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2022 Draft Watch List: A mid-season look at exciting prospects

Looking at those who may be in the Maple Leafs’ range.

2020 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Kyle Brown/NHLI via Getty Images

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I’ve done enough preliminary research and seen bits of games or highlights for enough prospects that I think it’s a good time to get some names out there. This year’s NHL Draft seems like it will wind up being like last year’s, in that the top of the draft seems weaker than other years but it has a lot of interesting — if flawed — guys in the perfect range where the Leafs will make their selections.

For clarity, the Leafs currently have a first, a second, and a seventh round pick in this coming draft. It is conceivable if not very likely that they wind up trading one of those 1st and 2nd round picks, but they may also wind up with a mid-round pick or two ahead of the actual draft this summer. They could also trade down from their second round pick, which Dubas has done before when he thinks he can get two guys he likes in the same range instead of just one.

This definitely feels like a draft that, so far, will have some interesting late first/second round guys who could fall for one reason or another. So it could be a good draft to trade down.

FORWARDS

This year’s group of forwards seems underwhelming, even compared to last year. There aren’t a lot of guys even at the top of the draft that feel exceptionally exciting. But there are a handful that I find interesting for late first and late second round picks.

Frank Nazar III is a 5’10” forward playing for the US National Development team. They play a mix of games against junior teams in the USHL, and some exhibitions against NCAA teams. They have all of the top junior age players in the USA, and they always send a lot of players to represent Team USA in international tournaments. Nazar is fourth on the team in points, behind other top prospects like Logan Cooley (a likely top 5 pick), Isaac Howard, and Jimmy Snuggerud. But in expected points, Nazar leads the way by a pretty significant amount, according to tracking by EP Rinkside. Because he’s a bit smaller and not the obvious ‘leader’ on the team in points, there is an outside shot he falls to later in the first round. But if his expected points start turning into actual points, he may explode in the second half of this season and rise in everyone’s rankings.

Isaac Howard is another 5’10” USNTDP forward, and ahead of Nazar in terms of actual points. In expected points, he’s among the leaders but sits around 4th or 5th. He’s definitely a more offensively inclined player, a speedster, and has a good shot that helped him rack up 48 goals for the USNTDP last year. This year he’s become more of a playmaker, and much better at controlled entries in part thanks to his speed. His stock has fallen a bit from what was expected of him going into this season, and he’s another guy I’d be interested in if he keeps falling to the end of the first round.

Cutter Gauthier is the last of a trio of USNTDP forwards I wanted to profile. He’s a different type than Nazar or Howard, as a 6’3” forward with more all-round versatility. He’s still a point per game player, putting him right behind the others I mentioned above. He scores a lot of goals, with 27 goals and only 12 assists. However, he’s not one-dimensional. His manually tracked data shows he has the second most expected points, is adept at setting up shot assists in dangerous areas, and is effective at transitions — both zone exits and zone entries. His current rankings are all towards the bottom third of the first round, which would be a perfect place to choose him. Given his size though, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s taken higher.

Gleb Trikozov is just high-octane fun. He’s been a bit of a whispered secret among prospect people, but is starting to gain more recognition. He’s a 6’1” Russian winger who has played a mix of MHL (Russian junior) and VHL (second-tier Russian pro). He seems like your stereotypical Russian forward prospect who has all kinds of tantalizing offensive skill. He’s very fast and a great skater, he can carry the puck, pass it, and shoot it. But he can struggle without the puck. He offers a lot of upside but also some risk, and I can easily see him falling to the end of the first round or even into the second unless he starts dominating the VHL the rest of the season. He’s also one of the younger players in the draft, already shown dominant offensive skill in the MHL, and holds his own in the VHL.

Filip Mešár is one of the high profile prospects in Slovakia’s strongest core of juniors for a long while. He’s a 5’10” centre playing in Slovakia’s pro league, where he has 9 points in 20 games. He has also been one of Slovakia’s strongest international performers for the last few years. He’s a bit small for a centre, but he has an enticing combination of skills plus a high degree of cleverness when utilizing them. He has a good sense of timing, delays, and manipulation to make his strengths with his skating and with the puck that much stronger. He’s another guy who is a bit of a long shot to fall to the Leafs, as he’s generally ranked in the middle of the first round.

Jiri Kulich is a 6’0” Czech centre playing in their pro league as a 17 year old. He’s also a staple for their international teams as one of their top players and offensive producers. He is more of an all-round, two way centre with a good amount of skill. He can skate, he has a good shot, and he has shown a lot of responsibility defensively and without the puck for a teenager in a pro league. I can see him being a second round guy, and may fall to the late second where the Leafs pick just because he won’t have the gaudy points, didn’t have a chance to shine at the World Juniors as a draft-eligible, and plays in a more obscure European league.

Marco Kasper is a very similar type as Kulich. He’s a 6’1” centre from Austria, but he plays in Sweden. At the very short World Juniors, Kasper was one of their only players who was noticeable in games they got blown out. He has 7 points in 6 games in the U20 junior league, then 24 games in the SHL pro league where he has 6 points. Playing most of his draft-season in one of the top European pro leagues is impressive on its own. He is also defensively responsible, like Kulich, and is an effective transition guy with a good shot. But he might not have the same skill or offensive upside as Kulich. They’re probably in the same tier, so it will be interesting to see where they both wind up being taken on draft day.

Liam Öhgren is a 6’1” Swedish winger who plays for the very strong Djurgårdens program. Like Kasper, he has split time between junior and pro. In the U20 junior level he dominated with 18 goals and 27 points in only 15 games. He also has 21 games in the SHL pro league, with 2 points. He’s a good skater, which he uses all over the ice to help both with and without the puck. He has a good shot and makes smart plays to help score goals, but is also a capable passer. He’s another guy whose rankings for now have him generally around the end of the first round, and from the bit I’ve seen of him so far he seems like a guy to watch as a potential Leafs’ pick.

Jani Nyman is a 6’3” Finnish winger, who has played all over the place in Finland’s three levels: U20 junior, Mestis semi-pro, and Liiga pro. In 3 junior games, he had four points. In 4 Liiga games, he had one point. In 20 Mestis games, he has 10 goals and 9 assists. For Finland’s U18 international games, he has 12 points in 9 games. He has a heavy wrister and a good one-timer, which is something the Leafs don’t have a lot of outside of Matthews. He’s also a bit like Matthew Knies, another big forward prospect of the Leafs, in that he is a good skater and aggressive on the forecheck to use his size and speed in a very intimidating way. But he’s not just all brawn, he’s pretty adept at just stealing the puck with cleverly timed stick lifts and constant pressure. His playmaking with the puck could use work, but he has a lot of tools that already look effective in a pro league.

Jagger Firkus is a 5’10” winger playing on Moose Jaw in the WHL. He’s the only CHL forward on my list that has me excited enough to include him on this list of 10 higher profile forwards. He has 20 goals and 38 points in 34 games in the WHL, which leads his team in goals and is 2nd in points — one behind the leader. He has a wicked shot but is an effective playmaker as well, generating dangerous offense himself or setting up teammates. He has been exploding offensively of late, and if it continues I expect his rankings will rise as well. But until recently he’s been going under the radar, typically ranked outside of the second round when he’s been ranked at all. He could wind up being a very good second round pick for the Leafs.

There are a few other forwards whose scouting reports intrigue me, and/or who I’ve watched a bit of and I do like... but with some reservations still. I’ll want to watch them each some more.

  • Julian Lutz — 6’2” German forward who has been hurt all year, but is still ranked as a top 62 pick. He has some hype, and his injury may lead to him falling more than he would have and turning out to being a bit of a steal.
  • Alexander Suzdalev — 6’2” Russian/Swedish forward playing in Sweden’s junior and second-tier pro leagues. He has 30 points in 27 games in junior, and started getting 5 games in the Allsvenskan league. Has very strong underlying metrics on transitions on top of being an effective point producer.
  • Alexander Perevalov — 6’0” Russian forward who started the year going bananas in points in the MHL. He’s gotten some time with his KHL team in the same vein as Dmitri Ovchinnikov has been (i.e., one or two shifts per game, if that). He’s cooled off in the MHL a bit since then, when he bounces between the two levels.
  • Owen Beck — 6’0” centre playing for Mississauga in the OHL. Gets strong reviews as a two way-centre, leads the OHL in points among rookies with 26 in 29 games. Could be a good second round pick unless he goes off offensively and winds up being a first round pick.
  • Mikey Milne — 5’11” overage forward who is a late 2002 birthday, but has 23 goals and 47 points in the WHL. There’s a lot to consider with him. He’s almost two years older than some first-time eligible players in this year’s draft, and he plays for arguably the most dominant CHL team this season in the Winnipeg Ice. But you could argue if he played a full-season last year, instead of only 12 games because of the pandemic, he’d have been worth a late round pick last year, and now he’s one of the top offensive producers in the whole CHL. That’s something you want from a prospect in their D+1 season. The Leafs don’t have a mid-round pick as of now, but if they do get one or if he falls to the late rounds, he could be worth a shot.

DEFENSE

This year seems a lot stronger for defensemen than it does for forwards compared to other years I’ve done this. But a lot of them also seem like high-risk, high-reward types where they have exciting skills and tools but also some obvious flaws to work on. But for guys who seem like they may be available in the Leafs’ range, there are more guys who excite me with their potential as defenseman than forwards.

Seamus Casey is a 5’10” right-shot defenseman playing for the USNTDP who is this year’s Quinn Hughes, though the chance he reaches that level are not as good. He’s offensively minded, a good skater who can elude forecheckers with the puck, and a highly effective passer. As a smaller offensive defenseman he has the standard issues of lack of size limiting his defensive utility, and he could stand to be a more explosive skater. But he is already so good and has so much potential, he could wind up being the top defenseman out of his draft. He is not that likely to fall to the Leafs, but with his size I can see him dropping a bit at least.

Calle Odelius is a 6’0” left-shot defenseman playing in Sweden. He has 19 points in 25 games in Sweden’s junior league, and has gotten into 7 SHL pro games. He is arguably the best all-around defenseman in the draft. He’s a brilliant skater, capable with the puck, and a smart defender. Some scouting people I follow have him as a borderline top-10 pick, and he might get there if he has a strong showing the rest of the year in the SHL. But for now I’m hoping he stays more obscure to the mainstream.

Ty Nelson is a 5’10” right-shot defenseman playing in the OHL. He may seem small from his height, but he’s already a thicc boi at 196 lbs. He was a top OHL draft pick with North Bay, and so far this year has 26 points in 31 games. That’s good for second in the league among all defensemen, and first among draft eligibles. He may wind up being the second best prospect out of the OHL this year, behind Shane Wright. He’s a great skater, has a good amount of offensive skill when carrying, passing or shooting the puck. He’s not great defender, but not terrible either and he has some potential there too.

Owen Pickering is a 6’5” left-shot defenseman who may be the best defenseman out of the WHL. He may have the most exciting set of skills and physical tools of any defender in this draft. He has long reach, he’s a very good skater and without the “for his size” qualifier. He’s good in his own end with his size and reach, and once he gets the puck in his end he’s good at turning it back up the other way quickly — but with some inconsistency so far. He flashes a lot of high end potential that hasn’t been fully realized yet. That’s why his rankings are all over the place for now, but seems likely to wind up as a late first round pick.

Pavel Mintyukov is a Russian-born 6’1” left-shot defenseman who will likely be the second best defenseman out of the OHL. He’s also a good skater and has offensive upside, but likely offers more two-way potential than Nelson. When you watch him play he can be all over the ice — for good most often, but sometimes for not so good. He has some consistency issues, but Saginaw also plays a pretty weird looking systems that is probably as close to “positionless” hockey as I’ve ever seen. He’s in the same tier as Pickering in a lot of draft rankings as a late first, into the second round pick.

Kevin Korchinski is a 6’2” left-shot defenseman in the WHL who is only just behind Pickering for potential. He’s not as big, and may not have quite as exciting a toolkit, but still seems worth a late first round pick. He’s a good skater and uses it to his advantage. He jumps into plays, is good at getting back to pucks on dump ins, and is mobile enough to evade forecheckers. He’s very good under pressure, which is a useful trait for junior players to show he can make plays when he doesn’t have that much time or space to forecast his play at higher levels. He’s smart, and doesn’t have a major weakness like others on this list might. He’s like Odelius as far as having complete two-way potential.

Ryan Chesley is a 6’0” right-shot defenseman playing for the USNTDP, and is the more defensive and reliable defender compared to Seamus Casey. He may not have the flash or raw upside offensively, but he’s the kind of defenseman that when you watch him you just like the things he does. That will likely limit his rankings ceiling to a late first rounder at best, unless he starts having an offensive breakout for the rest of the season.

Simon Forsmark is a 6’2” left-shot defenseman in Sweden who might have the best chance of being the best European defenseman instead of Odelius. He has 25 points in 22 games in Sweden’s junior league, and has gotten into 21 SHL games at the pro level. So he can produce points, but is a good defender for his age by using his reach. He could stand to be more physical and aggressive with his size, but he has potential as a two-way defender. He’s ranked right now as a late first round pick, and into the second round.

Tristan Luneau is a 6’2” right-shot defenseman that had hype going into this season as the highest ranked CHL defenseman, but has dropped a lot through this season. Starting the season hurt hasn’t helped, but he also just hasn’t shown much in the way of high end offensive potential. He has 15 points in 26 games, which is good but not great. He has shown to be an effective defender, however, especially for a wide-open league like the QMJHL. A defenseman being hurt and not reaching the high potential expected of him and falling in the draft is a tale as old as time, and though he may not ever realize the hype he could still be useful as a second round pick if he keeps falling.

Elias Salomonsson is a 6’1” right-shot defenseman in Sweden who has a similar story as Luneau. He had even more hype last season and going into this one as a potential top 5 pick. But he has been even more disappointing than Luneau has, and doesn’t have any injury as an excuse. I know a lot of Swedish scouts have really soured on him, to the point that they’ve not only dropped him out of the top 5, they’ve dropped him out of the first round and some even out of the second round. But as Will Scouch likes to say, it’s hard to think that he just completely forgot how to play hockey like he used to. And he still has 8 goals and 17 points in the U20 level, with one SHL game under his belt. There may be something else going on we don’t really know that’s affected him this year, but if he really does fall out of the first round he may be an interesting flyer for a second round pick if he can ever realize his potential again. Not all prospects develop in a neat, straight, ascending line. He could be a project that turns into a steal.

Then there are a whole bunch of other interesting defensemen prospects for outside of the top two rounds. These could be interesting guys to take if the Leafs acquire a mid round pick, or if they trade down with their second rounder.

  • Lukas GustafssonI wrote about him last year, and everything I said then is still true now. He is just a highly effective and fun two-way defenseman, albeit a bit small. He’d definitely be worth a later pick if he falls as an overager. The Leafs are also very familiar with him, since they hired his old GM with the Chicago Steel and they invited him to their rookie camp.
  • Otto Salin — a 5’11” right-shot defenseman in Finland. He hasn’t played much this season — he has 6 points in 4 games at the U20 junior level, and 1 point in 5 games at the pro-Liiga level. He plays in the HIFK system, so the Leafs may be getting a good look at him as they follow Roni Hirvonen.
  • Lian Bichsel — a 6’5” left-shot defenseman from Switzlerland, playing in Sweden. He has 7 points in 11 U20 games, and 1 point in 12 SHL games. So he’s getting the mix of the junior/pro experience this year. He’s big, skates well, and has more defensive than offensive upside. That may limit his ceiling, but he’d be interesting if the Leafs trade down into the third/fourth rounds.
  • Noah Warren — a 6’5” defensive defenseman in the QMJHL. He’s big and knows how to use it. He’s an acceptable skater, but has a lot of reach and is very effective at snuffing out cycles and zone entry attempts against him. His offensive upside is more limited, and he is inconsistent moving the puck up the ice at times but flashes some good skill there. Just not high-level. He’d be another interesting later pick, but I assume his size means he goes earlier than I’d take him.
  • Isaiah George — a 6’1” left shot defenseman with the London Knights, who has 10 points in 26 games but flashes a lot more skill and potential than is shown on the scoresheet.
  • Kirill Kudryavtsev — a 5’11” left-shot defenseman who is Russian-born but playing for the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL who has two-way upside. His 19 points in 30 OHL games is good, but not elite offensively. I’m pretty mindful now of the extra challenges European prospects playing in North America for the first time are, especially as a 17 year old.
  • Ryan Healey — a 6’1” right shot defenseman in the USHL, with only 5 points in 23 games he doesn’t seem like all that much. But he’s got good skating and skill that hasn’t translated into points, which I also admit to not caring too much about. But in junior, a good offensive defenseman should be pretty dominant. Worth watching as a later round guy.

GOALIES

This year, there are none. They’re all bad. There’s no Spencer Knight, Yaroslav Askarov, or Jesper Wallstedt. There isn’t even a Devon Levi or Kirill Gerasimyuk. I don’t know if there will be a goalie taken at all in the first two or three rounds. That said, there are some interesting later round names that are overagers that I liked previously or who put up good numbers in higher levels.

Nick Malik is a 6’2” Czech/American goalie who had some hype in his draft year (2020) but struggled in 16 games in the OHL his draft year with an .886 sv%. But every other level he’s played before that, and since, he’s done well. In the Czech second tier pro league in his draft year, he had a .927 sv% in 19 games. He went back the following year and had a .921 in only four games, due to COVID. This year he joined Finland’s pro league, the Liiga, and has a .920 sv% in 20 games. And he’s also been one of Czech’s top goalies in international play. He’s still only 19, and I think may be worth a 7th round flyer.

Zakhar Vinogradov is a 6’2” D+1 goalie who is a late 2002 birthday. He plays in Russia in the VHL, their second-tier pro league. In 20 games he has a .916 sv% on the fifth worst team in the league. He’s been part of Russia’s U20 team in some international games, though always as the backup. He’s also been called up to be backup for Spartak Moskva in the KHL a couple of times this year. Having good numbers in semi-pro as a teenager, especially on a bad team, is fairly impressive. He’s another 7th round swing I’d consider.