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2020 NHL Draft: Trying to unearth hidden gems in the USHL

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The Leafs made a few bets on long shots out of the USHL last year too,

Harvard vs Yale Men’s Hockey Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

This is the fifth part of a series I will be writing, trying to find hidden gems in the 2020 draft that fall through the cracks for one reason or another. Here are the others if you missed them:

Part I: 15 overage prospects who were overlooked or late bloomers.

Part II: Looking at 7 potential hidden gems in the QMJHL

Part III: Looking at 8 potential steals in the OHL

Part IV: Finding 9 potential steals in the WHL & AJHL

Last year the Toronto Maple Leafs made two interesting and unusual (at the time) picks in the mid-rounds. They picked overager Nick Abruzzese from the Chicago Steel in the USHL, and Mike Koster from Minnesota high school. Both were smaller, and both were pretty unknown at the time. One year later, Koster had some weird injury troubles but had a nice season in the USHL, while Abruzzese took off for Harvard and was at the top of rookie scoring in the whole NCAA.

So we know the Leafs like to watch American junior hockey, and are willing to roll the dice on some potential sleepers that had been underrated due to their size or the obscurity of the league they played in. Can we dig up some potential sleepers from the NCAA, USHL and high school leagues that might fall to the Leafs this year?

Here are 8 potential hidden gems I was able to find.

#1) Daniil Gushchin — Right Wing

Daniil Gushchin is a 5’8” Russian winger, and might be a very underrated winger that has an argument to be a first round pick. The height, nationality, and position make it not that surprising for him to be underrated at all. But Gushchin is also a bit different — he played in the USHL the last two seasons, which is why he’s on this list for prospects playing in the USA rather than the European one.

Gushchin is a potentially elite talent — he’s good enough to be ranked 51st by Future Considerations and 54th by Elite Prospects. Plenty of scouts will refer to him as a potential top-six winger, which for a mid-second round pick (or lower, depending on who you ask) that would be quite the steal.

The issue: he might not be underrated just because of his size or home nation. Lots of scouting reports mention he can be very inconsistent. Now, “inconsistent” to me is one of those words that can be used as a catchall and not very meaningful, so it can be difficult to know what’s noise and what’s legit. What I can tell you is that two prospect people I trust more than others are Kevin Papetti and Scott Wheeler — Scott had him 30th in his mid-season rankings, and Kevin had him 23rd in his recent rankings. In a recent Q&A, Scott also added he sees Gushchin as a likely 2nd or 3rd round pick that could be a great sleeper pick.

Daniil Gushchin Scouting Reports:

From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic:

I’m a bigger believer. He never stops moving, he wins races, he can get under bigger defenders, and then he has the puck skill he needs to dart to the net and make a play. He’s the most entertaining player in the USHL for me these days. His explosiveness makes him a factor all over the ice in quick bursts. He’s the kind of player I’m comfortable taking a risk on.

From Ryan Wagman at McKeen’s Hockey:

Gushchin’s regular game play speed is more or less average, which can be disappointing in a player as small as he is, but everything plays up thanks to his dazzling edgework and agility. His cuts are extremely sharp and they allow him to fit into the role of a team’s primary zone entry specialist. His skating could play up even more if he played with more regular urgency as he can get to a good top speed when he pushes. Further, he doesn’t always keep his feet moving in his own zone.

His puck skills are at least as high as anyone’s in the USHL in the 2020 draft class. His hands are quick, soft, and coordinated. They work well together with his feet, as you can see with the way he cuts sharply before or immediately following, a zone entry. The puck sticks to his blade as if glued. He is extremely dogged with the puck and can shelter it from the poking sticks of multiple defenders at a time, leading to his share of drawn penalties. The occasional lack of urgency mentioned in the skating section also sometimes extends to his puck play as he can cough up the puck unnecessarily due to a lackadaisical approach.

From Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst:

A hound in all three zones who is one of the more excitable players you’ll find in his draft class, Gushchin has spent the last two seasons in the USHL and it clearly shows in the way he competes hard and plays physical. Intelligent on or off the puck, Gushchin contributes on special teams and in late/close situations. He routinely is summoned for big penalty kills and will treat the on-ice disadvantage as an opportunity to make life a living hell for the other side. He is a very fast skater with multi-directional quickness, but Gushchin stays disciplined by keeping his stick and body positioned properly without cheating himself.

Guschin is a high-volume shooter who cannot be taken lightly no matter how calm or deliberate he appears as he enters the opposing zone. His 182 shots were third in the USHL and almost double from last year’s total and in less games. Even more impressive about Gushchin’s USHL stats — 42 of his 47 points (87 percent) were at even strength or shorthanded, the best percentage of any USHL Top-30 scorer.

On the puck, Gushchin shows impressive skills and decision-making both within the attacking zone and on the rush. His passes are delivered with confidence, accuracy, and authority, and it is a common occurrence to see defenders backing in way too deep and affording him too much time and space to exploit.

Going into this season some rankings had him in the top 10, but he’s fallen by quite a lot this year. He didn’t perform as well as he had in the past at the Hlinka, which I also think can cause a big overrating or underrating of a prospect for just 5 games of hockey. Now he’s fallen outside of the top two rounds in some rankings.

Daniil Gushchin Highlights:

#2) Mitchell Miller — Left Defense

Mitchell Miller is of average height but already pretty heavy. He is ranked around the third or fourth round in the draft, but he might be one of the most skilled defensemen in this year’s draft depending on who you ask.

Here are some quick notes:

  • Miller was the highest scoring defender at the 2018 Hlinka tournament for the USA with 5 points in 5 games
  • Miller was the highest scoring defender at this year’s World Junior A Challenge for the USA with 6 points in 6 games.
  • His 33 points helped him finish third in the whole USHL for points by a defenseman.

To be honest I’m not quite sure why there isn’t more hype for Miller. In fact, I had a lot of difficulty finding much of anything written about him at all. To me that can mean one of two things: either a lot of people just never saw him, or he was just so meh/boring/not good/not flashy that no one bothered to write about him.

I think, after reading the bits that WERE written about him that I could find, that it might be more of the former than the latter. He gets glowing praise for his skating, puck movement, and skill. I think reading between the lines and seeing what doesn’t get praised, I assume his defense is a concern even if they don’t come right out and say it. I wondered if size was a concern too, but he’s almost 200 lbs already, and McKeen’s adds that while he doesn’t look for big hits all the time, he does do it from time to time. He also will take hits to make a play and is not afraid to play along the boards where size and strength can be an issue.

Mitchell Miller Scouting Reports:

From Ryan Wagman at McKeen’s Hockey:

A true modern-era defender, Miller has great edges, enabling him to stop and change direction on a dime, breaking ankles along the way and his high-end acceleration leads to Miller leading his share of rushes from end to end. A very composed puck mover, Miller combines his puck skills with his skating to present dynamic elements fairly regularly. He has very good vision and is a creative passer. His puck control is high end. He can dangle at top speed to evade the defense as he prepares to attack the home plate area. Between his high-end skating and puck skills and refined hockey sense and instincts, he looks like a potential second pairing defender with some power play time thrown in.

From Alexander Taxman at Future Scope Hockey:

Mitchell Miller is another one of my favorite under the radar prospects in this draft. He’s an offensive defenseman with some of the most skill among defenders in this draft class. Miller is a fast and agile skater, with the tendency to jump up and join the rush on nearly every play. He was the #1 defenseman on Tri-City in the USHL, playing big minutes in all situations. Miller’s ability to walk the line on offense or circle the zone with the puck make him a very valuable asset on the power play, and he can sometimes look like a fourth forward. Miller plays with a physical edge in his own zone, and makes smart outlet passes when he recovers the puck.

As of now, Miller is ranked anywhere from 88th to 181st. The Leafs will have a pick in the second round around 50th, and not again until the fourth round when they have two picks between 100th and 110th. That gives him a good chance to fall to them with one of those picks if they liked him. And they will have had a chance to see him a lot, as he was a teammate (and possible on the same pairing) as Leafs’ prospect Mike Koster who they drafted last year in the 5th round.

Mitchell Miller Highlights:

In this clip, Miller (#92) skates the line in a cross with Koster and gets off a good quick slap shot into traffic, the scramble leads to a late game-tying goal.

This is a quick clip of Miller jumping into the rush and getting a good chance after blowing by the opposing defensemen.

#3) Brett Berard — Left Wing

After my research into Berard, I’d say he’s this year’s Nick Robertson. He’s short at only 5’9”, and he’s very light at only 152 lbs, AND he’s very young as a September 9th birthday and being only a few days away from being eligible for next year’s draft. He’s also American, if we want to take the comparison as far as we can, but where Robertson played in the OHL and was known as a goal scoring threat, Berard played for the US Development Team in the USHL and against NCAA teams. He’s also known more for his play making and transition abilities than being a pure goal scorer.

When he played USHL teams he was a terror, scoring 7 goals and 18 points in only 13 games. He may have added to the totals, but was injured a month before the season was cancelled and didn’t have time to return. And that touches on the very obvious issue Berard has that will lead him to likely falling in the draft: he’s small, and he’s young, and his injury won’t help dispel the idea that he can take physical play.

And yet, while playing in the US Development Team he played against NCAA teams, like the University of Michigan. In 41 games he had 16 goals and 34 points, which was third on the team with fewer games played due to his injury. So he could more than handle himself against older, bigger players.

Brett Berard’s rankings varies from 24th to 90th, making it a pretty good chance he falls to the Leafs with their second round pick. Some of those rankings were from mid-season in January, however, so we can expect to see some changes when more final rankings come in.

Brett Berard Scouting Reports:

From Ryan Wagman at McKeen’s Hockey:

In terms of the sheer ability to break a game wide open, Brett Berard is more dynamic and exciting than any other member of this year’s USNTDP class. The Rhode Island native and Providence commit brings high-end puck skills, hockey IQ, and a world class motor to his shifts. At his best, he takes over games and shifts. His 18 points in 13 USHL games attest to that ability, especially the seven-point weekend he had before sustaining an injury that kept him out of action for the last month or so of this truncated season. He had expected to return in time for the WU18s which never occurred, but that injury brings up the only reason why he might not hear his name called in the first round of the upcoming draft (“upcoming” being a nebulous term at the moment).

If he were only short, teams would be more interested. If he were taller but slight, teams would assume he would grow. Short and slight, there is the fear that he will always be prone to injury, and simply being overpowered, even if he is a fine skater. He could still go in the first round to a team that believes in skill and hockey smarts, but if he is still on the board after that, he could be a steal.

From Alexander Taxman at Future Scope Hockey:

Brett Berard is one of the shiftiest players available in this year’s draft, and he’s also one of the youngest. Born just a few days before the draft cutoff, Berard is still growing into his frame, currently at 5’9 and 152 pounds. Playing with the NTDP, Berard went up against NCAA competition multiple times this year, and looked fantastic. Size isn’t an issue with him, as he’s a quick and elusive skater, with an impressive set of hands. Berard evades contact so well, and is one of the better zone entry specialists in this draft. He’s got a really accurate shot, but it’s not very powerful as of now. He thinks the game at a high level and will no doubt be an impactful college scorer. Berard’s toolkit is similar to Farrell’s, albeit with a bit less versatility.

From Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects:

Brett Berard is the player that your team drafts in the middle rounds and then you wonder why he lasted so long. Berard has a ton of skill. He leads the U18 team in scoring and has been impressive at both ends of the ice. The biggest issue with Berard is that he is a small player who doesn’t have a lot of meat on him. He is also just a few days away from being eligible for the 2021 draft, making him one of the youngest players in the 2020 draft. Of his 15 goals, only two were scored on the powerplay as well making him a dangerous five-on-five player. Berard has a tendency to be where the puck comes loose around the net and clean up garbage. He has the ability to make plays all over the offensive zone. He has excellent hands, shifty skating, and great vision. Berard is definitely a player to keep an eye on as the season goes on.

The ranking I am most interested in is Bob McKenzie’s, since he makes his rankings based on what he hears from within the NHL and is usually close to where guys will actually be picked — not where independent blogs or scouts rank them based on their opinions and merits. In the mid-season rankings of the top 62 (top 2 rounds), McKenzie didn’t have Berard ranked at all, meaning he could fall even outside of the second round.

I would be very amused if the Leafs managed to get a potential first round talent fall to them in the second round for two straight years. He might not be as good as Robertson turned out to be already, but that’s still a potential steal for a second rounder.

Brett Berard Highlights:

#4) Yan Kuznetsov — Left Defense

The good: Yan Kuznetsov is a big and mobile defenseman who is already playing in the NCAA as a 17 year old import from Russia. In fact, he’s the fourth defenseman in the last decade to play in the NCAA as a 17 year old. Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski and Dillon Simpson are the other three. That’s why he’s ranked as high as 43rd overall.

The bad: there are very mixed reviews about Kuznetsov’s offensive ability. When he first played in the USA last year in the USHL as a 16 year old, Kuznetsov only managed 4 points in 34 games. In 27 international games for Russia in the past two seasons, he has 6 points. The concern that he’ll be an all defense, no offense blueliner is why he’s ranked as low as 96th overall.

Here’s why I think the concern about his offense is leading him to being underrated, and a potential sleeper pick for the second round (or third round, if the Leafs had a pick there). First, I find raw points by defense to be very overrated. A defenseman can help out a lot on offense without racking up points.

Second, Kuznetsov was a 16 year old in the USHL adapting to North American play, and didn’t get a lot of powerplay time or top minutes. Ditto on Team Russia. He’s still good enough to actually make those teams at his age, he’s just not the best offensive option on defense. That doesn’t make him bad at it.

Third, while playing for UCONN in the NCAA this year he had something of an offensive breakout. He finished second among defensemen on his team in points, thanks in part to actually getting some PP time. The defenseman who led the team was a 22 year old senior, 5 years older than Kuznetsov. In fact, he ranks 8th overall in the NCAA for points by a defeseman who are 19 or younger. He’s 3rd for 18 and under defensemen. And, again, he’s the only defenseman in the whole NCAA who is 17 years old.

That is not necessarily to say that he is turning into an offensive juggernaut, just that he is capable of getting points and helping the team’s offense. He got his points without shooting the puck a lot (less than one shot per game), despite reportedly having a heavy wrist and slapshot. Instead, he moves the puck up the ice either by carrying it with good skating or passing it to them in transition.

Yan Kuznetsov Scouting Reports:

From Rachel Anderson at Access Hockey MI:

As a defenseman, he’s not a massive point producer however, in terms of positional play, he does it well. He’s 6-foot-3 and would be a good body for any blue line considering that. Outside of his size, he plays with an offensive mind. He can work hard along the boards and gets the puck to the forwards for lead rushes effectively.

During his stint in the USHL, he demonstrated a strong sense of what the forwards were doing around him. He is good at remaining alert to the action on the ice and not getting stuck. That ability saves costly turnovers or icing calls if dumped desperately.

Being that he’s only 17, he has several years of development ahead. Already having a foot in the door with UCONN presents any selecting team a major bonus. He’s developing at an elite college level already and will give teams at least three seasons to evaluate him.

From Alexander Taxman at Future Scope Hockey:

Yan Kuznetsov had a fantastic freshman season, as one of the youngest players in college hockey. He’s a big kid, and uses his body extremely well. Kuznetsov plays a physical style of hockey in his own end, and is very effective at clearing the front of the net. He’s a smooth skater with some decent hands, and can make plays through the neutral zone. On offense, Kuznetsov has a big shot, but that’s about it. He won’t be a power play guy at the next level, but like Kleven, plays a hard, modern game.

From Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst:

A big, rangy defender with physicality who covers a lot of ground with fluid movements in all directions, Kuznetsov is a bit of a rarity as he’s a first-year draft eligible playing in the NCAA who isn’t a late birthday. His biggest contribution on offense comes in the form of joining the rush and unleashing a heavy and accurate shot, but Kuznetsov also goes end to end thanks to a clean, powerful stride and impressive acceleration. His vision, creativity and pass accuracy are average, but he’s good at eluding pressure and playing keep-away long enough until forward support arrives.

Kuznetsov is not a classic power-play quarterback, but his mobility, handling of tough passes, and howitzer from the point can help any team during the man advantage. Kuznetsov is a cerebral teenager without the puck and has the potential to be a high-impact player on defense, and he can be deployed to clear the crease, disrupt opposing cycles, and keep lines of sight clear for his goalies. He normally is very good at defending the rush, and is composed and decisive in one-on-one situations. Kuznetsov also excels at breaking up entry attempts outside his own line, and his speed and reach allows him to loosen his gap rather than misjudge the oncoming puck carrier’s speed. There’s no longer a rawness about his puck skills, as his hands are quite soft, plus his agility and speed for a defender his size is enough of a foundation to build on.

I talked a lot about his offense at the start, but now it’s worth talking about his defense since that is — by all accounts — where his best skills lie. The reason why he has been able to make Team Russia, and earn a spot in the NCAA as a 17 year old, is because he is already so good at defending. That doesn’t really mean he’s the prototypical “stay at home defenseman”, even if he has some of those same skills. He’s good at denying zone entries, and getting the puck back to transition to offense.

Put it this way, do you think the Bruins did bad when they picked Brandon Carlo in the second round? Kuznetsov might not be a sexy pick in the second round, but if you think there is room for him to develop more of his offensive game to the point that he would be a workhorse defenseman on the second pair at even strength and primary penalty kill unit, you could do worse.

Kuznetsov is the kind of prospect that makes me hope the Leafs wind up getting a third round pick somehow. He might not be the best option at around 50th in the second round, and at his lowest ranking of 96th he’s likely to wind up being picked before their next pick in the fourth round.

Yan Kuznetsov Highlights:

#5) Colby Ambrosio — Center

Colby Ambrosio is exactly the kind of zippy small forward you would expect to get underrated in drafts. He’s a strong skater, especially when it comes to using his edges and having quick bursts of acceleration. He’s very skilled with handling the puck, and he has a very good shot that can score even from distance. He led his team in points (50) and goals (26), with the next closest teammate having 15 goals.

Being a Canadian playing in the USHL, he hasn’t had any international play for Team Canada since 2018 with Team Canada White in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, where he had 3 points in 5 games. I think that lack of exposure on a bigger stage, combined with his smaller size, is leading to him perhaps being underrated. His rankings range between 78 and 122.

Colby Ambrosio Scouting Reports:

From Ryan Wagman at McKeen’s Hockey:

A solid skater with sharp edges, Ambrosio’s skating pays to its potential as he always keeps his feet in motion. He is not a blazer, but his top speed is decent. More than many, his skating grade is a function of his feet as much as his legs. He spots an area he needs to possess and moves – forwards, backwards, or laterally – to that spot. He can slip into open ice to create havoc due to that factor.

Whenever Ambrosio handles the puck, the quality and skill in his hands is apparent. He will usually play simple, but will occasionally change things up for a dangle to make a defender – or a goalie – look silly. He will lead the cycle and can deke his way into the clear against most defenders at this level. His hands in tight are among the best in the USHL this season.

Ambrosio wants the puck. He has a knack for getting himself open in dangerous areas. Away from the puck, he is solid, sticking to his assignment and role. He reads the ice well and makes smart decisions in accordance. He can be quite dogged in pursuit of the puck. He uses his stick well to force turnovers. I would like to see him push the offense into the more dangerous areas for scoring chances more often. He can do it, but does not always jump at the chance.

From Alexander Taxman at Future Scope Hockey:

Colby Ambrosio is one of the more skilled players on this entire list, and in the entire USHL. He’s a true speedster, with some of the quickest feet in the entire draft. When he gets up to full speed, it looks like he’s hopping. Ambrosio thrives when making plays at high speed, but he’s a very effective scorer at all times. His hands are very good as well, and he’s able to make high skill plays at top speed. Ambrosio had an incredibly productive season, and his offensive abilities should translate quite well at Boston College.

From Steve Kournianos at Draft Analyst:

The most noticeable aspect of Ambrosio’s game is his speed. He is an elite skater with an explosive first step and top-end acceleration. His quickness is no match for the significant majority of USHL defensemen, but Ambrosio does a lot more with his wheels than burst up ice in a straight line. He is as agile as he is quick and will dart rapidly into the danger areas while keeping his head up and maintaining control of the puck. One of the key differences between Ambrosio and most elite USHL forward prospects is that he makes difficult passes and timing plays while moving at maximum speed. Having soft hands and keen instincts certainly help, but Ambrosio can also shift gears, button hook, or stop on a dime; thus creating a significant issue for opponents.

Ambrosio is not just a big-play threat. He will support his defensemen below his own circles and dig in for board battles, plus hound and press opponents as they try to operate their cycle game. Another key component to his game is physical play. Ambrosio has a way of getting under opponents’ skin and is a target for big hits. But the 5-foot-9 forward can dish it out as well as he can take it, and there have been example of opponents lining him up in open ice, only for Ambrosio to be the one who remains standing.

The good news is that while Ambrosio might still be a bit of a risky pick, his rankings suggest he might fall to to the Leafs in the fourth round. For a highly skilled, quick and physically tough center to be available in the fourth round could be quite the steal.

Colby Ambrosio Highlights:

#6) Blake Biondi — Center/Right Wing

  • Height: 6’0”
  • Weight: 181 lbs
  • Birthdate: Apr 24, 2002
  • Team: Hermantown High (US High School) / Sioux City Musketeers (USHL)
  • Elite Prospects page: https://www.eliteprospects.com/player/495919/blake-biondi
  • 2019/20 Stats: 76 points in 25 games (1st on the team) / 3 points in 11 games

Blake Biondi is an interesting case in trying to mentally wrap your head around goofy numbers in a lesser league. Unlike most prospects on this list who played in the USHL, Biondi mostly played in high school with a 10 game stint in the USHL. In high school, he had 37 goals and 39 assists in just 25 games. In the playoffs he added 10 goals and 9 assists in just 6 games.

In his 10 game stint for the USHL, he had 3 points in 10 games. He also threw in 2 points in 4 games in the Hlinka for Team USA, and 3 points in 5 games for USA at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in 2018/19. He’s been good enough to make Team USA in these tournaments, and have respectable numbers but nothing that makes you double-take. As you will see in the scouting report section below, he actually was invited to play for the US Development Team, and had a chance to play more in the USHL. Like Mike Koster, who the Leafs drafted last year, Biondi specifically chose to play mostly in high school rather than the USHL or for the USNTDP.

So what is he? His rankings are between 57th and 93rd, a pretty wide difference suggesting that most scouts don’t really know either.

Blake Biondi Scouting Reports:

From Tom Dorsa at McKeen’s Hockey:

Biondi plays with confidence and purpose as the captain of his Hermantown, Minnesota team, which is a must with his playing style. The centerman has great vision, can find open ice with the best of them, and possesses high-end anticipation of developing plays, which allows his positioning away from the puck to be his biggest asset. His skating is average at top speed, and features good balance and solid two-step acceleration, but he lacks agility and cutting skills. His shot is fast and one taken often, but his long, time-consuming windup will need to be improved upon. Decent hands in tight, but not the most skilled player. Committed to Minnesota-Duluth, it would not surprise me to see Biondi, with his skill set, scrape out a bottom-six NHL role in the long-term future.

From Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst:

He has outstanding pucks skills, beginning with his deadly shot and continuing with expert stickhandling and keen vision. Dozens upon dozens of prospects pile up the points against high school competition, but few are able to incorporate physicality and a high compete level while contributing in all areas of the game like Biondi. His no-nonsense approach, clutch play, and abrasiveness towards tough opposition, especially when the importance of the game increases, are just a few of the reasons why he should excel in college and beyond.

Biondi does not require much from his teammates to generate offense, but he displays chemistry and selflessness regardless of who is on the ice with him. Naturally, a top-line player who puts up points is going to have superior puck skills and will be leaned on to provide his team a spark on offense when needed. But Biondi leads by example, not only for his scoring prowess, but also for his tireless efforts off the puck. He plays physical and will finish his checks, especially on the forecheck, and is willing to sacrifice his body for the sake of keeping pucks out of his own end. Biondi is a strong, agile skater with very good speed, excellent balance and edgework, and he protects the puck in an expert fashion when driving the net.

From Alexander Taxman at Future Scope Hockey:

Blake Biondi is one of the USA’s premier forward prospects in this draft. Minnesota’s 2020 “Mr. Hockey” declined an invite to play with the USNTDP back in 2018. Biondi opted to stay in high school, and play sparingly in the USHL. He’s an imposing presence on the ice, combining high speed with high end scoring instincts and physicality. He’s one of the most agile North/South skaters in the draft, and has some really soft hands to go along with that. Biondi’s one of those players who always seems to be able to find the back of the net. Whether it’s from a snipe, a rebound, a wraparound, or a breakaway, Biondi just has a pure scorer’s touch. He scored at will in Minnesota’s high school circuit, with 37 goals in 25 games. He’s a natural center, but can succeed playing all three forward positions at the next level.

Out of everyone on this list, Biondi is an uncertainty to me. As you can imagine, it’s not very easy to find a lot of highlights for Minnesota high school hockey. What I can find is mostly from his games with Team USA — and against other prospects his age who are also at an elite level he does show impressive skills.

With his rankings he seems to almost be a certainty to be available when the Leafs pick int he second round, but seems more appropriate as a third round pick or later. Since the Leafs don’t have a third round pick, they can be patient in case he falls to them in the fourth round.

Blake Biondi Highlights:

#7) Wyatt Kaiser — Left Defense

Take everything I wrote about Biondi, and replace any mention of “forward” with “defenseman” and there — I just wrote about Wyatt Kaiser. Like Biondi, he is a top prospect coming out of Minnesota high school who also had a taste of the USHL. With 34 points in 25 games in high school games as a defenseman, and an invitation to Team USA’s Hlinka roster, he followed Biondi as far as outstanding raw stats and international play.

So the same things apply. It’s difficult to really translate those numbers as a prospect. Compare him, for example, to Yan Kuznetsov who is also on this list. Kuznetsov never really had eye-popping points but also was aggressively played in the NCAA this year, where Kaiser played only 11 games in the USHL.

For what it’s worth, Kaiser is typically ranked behind Kuznetsov so that partly answers those sorts of questions. Kaiser ranks between 83rd and 114th, which is actually more ideal for the Leafs than where Biondi seems to be ranked. That would put him more realistically available in the fourth round, where the Leafs have two picks available.

Wyatt Kaiser Scouting Reports:

From Tom Dorsa at McKeen’s Hockey:

Kaiser is a long-term project with a lot to like about him. Committed to Minnesota-Duluth, he probably will not suit up for a pro game until years from now, so whichever team takes him will have to monitor his development closely. The first thing that stands out about the Minnesotan is his physicality, as he loves to power up for open ice hits, employs tight gaps with lots of body contact, and is tough to beat for the puck in the corner, all in a frame that stands under six feet. He possesses solid vision and likes to transition the puck with quickness, using his accurate and fast passing abilities to move the puck up the ice. His quick feet and advanced two-step acceleration play up his moderate top speed, while his ineffective and hesitant shot along with his heavy hands limit his offensive capabilities in the long term. Don’t be surprised to see a team take a flier on Kaiser, with a pick in the middle rounds of the NHL Draft.

From Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst:

The first thing you notice about Kaiser is his skating ability, and not just moving north to south. He is fluid and graceful in all directions and crosses over in a textbook fashion. One can make the argument that his backskating or lateral movements are quicker than most defenders moving forward. Kaiser covers a ton of ground and can recover to a desired spot in just a few seconds. His control of the puck is done with an obvious attention to detail and passes or shots are delivered with confidence and effectiveness. Kaiser can blister the puck with accuracy and he also generates power behind over-extended attempts or those off his back foot.

Kaiser is active in all three zones. On offense he will activate without hesitations and drop down below the circles to keep plays alive. He also alternate sides in conjunction with the flow and movement of the cycle, and he seemed to execute timing and precision plays down low with perfection. The neutral and grey zones are patrolled with hawk-like vision and anticipation, and Kaiser will step up to intercept a pass for an immediate counterattack. It is also where Kaiser’s elite hockey sense comes into play as he can determine actions that would lead to smart or poor decisions. Therefore, his skating allows him to double back or retreat to a more tenable position as he attempts to check an opposing rush. He can play physical and is very strong on his skates to absorb hits after moving the puck to safety. The hype is definitely real.

Finding highlights of Kaiser was even worse than finding them for Biondi unless you feel like looking through Dubuque Fighting Saints’ full YouTube game videos and picking out highlights that you can find. I found one below, where he sucks a defending forward close to him before passing off to the other defenseman, giving him more room to skate in and opening a passing lane back across the ice.

Wyatt Kaiser Highlights:

#8) Alex Laferriere — Right Wing

Alex Laferriere is fun because he is an American winger playing in the USHL, and NOT Alexis Lafrenniere the consensus #1 pick winger playing in the QMJHL. To quote Species: “there must be something in the iere in those junior hockey towns.”

Laferriere played right wing for Des Moines in the USHL, and led them in points (45) and tied for the lead in goals (19) despite playing 5 fewer games. He was part of Team USA’s U19 team for the World Junior A Challenge this year, but was held without a point in 6 games. What I find interesting about Laferriere is that he not only led his team, but the others anywhere close to him were all older. The next closest teammate who is also eligible for this upcoming draft had 14 fewer points in 5 more games.

I always like to look at players who lead their teams at their level in points, especially when they play with older teammates (and against older competition). While it’s no guarantee that they are elite, skilled, or first round pick-worthy, I don’t think it’s completely meaningless either. Especially if the team he played with finished 4th last in their league.

Again, I don’t take that as a real way to assess the quality of a prospect. But I do use it as an indication to look more closely at their scouting reports and highlights.

Alex Laferriere Scouting Reports:

From Ryan Wagman at McKeen’s Hockey:

Had I wrote this section earlier in the year, I would have expressed great skepticism about Laferriere’s wheels. He had a wide-kneed stride, his top speed was subpar at best and he would often crow hop into his take off, wasting energy. But I didn’t write this report in October, I am writing it in February. What a difference three months of focused training has had on the winger. His skating has moved up a full grade for me. His stride is more fluid and his movement is more rapid. The crow hop is seemingly gone. The Buccaneers have noticed as well and Laferriere has been a primary puck carrier of late, being used to carry the puck from his own end into the offensive end.

Laferriere has a big shot in his under-developed frame. Most players with his dimensions suffer from under-muscled shots but the Jersey native can rip it. Both his wrist shot, and slap shot are legitimate weapons, capable of scoring from mid-range and in. This is another element of his game that is recognized by is coaches, which we can see after Des Moines wins offensive zone faceoffs, as the winger moves off the line back to the point from where his shot can have a greater impact. He could be even more effective as a shooter if his trigger was more consistently quick.

From Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects:

Laferriere, not to be mistaken for Lafrenière, is a good two-way winger who does a bit of everything. He has a good shot but the rest of his skills are fairly average. He always seems to be making something happen on the ice.

From Alexander Taxman at Future Scope Hockey:

He’s an exceptionally smart winger with a pro style game and a shoot first mentality. Laferriere’s skating is near perfect. He’s got an unusually long stride, but it’s effective. He accelerates using tons of crossovers and is able to handle the puck very well at top speed. Laferriere’s shot is his premier asset, but he’s also a very skilled playmaker. His high hockey IQ allows him to adapt to almost any situation, and create a chance out of it. He’s committed to Harvard, so he’s not going to be a one and done. He’ll probably play four years with a rigorous academic schedule before he turns pro.

With rankings that range between 74th and 108th overall, he’s someone that might fall to the Leafs with one of their two picks in the fourth round. He could be interesting to watch, especially if his skating and other skills really took off this year. If he has more room to develop, with good skating and a good shot, that could be a steal in the end.

Alex Laferriere Highlights:

Poll

Who do you think has the best chance to fall to the Leafs?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Daniil Gushchin
    (22 votes)
  • 12%
    Mitchell Miller
    (26 votes)
  • 12%
    Brett Berard
    (26 votes)
  • 34%
    Yan Kuznetsov
    (70 votes)
  • 14%
    Colby Ambrosio
    (30 votes)
  • 5%
    Blake Biondi
    (12 votes)
  • 2%
    Wyatt Kaiser
    (6 votes)
  • 5%
    Alex Laferriere
    (12 votes)
204 votes total Vote Now