It’s been a little less than a month since our last Consolidated Rankings were published, but six of the eight list makers have put out new rankings, and there has been plenty of movement already. The World Junior Championships also took place in that time frame, and as that’s one of the most important events of the season for draft eligible prospects, it factors heavily in the perception of many of the players.
Let’s take a look at the potential first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, as it looks in mid-January.
Nolan Patrick Returns
In the world of draft eligible prospects, there hasn’t been much bigger news than the much anticipated return of Nolan Patrick – the presumptive first overall pick – to the Brandon Wheat Kings lineup last Friday night, and the fact that he put up four points that night was just gravy.
Patrick had not played a game since October, but didn’t look it, as he stepped right back on to the Wheat Kings’ top line and power play unit. The powerful centre may not have the reputation of a McDavid or a Matthews, but he’s the kind of player that does everything above average or better, and has zero discernible weaknesses in his game.
“I’ve watched Nolan play for three years,” TSN’s Craig Button told Bob Marjanovich last night on TSN 1040. “He was the rookie of the year in the Western League. For Team Canada internationally, he’s a top player. Last year, the best team in the Western Hockey League were the Brandon Wheat Kings, and [Patrick] is the MVP of the playoffs. He can skate, he can think, he can shoot the puck, he’s big, he’s competitive.
“I think he’s cut from the mould of an Eric Staal, I think he’s that type of centreman.”
For all the time that Patrick was out, no other prospect could shake him from that number 1 spot (with the exception of the McKeen’s list, who had Hischier at 1, but they are always the contrarians). As it was told, teams knew what Patrick was capable of, and no other prospect had shown themselves to have greater value. All teams want to see now is how he responds after the injury, to see him demonstrate that there are no lasting effects.
“The scouts need to see him play. He just needs to give [teams] a comfort level, [to show them] everything’s good.”
Nico Hischier is Still Climbing
Nico Hischier had a hell of a World Junior Championships. Playing for a Swiss side that can be appropriately described as “plucky”, Hischier nearly single handedly gave the Americans more than they could handle in the quarterfinals, scoring twice in a game where the U.S. squeaked out a 3-2 victory.
Before heading to the WJC, Hischier trailed only linemate Max Fortier in the QMJHL scoring race. After missing nearly a month, Hischier had some catching up to do, and that’s just what he’s been doing. The Swiss centre has 12 points in the five games he’s played since returning. He’s up to sixth in QMJHL scoring, and owns a better point per game rate than every player above him.
At this point in the proceedings, Nico Hischier looks like a popular pick to go second overall, and given that Patrick isn’t generally considered a “generational talent”, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility for Hischier to challenge for first overall. Of course, now that Patrick is back in action, he won’t be relinquishing that spot without a fight.
Hischier’s statistical cohort (formulated by our own in-house prospect projection model, pGPS), paints a positive picture, especially considering that he’s playing in the QMJHL, which by far sends the fewest players to the NHL of any of the Canadian Junior leagues. Just 16.6 percent (n = 216) of players drafted out of the Q between 2000 and 2009 have played at least 200 NHL games compared to 32.5 and 26.0 percent from the OHL and WHL respectively.
In contrast, 69 percent of Hischier’s statistical matches (based on era adjusted points per game, exact age, and physical stature) have played at least 200 NHL games (which constitutes a full time NHLer in our eyes), including skilled first liners like Brad Richards and Alex Tanguay (though Marek Zagrapan also slipped in there).
Before we get to the list itself, let’s see who this month’s risers and fallers are.
Nobody has burst onto the scene this year quite like Cale Makar, a defenceman who is currently playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) for the Brooks Bandits. At the time of my last consolidated rankings, Makar was on just two top 31 lists (Hockey Prospect and Craig Button). This month he’s on six lists, as Future Considerations, ISS, Sportsnet and Draftbuzz have added him. In fact, the only lists that he isn’t on haven’t been updated since November and October respectively, which leads me to believe that there are more increases to come.
When Cale Makar’s name came up on TSN 1040 last night, Craig Button had nothing but positive things to say about him, even comparing him to Erik Karlsson numerous times.
“He’s got dynamic offensive ability, like an Erik Karlsson,” Button said. “He jumps into the attack, he can shoot the puck, he can make a play on the move. He’s a player that’s hard to defend against, because he’s taking what’s given to him – if he doesn’t know what he’s gonna do, how do you know what he’s gonna do as an opponent? Real great confidence, really good skater.”
“Right now I think he’s the second best defenceman after Timothy Liljegren.”
Owen Tippett is working his way into more conversations, putting up big numbers for a Mississauga team that seems to be growing high end first round prospects on trees at this point.
Tippett is a strong, speedy winger with an NHL calibre shot with strong puck protection skills and good anticipation for developing plays. On a team that boasts high drafted prospects like Mike McLeod and Nathan Bastian (taken 12th and 41st overall in 2016 respectively), Tippett is blowing all of the other Steelheads out of the water with 57 points in 41 games. That point total ranks fifth in the OHL while his 34 goals are tied for first. He leads all draft eligible OHL players in both categories.
Alexei Lipanov is the other new name in the top 31. Names like Henri Jokiharju, Stelio Mattheos, and Robert Thomas are moving towards the first round.
Klim Kostin was tied with Nico Hischier for the fourth on this list in December, and it’s safe to say that they’re moving in different directions at this point. With Kostin, it’s not so much that he’s been disappointing as it is that others around him at pushing the envelope. Owen Tippett (listed above), Gabriel Vilardi and Casey Mittelstadt are among those whose stock has risen, as well as that of Martin Necas, who showed well with the Czechs at the World Juniors. Kostin, meanwhile, stayed home and watching the WJC, having not made the cut for the Russian squad.
You could easily argue that Kostin hasn’t been given a fair shake to impress this year, as his time in the KHL saw him averaging a little over four minutes per game – hardly enough time to accomplish much of anything. He found a more suitable role with Dynamo Balashikha of the second tiered VHL, but tallied just a single goal in nine games before succumbing to an injury. Without the ability to impress the scouts, Kostin’s stock is slowly slipping.
Kristian Vesalainen was part of the Finnish U20 team that was undoutdebly the greatest disappointment of the World Juniors. One year after dominating the tournament on their way to a gold medal in Helsinki, the Finns were embarrassed in Montreal and dispatched to the relegation tournament, having to prove that they still belonged in the top tier at all. While it would be ridiculous to blame Vesalainen for this catastrophe, he was present, and he did produce less than he ought to have. It’s not a surprise at all then that this months’ rankings, which are somewhat prone to perception, had him falling across the board, though all eight lists still have him in the top 31.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Vesalainen can be physically dominant, while also possessing soft hands and plenty of skill. His consistency, however, has been criticized, and he’s been accused of now always playing at full intensity. If he manages to keep that in check, he could be an absolute handful in the NHL.
After being listed as a faller last month, Maxime Comtois fell several more spots in January, as his production continues to underwhelm. Alexander Chmelevski of the Ottawa 67’s was the lone player to fall straight out of the first round.
Even before his return last Friday, Nolan Patrick held a firm grip on the first overall position, with all but McKeen’s keeping him in that slot. The second tier, which was previously reserved for Timothy Liljegren alone, has been joined by Nico Hischier, after a particularly impressive WJC. Hischier is the only player aside from Patrick to be listed in the top five by all eight services, and is in the top three on five of them.
As I mentioned about Liljegren last month, the main reason that the second has such clear separation from the third tier is the volatility in the lists among most prospects from here on out.
The third tier (made up of Casey Mittelstadt, Eeli Tolvanen, Gabriel Vilardi, and Owen Tippett) is the tightest group, as the four of them range by just in 0.8 average position. Each of them as ranked as high as fourth on some lists, and all but Liljegren have appeared outside the top ten on others.
The next couple of groups make up the meat of the first round, and contains names of players that have previously been in the top ten, as well as players that have previously been outside of the top 31. This is to say that at this point, there is still much uncertainty once you step back from the very top end of the draft.
The next big prospects related event is the CHL Top Prospects game on January 30th. It’ll be a chance for a strong class of CHL players to show off for scouts while taking on the best of their peers. Like the WJC, it wields significant influence in the rankings, so look for players that show well in this one-off game to get a best when the next rankings drop.
Until then, happy prospecting.