Sports Hockey

NHL DRAFT

NHL GMs face most 'screwed-up' draft in years

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

Gabriel Vilardi checks out the field during the NHL Draft prospects media tour at Wrigley Field on June 21, 2017 in Chicago. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Gabriel Vilardi checks out the field during the NHL Draft prospects media tour at Wrigley Field on June 21, 2017 in Chicago. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — As young Gabriel Vilardi slowly buttons up the pinstriped Chicago Cubs jersey he has just been handed, it’s not the shirt on his back that has a leather-lunged fan in the stands voicing his playful displeasure.

It’s the hat on top of his head.

Here he is on this sun-splashed Wednesday afternoon, along with fellow NHL draft prospects Nolan Patrick and Casey Mittelstadt, standing on the sacred dirt of revered Wrigley Field, a place oozing with history thanks in part to the past heroics produced by names like Sandberg and Sosa, Banks and Bryant, Rizzo and Russell, and, of course, the pride of Chatham, Ont., Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins.

They’ve been brought here to promote the upcoming NHL entry draft, which will be held at the United Center Friday and Saturday. As part of the festivities, all three are conducting interviews behind home plate prior to the Cubs-San Diego Padres game, a tilt that is kicked off by Patrick tossing out the first pitch.

Through it all, Vilardi’s light-hearted heckler certainly has no issue with the kid wearing the ceremonial white Cubs jersey he’s been given.

The same can’t be said for the Blue Jays cap he’s sporting.

“Hey kid, don’t you know where you are?” the fan said with a chuckle. “What’s with the lid? That’s screwed up.”

Screwed up? Really, pal? You don’t know from screwed up.

That’s not nearly as screwed up as trying to figure out how Friday’s draft involving these three teens is going to play out, given how close many of the top prospects are when it comes to skill level. And that’s to say nothing of all the swaps being pulled off by Vegas general manager George McPhee involving draft picks coming back to the Golden Knights.

You want screwed up? Just ask some of the players involved where they think they’ll go, both in terms of draft order and potential landing spots, and the response generally comes in the form of a shrug of their young shoulders.

Even at the top of this draft, this is no clear cut case of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel being No. 1 and No. 2 — in that order — two years ago. Or, in the same vein, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine 12 months ago in Buffalo.

It’s generally accepted that Patrick and Switzerland’s Nico Hischier will be the top two players taken Friday night, but which one is plucked first by the New Jersey Devils remains a guessing game, at least to those outside of general manager Ray Shero’s inner circle. There are reports Hischier has nudged ahead by a nose, but nothing is certain.

After that? Chaos.

The Dallas Stars hold the third pick and are expected to take a defenceman.

Or maybe a centre.

If they don’t trade the pick.

Maybe they have already.

On and on it goes from there.

You get the idea.

“Maybe Patty and Nico know a little bit about it but other than that I think it’s pretty wide open with all the trades,” said Mittelstadt, the third-ranked North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting. “It could go any way, to be honest. I really don’t have much indication.

“I try not to think about it too much because it’s pretty much out of my control. Whoever wants me enough, that’s good enough for me.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Vilardi, who is ranked just one spot behind Mittelstadt, in fourth. In fact, the self-proclaimed Jays backer acknowledged the Vegas factor has injected an even more chaotic element into the draft.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen or where I’m going to end up,” he said. “There’s trades that are possibly going to happen with expansion here. It’s a real exciting time if you’re a fan, that’s for sure. Wherever I go, I’ll be happy.

“I’ll be relaxed either way. Wherever I go, I’ll be happy and the real work starts afterward.”

On this day, the only thing Vilardi is certain of is this: he has no regrets about his choice of headgear.

“I’m from Kingston,” he said. “I grew up close to Toronto, so I’m a Jays fan, obviously.”

Vilardi, by the way, did not appear to hear the verbal jabs coming his way from the stands regarding his cap. If he did, he tuned them out.

“We’ll cut him a break about the hat,” laughs Mittelstadt, a native of Edina, Minn. “He’s Canadian and he comes from the area. I think most Canadians have a Jays cap.”

When it comes to his wardrobe, we know what Vilardi’s go-to chapeau is.

When it comes to the NHL jersey he and his two Wrigley Field colleagues will be donning come Friday night, well, that’s still well up in the air.

HOSSA'S CAREER COULD BE OVER

The impending storms threatening to swamp Chicago the next couple of days won’t dampen the Blackhawks enthusiasm about hosting the 2017 NHL entry draft.

Not when the hard-luck news concerning winger Marian Hossa has already done that.

The Hawks revealed Wednesday that Hossa, 38, will miss the 2017-18 season with what the classy veteran described as a progressive skin disorder. In fact, his illustrious career might be over due to the “dramatic nature” of his condition, according to team doctor Michael Terry.

“Over the course of the last few years, under the supervision of the Blackhawks medical staff, I have been privately undergoing treatment for a progressive skin disorder and the side effects of the medications involved to treat the disorder,” Hossa said in a released statement. “Due to the severe side effects associated with those medications, playing hockey is not possible for me during the upcoming 2017-18 season.

“While I am disappointed that I will not be able to play, I have to consider the severity of my condition and how the treatments have impacted my life both on and off the ice.”

General manager Stan Bowman said Hossa has the full support and backing of the Blackhawks.

“The organization will continue to provide him every resource he needs to maintain his health,” Bowman said.

mzeisberger@postmedia.com

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