By Allan Muir
The one upside of the NHL's four-month sabbatical? It gave everyone from coaches to general managers to armchair scouts (that includes me) plenty of time to assess the talent in what looks to be the most promising draft class in years. This list of the top-30 prospects is based primarily on my own viewings (mostly on video), but also takes into account the input of both NHL and junior scouts. And like the men who do this for a living, I have a few personal biases that impact the way I view, and rank, talent. Odds are good that your mileage may vary. Here are my top 30:
1. Seth Jones, D Portland, WHL: Truly high-end blueliners are a precious commodity, and Jones is as rare as they come. Big, quick, physical and whipsmart. Think a slightly more disciplined Chris Pronger.
2. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Halifax, QMJHL: Forget his quiet cameo at the World Junior Championship. He's the complete offensive package. Great vision, insatiable puck hunger and finishing ability. A high-end first-line center.
3. Jonathan Drouin, LW, Halifax, QMJHL: The best goal scorer in the draft, Drouin is pure excitement. Viper quick and exotically creative, he projects as a first-line winger.
4. Elias Lindholm, C, Brynas, SWE: This Nicklas Backstrom starter kit could be the best playmaker in the draft. Mature beyond his years, he's thrived in the Swedish Elitserien thanks to his uncanny vision and the courage to work the dangerous areas. More than one scout said Lindholm is the sort of player you notice even when he doesn't have the puck.
5. Sean Monahan, C, Ottawa, OHL: A committed two-way center, Monahan has the size, skill and leadership ability to center a top scoring line. He can't match MacKinnon's high marks across the board, but there are no weaknesses in his game, either. He can be trusted to play in any situation.
6. Aleksander Barkov, F, Tappara, FIN: He's just 17 and already a force in the SM-Liiga, with 18 goals and 39 points in 41 games. Barkov has size (6'-2", 205), a terrific shot, and high-end hockey sense to go along with a ferocious competitive streak. He's a no-risk pick.
7. Darnell Nurse, D, Sault Ste. Marie, OHL: I might be a little aggressive here, but Nurse is everything I want in a No. 2 D: projectable frame, good wheels, a nasty physical game and his reads are as fast and accurate as anyone's. He's impressed scouts by making significant progress in several areas this season.
8. Ryan Pulock: D, Brandon, WHL: He's missed time due to a couple of hard-luck injuries, but Pulock seems to have gained draft ground. Scouts rave about his offensive instincts, his shot and his hockey sense, but he takes personal pride in being a reliable, two-way defender and a strong leader.
9. Hunter Shinkaruk, F, Medicine Hat, WHL: Inconsistency has him slipping in the eyes of some scouts, but his explosive speed and determined work ethic means he won't fall out of the top 10. Outside of Drouin, he may have the best hands in the draft. There's more than a little of Patrick Kane's flash in his game.
10. Adam Erne, RW, Quebec, QMJHL: Erne plays a power-forward game, despite being just 6'-1", 198. He works hard in all three zones, and puts up great numbers thanks to a heavy shot and a fierce determination to work the greasy areas. His recent team suspension (ostensibly for selfish play) didn't impact this ranking, but it's a situation every team will monitor as the draft draws closer.
11. Rasmus Ristolainen, D, TPS Turku, FIN: Several scouts have Ristolainen rated as the second-best available blueliner. At 6'-3", 208, he has the size and the edge to clear the crease and win the corner battles. He's a smooth skater and silky playmaker who makes a great first pass, but he has room for improvement in his defensive reads.
12. Josh Morrissey, D, Prince Albert, WHL: A dynamic offensive blueliner in the Kris Letang mold, Morrissey has a sneaky quick shot and makes a great first pass in transition. He's a conditioning rat, which helps him chew up a lot of ice time.
13. Max Domi, C, London, OHL: Yeah, he's tiny, maybe 5'-8", but Domi has that Vladimir Krutov build, with all his weight and strength in his legs. He's tough to knock off the puck — if you can catch him in the first place — and he has outstanding vision and a great shot. He projects as a winger in the NHL.
14. Anthony Mantha, LW, Val D'Or, QMJHL: His size (6'-4", 190) grabs your attention, but his skating and smarts hold it. He pays the price to get to the right places, and he has a quick release. A natural finisher, he ranks second in the Q with 37 goals in just 46 games.
15. Frederik Gauthier, C, Rimouski, QMJHL: Talk to 10 scouts and they'll all use the same words to describe Gauthier: raw talent. Translated: he's massive (6'-5", 209) and toolsy, but hasn't put it all together yet and he routinely leaves you wanting more. Maybe he's a healthy Eric Daze. Maybe he's something more...but he's a huge risk.
16. Nikita Zadorov, D, London, OHL: When he's on his game, he has a way of turning every instance of contact into a highlight reel moment. The massive (6'-5", 229) defender is strong in his own zone and brings a physical quality that every team desires, but he's inconsistent and lacks a developing two-way game.
17. Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Chelyabinsk, RUS: That goal in the WJC bronze medal game against Canada upped his buzz quotient. Great size (6'-4", 200) and good wheels, but I'm not convinced he'll score enough to justify a higher slot
18. Zach Fucale, G, Halifax, QMJHL: He's taken some knocks for stagnating behind a powerhouse Mooseheads squad this season, but Furcale is still a winner with great tools. It's tough to remain sharp when the play's usually in the other end, but he brings enviable focus and natural athleticism to the position.
19. Ryan Hartman, F, Plymouth, OHL: Here's a clear-cut case of WJC bump. Hartman excelled in a defensive role in Russia, showcasing his hockey sense and speed and he seems more confident n his offensive game since he returned with the gold medal. He small, but makes up for it with a high compete level.
20. J.T. Compher, C, UDNTDP, USHL: He's the type of player who can take over a game at will with his speed or his puck possession. Incredibly smart and a determined competitor. He rarely disappoints with his effort.
21. Curtis Lazar, C, Edmonton, WHL: He's admitted that the draft got in his head, and over-thinking reduced the effectiveness of his game. He gotten back to his roots over the last month, and his scoring touch has picked up along with his physical game.
22. Jason Dickinson, F, Guelph, OHL: A versatile two-way forward, he won't be a big scorer at the next level, but he's a safe bet to play because of his smarts and physicality. One scout mentioned Jarret Stoll by way of comparison.
23. Steve Santini, D, USNTDP, USHL: He's making good progress with his skating and puck decisions, but it's his physical game that catches your eye. He's not huge (6'-1", 208), but he's a punishing defender. He reads the play exceptionally well.
24. Robert Hagg, D, MoDo, SWE: He's a slick, mobile blueliner with high-end playmaking ability, but he can be an adventure in his own end. Filled in nicely as an injury replacement at the WJC.
25. Anthony Duclair, LW, Quebec, QMJHL: His electrifying speed and a nose for the net make it easy to project him as a second-line scoring winger. Crafty with the puck and has a great release. Good bloodlines, too -- his uncle Ferrell was a fullback for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.
26. Kerby Rychel, LW, Windsor, OHL: Every scout I spoke with had him rated higher, but Rychel hasn’t progressed like I hoped. His scoring slumped as he tried to do too much for a disappointing Windsor team, but he seems more comfortable since the return of Alex Khokhlachev. A smallish power forward in the O, he projects as a solid third-liner with power play potential.
27. Tristan Jarry, G, Edmonton, WHL: I'm a believer. Despite being limited to backup minutes behind Laurent Brossoit, Jarry makes the most out of every opportunity. He leads the Dub in GAA (1.62), save percentage (.935) and shutouts, with five in just 20 appearances. He has that big frame, quick feet, and plays with a contagious confidence. I think a high-end team with plenty of development time takes a chance on him early.
28. Morgan Klimchuk, LW, Regina, WHL: This speedy winger is a poor man's Jordan Eberle. He thinks as quickly as he skates, which gives him an edge as a playmaker. He has a knack for finding dead space where he can make the most of a quick release. He'll be a nice secondary scoring option in the NHL.
29. Ian McCoshen, D, USNTDP, USHL: There's not a lot of sizzle to his game, but there wasn't much flash about Adam Foote, either. McCoshen plays a similar style: smart, steady and physical. He won't helm your power play, but he's reliable with the puck and he can chew up the minutes. 30. Marko Dano, RW, Slovan Bratislava, KHL: Dano is the anti-Rychel in that I like him more than most. He was an undersized wrecking ball as a 16-year-old at the 2012 WJC. This year, he showed an improved touch, and a more controlled physical game. I see him as a sold second line winger.