July 19, 2024

2024 NHL draft: Winners, losers, surprises, best picks


The 2024 NHL draft is complete. After Macklin Celebrini went first overall to the San Jose Sharks, there were many twists and turns throughout the event.

From certain prospects dropping to others going well above their pre-draft ranking to the Utah Hockey Club making major trades on Day 2, it was a wild weekend.

Now that all 225 selections have been made, what stands out the most? ESPN reporters Ryan S. Clark, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski identify the picks, trades and moments we’ll remember most — for better or worse.

WINNERS

Holding the draft at Sphere

Hockey fans should take a moment to thank UFC for helping to create the most aesthetically impressive NHL draft ever held.

The NHL knew it had one weekend on which to schedule the draft, because of the late end of the Stanley Cup Final and the beginning of free agency on July 1. The NHL knew it wanted to hold the event in Las Vegas, as both a popular destination for team personnel and a banger of a farewell party if this is the last in-person draft. One problem: T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights and the logical place for the draft, was booked for UFC 303.

So Steve Mayer, NHL chief content officer, and his group pursued a more ambitious alternative: Sphere in Las Vegas, the James Dolan-owned entertainment orb previously best known to hockey fans as the place where the Nashville Predators didn’t get to watch U2 perform. The result was an NHL draft like no other and a landmark moment for the facility, which hosted its first (of many) sporting events.

The league used the height of Sphere to create incredible imagery, from a draft board that cascaded into the sky to moving images of hundreds of draft picks in a giant collage. Every pick felt epic, both inside Sphere and outside, where they were broadcasted to the rest of The Strip on the exterior of the building.

But the most memorable use of the building was, of course, the trade horn. Fans like the NHL draft for the deals as much as as prospects. Leaning into that, the NHL had an ostentatious goal horn sound and graphics take over Sphere when a trade was announced. From the blockbusters to the pick swaps, every deal caught the fans’ attention with the loudest arena gimmick since the Columbus Blue Jackets goal cannon. From sights to sounds, Sphere was a singular experience. — Wyshynski


The San Jose Sharks

Free agency hasn’t even started, and the argument could be made that the Sharks have had one of the strongest offseasons in the NHL because they added a pair of top-six centers. That’s what it meant for them to draft Boston University freshman center Macklin Celebrini with the first pick after signing Boston College freshman center Will Smith, their first-rounder from last year, to an entry-level contract.

Back when the Sharks started their rebuild, the goal was to center it around the sort of elite players they felt could become franchise cornerstones, similar to what’s been done in Colorado, Edmonton, Dallas and Florida.

Celebrini reiterated that he would weigh his options when it comes to either signing with the Sharks or returning to BU, while Smith will be in training camp. Whatever Celebrini decides, general manager Mike Grier added a pair of top-six centers who will be on team-friendly contracts whenever Celebrini does join the team.

And remember, they strengthened their farm system significantly by adding defenseman Sam Dickinson with their second first-rounder. High marks all around for Grier and his front office. — Clark


It was the most wholesomely unwholesome moment from Friday’s first round when the Anaheim Ducks announced Sennecke as the third overall pick — and a stunned Sennecke mouthed “what the f—?” to his equally shocked parents before they embraced.

Naturally, Sennecke’s reaction made the social media rounds. At a draft where the No. 1 overall pick was all but confirmed for months ahead of time, it was a delightful contrast to see Sennecke’s honest astonishment at seeing his own dream come true far more quickly than he anticipated it would. — Shilton

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Beckett Sennecke has amazing reaction to being drafted No. 3 by the Ducks

Beckett Sennecke is chosen by the Anaheim Ducks with the No. 3 pick in the 2024 NHL draft.


College hockey

The victories college hockey had in Las Vegas started Thursday at the NHL Awards, when NCAA products Connor Hellebuyck (Vezina Trophy) and Quinn Hughes (Norris Trophy) took home hardware. It kept going into Friday with Celebrini going first and the Chicago Blackhawks selecting Michigan State defenseman Artyom Levshunov No. 2. Together, Celebrini and Levshunov became the second pair of college hockey players to go 1-2 at a draft since 2021 when University of Michigan teammates Owen Power and Matty Beniers were selected with the first two picks.

Another layer to Celebrini and Levshunov going 1-2 is how the college game continues to attract elite players beyond the United States. In Celebrini’s case, he became the fifth first-round pick from Canada since 2016 who either played college hockey or was committed to a college program in their draft year. It’s a group that includes Cale Makar, Owen Power, Kent Johnson and Adam Fantilli. It’s a bit of a trend now, considering there were only three Canadians that either played college hockey or were committed to a program who were taken in the first round between 1993 and 2015.

Celebrini, Levshunov and Zeev Buium were the three college players who went in the first round. But there were also six USHL players who went in the first round, and all of them are currently slated to play college hockey in addition to St. Andrew’s College center Dean Letourneau, who is set to play at Boston College in the fall. — Clark


Norwegian hockey

There have been only nine Norwegians who’ve ever made it to the NHL. And yet the country had four players drafted in 2024, with two of them coming in the first round. It started when the Detroit Red Wings drafted Michael Brandsegg-Nygard with the 15th pick, becoming the first Norwegian to ever go in the first round. Eight picks later, the Ducks drafted another Norwegian, Stian Solberg.

The first Norwegian to play in the NHL was Bjorn Skaare, who played once for the Red Wings during the 1978-79 season. It’s a path that was later traveled by Espen Knutsen, Andreas Martinsen and current Norwegian national team captain Peter Thoreson, before Mats Zuccarello became the nation’s most prominent player, with 636 points in 835 games.

Zuccarello and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect defenseman Emil Martinsen Lilleberg were the only Norwegians to play in the NHL during the 2023-24 season. But with Brandsegg-Nygard and Solberg going in the first — while four Norwegians as a whole were drafted — it appears this could be something of a golden age for Norwegian hockey. — Clark


The Utah Hockey Club

Welcome to the NHL!

Owner Ryan Smith noted that the league’s newest team was getting boos from the crowd without having played a single game yet — maybe the first inkling of a geographic rivalry between Vegas and Salt Lake City. If UHC wanted to make a big first impression, then mission accomplished. GM Bill Armstrong selected one of the most prominent names in the first round in Kelowna forward Tij Iginla, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla.

Then he opened Day 2 with the weekend’s biggest blockbuster, acquiring defensemen Mikhail Sergachev from the Lightning and John Marino from the New Jersey Devils.

As Armstrong said, his team can score, but needed help on the back end, and boldly sought it out at the draft. My, how times have changed: Could you ever imagine Armstrong trading for a player with seven years and $56.59 million left on his contract as GM of the Arizona Coyotes? Free agency should be fun times in Salt Lake City. — Wyshynski

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Utah Hockey Club selects Tij Iginla with first-ever pick

Tij Iginla becomes the first player to be drafted by the Utah Hockey Club expansion franchise.


The Golden Knights had truly impeccable timing, trading Thompson to Washington on Saturday morning right before Thompson was set to do an autograph signing session for hometown fans at Sphere. Thompson said he was at home in bed when GM Kelly McCrimmon called to share news of the deal, and the goaltender could have easily skipped out on following through with the meet and greet.

But Thompson kept it classy and went to Sphere anyway to cycle through a long line of Golden Knights’ faithful who came for his signature — and now, a chance to say goodbye (and thanks). Credit to Thompson for making the most of an unexpectedly poor situation and honoring one final commitment in Vegas before his next chapter begins. — Shilton

LOSERS

Goaltenders in the first round

No goaltenders were taken in the first round this year. No goaltenders were taken in the first round last year. There wasn’t a goaltender taken in the first round in 2022, either. Altogether, it means there hasn’t been an NHL team that’s taken a goalie in the first round since 2021. Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Ilya Nabokov was the first goalie off the board, drafted No. 38 overall by the Colorado Avalanche.

Red Wings prospect Sebastian Cossa and Minnesota Wild prospect Jesper Wallstedt were the two goalies who were first-round picks in 2021. What is it about goaltenders that has led to them being shut out of the first round? Could it be possible that it has something to do with more goalies taken in the later rounds are having success? None of this season’s Vezina Trophy finalists were first-round picks, while the last three Vezina Trophy winners were drafted no higher than 118th.

While there hasn’t been a goalie drafted in the first round since 2021, there was a time when it was a fairly common occurrence. There was at least one goalie drafted in the first round from 2019 through 2021. But in terms of what the figures have looked like since 2014? The NHL has had five drafts (2015, 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2021) when a goalie went in the first round, with six drafts (2014, 2016, 2022, 2023 and 2024) in which a goalie wasn’t taken until Day 2. — Clark


Having to rationalize a problematic pick

When Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon described 19th overall pick Trevor Connelly, he described the player’s high-end talent and offensive skill. Absent was anything about his character, until he was asked about it.

“We have a comfort level that this is a player that will represent our organization as we’d expect any player to do so,” he said.

Many believe Connelly fell to No. 19 because of two incidents as a younger player. When he was 16, he posted an image to Snapchat of a teammate next to a swastika made of building blocks in the children’s area of a library. According to The Athletic, his team, the Long Island Gulls, dropped him after that. In 2021, he was accused of directing a racial slur at an opponent during a game and was suspended, although the California Amateur Hockey Association lifted the ban when it couldn’t corroborate the accusation. Connelly has denied using a slur.

McCrimmon wouldn’t elaborate on what Connelly told him to ease any concerns, although Connelly told the Associated Press that he informed teams that he had “put in a lot of work in [himself] and done a lot of things in the community and volunteered a lot.”

That kind of vague explanation might have worked in the past, but fans are demanding more from teams that make this kind of pick today. It’s one thing for McCrimmon is say his team’s “due diligence is very extensive” and that Connelly had “some growth and some recognition of areas where he made mistakes.” It’s another to explain what any of that actually means, given the circumstances. — Wyshynski


Swedish hockey

While Norway had a moment, Sweden had its lowest number of players selected since the 2015 draft, when just 19 Swedes were selected. This season, that number was 22 players from Sweden taken, fourth most behind Canada (87), the U.S. (39) and Russia Federation (27).

Perhaps the biggest indication that this wasn’t the most robust year for Swedish prospects: They didn’t have a player selected in the first round of the draft. The first Swede drafted was center Lucas Pettersson of Modo Jr. at No. 35 overall to the Anaheim Ducks.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 2010 was the last year that a Swedish player wasn’t taken in the first round. It’s the fourth time it has happened in the past 25 years (2024, 2010, 2004, 2003). Prior to this year, the last time no Swede was picked in the top 10 was 2015; Joel Eriksson Ek was the first Swedish player taken, 20th overall that year. — Wyshynski


No player trades on Night 1

The NHL had installed a kitschy goal horn graphic (and sound effect!) at Sphere to be used when clubs made a trade. But it took a while for that thing to get any use — because not one general manager made a significant trade during Friday’s first round.

And that was a bummer. Player trades are the lifeblood of a draft after about the 10th pick, when you know the number of prospects being taken who will actually see NHL action in the next season or two is dwindling.

In years past, we’ve seen trades go down even before the draft’s opening bell that gave us something to talk about long into the night ahead. Alas, that wasn’t the case this year.

Kudos to Utah GM Bill Armstrong and Tampa Bay’s Julien BriseBois for bringing the heat to start off Day 2, though. That goal horn was blowing loud and proud out of the gate at the pre-9 a.m. hour local time, no doubt electrifying all those who had an enjoyable time in Sin City the night before. — Shilton


No QMJHL players in the first round

This was another draft cycle that saw the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League have more than a dozen players get selected. This was also another draft cycle that saw the QMJHL fail to produce a first-round pick; the second year in a row. Prior to that, the previous time the QMJHL didn’t have a first-rounder was the 2008 draft, when goaltender Jake Allen was a second-round pick by the St. Louis Blues.

Granted, the year Allen was drafted came off a draft cycle that saw the QMJHL produce four first-rounders. And since then, the QMJHL has had three years in which they had the No. 1 pick, with Nathan MacKinnon (2013), Nico Hischier (2017) and Alexis Lafreniere (2020). They’ve also had draft classes that saw as many as five players go in the first round. That came as recently as 2020, the same year that Lafreniere was selected with the first pick.

Altogether, this is the fourth time since 2000 that the QMJHL didn’t have a first-round pick, and the first time in league history that it’s gone consecutive years without a first-round pick, according to the QMJHL’s records. — Clark


The timing of the draft and free agency

Not that a weekend in Las Vegas is some sort of punishment, but it’s also not an ideal situation for a number of front offices. Why? Because of the extremely tight turnaround they face with trying to get back home as they seek to have everything in order before free agency opens Monday at noon ET.

But this is also the NHL, where managing the small window between the draft and free agency has become a rite of passage. It was like that last season when teams traveled from an albeit more centralized city in Nashville where they had two days to prepare. Back in 2022, the NHL had to readjust because of the truncated 56-game schedule it played while navigating the pandemic. That year, the draft ended July 8 with free agency starting July 13 — a four-day window in between.

It’s what makes the decision to move to a decentralized draft next season something that could plausibly benefit more front offices. Instead of traveling to a central location, teams will be able to operate from their respective facilities. One amateur scouting director told ESPN last week that the decision to move to a decentralized draft resulted in “a divided opinion.” On the other hand, another amateur scout said they were in favor of the new approach, because it allowed teams to openly explore their options in a private room rather than in a more public setting like the draft floor. — Clark





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