At roughly the halfway point of the 2015-16 hockey season, the picture for the upper portion of the 2016 NHL Draft is becoming a bit clearer, in part due to the recently completed World Junior Championship that took place in Helsinki, Finland.
A handful of high-end prospects that took part in that tournament either improved or solidified their position among the 2016 draft hopefuls. Indeed, the 2016 crop competing at this WJC was one of the more impressive draft-eligible prospect groups to take part in any recent edition of the U20 World Juniors, a tournament that is generally dominated by players that have already had their names called by NHL clubs.
Helping to focus the picture is the release of NHL Central Scouting Services’ (CSS) midterm rankings for this year’s draft, in combination with the January release of ISS Hockey’s (ISS) ranking of the top 30 prospects. While the rankings from the two services aren’t a perfect fit – CSS splits their rankings between North American and Europe while ISS lumps all of the prospects together – comparing the two lists certainly provides a rough idea of the players that are considered first round-worthy at this juncture.
Matthews on top heading into back nine
Starting at the top of the rankings, it appears that CSS and ISS are in agreement on the players that occupy the top six slots in the midseason rankings.
Leading the way is ZSC Lions forward Auston Matthews, the American-born prospect competing in Switzerland’s National League A. Matthews turned in a notable performance at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, finsishing fourth in tournament scoring with four goals and 11 points in seven games for the bronze medal-winning USA squad. ISS has placed Matthews at the top of their rankings from the start of the season, while CSS has him ranked first among European skaters.
Beyond Matthews, there seems to be a general consensus as to the five players that fall in behind the Arizona native. Four of those five players also played a starring role at the World Juniors, including two players from that tournament’s host and gold medalist, Finland.
Forwards Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine were instrumental in helping Finland win the gold, with Puljujarvi finishing the tournament as the leading scorer with five goals and 17 points in seven games, and Laine placing third in WJC scoring with seven goals and 13 points. ISS ranks Puljujarvi second and Laine fourth while CSS has the two big Finns slotted in behind Matthews among the European skaters.
Sitting in between Puljujarvi and Laine in the ISS rankings is London Knights forward Matthew Tkachuk, who was Matthews teammate at the World Juniors. Tkachuk was yet another 2016 prospect that finished among the scoring leaders at the U20 tournament, where he posted four goals and seven assists to tie Matthews for fourth in scoring with 11 points. Tkachuk is the top-ranked North American skater according to CSS and is ranked third by ISS.
The first Canadian player in these rankings, as well as the first defenseman, is the Sarnia Sting’s Jakob Chychrun. Chychrun was cut from Canada’s WJC squad prior to the team’s trip to Helsinki, so he has a degree of separation from the other U20 players that make up the top six. Chychrun is ranked fifth by ISS and is the second-ranked North American skater in the CSS rankings.
Rounding out the sextet at the top of the 2016 rankings is another OHL player (and the third with NHL bloodlines), forward Alexander Nylander of the Mississauga Steelheads. Nylander moved to Mississauga, ON from Sweden for the 2015-16 season and has had no problems competing on the smaller ice surface. Nor did he have a problem re-adapting to the bigger European ice surfaces as he starred for Sweden at the World Juniors, finishing sixth in tournament scoring with four goals and nine points in seven games. The sixth-place finish was appropriate considering that Nylander is ranked sixth by ISS and is arguably the sixth-ranked player according to CSS by virtue of his third overall ranking among North American skaters.
CHL trio vies for Top 10 status
From this point of the draft order, there is a divergance of opinion between CSS and ISS as to the players that round out the top 10, and beyond.
The one player that appears to be solidly in the 7-10 range on both lists is Nylander’s teammate on the Steelheads, forward Michael McLeod. The Mississauga native has already surpassed his point totals from his OHL rookie season, posting 18 goals and 48 points in 43 games this season. McLeod is ranked seventh by ISS and sixth among North American skaters by CSS.
The other two prospects that could be viewed as strong candidates for the Top 10 would be Julien Gauthier of the Val d’Or Foreurs and Olli Juolevi of the London Knights. Both players competed at the 2016 World Junior Championship, with Juolevi definitely opening some eyes as a member of champion Team Finland. He finished the tournament with nine assists in seven games, placing him ninth in tournament scoring and second among defensemen.
Gauthier, who is tied for second in goals in the QMJHL with 33, is ranked fourth among North American skaters by CSS and 12th by ISS. Juolevi slots in at fifth among North American skaters according to CSS, and 12th overall in the ISS rankings.
Several candidates in 10-15 range
As far as a candidate for the final slot in the top 10, there appears to be several names to choose from at this time.
After McLeod, ISS rounds out their top 10 with forwards Max Jones of the London Knights and Tyson Jost of the Penticton Vees (BCHL), and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev of the Windsor Spitfires. Those same three players sit between 10th and 15th among North American skaters in the CSS midterms, with Sergachev being the highest-ranked at #10.
Moving over to Europe, the three candidates for that final slot include forwards Rasmus Asplund of Farjestad, Carl Grundstrom of MODO, and German Rubtsov of the Russia U18 squad in the MHL. The three are ranked fourth through sixth among European skaters by CSS. Rubtsov is the highest-ranked of the trio according to ISS as he sits at 11. Asplud, another 2016 to register a solid showing at the WJC, is further down the list at 27, while ISS currently has Grundstrom outside the top 30.
Six more for the Top 20
Six 2016 prospects that could find their way into the top 15 and seem solidly among the top 20 prospects include Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward Pierre-Luc Dubois (CSS – 7 NA; ISS – 18); U.S. NTDP forward Clayton Keller (CSS – 8 NA; ISS – 17); Boston University defenseman Charlie McAvoy (CSS – 9 NA; ISS – 20); NTDP forward Kieffer Bellows (CSS – 12 NA; ISS – 15); Windsor Spitfires forward Logan Brown (CSS – 14 NA; ISS – 13); and Penticton Vees defenseman Dante Fabbro (CSS – 18 NA; ISS – 16).
International duo heads the goaltender rankings
In goal, there seems to be agreement between CSS and ISS on the top two prospects at that position. Everett Silvertips netminder Carter Hart is ranked first among North American goalies by CSS, and he is the top-ranked goaltender according to ISS. Meanwhile, Filip Gustavsson of Lulea’s junior squad is the top goalie in Europe according to CSS, and he sits second among goaltenders in the ISS rankings.