The NHL's Central Scouting Service (CSS) has released its final draft rankings for 2016, and it's no surprise who leads the way.
Auston Matthews is an almost unanimous choice as the top prospect available for selection this year, and the CSS rankings are no different, with the Arizona native ranked above the Finnish duo of Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujärvi on the European rankings. Matthews has spent the last year playing for Zurich in the Swiss league - a rather unconventional predraft year for the American.
In their rankings release, Director of NHL Scouting Dan Marr spoke glowingly of Matthews, stating:
"Matthews is an extraordinary prospect with NHL size, speed and smarts. He is the ultimate package when you combine all of that with his exceptional work ethic and relentless compete level. The other players in the mix for the top five selections have all improved their stock, but Matthews is our clear choice as the top prospect available for the 2016 NHL Draft."
It's clear Matthews will the big prize that lottery teams will covet, but it's by no means a one-man draft. Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujärvi tore up the U20 World Junior Hockey Championships, and are performing at a level beyond their years in the Finnish Liiga. Laine seems to have separated himself as the likely higher pick of the two, and Marr was effusive in his praise of the young winger:
"Laine is an extremely skilled winger with size, speed, hockey sense and competitiveness. He is a natural scorer who possesses an NHL caliber shot. Laine is a tough competitor to play against and even harder to check, an offensive threat every time he is on the ice."
Interestingly, Laine's favourite player is another skilled winger with a lethal shot - Alex Ovechkin.
Puljujärvi was one of the stars of the 2016 U20 World Junior Hockey Championships, and is almost a guaranteed lock to be selected in the top 3 in June. Says Marr:
"Puljujarvi is the ultimate power forward package. He is a big, mobile, highly skilled, wellrounded winger who is both a scorer and a playmaker. He is a powerful skater with excellent offensive instincts, puck skills and determination."
The Leafs have an approximate 52.5% chance of picking in the top 3 and selecting one of the above players; if they slip to 4, they'll likely be choosing from a host of highly touted prospects in North America. CSS has ranked Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward Pierre-Luc Dubois as the best North American skater this year. This represents a sizeable jump from the midterm rankings for Dubois, when he was ranked 7th.
Dubois is followed by (in order) Matthew Tkachuk of the London Knights, Alexander Nylander of the Mississauga Steelheads, Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting, and Olli Juoelvi, also of the Knights.
Marr also had comments on the above prospects in the press release:
"Dubois is a highly-skilled power forward who is unique in that he can play all three forward positions. He excels at utilizing his size and strength to his advantage and can play with an edge. A strong skater with deceptive speed and quickness, Dubois is a gifted playmaker with elite hockey sense and puck skills."
"Tkachuk is unique in that he brings both skill and a physical package to game situations in which he consistently finds ways to contribute and make an impact. He possesses elite hockey sense and vision, has a very good scoring touch and makes players around him better. One of the best puck protection players eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, he is difficult to check and willing to go to the hard areas to score goals."
"Nylander is a dynamic player who is an elite skater with a creative skill-set. He has very good offensive hockey sense allowing him to create scoring chances in a variety of ways while making plays at top speed. His offensive instincts make him extremely dangerous in one-on-one situations and a scoring threat every time he is on the ice."
"A complete defenseman with the size, strength, speed and puck skills for today’s NHL. Chychrun is an excellent transitional skater who possesses high-end hockey sense, passing ability, a powerful shot and the poise to make plays under pressure. He plays a solid two-way game displaying quick offensive instincts, is responsible defensively and rarely out of position."
"Juolevi is a smart, smooth skating, puck moving defenseman with excellent poise and composure. He displays elite hockey sense and instincts with and without the puck and plays in every situation."
All of the above prospects may be in play for the Leafs at 4, should they fall to that draft slot. Given the organizational weakness in terms of defense prospects, one has to wonder if the front office would lean to Juolevi or Chychrun. You can find the full list of CSS rankings here.