Between handing out their awards on Wednesday night, finally making the addition of a team in Las Vegas official, and plenty of trades so far this offseason, it has been a rather busy time in the NHL since the Stanley Cup Final came to an end. Making it even busier is the fact the 2016 NHL Entry Draft is coming up this weekend.
Even though we’ve seen the draft rival the trade deadline as the league’s go-to event for general managers looking to swing big-time trades to help out their teams now, the draft is still a time for stockpiling prospects for the future while looking for that next young star player that can take a team to Stanley Cup glory.
Most of the players picked during the two-day event won’t see NHL action for at least two to three years, if ever, as they’ll be using that time to develop before being given a shot with their NHL clubs. However, I’ll be profiling the players that are widely considered the top 10 prospects for this year’s draft; players that can either step in right away and have an immediate impact with their new franchise, or players that probably only need a year, maybe two at the most, before staying in the NHL for good.
1. Auston Matthews, C, ZSC Lions (NLA)
Had he been born two days earlier, Matthews would’ve been eligible for the 2015 draft, where he would’ve been a top-3 pick. But as it stands, he ranks as the top prospect in this year’s selection process. Most prospects from North America end up playing either major junior hockey in either the OHL, WHL, or QMJHL in Canada or college hockey in the United States. The 18-year-old Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Arizona, decided to head to Europe to play for Zurich in the National League A, which is the top professional league in Switzerland. In just 36 games, he had 24 goals and 46 points, a pace of better than a point-per-game against men much older than him. Matthews was also Team USA’s best player at the World Championships and will be on the Team North America roster for the World Cup of Hockey. Matthews possesses the size (6’2″, 216), speed, skill, and all-around game to be a top-line center for many years to come, earning comparisons to Chicago Blackhawks star center Jonathan Toews. While he may not have been hyped as much as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, or Connor McDavid were in their draft years, Matthews is still the kind of big, skilled center you can build your team around, one that can anchor your top line and be a franchise cornerstone.
2. Patrik Laine, RW, Tappara (SM-Liiga)
Over the course of this past season, Laine (pronounced LIE-nay) was a force for not only Tappara of the Finnish Elite League, but for Team Finland at both the World Junior Championships and World Championships as well. The 6’4″, 209-pound Laine is a natural goal-scorer that has drawn comparisons to Alex Ovechkin due to having a tremendous shot. Despite not being as good a skater as some players in this year’s draft class, Laine fits the definition of a sniper on ice. Laine tallied 17 goals and 33 points in 46 regular season games, but stepped his game up in the playoffs when he notched 10 goals and five assists in leading Tappara to the league championship, earning playoff MVP honors in the process. At the World Juniors, he led Finland to a gold medal by scoring seven goals and 13 assists in seven games while playing on a line with fellow top prospect Jesse Puljujarvi, then was named MVP of the World Championship after he led Finland to a silver medal, leading the tournament with seven goals and finished tied for the team lead in points (12). Some scouts believe that Laine has the ability to be the NHL’s next 50-goal scorer, and there was even talk that he might surpass Matthews as the top prospect, but he is expected to be chosen by the Winnipeg Jets with the second overall pick. Like Matthews, he’ll likely step into the NHL from Day 1.
3. Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat (SM-Liiga)
Playing in the same league as Laine, Puljujarvi scored 13 goals and 28 points in 50 regular season games, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story about the young man who has been constantly compared to Laine. About an inch shorter and a few pounds lighter than Laine, Puljujarvi is a different player than his countryman and soon-to-be top-3 pick, having better skating ability and a more complete all-around game than Laine. Puljujarvi is not as much of a finisher in terms of goal-scoring, but he still has plenty of skill and play-making ability to go with his size. Playing on a line with Laine at last winter’s World Junior Championship, Puljujarvi was the tournament MVP, notching 12 assists and 17 points in just seven games as Finland brought home the gold. He has earned comparisons to long-time former NHL star and Finland native Teemu Selanne, capable of scoring goals and setting up his teammates with equal aplomb. Although he had minor knee surgery in May and will miss development camps after the draft, he is expected to return in time for training camp.
4. Matthew Tkachuk, LW, London Knights (OHL)
If his name looks familiar, that’s because his father, Keith Tkachuk, played 18 seasons in the NHL and scored more than 500 goals as one of the league’s premier power forwards. While the younger Tkachuk may have a little more finesse to his game than his father, he’s proven to be just as willing to go to the front of the net and the dirty areas in the corners. Playing for a powerhouse London Knights squad that won the Memorial Cup, Tkachuk scored an impressive 107 points in the regular season while also adding 48 in 21 playoff games, including the Memorial Cup tournament. He has a tremendous knack for scoring clutch goals as well, as he notched a pair of goals, including the Memorial Cup-winner in overtime to give the Knights the championship. He probably won’t be a guy that will score 100 points in a season at the NHL level, but he’s going to be a guy that produces and provides a physical spark for his team in addition to his offensive ability.
5. Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW/C, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)
Although he’s not a blazing fast skater, Dubois is the quintessential power forward, able to play both wing and center while bringing a nice blend of size (6’3″, 200-plus pounds), offensive ability, physical presence, and two-way play. Coming off a season in which he finished third in the QMJHL in scoring with 99 points (42 goals, 57 assists), Dubois is considered to be one of the safer players available in this draft. Scouts have praised his work ethic, and with a frame that could add even more muscle, he’s likely to be a guy that will be a handful for the opposition in front of the net and in the corners. He possesses a hard, accurate shot, has the ability to contribute at both ends of the ice, and has some snarl to his game, as shown by his 112 penalty minutes this past season. While he may not immediately make the move to the NHL, he’s a guy that will make that jump sooner rather than later.
6. Mikhail Sergachev, D, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
A 6’2″, 208-pound, left-handed defenseman from Russia, Sergachev led all OHL defensemen in goals with 17 and finished tied for third among blueliners in assists (40) and third in points (57) in his first season of major junior hockey. Sergachev is a very mobile skater who can lead the rush from the back end while possessing the ability to make good outlet passes. He also has an excellent shot from the point and plays a very good two-way game. Defenseman with his combination of offensive ability, two-way play, size, and physical ability are rare to find, and he will be a top-notch blue line prospect for whatever team chooses the OHL’s defenseman of the year. He’s another player that might not make it to the NHL immediately, but he won’t need much time to make it there.
7. Olli Juolevi, D, London Knights (OHL)
At 6’2″ and 180 pounds, Juolevi could stand to add some more bulk to his frame, but there’s no denying the offensive skill this left-handed Finnish defenseman possesses. In 57 games, Juolevi finished with 33 assists and 42 points for the Memorial Cup champions, providing a boost of offense from the back end. His playmaking ability, skating, and abilities to both make the initial first pass or carry the puck were tremendous assets for the Knights. He’s also a dynamic power play quarterback, notching 24 of his 42 points on the season with the man-advantage. He’ll have to put in some work on the defensive end of the ice, but it’s something that can be developed. However, fluid puck-moving defensemen are essential in today’s NHL, and Juolevi has that kind of ability in spades. Has the potential to be a top-pairing blueliner at the NHL level.
8. Jakob Chychrun, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
Chychrun is also another prospect with NHL bloodlines, as his father, Jeff Chychrun, played 262 NHL games as a defenseman with four different teams, and his uncle, Luke Richardson, was a journeyman defenseman who played over 1,400 games in his long NHL career. Chychrun may not be as big as Sergachev despite being the same size, or the have the same offensive ability as Juolevi, but Chychrun’s two-way game is the foundation of his play. He’s rock-solid in both ends of the ice, as evidenced by his 38 assists and 49 points in 62 games as well as his plus-minus rating of plus-23. An excellent skater, he is able to play a physical game and has good puck-handling ability to go along with a very good shot. He may not be the most dynamic blueliner of this year’s group, but he has all the skills needed to be a reliable top-pairing defenseman for a very long time.
9. Logan Brown, C, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
The first thing you notice about Brown is his size. At 6’6″ and 220 pounds, Brown towers over many players in this draft class, but he’s not just a big guy that takes up space. He led the Spitfires this season with 53 assists and was second on the team with 74 total points. He’s got the size and the reach to be able to keep the puck away from the opposition and put the pressure on while forechecking. He’s got a good shot, but has been criticized at times for not shooting the puck enough. However, he’s very good at handling the puck and his assist total shows he’s got some vision when it comes to finding teammates with the puck. He’s also a tremendous skater, especially for a player of his size. Brown was a force for Team USA at the World Junior Championships, and he has the potential to be the kind of large, skilled first-line center that every team wants on their roster. He’s also another draft prospect with NHL bloodlines, as his father, Jeff Brown, played 747 games over 13 seasons with six different teams.
10. Alexander Nylander, LW, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
One of the more skilled players in this crop of prospects, Nylander was named the OHL’s Rookie of the Year as well as the Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year following a season in which he led all OHL rookies with 75 points in 57 games on the strength of 28 goals and 47 assists. A dynamic setup man, Nylander has the vision and creativity to generate offense in addition to having a nice shot and excellent one-on-one skills that make him a threat to score at any time. Nylander has improved his skating, but will also need to work on his defensive play in order to round out his game, something a lot of offensively-gifted players from the junior ranks have to work on while progressing in their development towards the NHL. He’s another prospect with strong bloodlines, as his brother William was a first round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014 and saw plenty of action in the NHL late in the season. His father, Michael, played for seven teams in a 15-year NHL career that spanned 920 games.
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