For most of this season, the prospects I've been talking about for the 2024 draft have been guys I thought could wind up as late first/early second rounders. The main reason being because it is easier to notice them, there's more information and scouting reports on them, and I had Toronto's first round pick that they have (for now) in mind.
But as the halfway point through this season has basically passed already, now there's enough information out there for me to find prospects who I've come to like but who sound like – from various prospect rankings – they are not on anyone's radar to be higher picks.
So I've started to add some of these players on my watch list specifically as targets for Toronto in later rounds, which I basically define as anything outside of the first two rounds.
Ruohonen is a Finnish center playing in Finland's U20 junior league this year for Kiekko-Espoo. He's 6'1" and 196 lbs, so he is a bit above average in size. He also has a June 19th birthday, making him a bit on the younger side in this year's draft group.
Usually, top prospects in Finland will play some if not all of their draft year at the pro level, and the fact that Ruohonen has yet to do so is one of the reasons why he's not on anyone's radar as a higher pick. He has gotten some good reviews from some European scouts as a two-way player who seems solid across the board but is lacking some more elite-level abilities. One of those scouts is Lassi Alanen at Elite Prospects.
As of writing this, Ruohonen is tied for the league lead in points with 43 in 34 games – four fewer games than the other co-leader. He does not lead it in points per game though, with others being well ahead but already having made the jump to pro.
Ruohonen also leads his team in points, regardless of age, and by a healthy margin. The player with the second most has 35, eight points fewer than Ruohonen. The third place player has 22. He drives his team's offense on his own, pretty much. Ruohonen has also played for Team Finland in various international games this year, such as the Hlinka Gretzky and Five Nations tournament. While he doesn't have eye popping points, he's consistently been used as one of their defensive minded centers and heavily on the penalty kill.
Mateiko has been someone I've been following and watching a bit all year. He fits the "new" prototype for a big power forward in style. By that I mean, he has the size for it (6'5" and 210 lbs) and uses it to his advantage – but less in the "hit and bully everyone else on the ice" and more in the "use size for protection and leverage" sort of way. He has some small ice skill, and is a bit of a dual threat with the puck when it comes to shooting or passing it.
But the real strength for Mateiko's game is the little things he does with and without the puck. When he gets the puck, he always tries to take it into the middle of the ice. He is very good at creating dangerous scoring chances for himself or his teammates as a result. He also displays some "pro-ready" habits without the puck in terms of how and where he moves, where he positions himself, etc. These are all little details that can help players adapt to pro hockey a lot easier.
The questions around Mateiko will be on his high end skill and his footspeed. For the latter, it's not that it's very bad – I find him to be a better skater than Noah Chadwick, for example – it's just a common issue taller players like him will have to deal with. But it is something he can and should work on improving as much as possible. For his skill, again it's not that he doesn't have any offensive skill, but it's not at such a high level where he's a "can't miss" prospect. Put it this way, the footspeed and skill issues may not be bad on their own, but there's a reason a 6'5" power forward at a point per game in the CHL (albeit in the Q) is not ranked as a first rounder by almost anyone. As a third rounder though? I'd be interested.
Berglund is one of the lesser known Swedish forwards for their U18 national teams, where he's put up 7 points in 17 various international games as one of Sweden's bottom six centers. As of writing this, the U18 Five Nations tournament is going on between Sweden, Finland, Switzlerland, Czechia and the United States. In the first game of the tournament, while Sweden was down 5-3 to Finland, Berglund scored a natural hat trick including a short handed goal and then the overtime winner. He's a 6'3" center who is just under a point per game in Sweden's U20 junior league, but has gotten into 7 SHL games at the pro level and scored a goal for Färjestad.
32 points in 37 games in Sweden's junior level does not put him in "top tier" status for any prospect coming out of Sweden, but it does lead the team's forwards while also being one of their younger players. He certainly has the size to play as a pro, but he has similar questions as Mateiko above – he is not a great skater, he does not have elite level of offensive skill. He's more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy – his game is based on simplicity and effectiveness. That type seems more of a bottom six player, if he makes the NHL at all, which is why he'd likely be a later round pick where you bet on the size and hope you can develop his game.
Brunicke is a fascinating prospect. He's originally from the hockey hotbed of South Africa, but his family eventually moved to Calgary. Drafted in 2021 by the Kamloops Blazers in the third round, he has never played in any major tournaments or had hype as a top prospect. But this year he's put together a nice season playing on one of the WHL's worst teams.
Those following Fraser Minten will know that Kamloops was a powerhouse the previous 2-3 years as they ramped up for last year's Memorial Cup that they hosted. This year, with all of their top players either moving on to pro hockey or being traded to rebuild, Brunicke has emerged as one of their top players. With 9 goals and 20 points in 44 games, he sits 6th in the WHL for U18 defensemen in points. So not in the top tier, but he has some interesting things going for him.
First, Brunicke is a 6'3" right shot defenseman with the size and handedness teams love. Second, he is a very good skater – he gets strong reviews for his mechanics and agility, especially when it comes to dodging forecheckers and starting a breakout. He uses the combination of his good footwork and good passing to help exit the defensive zone with control and push play up in the right direction.
Defensively, Brunicke a good rush defender thanks to his skating though he has some work to do in his own end, but I can see that improving. He makes good decisions generally speaking, but he can stand to learn how to be more assertive physically with his size and reach. I'm going to be honest, Brunicke is exactly the kind of defenseman I like in the ways he has the biggest impact on the game. Bob McKenzie did not rank him at all in his top 80 + 20 honourable mentions, but he has enough hype that I can see him being a 2nd/3rd round pick in the end.
So if Brunicke is exactly the kind of defensemen for the things he's best at, Tarin Smith is another nifty defenseman with a very strong profile but has strengths that – for defensemen – are not as valuable to me. None the less, I would absolutely take him with a later round pick, and like Brunicke he was also not ranked or mentioned at all on Bob McKenzie's mid-season list.
What Smith is good at is handling the puck. Honestly, he looks like a forward at times with the things he can do. He is a deft stick handler and can show off some nifty mittens pretty often. He can curl and drag around a defender then snipe it top corner like some of the better shooting forwards his age. He is a very agile skater which he displays as he skates along the blueline to evade checkers and keep the play alive
Now, Brunicke is by no means a glass cannon defenseman although I do worry he might wind up that way at higher levels. In junior at least, his skating and handling makes him good driving transitions to evade checkers and skate it out safely. Defensively, he has decent size (6'1", 176 lbs) and uses that with his skating adequately – but he can stand to be a lot more active without the puck either defending his blueline and in his own end.
At the very least, Smith seems like a guy whose path to the NHL seems like it would be as an offensive defenseman who can run a powerplay. He leads U18 defensemen in the WHL in points, with 35 points in 52 games – though his own WHL team is not using him on PP1 from what I can see. But the big question with defensemen of his type is if he can work within an offense to help drive success, or does he cannibalize it by having everything run through him and his skill while not leaving much opportunity to the forwards – who are generally more offensively talented. Like Brunicke, there's enough there with his profile that I'm interested if he winds up as a third rounder or later.