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2018 NHL Draft Rankings: March Edition (#1-15)

Let’s hope that the Leafs get the 31st overall pick.

Canada v Sweden: Gold Medal Game - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship
Rasmus Dahlin’s highlights are not suitable for work

Welcome to the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. There’s an incredible quantity of talented offensive defencemen at the top of this class, and a few future first line wingers. This is not the best draft to add a centre, so focusing solely on position is as dangerous as ever. The top of this class is better than last year, but there’s a little bit less depth. Before we get started, you can read Bob McKenzie’s draft rankings here, which provides a good sense of where each player is expected to be picked.

I place a heavy preference for strong scorers, skaters, and puck carriers. Part two (#16-31) of this ranking will be out tomorrow, and i’m sure this list will see some changes before June.

Without further ado:

1) LD Rasmus Dahlin - Frolunda HC (SHL)

Let’s keep this profile short and sweet, since he’s in a tier of his own at this point. He’s a special talent with the puck on his stick, and makes end-to-end rushes look easy. While he carries plenty of room to grow defensively, he boasts the size and speed to develop in this area. Dahlin’s offensive toolkit jumps off the page, and his ability to stickhandle through opposing defenders is absolutely incredible. He’s a safe bet to become a top pairing defenceman at the NHL level, and he’s a lock to go first overall.

2) RW Andrei Svechnikov - Barrie (OHL)

Svechnikov is a quick power forward and a high-end puck carrier. He’s more than capable at picking a corner with a strong wrist shot, and his speed and skill combination allows him to be an above average playmaker. He’s already one of the best goal scorers in the CHL, and all of the tools are here to be a top line scorer at the NHL level.

Svechnikov “only” scored a point per game at the World Juniors this year, which somehow caused him to fall in some rankings. He carries a long track record of putting up monster numbers at every level, and he remains the best prospect in this class behind Dahlin. He’s younger than Filip Zadina, and carries a good chance of developing into a 30 goal scorer at the NHL level.

His numbers in the USHL last year were off the charts. He’s scoring at close to a goal per game pace in Barrie this year, and he recently led the five-nations tournament in scoring. He also led the under-17 tournament in scoring last year, then followed it up by leading his team in scoring in the under-18 event. I’ll take Svechnikov’s numbers in the OHL this season over Zadina’s numbers in the QMJHL. He’s the second best prospect in this class, and I’d be surprised if he moved in my ranking before the draft.

3) LW Filip Zadina - Halifax (QMJHL)

He’s coming off an excellent performance at the World Juniors, and he’s been a top performer in the QMJHL all season. He also dominated at the Ivan Hlinka, and there is little doubt in his ability to put the puck in the net. Zadina is a relatively safe pick in the top 5, and he boast the tools to be a 30 goal scorer in the NHL.

Zadina is an impressive triggerman, and his shot can be the focal point of an NHL power play. Like Svechnikov, he is a powerful force down low in the offensive zone, and there are no questions about his ability as a puck carrier. He’s a tick behind Svechnikov at this point, but this is still a potential top line winger who can walk into a NHL role immediately.

I’ve flip-flopped between Zadina and Hughes at #3, but in general, forwards tend to be the safer option this early. If I was scouting for a team and had all the job security in the world, I might take a gamble on one of the next two defencemen at #3, but it’s tough to turn down a first line scorer.

4) LD Quinn Hughes - Michigan (NCAA)

He’s one of the best skaters and puck carriers in this draft class, and he can keep up with anyone on the planet. At 5’10, he will need to get stronger before he can match up against top competition, but his speed and skill combination makes him a surefire top-10 pick. He played on the same team as Brady Tkachuk last season, and matched his scoring production, even though Hughes is a defenceman.

He’s a safe bet to quarterback a top power play unit at the NHL level, and leads end-to-end rushes with ease. Zadina’s scoring ability makes him the safer pick at #3, but Hughes offers a little bit more upside thanks to both his position and speed. He would have been the top defenceman on my board in last year’s draft. Selecting him in the draft gives your team half a chance of shutting down his brother, Jack, when he makes the NHL, who is expected to be the first overall pick in 2019.

5) RD Adam Boqvist - Brynas IF (SHL)

I watched the Canada vs Sweden game from the Ivan Hlinka tournament a handful of times, and Boqvist was the best player on the ice by a mile. He looked like a potential #1 defenceman throughout this event, and Sweden looked like a completely different team when he was on the ice. He sees the ice extremely well, and he’s quick and elusive enough to control the game.

Boqvist is listed at just 5’11, and like Hughes, he will need to get stronger before he can matchup against top competition at the NHL level. He’s an impressive power play quarterback, and his speed and puck moving skill provides him with top pairing upside. It is easy to look at his performance in the Ivan Hlinka and make a case for him to be higher on this list, but I just haven’t seen enough of him to place him above four other extremely impressive players.

6) RW Oliver Wahlstrom - US Under-18 Team (USHL)

The next four players in this ranking are in the same tier, and I have changed the order within the tier approximately fifty times. Wahlstrom’s numbers with the US Under-18 Team are awfully impressive, and he’s outproducing Brady Tkachuk’s numbers with the team last season. He stands out as a strong winger who can score in bunches. He’s safely behind Svechnikov and Zadina, but his shot makes him a major weapon on the power play, and he’s certainly not afraid to use it. His speed is good rather than great, but he protects the puck well and carries a wicked release.

He’s able to pull off some impressive moves coming down on the rush, and it looks like he has the puck on a string at times. He is poised to be a top player on the US World Junior team over the next two years, and projects as a clear top 6 winger at the NHL level. My main concern is his skating, as I usually prefer high-end speed this early in my rankings. Still, his shot and skill combination should help him to break in as a solid scoring option. His numbers in the USHL are simply too good to ignore, and he tied Svechnikov for the tournament lead in scoring at the Five Nations tournament. I see him as a winger rather than a centre, but it’s tough to pass up a forward who can score at such a strong clip.

7) LW Brady Tkachuk - Boston University (NCAA)

Just like his brother, his skillset should transfer over to the NHL seamlessly. He wins a ton of puck battles, drives opposing players crazy, and stands out as a talented scorer around the net. He’s already proven that he can be a top performer at the World Juniors, and he’s awfully impressive in tight spaces.

Tkachuk has spent time at centre throughout his career, and he’s a solid puck carrier with average to slightly above-average speed. He’s a pain in the ass to play against, creates havoc around the net, and he’s a respectable option in terms of generating zone entries. He will not take long to reach the NHL, as his size and work ethic allow him to win the puck back for his teammates, and his quick hands create plenty of scoring chances.

8) RD Evan Bouchard - London (OHL)

Bouchard is having an incredible season. He’s generating well over four shots per game in the OHL this year, and currently leads all CHL defencemen in primary points per game. A 6’2” defenceman that can do this is typically a near lock to go in the top 10, especially when this player is responsible in his own end. Bouchard is a tricky player to rank, as his style of play is not flashy enough to “wow” you, but he’s remarkably effective.

Bouchard is an expert at jumping up in the play. He picks his spots perfectly, and his wrist shot makes him a legitimate scoring option from the back end. My main concern is that he’s one of the oldest players in this draft class, and his tools don’t scream “top pairing defender”. Still, he’s looked like a sure first round talent dating back to when he played with Mitch Marner on London as a 16 year old, and his production this season is simply too good to ignore. Given his scoring production, and the fact that right-shooting defencemen do not grow on trees, he warrants strong consideration just inside the top 10.

9) RD Ryan Merkley - Guelph (OHL)

Merkley is a magician with the puck and one of the most impressive power play quarterbacks in recent years. He’s the top scorer on his OHL team despite his age and position, and he’s one of the younger players in this year’s class. There are legitimate questions about his ability to matchup against top competition, but there are few questions about his ability to create scoring chances.

Merkley is undersized, but his ability to elude opposing defenders and find passing lanes is very impressive. He sees the ice incredibly well, and just like Erik Brannstrom in last year’s draft, Merkley is skilled enough to become an impact talent despite his size. Expect him to fall outside of the top 10 on draft day, and while there is plenty of risk associated here, he carries the potential to be a top scoring defenceman at the NHL level.

10) C Joe Veleno - Drummondville (QMJHL)

Veleno carries a long track record as a top prospect, and was impressive enough to play in the Ivan Hlinka twice. He’s a centre with size and speed, and this makes him one of the safer picks in this range. He’s above average as a handler, and while he does not possess a big time shot, he’s a good playmaker who is skilled enough to play in all situations.

Veleno’s shooting percentage is hovering under 10% in the QMJHL this season, and this is a major reason why his scoring numbers are simply good rather than great. His size and speed combination should allow him to handle top competition at the next level, and while he may not score at a first line rate, he was Canada’s most dangerous scorer at the Hlinka. I think he can be a second line centre at the NHL level, and contribute in all situations. I don’t think he’s quite skilled enough to lead a team in scoring, but he should develop into a solid secondary scoring option while playing on a shutdown line.

11) LD Ty Smith - Spokane (WHL)

Smith is another slightly undersized defenceman who belongs in the top half of the first round. He’s not quite as flashy as Hughes, Boqvist, or Merkley, but he’s an above average puck mover in his own right. He’s strong for his size and competes well, which gives him the potential to play in all situations. He was not great at the Top Prospects game, but he was a clear standout at the Ivan Hlinka.

Smith plays the game at a quick pace, and the puck gets on and off his stick in a hurry. He should quarterback an NHL power play someday, and he’s more pass first than a player like Bouchard. He reminds me of Travis Dermott in a lot of ways, as his quickness, puck-moving ability, and strength give him a chance to develop into a top-four defenceman. He’s putting up impressive numbers in the WHL this season, and some team could luck out if he falls on draft day. He will be a big contributor for Team Canada at the World Juniors.

12) C Jesperi Kotkaniemi - Assat (Liiga)

He’s a 6’2” centre with impressive numbers in a pro league, and he’s high in this ranking largely because his ability to play up the middle and contribute at both ends of the ice. His strength and work ethic provides strong two-way potential, and he flashes high-end skill at times. He’s good rather than great in terms of generating zone entries, but is fairly impressive as a puck handler and distributor in the offensive zone.

This draft class offers few options at centre, and Kotkaniemi is going head to head with Veleno and Barrett Hayton (who we’ll see later on) in this regard. He’s quite good at making defenders miss with a quick move, and he’s a solid playmaking option on the power play. I remain undecided on his scoring potential, as I’m not sure if he’s quite quick enough to be the next Mathew Barzal or Clayton Keller. Nevertheless, this is a centre with second line potential, and he’d be a solid pick in the middle of the first round.

13) RD Noah Dobson - Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL)

He’s 6’3”, well-coordinated, and is second on his team in scoring. He offers the size and speed combination to become a shutdown defender, and I expect him to play major minutes on Team Canada’s World Junior team. He’s not quite as talented with the puck as the defenders in the top 10, but he provides his coaches with plenty of confidence in the defensive end.

I’ve been all over the map trying to rank Dobson on this list. On one hand, he will not be known as the best (or second-best) offensively talented defenceman in this class. On the other hand, he can play a decent transition game, and 6’3” defenders who can skate like he does usually go off the board early. I’m not completely sold on Dobson’s offensive game, but I’m willing to take a chance on finding a potential top-four, right-shooting defenceman in this range.

14) C/LW Isac Lundestrom - Lulea HF (SHL)

Lundestrom is already scoring at a respectable clip in a professional league, and he netted a couple of goals in the World Juniors. His size allows him to win plenty of puck battles down low, and while he is not as impressive as Tkachuk in this area, he also possesses good hands in tight spaces. His speed is closer to slightly above average than great, but he is a better handler than most scouting reports give him credit for.

Lundestrom can play in all situations, and a solid wrist shot allows him to find the back of the net in the “Matthews spot” on the power play. He is a regular on the penalty kill, and plays a reliable two-way game at five-on-five. The main drawback here is that he is one of the older players in this class, and his numbers in international tournaments are rather mediocre. I don’t see first line upside here, but he’s a safe pick to be a strong secondary scorer at the NHL level. I would compare him to Lias Andersson in last year’s draft, who went a little bit too early. He won’t be a star, but he’s skilled enough to be a second line scorer.

15) C Rasmus Kupari - Karpat (Liiga)

Kupari is an above average skater who adds value in the transition game. He’s quite effective at “driving a line” thanks to his ability to push defenders back, and this allows him to gain the zone and set up shop for his teammates. It’s tough to tell if he’ll be a centre or a winger at this point, but he’s a good enough puck carrier to warrant a mid-first round selection.

I’d like to see Kupari get stronger, allowing him to hold his own a little bit more in the dirty areas. He protects the puck well, and while he does not boast the same numbers as Kotkaniemi, he has all the tools to be a middle six forward at the NHL level. At this point, I’m not confident enough in his scoring potential to pick him in the top 12 or so, but he could provide solid value around #20. He competes well, and in general, i’m a fan of taking strong skaters at this point in the first round.

Final Thoughts

Part two of this ranking will be out tomorrow, which will include plenty of names who will be available for the Leafs towards the end of the first round. Of the top 15, Ryan Merkley, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Rasmus Kupari seem to be the most likely to fall on draft day, but this is always incredibly unpredictable months before the draft. Tomorrow’s article will include far more potential “sleepers”, who I have in my top 31, but could easily fall outside of the first round.