Over the past few months, I’ve been touting the 2013 NHL draft as one to get excited about. I’m a self-professed prospect nerd, and so the draft is always one of the events that I look forward to the most. When the Predators’ season ends, the disappointment is quickly replaced by anxiousness and geeked out excitement. I may or may not have made one of those construction paper chains, 90 links long, to help me count down the days. Okay, no, I haven’t done that(yet…), but the point is: I love the draft, and spend all year preparing for it. As I detailed in my previous post, the Predators’ terribality™ is conducive to a major opportunity: a fabulous draft pick in an incredibly stacked draft.
Now, a little disclaimer: none of my giddy prospect envy should be mistaken for advocacy of tanking. I’m a fan, just like you…I would love nothing more than the Predators to somehow win 14 of their last 18(I’m not making that up, that’s what it would take to hit the predicted 55 point playoff threshold) and go on the sort of improbable run that the Kings did, last spring. However, the realist in me fears the dreaded “mushy middle” finish that in the past saw Nashville end up with Austin Watson instead of Jeff Skinner. Ryan Ellis instead of Evander Kane. Ryan Parent instead of Anze Kopitar. And so on. That’s not to say that Ellis\Watson aren’t quality prospects, but they’re also not the sort of high-end, bluechip players you can build a team around. So, as I’ve previously stated: there’s a silver lining in each of these humiliating losses to Edmonton, Calgary, Columbus. They’re essentially helping us to jump their draft position. I can’t reiterate enough: this is a good year to do this. Throwing out the obvious “short\weird season” stuff, this is probably the best overall draft in quite some time. It’s not 2003-good; I’m not sure we’ll ever see one that historic again, but it’s at least as good as 2009, if not better…and far exceeds every other draft in the last ten years, at least from a projection standpoint.
Now, what makes me qualified to make such a statement? Well, I’m not really sure. Being into prospect development and fancying myself an armchair scout, I guess. The information to follow has been culled by talking to any pro scout\expert that will give me the time, and good old fashioned eyeballing. I’ve spent a good deal of time watching junior\international games on the internet, making notes on who stands out, researching from there. Over the last year, I’ve become pretty familiar with the people I’m going to write about, and I’m always thinking, “how would this kid fit on the Nashville Predators.” This will continue right up to the draft, and at that point I’ll start fleshing out my notes on NEXT year’s players. So that’s my basic methodology.
Now…for the good stuff. A little clarification: I’m structuring this list based on my own personal Predators draft board. I’m not necessarily predicting the order these players will go; there are countless excellent scouting reports\mock drafts for that kind of thing. This is simply ten players that I would select, in preferred order, if they were available to me when making a selection for the Nashville Predators.
Without further ado…
1. Jonathan Drouin – LW Halifax Mooseheads – QMJHL
Drouin stormed into his first full QMJHL season playing on a line with fellow top prospect Nathan Mackinnon. Before long, he was starting to make scouts wonder who was carrying who. Drouin accomplished the impressive feat of making the Canadian WJC team as a seventeen year old, and once there outshined the previously more-heralded Nathan Mackinnon, as well as several of the older and more established players. This tournament was the first time I really took notice of Drouin, but have fallen in love with his game since. While he’s got gamebreaking skill, his defense and leadership make him the sort of complete player that Barry Trotz drools over. He has fantastic top end speed, and always seems to find his teammates where no one else possibly could. With 41 goals and 64 assists on the season thus far, he’s equal parts playmaker and goalscorer.
Player comparison: Jonathan Toews
2. Aleksandr Barkov – F – Tappara Tampere – SM-Liiga
Like with Drouin, emphasis on a complete game puts Barkov as my second pick. Though he can play any forward position, Barkov is most comfortable at center. A classic “big body” power forward at 6’2, 205 lbs, Barkov is the ultimate package of size and skill. 2012/13 is his first full season in Finland’s top league, and he had a tremendous offensive year, racking up 21 goals and 27 assists in a normally low-scoring league. If there’s a weakness to his game, it’s probably his skating, but his offensive creativity and hockey sense can typically compensate for it. He may not get to the “right place” as fast as some, but it usually doesn’t matter, because he’s already there. Barkov also showed well at the 2013 WJC, picking up 3 goals, 4 assists in 6 games played for an otherwise disappointing Finnish squad. It’s important to note that though Barkov is of Russian descent, he was born and raised in Finland, speaks Finnish, and represents Finland in international competition, thus alleviating some of the “flight risk” stigma that is typically attached to Russian prospects.
3. Nathan Mackinnon – RW – Halifax Mooseheads – QMJHL
While I may not pick Mackinnon as my first forward the way many(if not most) would due to the style he plays and how I see fitting him fitting in with Barry Trotz, I can only neglect him for so long. Mackinnon is the most explosive scorer in the entire draft. His shot, his stickhandling ability, his passing are all second to none. He’s been on the minds of scouts since he was about 11 years old, and for good reason. While he’s not the two-way player that Barkov, Drouin, or the soon-to-follow Monahan or Lindholm are, his offensive ability is so good that it would be difficult to pass on him a third time. I would just have to hope that Trotz would find a way to utilize him. If he could improve on his tendency to float and move his legs a little more(a challenge that a similarly situated Colin Wilson has had to adjust to) I could see a happy ending for all. I was a little underwhelmed with Mackinnon at this year’s WJC, but am willing to chalk that up to an isolated stretch. He certainly picked the stride back up when he returned to Halifax. Given his long-standing hype and path traveled through hockey powerhouse Shattuck-St Mary’s, early comparisons were made to Sidney Crosby, though I don’t see Crosby’s all-around game in Mackinnon.
Player comparison- Early-years Dany Heatley
4. Sean Monahan – C – Ottawa 67s – OHL
Before I go any further, can I just say how much I love those 67’s barber-pole sweaters? If we draft Sean Monahan, there may just be one in my future. While a jersey purchase is always something to get excited over, it pales in comparison to the idea of drafting Sean Monahan. He’s the sort of player that Trotz\Poile have typically targeted in the draft– there is no doubt he will play in the NHL, but while he brings that level of safety that the Predators have typically sought out, there are elements to his game that Nashville has long lacked. Like other “total package” players that we’ve already discussed, his leadership and commitment to both sides of the puck should make him an attractive pick, but he has offensive abilities that should appease the fanbase as well. I’ve been very impressed with his hockey sense and ability to “see” plays before they’ve developed. At 6’2, he also brings a physical element and power game that I really like.
Player comparison- Tyler Seguin
5. Seth Jones – D – Portland Winterhawks – WHL
Let me preface my assessment of Seth Jones by saying that I know he’ll likely be selected before most, if not all of the prior players. It’s not often that massive defensemen that can skate like the wind and handle the puck like it’s taped to their stick come along. Jones, like Mackinnon, has been riding a steady hype-train for the past couple of seasons. The son of former NHL star Popeye Jones has drawn rave reviews for his ability to control a game from the backend, and is likely to be a sure-fire top pairing defenseman in the NHL. However, in my frequent viewings of Jones (he’s a teammate of Predators’ 2012 third rounder Brendan Leipsic, who I tried to watch as much as possible this year), I was always left wanting more. For a big player, I haven’t been impressed with his physical game. I love his headiness and offensive ability, but I’d like to see more Shea Weber and less Erik Johnson, who I would incidentally compare him to. While my preference is to pick one of the previous 4 forwards I discussed, I would certainly be happy with Jones. I just don’t love him as much as others do.
Player comparison- Erik Johnson
6. Elias Lindholm – C – Brynas – SEL
If I’m a betting man, Predators’ Sweden scout Lucas Bergman is already in love with Elias Lindholm. He oozes several characteristics that typify “Predators Hockey:” his compete level is off the charts, he’s rock-solid in all three zones, and he’s Swedish…and who doesn’t love that? Unfortunately, he also possesses a trait that Predators fans are all too familiar with– a frustrating tendency to look for the pass, even when there isn’t one to make. As such, his playmaking skills are tremendous, but it’s not uncommon for Lindholm to pass up a golden shot to make an ill-advised pass. However, he can prove you wrong enough, finding a teammate he has no business getting the puck to, to make it worth it.
Player comparison- Low end Nicklas Backstrom
6. Hunter Shinkaruk – C – Medicine Hat – WHL
Hunter Shinkaruk is an interesting player. Scouts seem polarized on him; I’ve seen him as high as five in mocks, as low as 14. His skill and ability are indisputable, but his size might give some pause, at only 5’10 and 170 pounds. If he were playing in the OHL or QMJHL I might be a little more nervous, but the WHL has long been regarded as the most physical, most difficult to score in of the CHL’s three leagues. In spite of that fact, Shinkaruk has overcome the limitations of his frame to put up a huge amount of points–219 in 193 career games with Medicine Hat. He’s a pure skill player that resembles Nathan Mackinnon in the style of his play, although Mackinnon is definitely the better player. Regardless of that, I would still easily take him in the top ten, regardless of the team picking.
Player comparison- Jeff Skinner
7. Darnell Nurse – D – Sault Ste Marie – OHL
Darnell Nurse has a pedigree that you can’t help but be intrigued by. His dad Richard played in the CFL, his mother was a Canadian university basketball standout. Then, there’s uncle Donovan McNabb, a star quarterback in the NFL. That sort of bloodline alone isn’t a reason to draft a guy, but his size and all around game certainly are. At 6’5, 200 pounds he’s a bit of a beanpole, but he’s at least 2 or 3 years away from the NHL anyway, so he has plenty of time to fill out. His strengths and weaknesses actually compare pretty closely to Seth Jones’s. He’s tremendous with the puck, a great skater for his size, and a cerebral defender. Like Jones, you may find yourself wanting more from him in terms of physicality. He’s taken big strides this season, initially thought of as a late first round\early second round pick. He’s now climbed into the top ten of most of the major scouting service projections. A player elevating his game when the pressure is on is something you look for, and Nurse has certainly done that. Whereas Jones is clearly a first pairing defenseman, I would likely look to keep Josi and Weber together and balance the second pairing, playing Nurse with Kevin Klein. That sort of look would allow one to “babysit” the defensive end while the other was pinching or taking offensive chances.
Player comparison- Alex Pietrangelo
8. Rasmus Ristolainen – D – TPS Turku – SM-Liiga
I know that some of you are grimacing at the inclusion of yet another defenseman, but the high-end options in this draft possess ceilings that you won’t find in the Predators’ prospect cupboard. I picked Nurse first, but truthfully I have Ristolainen on an almost even footing. Another big defender (6’4, 205) with an excellent two-way game, he was easily Finland’s best defender at the 2013 WJC. He’s equally at home on the power play or penalty kill, just as apt to dazzle with a fantastic outlet pass or a big hit. He’s got a cannon from the point as well, which would make coverage difficult for opposing penalty killers, if he were playing with say, Ryan Ellis or Shea Weber. I would like to see him take the body in one-on-one coverage a bit more, but his reach is so good that he can get away with stick coverage more than others might.
Player comparison: Brayden Coburn
9. Adam Erne – RW – Quebec Remparts – QMJHL
This is the first player that I think that I like a bit more than the average scout. I’ve seen him ranked as low as 18, as high as 9. Back in the days where my illusions had the Predators picking in the 18-22 range, he was a player that I identified as a possible pick for Nashville. Erne is the prototypical power forward. He plays bigger than his 6’0, 195 frame would suggest. An American playing in Quebec, Erne has seen his status change a few times. He was a high pick in the QMJHL draft, and was initially seen as a bluechip NHL prospect that could go in the top five. He fell off a bit, but has used this season playing with fellow draft-eligible forward Anthony Duclair to regain his draft footing. Erne plays an intimidating physical game, just as likely to make a devastating open-ice hit as score a highlight reel goal. He’s a complete player, mixing nice goalscoring ability and an effective defensive game. I expect his NHL upside to be high-end second liner.
Player comparison: Scott Hartnell
10. Ryan Pulock – D – Brandon Wheat Kings – WHL
I know, I know…”four defensemen in your top ten? I thought this was the year to draft our franchise forward?” Well, ideally, that’s how it will shake out…but if not, Ryan Pulock is a nice consolation prize. A purely offensive defensemen, Pulock is going to put up serious numbers playing on the power play. His goal scoring totals in junior remind me of Shea Weber’s time in Kelowna, though he doesn’t possess the defensive\physical game that Weber does. His slapshot is NHL level already, probably the best in the draft. He’s got elite passing ability as well, and while he’s not a shutdown D, he’s good enough to responsibly play second pairing minutes– again, a dream partner for Kevin Klein.
Player comparison- Ron Hainsey
So there you have it, my top ten picks, depending on where the Predators land. There are a few players just outside the list that may technically be better prospects than a couple of these guys, but I threw “best player available” out the window for the sake of this guide. For example, Valeri Nichushkin is probably the second most skilled player in the entire draft, but he’s under contract in the KHL for the next two years, and I can’t see David Poile rolling the dice there.
As you can see, the top five or six players are high end, borderline NHL-ready talents. From there, you have some great players, but they’re going to be the standard 3 years away from contributing in whatever fashion, and when they do, it will be as second liners\second pairing defenseman. This is why…again…all of these “devastating” losses aren’t bothering me the way they possibly should. If the end result is missing the playoffs in 9th place or 14th place, you’re still out–but the potential gains in the draft are elevated exponentially.