Giving a concise and well-thought summary of the top players for an upcoming draft is an undertaking that requires more than just picking the prospects with the best stats. Hours of both video and live coverage turn into days; days into weeks; and weeks into months. The time was used to evaluate puck skills like shot accuracy and traits like hockey sense, which NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau considers to be made up of playmaking, discipline, anticipation and play under pressure.
None of these can be found simply by combing through box scores, no matter how reliable or resourceful tools like advanced statistics and historical data can be. You’d be amazed at what else one can discover simply by isolating a prospect for the duration of a game or two.
MOCK DRAFT 1.0: Avs thank Sens for Jack Hughes; Flyers, Kings take wings
Since last August, hundreds upon hundreds of eligible teenagers for the 2019 NHL Draft have been assessed, evaluated, compared, scrutinized and red-penned. The accompanying rankings are the result of the work that goes into giving even the most casual fan a general idea of which players have the best chance on becoming impact players at the NHL level. It is not meant to be a definitive resource, nor is it set up to predict how the NHL Draft will unfold.
Below you’ll find a listing of 31 prospects who have impressed the most under a variety of standard and nonstandard conditions. But first, let’s take a big-picture glimpse at the composition of the 2019 class and its areas of strength and weaknesses.
This draft is incredibly deep at center ice. It differs from the 2018 group that was heavy on both defensemen and wingers. In fact, only eight centers were chosen in that first round, a sharp decrease from the 16 pivots drafted in 2017.
Leading this year’s talented group of centers is Jack Hughes, a speedy playmaker from the U.S. National Team Development Program. Born and raised in a hockey family with deep roots in the game, Hughes is the favorite to become the seventh American-born player to go first overall at the draft.
What’s interesting about Hughes is that he likely won’t be the only center on his team who gets drafted in the top 10. This year’s NTDP arguably is the best in the program’s 22-year history, and teammates Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras are two reasons why.
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While Hughes has been non-committal about his plans after the program, both Turcotte (Wisconsin) and Zegras (Boston University) are considered two of the best collegiate recruits in the nation. Turcotte missed nearly two months with an injury but has been on a roll since returning in mid-December, recording 11 points in eight games against both USHL and ranked NCAA competition.
It also should be a rebound draft year for Canada’s Western Hockey League, which last year didn’t see its first center taken until the third round. That certainly changes in 2019, as a trio of WHL centers have been excellent on both the international stage and during regular season play.
Lethbridge power forward Dylan Cozens had strong showings at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament and the U20 CHL-Russia Super Series, but he’s been a real workhorse and leader for the Hurricanes. Cozens currently sits eighth in WHL scoring with 56 points in 40 games, including 32 in his last 18 contests.
Not far behind Cozens are fellow WHL centers Peyton Krebs and Saskatoon’s Kirby Dach. Krebs is a sturdy, three-zone playmaker with leadership traits who plays a similar style to the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews. Dach is a big-bodied passing aficionado with the vision of Joe Thornton and the ability to maintain control of the puck in the tightest of spaces.
A variety in the wing
As electrifying and dynamic as the aforementioned centers have been, focusing on the draft’s top-heavy group of elite wingers isn’t such a bad idea.
Strong arguments can be made for Finland’s Kaapo Kakko to not only be the first winger selected, but some feel he is the better choice for the top overall spot. Scoring a gold medal-winning tally at the World Juniors certainly helped him in the exposure department. But it’s been Kakko’s adult-level production as a teenager in the Finnish SM-Liiga that is reinforcing just how special a talent he already is. Big, strong, deceptively quick and blessed with exceptional vision and stickhandling, Kakko would be a rewarding consolation prize if a team picking second or third misses out on Hughes.
As great as Kakko has been, however, there is no draft prospect in the pool who offers what volatile yet cerebral winger Vasili Podkolzin brings. The young Russian was the best player at both the Ivan Hlinka and December’s World Jr. A Challenge, and his heady 200-foot play at the World Juniors revealed to the hockey world that he can impact a game every shift, regardless of whether he’s scoring.
Podkolzin’s combination of nastiness and skill makes him the unicorn of the 2019 draft, and his admitted desire to stay in Russia until he decides he’s NHL ready may not be enough to dissuade an NHL GM from making him the first Russian league prospect picked in the top five since Evgeni Malkin in 2004.
Not to be forgotten is U.S. NTDP’er Matthew Boldy, who one day may wind up as the best winger taken. Blessed with incredible hockey sense and one of the softest set of hands you’ll see on a big flanker, Boldy has been consistently productive and impactful despite a carousel of changing centers and linemates. Much like Kakko and Podkolzin, the Boston College-bound Bay Stater is a favorite to go in the top 10.
Defense not as deep as 2018
You won’t find as many skilled two-way defensemen in this year’s first round as in 2018, but the upper tier of 2019-eligible rearguards has a few with franchise-changing potential.
Bowen Byram, a physical puck mover for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, is starting to pile up the points while serving as the anchor to their defense corps. He competes hard and will fight tooth and nail before conceding territory. But it is the calmness and poise Byram displays while controlling or carrying the puck that what makes him the best defender available.
The next few blueliners after Byram also possess solid puck skills, but Germany’s Moritz Seider comes the closest to matching his complete arsenal. He is a steady contributor in the German elite league, where he logs top-four minutes and sees power-play time. It was at the recent Division 1A U20 championship where Seider as team captain was dominant in all three zones from wire to wire to help the Germans win the tournament and earn a berth in next year’s WJC in the Czech Republic.
Swedish defenseman Victor Soderstrom shook off an early-season injury bug and has been an effective two-way defenseman for Brynas in the SHL — the same program which last year produced Blackhawks top pick Adam Boqvist. Soderstrom’s defensive-zone play and decision making is well ahead of where Boqvist was a year ago, but he too skates extremely well in all directions and passes the puck with precision.
The remaining puck movers to keep tabs on are Finland’s Anttoni Honka, Kingston’s Billy Constantinou and Team USA’s Cam York, who runs the NTDP power play due to his outstanding shot and quick-strike mentality.
Depth in the net
You have to go all the back to Carey Price in 2005 to find the last goalie picked in the top 10. Although that streak likely continues after 2019, this year’s draft is loaded with goaltenders who are distinguishing themselves while logging major minutes.
Opinions vary on which netminder is the prize within this extremely talented group, but the NTDP’s Spencer Knight is a safe bet to be the first one off the board. Big, cool, calm and technically sound, Knight’s size, advanced net awareness and willingness to correct deficiencies should lighten the workload for his eventual goalie coach.
Much like its center depth, “The Dub” will provide the draft with an assortment of quality goaltenders.
One candidate for the first round is Denmark’s 6-7 goalie Mads Sogaard, who needs to shake off a nightmarish showing at the recent World Junior Championship and get back to the dominant play he displayed before the tournament for the Medicine Hat Tigers. Dustin Wolf is a native Californian who has proven to be a worthy replacement in Everett for stud Flyers prospect Carter Hart. The WHL also has additional early-round candidates in Vancouver’s Trent Miner, Saskatoon’s Nolan Maier and Prince George’s Taylor Gauthier.
NHL Draft 2019: Big board, player rankings
1. Jack Hughes, C, U.S. NTDP
Not enough superlatives to describe just how exciting a phenom he is to watch. Hughes makes something happen every shift and competes hard to become the best player on the ice.
2. Vasili Podkolzin, LW, SKA-Neva (VHL)
Abrasive and creative, Podkolzin has the potential to be a present-day Doug Gilmour. His list of enemies already spans two continents and grows by the game.
3. Kaapo Kakko, RW, TPS Turku (SM-Liiga)
Graceful yet powerful, Kaako’s golden goal at the world juniors is just a small part of an impressive pre-draft resume that includes close to point-per-game production as a teenager in Finland’s SM-Liiga.
4. Alex Turcotte, C, U.S. NTDP
Dominant play in Jack Hughes’s absence solidified his standing as the draft’s best two-way center. He should be near the top on every team’s draft board.
5. Trevor Zegras, C, U.S. NTDP
Superior playmaking and vision has kept Zegras on the NTDP’s top line, even if it means playing on Hughes’s wing where he excels as both a finisher and set-up man.
6. Bowen Byram, D, Vancouver (WHL)
Top draft-eligible defender can log big minutes and dictate the flow of a game with physicality or his puck-moving skills.
7. Matt Boldy, LW, U.S. NTDP
Smart winger with size can play a dual role as finisher or playmaker. Develops instant chemistry with linemates.
8. Dylan Cozens, C/W, Lethbridge (WHL)
Cozens is all hustle and plays with a team-first attitude, but it’s his shot and physicality that makes him a lethal option close to the goal.
9. Alex Newhook, C, Victoria (BCHL)
Boston College-bound playmaker is leading the BCHL in scoring and can finish in a variety of ways.
10. Peyton Krebs, C, Kootenay (WHL)
Not enough love being given to this coach’s dream, who can solve any problem in any zone. Krebs is carrying a weak team on his back but handles the pressure like a pro.
11. Kirby Dach, C, Saskatoon (WHL)
A recent scoring slump followed by a lower-body injury has cooled talk that Dach could challenge for the top spot. He’s an excellent playmaker who lacks a quick first step.
12. Victor Soderstrom, D, Brynas (SHL)
An injury-plagued start to his draft year is now a distant memory, as Soderstrom is playing like the top teenage defenseman in Sweden. All facets of his skating are outstanding.
13. Raphael Lavoie, RW, Halifax (QMJHL)
Few bigger forwards in the 2019 group can motor and handle the puck as well as Lavoie, who plays with confidence while controlling the puck. He’s a sound decision maker and can score goals from just about anywhere in the offensive zone.
14. Nils Hoglander, RW, Rogle (SHL)
Hoglander is a pesky waterbug who knows how to instantly turn opposing turnovers into quality chances. He’s established himself as an everyday contributor.
15. Ryan Suzuki, C, Barrie (OHL)
A focal point on Barrie’s thinning attack, Suzuki has been able to hold it together as the Colts started gutting the roster. His excellent vision and playmaking abilities will be put to the test in the second half, but you’d also like to see him use his underrated shot a lot more.
16. Anttoni Honka, D, JyP (SM-Liiga)
A subpar WJC should not erase all the qualities he’s displayed while consistently managing pressure against older competition. Honka is very smart, and his skating and vision make him ideal to quarterback a power play.
17. Moritz Seider, D, Adler Mannheim (DEL)
This big-bodied puck mover with unlimited potential plays a clean, mature game in Germany’s top league. His dominance at the Division I world juniors reinforced the belief that he truly was too good for junior hockey.
18. Matthew Robertson, D, Edmonton (WHL)
Another stud prospect who like Byram can lead by setting the right example in all three zones. It’s not often you see veteran forwards defer to a draft-eligible defender as often as they do with Robertson, who can execute a clean breakout in several ways.
19. Cam York, D, U.S. NTDP
Slick offensive defenseman with NHL bloodlines and a sick shot is the go-to option to jumpstart the attack and quarterback the NTDP power play.
20. Cole Caufield, RW, U.S. NTDP
More than just a finisher, this Wisconsin-bound sniper has acute hockey sense and exploits opposing mistakes with impunity.
21. Yegor Spiridonov, C, Stalnye Lisy (MHL)
Two-way center with a nice touch around the net who has been carrying a talent-rich line while logging minutes in every conceivable situation.
22. Connor McMichael, C, London (OHL)
Offensive dynamo who can wire the puck as well as he can dish it. McMichael’s found a way to stand out on a deep London squad and force head coach Dale Hunter to play him as often as possible.
23. Pavel Dorofeyev, LW, Stalnye Lisy (MHL)
Sturdy winger with soft hands and excellent vision is similar to Boldy in that he can execute an odd-man rush with precision. His chemistry with Spiridonov was instant and the duo in open ice makes short work of opponents.
24. John Beecher, C, U.S. NTDP
Buried behind the NTDP’s ridiculous center depth is this powerful two-way center in the mold of David Backes. Beecher is impossible to knock off the puck, and his shot is so heavy it can knock a goalie off his skates.
25. Vojtech Strondala, RW, Trebic (Chance Liga)
One of the more underrated prospects in terms of production validating the skill set, Strondala is an undersized finesse forward with a lightning-quick change of pace and elusiveness that draws opponents out of position.
26. Arthur Kaliyev, LW, Hamilton (OHL)
Owner of one of the deadliest shots you’ll find in this draft class, the Staten Island-born Kaliyev has developed into a well-rounded scorer and is starting to use his thick frame to his advantage. He’d be a top-five pick if he played with more intensity.
27. Billy Constantinou, D, Kingston (OHL)
A graceful puck rusher with phenomenal edgework and agility, Constantinou’s been thrown to the wolves after his trade to the bottom-dwelling Frontenacs. Although every game of his feels like a roller coaster ride, his potential for stardom remains.
28. Philip Broberg, D, AIK (Allsvenskan)
A wonderful skater with size and sharp instincts, Broberg at this stage of his development remains a huge swing for the fences if he goes high in the first round. He checks all the block on offense, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired.
29. Michal Teply, LW, Liberec (Extraliga)
One of the better two-way forwards in the draft, Teply is a student of the game who gives you a consistent effort in all three zones and is an excellent on-ice communicator.
30. Drew Helleson, D, U.S. NTDP)
Another NTDP’er whose significant contributions are masked by the dynamic forwards he accurately feeds the puck to. Helleson erases issues in coverage and has a quick stick to turn a puck battle into an immediate counterattack.
31. Ryder Donovan, C/W, Duluth-East (HS-Minn.)
A dual-threat forward with size who can play center or wing, Donovan plays a similar style to Rangers’ forward Kevin Hayes.
Jakob Pelletier, LW, Moncton (QMJHL): Smaller winger makes a big impact thanks to his nonstop motor and ferocity on the puck
Jamieson Rees, C, Sarnia (OHL): In-your-face playmaker with speed is an intense competitor
Jordan Spence, D, Moncton (QMJHL): Offensive defender is a having an excellent rookie season
Robert Mastrosimone, LW, Chicago (USHL): One of the draft’s purest goal scorers
Leevi Aaltonen, LW, Kalpa (SM-Liiga): Blazing speed and a deadly wrister to match it
Ryan Johnson, D, Sioux Falls (USHL): Craig’s son is a lockdown defender with excellent footwork
Antti Saarela, C, Lukko (SM-Liiga): Hard-nosed pivot is the complete package and producing against adults
Isaiah Saville, G, Tri-City (USHL): Native Alaskan has frozen opposing offenses
Marshall Warren, D, U.S. NTDP: Tremendous wheels and a threat in the offensive zone
Travis Treloar, C/W, Chicago (USHL): Swedish import is versatile and smart. He paced the offense while big names were away
Steve Kournianos is the founder of TheDraftAnalyst.com, a blog dedicated to the NHL Draft. He is a former prospects writer for ESPN.com and worked briefly for the Associated Press and McKeen’s Hockey. He also covered the Boston Bruins, the AHL and Hockey East for SportsTicker, and was a minor league baseball editor for Howe SportsData.