It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
No, not Christmas, the NHL draft! It’s not until June, but I must confess that I love the NHL draft — so much so, it’s probably my favourite day of the whole NHL calendar. With most junior seasons already underway, draft eligible players are gearing up for more attention and more scrutiny, trying to stand out in a sea of players. That’s why it’s fun to see if we can pick out some players now who will be head and shoulders above the rest by the time the draft rolls around.
Plus, there’s something fun about trying to project how these players will do when they get to the NHL level, and it’s fascinating to see the different strategies teams have when it comes to drafting players.
This year’s class is a bit different from last year’s. It lacks the big name generational talent like a Connor McDavid, but there are still lots of quality players near the top of the rankings, especially big body wingers. Here are some players to look for this time around, and where they could end up going.
I’ll be looking at hockeyprospect.com’s top 30, ISS hockey’s top 30, Future Considerations’ top 30, and well as Bob McKenzie’s rankings to get a feel for where I think some of these players will go. And of course, I’ll be watching YouTube clips to make my own personal judgements.
The big name from this year’s draft class. If Matthews had been born just a couple of days earlier, he would have been drafted early on in the 2015 draft. The American took the unprecedented step this year of going to play professionally in Switzerland, forgoing NCAA hockey and the Everett Silvertips, the latter of whom held his CHL rights. So far, this move has paid off. He has 16 points in 14 games so far this year, and he’s playing against grown men. Barring a significant fall in play, he will go number one.
Prediction: 1st Overall
The consensus number two pick this year. American-born Chychrun is projected to be an impact defencemen, in fact Bob McKenzie says that he is “capable of being a complete number one blueliner.” He has an NHL caliber shot, and is an excellent skater. Only 17 years old and listed at 6’2”, 196 pounds, it’s not unreasonable that he could put on another 20 pounds of muscle and become a force in the NHL. With 10 points in 14 games to start the season with the Sarnia Sting, he is the best defenseman available in the draft.
Prediction: 2nd Overall
Puljujärvi burst onto the scene last World Junior Championship. As a 16-year-old, he seemed to hold his own against players two and three years older than him. Listed at 6’3” and 196 pounds, he is able to use his body very effectively and plays much like a North American player as opposed to a European one. Playing for Kärpät in the Finnish SM Liiga, Puljujärvi has scored nine points in 19 games playing against grown men like Matthews. He’ll go in the top five due to the combo of skill and size, but which place will depend on the need of the teams that can draft him.
Prediction: Top 5
Another big Finnish winger who could go fairly high. He doesn’t have the name recognition of Puljujärvi, but Laine has quietly put together a strong case for a top five spot. He’s scored seven points in 12 games so far in the Finnish SM Liiga, and had eight goals in seven games at the 2015 U18 world championship, a competition that has traditionally been an indicator of success in the NHL. His draft ranking will be determined by the upcoming World Juniors. If he has a good tournament, his place within the top five will be cemented. If not, then Laine could slip a bit down the draft board.
Prediction: 5th to 7th
Let’s switch it up a bit and talk about a player a bit closer to home. Tyler Benson was drafted first overall by the Vancouver Giants in 2013, and big things were expected of him. After putting up 146 points in 33 games in his draft year, people thought it would be a matter of time before Benson translated those numbers into the WHL. That hasn’t been the case. Playing only 62 games last year he put up 42 points, and this year is off to a slow start, with only two points in five games. Ranked anywhere from 13th to 22nd and not even mentioned by Bob McKenzie, he’s looking like a low first-round pick to me.
Prediction: 18th to 23rd
If you think the name sounds familiar, that’s because it probably is. Tkachuk is the son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk, and just like his dad, Matthew uses his body very effectively to get to high scoring areas. So far with the London Knights the American has scored 24 points in 15 games, 19 of which were assists. Because of his last name, he gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to rankings. Three of the four sites have him exactly at number five, so that seems like a fair place to put him.
Prediction: 5th Overall
Another son of an NHLer, Alex Nylander is an extremely highly skilled player. He’s got great hockey sense, but unlike his brother William who was drafted in the first round by the Maple Leafs, Alex is playing his draft year here in Canada with the Mississauga Steelheads. Playing in the OHL may help his draft stock rise, but the upcoming World Juniors is where his chance is to impress the scouts. With 21 points in 16 games so far, he is on track for a solid year, but may be passed over due to his size relative to the other players.