In honour of LT’s Top 30 and the two week countdown to the draft, I’ve decided to try my hand at my own list. I’ve seen most of these guys on TV and video and have read a ton about each. That said, I’m no scout, but what the hell…
My Top 30:
This ranking is based on a few principles. First, that elite ability in any given tool is given the a lot of weight. Hockey history is a story written by players who are elite in one area. If they can skate, most of the other tools can be brought to at least Good level. Skill and upside rule. As LT is fond of saying, scoring is the toughest thing to do in the NHL.
Second, I evaluate skill with the belief that numbers don’t necessarily translate well (up or down) and that equivalencies, NHLE, give us a bell curve of probabilities, not a precise translation. Context is important and is largely either anecdotal or missing completely.
Third, given equal levels of ability the advantage is given to size. And finally, I don’t nick as hard as some for injuries, if there is a good picture of the player hiding behind the hurt.
(Joint size, why don’t we know more about this? Is it another state secret like TOI? I’d like to know if a player’s wrists, ankles and knees are prodigiously Rastafarian, or skinny all-paper spliff.)
I also like to tier. The first six players on my list all have elite tools. They have the potential for first line or first pairing and my attempt is to order all these players on that basis (where they”ll fit in the line-up) with a risk-reward filter.
The comps for the first tiers are based mostly on expected level of offense and defense the player will deliver. Style is secondary. My understanding is that comps are supposed to be given in pairs, reflecting a player’s low end and top end.
This is not a mock draft.
1. Larsson: Has elite vision, sense and pass. Is a plus skater, has a hard low slapper, a wrister with juice, good size and very good strength. Has a little more steel to his play than most Swede blue-liners and hits well but relies on smart angles more than the big hits. Offense shouldn’t be a question. Since his boxcars represent EV numbers, and the tools are there, well-shown at a tournament 2 years older in age while he was hurt. Playing through the injury while taking top minutes against likely the best comp at his age against men is heady stuff. Because he’s proven himself against men already, I have him ahead of RNH — there’s about the same upside with less risk. At the very least he’s Adam Foote, and at the best Lidstrom.
2. Hopkins: Also has elite vision, sense, pass, and add very good puck skills. Quick release wrister with accuracy. Doesn’t use the slapper much. Excellent skater. Poor size and strength. That’s the other main reason why I have him behind Larsson. Larsson has more tools (has size and strength) with the same elite upside and thus far less downside. Durability might be an issue, playing bigger centres with a slighter build. Tim Connolly to Adam Oates, maybe Forsberg if he gains size and strength and uses his shot.
3. Ryan Murphy: Much the same as RNH, Murphy has all the elite offensive skills, along with double plus skating but lacks even good size and strength. Unfortunately his position relies far more on these abilities than 1C does. There’s a ton of upside here, but an almost equal amount of risk. Still, like Ellis before him, he’s gonna get his reps at the NHL level, even if it is just as a PP specialist. Hawgood-small PP specialist to Coffey. 3rd line or 1st. Either way he could end up scoring a lot of points.
4. Doug Hamilton: He is elite on the basis that few players his size can skate that well. We are not talking Hal Gill or Willie Mitchell, we are talking Bouwmeester, Jovanovski, Pronger level with respect to this combination. And like those three he can skate for an eternity. Might still be growing. Passes, moves the puck, well. Scholastic player of the year, he’s a smart man. Work ethic is outstanding. His release can use some improvement, as he has a big wind up, but otherwise has a good shot. Puck skills, defensive reactions can still be a bit clumsy from time to time but he has grown a ton in the past year. Offense might be a bit slight, presenting some downside risk, but should be above the Gill level. I could easily have him switch spots with Murphy and would in a mock draft, but I’ve bent this ranking toward offensive skill. Brewer to Chara.
5. Brodin: Brings the most elite hockey sense out of any of the top 6. I think it is dangerous to under-rate this ability. Off-the-charts anticipation. Is a plus plus skater. Very good passer. Has only average size and strength. It’s tough to tell how much offense he will generate, but he had 4 assists without much PP time and that’s a good number for the SEL. With his brains and passing ability he should be at least a solid point producer. His sense and skating make him about as much a can’t-miss pick outside of the top 3 as can be had. The ability to make high quality reads playing against men at his age sets him apart. Most defensemen take years to learn what he already sees instinctively. Offensive questions and size hold him back from top of the class. Hejda to Suter. Zubov, if his shot develops.
6. Landeskog: Elite grit, will, determination, if that can be said. Cut from the pisscutter mold by a rusty blade. Has the size and strength to back It up. Reigns in the dirty areas. Will score a lot of ugly goals. Goalies and Dmen alike will hate him on the PP. Should be worth his weight in gold during the playoffs. Is above average in most offensive skills but excellent in none and thus has the most risk to deliver the least offense out of the top tier. Moreau to Smyth/Doan.
The next tier represents very good players, mostly with second line potential, but with some material chance to be top line or pairing.
7. Couturier: The best of the rest. Excellent size and strength, above average puck skills, vision and sense (but not elite in these three areas), good speed, poor agility and starts. Already understands the defensive side of the game and is dominant on the dot. Great two way player. Little downside as evidenced by his WJC selection. Perfect second line guy like a Staal, Koivu, Arnott, but like these guys is not known for creativity or fast, dynamic play. Just doesn’t dance like that. Can maybe play first line minutes if his skating improves but will likely lose some offence in the bigger, faster league with second line playing time. Gratton to Arnott. Outside shot at Esposito with better skating, strength and compete level. I am and always have been a big fan of Arnott. Otto too.
8. Huberdeau: Gets the spot ahead of Strome on the basis of speed, goal scoring ability and big game poise. I rank the two about the same but give Huberdeau a slight nod in those areas. Has an unusual loping stride which comes from a speed-skating background as a teen. His versatility at wing and centre is useful, but he’s more likely to be a winger in the Bigs. Creative and very opportunistic. Peverley to G. Anderson.
9. Strome: Came out of nowhere so might have a little more bust risk than the rest of this tier. He has good wheels but his top gear isn’t quite as good as the good skaters above him. This could improve with some work. Excellent puck skills, handling. Has an accurate shot but it isn’t a real ripper. There are some questions on whether his offence will translate despite his gaudy boxcars. Has leader qualities and drive so I would hate to bet against him. Marchant to Drury. He’ll be a leader no matter what line he’s on, fell off the Linden tree.
10. Zibanejad: His numbers are slightly poorer than MPS’ and he doesn’t have the same elite speed, but he plays a grittier, more physical game, he initiates contact far more and he has a little better natural finish. Has that centre/winger versatility. Good motor/work rate. Plays a solid, smart two-way game for his age. Morrow to Hossa.
11. Klefbom Skates like Doughty with a hammer of a slap shot. Has NHL size. Loves to hit. If he had the hockey sense and defensive abilities of his partner Brodin, he would be ranked with Larsson. (And when thinking about Larsson’s alleged lack of offense, keep in mind he scored at about the same rate as this kid, who is touted as an offensive threat). Right now Klefbom is a little one dimensional, which with his decision-making issues makes it tough to guarantee top pairing. Bit of a boom-bust in that regard, but good defense can be learnt. MAB to Jovanovski.
After 11, things fall off a little again as the bust factor goes up. Since these prospects now start to have decent bust potential, I’ll discontinue the bookend comps.
12. Bartschi: Lacks the high end skating to slot higher. Has excellent puck skills. Could be a little more physically engaged but smart enough to find time and space. Very average size. His shot is good enough that the other issues could be overlooked. Solid 2nd line winger upside but with his combo of size and skating could flame out.
13. Beaulieu: Has above average size, but lacks the offence to be a true top pairing option. Pretty well-rounded and ranks above average or average in most areas. Tends to over complicate things and sense is a concern. Graded ahead of Morrow as he plays a tougher game. Decent chance to be second pairing stalwart.
14. Morrow: Another well-rounded Dman who probably doesn’t quite have the high end offence. A little small but makes up for it with good positioning. Bit of a long back swing on his shot. Better skater than Beaulieu, but strength and reach will be a concern till he proves otherwise.
15. McNeill: Had a weak U18s where a good showing might have vaulted him to the head of this group. Probably has the least downside risk out of this tier, but lacks some of the high end offensive potential. If he makes it he could be a useful Jarret Stoll type at the least and maybe as much as a Richards or Toews.
16. Siemens: Another guy who lacks offensive potential but because he can skate and bring size and strength and meanness has stuff teams will value. Has more polish to his game than Oleksiak right now so gets the nod in ranking. Not as mean or dependable defensively as a Teubert type but probably the best straight shutdown prospect available.
17. Oleksiak: Here sheerly on physical attributes, which are certainly elite. He’s a project though and no one really knows what they’re getting with this player. He looks like he will skate well enough to play a Hal Gill role at the least and those guys are always in demand due to their scarcity.
We’re starting to get into guys who are either boom-bust or have shown limited upside. Toolsy guys who haven’t put it together or offensive guys with serious drawbacks to their game, like commitment and size. Once you get to this point in the draft, it’s pick your poison.
18. Jurco: A game breaker with great moves and creativity. Reminds of guys like Afinogenov who have all the skill but lack sense and defensive willingness. If he learns to play without the puck and to battle in his own end, could be a real steal.
19. Puempel: Elite shot and it’s hard to push these guys down the list, but he is pretty average in every other area. If he had the compete level of a Skinner, he would surely rank higher. Injury didn’t help him out much this year.
20. Scheifele: All round player who took a step forward at the U18s. Nothing exceptional but does everything well. Should have low bust potential but trades it off with limited upside. Might be one of those guys who’s a 3rd liner with scoring ability who can play up and down the line up. Needs to add strength to play the kind of role his future holds.
21. Brett Ritchie: Prototypical power forward. Injury and playing on a mediocre team hurt his rankings on many lists. Excellent size and grit, he does well coming off the boards or sniffing out pucks in the dirty areas. Has a goal scorers hands. I have him ranked higher than most, but he’s the most likely Benn or Neal type in this draft.
22. Saad: A toolsy guy who has yet to make it add up. But with his size and speed, there are plenty of teams who will take a chance on him and see what comes of it. His numbers don’t show a lot of scoring, but what’s there should translate well. Might be a confidence issue here. Should be a lock to become a solid 3rd line guy with 2nd line power forward potential, and has a lesser chance of complete flameout than the more demonstrably better boxcar forwards around him.
23. Jensen: Has more talent than the guys ahead of him in this tier but is inconsistent and seems to lack battle and drive. Battle and drive are what keep you in the NHL, so while I don’t doubt Jensen will get his shot, he will need to find something within himself to stick. Probably I should have nicked him more but he gets some leeway for adjusting to a new league.
24. Phillips: Huberdeau’s pivot. Great numbers, but maybe an issue with translation. I might be nicking this guy too much for benefitting from Huberdeau, but we all know the dangers of drafting a kid too high when someone else is driving the bus. Very smart player with excellent hands and puck distribution but his skating is a weakness. Has 2nd liner C top end if he can skate, but could completely flame out as he might not work on the 3rd line.
25. Rattie: Talented but small, he’s a perimeter player who again might have difficulty tallying points at the NHL level with the lack of space and time nearly everywhere. He’ll get a shot at it but the feeling is his skating needs to improve to be a top 6 guy at the Bigs. Screams tweener.
26. Grimaldi: Similar to Rattie, almost as skilled but even smaller. Doesn’t have the perimeter knock and is a better skater than Rattie and has phenomenal drive, but whether it is enough to overcome the physical deficiencies remains to be seen. He probably should have had more points at the level he was playing where size is a much smaller issue. He might end up as a Marchant with hands.
27. Connor Murphy: Had injury troubles all year but when he did play he was outstanding. Strength and grit are the other concerns but the kid is an excellent passer, skater, shooter, defender. If he hadn’t been so hurt there’s a good chance he would’ve ended up Top 20. Durability is going to be a serious question, but there’s a nice risk-reward play here.
28. Noesen Player who’s motor never stops. Fore-checks like a demon and plays a smart two way game. Played without much team help and racked up great numbers considering. Some questions about his first couple of steps. Some questions about whether his offense comes more from work than skill. Should be a lock for a 3rd line role with 2nd line potential if he maintains the development curve.
29. Miller: Another toolsy guy who has struggled to put it all together. Had a great U18s which should get him into the first round. Interesting combination of skill, speed, and size, with consistency and sense questions. Could be Kesler, could be Fraser.
30. Rask: I considered putting Armia here, but in the few games that I’ve seen him, I’ve seen very uninspired play. He could be Rick Nash-lite, but doesn’t seem bothered. Rask was inspired, on the other hand, at the U18s with Zib lined up on his wing. There’s still some questions about his regression, but there’s skill there and the kid has a shot if he has enough try.
31. Armia: The Dustin Penner of Scandinavia. Should have dominated at the U18s and instead just gave glimpses. Tools are there, but much like Jensen ahead of him there are serious questions about his commitment level and drive. These are real alarm bells to me, because they seem key to having an NHL career. Jensen at least gets credit for trying the OHL. Armia no such luck.
Catenacci, Mayfield, Biggs, Jenner… guys like that fall into the 2nd because they look more like project types or have more risk with less reward. Now please keep in mind any prospect out of the last tier could probably be swapped for a player in the next tier; Khokhlachev for Grimaldi, for example, but as I said, it’s pick your poison by this point.