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NHL Draft 2020: Brian Lawton on being drafted first overall, Alexis Lafreniere and selecting Victor Hedman

When it comes to the NHL’s draft, Brian Lawton has done it all.

In 1983, a 17-year-old Lawton was drafted first overall by the Minnesota North Stars, and to this day, he remains the lone player taken with the No. 1 overall pick straight from high school since the universal draft was adopted in 1969 and all juniors of qualifying age were made eligible for selection.

He has served as an agent and in 2009 was the Lightning’s general manager when the team drafted Stanley Cup champion — and 2020 Conn Smythe winner — Victor Hedman. 

Today, Lawton is an analyst for NHL Network and will break down everything about the draft on Tuesday, beginning at 5 p.m. ET, and Wednesday, beginning at 11:30 a.m. ET.

Sporting News spoke with Lawton about his time as a No. 1 pick, his decision to pick Hedman — which wasn’t the plan initially — and his thoughts on the 2020 NHL Draft.

(Note: This interview was edited for brevity and length.)

SPORTING NEWS: Obviously things were very different back when you were drafted; for example, there wasn’t any social media. Did you have an inkling going into the draft that you’d be taken No. 1 overall by Minnesota?

BRIAN LAWTON: Yeah, it wasn’t necessarily a big focus for me. I was just trying to play as good as I could play. I never was really worried about it. Obviously, you want to be picked as high as you can. Probably the only time that really hit me is — I wasn’t going to go to the draft. I was graduating from high school. Can’t go to the draft, I got to graduate. We got a lot of phone calls from different people in the industry who said, ‘Well, you have to go in the draft, you could be picked first.’ I grew up in a very modest family. My parents were amazing [and] they gave all four of us boys everything they could but there just wasn’t a lot of extra money for that type of stuff. Somehow I ended up there and it worked out well.

SN: What was it like when you heard your name called?

BL: You know what, it’s almost overwhelming at that time, when you’re 17 years old, that you can’t really process it. . . . I was surprised but it felt normal.

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SN: You were the Lightning’s general manager when the team drafted Victor Hedman No. 2 overall in 2009. Now, 11 years later, seeing what he’s done, did you have any inkling back then that he would be the superstar that he is?

BL: Everybody hopes that they’ll develop into that player, but the story for us was, it’s a long story, I’ll try to make it really quick.

When you’re the general manager, your draft is going to be run by your amateur scouts. For me, because I said this when I was there with our staff: ‘You guys are gonna run the draft. I’ll do everything I can to move us around but if we have a pick in the Top 5, I will reserve the right to make the final decision.’

We finalized our pick around June, but I knew where it was going — and that was that we would take Matt Duchene. I never said a word to anybody. About 10 days before the actual draft, I called the ownership group to tell them that we were not going to go with the pick that we had come up with as a group and that I was going to exercise my right to make the pick and that it died with me; it went wrong, it’s totally my fault too. It went good, it’s a good group decision. Too important for the club.

Can’t do it until the ownership say, ‘Fine. It’s up to you, Brian, your decision,’ I say, ‘Thank you, appreciate the support.’ 

Went to the draft, told all our scouts in person: ‘We’re not going to go with Matt Duchene. I know he’s first on our list but we’re going to adjust it.’ I explained why: my own personal experiences . . . how I valued D just as much as scorers. I go over the history; [it] hasn’t really been that great, there’s been some kids that were picked high and didn’t work out as D.

I didn’t care about that. It’s an individual basis, we’re evaluating one player in this position. Most people were really good about it. A couple guys were upset. I understood it, but ultimately it’s on me and if I couldn’t take that pressure, then, you know, I shouldn’t be running the club. And that was it. We picked Hedman — and to be honest with you, Matt Duchene was a better player the first year, no doubt about it, and I ate a little bit of crow.

But I wasn’t worried about it. I didn’t pick Victor Hedman for his 19-year-old season. We picked him for the next 15 years. When it’s all said and done, it ended up fine.

SN: As a GM, what’s it like leading up to the draft? What’s it like [normally] at the draft table?

BL: A little bit like a duck, you know, trying to ride smoothly across the water but pedaling like crazy down below — and not a lot of sleep. There’s a ton of things going on. You’re talking to people in a really heightened state . . .  it’s just a super-busy, crazy time . . . doesn’t matter if you’re picking first or 30th, just a very, very busy time. One of three times where you’re in overdraft. Of course, the draft, [the] unrestricted period when that opens and then the trade deadline. But the draft, to me, is probably one of the most enjoyable times because you’re looking at young men that are going to get an opportunity to pursue their dream, and you get an opportunity to hopefully make some good decisions that will affect your organization for 10, 15 years down the road.

Overall, to be honest with you, I enjoyed it. It’s pressurized, but it’s good pressure. It’s [the] kind of pressure you want to wake up to and say, ‘Let’s go try to make a difference today,’ because being a manager is very, very cerebral. It moves incredibly slowly. This is one of three times when you have a chance to feel like you can contribute more.

SN: How different is it going to be this year since it’s all virtual?

BL: Going to be significantly different. . . . The NHL has considered many times, at the request of general managers, to do it the way we’re going to do it this year — from our home base, our war room, a la football, so to speak. That’s how football does it. . . . I think the NHL has rightly rejected that concept because it’s such a wonderful event. It really, truly is, and there are a lot of general managers that feel differently that say: ‘You know what? Yeah, it would be great to have our own war room, our own video setups, our own everything. Sleep in our own beds, you name it.’

But they enjoy and value the ability to have a face-to-face conversation with other guys.

This year we’ll get a chance to see what that war-room feel looks like and I think a lot of guys will be happy about it. I think they’ll relish in it. I know they will; I’ve already talked to a number of them. But in terms of, you know, the uniqueness this year . . . every single person that you would normally see at a draft when it’s in person will be available to the staff, they just won’t physically be there. 

DRAFT ORDER: Rounds 1-7 | Team-by-team

SN: Because of the setup this year, without that face-to-face interaction, do you think there’ll still be trades?

BL: I think there’ll be tons of movement still, I really do, and not because and not because of anything to do with how it’s set up, [but] more to do with where the salary cap is at, how entwined and entangled a lot of teams are with that cap and their desire as the Stanley Cup appears to be wide-open.

SN: Do you think the Rangers will keep the No. 1 pick?

BL: I do think they’ll keep it. But I think [Rangers GM] Jeff Gorton has a responsibility to look at every way possible to improve that team. The rebuild has gone very well. If they can add a player that could change their lives, I think he would consider it. But my gut feeling is that he won’t get that in an offer and he will keep and make the pick.

SN: And what is your take on that expected No. 1 pick, Alexis Lafreniere?

BL: I think he’s amazing. I interviewed him for about an hour, maybe two or three months ago, for the network here. Super impressive kid, very mature, has a little bit of the commonality that I saw even going back to when I was a GM when we picked first one year, second the other year. And some of these kids are men already, particularly the ones that are rated as high as Alexis has been. 

John Tavares was a guy who was rated first overall when we picked Victor Hedman. And in our meets, I would say John’s a TSN-made superstar already from the World Juniors. And that was a real advantage for him in handling men and stardom. Victor Hedman was the same way in terms of playing in a professional league his 17-year-old year in Sweden. Matt Duchene was the third pick in that draft . . . and it was kind of a leap [between the top two and Duchene]. . . . I actually interviewed all three of these kids together for about three days, had them in Tampa, and you could really see the differences. 

So Alexis Lafreniere is much closer to Tavares and Hedman in terms of worldliness and understanding and dealing with the responsibilities and pressures of being an elite player.

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