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February Rankings and Reports: 2019 NHL Draft
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, Five Nations, Four Nations, Subway Super Series, World Juniors) 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 the 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.
Our last update, the late November Rankings are here.
1.) Jack Hughes, Centre, U.S. National Team Development Program, 5’10” 168 lbs
With 56 points in 28 games this season, Hughes is delivering on his pre-draft hype. He also put up four points in four World Junior Games. Hughes has a complete offensive game. He is an elite-level skater, with outstanding speed, excellent acceleration, and top-notch agility and edge work. Hughes also has the soft and quick hands to handle the puck and make quick moves while skating at that top speed. With the way the NHL continues to emphasize speed and skill, Hughes is the perfect player to take advantage of those conditions.
Hughes is an outstanding playmaker. He has great vision and anticipates the movements of teammates. His hockey IQ is extremely high. Hughes can make a tape-to-tape pass through tight areas. He also has an accurate shot and quick release. Hughes quick hands allow him to change the angle of his release and fool goaltenders. If there is any criticism, and it is a small one, it is that Hughes could add some weight to his frame before being ready for the pro game. He is already starting to add some weight, and there is little reason at this point to expect anyone other than Hughes to be the top pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The gap has narrowed somewhat between first and second but Hughes is still the consensus top prospect.
2.) Kaapo Kakko, Right Wing, TPS Turku, 6’1″ 181 lbs
Last season, Kakko had 55 points in 38 games in the Finnish Under-20 league. He got a cup of coffee up in the men’s league, with one assist in six games. However, it was his work at the IIHF Under-18s that really impressed. Kakko put up 10 points in seven games, helping Finland to a gold medal. This year, Kakko has picked up where he left off and is impressing in the men’s league with 12 goals and 23 points in 32 games. Kakko also scored the gold-medal winning goal for Finland at the World Juniors and finished the tournament with two goals and five points in seven games.
Kakko is a highly skilled winger who can create in a variety of ways. He has the soft hands to stickhandle in a phone booth and can protect the puck and extend plays. His wrist shot is extremely powerful and features a very quick release. He also uses his soft hands to finish plays in tight. All of this makes him a pure sniper. However, he can also be an effective playmaker. When an opportunity presents itself, he can set up a teammate for a scoring chance. Kakko is a strong skater who can use his power to fight through checks or quick changes in direction or speed to beat defenders one-on-one. Kakko has started to play some centre in the Finnish league and this versatility can only help his draft stock.
3.) Vasili Podkolzin, Right Wing, SKA St. Petersburg, 6’1″ 190 lbs
Podkolzin burst onto the scene with an impressive performance at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup. With eight goals and 11 points in just five games, he led the Russian team to the bronze medal. He followed this up with eight points in six games at the World Junior A Hockey Challenge as well as three points in seven games at the World Juniors. Podkolzin has added six goals and eight points in 12 games in the MHL. He played three games in the KHL but has yet to pick up a point.
He is an excellent skater, featuring a powerful stride that generates good speed and also allows him to fight through checks and control the puck down low. Podkolzin has excellent balance and wins battles on the boards and in front of the net. Profiling as a power winger, he works well below the hash marks in the cycle game. Podkolzin can take the puck to the front of the net and has the ability to finish when he gets there.
Podkolzin has good stickhandling skills which make him tough to defend in one-on-one situations. He can beat defenders out of the corner, or off the rush. He also has very good passing skills with the vision to find open teammates. A natural goal scorer, Podkolzin has a strong wrist shot and a quick release. His soft hands also allow him to finish in close to the net. Most impressive though is his one-timer, which is a rocket.
4.) Bowen Byram, Left Defence, Vancouver Giants, 6’1″ 192 lbs
The third overall pick in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Byram had a strong rookie season with the Vancouver Giants. He put up six goals and 27 points in the regular season. Bryram took his game to another level in the WHL playoffs with three goals and seven points in seven games. It was enough to earn Byram a spot with Team Canada at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships despite being an underage player. Byram has continued that play this season, and it has helped the Giants to be a top contender in the WHL. He has 21 goals and 53 points in 53 games.
Byram is an excellent skater in both directions and this becomes the basis of a strong two-way game. He is able to join the rush, or pinch in at the blue line and still get back to his defensive position. His strong backwards skating allows him to maintain strong gap control and makes him tough to beat on the rush. Byram is willing to play a physical game and forwards have to be aware of coming down his side of the ice with their heads down.
Byram can skate the puck out of danger and makes a strong first pass to start the transition game. He is a strong puck-mover, willing to make plays through the neutral zone and to push forward to create offence as well. Byram has a very good shot from the blueline and the vision and passing skills to quarterback the power play. He understands how to get his shot on the net through traffic, using his lateral agility to open up shooting lanes.
5.) Kirby Dach, Centre, Saskatoon Blades, 6’4″ 198 lbs
Selected second overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Dach has emerged as a dominant player this year. Dach has 21 goals and 57 points in 50 games this season. Dach’s strong play has led the Blades to second place in the WHL East Division, finally moving forward on the team’s long rebuild. At 6-foot-4 Dach has the size to be a powerful centre. His stride is long and powerful and he is very tough to knock off the puck. Dach takes the puck to the net and is more likely to go through a defender than to try and make a deke to get around him. He has good top-end speed but his first few steps and his agility can use some improvement.
Dach has very good vision and passing skills. He finds open teammates and sets them up for scoring chances in tight. His puck protection skills allow him to extend plays down low and wait for a teammate to get open. Dach also has a decent wrist shot and release. He is using that shot more and it is leading to goals and opening up defences, making his playmaking skill even more deadly. Dach is also willing to use his body in his own end of the ice. He supports the defence with effective back pressure and works to win battles along the boards and keep the front of the net clear.
Main Photo: PLYMOUTH, MI – FEBRUARY 16: Jack Hughes #43 of the USA Nationals turns up ice with the puck against the Russian Nationals during the 2018 Under-18 Five Nations Tournament game at USA Hockey Arena on February 16, 2018, in Plymouth, Michigan. Team USA defeated Russia 5-4. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)