The NHL Draft Scout Series is racking up the Air Miles now, jumping from Scandinavia back to North America and into the home of the beer and land of the free – the United States of America.
Matt Grainda is a former ISS scout and is currently with theScout.ca, and he stops in to chat American talent for the upcoming National Hockey League Draft.
Christian: With Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski – just to name a few – is this the best American draft class we’ve seen… ever?
Matt: The 2015 American draft class will definitely be one of the better classes that the United States has produced. Every major league throughout North America has a solid American prospect eligible for the NHL Draft.
From Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski in the NCAA, to Kyle Connor, Colin White, Jack Roslovic, Brock Boeser and Jeremy Bracco in USHL, to Paul Bittner and Brandon Carlo from the WHL, Denis Yan, Adam Marsh and Cam Askew from the QMJHL and Chris Martenet and Roy Radke from the OHL. And of course US-High School hockey as strong entrants, as always, with David Cotton, Jack Sadek, and Karch Bachman leading the way.
Overall it’s going to be a strong draft from an American perspective. I’m also very interested to see how the 2016 NHL Draft shapes out, as that one is shaping up incredibly too! (Editor’s Note: Auston Mathews… *drool*)
C: We know Jack Eichel is an elite talent, but is there some sort of kink in his armor, an Achilles heel if you will, that opponents can exploit to shut him down? Or is limiting the damage the only thing an opponent can hope for?
M: There’s no Achilles Heel in Jack Eichel’s overall package. His gameplay on the ice this season at Boston University was some of the best we have seen in college hockey history. Even his NHL Combine results were outstanding. They really showed the physical presence and big-time power he is going to bring to the NHL down the road.
Eichel’s elusive speed and hockey intelligence are some of the best in this draft class. He’s got fantastic hands and a quick, lethal shot. If I’m really nitpicking, Eichel can sit back and play less aggressive at times. But then he’s right in the action with his smart positioning and making plays happen after establishing his physical presence. Eichel is going to be one of the leaders in the NHL down the road. NHL teams will have to limit the damage, as opposed to exploiting a major weakness. (Editor’s Note: Same type of response as when the question was posed about Connor McDavid. You don’t just slow down these two.)
C: Noah Hanifin’s stock was soaring at the start of the year, but that seems to have cooled off slightly of late. Why is that? Do you still view him as an elite talent?
M: I don’t think Noah Hanifin’s draft stock has cooled off at all. He’s still a Top 3-5 prospect for the NHL Draft. I do think Dylan Strome and Mitchell Marner played their way into the discussion for the 3rd-5th overall draft slot.
Also when NHL teams happen to be choosing between a forward and a defenseman who are similar in talent, the tendency is to select the forward because the forward has a higher probability of becoming a full-time NHL player, according to history. Having said that, Noah Hanifin is an excellent prospect for this draft. He’s got great breakout capabilities and a smooth, agile skating stride for a big-bodied player. Noah is a great puck mover who sees the ice well and makes smart decisions both offensively and defensively. He managed major minutes in the NCAA this season after fast-tracking his high school studies. He might take a little more time to develop than a Strome or a Marner, but he’s going to be a strong player down the road.
C: While Zach Werenski’s name is mentioned the top tier of prospects for this year’s draft with regularity, few actually know what he’s about. Who is Zach Werenski and what does he bring to a team?
M: Zach Werenski is a smart two-way defenseman out of the University of Michigan. Like Noah Hanifin, Werenski fast-tracked his school studies to become eligible to play NCAA hockey. He was one of the top defensemen on the USA U17 NTDP team last season and became one of the top defensemen on Michigan’s roster by mid-season this year.
He’s another strong skater with excellent mobility while under control of the puck. He breaks the puck out well and manages his blue-line efficiently in the offensive zone. His wrist shot is really good, especially when on the power-play. His struggles are like many NHL defensive prospects, mainly in the defensive zone against more mature and older players. There are times where he can miss assignments and rush passes, but those will likely be ironed out before he reaches the NHL level. He’s a great prospect that should go in the Top 10 this year.
C: On the surface, Colin White and Kyle Connor are two guys often ranked in and around where the Flames will be picking in June, what does each bring to the table and which do you prefer?
M: Colin White is your prototypical, no-nonsense two-way forward. He faced a challenging season this year with an injury that limited some of this playing time. But he capped the entire season off with a bang by scoring the game-winning goal in the U18 World Junior Championship gold medal game! His game screams hockey intelligence. He’s always in an opportune position to make an offensive or defensive play. His defensive work is very good. He’s a strong, powerful skater with smart stick-handling skills and a quick release shot. Colin White is pretty much the definition of a 200-foot player.
Kyle Connor is one of my favorite possession style players in the 2015 NHL Draft. His crafty puck work and stick-skills were very impressive to watch in the USHL this season. He manages his space very well and makes great situational reads in the offensive zone. His intelligence and hockey vision are strong and allow him to create smart plays for scoring opportunities. You have to love his fluid skating stride and quick crossovers too. He just looks like a threat when the puck is on his stick. His physical frame is going to need some work and he should get help in that area at the University of Michigan next season.
C: Brock Boeser is a tough guy to read. Some have him ranked barely inside the Top 30 – some even lower – while the Craig Buttons of the world love the heck out of him and would take him Top 10. What do you make of Boeser?
M: I think Brock Boeser is going to be a late 1st round selection in this draft. He’s a prospect who can battle with the best and can score in lots of situations. He was very effective on the power-play this season. Guys who like his skill-set know that a lot of the things he does will translate well to the next level. He’s a great shooter with a quick release and is a highly competitive player. He’s got a thick, powerful frame to help protect the puck and he can also create game-changing turnovers. Others who happen to be lower on Boeser are going to knock his skating stride, his slower acceleration and his ability to play in the defensive zone. When draft time comes, whoever takes Boeser is going to need someone who can shoot hard and play physical. His time at the University of North Dakota will likely help him evolve his game.
C: Jeremy Bracco stands 5’9″ – some would suggest only if he were wearing heels – and isn’t the heaviest man in the world (understatement alert). Despite being ranked in the Top 30 by many, is his size a big enough deterrent that he’ll slip hard? Is this Johnny Gaudreau 2.0?
M: Jeremy Bracco is definitely on the smaller side. He doesn’t have the prototypical height and weight you like to see when evaluating NHL prospects. His size will likely be a big deterrent to some NHL teams, but his skills with the puck on his stick will be a major attraction to others. He’s got some of the best natural vision and passing capabilities in the entire draft. His creativity and hockey intelligence are very strong and compliment his shifty skating stride very well. I think he might slide a little bit. But he should be gone by the 2nd round. His playmaking ability is just too much to pass up. Size is becoming less of an issue in today’s NHL, which is why Bracco is worth the risk. Remember, it is possible that he grows a little bit more while attending Boston College (Editor’s Note: Gaudreau alert!) and he will get to work on his strength while playing college hockey. Is Bracco similar to Johnny Gaudreau? Somewhat, when you compare their natural scoring abilities. But to me Bracco is more of a playmaker, while Gaudreau is more of a finisher.
C: The Calgary Flames have 5 picks in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. Are there any American prospects that could make good value picks in this area of the draft?
M: Calgary is going to have several opportunities to draft impact players in this NHL Draft. With three 2nd round picks and two 3rd round picks, American prospects will definitely be in play.
Dennis Yan from Shawinigan in the QMJHL could be a possibility in the second round. He’s an excellent skater with shifty moves and dynamic hands. Jeremy Bracco could fall, and he could be an option in the second round. I don’t see Brandon Carlo from WHL Tri-City being available, but if he slides he might be a great physical defensive defenseman worth a selection. Dennis Gilbert from the USHL’s Chicago Steel could be an option. He’s a very good skater who makes smart decisions coming out of the zone. Erik Foley from Cedar Rapids and Cooper Marody from Sioux Falls would be great selections. Foley is a strong power forward with some slick hands and a gritty work ethic. Marody has great hockey IQ and some dynamic skating capabilities. Christian Fischer, Jordan Greenway and Jack Roslovic from USA NTDP might be available in the second round. NTDP’s Nick Boka and Brendan Warren would make great selections in the late second/third rounds as well.
C: Which American draft eligible has been your greatest surprise this year?
M: Adam Marsh from the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs. This guy played right in my back-yard last season with the Indiana Jr Ice U16 team and also spent some time playing with the Chicago Young Americans U16 team. He worked well on the Jr Ice with Logan Brown, current OHL Windsor Spitfire and likely Top 10 2016 draft selection. He showcases a fast wrist shot and a great work ethic. I thought he might be able to be a late-round pick at the time last season, but he really elevated his game playing with a young, energetic Saint John team this season. He plays more of a skilled game but has no fear throwing his body around and looking for a big hit. He might need to pack on more weight before he is ready for the professional game, but his relentless pursuit and attacking mentality will help him succeed.
C: Which has been your greatest disappointment?
M: I wouldn’t say he was a huge disappointment, but I thought we might have seen more from USA NTDP’s Grant Gabriele. With the NTDP U18 team’s loss of Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski to NCAA hockey, I though Gabriele might have stepped up and filled a more important role with the USA squad. I think his impact moving forward lends itself to more of a simple game, where he can focus on making the smart play and shutting things down defensively. He’s got pretty good size and could use a little more power to be a more effective defender. He tends to use his stick and body positioning more to shut down the attack. There is no doubt he will give it his all on each and every shift. He’s very reliable with a good skating stride.
C: Who is the most overrated American draft eligible this year?
M: I’m going to go with Jordan Greenway from USA NTDP as maybe an overrated prospect for some teams, but also possibly one of the most underrated prospects considering where he started in the pre-season NHL Draft rankings. Greenway is a little overrated at times because of his tremendous size and strength and how he uses them during the game. Some NHL teams love to snap up the big guys who can skate, have great power and enjoy playing with a mean physical edge. Greenway can check very hard and brings intensity to the game that is hard to match. The problem, and why he is considered overrated, is that he doesn’t seem to bring that intensity to each and every shift. Now on the other hand, Greenway was originally considered a Top 15 pick earlier in the season. His puck protection skills are difficult to match for his frame and you simply can’t teach size. His shot is one of the most powerful in the USHL. He might need some work on his foot speed but his overall stride isn’t bad. And again, he’s got that intensity and toughness that you love to see. So at the end of the day, he could go up or he could go down. It all depends on how NHL teams view his future development.
C: If you had to pick your favorite American draft eligible, who would it be and why?
M: This is a pretty easy choice, it’s Jack Eichel. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are going to be the most talked about NHL prospects in their early careers and also for the next 15-20 NHL seasons. Eichel is a future NHL superstar. He’s a great leader, which he displayed by taking Boston University to the NCAA National Championship game, by winning the Hobey Baker Award, Hockey East Player & Rookie of the Year and by leading the entire NCAA in scoring. He was the captain of the USA U20 World Junior team this year and quite possibly could be a future USA Olympic captain down the road.
I don’t know how you could pick a more “American” prospect. He’s got confidence, power, and intelligence. He wants to be the best and will do anything he can to achieve that goal. I’m looking forward to comparing the careers of both McDavid and Eichel when things are all over. Man, are they going to be great players!
Many thanks again to Matt for sharing his insight on what really does look to be the best American draft class in decades. You can follow – and as I say with all our guest scouts, you really should follow him – on Twitter @graindaiv, but beware, he’s cheering for the American ladies at the World Cup right now.