It doesn't take a draft expert to know Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are outstanding talents. But it does take effort to identify who the real gems are.
Earlier this week, I looked at several players who have performed far beyond the expectations set upon them by their draft position last June. And every year, there's a similar group of sleeper picks who will make scouts earn their paydays, and this year is no different. There may not be the overall star power that the 2020 draft looks capable of producing, but 2019 has an abundance of talent at every position, nonetheless.
Which players possess the potential to become the biggest steals when the draft heads to Vancouver later this month? Here are several notable names, most of whom are expected to get selected in the third round or later:
Trevor Janicke, RW, 18 (Central Illinois, USHL – No. 119 NA)
A Christmas Day 2000 birthday meant Janicke had to wait an extra year to get drafted, but NHL teams could be looking at one of the best underdogs in the draft class. Committed to the University of Notre Dame, Janicke is a graduate of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and spent the past season plying his trade in the USHL, where he scored 22 goals and 48 points. Janicke is a physical two-way center, and while he isn't a huge point producer, he's a worthwhile gamble, especially if he's still available in the fourth or fifth round.
Nathan Legare, RW, 18 (Baie-Comeau, QMJHL – No. 54 NA)
Legare was truly one of the biggest draft risers this season, in large part because he built on a 29-point campaign in 2017-18 by registering 45 goals and 87 points with Baie-Comeau this season. His goal count was second behind Samuel Asselin in the 'Q', and Legare showed tremendous chemistry with San Jose Sharks prospect Ivan Chekhovich and Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Gabriel Fortier. A hint at who might draft him, perhaps? Legare was one of the QMJHL's most dangerous forwards around the net, but his skating and high turnover rate likes makes Legare a mid-second-round prospect.
Domenick Fensore, D, 18, (U.S. NTDP, USHL – No. 68 NA)
When it comes to the USA Hockey NTDP defense group, Cam York is typically the first name that comes up. But Fensore had a spectacular year of his own. His 42 points were second behind York. Teams aren't typically lining up to draft small defenders, but his overall poise with the puck and in his own zone are quality attributes. If Fensore, a Boston University commit, can add a bit of meat to his frame, he'll make an absolute steal in the third or fourth round.
Ronnie Attard, D, 20 (Tri-City, USHL – No. 76 NA)
Tri-City's captain this season, Attard was one of the most improved offensive defensemen in the USHL. After posting 15 points in 2017-18, he notched 30 goals and 64 points this season, setting the league record for goals and points by a defenseman. Sure, he's 20, but that's an incredible improvement for the defender. One of the best overagers available, Attard will be a nice addition for the team that picks him.
Rhett Pitlick, LW, 18 (Omaha, USHL – No. 98 NA)
Nobody can seem to agree on where Pitlick will land, but he has undeniable talent. Pitlick played a variety of levels this year. He recorded five points in seven USHL games with Omaha and was named to the USHS All-USA Hockey third team for his time with Chaska High. Committed to the University of Minnesota, Pitlick is undersized at 5-foot-9 and 161 pounds, but that won't stop a team from taking a chance on him. If we're making an early projection, he'll land late in the third round. Pitlick's brother, Rem, is a Nashville prospect, and his cousin, Tyler, plays for Dallas.
Ilya Konovalov, G, 20 (Yaroslavl, KHL – No. 4 EU Goalies)
Something has to seriously go wrong for someone to pass over Konovalov, the fourth-ranked European goaltender, this time around. Entering the draft at 20, Konovalov put on a show in the KHL, finishing near the top in goals-against average (1.89) and save percentage (.930) after starting the lion's share of the action over former NHL prospect Alexander Salak. Konovalov is signed to Yaroslavl until 2021, but his development over the past few years has to intrigue NHL clubs who may be looking for an upgrade in net a few years down the line.
Michal Teply, RW, 18 (Liberec, Czech – No. 14 EU)
A big kid with consistency issues, Teply is one of the most intriguing prospects from the Czech Republic and one who has real NHL potential. A big goal-scoring winger with a great shot – wait, hold on, are we talking about Patrik Laine here? With 29 points in 25 games, no Czech player was as good as Teply was in international U-18 action. But Teply's below-average skating and lackluster defensive coverage makes him a polarizing prospect. If he can refine those elements, he has the potential to be a top-six winger in the NHL and could still be available in the third round.
Antti Tuomisto, D, 18 (Assat, Finland U-20 – No. 15 EU)
When I put a feeler out on Twitter to find out who other people liked as potential steals for the draft, Tuomisto was one that came up multiple times. And there's a good reason why: Tuomisto had an impressive 26 assists and 35 points in 45 games to go along with 15 assists in 19 games with Finland's U-18 team. These are impressive numbers for any forward, but Tuomisto is a big 6-foot-4 defenseman. Tuomisto is a guy that really rose up the rankings this season and has true top-four upside in the NHL given his offensive production and impressive work ethic.
Semyon Chistyakov, D, 17 (Ufa, MHL – No. 16 EU)
Talking to scouts, few players rose as much as Chistaykov did this season. Many didn't even have this guy listed in their personal rankings, but after a strong season in the MHL and a good performance at the U-18 World Championship, Chistyakov is a real threat to go in the third round. Chistyakov has a laser beam of a shot and loves to throw huge hits despite his 5-foot-10, 168-pound frame. He really matured on the ice and showed great progress throughout the season, and while he's still a project option, there's a foundation in place.
Tuukka Tieksola, RW, 17 (Karpat, Liiga – No. 31 EU)
There are plenty of Finnish prospects this year, and Tieksola is gaining more hype by the day. Tieksola is another small forward, but one with impressive speed and offensive tools. Tieksola led the U-20 Finnish league in assists (45) and won the rookie of the year award in a season that saw Karpat take home the title. He should play full-time with the club's Liiga outfit next season. Tieksola is an easy guy to push around, but he has great vision and is a fantastic passer. He's a strong fourth-round candidate.
Other notables:Jackson LaCombe, D (Shattuck St. Mary's, USHS), Dustin Wolf, G (Everett, WHL), Brayden Tracey, LW (Moose Jaw, WHL), Alexander Campbell, C (Victoria, BCHL), Ethan Phillips, RW (Sioux Falls, USHL).
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