VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The first round of the NHL draft wasn’t so much unpredictable as the game is becoming more international.
That was Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill’s observation following an opening round Friday that featured an international theme and numerous twists.
Selected by New Jersey, center Jack Hughes became the eighth American chosen No. 1, and first since Auston Matthews was selected by Toronto in 2016. Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman began putting his stamp on Detroit by selecting German defenseman Moritz Seider. The U.S. matched Canada with 11 picks apiece.
And the first round also included four players from Sweden, three from Finland and the host Vancouver Canucks choosing Russian forward Vasily Podkolzin at No. 10.
“There’s good players all over the world now. It’s the evolution of our game,” said Nill, who selected U.S. defenseman Thomas Harley with the 18th pick. “It’s good for hockey.”
The draft opened mostly as expected with the Devils selecting Hughes, the top-ranked North American prospect. Finland’s Kaapo Kakko was chosen second by the New York Rangers. And the Chicago Blackhawks rounded out the top three selections by choosing Canadian forward Kirby Dach.
With Hughes going first, it marked the fourth consecutive draft since a Canadian has been selected No. 1.
Doug Armstrong, general manager of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, doesn’t see a decline in Canada’s dominance on the sport.
“We have a lot of Canadians, and we’re Stanley Cup champions,” Armstrong said. “That’s not disrespecting the Russians or the Swedes or the Americans. I think what the game is is global. It think it’s great for the game to be global.”
That’s certainly becoming evident with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, which produced a program-record eight first-round selections.
From Orlando, Florida, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound playmaking center had 74 goals and 154 assists to set the NTDP’s two-year record with 228 points in 110 games.
“Obviously, Kaapo Kakko had a great year … but I was pretty confident and pretty calm, cool collected through the whole process,” said Hughes, who had a lengthy dinner with Devils GM Ray Shero during the pre-draft combine in Buffalo this month. “I’ve said this like eight times already, but I’m pumped to be a Devil and I’m so excited.”
Hughes comes from a hockey family. His father, Jim Hughes coached at the professional level, and also served also served as the Maple Leafs’ director of player development. Jack Hughes credits the time he spent playing minor hockey in Toronto as helping spur his development.
A year ago, Hughes attended the NHL draft to watch his older brother, defenseman Quinn Hughes, be selected with the seventh pick by the Vancouver Canucks.
Kakko is a 6-foot-2 winger, who helped Finland complete an international gold-medal sweep at the world championships, world juniors and Under-18 tournament. He had 22 goals the Finnish Elite League, the most by a draft-eligible player.
The unpredictability began with Detroit selecting Seider sixth, ahead of a number of players who were ranked much higher by NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. Yzerman’s decision to select Seider surprised many, including the player himself.
“I’m still shocked,” said Seider, who was the scouting bureau’s sixth-ranked European. “We had a couple if good meetings with Steve Yzerman, and Yzerman wanted to know every single thing about me. But we saw a couple of rankings and I wasn’t that high on any of them. It’s an unreal moment.”
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, Seider had two goals and six points in 29 games playing for Mannheim of Germany’s top league, and scored twice in two games at the world championships. Seider became the eighth German-born player taken in the first round. And only two were selected higher, including Leon Draisaitl, who was selected third by Edmonton in 2014.
The first round featured only one trade with the Arizona Coyotes giving up a second-round pick to Philadelphia and moving up three spots to select Swedish defenseman Victor Soderstrom at 11.
Hughes’ selection opened a banner first-round for USA Hockey’s development team and American-born players overall. Three NTDP players went in the top 10 with Alex Turcotte selected fifth by Los Angeles and Trevor Zegras going ninth to Anaheim.
There was a run of NTDP players with picks 12 through 15. Minnesota selected forward Matthew Boldy, followed by the Panthers taking goalie Spencer Knight. Philadelphia chose defenseman Cameron York at 14, and Montreal drafted Cole Caufield, who at 5-foot-7 scored an NTPD-record 72 goals last season.
Knight became only the third goalie selected in the first round over the past seven years.
Overall, the 11 Americans taken in the first round were one short of the record set in 2016.
Among the Canadian players, center Dylan Cozens became just the third player born in Canada’s Yukon Territory ever drafted — and the first in the first round — when the Buffalo Sabres took him at No. 7.
Cozens showed such ability he was playing against adults as a 13-year-old in Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse.
“It always felt like a far reach to me, not really achievable,” Cozens said of being drafted. “But I believed it, I believed in myself that I could make this happen one day and now that it’s here it’s a crazy feeling.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman opened the draft and was greeted by a traditional round of loud boos from the sold-out arena. Bettman then left the podium and waited for former Canucks stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin to join him on stage, where they were greeted to loud cheers.
The Sedin twins were selected second and third overall in the 1999 draft. Bettman then announced both players’ jerseys — Daniel wore No. 22 and Henrik, 33 — will be retired this season.
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.
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