A generational star held on to the top spot in the latest 2016 NHL draft rankings from North American Central Scouting, but there was plenty of movement both up and down on the January chart.
To no one’s surprise, Zurich Lions star Auston Matthews remains the top-rated prospect. After watching the 18-year-old in action at the World Juniors in Finland, NACS head scout Mark Seidel came away convinced that the big center is a lock to go No. 1 overall.
“He’s a complete package of skating, skill and IQ,” Seidel told SI.com. “Expectations were high going into the tournament and he met them, despite facing the other teams’ top checking lines.”
While Matthews held onto the top spot, he’s getting a hard push from Jesse Puljujarvi. The Finnish forward closed the gap with a sensational performance for the gold medalists. “At times, he was the best player in the [tournament],” Seidel says of the 6' 3", 201-pound forward. “He played big in big moments.”
Puljujarvi offers “an excellent combination of size and skating,” Seidel adds. “He showed an ability to finish as well as set up plays.”
Puljujarvi’s linemate in Helsinki, Patrik Laine, made a big impression as well, moving past American wingers Matthew Tkachuk and Max Jones into the fourth spot in the latest rankings. “He’s a pure scorer,” Seidel says. “He loves to shoot. He has a big body ... [and he] showed some of the nastiness that scouts love.”
American forward Alex DeBrincat was one of the tournament’s most closely watched players, but never quite found his groove. The OHL’s leading goal scorer started out alongside Matthews and Tkachuk on Team USA’s top line, but was suspended after taking a brutal spearing penalty against Canada, then suffered an injury that limited his ice time the rest of the way. Seidel still sees the 5' 7", 165-pound sniper as a likely first rounder (he’s currently ranked 23rd, up six spots), but is concerned that he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to answer lingering concerns. “He had a tournament full of ups and downs. At times he showed that lack of separation speed on the big ice. There are still questions about whether he skates well enough at that size, but he does [know how to] finish his opportunities.”
The big mover on the back end was Logan Stanley. The 6' 7", 220-pound Windsor Spitfires defender was overlooked for Team Canada, but he still bolted up the charts, going from 42 to 18. “He's a big horse who continues to get better,” Seidel says. “He’s still raw but the upside is impressive. He’s learned to play a simpler game. His feet are continually improving, and his gap control has gotten much better. He’s never going to put up offensive numbers, but he’ll be hard to play against.”
Seidel was also impressed by Olli Joulevi, the smooth-skating blueliner who flashed glimpses of his massive upside while playing big role for the gold medal-winning Finns. “He helped himself the most of any player in the WJCs,” he says, raving about the 17-year-old’s poise and passing abilities. “He almost seemed more comfortable playing for Finland than he has for (OHL) London. [He always makes] excellent decisions with the puck.”
Joulevi is now widely viewed as a good bet to be a top 10 selection. NACS has him ranked eighth, up from 17th in the organization’s November list.
While those promising blueliners rose, another continued to disappoint. Sean Day, the fourth underaged player granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada and the second defenseman (after Aaron Ekblad) to receive it, is burning through the goodwill of the scouting community with his passive play. “He has top-10 physical tools but shows such little urgency,” Seidel says. “He doesn’t [make the most of] his incredible skating ability. He has to show teams that he wants to be an NHL player.”
Those raw tools and his pro physique (6' 3", 220) are sure to get him drafted at some point, but Day’s stock is sagging, down 50 spots to 86th. NACS isn’t alone in its concerns. At least two other scouts, however, have told SI.com they have him marked as Do Not Draft.
Seidel calls this year’s goaltending cohort “unimpressive,” but thinks there’s some value to be mined. He believes Evan Cormier of the Saginaw Spirit has the most upside. He has ideal size at 6' 3", 201, but at 17 remains a very raw talent. “He's struggled at times, but he’s calm and quiet in the net,” Seidel says of the 61st-ranked prospect. “He needs to be more consistent in the second half.”
The numbers game
• Joel Quennevilleearned his 783rd victory as a head coach to move past Al Arbour into second place in NHL history, behind only Scotty Bowman(1,244). Quenneville reached the mark in his 1,421st game. Arbour coached 1,607.
• The Capitals are 21-2-2 since Nov. 21 thanks largely to goaltender Braden Holtby who has personal point streak of 22 straight decisions dating back to Nov. 12. Only one goalie has a longer such run during the past 20 NHL seasons: Jose Theodore, who set a franchise record with his 23-game stretch from Jan. 13 to April 9, 2010.
• Shane Doan needs one power-play goal to tie Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk for the most in Coyotes franchise history(122).
• Jaromir Jagr says he's not feeling his age ... but if others are sluggish at 43, that’s their problem.
• Now that he’s eclipsed Al Arbour for the second spot on the NHL’s all-time coaching wins list, can Joel Quenneville make a run at No. 1?
• Speaking of all-time great coaches, Boston College legend Jerry York needs two victories to become the first man in NCAA history to win 1,000 games. Mark Divver offers some thoughts on York’s amazing career.
• Scott Gomez isn’t ready to let go of the NHL dream just yet. The veteran center is hanging around the game in the hopes that some team might give him a call ahead of the playoffs.