DALLAS — The suit was a Christmas present from a team sponsor.
It’s light blue. Not exactly what you would call flashy, but at the same time it’s not a colour that Evan Bouchard would normally pick out. He wore it once, then decided to pack it away.
“I thought I should save it for something special,” he said. “I’ll wear it at the draft.”
The only question is how early it will make its appearance.
As the highest-scoring defenceman in the Ontario Hockey League this season — Bouchard’s 87 points were the most as a draft-eligible defenceman since Ryan Ellis, the 11th overall pick in 2009, scored 89 — the Oakville, Ont., native is believed to be the top Canadian prospect.
Normally, that would mean he will get picked inside the top three. But this isn’t a normal year.
Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who has already been given the “generational talent” tag, is undoubtedly going to be selected first overall. After that, the next-best options appear to be Russia’s Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina of the Czech Republic and American Brady Tkachuk, who are all NHL-ready wingers.
For the first time in close to 20 years, it’s almost guaranteed Canadians will get shut out of the top three. And with so many similarly-skilled defencemen clustered together, there’s a good possibility that Bouchard and Evan Dobson of Summerside, P.E.I., could be waiting around after the top five — or even top 10.
“I don’t think there’s a franchise-type player in this year’s draft when it comes to Canadians,” said Mark Seidel, chief scout with North American Central Scouting. “There’s not a superstar that we’ll be saying, ‘how did he fall that far?’ But in terms of depth, the Canadians still blow everyone away.”
In Seidel’s latest rankings, Dobson is the fifth-best prospect, followed by forward Serron Noel at No. 8 and Bouchard at No. 9. By TSN head scout Craig Button’s estimation, Dobson is ranked eighth and Bouchard ninth, with Serron as the top Canadian forward at 14th.
“It’s no big deal,” Button said of the lack of Canadians at the very top of the draft order. “I never fuss by that. We have a lot of top-end players. There’s going to be years where there’s a lot of Canadians at the top and others where there’s not. There’s a lot of good Canadians coming out next year. At the end of the first round, there will be more Canadians drafted than any other country.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to get up in arms in a year where Canada won gold at the world juniors — the third straight year the country reached the championship final — as well as last year’s under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
It was only three years ago that Connor McDavid was the top pick in the 2015 draft. A year later, Quebec-born Pierre-Luc Dubois went third overall, while five Canadians went in the top 10 in 2017, including Winnipeg’s Nolan Patrick (No. 2) and Calgary’s Cale Makar (No. 4).
Next year, even more talent is coming with Cranbrook, B.C.’s Bowen Byram and Peyton Krebs of Okotoks, Alta., expected to challenge American centre Jack Hughes for the No. 1 spot.
And who knows: based on team need, it wouldn’t be surprising if the teams picking in the top five this year — particularly Montreal at No. 3, Ottawa at No. 4 and Arizona at No. 5 — choose a defenceman such as Bouchard or Dobson over a winger. That is, if they don’t prefer Sweden’s Adam Boqvist or American Quinn Hughes.
“It’s a good year for defenceman,” said Seidel. “I would never ever draft by position, especially in the first round, but I think those two guys (Bouchard and Dobson) have a very good chance of being a top defenceman. That could enter into it.”
Bouchard, who has been compared to Washington’s John Carlson for his big, booming shot and effortless ability to put up points on the power play, stood out in the second half of last season when London traded away most of its best players. Everyone expected the team to tumble down the standings. Instead, the opposite happened.
“It could have been easy for us to go down the other way,” said assistant GM Rob Simpson. “But our winning percentage was better post-trade. All the credit goes to Evan. He did a lot of great things in our dressing room.”
“We were a top team for a few years, but it was good for me to go through that,” said Bouchard. “There was a lot more responsibility. I tried to make everyone comfortable in the room. Everyone knew it was going to be tough, but we didn’t expect to lose. We kept that winning mentality.”
Dobson, who came out of nowhere this year, had a far more successful season, winning a league championship and a Memorial Cup with Acadie-Bathurst, where he played a starring role as one of the younger players on the team.
“It was a great chance to showcase myself,” said Dobson, who has been compared to St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo for his two-way game. “I knew if I had a really good tournament, I would have a good chance to leave a good impression. I was playing my best hockey.”
So where does Dobson believe he will get picked? Well, not No. 1, he said. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
“Dahlin is ahead of the pack,” he said. “But you want to be the next guy picked after him. At the end of the day, I want to be the best defenceman. It comes down to what the team (that) is drafting wants.”
Evan Bouchard, D
NHL Central Scouting: 4th
The 6-foot-2 defenceman led the Knights in scoring with 87 points in 67 games — 33 more than the team’s next-highest scorer.
Noah Dobson, D
NHL Central Scouting: 5th
A year ago, Dobson wasn’t thought of as a first-round pick. But that was before the 6-foot-3 defenceman broke out with 69 points in 67 games and won a Memorial Cup.
Joe Veleno, C
NHL Central Scouting: 8th
Granted exceptional status to play in the Quebec league as a 15-year-old, Veleno scored 79 points in 64 games this season. Those aren’t exactly McDavid-type numbers.
Barrett Hayton, C
Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
NHL Central Scouting: 9th
Hayton turned 18 earlier this month, so he is one of the younger players in this draft. But with 60 points in 63 games, he has a ton of upside.
Serron Noel, RW
NHL Central Scouting: 10th
Noel, who scored 53 points in 62 games, has power forward written all over him. That is, once he packs more weight onto his 6-foot-5 and 200-pound body.
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