The 2019 NHL Draft contained many talented players, but only five of them are currently on NHL rosters. Two of them were always expected to be in this situation, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. Third overall pick Kirby Dach was stuck in concussion protocol throughout pre-season. With the NHL Rule, teams cannot cut injured players. It remains to be seen if he will head back to the WHL or if the Chicago Blackhawks will give him a game or two (or nine) to prove his worth at the NHL level. Meanwhile, Ville Heinola of the Winnipeg Jets and Tobias Bjornfot of the Los Angeles Kings benefit largely from thin defensive cores. These players will play very different roles this season. This article outlines how these players might be used by their respective teams.
2019 NHL Draft Picks Starting the Season in the Big League
Jack Hughes, the first overall pick is coming into his rookie season with the most expectations. He is fully expected to be able to stick with the club. Hughes is also going to be given every chance possible to find an everyday spot as the number two centre. Hughes brings spectacular skating and hockey sense to a New Jersey Devils top-six that needed another center high-scoring centre behind Nico Hischier. Playing with talented wingers Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev is an excellent opportunity for the rookie. Even-strength ice time with Nikita Gusev is bound to help out Hughes in the offensive zone. Gusev could be the breakout star of this NHL season after he led the KHL in points last season. He put up 82 points in jus 62 games with SKA St. Petersburg.
If Hughes can perform well, there is a legitimate chance that he could carve out a role on the top line. This could be either on the right side of Hall and Hischier or at centre with Hall on the left. He is also assured of getting power play-time throughout the season. The unit he is on will probably be dependent on his production. After a busy off-season, the Devils are filled with offensive talent and Hughes should be able to excel on the man advantage.
Hughes has a phenomenal level of talent in every aspect of the offensive game. He matches it with his work rate as he backchecks hard. Hughes is willing to work without the puck in all three zones.
While Hughes spent the majority of last season as the favourite to be drafted first overall, Kaapo Kakko had a stellar draft year in the Finnish Liiga to make the race interesting. One advantage for Kaapo Kakko is that he played alongside men for all of last year in Finland. He also excelled with 38 points in 45 games. 22 of those points were goals, which showcased his natural goal-scoring ability. This season, he is all but guaranteed to remain with the New York Rangers. Kakko starts the season on the second line, spending time with Ryan Strome and Chris Kreider. Kakko should be able to hang on to a top-six role on this team. There is a decent chance of promotion to the top line with a run of good performances.
Having a chance to play with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad would be a huge opportunity in his rookie season. It would surely elevate his production. Just like Hughes, Kakko will be getting time on the man advantage. The Rangers top power-play unit is stacked with talent, and if Kakko could find a way onto that group then he is going to find his name repeatedly find the scoresheet.
Kaapo Kakko possesses a game that should allow him to transition quickly into the NHL. The fact that he has experience playing against men should be an advantage for him. Kakko can do it all, but his ability to get into goal-scoring areas separates him from others.
Unlike the top two picks, third overall pick Kirby Dach is not in the Blackhawks lineup to start the season. This is due to being in concussion protocol. It also held him out of every preseason games. Dach starts the season with the big club, however, he has currently been given an injured/non-roster designation. Once he is healthy, the Hawks will have a decision to make. Send him back to junior or give him the opportunity to battle for a roster spot.
Due to his complete lack of action in preseason, it is completely unknown where he will fit into the lineup once cleared to play. The spot that makes the most sense for Dach is at the third-line centre. The top six seems very difficult to crack up the middle, with Jonathan Toews and Dylan Strome occupying those two spots. If he is able to claim the role on the third-line, Brandon Saad will likely be his left-winger. There could be a rotating cast getting opportunities on the right-wing. On the powerplay, expect Kirby Dach to get some time on the second unit.
There is no guarantee that Dach will be able to stay up for the team. Dach comes in at 6-foot-4 but still has room to add some muscle on his long frame. He is willing to play a physical style, has a nice hard release on his shot, and is a natural playmaker with 48 assists in the WHL last season.
Ville Heinola was one of the top defence prospects for the 2019 NHL Draft. However, he was not expected to be in the Jets lineup to start the season, let alone in a top-four role. The 20th overall pick has been the beneficiary of a lot of turnover on the Jets blueline. Free agency saw both Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot move on, while Jacob Trouba was dealt to the New York Rangers. The most shocking exit on the blueline has come from Dustin Byfuglien. He decided to take a personal leave of absence from the NHL late this summer, and this continues to be the case as the 2019-20 NHL Season kicks off.
Heinola has large shoes to fill on the blueline, but his experience playing with men in Liiga should help make the transition as smooth as possible. Ville Heinola is a good skater who is incredibly adept at moving the puck. He also possesses elite hockey instincts that allow him to be such a smooth mover of the puck. Heinola still needs to add some weight to his frame and improve his defensive fundamentals to really hit his peak as a defenceman. He is going to be given an opportunity to flourish in his time with the Jets. Heinola is playing in a top-four role on the left side of a pairing with Neal Pionk. He is also getting time on the second powerplay unit and has already picked up two points in his first two NHL games.
Heinola is not the only defenceman who was able to crack an opening day roster. In Los Angeles, 22nd overall pick Tobias Bjornfot was able to make an impression on new head coach Todd McLellan. This allowed him to not only find a spot in the lineup but carve out a very large role for himself. Tobias Bjornfot expects to be paired with former Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty. However, he is not looking likely to get time on the powerplay, at least to start the season. Either way, Bjornfot is being given an awesome opportunity to show what he can do when playing with one of the best defenceman in the game.
Doughty is coming off of a down season, but he will look to get back on track playing with Bjornfot. The Kings get their season going Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers. Bjornfot could be a well-rounded two-way defenceman at the next level. He is a solid puck mover and a good passer in the offensive zone. In his own zone, he has very strong entry defence and is a calm presence on the backend. With these skills, the pairing of Bjornfot and Doughty should be able to excel this season.
It is still early in the season and any of these youngsters could be sent down in the coming weeks. While it is unlikely that either of the top two picks, Hughes and Kakko, would be sent down, but it is a legitimate possibility with the other three. The future of these prospects is extremely intriguing.
2019 NHL Draft Main Photo:
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – JUNE 21: (L-R) Kirby Dach, third overall pick by the Chicago Blackhawks , Jack Hughes, first overall pick by the New Jersey Devils, and Kaapo Kakko, second overall pick by the New York Rangers hold up their fingers of their pick order in front of the stage during the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft at Rogers Arena on June 21, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)