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2020 NHL Draft: Finding 9 potential steals from the WHL and AJHL

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Come for Carter Savoie, stay for Tristen Robins.

Toronto Maple Leafs Headshots Photo by Jonathan Bielaski /NHLI via Getty Images

This is the fourth 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

In the last six drafts of the current Leafs “era”, from the year they chose William Nylander, the Leafs have made 48 draft picks. Of those 48, they have only chosen 8 players from the WHL (Riley Stotts, Filip Kral, Ian Scott, Adam Brooks, Vladimir Bobylev, Jack Walker, Andrew Nielsen, and Rinat Valiev) and none of them were chosen before the third round. Now, that’s more than the three players they’ve drafted from the QMJHL mind you, but it’s also not a heck of a lot — especially in terms of higher picks.

But maybe this year is different. Although they don’t have a lot of higher picks, there are a lot of very interesting “sleeper” picks from the Western provinces that may be undervalued by the hockey community at large. Case in point: when putting together similar lists for the OHL and QMJHL I included 7 prospects each and that was the most I would find that interested me. In the WHL (and AJHL) I easily had 9 and would have added a couple more but didn’t want to over do it.

So here are the 9 potential steals that could fall to the Toronto Leafs in this coming draft.

Carter Savoie — Left Shot Wing

The first prospect I want to mention isn’t even from the WHL, he’s from the AJHL — the Alberta Junior Hockey League. If that doesn’t sound that familiar to you, it is a junior league that noted scrub Cale Makar played in before being drafted by Colorado and playing two years in the NCAA.

Savoie is a noteworthy prospect playing for Sherwood Park, where he had 53 goals and 99 points in only 54 games. So close to a goal per game, and two points per game. Those are certainly eye-popping numbers, and if he did it in the WHL he’d probably be a consensus top 10 pick. But since it was in the AJHL, he isn’t getting nearly the same respect.

That isn’t to say he’s a perfect prospect or SHOULD go in the top. Any scouting report I’ve read on him notes that he isn’t the best skater, at least for raw speed. They also note he can seem a bit lazy and not the best defensively. However, I’ve also seen some say that both statements are overblown. He seems aloof and lazy because he’s just so much better than everyone else in his league, and when he’s played in international tournaments or in top prospect games he brought greater intensity.

Between the worries about his speed and work ethic on the ice, and the league he plays in, I think Savoie is being underrated. Maybe even underrated by a LOT.

Carter Savoie Scouting Reports:

From Vince Gibbons at McKeen’s Hockey:

He is most effective with the puck on his stick where he is a threat to shoot or pass and can carve open defenses with precision plays. He is constantly moving, providing good outlets for teammates, and forcing defenders to chase him constantly.

His top speed is fairly average which is not a great review but his agility and acceleration are where he stands out a little more. There is an elusiveness to his game that suggests he is moving faster than he truly is. He can shift speeds and directions with minimal movement which helps keep his speed as he moves around the ice.

Savoie has a truly impressive shot. He shoots to the far side more than most players I have seen, which is risky, but he can make it work because he is accurate. When one timing the puck he is able to reach less than perfect passes and get them on net. From distance he can release a hard wrist shot that will beat a goalie clean without a screen. Where his shot is most effective is in traffic. He will take a hit to release a shot, get the puck off with defenders draped all over him, and keep his stick free while battling for space in front of the net, making him a constant threat to shoot even when well defended.

From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic in February:

When Savoie has the puck, he’s among the more dynamic players in this draft. He’s not fast but he opens up his feet top evade pressure and creates going heel-to-heel. He’s also got brilliant touch with the puck, which helps him feather saucer passes across the offensive zone off of his forehand and backhand. He will play on the power play wherever he goes, able to play the slot, the flank or the point (where he is particularly dangerous). Savoie is a natural scorer who can hit small holes in the net from bad angles, finishing from just about anywhere in the offensive zone and making plays to the backdoor with and without the puck.

For what it’s worth, some prospect folk are very high on him — McKeen’s mid-season rankings had him at 20th, and Scott Wheeler ranked him 28th in his mid-season rankings. But outside of them there’s a pretty big gap. Kevin Papetti dropped him out of his top 40 or so prospects, Future Considerations had him at 61st, NHL Central Scouting ranked him as the 50th best skater in North America (not including goalies or European skaters), and Elite Prospects didn’t have him ranked in their top 93 at all. Scott Wheeler also acknowledges he will likely fall to the 2nd round.

There may be some risk to taking Savoie, but he could be another steal for the Leafs as a 2nd round pick if he falls all the way to them in the middle of the second round.

Carter Savoie Highlights:

Tristen Robins — Center

Tristen Robins is my favourite sleeper prospect this draft. He came into this season without much hype — the season before he was a small center/winger playing a lesser role and scored 25 points in 68 games as a 17 year old. He started this season as the team’s 1C, and through the first 31 games was on pace for 48 points over 68 games.

Then in the second half, he went bananas. He increased his shot rate by a full shot per game, and more than doubled his goals and assists per game.

Tristen Robins 2019/20 Season Splits

SPLITS GP GOALS GOALS/GP ASSISTS ASSISTS/GP POINTS POINTS/GP SHOTS SHOTS/GP
SPLITS GP GOALS GOALS/GP ASSISTS ASSISTS/GP POINTS POINTS/GP SHOTS SHOTS/GP
First Half 31 10 0.32 12 0.39 22 0.71 101 3.26
Second Half 31 23 0.74 28 0.9 51 1.65 132 4.26

That second-half surge has led to a boost to his draft rankings, but not by that much. Half a season, with no international play on his resume, and no playoffs this year to increase his profile, has some people in doubt about how legit his second-half was of his true talent. Some also mention that he started the year as a second line winger, so there is doubt that he can stick at center especially since he’s 5’10” — not that small in today’s hockey world, but not big either.

Tristen Robins Scouting Reports:

From Vince Gibbons at McKeen’s Hockey in March:

Has really taken off as a shooter since moving from the wing to the center of the ice. This has forced him to be more in the play and he has responded very well. He has more than doubled his shot output this season by averaging 3.75 shots per game, which among the top in the WHL amongst draft eligible players. He has an excellent backhand and can score highlight reel goals but his bread and butter is a low, hard shot with a quick release from inside the dots.

The move to center has set the table for him to be a riser on draft day. While success in the faceoff dot hasn’t been there this year he has grown substantially in his overall 200 foot game. He makes better reads and engages down low despite his lack of size. He can carry the puck with pace through the neutral zone, enabling him to challenge guys one on one as he approaches the line. He is willing to pass the puck, trusting that he will get it back if he drives the net and can sneak his way into good scoring position, often on the back side of the play. He is a good passer and plays with his head up, enabling him to make a lot of give and go plays as he is constantly trying to get behind his defender. His play with the puck is strong and he can handle it both in open ice and in traffic.

From Joel Henderson at Dobber Prospects:

Tristen Robins is my Adam Beckman of this season. He wasn’t ranked on almost any lists and I complained. I’ve pleaded my case and some have come around. I was able to interview him a few days which will be coming out tomorrow paired with some video breakdown. The Cole’s Notes though…. he had 54 points in the last 33 games playing against top lines. Only Seth Jarvis had a better PPG over that span. Stay tuned for the full analysis and chat. It’s not about the point totals. It’s about how he got them.

From Scott Wheeler at The Athletic:

He’s underrated. He can play. I’m a fan. Middle-six potential, can do a lot of different things. Anywhere from the late-second to the late-third is a worthwhile range for him at this point.

More ranking outlets will come out between now and whenever the draft happens, and I will be interested in seeing if Robins’ rank rises even more. For now, they range from 69 (Future Considerations... nice), to 81 (Elite Prospects), to 86th among North American Skaters (NHL Central Scouting).

The Leafs are unfortunately in a situation where they have a second round pick that will be around 51st, and then two fourth round picks that will be in the 100’s. Robins might therefore be in a spot where the Leafs wouldn’t take him unless he falls to the fourth round or they wind up acquiring a 3rd round pick somehow. He might be a steal even in the second round, but there’s a good chance that someone else who’s an even bigger steal falls to them in second round (see: Robertson, Nicholas). That makes me a bit sad.

On the other hand, maybe they saw him and were so excited by him that they do pick him in the second round and we get a huge surprise/steal!

Tristen Robins Highlights:

Jack Finley — Center

Jack Finley is a weird case because he seemingly breaks all the rules for how a prospect usually gets underrated. He’s a near point per game forward AND he’s a pure center AND he’s 6’5” AND his skating is reportedly good for his size. Yet he is on no one’s rankings.

There are a few reasons I can surmise from reading his scouting reports:

  1. He played on the top line with Adam Beckman, a top prospect who led the whole WHL in points by a pretty clear margin.
  2. He’s very raw, likely in part due to the fact that he’s one of the youngest players in this draft class (September birthday) and has more time to develop and refine his motor skills and coordination.
  3. His points, while fairly nice for a prospect, don’t jump out at you. Maybe perception of him would be different if he topped 20 goals (he had 19) or was at or over a point per game (he had 57 in 61 games).
  4. He had almost no powerplay time. Spokane had a pretty dynamite PP1 unit with Adam Beckman, Eli Zummack, Ty Smith, the Leafs own Filip Kral, and Leif Mattson — each of them had at least 15 PP points on the year. If he had more PP time to pad his points and shots, would perception of him be different?

To that last point, Finley finished 52nd in the league in total points. If you look at even strength points, he moved up to 24th. If you look at even strength assists he was 10th in the league. Finley had more even strength points than top prospect Connor Zary, who is also one of the oldest players in the draft (Sept 2001 birthday) who is a consensus top 20 pick.

Now, that’s not to say that Zary is bad or Finley should also be a top 15 pick. Zary obviously has a lot of outstanding skills, whereas Finley (for now) seems to play a less flashy game that’s still effective.

I also think that people see his point totals and rate him lower than they would someone who, say, put up similar or slightly more points in the OHL. Remember this little nugget from the QMJHL list? Being a point per game player (or as close to it as to make no difference) in the WHL is much harder to do than it is in the OHL, and a bit harder than the QMJHL.

Steve Kournianos @TheDraftAnalyst

As you’ll also see below, Finley is already a complete player despite his age, and had heavy defensive usage while still being a strong offensive force.

Jack Finley Scouting Reports:

From Lauren Kelly at Raw Charge:

He may be the second-youngest player on this list, but Finley is also the biggest. The giant center from British Columbia was used primarily in a defensive role for Spokane last season, largely due to his size and intelligence. He’s a force in puck battles, a solid penalty-killer, and has good positioning in his own end. Finley does have a good offensive skillset, too. He can create offense off the cycle, has good hands, and can tip pucks well. Finley also reads and anticipates plays well, which allows him to follow developing plays and put himself in positions for secondary scoring chances.

From Arlo Schulz at McKeen’s Hockey in February:

Jack Finley is one of the youngest players in his draft class playing one of the most difficult positions, and he is making it look almost easy at times. His combination of size and smarts is well-suited to the pro game, most likely as a middle-six centerman. He is a dependable player with or without the puck, who could develop an untapped upside once he fully matures physically and realizes his capabilities.

Finley possesses a fairly hard wrist shot but usually doesn’t try to score from distance like so many at the major junior level do. Most of his goals are scored from in tight and on deflections or rebounds. His shot is reasonable in accuracy but with room to improve still.

A protoypical centerman with the combination of size and skill that teams covet. Finley is equally comfortable handling the puck and leading the rush or distributing to his wingers and going to the net. His hand-eye coordination is excellent resulting in deft deflections from in front, as well as in the faceoff dot. Willing to handle the puck in heavy traffic without losing it.

From Larry Fisher at The Hockey Writers:

The upside is significant for this 6-foot-5 right-handed centre who is one of the youngest prospects eligible for 2020 as a September birthdate. Finley skates well for his size, with a very long-yet-smooth stride that will become more powerful as he adds strength to his formidable frame. He’s been cast in a shutdown role for Spokane, though he’s been chipping in offensively since my live viewing. That night, he was on the top penalty-killing unit and tasked with taking a ton of defensive-zone draws — which meant a heavy dose of D-zone starts in a difficult matchup against Kelowna overager Kyle Topping. Finley was holding his own as that game went on, making adjustments and improvements. I’ve witnessed better performances from Finley as a 16-year-old rookie last season, but those were in more of a sheltered role that included more offensive opportunities.

What I love about the last two videos of his assists (see below) is they show him being able to pull away with speed, draw defenders to him, and/or make very nice passes to set up goals or at least quality scoring chances. He’s not necessarily making the easy pass, or timing it poorly so the goalie can set up for the shot easily.

As I said at the start, Finley is not being ranked by anyone so far. NHL Central Scouting rates him as the 38th best skater in North America, but that’s it. He isn’t on anyone’s lists, from the mid-terms or final rankings (for those who released those already) from McKeen’s, Elite Prospects, Future Considerations, Scott Wheeler, Kevin Papetti, Dobber Prospects, The Draft Analyst... no one. I would be very, very curious to see if Finley might fall to the fourth round for one of the two Leafs’ picks they have in that round.

Jack Finley Highlights:

Ozzy Wiesblatt — Center/Right Shot Wing

Okay, first of all Ozzy Wiesblatt is a top-10 name in this draft. He’s also one of the best skaters in the WHL who — while listed mainly as a winger — actually played mostly at center this year for Prince Albert. With 70 points in 64 games, he also has offense and skill to spare while reportedly playing with a feisty edge.

Everything I read about Wiesblatt is how versatile he is. He played a lot of center this year and acquitted himself well, but he can be equally strong on the wing. He can PK, he can run a PP as a great passer, he can be a pest and engage physically (but not dominate), he can use his speed to cause havoc on forechecks, and so on.

The ‘red flags’ about his game that seem to be holding him back from being ranked higher is his pure skill. Not to say he’s UNskilled, but people consistently rank him behind other WHL forwards in that category. It’s a bit weird, because I can’t really find anyone who will mention something specific that holds him back, but he still doesn’t get rated very highly either.

What I think makes him underrated is that he seems to be great at making use of the skills he does have. He seems to be a great passer in part because of how he uses his speed — attacks aggressively at defensemen to either back them up or draw them to him wide, opening a lane for his linemates to get open. He is also good at using his edges and quickness to dart into soft parts of the ice to get tap in goals, even if his shot isn’t the best. You know how we love Kapanen for his speed, but sometimes wish he could do more with it? Wiesblatt seems to know what to do with his skating.

Ozzy Wiesblatt Scouting Reports:

From Vince Gibbons at McKeen’s Hockey in March:

Ozzy Wiesblatt is a high energy player that can slot into either a wing or center role and provide some solid contributions. He could be an effective middle six player that fits on both units of special teams and at worst carves out an effective bottom six role at the highest level. His speed and relentless pursuit of the puck makes him a valuable asset and his play without the puck has steadily improved over the course of the season.

Wiesblatt is one of the few players in the WHL this year with speed to burn. He has the acceleration, the power in his stride and the breakaway top speed that make him a threat anytime he is on the ice. He plays with a high level of agility and has shown some very strong edgework, carrying his speed throughout turns pushing the pace in all three zones. He can also use his speed in recovery if a play has transitioned the other way. His effort level coupled with his speed make him a constant thorn in the side of opposing teams.

From Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects:

Wiesblatt is a good skater who plays an up-tempo game with a bit of ferocity. He is an excellent skater who excels in the offensive zone when given the freedom to be creative. His vision allows him to create for opponents and his IQ allows him to find quiet spots in the offensive zone to set up for a scoring chance. In transition, Wiesblatt is shifty and smooth through the neutral zone and carries the puck into the offensive zone before attacking the front of the net. He likes to funnel the puck below the dots and into the net-front area. His game offensively is predicated on his speed and agility as well as his willingness to fight through traffic to find soft spots in coverage. While he isn’t a typical pest, he doesn’t shy away from mixing it up with his opponents after the whistle when the situation arises. Wiesblatt is a smart, skilled and speed-driven winger who can help on both the power play and the penalty kill. He may not project to be a top-line forward but his play suits a middle-six scoring role that contributes to both special teams.

In the highlights below, watch how often Wiesblatt (he’s #19 in the PA/green jerseys) uses quick turns or pivots on his edges and holds onto the puck just a biiiiiiiiiiiiiit longer to give a teammate more time to get open in a dangerous area. He’s a guy I think I would love if he fell to the Leafs for their second round pick.

Ozzy Wiesblatt Highlights:

Connor McClennon — Right Shot Wing

Connor McClennon seemed like he was going to pull a Tristen Robins and just completely take off in the second-half of the season. He was well on his way to doing so when he broke his collarbone and his season ended. But before then, here is his points per game by month to give you an idea of how his season improved over time:

  • September = 0.80
  • October = 0.75
  • November = 1.08
  • December = 1.40
  • January = 1.83

He had played for Canada White at the WHC the season before and scored 8 goals and 11 points in just 5 games, including this OT winner. Then he played for Canada at this past Hlinka and added 2 points in 5 games. Despite his production and exposure on a larger international stage, McClennon is pretty firmly ranked in the third round at the earliest.

Why? Likely because he’s only 5’8” tall and the nature of his season-ending injury will likely only exacerbate the worries of him being able to hold up at the NHL level. After seeing the likes of DeBrincat and Robertson both fell outside of the first round due to their size, it’s not surprising to see people not so high on McClennon either.

But here’s the thing. Both DeBrincat and Robertson were ranked in or near the first round, and fell to the second. McClennon is ranked in our outside of the THIRD round. Is that too much of a height and size penalty? Well, McClennon doesn’t have the pure stats of the other two, and scouts don’t sound as high on his other skills or general play outside of his goal scoring and shot.

I’m asking myself how differently his rankings and scouting reports would look like if he continued his torrid pace once he got hot. If he finished at 80 or 90 points over a full season instead of “only” 49 points in an injury-shortened year, would he be thought of as more of a second rounder? I also wonder if he was in the OHL with higher scoring rates, would he have had even more points and a bigger draft profile?

I don’t want to overstate the effect of his height, injury, or scoring relative to the OHL. I think they have minor effects both on his production and on the perception of him as a prospect. But I do think it can add up to a not insignificant degree to which he gets underrated. There are real red flags to his future but I think there is upside to the skills he has that could make him a potential steal if he falls to the fourth round, which seems like a distinct possibility.

Connor McClennon Scouting Reports:

From Vince Gibbons at McKeen’s Hockey in April:

Connor McClennon is a natural goal scorer; he has a release that is very dangerous, and he has a highly accurate shot that makes him a finisher from anywhere on the ice. McClennon is a player for whom speed is a big component of his success. He has very quick acceleration and can get to his top speed in a couple of strides. In open ice he has the agility to keep defenders honest and can take full advantage of any misstep. His agility is good for a small player but isn’t as impressive as I had expected. He has good footwork and does a great job of getting to his spot before the defender does.

McClennon is a shoot first player that has had pretty good success this year putting the puck in the net. His release is excellent, and he gets solid velocity that can beat a goalie from distance. Couple that with his accuracy and it makes his shot one of his strongest attributes for future success. He is a volume shooter too with an average of 3.45 shots per game. He is very good at going far side on his off wing and the puck can come off his stick so quick a goalie almost doesn’t have a chance. He has a variety of shots and shot angles that make him a threat to shoot the puck from anywhere at anytime.

From Steve Kournianos at The Sporting News:

A sniping forward with goal-scorers hands and a hard-nosed approach, McClennon was thrust into a significant role for a team with few options up front. He’s got speed, shiftiness and an advanced nose for the net, but he also causes problems on the forecheck and finishes his checks with authority.

From Tyler Campbell at The Oil Knight:

Maybe the toughest kid to rank. On one hand, he has exploded offensively after a slow start. He recently went on an 11 game point streak and had 29 points in his last full 18 games played. Why did I say “full”? Because in his last game McClennon suffered a broken collarbone and will be out likely until the end of the WHL regular season, if not longer.

The other thing some would point to in terms of his production was that he took off once Peyton Krebs returned from his Achilles injury. But let’s not pretend McClennon is playing on some offensive juggernaut in Winnipeg where he’s able to live off other’s accomplishments. McClennon is a lot like Kailer Yamamoto, not just in stature but also with his drive and fearlessness on the ice. He plays much bigger than his size. The skating isn’t where Yamamoto’s was at this point though. I personally believe it’s better than some have suggested, but there is no doubt it needs work.

Connor McClennon Highlights:

Pavel Novák — Right Shot Wing

Pavel Novák is an interesting case of a good player on a bad team. You wonder how much better he could be on even a mediocre team. Kelowna finished the year technically in a playoff spot (15th overall), and while they were by far not the worst team in the league (and my god there was some bad teams in the WHL...) they had a 29-28-3-3 record and a -29 goal differential. They were also had one of the worst offenses in the league.

Pavel Novák finished the season leading Kelowna in in goals with 25 and points with 58 — despite missing 8 games. He played on their penalty kill, and their power play, and their top line at even strength. He also really helped carry the team’s offense after their other players (like Nolan Foote) were injured. I like to give an extra benefit of the doubt for a player who a) leads his team in scoring as a first-time draft eligible player, and b) is on a bad team.

But I think a lot of people don’t. Novak is a European who played in the CHL for the first time this year. He’s small-ish at 5’10” and 170 lbs, but a lot of scouts note he struggles a bit along the boards. I would expect most young players his age struggle in that regard against older, bigger players, but can develop physically and skills wise to do better.

Pavel Novák Scouting Reports:

From Arlo Schulz at McKeen’s Hockey in January:

Pavel Novák has met or exceeded all expectations since coming over to North America in his draft year. He is a deceptive player with good wheels, a great motor and a decent wrist shot. Despite his diminutive size, Novák is a smart player capable of killing penalties and is very coachable. He is adept at zone entries but struggles at times on breakouts. Novák has above-average offensive upside and projects as a second-line winger at the pro level, provided he continues to adjust to the North American game and develops his ability to be effective in tight, physical, gritty games.

Novák is a decent skater. His top speed is average but where he excels is in agility, edgework and the ability to change directions on a dime. He gets up to speed quickly and takes the most direct path at all times.

Novák has a good wrist shot and can score from distance with it, especially from the point on the powerplay. His one-timer needs some work still. He possesses a decent slap shot but rarely utilizes it.

From Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects:

The 2020 draft-eligible forward has been impressive in his first season in North America. Pavel Novák has quick feet, a good shot, and adept passing ability. His ability to locate teammates and put the puck on their tape with a variety of passes that range from a beautiful bank passes up the boards to the soft-touch of a Pavel Novak saucer pass. He sees the ice in the offensive zone at a high-level which makes him dangerous every time the puck is on his stick.

Novák is a good skater who likes to push the pace and get the puck to the middle of the ice. He doesn’t always get there with his feet as consistently as one would like but he filters the puck to the slot with efficiency and consistency. He still plays a bit of a perimeter role at times but his passing and vision are effective from the outside at the junior level. He likely needs to find that extra gear to get to the middle more often at the next level. When he does so in the WHL, he is extremely dangerous and has good hands in tight to find daylight.

Novak is pretty firmly ranked in the third round or early fourth round among the most recent rounds of draft rankings. Watching his highlights, what stood out the most to me is that he scores a lot of goals on a good wrist shot — including from distance on the powerplay. It doesn’t seem like a particularly hard shot, but he seems to get it off quickly and accurately. He also seems to have a good backhand and slapshot, so he can score in a few different ways.

He might not be a guy I would most want to fall to the Leafs in the fourth round, but colour me interested if he does.

Pavel Novák Highlights:

Michael Benning — Right Defense

Michael Benning is the second of the AJHL prospects on this list. In fact, he is not only a teammate of Carter Savoie’s on Sherwood Park but they’re childhood friends. They’ve played together at every level of hockey and every big tournament. Like Savoie, Benning is a bit on the short side, but it’s more noticeable for him as a defenseman. He is also highly skilled, in fact he matched the same point total (75 in 54 games) by Cale Makar when he was in the AJHL on his draft year.

Now, that’s not to say that Benning will be the next Makar since points don’t tell the whole story. Makar had a very special set of skills that were evident from the start, especially his skating. Benning is a very effective defender for his age and his level, but is more noted for his puck handling and making smart, clever plays.

Even if points don’t tell the whole story, Benning is clearly talented. You would think that he’d rank at least as a first round prospect, or close to it. In fact he is ranked at 44th by Scott Wheeler, and otherwise at 57th by McKeen’s, 66th by Elite prospects, and 74th by Future Considerations.

So why is he ranked so low, and a bit all over the place? Some people have some concern that he can physically handle defensive work at the NHL level. He’s also not as flashy as Makar, and he played for a powerhouse team (49-9-0 with a +143 goal differential) with a high powered offense led by Carter Savoie.

But to that I say: phooey. He’s played in high level tournaments, including for Canada, and done well in all of them relative to his peers who were also top prospects. I think the size and the relatively obscure league is a hurdle some people can’t get over, even if he has some issues to overcome that a top prospect doesn’t have. I’d think he should be easily a second round prospect if he played in the WHL.

I’d say there an outside chance he falls to the fourth round, but it’s small. I’d still be very intrigued if he is available in the second round when the Leafs have their pick, but it might still be a bit too early on him depending on who else is available.

Michael Benning Scouting Reports:

From Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects:

The dynamic blueliner is the modern-day defender that every team craves. He skates well, moves the puck up the ice and his game is quite good in transition. He is shifty through the neutral zone and does a good job of evading defenders as he walks the blue line. He does a good job of distributing the puck from the point. He opens up passing lanes by skating the blueline and makes quick decisions when filtering the puck down towards the front of the net. He is slight at just 5’9″ and 170lbs but the Sherwood Park Crusader will likely be among the best defencemen on the AJHL circuit. With a strong draft year, Benning could be a massive riser throughout the year. Ranked anywhere between 50 and 100 on early-season publications, Benning has the potential to break into the first round by seasons end.

From Vince Gibbons at McKeen’s Hockey:

His pucks skills are pretty impressive as he can carry the puck through all three zones. Once in the offensive end he is focused on generating offense which is where his skills shine. He has good vision and passing ability that enable him to make higher end plays than most. He is comfortable holding the puck under pressure to make a play because he can stickhandle, pivot and move so effectively that he does not succumb to the pressure. He makes cross ice one-timer passes consistently into the sweet spot for shooters. He pushes the pace of play forward and does not take his foot off the gas. He pinches effectively and if a lane is open to drive the net he does so with purpose. He is confident enough to go below the dots carrying the puck which opens up a lot of ice for teammates as the defense collapses on him.

Benning moves the puck quickly because he seems to know what he wants to do before he gets the puck. He really pushes to get into the play once he has completed the break out of his own zone. He is smart in how he finds space by moving in off the line making the defense constantly adjust to his varying locations. Through movement he creates lanes for passing. He judges his pinches well and follows the rotation of the puck, moving into a good position as the play develops. If he has space he will attack. Defensively, he processes the game at a high speed, and gets to pucks ahead of his opponents in 50/50 battles. His active stick helps him break up plays or move loose pucks quickly.

Michael Benning Highlights:

Kasper Puutio — Right Defense

Kasper Puutio was the #1 import pick in the whole CHL last year, so he had some hype going for him. He followed that with 3 points in 3 games for Finland at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup tournament. In some pre-season rankings, some had Puutio has a borderline first rounder with a chance to only boost his stock.

The start of his season sadly didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. Remember how I said there were some truly bad teams in the WHL earlier? Puutio just so happened to start the season with one of the worst WHL teams since the 1980’s.

The Swift Current Broncos were the equivalent of the Detroit Red Wings this year. They lapped the field on how bad they were, posting a record of 10-48-2-3 for 25 points in 63 games. The next worst team had 32 points, the third worst had 40. They had a -169 goal differential, in part because of a league worst 129 goals for. The team leader in points had 30 (in 42 games).

To finally bring this back to Puutio, he had 16 points in 35 games for Swift Current before he was traded to Everett mid-season. Swift Current played 63 total games before the season was cancelled. Puutio’s 16 points was still enough to tie for 7th on the team in total points for the whole season!

Playing for an almost historically bad team did his draft rankings no favours. Any hype he had to start the year pretty much fizzled out by the time he was traded to Everett. Thankfully for him, he did rebuild some of it with a strong second half on his new team. He had 4 goals and 12 points in 21 games and played the top pair on a much more respectable team, and stood out for his skating and puck handling. People had a chance to appreciate his play for what it was without a raging tire fire in the background drawing their attention away.

He did well enough for himself to get an invite to the top CHL prospects game in January

And yet most people still have him outside of the first three or four rounds, maybe even the top five rounds, which I think may be a huge overreaction to the start of the year. He had a chance to play for Finland’s U18 team in international play in the middle of the season and added 4 points in 5 games. He was very good for Finland all year, playing with and against top level prospects. He fared very well in Everett once he was on a good team. He does have some things to work on, but if he really does get passed over that much he could be a pretty nice steal for the Leafs with one of their three picks in the 4th and 5th rounds.

Kasper Puutio Scouting Reports:

From Arlo Schulz at McKeen’s Hockey in March:

Kasper Puutio is a slick-skating defenseman who moves the puck well and thinks the game at a quick pace. His high panic threshold makes him an ideal puck-manager who projects as a middle-pairing, dependable type in all zones. He won’t score much but will generate plenty of assists. Puutio needs to continue developing a more physical game on the defensive side to fully reach his ceiling projection.

Puutio is a smooth skater. His top-end speed is slightly above-average, but his biggest asset is his agility and edgework. His crossovers are seamless, allowing him to maintain proper positioning both with the puck and without. Is excellent at walking the line, and generates surprising power from his graceful stride. Puutio rarely loses a foot race despite seldom appearing to be in a hurry.

Puutio has a deceptive side to his game. Although he prefers to make the safe play in his own zone, he has the vision to hold the puck a split-second longer and spot the open man in the offensive zone and on the powerplay. There is no panic in his game with the puck, especially under pressure. He has a keen understanding of the tempo and flow of the game and when to push the pace or when to slow things down. His defensive positioning is improving and he reads the play well.

From Steve Kournianos at The Draft Analyst:

A cerebral puck mover with a commanding presence on the ice, Puutio was the first pick in the 2019 CHL Import Draft, and will undoubtedly be leaned on to provide the Swift Current Broncos with strong three-zone play in all in-game scenarios. He possesses a strong understanding of the game and understands how to use his quick feet and agility to evade pressure and jump start the attack. Puutio uses hard, accurate breakout passes, but can do so with forechaeckers harassing him. His size, mobility, strength on the puck, and poise under intense pressure will be critical in allowing Finland to exploit the speed of its forwards.

From Larry Fisher at The Hockey Writers from the CHL Top Prospects game in January:

Puutio entered under the radar and presumably exceeded expectations. Things are looking up for Puutio as of late, getting traded from a poor Swift Current team to a contender in Everett, then making the most of this opportunity. He was a pleasant surprise, much more noticeable than anticipated and involved at both ends of the ice. His battle level was impressive, trying to be physical and defending aggressively, then flashing his offensive upside while quarterbacking a power play in the third period. Puutio made a lot of plays in making his case for the top 100.

I will be very interested to see as more people’s final draft rankings come out, if Puutio gets a bit more of a bump. He might wind up being right on the border of the top 100, which would put him close to one of the Leafs’ fourth round picks. Whether he falls that far, or further, will remain to be seen.

Kasper Puutio Highlights:

Dylan Garand — Goalie

Whew boy, time to try and talk about a goalie...

So here’s the thing, height for players isn’t something that’s way overweighted nearly as much as it used to be. Robertson and DeBrincat may have fallen more than they should, but many prospect people ranked them higher than they were picked — and they were still picked in the second rounds.

But for goalies? Where it’s even harder to try and scout them for future ability and analyze how meaningful their performances at age 17 is? It’s still VERY strongly weighted.

So if I were to tell you that Dylan Garand, playing for Kamloops, led them to winning their division, the 5th best record in the WHL, and the 4th lowest goals against, with the third best save percentage in the WHL among starters (so excluding goalies who played less than half of the season), you’d think that would make him one of the better ranked goalie prospects right?

Not so. NHL Central Scouting rates him as the 6th best goalie prospect in North America. Elite Prospects is pretty high on him overall, ranking him 61st overall. But to prove my point, the best goalie by a good margin in the WHL this year was D+1 goalie for Everett, Dustin Wolf. His 1.88 GAA and .935 SV% is a good measure better than those behind him. Last season, his draft year, he had even better numbers with a 1.69 GAA and .936 SV% — but as a 6’0” goalie he was only drafted in the 7th round by Calgary.

At 6’1”, Garand isn’t really that short. But he came into this year with scouts referring to him as only 6’0” — so he either grew an inch by the end of the year or the scouts all worked off of older information on him. That perception of how important height is for a goalie matters, so even though Garand is one of Canada’s top performing goalies he still has his overall ranking underrated.

For shits and giggles, I looked up goalies who are the same height or shorter than Garand who played at least one NHL game this year. Some of them didn’t have great seasons this year, but are either well thought of prospects (DiPietro) or have a long track record of at least being good (Howard, Quick, etc):

  • Anton Khudobin (5’11”)
  • Pavel Francouz (6’0”)
  • Calvin Petersen (6’1”)
  • Antti Raanta (6’0”)
  • Jaroslav Halak (5’11”)
  • Philipp Grubauer (6’1”)
  • Juuse Saros (5’11”)
  • Jordan Binnington (6’1”)
  • Alexandar Georgiev (6’1”)
  • Jonathan Bernier (6’0”)
  • Petr Mrazek (6’1”)
  • Jonathan Quick (6’1”)
  • Carter Hutton (6’0”)
  • Jimmy Howard (6’1”)
  • Michael DiPietro (6’0”)
  • David Ayres (6’0”)

Suffice to say, I think Garand may be strongly underrated. That extra inch of height might lead him to having a better fate than Dustin Wolf did last year, even though Wolf had a far better season. I don’t know if he’ll actually be picked at the end of the 2nd round like Elite Prospects ranked him, but I’m very much hoping he winds up falling to the fourth, fifth or even sixth rounds. The Leafs have the bulk of their picks in the fourth round or later (9 picks from rounds four to seven), and I can see them using at least one of them on a goalie.

Dylan Garand Scouting Reports:

From Tony Terrari at Dobber Prospects in January:

Dylan Garand is the player that ended up at 101, the first man on the outside looking in. The Kamloops netminder is the top-ranked Canadian netminder on most draft boards but he is getting overshadowed by some very high-end European goalies. Garand does a good job of staying square to the shooter, moving well on his feet with good body control. He is laterally quick and has a solid base when in the butterfly. He needs to get stronger, especially in his core and lower body to help stay upright while getting a good push side to side.

From Tyler Campbell at The Oil Knight:

At the start of the year I have to admit, I didn’t like Dylan Garand mainly because of his size. And though the size hasn’t improved, and NHL organizations still prefer bigger netminders, it isn’t as though 6’1 is a size of goaltender which isn’t going to get a look in the league. Plus the season he’s having has now is so damn impressive! His numbers are right there with Team Canada’s Joel Hofer who is playing on a more dominant team in Portland. And it’s not as though Kamloops is some defensive juggernaut, this is a team who has played pretty wide open hockey this season. I love the way Garand moves in net. He’s very technically sound with terrific reflexes. If this kid’s ability to track the puck can catch up to the rest of his game, he will be an NHL goaltender even at this size.

From Larry Fisher at The Hockey Writers at the CHL Top Prospects Game in January:

Garand came within one second of pitching a shutout over the second half for Team White, stopping 10 of the 11 shots he faced. Garand was sharp when tested, stoning Rossi from the slot on a feed from Quinn for his best save. Garand has been in the zone ever since the calendar flipped to 2020 and he was coming off a rare highlight in winning a goalie fight just prior to the Top Prospects Game. January has been all kinds of good for Garand, but it’s tough to say where he’ll go in June since he is undersized by today’s NHL goaltending standards. Garand may be on the smaller side (listed at six foot even), but he outshone two bigger goalies in this showcase and has been stellar for Kamloops, so he deserves to get drafted in 2020.

Dylan Garand Highlights:

Poll

Which of these prospects do you most want to fall to the Leafs?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Carter Savoie
    (36 votes)
  • 7%
    Tristen Robins
    (16 votes)
  • 36%
    Jack Finley
    (78 votes)
  • 10%
    Ozzy Wiesblatt
    (22 votes)
  • 1%
    Connor McClennon
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Pavel Novak
    (2 votes)
  • 4%
    Michael Benning
    (9 votes)
  • 18%
    Kasper Puutio
    (39 votes)
  • 4%
    Dylan Garand
    (10 votes)
216 votes total Vote Now