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Golden Knights’ draft strategy starts to emerge after 3 years

It’s a running joke that the Golden Knights have a fondness for drafting players from the Western Hockey League, where many of the team’s top decision makers cut their teeth in junior hockey.

But is there any truth to it? Hint: A little bit.

The Knights’ scouting staff is congregated at owner Bill Foley’s cattle ranch in Montana and set up its war room ahead of the NHL draft, which will take place virtually Tuesday and Wednesday.

With the No. 29 overall pick in the first round and five picks total to use as draft capital, the Knights have an opportunity to restock a farm system that has at least one obvious need.

By looking back at the 28 picks they’ve made in three drafts under assistant director of player personnel Bob Lowes, there are a few clues about who the Knights might pick when they’re on the clock.

Odds are at least one player from Europe will be selected. And, yes, the Knights likely will look toward the WHL, too.

“Since mid-August, the staff have picked up again and are making sure that we’ve looked at every player, watched video and refreshed ourselves,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “Our staff are extremely excited for the draft, which is the case any year.”

Early round trends

Assuming they don’t trade their first pick, the Knights’ tendency in the early rounds is to draft from the Canadian major junior leagues — the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and WHL.

Three of their four first-round picks have been from those leagues, including two out of the WHL (Cody Glass in 2017 and Peyton Krebs in 2019).

Going further, six of the Knights’ eight selections in the first two rounds have come from Canadian major juniors, with four of those being WHL players.

Those high-profile picks helped establish the Knights’ reputation at the draft table for preferring WHL prospects, and they’re slightly ahead of the rest of the league in that regard.

The Knights have selected a WHL player 14.3 percent of the time. Last year, that league produced 12.9 percent (28 of 217) of all draft picks, the most among Canadian major junior leagues.

From 2010 to 2017, the WHL was responsible for at least 15.2 percent of the players selected in every NHL draft.

However, five of the 16 forwards drafted by the Knights are right-handed, and one of those (Nick Suzuki) was traded in 2018. Glass and 2018 second-round pick Ivan Morozov are right-hand shots at center, leaving a noticeable lack of righties at right wing.

There’s 2017 fifth-round pick Jack Dugan, who led the NCAA in scoring as a sophomore and signed this summer, and Wisconsin sophomore Ryder Donovan. That’s it.

Lucas Elvenes and Jonas Rondbjerg are listed as right wings on the American Hockey League website but are left-handed.

The Knights’ previous first-round picks have profiled as high-skill offensive talents, which is harder to find at the end of the first round.

Should they go in a different direction and look to fill the hole on the right side, a few candidates could be available at the end of the first round.

Jacob Perreault and Tyson Foerster scored 39 and 36 goals, respectively, in the OHL. Questions about Foerster’s skating might bump him down the draft board.

Opinions are varied on Noel Gunler and his effort level, but he’s already playing in the Swedish pro league at age 18. The Knights have selected at least one European-born player in every draft.

One interesting prospect to watch is Ozzy Wiesblatt from Prince Albert of the WHL. He’s undersized at 5 feet 10 inches and 183 pounds, but plays with tempo and has an inspiring background.

Wiesblatt and his four siblings were raised by a single mother who is deaf, and the family has been forced to overcome several financial hardships.

Late-round needs

After the first round, the Knights don’t pick again until No. 68 in the third round. And history shows that’s when they’ll look away from Canadian major juniors for talent.

Of their 20 picks made in rounds three through seven, 15 came from outside those leagues.

The Knights have been especially active with college-bound players, selecting four players from the United States Hockey League, three from Canadian junior A leagues and three more directly from U.S. high schools.

That’s well above the league average, as teams have drafted players from those three leagues with approximately 20 percent of their picks over the past 10 years.

In addition, winger Brandon Kruse was picked in the fifth round in 2018 after his freshman season at Bowling Green.

Oddly, the Knights have yet to select a player from the stocked U.S. National Team Development Program that competes in the USHL.

One ancillary benefit of drafting players who are headed to college or from Europe in the later rounds is additional control and a longer development path.

In many cases, an NHL team holds a player’s contract rights for the duration of his college career. Players selected from Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and other countries that have a transfer agreement with the NHL have four years to sign.

Russia and the NHL do not have a transfer agreement, and teams hold those players’ rights indefinitely.

Conversely, teams have two years to sign draft picks from the Canadian major junior leagues before losing their rights.

“It’s discussed each time, but it doesn’t really impact where a player might rank,” McCrimmon said.

Up front, expect the Knights to look for size on the second day of the draft. They’ve selected 11 forwards in the final five rounds, and two were shorter than 6 feet, according to their NHL Central Scouting draft profiles.

Sam Colangelo and Luke Tuch, the younger brother of Knights wing Alex Tuch, could be fits from the USHL. Forward Blake Biondi was Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey, and the Knights have good scouting coverage in his area.

The Knights’ pipeline of defensemen could use replenishing after Slava Demin was included in the deal for goalie Robin Lehner and 2018 pick Xavier Bouchard was not signed.

Five of the eight drafted defensemen remain in the Knights’ system, though the free-agent signings of Dylan Coghlan, Jimmy Schuldt and Zach Whitecloud softened the losses.

Goaltending also figures to be a position of focus. Under former director of goaltending Dave Prior, the Knights drafted four goalies all from the mobile, slender 6-foot-2-inch mold. They also traded for Dylan Ferguson.

But two of those goalies were not signed, and new goaltending development coach Mike Rosati might want a new project.

“When you’re drafting, you always zero in on sort of a cluster of players that you believe might make up the players available for you when you pick and you really drill down on those players. Their attributes, their strengths and weaknesses,” McCrimmon said. “It’s pretty similar year to year.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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