2016 NHL Draft: Matthews, Chychrun head preseason list of North American prospects

By David Hahn
2016 NHL Draft: Auston Matthews - U.S. NTDP; Jakob Chychrun - Sarnia Sting

Photo: U.S. NTDP forward Auston Matthews and Sarnia Sting defenseman Jakob Chychrun are the top two North American prospects for the 2016 NHL Draft heading into the 2015-16 season (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images and CHL Images)

 

 

With the 2015 NHL Draft in the rear-view mirror, the next draft class from North America in 2016 features a deep group from the United States and the OHL. With Auston Matthews in the news lately due to his interest in playing abroad, that offers an opportunity to take a look at the top draft-eligible skaters from North America.

There is a broad range of players available for the 2016 NHL Draft among the top draft-eligible prospects, from two-way centers, to a solid group of power forwards, and a pair of high-end defensemen. Among the storylines in this group are some of the family connections that bond former NHL veterans with their offspring, which should make this group one of the more memorable draft classes, just one year removed from two generational talents realizing their dreams.

1. Auston Matthews, C, U.S. NTDP
6’2”, 194 lbs.

Right behind Jack Eichel in the American pipeline is Auston Matthews, a native of a non-traditional hockey market in Phoenix, Arizona. Matthews is the next-in-line and the top prospect from the United States next season, blending a total package of size, agility, straight-line speed, pinpoint vision and an NHL-ready shot. He starred for the U.S. at the U18, scoring eight goals and seven assists in seven games, resulting in a gold medal for the team and an MVP award for Matthews.

Currently, there is a bit of conjecture over where Matthews will spend the 2015-16 season, and whether or not he will continue with the U.S. NTDP or head to Switzerland to continue his development against professionals. Regardless of where he lands, Matthews projects as the first overall pick in 2016.

2. Jakob Chychrun, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
6’2”, 194 lbs.

The first-overall pick in the 2014 OHL Priority Selection stepped right into Sarnia’s lineup and immediately became a factor. Chychrun is a franchise-caliber defenseman, one that controls the game in all three zones and looks similar to Aaron Ekblad. He was clearly the top rookie defenseman in the OHL last year, and finished with 16 goals and 17 assists, solid numbers on a team that rapidly improved as the season progressed. It would be a big surprise if he wasn’t the first rearguard off the board.

3. Max Jones, LW, London Knights (OHL)
6’2”, 190 lbs.

After a down season by London standards, the club acquired two phenomenal assets this offseason by signing Max Jones and Matthew Tkachuk, adding to what should be a contender in 2015-16. Jones played his bantam and midget years with Detroit Honeybaked, a storied development franchise in Michigan. Last year, Jones put up 18 goals and 10 assists with the U.S. U17 team, to go along with a staggering 189 penalty minutes. That number represents his overall game as a gritty, two-way forward who is learning the finer points of the game.

4. Matthew Tkachuk, LW, London Knights (OHL)
6’1”, 187 lbs.

The second of the London Knights’ two major coups is forward Matthew Tkachuk, son of former NHL star Keith and another player from the U.S. NTDP squad. Tkachuk provides much more of an offensive presence, as referenced by his 96-point season. But make no mistake, his game still combines a blend of his father’s, as the younger Tkachuk is a power-forward with a fantastic skating stride and understanding of the game. He has a quality shot with a deceptive release, and is not afraid to drive the net and play a physical game.

5. Clayton Keller, C, U.S. NTDP
5’9”, 165 lbs.

The next U.S. NTDP product is Clayton Keller, a young forward that offers a different dynamic than his counterparts. As an undersized winger, Keller has to use his agility and vision to dart in and out of traffic, which often results in highlight-reel plays. He has an elite offensive game overall, and has the ability to beat any defender one-on-one with an arsenal of moves. Keller is the next big name from the Shattuck St. Mary’s program, one that has graduated Stanley Cup champions Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

6. Logan Brown, C, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
6’6”, 216 lbs.

Logan Brown was part of a major early-season trade between the Niagara IceDogs and Windsor Spitfires, and the Spitfires are primed to possibly contend once again with him In the lineup. With good bloodlines from his father, former NHL defenseman Jeff Brown, Logan has the intelligence and determination to become one of the most desired players in this draft. He has been blessed with the gift of size, and puts that to good use to protect the puck and bring it to the net, as well on the defensive side of the puck where his wingspan comes in handy. He has a lethal shot, and if his consistency tightens up, he will be a force in the OHL next season.

7. Kieffer Bellows, C, U.S. NTDP
6’0”, 185 lbs.

The Sioux Falls Stampede won the USHL’s Clark Cup championship, and a huge part of that came from the stick of Kieffer Bellows. He has NHL bloodlines himself, as his father, Brian, was a long-time Minnesota North Star. One of the most consistent players in the USHL last season, Bellows excelled in many areas of the game and was trusted with additional icetime, especially on special teams. Bellows can fly, and is willing to shoot from anywhere, traits that resulted in a 33-goal season, just two off of the USHL leaders. He was invited to join the U.S. NTDP next season, which should help his overall progression and exposure.

8. Tyler Benson, LW, Vancouver Giants (WHL)
6’0”, 196 lbs.

When Tyler Benson was selected first overall in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, many scouting outlets already had Benson on their radar. Benson was a prolific scorer in Alberta Prep hockey, once finishing a 33-game season with 146 points and an MVP award. In the WHL, however, Benson hasn’t quite lived up to lofty expectations, but nevertheless has come along well as Vancouver has worked with him to become more of a two-way player. He finished with 14 goals and 31 assists in his first full season in the WHL, solid numbers for a rookie. Benson will be presented with additional icetime and responsibilities next season, and will have every opportunity to raise his draft stock.

9. Sean Day, D, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
6’2”, 229 lbs.

As a top-flight talent that was once given Exceptional Player Status by Hockey Canada for early entry into the OHL, you’d expect him to be higher on this list. After finishing his second season with the Mississauga Steelheads, Day improved offensively, but often times looked bored by the competition. That said, there’s still a lot to like about his game. Day is an elite skater, and very rarely can be beaten by straight-line speed. He’s developing his offensive game, and added 20 points from his rookie season, showing a mature poise and good decision-making with the puck. With his draft season pending, Day will need to overcome trade speculation and the weight that being an exceptional player provides.

10. Michael McLeod, C, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
6’1”, 183 lbs.

The middle sibling of three hockey-playing brothers, Michael McLeod is hoping to guide the way for the family. He has the pedigree to do so, as the 2014 MVP of the Gold Cup guided his team to a provincial championship before landing with fellow draft-eligible Sean Day in Mississauga. McLeod has all the tools that scouts look for from the top pivots in the draft, and as he became more comfortable at the OHL level, really began to shine. McLeod hasn’t reached his potential yet, and if he continues to mature both physically and on the ice, he could become a dangerous scorer next year.

Honorable mentions

Kyle Clague, D, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
Dante Fabbro, D, Penticton Vees (BCHL)
Julien Gauthier, RW, Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
Chad Krys, D, U.S. NTDP
Sam Steel, C, Regina Pats (WHL)

Follow Dave Hahn on Twitter via @DHahnHockey