For months, the first two picks in the NHL Draft have been obvious.
Now, the Blackhawks’ No. 3 overall selection seems to be determined, too. But who it is remains just as much of a public mystery as it has always been.
General manager Stan Bowman was characteristically cryptic in a conference call Wednesday night, but it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
“We’re not going to be cramming last minute — we’re going to be very comfortable with the guy we pick when we get to Friday night,” he said.
And when asked what will primarily be discussed at the last scouting staff meetings on Thursday and Friday: “It’s more just fine-tuning the list. We have more than just one pick in the draft. We’re looking at players we think will be around in the second round.”
It’s true, the Hawks will have five more picks to make Saturday after their big-money decision Friday, including the No. 43 overall selection and two picks in the fourth round. When it comes to those later picks, Bowman said he’s looking for “one, two or several scouts pounding the table, saying, ‘I want this guy.’ ”
But those are of far lesser importance than the third overall choice, who could grow into a Jonathan Toews-caliber franchise cornerstone or crumble into an infamous missed opportunity.
Center Alex Turcotte and defenseman Bowen Byram have been the perceived dual favorites for weeks, and to see another prospect wriggle into a Hawks jersey on the Vancouver stage would be very surprising. Trevor Zegras and Kirby Dach can’t be entirely forgotten, though.
Bowman went over the same refrains Wednesday that he has repeated for months — “the best projection to be an impact player” and “we’re not ruled by position” might as well be engraved on the United Center facade at this point.
This time, however, he did so seemingly aware of which hopeful future Hawks star he was silently referencing.
Defensive targets dwindling
The merits of Olli Maatta notwithstanding, the Hawks’ decision to act early to acquire the former Penguins defenseman has looked wiser by the day.
An already-slim list of available blue-liners this summer has shrunk even more as several of the biggest names found homes this week.
Erik Karlsson re-signed with the Sharks, Braydon Coburn reupped with the Lightning and Alex Edler is reportedly deep into negotiations for a new deal with the Canucks. On the trade front, San Jose escaped from its Karlsson-created cap abyss by sending Justin Braun to the Flyers, and the Rangers landed Jacob Trouba from the Jets.
“It was important for us to be able to do that [trade],’’ Bowman said, ‘‘knowing that we have something, that we have improved our team. We’re looking to do more of that.”
Although quality top-four D-men such as Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Nikita Zaitsev (Maple Leafs) and Colin Miller (Golden Knights) could yet be dealt, the list of pending unrestricted free-agent defensemen is now pitiful: Jake Gardiner, Tyler Myers and Anton Stralman are the headliners, applying that term generously.
Bowman said he’ll get a better gauge of the free-agent market next week, when teams are allowed to talk with pending UFAs and their agents. For now, he’s focused on trade avenues.