NHL draft: Scouts size up the top 10 forwards
Worried about scoring in the NHL? Give the forwards in this year's draft class a couple of years and they might bring the Dead Puck Era to an end all by themselves.
This deep and talented group, headlined by American Auston Matthews and Finns Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, boasts more than a dozen forwards who could one day step into a first-line role for their teams and at least a dozen more who could skate in the top-six. "There's some real talent at the top end of the draft," a scout told SI.com. "These kids are big and fast and [offensively] creative. They're going to be impact players."
There are also several smaller forwards who have made an impression at lower levels and are ready to prove they can elevate their game to the big league. "Some of these guys who are getting first-round consideration now, we couldn't have considered them a few years ago," the scout said. "It's a different game ... speed is so important now. If a player can skate and make things happen at top speed, he's going to get a look."
Those changing dynamics, as well as the talent on hand, makes it a challenge to assess the top 10 forwards in this year's draft. Safe to say, once you get past the first three, there's plenty of room for differing opinions.
A reminder: This list is not a mock draft (we'll have that for you on Thursday). Instead, we've ranked the players we think will have the biggest impact down the road.
1. Auston Matthews, Zurich SC (Switzerland)
The term "franchise player" gets tossed around a bit too liberally these days, but Matthews fits the bill. The 18-year-old is coming off a season in which he scored 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games and was a finalist for league MVP in Switzerland before being the best player for Team USA at the 2016 World Championship. He's the total package, blessed with size (6' 2", 216 pounds), elite hockey sense, a scorer's touch and dazzling puck skills. “He's not just a game-changer for the Maple Leafs,” said one scout. “He'll impact the entire league.”
2. Patrik Laine, Tappara Tampere (Finland)
As good as Matthews is, there are scouts who believe Laine could end up being the better player. “He's like a faster version of Brett Hull,” offered one scout. “He gets the puck off his stick almost before you realize he has it.” That innate scoring touch helped Laine earn MVP honors in the Finnish playoffs and at the World Championship, a remarkable achievement for any player, let alone a draft-eligible one. "He wants to be a difference-maker every time he's on the ice," another scout said. "He's got that drive that allows him to make the most of his tools." The expectation is that he'll showcase that drive next season in the NHL.
3. Jesse Puljujarvi, Karpat (Finland)
Puljujarvi doesn't draw the attention of Matthews and Laine, but the MVP and leading scorer at the World Juniors has superstar potential. “He has a power forward's body ... he can dominate a game with his strength and determination,” a scout said. “He's a well-rounded winger who can make plays just as well as he finishes,” said another. Both agreed that Puljujarvi has the mobility, hockey sense and puck skills to step immediately into a top-six role.
4. Logan Brown, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
I'm already on the record with my admiration for Brown, and am perfectly comfortable to have him ranked higher than most everyone else. The reasons: his size (6' 6", 222); his position (center) and his potential. The game may be growing more accommodating for smaller players, but someone with his size, skating ability and intensity will always carry the day. Brown was wildly inconsistent during the first half of the season, but once he started driving the net consistently, he was almost unstoppable. His first instinct is to set up a teammate, which is why he's drawing comparisons to Joe Thornton, but now that he's figuring out how effective he is as a shooter, there's a chance for Brown to become a dominant No. 1 pivot.
5. Matthew Tkachuk, London Knights (OHL)
The son of 538-goal scorer Keith Tkachuk might be a more complete package than his old man. The size (6' 2", 200) and tenacity are similar. So is his ability to dominate along the wall and in front of the net. He has the hands to score the pretty goals and the will to score the ugly ones. And as his OT winner in the Memorial Cup proves, he has a knack for the big moments. "From the [face-off] dots on down, he's maybe the most dangerous player in the draft," one scout said. "He's a pitbull with the puck." Tkachuk projects as top-six forward with the potential to mature into an All-Star-caliber scorer. "They're going to love him, wherever he goes," the scout said. "His determination is infectious."
6. Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)
Central Scouting's top-rated North American skater, Dubois is a 6' 2", 202-pound forward who plays a complete 200-foot game. He scored 42 goals and 99 points this past season, good for third in the Q, but he wins as much praise for his defensive work. "You can put him out there against the other team's top center and he can ... shut him down," a scout said. "He's a tenacious checker ... totally committed to that aspect of his game. He takes real pride in it." That work ethic makes Dubois a virtual no-risk pick. "He's going to be an impact player," said a second scout. "He competes ... he goes to the right areas. He finds a way to make a difference every night."
7. Tyson Jost, Penticton Vees (BCHL)
Like most elite players his size (5' 11", 192), Jost relies heavily on his speed and mobility to maximize his natural offensive flair. But he didn't score 104 points this season on skill alone. Jost instinctively heads to the greasy areas and thrives on contact. That willingness to pay the price allows him to take full advantage of one of the most powerful shots in his draft class. He made a big impression at the U-18s, where he netted six goals and 15 points to lead the tournament and smash the old Canadian scoring record previously held by Connor McDavid.
8. Alex Nylander, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
“He might be the most electrifying talent in the draft,” a scout said of Nylander. “He can turn on the jets and beat defenders with his speed .. [or] make them look silly with his dangles.” He has high-end playmaking skills and an elite shot as well, a combo that keeps defenders guessing and buys him the time and space to make the right play more often than not. He has work to do on his play away from the puck, but the potential to be a 40-goal man in the NHL ensures that Nylander will be a top 10 pick.
9. Clayton Keller, US NTDP (USHL)
Keller has size issues (5' 9", 168) but his skill level is intoxicating. "He's an effortless playmaker who uses his vision to create opportunities for his linemates," said one scout. "The way he moves the puck is something else," said another. "He can quickly find an opening and exploit it." Keller has some of the slickest hands in the draft, and he can finish a play as well as he can start it. He scored 37 goals to go along with 70 assists in 62 games with the NTDP. "The puck always seems to be on his stick," the first scout added. "He has that ability to take over a game at will."
10. Alex DeBrincat, Erie Otters (USHL)
OK, so he's 5' 7", but there's no denying what DeBrincat brings to the table ... or how he does it. "He's a goal-scoring machine," one scout said, noting DeBrincat's back-to-back 51-goal seasons. "He's relentless on the puck and isn't afraid to go into the hard areas." He doesn't simply play bigger than his size—he thinks bigger. "He has that mentality that he's not going to be stopped," another scout said of the feisty winger. "He knows he has to work twice as hard as the next guy and he does." DeBrincat has played with McDavid and Dylan Strome in Erie, but he hasn't ridden anyone's coattails. "He can play with elite players and make them better ... [with] his tenacity and hockey sense" said the first scout.