Every year, the site managers of the hockey division of SB Nation get together to do a mock draft of the first round. This year was no different with the exception of allowing trades. However, consistent with what I've said on Talking Red and in other places, I did not move the sixth overall pick for the New Jersey Devils. The picks prior to sixth overall went pretty much how most would expect it:
1. Edmonton: Connor McDavid
2. Buffalo: Jack Eichel
3. Arizona: Dylan Strome
4. Toronto: Mitch Marner
5. Carolina: Noah Hanifin
It became quickly apparent that the choice was either to disappoint a lot of Devils fans by taking a defenseman or picking from the second tier of forward prospects. As the Devils have needed an offensive forward prospect for years, it was easy to take the latter route. Picking from that group wasn't as easy. After quickly consulting with CJ, Brian, Alex, and Gerard, the consensus was clear: I chose Mathew Barzal of the Seattle Thunderbirds with the sixth overall pick.
Alex did a good profile on Barzal not too long ago, so I suggest checking that out if you're not familiar with him. Consider this to be a supplement to that profile. In my profile on Mikko Rantanen, I explained what I meant by a second tier of forward prospects and who I thought was in it. It included Barzal, Rantanen, Pavel Zacha (profiled here by Mike), Timo Meier (profiled here by CJ), and Lawson Crouse (soon to be profiled here). While I've seen various projections for all of those players to be rated around eighth to twelfth, I didn't want to risk trading down and letting Philly, Columbus, or San Jose snatch up the player I'd rather have at sixth overall. At the same time, it wasn't easy sorting out who to pick among them. Based on how I wrote the profile, I really liked Rantanen. Zacha could be an excellent prospect too. Meier and, yes, even Crouse wouldn't be poor selections. The sentiment I got from the other writers was that Barzal was just a bit more desirable.
That's understandable - I did agree with them, after all. While Rantanen checked a lot of boxes for me in terms of what the Devils need, Barzal could have more. Need a right-handed shot? Barzal has that. Need a center who can make a lot of plays? Barzal did that through last season. Want a prospect that's overcome some difficulty? Barzal missed significant time with a kneecap injury and still was a point-machine for Seattle in the regular season and playoffs. Desire a smooth skating forward that can play both ways? Check and check for Barzal. In terms of flaws, he needs to gain some strength and he should use his good shot more often. Both of those are fixable and probably would be in another year in the WHL. While Rantanen may be ready to jump to the NHL now, Barzal has the skill and upside to be superlative in the not-too-distant future. As the Devils are re-building, they can afford to wait for Barzal (or anyone else) to develop for a bit. Considering all of this, I read through Alex's profile and Ben Kerr's profile at Last Word on Sports again and my conclusion is that Barzal just has some more potential to be an offensive catalyst for the Devils while being an excellent skater and contributing on defense. The Devils don't have any offensive catalysts right now either on the roster or in the system. Rantanen would be good, but Barzal could be as good, if not great. And so I think that gives him the edge among the rest of the second tier.
I do want to stress that selecting Rantanen and, depending on how much you buy into his potential, perhaps Zacha would be very good selections. If Marner or Strome fall to #6, then Ray Shero and company should sprint to the podium to take them without hestitation. But I doubt that will happen, given what happened in the SBN Mock Draft has anything to say about it. The Devils finally get a high-end offensive forward prospect at #6 in Barzal. Then they can look for two more prime rebuilding assets with two early second round picks.
What do you think of our selection in the SBN Mock Draft? Would you be happy if the Devils actually took Barzal at #6 at the actual NHL Draft? If you wanted someone else to be taken at sixth overall, then who would that be and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on our mock draft pick in the comments. Thanks to CJ, Gerard, Brian, and Alex for their input; thanks to Travis for organizing the mock draft; and thank you for reading.