft as the way out of the darkness, so they need to get this right.
Winnipeg is the only other Canadian team with a top-10 pick. The Jets go 10th. Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal have the 14, 15th and 16th choices, respectively, and Calgary has No. 19. Vancouver is the only Canadian team without a first-round pick.
Some big names are being tossed around in trade rumours. It wouldn’t be a draft without this. Usually, nothing materializes. But, for what it’s worth, two of the star players thought to be available for the right offer are Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau. Laine is 22 years old and has averaged 34.5 goals in his four NHL seasons (including this shortened one). But he’s heading into the last year of his contract and the Jets have never seemed thrilled about committing to him long-term. Gaudreau has averaged close to a point a game in his six NHL seasons and is signed for two more years at a reasonable salary. But this will be the last season before his modified no-trade clause kicks in, which will allow him to limit the Flames to five teams they can deal him to. One more name to keep an eye on: Jack Eichel is reportedly unhappy with the Sabres (who wouldn’t be?) and there’s always the chance of a panic move when you’re talking about one of the worst-run franchises in the league.
Read more about this year’s unusual draft and how it’ll work here. For more need-to-know stuff on the draft, including what the Canadian teams might do, watch this video by CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo:
Connor McDavid tested positive for COVID-19. The best hockey player in the world got the result yesterday, according to the Edmonton Oilers. McDavid is “feeling well and is experiencing mild symptoms,” the team said in a statement. The NHL has a policy of not revealing the names of players who test positive for COVID-19, but players are free to do so on their own or allow their teams to put the word out. Read more about McDavid’s situation here.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season is already in trouble. Just three days after the puck dropped, the league announced yesterday that two teams are suspending activities after a Blainville-Boisbriand Armada player tested positive for COVID-19. His team is on pause along with the Sherbrooke Phoenix, who played the Armada twice over the weekend. Another issue: the Quebec government announced yesterday that team sports are now banned in the province’s “red zones.” Those include greater Montreal and Quebec City, which are home to the Armada and the Quebec Remparts, respectively. All games in the province have taken place without fans, but between 1,372 and 2,278 people have attended the four games held in Atlantic Canada so far. Read more about the QMJHL’s rocky start here.
There’s a Cinderella story at the French Open. 131st-ranked Nadia Podoroska upset third-seeded Elina Svitolina today to become the first qualifier to reach the French Open women’s semifinals in the Open era. Podoroska, a 23-year-old from Argentina, had never won a match in a Grand Slam main draw until last week. She had to survive three qualifying matches just to get into the French, where she’s won three of her five matches (including today’s) in straight sets. Podoroska’s semifinal opponent could be a fellow qualifier if Martina Trevisan beats Iga Swiatek today. Their match was in progress at our publish time. Read more about Podoroska’s quarter-final upset here.
There’s also a match-fixing investigation at the French Open. Paris police are looking into betting irregularities around one unidentified match. Reportedly, it’s a women’s doubles contest that happened on Sept. 30 between Romanians Andreea Mitu and Patricia Maria Tig and the team of Madison Brengle (United States) and Yana Sizikova (Russia). Two reports out of Europe said large sums were bet on the Romanians to win the fifth game of the second set. Sizikova served that game and double-faulted twice. Tennis is a favourite of match-fixers because all it takes is one player to deliver a desired result. But it usually happens at lower-level events, not Grand Slams. Read more about the French Open investigation here.
We have our first firing of the NFL season. It’s kind of a weird one too. That’s not to say anyone really thinks Bill O’Brien deserved to keep his jobs with the Houston Texans. As a head coach, he was routinely skewered for his suboptimal play calling and strategy. In his dual role as GM, he made a series of short-sighted moves that seemed to prioritize preserving his job over ensuring the team’s long-term success.
What’s weird is that Houston ownership gave him that power, signed off on those moves and then suddenly decided to yank the plug on him after the Texans started 0-4 against probably the league’s toughest schedule so far (at Kansas City, vs. Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, vs. Minnesota). O’Brien wasn’t great at his jobs. But it seems like the Texans’ problems, like those of most bad sports teams, start at the very top.
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