Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at Hockey’s Stars. Over the next few days we will be previewing the 2014 NHL Draft by ranking our top 30 prospects and honourable mentions. As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
With the Junior seasons not just in Canada but throughout the world gearing up for the stretch drive and a number of international tournaments (Ivan Hlinka, Four Nations, Subway Super Series, World Juniors, Five Nations) in the books, we have gotten a decent overview of what some of the biggest prospects for the draft are doing this year. This is an up to date look and ranking of these prospects. That said, there is still plenty of work to be done and many important games to be played including junior league playoffs, European playoffs, and of course the Under 18 World Championships. While the rankings still have some fluidity, a pecking order is also starting to define itself. For now, this is what we have, we hope you enjoy the early preview and be sure to be ready in late March as we roll out our full player-by-player draft preview.
2015 NHL Draft February Rankings Part One (1-5)
1) Connor McDavid, Centre, Erie Otters (6’1″ 190 lbs): McDavid has been hyped as one of the best up and coming young hockey players for several years now. There have even been some who have said he’s been overhyped. Well, given his performance so far this season, that quite simply isn’t true, if anything he’s been underhyped. He has dominated at the OHL level, was great at the World Juniors, and has generally done everything that he could possibly do so far this season.
Quite simply, McDavid is the best prospect I have seen since Sidney Crosby. Yes, better than Steven Stamkos, better than John Tavares, and better than Nathan MacKinnon all were at the same age. He is quite simply off the charts in terms of talent right now, and as much as I like Jack Eichel, this is not the two-horse race that some are trying to make it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, Eichel would fight to be the first overall pick if taken in any of the last five NHL drafts, but this year, its McDavid a clear #1, Eichel a clear #2, and then everyone else.
Lets start with looking at the offensive weapons here, and McDavid has it all. Exceptional hands and stickhandling ability, he can dangle past a defender and does an excellent job of protecting the puck and maintaining possession. His hockey sense and decision making is already at an elite level. His decision making and vision are excellent, he reads the play very well and always seems to keep the puck moving in a smart and efficient manner. His passing is outstanding as the young centre has the ability to thread pucks through tight spaces and put passes tape to tape at high speeds. Connor McDavid also possesses an accurate shot, with a good release. McDavid’s ability to make all these plays at a high speed, and to never have to slow down his feet to control the puck is a huge asset. He has the ability to change gears quickly and effectively and this aids him in beating defenders. His top speed is good, but its the acceleration and the ability to vary his attacks, to slow the game down when necessary or to make the quick play that really sets him apart. The unpredictability can leave defenders flat footed as he quickly accelerates around them. Or he can look like he his going to beat his man wide and suddenly slow down, opening up space for a shot or quick play in front of the defender. His agility and edge work is also outstanding. He has shown the ability to change direction on a dime, which makes him an absolute nightmare to defend. He also has very good balance and is a lot stronger on his skates than most expect. He added some strength to his frame this off-season and has become extremely hard to knock off the puck. McDavid is a generational talent. Any time the NHL makes changes to the draft lottery, you know that the player up for grabs is special.
2) Jack Eichel, Centre, Boston University Terriers (6’1″ 190 lbs): Jack Eichel is also having a strong season with the Boston University Terriers. He looked good early in the world juniors, but seemed to struggle in later games against Canada and Russia as the Americans were eliminated. This isn’t really a knock though, as it takes a really special player to dominate this tournament in their draft season. Eichel’s play has been more than good enough to cement his spot at second overall. I really like Eichel, and he can be a franchise level talent. There really is no shame in being the second best player in this draft, and Eichel has what it takes to be an NHL star.
Eichel has a long and quick skating stride that gives him great speed, power, balance, and acceleration. He has the ability to blow by defenders whether it is walking out of the corner on the cycle game, or taking them wide on the rush. Once Eichel gets a step on a defender, they are in trouble. He also has top-notch stickhandling, outstanding hockey sense, great vision and passing skills and he can be a prime playmaker and makes his line mates better. Also add in a hard wrist shot with a lightning quick release and he can score goals as well. Quite simply Eichel has all the tools to be a future top line centre in the NHL. While the US NTDP has produced numerous elite prospects in recent years, Eichel could be a true NHL superstar, and the best prospect to come out of that program to date. He looks the part of the future top line centre that the Americans have lacked to pair with their top level wingers in the last two Olympics.
3) Mitchell Marner, Right Wing, London Knights (5’11” 164 lbs): Marner has shot up draft boards with his play over the last several months. With 94 points in just 47 games he is tied with Dylan Strome for the OHL lead. A versatile forward, Marner has seen time at all three forward positions over the last two years, though he does seem to be more suited to the wing than centre going forward, and has spent most of his time there lately (with Coyotes prospect Christian Dvorak at centre). He is a little undersized, but that doesn’t stop Marner from playing a gritty game and getting to the front of the net or battling for pucks in the corners. Marner has great speed, and very slick hands and is a threat to go end to end any time he touches the puck. His shot and release have really improved this season. That said, it is Marner’s outstanding vision and playmaking skill that make Marner a potential top pick. He controls the puck extremely well, and can extend plays on the cycle giving his linemates time to get open. Marner seems a bit bigger and more muscular than what he is listed at on the OHL website (stay tuned to the NHL Combine); that said he will need to improve his strength further before getting to the pro game.
4) Noah Hanifin, Defence, Boston College Eagles (6’2″ 205 lbs): Hanifin has dropped a spot from my November ranking, but this is not really his fault, more a function of how much Marner has risen. Whereas Eichel as a late-96 birthdate is a freshman in college due to that birthdate, Hanifin started Boston College a year early by accelerating his education last summer, and is amongst the youngest players in college hockey. With 16 points in 27 games so far, he’s showing that he was ready to make the jump. The best defenceman in this draft, Hanifin is big, strong, and mobile. He is a very good skater, with good speed, and the edgework and pivoting ability to quickly change directions and cover a ton of ice. He is an excellent two-way player, able to quarterback the power play with a hard shot, excellent vision, the ability to walk the line, poise, and great passing skills; or to rush the puck make his good puck handling and skating skill. No slouch in his own end, he plays shut down defence, with excellent positioning, an active stick, and strong anticipation. When given the opportunity he can throw a hit with his big frame.
5) Dylan Strome, Centre, Erie Otters (6’3, 187 lbs): Dylan Strome is used to being in the shadows. First he was in the shadow of older brother Ryan Strome, a fifth overall pick of the New York Islanders in 2011 who is now making an impact in the NHL. Now, it is in the shadow of McDavid. That said, Strome was able to emerge from that shadow when McDavid was on the shelf with a broken hand, and then with his world junior commitments. Strome has been a shining prospect in his own right, and is tied with Marner for the OHL scoring lead.
A versatile forward, Strome spent some time at all three forward spots over the last two seasons. He gives the Otters the versatility to load up a top line with McDavid when they really need a goal or on a powerplay, but is mostly used at centre where he creates a 1-2 punch down the middle and provides the Otters with a second strong scoring line. Strome has an outstanding wrist shot, and a great release. He also has good hands and can be a real sniper. Strome has the ability to be a playmaker with great vision and passing skills. He has good size and uses it to protect the puck in the cycle game, as well as to establish position in front of the net. He has high-end hockey IQ, and seems to make the right play with the puck on his stick, or can find openings in the defense to get off a one-timer. Strome shows a smooth skating stride, and good top end speed, but his acceleration and first few steps could use some improvement. Strome’s defensive game is also well developed for his age.
Stay tuned the rest of the week as we go through the rest of the top 30, and honourable mentions.
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Main Photo via Getty Images.