Welcome back to Top Shelf Hockey Prospects, the column looking at hockey’s future stars. Over the next few days we will be previewing the 2016 NHL Draft by ranking our top 30 prospects and honourable mentions.
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.
2016 NHL Draft Rankings February Edition (1-5)
1.) Auston Matthews, Centre, Zurich Lions, 6’2″ 200 lbs (November ranking: 1):
Auston Matthews spent last season with the U.S. 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 U.S. NTDP, and scored more than Eichel did. The Arizona native is now playing pro hockey in Switzerland during his draft year, rather than heading for the NCAA or CHL. Matthews has had a strong campaign playing against men in the Swiss League and putting up better than a point-per-game pace with 23 goals and 38 points in 31 games. He finished just one goal short of an American record at the World Juniors, putting up seven goals and 11 points in seven games in the tournament.
Matthews 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.
Not just a finesse player, Matthews has the size to fight through checks, and the powerful stride to drive the net and score goals and make plays in that way as well. 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. Its already come a long way under Marc Crawford in Zurich. A good coach can teach him defense, but the offensive instincts, vision and playmaking ability he has cannot be learned.
Matthews is NHL ready now, and can be a franchise centre going forward, and in my scouting he is the clear number one pick. Barring a major injury or off-ice issue that would put his character in doubt, any suggestions that any other prospect could challenge him in this draft seem to be wishful thinking and/or media hype.
2.) Patrik Laine, Left Wing, Tappara, 6’3″ 205 lbs (November: 4):
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. When I say he isn’t the quickest, I don’t want this misinterpreted, he does have above average speed, but its not his best asset. 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. Most of the time he is content to apply pressure, create turnovers, and get involved with, and win, board battles. This may be even more effective in terms of gaining and maintaining possession than throwing those huge hits.
Laine had a tremendous World Juniors, helping to lead Finland to a gold medal on home ice with seven goals and 13 points in seven games in the tournament. He is playing against men in the Finnish Sm-Liiga and has put up 13 goals and 27 points in 35 games. He has recently been invited to play in the European Hockey Tour with the Finnish National Team, becoming the youngest player ever invited to play for the Senior National Team in Finland.
3.) Jesse Puljujarvi, Right Wing, Karpat, 6’4, 200 lbs (November: 3)
Puljujarvi was the Ying to Laine’s Yang at the World Juniors, putting up an incredible five goals and 17 points in seven games in the tournament and also helping to lead Finland to gold. He is very big and plays a game based on his size and strength advantages. He isn’t a huge hitter, but he uses his body to protect the puck and his strength and leverage to win board battles or to position himself in front of the net.
Puljujarvi has the balance and power in his skating stride to fight through checks and take the puck 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 and goal scorer. Puljujarvi though can do it all, also playing the role of play-maker off the wing just as well. He has good vision and the ability to thread passes through the tightest of openings. Puljujarvi also has the speed and acceleration to beat defenders to the outside on the rush. He has put up eight goals and 23 points in 40 games playing for Karpat in the SM-Liiga.
4.) Matthew Tkachuk, Left Wing, London Knights, 6’1″ 190 lbs (November: 5):
The son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk is playing for the London Knights in the OHL this season. He has put up 21 goals and 57 assists for 78 points in 42 games so far this year. He was also an important part of Team USA’s bronze winning performance at the World Juniors with four goals and 11 points in seven games. 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. He has the hand eye coordination to tip in pucks, and the quickness to pounce on and bury rebounds.
It’s Tkachuk’s play-making that has been really impressive this season 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. He now shows above average speed. He also has great agility, and is able to maneuver through traffic both with and without the puck. The power and balance are good, and help him to protect the puck in the cycle and to attack the net. Tkachuk also shows some signs of his father’s grittiness and some of the family mean streak.
5.) Jakob Chychrun, Defence, Sarnia Sting, 6’2″ 200 lbs (November: 2):
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. He has had some bouts of inconsistency of late, and some are questioning him for that reason. He’s dropped a few spots in our rankings due to this, and the fact that he just isn’t putting up the offensive numbers that were expected. Still with nine goals and 36 points in 50 games, he’s not doing poorly either and is still the top defender in the class. I just was looking for a bigger jump from the 33 points in 42 games he produced at age 16. While still seen as the draft’s top defenceman, others are closing the gap.
Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk of USA celebrate the 3-2 goal during the 2016 IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship bronze medal game between Sweden and USA in Helsinki, Finland, on January 5, 2016. Photo Credits to AFP / Lehtikuva / Markku Ulander / Getty Images.