The 2015 NHL Draft has come and gone. While most NHL teams and their fans are still pondering the possibilities of their new assets heading into the future, the next draft class from Europe is preparing itself for a big 2015-16 season, which at the moment has a number of extremely fascinating talents that scouts are very excited to see starting next month at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Bratislava, Slovakia and Breclav, Czech Republic. While some of these players may eventually wind up in North America as soon as this winter, fans may just see U.S. wunderkind Auston Matthews in a pro European jersey this winter, as well.
As is usually the case at this juncture of the year, predominantly forwards who have already strutted their stuff at various tournaments throughout last winter and then at the U18 World Championship dominate the top of this list. Taking this into account, there are several very strong prospects coming from Europe who have gained international attention while already having at least part of season under their belt at the highest pro level in their respective countries.
Heading the list is a Finnish forward who is already 6’3” and 200 pounds and played a key role for Finland’s silver medal-winning team at the U18 World Championship this past spring. It’s felt at this point that he will compete for one of the top three draft positions in the 2016 NHL Draft.
1. Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat (Liiga)
6‘3“, 200 lbs.
Jesse Puljujarvi is big, powerful, can really move, and there seems to be no lack of confidence in his game. On top of it all, he is jovial and humble, and seems very determined to be all he can be. A coach’s dream, Puljujarvi was already a top-six forward for Finland at the U18 in Switzerland and the silver medal winner put up two goals, seven points, and a +5 rating in his seven tournament outings. Displaying a sound ability to protect and distribute the puck, Puljujarvi can play the game most anyway you want it and shows no fear in moving through traffic areas.
Last season, as a 16/17 year old, Puljujarvi scored 14 goals and 21 points in just 16 U20 league games. He was also loaned to Hokki of the second pro league and put up eight goals, 13 points, and a +9 in 15 games. His season become all that much more impressive when he chipped in four goals, 11 points, and a +4 in 21 games for Karpat in Liiga play. Although his role was minimal, he has already represented Finland at the U20 World Junior Championship. But plainly, many top-flight players don’t achieve all that in their actual draft year, much less the season before.
2. Dmitri Sokolov, LW/C, Omsk Yastreby (MHL)
6’0”, 215 lbs.
If you like your Russian forwards to be big-bodied freight trains who can still pivot on a dime and like to get a lot done individually, then you are going to have fun watching Dmitri Sokolov this winter. He is both strong and talented with the stick, and takes a lot of pride in impacting a game with his bull-in-a-china-shop mentality in the offensive zone. Sure, there is a lot he needs to work on to become a more complete player, but he appears to have the smarts to be effective over the long run even when he doesn’t have the puck, albeit preferring to be controlling the action when he is on the ice. A determined player, he has the motor and size to effectively get by opposing defensemen.
A player many are excited to see this winter, he was drafted third overall by the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL in the CHL Import Draft, to whom he committed shortly thereafter. After two goals, five points, and a +2 in five U18 games, along with 13 goals and 17 points in 35 MHL games, Sokolov will put his goods on display in the North American spotlight this winter.
3. Patrik Laine, RW, Tappara (Liiga)
6’3”, 210 lbs.
Slightly larger than Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine is considered an enfant terrible for a number of reasons. Along with a number of stories about poor relationships with coaches, it is easy to watch him on the ice and wonder if his style is all that popular with his teammates. But there is no denying his rocket of a shot, which he makes excellent use of in a one-time capacity, nor his strong ability to carry and protect the puck. It is no easy task separating this hulk of a kid from the puck anywhere on the ice. A menace in the offensive zone, many see Laine as THE Finnish player who will one day assume the importance and wherewithal of a Teemu Selanne.
Selected 24th overall by the Sarnia Sting in the 2015 CHL Import Draft, chances are still high that Laine will continue his ice hockey progression in Finland, where he is expected to take a regular shift for Tappara in Liiga play. At the U18, he tallied eight goals and 11 points along with a +6 rating in seven games, earning a spot on the All-Star team. Last season he played primarily for LeKi in Mestis (Finland’s second league) and had a so-so season with five goals, 12 points, and a -12 in 38 games.
Expected to be part of Finland’s 2016 WJC club, it will be a fascinating winter for this truly special and meticulous player.
4. Alexander Nylander, RW, AIK J20 (SuperElit)
5’11”, 165 lbs.
Fans simply have to love the story about the Nylander family that just keeps on giving. The younger brother to Toronto super prospect William and son to former NHL forward Michael, Alexander Nylander just had a big winter as not only one of his nation’s top U17 players internationally, but one of the best U20 players in the country as a 16/17 year old. For famed AIK Stockholm’s U20 team, he contributed 15 goals, 41 points, and a -8 rating in 44 games. He also casually chipped in two goals, 13 points, and a +5 in seven U18 league contests. To cap things off, Nylander got his feet wet in pro play with seven Allsvenskan games, in which he collected two points.
Like his brother and father, Nylander has proven to be an incredibly skilled playmaker, displaying a keen ability to create space for both he and his teammates while showing off some elite puck skills. Seeing the ice much like his brother, the passes and shots have often been things of beauty. Drafted 12th by the Mississauga Steelheads in the CHL Import Draft, it is uncertain at this point what Nylander will be doing next season.
5. Rasmus Asplund, C/LW, Farjestad (SHL)
6’0”, 180 lbs.
Already quite accomplished for his age, the young Rasmus Asplund had a terribly busy 2014-15 season which was capped off by captaining Sweden at the U18 WC, where he contributed two goals and five points in five games. Before that, he was the last cut from Sweden’s 2015 WJC squad and spent a good two thirds of the season playing for Farjestad’s men’s team in the SHL, collecting three points and a -1 rating in 38 games. He also added 11 goals, 32 points, and a +23 rating in 25 U20 league games as a 17 year old, making him one of the nation’s top junior players.
Asplund will be expected to take on an even bigger role in the SHL next season and is considered by many to be a more well-rounded prospect than, say, teammate Joel Eriksson Ek, who was just drafted and has signed his entry-level ontract. It will be an exciting year for Asplund, who will not only be in the SHL, but will likely be part of the WJC squad.
6. Olli Juolevi, D, Jokerit U20 (Jr. A SM-Liiga)
6’2”, 185 lbs.
There has been some talk that Olli Juolevi may be about the most solid defensive prospect coming out of Finland since, well, in a while. Already very nicely sized, Juolevi is simply very cerebral in his approach to the game, as he is able to play it any way you like it. Most impressive is how effortless he makes things look while making breakout passes that can often stretch the limits of viewer belief. Intelligent and extremely responsible defensively, he just spent the entire season playing for Jokerit in the U20 circuit, putting up an impressive seven goals and 35 points in 49 games.
Drafted 45th overall in the CHL Import Draft by the strong London Knights of the OHL, it appears as though Jokerit will be losing out on a kid they felt could possibly skate in Liiga this season. For NHL scouts, they’ll get a prime look at a defenseman who may just make an impact similar to that of landsman Julius Honka several years back for the Swift Current Broncos.