The First round of the 2022 NHL draft took place last night on Montreal, and it was one of the most exciting in recent memory. The host Canadiens surprised the hockey world by selecting Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky. New Jersey and Arizona continued the surprising trend, causing Shane Wright, a player long thought to be the #1 pick in this draft, to fall all the way to the Seattle Kraken at fourth overall.
In his pre-draft media availability this week, Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen predicted that there would be some surprises at the draft, and he was correct:
"“It could go the way we have it on our list and we’ll be taking the 12th pick with the 12th player on our list,” the Blue Jackets general manager said Wednesday. “But I doubt it will go that way. I think it’ll go the other way where there’s gonna be some oohs and aahs and surprises in the top 10.”"
As usual, some of those surprise gasps were on behalf of a selection made by Jarmo, this time with the #12 overall pick (though, let’s be honest, the biggest surprises happened in the top-four picks). In the end, the Blue Jackets came away with two of the best defensemen in the entire draft; causing a lot of fans to scratch their heads and ask themselves why the team didn’t select a center in either position. The answer, in my opinion, is pretty clear.
The first five picks went basically as expected, though not in the exact order most predicted. When the Philadelphia Flyers picked Cutter Gauthier with the #5 overall pick, I said to myself that David Jiricek is the absolute obvious and correct pick for the Blue Jackets. Kekalainen and his staff were quick to make the selection, and immediately add one of the best defense prospects the team has ever had. I’ll delve into this further in my post-draft writeups, but I think Jiricek is a special player, and personally had him in the top-4 of this draft.
But, as we predicted in our draft preview, the #12 pick was a lot less obvious. Many speculated that the Blue Jackets might see big center Connor Geekie fall into their laps – but the Arizona Coyotes jumped the line and nabbed him with the 11th pick. The #12 pick was entered quickly by the Blue Jacket management: head scout Ville Siren announced Denton Mateychuk as the club’s second first round pick.
Now, I get the shock and bewilderment about picking two defensemen in the top-12. It’s simply unprecedented. In fact, the last time it happened was in 1966 – when there were only six teams. But, this could turn out to be another huge steal by the Blue Jackets at the draft. Like Jiricek, I’ll write up Mateychuk more in our recap, after all of the picks are made. For the purpose of this conversation, I just want to look at the strategy.
If you take a step back and look at the details of the situation, Jarmo basically responds the same way in his pre-draft interviews: “We’re going to take the best player available, regardless of position”. This is key, and I think they saw Denton Mateychuk as the best player on the draft board. To further that point, if you’re watching the countdown clocks, the team entered their selection quickly. This tells me they had this player much higher on their list, than the consensus. I have no insider info, but my guess is they had Mateychuk ranked well inside their top-10.
Looking at the next two centers taken, we see Frank Nazar (#13 overall, Chicago), and Noah Ostlund (#16, Buffalo). Both of these players are considered project-type picks, who are several years away from the NHL. In Mateychuk, the Blue Jackets took a guy who was rapidly rising on many lists. He’ll probably take the same amount of time, but they feel like he has higher upside. In 3-4 years when these guys are ready to play in the NHL, will the need still be at center? Would they kick themselves if they’d taken Nazar, only to see Mateychuk turn into a top pairing defenseman?
Your goal at the draft should always be to take the player you feel is the best available. The Blue Jackets did that, and are building a position of strength. Having too many good players is a great problem to have; you can always deal from that strength if need be. In my opinion, this first round was executed very well by the Blue Jackets.