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 (26-30)
26.) Libor Hajek, Defence, Saskatoon Blades, 6’2″, 196 lbs (Nov 27): Drafted in the first round of the 2015 CHL Import Draft, the Czech defenceman has made an excellent transition to the WHL. He’s a smooth skater, with good speed and acceleration in both directions, excellent pivots and agility, and a powerful stride. With 20 points in 54 games so far this year, he’s shown the ability to move the puck, transitioning quickly out of his own end and making a strong first pass. He’s not a huge producer at the blue line on the powerplay, but he has shown some ability to make plays from there. Hajeck has shown good vision and passing ability, but could stand to work on his stickhandling. If he was a bit more confident, he could walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes or work to make a better play with it. Hajeck is a strong defensive defender. He is difficult to beat off the rush, and forces attackers to the outside. He has good gap control, and can land a big hit if an opponent tries to beat him to the outside but does not go around chasing hits and getting himself caught. His positioning in his own end is a strong point. He uses his size and long stick to cut down passing lanes.
27.) Sam Steel, Centre, Regina Pats, 5’11” 170 lbs (Nov 19): Steel is an outstanding skater with strong speed, great acceleration, and outstanding agility. Once he gets a step on a defender, he’s gone. He has outstanding stick-handling ability and very soft hands. He combines this with the skating to weave through traffic and create plays off the rush. Steel also has a good wrist shot and a quick release, allowing him to use defenders as a screen and fire it on net if they back off too much. Add in excellent vision and passing skills and Steel also excels as a playmaker. Steel has outstanding hockey IQ, and thinks the game a step ahead of others. He seems to always make the smart play with the puck on his stick. Steel is also a very hard worker, who constantly keeps his feet moving and is involved in every aspect of the play. He has a bit of peskiness to go along with that high end skill and has shown the willingness to compete on the backcheck. He’s put up 54 points in 56 games this season.
28.) Nathan Bastian, Right Wing, Mississauga Steelheads, 6’4″ 207 lbs (Nov UR): A big and strong forward, Bastian isn’t one to initiate the contact often, but he certainly doesn’t shy away from it. He uses his excellent size to win battles for loose pucks in the corners, to protect the puck on the cycle and to establish position in front of the net. Once he gets the puck he has good vision and a high hockey IQ to be a play maker for his linemates. Bastian also has the soft hands to execute deflections and bang in rebounds close to the net. He also has a heavy wrist shot, with a quick release. Bastian has really good skating skills for a big man. He has a quick first step and very good acceleration, he gets in quickly on the forecheck and causes turnovers. He has excellent blance and power in his stride, allowing him to fight through checks and get to the front of the net. Bastian is also very good positionally, and defensively mature for his age. He has put up 18 goals and 52 points in 52 games so far this year.
29.) Kale Clague, Defence, Brandon Wheat Kings, 6’0″ 177 lbs (Nov 15): Clague is an outstanding skater. He has great top-end speed and acceleration in both directions, which he pairs with good agility, pivots, and balance. This allows him to play a strong two-way game covering a huge amount of ice. He skates the puck up the ice well or can start the transition game with a strong first pass. A natural powerplay quarterback, Clague can walk the line, throws strong, crisp passes, and has excellent vision. His slapshot is good, but can be improved by adding some muscle to his frame. He already understands how to keep it low and on net, and how to get it through traffic. He needs to work on his defensive gap control and on being more physical in his own end, but that can also come with increased strength. He’s playing big minutes on the Wheat Kings and has 26 points in 56 games on the season.
30.) Brett Howden, Centre, Moose Jaw Warriors, 6’2″ 185 lbs (Nov 30): Howden is skilled in all three zones. He works hard in the dirty areas of the ice, creating offence by winning battles along the boards, and getting tips and rebounds in front of the net. He also has a strong shot and good release. Howden protects the puck well in the cycle game, extending plays, and keeping the puck down low in the offensive zone to create for teammates. He has excellent balance and is tough to knock off the puck. Howden is willing to back check hard and does all the little things that will make him a coaches favorite in his own end of the ice. Howden is having a strong year with 18 goals and 50 points in 54 games so far. His brother is Florida Panthers rookie forward Quinton Howden.