Welcome back to Top Shelf 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 (21-25)
21.) Luke Kunin, Centre/Right Wing, University of Wisconsin Badgers (6’0″ 196 lbs) (Nov UR): A late 1997 birthday, Kunin was the captain of the US NTDP U-18 program last year and helped lead the squad to a gold medal at the World Under 18 Hockey Championships. He scored six goals in seven games in a very impressive performance in the tournament. Now a freshman with Wisconsin, Kunin is putting up an impressive freshman season with 12 goals and 21 points in 25 games so far this year. Kunin shows high level hockey IQ. He seems to always make the right play with the puck on his stick. Without it, he is able to find openings in the defence and set up to fire a wrist shot, snap shot or one-timer. His release is quick and shot is heavy. Kunin also shows the good stickhandling to extend plays and the vision and passing skills to set up others. He plays an intense game getting involved in board battles and in front of the net. Kunin is defensively responsible, bringing this intensity to his own zone as well. He’s been used as a penalty killer for Wisconsin, and is not afraid to put his body on the line to block shots or cut down passing lanes. Kunin could stand to work on his skating. Once he gets going he has decent speed, but could use some work on his first few steps and acceleration going forward.
22.) Alex DeBrincat, Right Wing, Erie Otters, 5’7″ 161 lbs (Nov 26): Undrafted in the OHL, DeBrincat impressed the Otters brass in training camp and went on to score 51 goals as a 16-year-old. Did he benefit from playing a lot of minutes with Connor McDavid and/or Dylan Strome? Yes, of course he did. That said, it wasn’t all on those two players, as he has some talent in his own right too. He has great skating and the speed and acceleration to overcome his lack of size. DeBrincat is a pure sniper with an excellent wrist shot and release as well as a decent playmaker with good vision and passing skills. He is also a pest out on the ice, not afraid to throw hits, go to the net, fight in the corners, or get in the middle of scrums despite his lack of size. With McDavid gone, DeBrincat is continuing to shine. He has 40 goals and 75 points in 45 games so far this year. He also made the United States World Junior team, helping them to a bronze medal in Helsinki. The only question here is size; at 5-foot-7 and just 161 pounds many are going to question how he will transition to the pro game. DeBrincat looks like a high risk, high reward type of pick.
23.) Pascal Laberge, Centre/Right Wing, Victoriaville Tigres, 6’1″ 172 lbs (Nov UR) : The 2nd overall pick in the 2014 QMJHL draft, Laberge was involved in a surprising trade deadline move in 2015 that saw him go from Gatineau to Victoriaville. He has put up 18 goals and 57 points in 44 games this year. He was also one of the top forwards at the CHL Top Prospects game, as he was dangerous on every shift and had two goals and an assist in a 3-2 Team Orr victory. Laberge has good size, but could stand to put some muscle on his frame. He loves to forecheck, gets to the front of the net, wins battles along the boards and plays the cycle well at the junior level, but will need to fill out his frame before he is ready to play this gritty style against bigger pro opponents. Laberge is a quick skater with good acceleration. He has as the ability to change to change speeds and can fool defenders as a result and is very dangerous off the rush as a result. He also has a very hard wrist shot and excellent release, but doesn’t seem to use it enough. Instead Laberge is a playmaker, using his speed and agility to open up passing lanes and his vision and passing skill to create opportunities for linemates.
24.) Dillon Dube, Centre, Kelowna Rockets, 5’10” 181 lbs (Nov UR): Dube had 27 points in 45 regular season games, and 11 points in 18 playoff games during a solid rookie campaign for Kelowna. This was in very limited ice time as a 16-year-old on the best team in the WHL. Now in a bigger role, Dube has put up 22 goals and 54 points in 51 games this year. The undersized entre plays bigger than what he’s listed at, getting involved in the forecheck and battling for space in front of the net. He is not afraid to take on bigger opponents, and plays with a non-stop motor. Dube is a quick skater with good acceleration and agility. He is able to take defenders wide off the rush and change direction quickly to cut to the net, or pull up to create a passing or shooting lane. Dube has the instincts, vision, and passing skill to be a playmaker. He also has a heavy shot and quick release to be a sniper, and the soft hands to bury goals in tight to the net.
25.) Tyler Benson, Left Wing, Vancouver Giants, 6’0″ 205 lbs (Nov 18): The first overall pick of the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, Benson has shown to be a strong skater who plays a very gritty and physical game. His speed helps him to get in quickly on the forecheck and force defenders to make plays quickly or be plastered into the boards. When the puck does get turned over, he gets himself into good position to let go a strong wrist shot or a blistering one-timer. He has a great first step, which helps him to get to loose pucks, or to transition quickly when a teammate creates a turnover in his own zone, creating breakaways and odd-man rushes. Benson’s defensive game is also ahead of the curve for a 17-year-old. After scoring five points in four games at the Ivan Hlinka tournament and bringing home a gold medal, Benson missed the start of the season with surgery to remove a cyst on his tailbone. After coming back he suffered another lower body injury, and has been out of the lineup, including missing the CHL top prospects game. He’s been limited to just 28 games this year, but was effective with 26 points in those games. Benson’s draft stock could go either way at this point. If he can come back and put up numbers it will climb quickly, but the longer the injuries linger the further he will fall on draft boards.
Main Photo Credit:
Main Photo Caption: PROVIDENCE, RI – OCTOBER 16: Luke Kunin #9 of the U.S. National Under-18 Team skates during exhibition NCAA hockey against the Providence College Friars at Schneider Arena on October 16, 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)