It is an interesting dynamic. With the New Jersey Devils winning the draft lottery for the fourth time over the last 11 years, third time over the last 6 drafts, it is a super exciting time. I jumped out of my seat when I saw the Flyers logo turn over for 5th overall pick, and I knew the Devils had won the lottery once again. Three top 2 picks in 6 years is massive; the first two picks have already proven to be slam dunks, and if the this next one is as well, that means seriously improved odds at having a legit contender in New Jersey for the near and maybe even not-so-near future. Now, we know that the high picks do not guarantee anything, just look at Edmonton for proof. Their successive picks of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov did minimal to turn their franchise around. But if you can make the right choices, and the Devils are 2-for-2 so far, then it signifies a return to legitimacy.
However, at the same time, you hope the team isn’t in a position to win the lottery again any time soon. Winning the lottery means the team isn’t in the playoffs, isn’t competing, isn’t that playoff contender that you’re looking for. And many people thought that the team this year could be a contender, so it is a gift that comes with some caveats.
Because of that last point, and because New Jersey, on paper, is close to really turning the corner and competing for playoff glory soon, many will want to use this pick to fill a need right now. Stephen already talked the other day about this, and why trading the pick for a goalie right now is not a good idea. I agree with him on this. That being said, I am not against trading the pick if the return is right. I personally would lean towards not trading the pick, but if you’re telling me that I can get Kevin Fiala and Minnesota’s first rounder this year, I would probably pull the trigger on that. I would not be a fan of just Fiala for #2, but if the Devils are also getting a late first rounder with Fiala, that is a really good deal. I doubt Minnesota wants to offer that, but you never know, right?
That being said, what I really want to discuss today is the danger of keeping the pick, but using the pick to take a positional need as opposed to taking the best player available. You will most likely hear arguments that the Devils should not take someone like Logan Cooley because, well, the Devils are stacked at center and really do not need another diminutive, playmaking player at the position when they really need wing scoring and defense, never mind goaltending. To me, that is the wrong way of thinking. If you think Cooley isn’t the pick, but instead it’s Juraj Slafkovsky or Simon Nemec or someone else, I have no problem with that if you make the case based on the merits of the player and what they project to be at the NHL level. They could both end up being better than Cooley, who knows, and it is a worthy debate to have pre-draft.
However, if you think Cooley will be the best player of the bunch, but you wouldn’t take him because the Devils have Hischier and Hughes, I disagree with that argument. The second overall pick should not be a place to take positional need. It is a position to take the best player available. As John noted in his reaction to the lottery, this is not a terribly deep draft. The luxury to take someone purely on position is not here. The second pick needs to be a player that is going to be an all-star one day on your team, not just a complementary piece. If the Devils get the next Damon Severson, a minutes-eating defender who probably best slots in as a second pairing guy, that isn’t a smashing success for the second overall pick. Yes, it’s better than Nolan Patrick, but it still isn’t what you could be getting. A true success is finding the next Jack Eichel (the healthy version who doesn’t want to be traded). Now, you might counter that Eichel was considered a generational talent, some thought similarly as good as Connor McDavid. Still, the second overall should get you someone of similar caliber, the talent is out there. Consider that 2017 draft where Philly took Patrick. They could’ve had Cale Makar, Elias Pettersson, or Miro Heiskanen. Especially with Makar, that is the kind of player you want at #2.
Furthermore, the #2 pick might not be someone that is NHL-ready this year. Yes, some of them possibly are, like Nemec and Slafkovsky, but even that is debatable and won’t be fully determined until these kids hit training camp and play some preseason games, at the very earliest. Drafting a scoring winger just because that’s what the team needs could be a bad move because by the time that player becomes the top line winger you want, that need might be filled by someone else. And similarly, some think Cooley is a couple of years away most likely. In a couple of years when he is ready to join the big club, there might be a bigger need for a skillful center in this lineup, for whatever reason. At that time, if he becomes a star and the Devils drafted someone else with only middling talent instead, wow what a disaster that would be.
To me, this all means that in the run up to this draft, in all of the conversations that will be had about what to do with this invaluable commodity that is the #2 overall selection, if the conversation is about current positional need and getting wing scoring or top four defense, it should not revolve around using the pick to fill that need. It should be around trading that pick to get a proven NHL commodity that fills that need. When the discussion is on using the pick, however, it should focus on who is the best player, and who is going to be the best player at the NHL level. If the belief is that player is Cooley, then great, get him. If the belief is it will be Slafkovsky, awesome, get him. Whoever the best player will be long term is how the pick needs to be used. Any other use for the pick is going to be the wrong choice in the long run.
And finally, if you’re interested, I saw this infographic after the lottery and thought it was interesting and worth throwing out there for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It adds fuel to the argument that the best player is the one who should be chosen. Don’t worry about position when making the selection.