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2020 NHL Draft primer and random thoughts

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The draft is almost here, and it’s time to get ready

2019 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2020 NHL Draft is just around the corner. If you’re like me every year before this one, you might only now be starting to dig into this draft, who’s available, and what could (or what you should want to) happen for the Leafs.

Since the pandemic shut things down, including all sports, I wound up using some of my free time delving into the 2020 draft prospects far deeper than I ever have before.

Draft Profiles to Catch Up On

Here’s a quick list of all the pieces I’ve worked on, if you want to acquaint yourselves with specific prospects you might find interesting. I started by looking at groups of prospects in single articles, not looking too deeply at any one guy:

After this initial set of articles just poking around a bit, I wound up doing more in-depth individual profiles on guys who I came to really like the more I read about and watched them:

  • Tristen Robins — high scoring center from Saskatoon
  • William Villeneuve — right shot defense who led the QMJHL defense in points last year
  • Veeti Miettinen — small Finnish right winger who set records in Finland’s U20 league
  • Karri Aho — very young Finnish defenseman who might be a late round defensive gem
  • Samuel Knazko — higher upside defenseman playing in Finland
  • Zayde Wisdom — inspirational story, also very good power forward
  • Victor Mancini — big American RHD in Sweden with interesting skill set and stats
  • Justin Sourdif — solid two-way center/winger playing in the WHL
  • Brandon Coe — big RW who can skate, score but plays on an awful team
  • Helge Grans — big Swedish RHD who is a smooth skater and great at driving transition

Twitter Accounts to Follow

If you want to follow some prospect people on Twitter leading into the draft, or during, to get some good information on various picks, here is a list of people I would highly recommend:

Draft Resources to Use

On top of following people, there are some good resources to use going into or even during the draft. Here are a few things I would recommend using:

Bob McKenzie’s draft rankings is always the best for accurately predicting what actually happens, though even he won’t get everything perfect especially the later the draft goes. It’s a good list with little blurbs on some of the top guys to get familiar with so you can know what NHL scouts think, and who might be available when in the first three rounds.

Colin Cudmore (linked above) put together a Google Sheet that’s free for anyone to access that shows the aggregate/average draft rankings from all the major public scouting sources (including Bob). It’s a good way to get the general gist of the average ranking scores and range of rankings for various prospects.

Kevin Papetti is one of my favourite prospect writers, and he has his own rankings with short write ups for his top 62 prospects in two separate articles at MLHS:

Draft Rankings: 1 to 31

Draft Rankings: 32 to 62

Scott Wheeler is another that I like, and has been high on guys the Leafs wound up picking like Robertson and Abramov. Here is his most recent top 100 rankings.

And now, I put together a couple of random thoughts on various matters concerning the Leafs and the draft. Those few thoughts turned into a few, then into ten... but I’ve cut myself off from adding more before this gets Biblically Fulemin in length.

#1 — Keeping the First Round Pick

There are two tiers that roughly take up the top 10. The first tier has Lafreniere and Byfield. The next tier has Raymond, Stutzle, Rossi, Lundell, Askarov, Holtz, Drysdale, and Sanderson. That would make up my 10, in no particular order. They represent the guys with the best chances of being elite at their position.

After that, there’s a bigger drop off to the next tier of guys, who are all good prospects but not likely to turn into that blue chip center/winger/defenseman/goalie. They’ll be good supporting players. There’s nothing wrong with that, but like I said... that’s where the dropoff happens.

So if the Leafs are lucky, one of them will fall to 15th overall. The most likely options from what I’ve read are Lundell (ranked 12th by McKenzie), Rossi (smaller center, Austrian), or Askarov (goalie). I would sorely love for the Leafs to draft any of them, maybe in that order of preference though I could also swap Rossi and Lundell.

#2 — Trading Up

Could the Leafs trade up? Maybe, but it might not make sense to give up more picks to do so. Whatever additional value you get taking a higher tier guy you could lose by giving up another pick or two. Could they make it more of a hockey trade, clearing cap space to a team that has more pressing needs and willing to trade down a few spots? What kind of situation would that look like?

Well, it’s not very common for a team to have a higher draft pick — within or near the top 10 — and be a team who isn’t rebuilding or who would want a hockey trade to trade down a bit. There’s no hope in hell of Toronto moving into the top 7 considering the teams and players available.

Buffalo picks at 8th overall, and while they’re a bad team who should be taking whatever high ceiling guy falls to them they are reportedly in a pickle about their franchise center — Jack Eichel — getting tired of them sucking.

Minnesota at 9th is in a weird spot of seeming to sort of try and content with an older roster that they should really try and rebuild, or at least get younger. Is there a young forward we can trade them and move up 6 spots? I’m doubtful, even if Bill Guerin’s moves and statements have seemed all over the place.

Then there’s Winnipeg (10th) and Nashville (11th) who are in a similar place as the Leafs. They want to be contenders, they’ve had better years, but find themselves having “missed” the playoffs because of the play-in round for the sort-of-playoffs. Winnipeg desperately need defensemen. They’re also looking to shop Laine, apparently. Is there a deal that could get them a defenseman (Dermott?) to help their roster right now, or a forward (Johnsson?) to help replace Laine if/when they make that move? I’m skeptical. I think they try and get either or both of that back in a Laine deal, and keep the better pick.

For Nashville, they’re closer to Minnesota than Winnipeg due to their aging roster. They would be trading down 4 spots. Is there a younger roster player they like on the Leafs? Is there a guy they really like who would be available at 15th overall anyways? Of the teams I’m mentioning, they seem like the most likely for this to happen.

Lastly, there’s Carolina is a smart team and analytically inclined, which usually shows that trading down is smart. Would it make sense for us to trade up 2 spots, depending on who is available and what they’d ask for? I’m going to say no, because what they’ll want is more picks. Otherwise they’ll stand pat and be the ones who take the top 10 player that falls before the Leafs can.

Considering any of the teams above, I’d give the chances the Leafs trade up to be quite small. It just doesn’t happen very often, and for good reason.

#3 — Trading Down

So what happens if it gets to 15th overall and none of those guys are left? I would seriously look to trade down. That next tier of guys might not be as good, but there are a lot more of them. Ideally you’d like to move down around 5 or so spots. That lets you take someone you preferred even at 15th, but also get another pick or two in the 2nd/3rd rounds. You lose no significant value, and gain more.

What teams would make ideal trading partners for this scenario? There aren’t many. Montreal might be the best, but they choose right after us. Chicago has 17th and 46th, but again it’s less likely they move up only 2 spots. New Jersey has two picks after us at 18th and 20th, but then no pick again until 83rd.

Realistically, the best option is Calgary. They’re at 19th, which is four spots back from the Leafs. They also have their 2nd rounder at 49th. Would they want to trade up four spots? Maybe, if they’re really high on someone like Dylan Holloway, who is a center and a local boy from Calgary to boot. There’s also Seth Jarvis, Braden Schneider, or Kaiden Guhle who are all western boys as well.

The Leafs could then take someone like Rodion Amirov (ranked 19th by Bob), Mavrik Bourque (26th), Helge Grans (32nd), or Marat Khusnutdinov (35th). To me, that’s not much value lost between any of those and the guys who would be taken between 15th and 18th. Even trading down with Philadelphia, who have the 23rd pick (eight spots back) and 53rd, makes sense to me.

#5 — Getting Another First Rounder?

Near the end of the Cup Finals, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Devils may be willing to trade either the 18th or 20th overall picks for a “good young player” who is 26 years old or younger, and has some team control.

The Leafs have some players that fit the bill, including some they might be looking to trade anyways. Johnsson is the most obvious one, but likely not as good as New Jersey is looking for if they give up a first rounder.

I don’t know if the Leafs manage to swing that, but I am here for the chaos of it. The Leafs would then have two first round picks. They could do any mix of:

  • Trade up with one or both of the picks.
  • Trade down with one or both of the picks.
  • Use one of the picks to swing a big trade, or use both for a BIGGER trade.
  • Keep one or both where they are and take two good first rounders to restock their prospect pool in a hurry.

#6 — Don’t Reach For Defenseman

There are two defensemen who are in a clear tier above everyone else: Jamie Drysdale and Jake Sanderson. After that, there’s a big group of defense who could be in contention as “the next best” guy depending on who you ask:

  • Helge Grans
  • William Wallinder
  • Emil Andrae
  • Braden Schneider
  • Kaiden Guhle
  • Ryan O’Rourke
  • William Villeneuve
  • Tope Niemela
  • Lukas Cormier
  • Brock Faber
  • Anton Johannesson

All of these guys are long shots to turn into first pairing defenders, but better chances to become second pairing guys. How you rank them probably depends on what you personally prefer in a defensemen in terms of size, skating, offense, defense, etc.

My personal favourite is probably Helge Grans. He’s good in all areas, he’s tall with some physical projection left (read: he needs to put on some weight and muscle to fill out his beanpole frame). He also played in the SHL against men last year and did quite well. Ryan O’Rourke is another interesting name. He’s a lefty, but like Grans seems to be at least good at just about anything. He’s a Soo boy too so you know Dubas has his EP page bookmarked.

My point is... you don’t need to reach for a defenseman, especially at 15th overall. There will be someone good to pick at 44th. I think there are some good long-shot options for later in the draft too, like Victor Mancini, Samuel Knazko, Karri Aho, Ivan Zivlak, Mitchell Smith, and so on. The Leafs will have the opportunity to stock up their system with defensemen this draft.

And if you (the hypothetical Dubas) have a defenseman you really like, keep in mind where he is likely to go. Don’t reach on him, but try and trade down to that rough area in the draft where he might still be available.

#7 — If Not Askarov, Be Patient For Goalies

The same idea applies for goalies. There is one clear elite goalie prospect in Askarov. I would not be averse to the Leafs taking him at 15th overall if he’s available, depending on who else is on the board still.

But if not, there are some good options later in the draft. Joel Blomqvist might be the second best goalie depending on who you ask, and he might not be taken until the third round. Others (that I like) include Dylan Garand, Nick Malik, Devon Levi, and Samuel Hlavaj. They will more than likely be available in the mid to late rounds. Devon Levi especially seems interesting. He played in a pretty unknown league, but dominated. Goalie scouts I follow like his mechanics and ability to anticipate play.

One thing I am wary of are goalies whose scouting reports read like “he’s big and he has potential, but he hasn’t put it together yet”. If they have the advantage of size but they still have a lot to learn in terms of mechanics, reading play, and still have poor numbers... that’s just a big red flag for me, especially if you want to take one of this bigger goalies in the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th rounds. There are other goalies who may be an inch or two shorter who already have good mechanics and good numbers you can take instead.

There are also tons of interesting looking goalies playing in Russia, who never get much exposure because they’re playing in the MHL. It can be harder to know much about them, but this is where I’d hope the Leafs flex their financial might and had been sending smart scouts to find some hidden gems.

#8 — In Fact, Maybe Take Two Goalies

The Leafs need goalies in their system so they don’t find themselves in the position they found themselves in this season with no good prospects to backup or replace Freddie. The Leafs have drafted only 5 goalies in the last 10 drafts. That isn’t enough. They need to spend money to find the best goalie scout in the game and start taking one goalie per draft, at least.

In this draft, where they have lots of late picks where goalies go more often now, they should take two — assuming good options are left on the board where it makes sense to take them. It could jump start their goalie pipeline, which they sorely need.

Some goalies that seem like good options later in the draft are overagers, which I am fine with for goalies considering how volatile they can be in their development. If a guy is a late bloomer, absolutely take advantage of more recent scouting and data on them. That could also help you stagger the pipeline despite taking two goalies in the same draft.

If the Leafs do trade down and wind up with an extra second round pick, or third, what if Nico Daws is still available? He’s a very late birthday (December 2000) so he would be eligible to join the AHL next season (assuming there is an AHL next season). He was the best goalie in the CHL last year. He could be on a faster track to the NHL due to his age, considering Ian Scott was a 1999 birthday.

#9 — Plenty of Overagers for Late Round Picks

Every year there are guys who were not taken in previous drafts that are available. They almost never get taken very high, with even the “best” overagers usually going in the 2nd/3rd round at the earliest. Even when a guy took a big step forward, he could have been injured or sick his draft year, or blocked on a stacked team, or just in a bad situation.

They usually wind up no worse, really, than taking any other relatively unknown guy in later rounds. There could be some good value to be had with some of the Leafs’ 6th and 7th round picks. Personally, to me it makes even more sense for goalies and defense since they are more difficult to assess in general and develop differently than forwards. So what overagers might be interesting in later rounds?

I listed some a few months ago that you can read up on, but that was the very start of when I dove headfirst into prospects and the draft. Of that list, a few guys still stand out: Goncalves, Simoneau, Constantinou, and Likhachyov seem like good gambles who are likely to be available in later rounds.

But there are some others that are even more interesting. You may have noticed that in that list I made, I didn’t include anyone from European leagues.

  • Benjamin Baumgartner — 5’9”, 2000 birthday in his 3rd draft, he’s a center who’s played in Swiss men’s league and has stellar underlying numbers.
  • Yegor Suchkov — 5’8”, August 2001 birthday in his 2nd draft, winger, was a point per game in MHL and good underlying numbers.
  • Albert Lyckåsen — RHD, 2001 birthday in his 2nd draft, 5’11” and good skater with 36 points in 43 SuperElit games. Has more offensive potential than defensive.
  • Christopher Merisier-Ortiz — LHD, 2001 birthday in his 2nd draft, 5’11”, had 45 points in 64 games in the Q and has a decent reputation defensively as a good all-round option.
  • Adam Wilsby — LHD, August 2000 birthday in his 3rd draft, 6’0” and 30 points in 41 games in Sweden’s Allsvenskan league (like their AHL) who cracked the SHL roster this season.
  • Dmitri Rashevsky — LW, October 2000 birthday in only his 2nd draft, missed a lot of his draft year (can’t find why), but came back with 44 goals and 30 assists in only 61 MHL games last season which led his team by 26 points. Playing in the VHL this season and has 4 points in 6 games.

#10 — Looking at Prospects in Europe

An interesting wrinkle that the pandemic caused is that some leagues, mostly in Europe, have already had their seasons start. Sweden, Finland and Russia are in various states of underway. As of writing this, Sweden and Russia’s regular seasons have begun while the Liiga is just wrapping up their pre-season.

That gives us a good look at what players have taken another step forward, and get more/bigger opportunities. Anton Lundell has been sensational so far, playing as a top center in all situations... albeit in pre-season so far. Yaroslav Askarov temporarily took over the #1 goalie spot on his team in the KHL and looked great doing it in 2 starts and 3 total appearances. He’s since been sent down to the VHL again.

Another guy I wrote about was Victor Mancini, the big American RHD who decided to play in Sweden last year. So far this season he has 4 goals and 2 assists in only 7 games in the Swedish U20 league. He could very well get a promotion to the SHL once all the loans from North American players go back.

Karri Aho has played in 4 games in Finland’s U20 league and had 3 points before being promoted to the Mestis — the level below Liiga. And Samuel Knazko has 3 points in 7 games in Finland’s U20.

These three touch on a wrinkle in the idea that 2020 draft eligible prospects playing in Europe are having more looks further in their development. There is a good chance that some of them, maybe even all of them, would be playing in a higher level already if their teams had not been loaned various North American players or NHL prospects because there has been no NHL, AHL, NCAA, OHL, USHL, or WHL seasons (yet). Veeti Miettinen, for example, hasn’t played at all because he’s waiting to see what’s going to happen with the NCAA season where he had committed to for this season.

Overall, it is the Swedish and Finnish prospects that are the most intriguing to me. Prospects in the Russian leagues... well they’re in a mess. They’re handling the pandemic worse than Trump and the US, and they’ve had some teams have almost their entire roster in the KHL out because they tested positive and they called up their whole junior team. Considering the potential long-term risks to athletes who contract COVID, that’s something I’d be very wary of. So while I love guys like Marat Khusnutdinov and various goalies, that’s potentially a bigger risk than normal. Will that help some of them fall more? Would the Leafs want to avoid them altogether because of that uncertainty? That’s going to be something to watch.

So that’s it! Hope you all got some value from this and are as excited for the draft as I am. Between the potential trades and the potential picks the Leafs could get... I am very very hyped.