If there's been one stereotype about the Maple Leafs' drafting in the past few years, it's been their love for the small, skilled, zippy forwards. Semyon Der-Argunchintsev, Nick Robertson, Nick Abruzzese, Dmitri Ovchinnikov, Veeti Miettinen, and Ty Voit all come to mind. Kyle Dubas might not be the GM anymore, but this close to the draft there is a chance they don't make dramatic changes to their strategies or decisions for this year at least.
I've written about other small, skilled forward prospects before where I've pointed out some contextual facts. First, that there really isn't a lot of smaller forwards who become high end, impact NHLers. As much as people mock Hockey Men(TM) for fetishizing size and strength, the fact is that being smaller does act as a disadvantage at the highest level of hockey. To make it in the NHL, a smaller player has to have a VERY high amount of skill, skating, elusiveness, lower body strength, and physical resiliency. But it is also still true that there's just always some smaller prospects taken later than they maybe should be. Prospects as a whole tend to miss more than they hit, not just because they're small.
While some of those small forwards that Dubas drafted have played NHL games, none of them have really made an impact in the NHL yet. Now, almost all of them have also been lower round picks, where the odds even more stacked against them regardless of size. Mitch Marner is perhaps the best example of having enough high end skills and abilities to be a star in the NHL, but even then he's listed as 6'0"... which is a lot compared to 5'10" or shorter.
Which brings us to the subject of today's profile: Andrew Cristall. He has an absurd amount of offensive skill, and a great draft season in the WHL. In fact, if it were not for some guy named Connor Bedard, Cristall's season may have been regarded as one of the best draft years for a CHL prospect in a long time. And yet there are a lot of worries and concerns about his projection to the NHL, to the point that he's barely a consensus top 10 pick.
So what gives?
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
- Position: Left winger
- League(s): WHL
- Height: 5’10″
- Weight: 165 lbs
- Birthdate: February 4th, 2005
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 18th
- Scott Wheeler: 13th
- Elite Prospects: 19th
- Dobber Prospects: 8th
- Smaht Scouting: 6th
- Future Considerations: 9th
So you look at the above, and see that almost every major public scouting outlet has Cristall as a top 10 prospect. That's likely due to his season, where he had 39 goals and 95 points in only 54 games. If he played a full season, he could have hit 120 points. The last time an U18 player hit 120 points in his draft year (not counting Connor Bedard) in the WHL was more than a decade ago, and that counts top prospects from the WHL like Nolan Patrick, Dylan Cozens, Brayden Point, and so on.
But at the top of the list of Cristall's rankings, there's Bob McKenzie's rankings from January marking him as barely within the top 20. And at that point, it was probably Cristall's peak period of the season for hype. He was around 2 points per game, he was almost keeping pace with Bedard, and it was before his injury and the U18 World Championship where he was used as a 13th forward.
So I would not at all be surprised if McKenzie's final rankings leading up to the draft have Cristall knocked down even further. I also wouldn't be surprised if Cristall slips even further down on actual draft day, potentially into Toronto's range.
Let's talk about why that is, but also why I would still say he could be worth taking if he is available when Toronto picks at 28.
THE GOOD: OFFENSE, SO MUCH OFFENSE
Outside of Connor Bedard, there may not be a player in this draft that has more pure, raw offensive skill than Cristall. If I were to summarize his game, I would call him Ty Voit on steroids. Take everything that Voit does well and turn the dial as far past 10 as it takes to snap off.
Cristall had 15 more goals and 16 more point than the next closest teammate. He was clearly the guy who stirred the drink for his team when he was on the ice, and he did it all. He carried the puck through the neutral zone, he quarterbacked the offensive zone possessions at 5v5 and on the powerplay. When Kelowna needed offense, he was the guy to make it happen.
Cristall's strength lies in his ability to manipulate defenders who try to take the puck off him. He has a great set of hands to keep the puck from being knocked away, and has the classic "dangling in a phonebooth" ability. He has a large set of tricks up his sleeve like feints, fakes, toe drags, change of footwork, and more to keep defenders off balance. He of very agile on his feet and is what I've seen Scott Wheeler refer to as "slippery". It's just exceptionally hard for defenders in junior to pin him down.
And then there's his vision. While Cristall was on pace to score almost 50 goals this season, his strength lies much more on his ability to distribute the puck. He has an uncanny ability to see potential plays before they develop, use his tricks to hang onto the puck just a bit longer so a teammate can get open, then create a passing lane to get it to them in a dangerous area of the ice. By his tracking data, he is already elite in the WHL as far as completing passes into the slot, across the lanes, and getting the puck from the boards to the middle of the ice.
Here's a good example, from the World U18s. It is indicative of the kinds of skills he has to create a dangerous scoring chance from nothing. He walks the point as a defender tries to close on him. He gets by him with a quick change of direction and cuts into the slot. He draws three defenders on him, which leaves his teammate wide open to the side of the net. Only a good read and save by the goalie stops the goal.
Here's another example that did lead to a goal. It takes a few viewings to really notice everything he's doing, because he's doing a lot at once. Focus on his feet, then focus on his hands. They never stop moving. The defense doesn't look great, but that's partly because they have no idea what the hell he's doing, or what he's going to do next. But also notice the direction he moves. He enters the zone on the outside, then cuts through the middle while still pretty high in the zone. He pulls the two defenders together, and makes them figure out who is going to cover him and who will cover either of the other two. Then he cuts back into the middle again, not only bringing the two defenders together again, but also changes his body positioning so he is physically facing away from the net and towards his one teammate – then makes a backhand pass to the different teammate in a more dangerous spot, left completely uncovered. It's incredibly high end manipulation.
For his goal scoring, I wouldn't say that he has an elite shot. But again, he uses his tricks to get a lot of shots from more dangerous areas on the ice. He averaged 4 shots per game, and had a somewhat high shooting percentage of 18% – but that's honestly not that high for junior, among the elite players. I would rate his shot as quick and accurate, but lacking in power – more on that below. The important element is that Cristall does shoot to score, at a high volume and usually from a good area on the ice to score. It's enough of a threat that it makes his passing more dangerous, because defenders can't just ignore his shot completely.
THE FLAWS: SPEED AND PHYSICAL PROJECTION
The biggest red flag in Cristall's game is that he's not very fast. While he's quick and nimble on his feet to change directions and keep defensemen off balance, even in the WHL you will notice in a lot of those clips that he doesn't move forward at a high pace. He likes to slow things down but move erratically and slippery. But that also means that he can't ever really pull away from defenders on transitions. It also means even average skating defenders can catch or keep up with him.
The good part of that is Cristall has clearly figured out how to deal with that. All those deceptive tricks he uses means that – in junior, at least – he doesn't need to be that fast. But it does call into question how well he can manage the same thing at higher levels, against better defenses who are bigger, faster, and less likely to fall for his tricks as often. Would Marner be as effective as he is if his speed was just average?
But I think the main problem behind that, and behind Cristall's shot not being that powerful, comes down to his physical projection. He's short, and he's pretty light. He just doesn't have much muscle on him and it affects his skating and his shot the most. For his skating, he doesn't have the power in his legs to generate as much speed on his crossovers or straight line skating. For his shot, he can't put as much power on the stick flex.
The other big question is how well can a small, skinny, not very muscular and not very fast forward get where he needs to go in the NHL? It would not be very difficult for NHL defenders to slow him down, block his path and push him around and out to the perimeter. In junior, he isn't purely a perimeter guy because his hands and feet help him dangle his way into the middle of the ice. The big question for his projection is if he can do that as a pro.
I get the idea that his draft stock took a hit from the U18s. Canada as a whole really struggled, compared to what you would expect. They didn't send their best possible roster since the CHL playoffs had a lot of their best players busy. But Cristall had an unbelievably great season in the WHL and he was there... and he found himself benched or used as the 13th forward barely playing a few times. He was clearly not one of the top forwards on that team – that was Macklin Celebrini (likely first overall in 2024), Matthew Wood (likely top 15 pick), or Calum Ritchie (potential first rounder) who had 15, 13, and 9 points respectively in their 7 games. Cristall's up and down play saw him finish with 6 points in 7 games. Still good production for a guy who didn't play in a top role all tournament.
So was his up and down usage because the coaches thought his play was lacking in important areas? Or was it the classic case of Hockey Men not trusting a small, skilled forward as much as they should? In this case, it doesn't really matter because he's faced those questions all season, and he's going to keep facing those questions into whatever pro career he manages to carve out for himself.
And that's why public scouting outlets love him, but his likely draft ranking by Bob McKenzie's consensus rankings from talking with NHL teams will be lower – and where he is ultimately selected in the actual draft lower still.
The good news, potentially, is that he is still young and he can still add muscle. He doesn't need to get super buff, but getting his thighs to look like an NHLer's would go a long way for his skating. It would also help him be more difficult to knock off stride by defenders.
Because if he manages to get strong and fast enough, Cristall has so much skill to work with. He has unbelievable hands, vision, and creativity. The strength of his game is built from a player who has always been smaller and not that fast. And he has time to work on shoring up on his biggest weaknesses, while continuing to refine his strengths.
Cristall may not be a prospect without risk, but that's why he might fall to Toronto at 28. I still think he should be off the board, but Bob McKenzie's final rankings should be very telling. There are a lot of guys who saw big surges in their hype trains because of the World U18s, and others (like Simashev) who always should have been higher. If they're moved up, that does mean others have to be moved down – and Cristall may be one of the choices to move down.
The big question is, who are you getting in Andrew Cristall? The next Jonathan Marchessault who can find a way for his skills to overcome his size, or the next Nic Petan who just can't quite make it work in the NHL despite his otherworldly junior production?
If I'm Toronto, and Cristall is on the board at 28... I'd be awful tempted to find out for myself.
Thanks for reading!
I put a lot of work into my prospect articles here, both for the draft and Toronto's prospects. I do it as a fun hobby for me, and I'd probably do it in some capacity even if PPP completely ceased to exist. But if you like reading my work, some support would go a long way! I pay for a few streaming services (CHL, some NCAA, some USHL, the occasional TSN options for international tournaments that are broadcast) to be able to reliably watch these prospects in good quality streams. I also pay for some prospect-specific resources, such as tracking data and scouting reports from outlets like Elite Prospects, Future Considerations, McKeen's Hockey, and The Athletic.
Being able to get paid for this helps me dedicate more time and resources to it, rather than to second/third jobs. And whatever money I make here, a lot of I reinvest back into my prospect work through in those streaming and scouting services. Like I said, I'd be doing whatever I can afford for this anyway, so any financial help I get through this is greatly appreciated!