Predicting the future isn’t easy.
Therefore, the NHL Entry Draft becomes one educated guess after another based on intuition, experience and gut feelings when identifying potential and the prospect of an eligible player reaching the best league on the planet.
Very few can step right in and help a team within a year or two, so unless you’re in the Top-10, you’re most likely projecting out a few years to fill out your roster in future seasons.
I recall Craig Patrick once saying “you draft them at 18 and hope they’re ready at 25”. Since then, there have been rule changes - thankfully - that have been conducive to younger skill players contributing sooner... i.e. Robert Thomas.
Obviously, no one can truly predict results or give an accurate assessment of draft eligible players without seeing league games on a consistent basis. I think any mock draft aficionado would agree that simply going by highlights without the benefit of a shift by shift library of game action is most definitely imperfect.
Factor in that it’s impossible to predict possible unfortunate injuries, or who loses motivation, and the task only becomes taller.
Even those who get to see games at all the various levels make mistakes or miss on prospects, so as mentioned, the draft is at best an educated guess and/or calculated risk.
Some will be contributors, some will fizzle out and some will be all-star caliber fixtures.
The list below consists of prospects that I found to be noteworthy and with adequate footage to review. Rankings elsewhere may vary, and in some cases, may vary substantially.
So without further ado, I give you my top forward prospects:
- Jack Hughes - Although not an overwhelming physical presence, possesses the proverbial “it” factor. May not hit downhill ice from the jump but by the start of the 2020-21 season will be a legitimate offensive force in the mold of Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau.
- Kaapo Kakko - If it’s instant impact you want, it’s instant impact you’ll get with Kakko. Power forward with the shiftiness and skill of a smaller player. Will give you production from the wing and drive play from the opening faceoff of the season. Mikko Rantanan-like with perhaps more of a power forward element.
- Kirby Dach - Big 6’4” right handed centers with Dach’s skill and patience are difficult to pass up. His understanding of how to use his reach to create shooting angles and lanes is noticeable, as is his vision and passing ability. Sound positional center, won’t cheat for offense. Upright skating style makes him a bit unique, but knows how to use his frame and reach to protect puck and allow plays to develop. With his smooth skating stride should only get quicker and faster at top speed with a ceiling that compares favorably to Mark Scheifele.
- Dylan Cozens - Right handed center with an explosive first couple strides, good size and shooting ability. Highly skilled scorer and play-maker that uses his speed to push back the defense. Once he gets accustomed to defenders keeping up with him and maximizes his passing ability, can be an elite offensive force in the mold of a toned down Nathan MacKinnon or maybe a bigger Vincent Trocheck.
- Trevor Zegras - Play-maker extraordinaire. Slick skater with good size and reach, very capable dangler while being aware of developing and existing passing options. Think Jonathan Huberdeau.
- Alex Turcotte - Well rounded, smooth skating left handed center with vision and ability to utilize wingers and make players around him better. High IQ player that makes use of his instincts to create opportunistic chances for himself while also manufacturing offense for others.
- Cole Caufield - See “Alex DeBrincat”. Enough said.
- Jamieson Rees - Savvy and cerebral offensive driver. Listed as center but projects as a top 6 winger and power play fixture. Top end speed doesn’t appear overwhelming - yet, but is a very smooth and shifty skater who doesn’t avoid traffic or shy away from contact. Possesses excellent puck skills and vision and an above average shot that should improve. Although slightly shorter than Trevor Zegras, compares very favorably even though you won’t see Rees ranked as high in any mock drafts or lists I’ve seen.
- Phillip Tomasino - Highly mobile right handed center who’s on the younger side of draft eligible players. Will only turn 18 on July 28th, while listed at 6’0” and 180 lbs will continue to develop while already being positionally sound. Possesses excellent blend of speed and skill, most notably has unique ability to make high-end skill plays at his considerable top speed.
- Matthew Boldy - Quality skater and play maker with size and reach. Meshes with top 6 talent, can create and finish at top speed while being positionally sound. 2-3 seasons of being a relied on contributor at Boston College, against older competition, will give him chance to hit downhill ice at NHL level.
- Brayden Tracey - Skilled high IQ player with size and reach complimented by slippery skating ability and puck skills. While on the younger side of eligible players, only trailed two 20-year-old players in points on a 3rd place WHL team. Also, very notable that his point total is essentially identical to Cozens’ and exceeds Dach’s.
- Vasili Podkolzin - High effort, high motor player. Probably needs a table-setting center to be most effective but knows how to protect puck with his body and doesn’t shy away from high traffic areas.
- Arthur Kaliyev - Definition of what it means to be a prospect. Hulking 6’2” 190 lbs power winger that looks even bigger on the ice. Only turns 18 in late June, has excellent hands and ability to fill the net while meshing well with top 6 talent. May not drive play at NHL level but with improved acceleration can impact as a quality top 9 contributor.
- Alex Newhook - Excellent production in the BCHL, but also excelled in U18’s while sharing leading scorer spot with the likes of Cozens and Rees on the roster. Very confident with the puck, seems comfortable in traffic and already being 5’11” 190 lbs means he’ll have a strong base to build off of.
- Pavel Dorofeyev - Highly confident puck carrying winger that creates for himself and others. Although he will be 19 in October, already has 23 games in the KHL under his belt after standout performances in the MHL yielded 17 goals and 31 points in only 19 games. While listed at 6’0” 163 lbs, plays bigger and upped his respectable production from 17-18 season (39 points in 48 games) in a big way. Consistently displays a competent two-way game, smooth skating and agility with above average speed to complement excellent vision, puck skills and shooting ability. Projects as top 6 winger and power play fixture. Any improvement to his speed and size will raise his ceiling exponentially.
- Ryan Suzuki - A bit of a project, but has the kind of upside you want. Skill level that borders on electric, one of the better natural skaters available and just turned 18 a month before the draft. May project long term as a winger, but once his frame fills out can be an effective top 6 player.
- Adam Beckman - Potential to be power center with 2C upside or top 9 contributor as LW or 3C. Good hands and quickness for big guy with above average shot that should improve. As newly-minted 18-year-old still has time to fill out and improve on impressive rookie WHL campaign.
- Raphael Lavoie - Similar to Kaliyev at 13. Big guy with mobility and skill who in time, can be impactful at NHL level. Can fill the net with an accurate shot that has velocity and a sneaky quick release. Right handed center but likely projects as RW and power play contributor.
- Peyton Krebs - Positionally sound and comfortable in traffic and checking situations while also possessing hands, vision and ability to capitalize in open ice. Could be 3rd line energy player or develop into a 2C that compliments top end wingers.
- Graeme Clarke - Good blend of mobility, size, grit, handsy skill and shooting ability. Just a good hockey player. As younger player on 1st place OHL team, was probably limited in top 6 minutes, but can expect expanded role next season. Positionally sound with high compete level, projects as middle 6 winger that can handle checking role while being opportunistic.
- Yegor Afanasyev - At 6’4” 200 lbs already has NHL size to compliment his heavy shot and above average speed and skill. Led his 1st place USHL team by a healthy margin in goals and points, had 6th highest +/- in the league among forwards and 16th overall. Didn’t look out of place at center and while having the ability to compliment top 6 wingers, most likely projects as LW who contributes to middle 6.
- Nicholas Robertson - Very young and developing player who led his team in scoring as the youngest player on this list. Dynamic play-maker with quickness and IQ to spare and may still add to his 5’9” 161 lbs frame. May not be the goal scorer that Caufield projects to be, but can have similar impact with his hands and vision.
- Simon Holmstrom - Skilled Swedish winger with good size and patience with the puck. Above average mobility and shooting ability. May not drive play at NHL level but can compliment quality center with his puck control skills after a few seasons of North American seasoning.
- Connor McMichael - Well-rounded productive center with quality hands on 1st place OHL team. Above average in all aspects, may not have blazing top end speed, but shifty and situationally aware. Won’t cheat for offense and capable of finishing opportunistic chances while being crafty around the net. Could develop into solid 2C or be an effective 3C and compliment big checking wingers.
- Brett Leason - Late blooming 6’4” right handed winger who finished his 20-year-old season 6th in WHL scoring and at +55 (3rd). Seemed to benefit with move to winning Prince Albert squad. For big winger, possesses silky hands, strong accurate shot and touch to go with above average straight ahead speed. Will need to continue to improve crossover and change of direction skating to be consistent top 6 winger.
- Bobby Brink - Productive shoot first mentality winger with good hands and vision. On the younger side, will be 18 a few weeks after the draft so has time to develop and continue improving his skating at University of Denver. Possesses good offensive instincts and meshes with high end talent, but would need an overall checking game at NHL level in case proven wingers are ahead of him.
- Albin Grewe - Emerging power forward type with above average mobility for his 6’0” 187 lbs frame. Quick choppy strides could be improved upon, but could also be helpful on North American ice when grinding along the boards. Was a leader in points per game on his Swedish J20 team while managing to rack up 102 PIMs. Better discipline to maximize his versatile puck control and play making ability, along with more TOI, and over time could be a solid top 9 winger and offensive contributor. Should see more games in the top SHL next season.
- Jakob Pelletier - Undersized LW but productive, skilled, quick and could very well develop an extra gear. Plays with tenacity and on his team only trails a 20-year-old in scoring with 39 goals and 89 points while being 2nd at +27. Could be a spark plug 3rd liner or top 6 complimentary winger once he fills out.
- Nils Hoglander - Undersized winger in mold of Pelletier. Skilled with offensive ability, would need to establish down low strength to be effective on North American ice. Not overly productive at the J20 level, but already having 50 games in the SHL should give him a head start going into next season.
- Samuel Poulin - Smooth skating, size (6’2 207lbs) and skillful reach make this LW an intriguing prospect. Cerebral game accents his vision, especially around the net where he displays good feel for finding passing lanes. More experience keeping his feet moving against players comparable in size will go a long way in expediting his development.
- Vladislav Firstov - Skilled and productive in USHL who will continue developing at U. of Connecticut. Although on the younger side, is a capable puck carrier with decent 6’1 181lbs size. Sees the ice and has top 6 instincts, but would need to carve out a checking game and be useful on 3rd line before working his way up the lineup and into a spot more suitable for his skill set.
Quickly, just to get my two cents in regarding the top pick - seems that Hughes being a center gives him an edge. Impact wise, Kakko has beast like qualities and may be of greater help sooner.
There’s no question that both the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers will end up with a franchise driving player, and while Devils GM Ray Shero doesn’t need my help, my guess is that he’ll select the center 1st overall.
With no shortage of publications offering rankings and mock drafts going into the 2nd round, thought I’d offer up my own diamond in the rough possibilities that should be available as the 2nd round winds down and the search for longer term projects and potential begins. Being that there’s a top heavy bend toward North American forwards, thought I’d start with some noticeable Europeans.
Tuuka Tieksola (19th ranked European F) - If it’s potential and long term upside you seek, then chances are this 5’10 160lbs winger is on your radar. While only turning 18 over draft weekend, is already an offensive driver as team leader in assists on his Finnish U20 squad, and is tied as leading scorer with Eetu Pakkila (NJD 2018 7th round draft pick) who is a year and half his elder. A bigger picture shows that he leads the league in assists and is 6th in scoring as 2nd youngest out of the top 6 scorers. Quick natural skater with high-end offensive IQ, handsy puck skills, vision and quick release with accurate shooting ability. Should have a chance to raise his profile on international stage and at top Liiga level. Comparable skill set to Kaspari Kapanen.
Maxim Cajkovic (91st overall NA skater) - Perhaps somewhat overlooked with only 22 goals and 46 points in 60 games on a 2nd to last place Saint John team in the QMJHL, this 5’11 187lbs Slovakian winger brings a similar skill set as Tieksola. With a 20 year old teammate producing 34 points in 50 games as next closest scorer, Cajkovic was able to produce and create while being a league rookie and main focus of the opposition. Going into his 2nd year and seeing his international and Swedish J20 production, Saint John can expect increased production as their promising winger acclimates to NA ice.
Ilya Nikolayev (9th ranked European Skater) - Plays center in the MHL but most likely projects as LW at pro level. Good mobility and size (6’0 190lbs), especially since he only turns 18 a few days post draft. Understands how to use his reach to create and manufacture shots, has above average puck skills and vision. Effective working the boards and possesses shot accuracy. Production per game compares to all the team leaders, but most impressively boosted output in the playoffs by leading his team with 5 goals, 8 points and a +9 in only 6 games. Not much consensus on where he ranks, but can see him drafted as high as early 2nd to late 3rd.
Joe Carroll - Brings grit and board play to go with size and mobility. Projects as 3rd line contributor that can slide up and compliment a quality center. Not viewed as 1st round pick but has a game that translates to pro level. Late 2nd round or 3rd round worthy.
If the Florida Panthers chose to go forward in the first round there are plenty of interesting options at 13.
Check out SBNation NHL for more draft information. There are profiles for quite a few of the prospects on this list.