Pivoting south of the border, the 2019 NHL Draft Scout Series moves to the United States and what may be the best crop of American-born prospects in the history of the draft. Future Considerations‘ Ray Napientek stops by to chat all things USA Hockey leading up to this upcoming Friday and Saturday.
Christian Roatis: USA Hockey has turned over quality draft class after quality draft class in recent years, but 2019 might truly be a banner year for the program. With two Americans in the top five of Future Considerations’ rankings for the 2019 NHL draft, four in the top 10 and 10 in the top 37, this could be the best American draft class in history. Do you agree with this assessment, and what’s your take on this American NHL draft class as a whole?
Ray Napientek: I do agree with this assessment. From top to bottom, this class has it all. Trevor Zegras is ranked eighth in Future Considerations and played behind Jack Hughes and Alex Turcotte. That is a crazy amount of talent down the middle. Zegras was able to move over to wing at times and probably could have done more damage on the scoresheet for himself if he played more minutes. Then you throw in Spencer Knight, Cam York and Alex Vlasic and you have yourself a top unit at every level possibly going in the first round. A second unit would consist of Matthew Boldy, Cole Caufield and John Beecher, and all of them should be drafted in the first round. That type of depth has not been seen with USA Hockey.
Jack Hughes seems destined to be the second American-born first overall pick in four years after soaring past the likes of Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews and Clayton Keller in the USNTDP’s scoring record books. Obviously he’s an elite prospect, but what’s your evaluation of Hughes? Is he destined for superstardom in your eyes?
Jack Hughes is going to be a superstar, however, do not expect a Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby type success. Every time Hughes jumps over the boards he is a threat to score or set up his teammates. His level of skating and hockey IQ are elite. For as good as his skills play out, his compete level is off the charts. He plays a 200-foot game and makes a lot of plays effortlessly. I would expect him to take some time to adjust to the size and strength at the next level but he will shoot up the points leaderboard within a few seasons.
Despite having trouble staying in the lineup this season, Alex Turcotte slides in at fifth overall in FC’s rankings, ahead of lineup mainstays like Matthew Boldy, Trevor Zegras and Cole Caufield. What is it about Turcotte that makes him such an elite prospect, and what ceiling do you see for him in the NHL?
I am a huge fan of Alex Turcotte. His ceiling is a top-line center with Selke nominations in his future. With that being said, time will tell. He is very active in his own zone. There is a determination in his play, stickwork and positioning defensively. He is not the biggest right now but has the frame to really be a force defensively, aggravating even the best of offense weapons. On offense, he is powerful on his skates and goes to the tough areas looking to make plays. His skating is excellent and uses a second gear when needed. His puck possession/protection is elite. He uses his body well to keep defenders off the puck and can make plays while doing so. Then if you try to back off him he will beat you with his speed or draw defenders to make plays. He is an all-around center. His floor would be a solid number two center and that would be a nice issue to have as an organization.
Trevor Zegras and Matthew Boldy are often ranked within a few spots of each other, always inside the top 10 it seems. FC has them eighth and ninth overall, respectively. What differentiates the two, and how does each project at the NHL level?
You are splitting hairs when talking about Matthew Boldy and Trevor Zegras. For me, the biggest difference would be if an NHL team was looking for size on the wing. Boldy brings a frame that can put on more weight room strength. He finishes his chances with a strong shot that will only improve with strength. He’ll also get to the front of the net to make himself available for his teammates. He’s really going to have a nice career. However, Zegras can play as a pivot with highly skilled line mates. If a team is looking for size, he’s not your guy right now. However, his playmaking as a center would be what sets them apart. His vision is very good.
If Cole Caufield was over six feet tall, he’d probably be challenging Hughes and Kaapo Kakko for first overall in the 2019 NHL Draft with his 72 goals in 64 games. Unfortunately, he’s five-foot-seven and size still seems to matter to NHL teams. Do you see his size being a problem at the next level, and will his scoring transfer to the pro level? What do you say to those who claim Caufield is mostly a product of Jack Hughes’ playmaking brilliance?
We are seeing that size still matters in the NHL, especially in the playoffs. With that being said, Cole Caufield can really score with ease. The obvious comparison is Alex DeBrincat. I do not get too much into the comparison game but Caufield will be able to score in the NHL. Where he would need help, a line mate that can create space for him and use his size. I think that is what’s lost in the size debate. NHLers can be smaller in today’s game, but forwards with size and grit are still needed throughout the top six forwards. As for Caufield being a recipient of Hughes’ playmaking abilities, I really do not see that. Caufield played just fine when Hughes was out of the lineup and/or not on the ice with him. If I were an NHL scout, I would not be worried. If Cole had some obvious deficiencies to his game and just happened to be on Hughes line then I would be worried. That was not the case.
Cam York is the American defenceman ranked, slotting in at 15th overall, and was the USNTDP’s insane forward core’s quarterback on the power play. He put up 51 assists in 63 games playing on a high-flying offence; do you see his offensive numbers being inflated by the quality of his teammates or is York a creator himself? How do you project him at the NHL level?
Cam York has elite level skating which will make his transition to the next level pretty smooth. He was in a nice spot quarterbacking the power play for Team USA, but was also someone I really liked in his own zone. For me, York is the player that comes with the defensive talent evaluators want in a top pairing defenseman and can play him in all three zones and in all special team units not just a specialist. To say he will be an offensive defenseman would be a mistake. I do believe his numbers were a little inflated this season, but that cannot be held against him. I thought he looked like a pro out on the ice already this season. If he’s your number two or number three in a few seasons, I think a team will be really happy with that.
It ’s rare for a goaltender to go in the first round, but the hype around Spencer Knight is reaching levels that suggest he may even go in the top 15. Oddly, his numbers are nowhere near in line with his hype. How do you reconcile Knight’s profile as an elite goaltending prospect with his relatively pedestrian numbers – short a sparkling .936 SV% at the recent U18s? Do you see Knight as having the potential to be that franchise cornerstone goaltender every team covets?
I am not as high on Spencer Knight as others. He is a nice prospect that will take time to develop (think Jimmy Howard). Knight’s size definitely is an advantage. At six-foot-three inches and 192 pounds, he already has the size for the next level. Spencer plays his positional game fantastically. He challenges shooters and does a nice job with his rebound control. I would have loved to have seen him play Team USA this season. Throw on another jersey and give it a whirl. To say a team should draft him in the first 15 picks, I would be against it. If I were to draft Knight early in the second round, I’d be ecstatic.
Every draft produces a number of diamonds in the rough – high potential players that can be had in the later rounds because there’s plenty of work to do to reach that potential. Who do you consider this American draft class’ diamond(s) in the rough, and why?
Ryan Johnson out of Irvine, California was a real surprise for me. I came away from all my viewings of the Sioux Falls Stampede just loving his game. Smooth, smart and calm in every aspect of his game. He’s the type of player good teams have in their top four on the blueline. With that being said, I would not be shocked if he was logging big time minutes. He may not quite be a diamond in the rough in the second round but he is someone that would be a steal. A true late-round gem would be Trevor Janicke. The Maple Grove, Minnesota native is a tough opponent. He played like a bull in a china shop in my viewings. The chip on his shoulder shows. His skating needs some work and he may never be a top scorer but if he’s working hard and playing with energy as a bottom six forward I would not be surprised. That will take some time though.
Which American draft eligible has been your biggest surprise this season?
A big surprise this season was goaltender Isaiah Saville. His quickness was very noticeable. He was never out of a play. I saw some saves that others would not have been getting back into position yet let alone make the save. With that being said, he is poised and positional in his game, too. The compete level is off the charts. He’ll take some time to work on his glove but the sky is the limit for Saville. I’ve seen projections all over the place for him but with his upside I would expect him to be drafted in the second or third round.
Who has been your biggest disappointment?
Although born in Finland, Jami Krannila spent the season with the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL and I would say was a bit of a disappointment. When gathering my lists for the draft, Krannila popped up on many as a player to watch. Each game I viewed was average, at best. He’s an excellent skater with a quick first step. With that being said, he just never “wowed” me with his game. He’s going to have a nice career at St. Cloud State and make some noise in the NCAA but he just never showed up on the ice with his compete level. I had to actively search for his number when he was on the ice. He’s going to have great coaching with Brett Larson and his staff. He’s someone I look forward to following and proving me wrong.
If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated American prospect (in the public forum) for this year’s draft class, who would they be?
My most underrated player is Ryan Johnson. As stated above, he would be ranked in the first round if I had a draft board. If Spencer Knight is ranked high on draft boards I think he is overrated. Knight would be an early second round type player in my mind. I think that is what is great about the draft. You could absolutely overrate or underrate a player by a couple dozen spots but that does not mean those dozen spots aren’t close in talent level. In this draft, you could argue the late first round and early second round type players could be interchangeable on draft boards.
Lastly, who is your favorite American draft eligible this year, and why?
I’m sticking with Alex Turcotte. Yes, I would pick Hughes over Turcotte but that’s an easy answer. As a Chicagoan, I really hope he ends up playing on Madison Street for the next fifteen seasons. His hockey IQ, offensive skills and compete level on defense is the type of player that Stanley Cup team needs. I think Turcotte can be a 30-goal scorer with Selke nomination type talent. For as much as you need high-scoring forwards, top-level defenseman and solid goaltending, the backbone of a championship team is down the middle (Crosby, Toews, Bergeron, Kopitar). Will Turcotte reach those heights? Time will tell, but he has the most upside to me.
2019 NHL Draft Scout Series