In a Season of Ups and Downs, What's Jakob Chychrun's Value?

Towards the beginning of the 2015/16 hockey season, defenceman Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting was considered almost a lock to be a top-three pick at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, with many scouts and prospects ranking him second after only Auston Matthews. He has in the past been compared to Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick of the 2014 draft.

However, recently it seems his stock has fallen off—most mid-season rankings, including Bob McKenzie’s (which came out February 8th) put him around the fifth overall spot. There is even a fairly outspoken group who wouldn’t even call Chychrun the best defenceman available in this draft crop. So what happened? Has Chychrun fallen off? Or have his peers improved?

In a Season of Ups and Downs, What’s Jakob Chychrun’s Value?

Jakob Chychrun’s 6’2″, 205-pound frame is one that all teams covet in a top defenceman. He uses it well, too. The Sting visited London on Sunday, looking for revenge from a game that ended colourfully a few weeks before, and obviously they expected an extremely physical matchup. Chychrun was more than more than up for it, commenting after the game, “I like to use my body and play a bit of a power game so I think it suits me well.” He’s intimidating on the boards, and protects the puck better than most players in the OHL.

That’s not to say Chychrun is a one-sided player, though. He is certainly an impressive physical presence, but unlike many players with his toughness, he possesses the skating ability and technical skill that make him a very well-rounded defenceman that can heavily influence play in either end of the ice. He has 34 points in 47 games this season, which is seventh in the OHL.

Where Jakob Chychrun really stands out, though, is watching how maturely and intelligently he plays. He is economical with his passes, and finds open space, which is one of the major reasons Sarnia’s offence—headlined by Travis Konecny and Pavel Zacha—has been so potent this season, as the base for many of their successful zone entries. As an alternate captain for the Sting, he’s already taken on a leadership role that should make him even more desirable to an NHL team.

The World Junior Championships are often a showcase for some of the most elite eligible players, and a place where their draft stock will rise or fall. However, this year it seems the player who was most affected by the tournament was one that didn’t even go, in Jakob Chychrun. He was cut from the Canadian team in early December, prompting some to suggest the Florida-born defenceman had hurt his career by electing not to play for the United States.

Easily the most notable draft-eligible prospect absent from the tournament, several players previously ranked below Chychrun garnered the attention needed to pass him in rankings. London’s Matthew Tkachuk was a crucial part of the American team, which vaulted him to the top of the NHL’s North American prospect list, passing Chychrun to become the almost unanimous top 1998-born player in the CHL. Finland’s top scoring duo of Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi cemented themselves in this year’s “big three” at the top of the draft, behind Auston Matthews. Alex Nylander of the Mississauga Steelheads also had a breakout tournament for Sweden, and is now another plausible candidate to be picked in the top five in June.

Even Olli Juolevi, also of the London Knights, caught the eye of scouts and writers watching Finland’s gold medal run, as he was the host country’s top defenceman. In fact, his performance in Helsinki may have been what hurt Chychrun’s draft placement the most. Juolevi is now seen by many as an anti-Chychrun, playing a very fast, offensive-minded game. It seems that any team drafting in the top five in June will be presented with a difficult choice if they want a defenceman: a physical, two-way defenceman with a scoring touch in Chychrun, or a speedy power-play quarterback in Juolevi.

The Top Prospects Game in Vancouver a few weeks ago likely bought Chychrun some more favour with scouts and NHL GMs who haven’t been watching him all year. As captain of Team Cherry, he executed his preferred style of play to the best of the abilities, stifling Matthew Tkachuk and holding him off the scoresheet. It’s only one game, but it may have made Jakob Chychrun’s name pop up more often in meetings among NHL management teams.

Chychrun himself isn’t overly worried about the draft, though. When asked after the London game whether he felt any extra pressure going up against Tkachuk and Juolevi, he responded,

“I don’t really look at it like that, I just look at it like another night. I like playing against them, they’re great players, but I don’t really focus on the draft too much; I just play against them how I would any other game.”

He and Tkachuk do have tension, though. It seems that every time they play each other, they’re matched up against one another, and each of them are keen to get under the other’s skin. Chychrun claims it’s initiated by Tkachuk, though: “I think that’s more his style of play.”

In the final stretch of the OHL season, Chychrun’s Sting are a real contender to make a deep playoff run, despite being caught in a tough conference with Erie, London and Kitchener. He will be instrumental in their campaign for a championship, and whether he performs or not will ultimately be the deciding factor in whether or not his draft stock rises. It’s unlikely he’ll get back up to second—the Finnish duo is too hot for that—but he could put some ground between himself and Juolevi, and even leapfrog Tkachuk.

All we can be sure of is, if Jakob Chychrun goes up against Olli Juolevi in the playoffs, the hockey world will be watching to finally decide who the best defenceman in the class of 2016 is.

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