Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at hockey’s young stars. Over the next few days we will be previewing the 2016 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 CHL season a good eight weeks old, a month or so of NCAA hockey, plenty of games for the USNTDP, the Ivan Hlinka tournament, an international break in Europe, and the Subway Series all being played since we last updated our draft rankings, we have gotten a decent overview of what some of the biggest prospects for the draft are doing this year.
That said, I, and the LWOS staff, have not seen everyone yet—its quite simply not possible at this point in the season, so if there is someone you feel is an obvious name that has been left out, we’ll do our best to get a look before our final ranks come out in April, May, and again in June. At this point the group we haven’t seen a lot of are those European prospects who, for whatever reason, haven’t had much exposure on the international stage. With the World Juniors, Five Nations, and the Under-18 all to come later in the year, we should get a better look at most.
2016 NHL Draft Rankings November Edition
1.) Auston Matthews, Centre, Zurich Lions, 6’2″ 200 lbs: Auston Matthews spent last season with the US NTDP U-18. A late 1997 birthday, he was born just two days too late to be eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. If he was those couple of days older he would have challenged Jack Eichel for the second overall spot—he’s that talented. Matthews broke many of the records set by Patrick Kane during his time with the US NTDP, and scored more than Eichel did. The Arizona native has made the unprecedented decision to play pro hockey in Switzerland during his draft year, rather than heading for the NCAA or CHL. He started off strong with Zurich scoring some highlight reel goals, and putting up 10 goals and 16 points in 14 games. A back injury currently has him out of action, but he’s expected to be back soon and to play for the United States in the World Juniors.
Matthews has very good size. He is an exceptional skater, who has the stickhandling ability to make plays at top speed and the vision and passing ability to be a dynamic playmaker. Add in good hockey sense and a decent shot, with a quick release and it’s easy to see that he has all the attributes to be a top-line offensive centre in due time. His defensive game could use a little bit of work, but this is a minor quibble for a player with the high end offensive potential of Matthews. A good coach can teach him defense, but the offensive instincts, vision and playmaking ability he has cannot be learned.
2.) Jakob Chychrun, Defence, Sarnia Sting, 6’2″ 200 lbs: A superb skater, Chychrun’s stride looks effortless, his pivots crisp, and his agility is outstanding. Already at 6’2″ and still growing, he also has the size teams will be looking for. Add in good vision, strong passing skills and a bomb for a slap shot and he has all the tools to be an offensive force. He has high-end hockey sense and seems to make the right play most times. Chychrun is already developping a strong defensive game, playing shutdown defensive hockey and getting big minutes against top lines even as a 16-year-old last year. He has excellent positioning, good gap control, an active stick, and can play physically without getting himself out of position. His game is very comparable to Aaron Ekblad at the same age. At the recent Canada-Russia Super Series, Chychrun was the best defenseman on the ice during the two match-ups between Russia and the OHL. He has four goals and 12 points in 18 games with the Sarnia Sting so far this season.
3.) Jesse Puljujarvi, Right Wing, Karpat, 6’4, 200 lbs: Puljujarvi is big for his age, and plays a game based on excellent strength. He uses his body to protect the puck and has the balance and power in his skating stride to fight through checks and get to the net. He also is extremely skilled with soft hands, good stickhandling, and an excellent wrist shot and release. He has all the skills to be a top power forward prospect but Puljujarvi can do it all, also playing the role of play-maker off the wing. He has good vision and the ability to thread passes through the tightest of openings. He was extremely dangerous at the 2015 World Junior Championships—even if the points did not always come. He has continued that form, while getting more results playing for Finland’s Under-20 team so far this year with two goals and four points in five games. He has also put up five goals and ten points in 21 games playing for Karpat in Finland’s top men’s league, the SM-Liiga.
4.) Patrik Laine, Left Wing, Tappara, 6’3″ 205 lbs: Laine isn’t the quickest skater, but he does have a very powerful stride. He is able to fight through checks and get to the front of the net, or win battles along the boards due to a strong lower body and excellent balance. He has a heavy shot, with an excellent release and that will help him score goals now, and at the next level. While he is a shoot first type of player, Laine also has very good vision and the ability to pass through small openings. He does get involved physically and can throw some huge hits on the forecheck, but this is something he only does occasionally. He is content to apply pressure, create turnovers, and get involved with, and win, board battles. Laine has put up three goals and five points in four games with the Finnish U-20 team this year, and has also added four goals and eight points in 16 games with Tappara in the SM-Liiga.
5.) Matthew Tkachuk, Left Wing, London Knights, 6’1″ 190 lbs: The son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk is playing for the London Knights in the OHL this season. He has already put up eight goals and 34 points in just 18 games so far this year. Tkachuk has very good positioning and high-end hockey sense, and the puck seems to follow him around the ice. He understands how to find open spots in the defence. He has an excellent shot and release, as well as a soft touch in close to the net, making him a real goal scoring threat. It’s his play-making that has been really impressive this year though. He has excellent vision, the patience and poise to slow the game down and wait for opportunities, and the skill to put the puck through the tiniest of openings. He cycles well and wins battles along the boards to extend plays and create even more opportunities. Tkachuk back-checks hard and already plays a strong two-way game. His skating was weak at the start of last year, but improved as the year went on and that improvement continues this season. While he’s not a speedster, he is above average and the balance, power, and agility are all good.
Main Photo: PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – SEPTEMBER 22: Auston Matthews #34 of the ZSC Lions Zurich skates during the Champions Hockey League round of thirty-two game between Sparta Prague and ZSC Lions Zurich at o2 Arena Prague on September 22, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Sparta Prague/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)