Welcome back to another year of NHL draft goodness. And what a year it’s shaping up to be! This could be the deepest, most talented class we’ve seen in a long time – perhaps since the 2015 class, if not better. And there’s talent coming from everywhere. The US Development Program has their best crop of kids since the 2019 class with Zegras, Turcotte and Jack Hughes (the first). They are loaded with studs. The OHL has the consensus top player in the Draft, a player in the vein of Sidney Crosby, in Shane Wright. The Finns could have 3-4 1st round picks and maybe 2 in the Top 10; Russia could also have a pair of Top 10 picks and potentially 4-5 1st rounders. The WHL, the USHL and the Q all have 1-2 viable 1st round candidates, and even Germany, the Swiss, Slovakia and the Czechs have super talents that could go as high as the Top 10…Slovakia has three! And lastly, the Swedes are loaded with depth and talent, just waiting for one of them to break out and become a surefire Top 10 choice.
What makes this group even more fun is the fact that most of the junior leagues around the world did not play a full season, or in some cases (the OHL), they didn’t play a single game. We all know the kind of individual development that occurs in your late teens – growth spurts, growing into your body, mental and emotional changes – now couple that with hockey, the increase in size and improved hand-eye coordination and the like. You may have a whole army of kids who, by Christmas, who went unnoticed going into the season and are surging up the ranks, making this class even deeper. This is especially true for the Canadians, who although they have the #1 player, there is a notable lack of Canadians in the 1st round simply due to the limited exposure to people like me. I’m sure real scouts know the deal on many of these kids, but I’m going to have to wait to see it for myself.
The scouting season really got underway recently in the Ivan Hlinka tournament over in Slovakia. As has become the standard with last year’s and now this year’s Draft class, the Canadians did not participate in the tournament and deprived amateur scouts like me of an opportunity to see what they can do. That said, it still lived up to the hype, with some outstanding performances. First being the host Slovaks, who reached the finals for the first time since the start of the tournament and got into the Semi-finals for the first time in more than two decades. Led by a trio of stars – Slafkwowsky, Simon Nemec, and under-age phenom Dalibor Dvorsky – the Slovaks marched all the way to finals, only to fall to a powerhouse Russian team. Led by likely Top 5 forward Ivan Miroshnichenko and their own under-age phenom Matvei Michkov (the tournament’s top scorer), the Russians showed their scoring depth with players like Ruslan Gazizov, Ilya Kvochko, and Gleb Trikozov all contributing…they had a PP that operated at nearly 50% efficiency! The Americans, who typically send their "B" team to the Hlinka, finished a mere 5th out of 8, with another under-ager, Mike DeAngelo, leading the way. Finland and Sweden both sent strong squads, each with a bundle of talented draft eligibles, maybe none as good as Finnish wing Joakim Kemell. A really fun tournament, fun to watch some entertaining hockey again with some drama, some excitement, and no one with a herniated disc problem that I know of.
Preseason is already underway in a number of European leagues, and the official starting dates for a number of European junior leagues are the first 2 weeks of September. Before that, we’ll get the 5 Nations Tournament (starting tomorrow), Champions League, and then the 4 Nations tourney right before September 1st. In North America, we’re a little slower…most junior leagues don’t start until the last week of September or the first week in October. So a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks as (hopefully) things get back up and running somewhat normally once more.
So, with all that, what about our precious Buffalo Sabres? It looks as if management is putting their eggs in the Draft-and-develop basket…never a bad idea. They are accumulating young assets, draft picks, hiring coaching staffs whose skill sets revolve around working with young players…it seems like they aren’t going to short-change the Rebuild this time. Of course, if you can’t develop…we’ll be doing this all again in 5 years. But right now, the Sabres have 8 selections in this Draft. They made 12 selections last year. And they have 9 choices in 2023. Not to mention, they should get at least another high pick in any Eichel trade, plus they have a pile of guys on expiring contracts they could move for picks – Hagg, Butcher, Miller, Anderson, Dell, Pysyk – and Olofsson with arbitration rights. With retention, they should be able to get a 2-3 more picks in either the 2022 or 23 Drafts. It’s not out of the question that BFLO could make 35 selections in a three-year window (21-23), including six 1st round picks (or more!).
For this one-round Mock Draft, I used a set of Vegas odds for winning the Cup and reversed engineered them. Then I substituted then into Tankathon, and voila! A Draft order. So before people get their undies in a knot, this is not how I see the season playing out. Wanted to use an impartial means to put together a Draft Order, so here it is. But if you’d like to make your own case for how the standings will finish, please feel free to do so in the comments below.
1. DETROIT: Shane Wright, C, OHL
2. BUFFALO: Logan Cooley, C, US NTDP
3. NASHVILLE: Simon Nemec, RHD, SVK
4. ARIZONA: Matthew Savoie, C/W, WHL
5. ANAHEIM: Brad Lambert, RW, FIN
6. SEATTLE: Ryan Chesley, RHD, US NTDP
7. COLUMBUS: David Jiricek, RHD, CZE
8. SAN JOSE: Ivan Miroshnichenko, W, RUS
9. NEW JERSEY: Joakim Kemell, RW, FIN
10. COLUMBUS (CHICAGO): Ike Howard, RW, US NTDP
11. OTTAWA: Connor Geekie, C, WHL
12. LOS ANGELES: Danila Yurov, LW, RUS
13. VANCOUVER: Noah Ostlund, C, SWE
14. CALGARY: Elias Salmonsson, RHD, SWE
15. ST LOUIS: Tomas Hamara, LHD, FIN
16. WINNIPEG: Juraj Slafkwowsky, LW, FIN
17. PHILADELPHIA: Ryan Greene, C, USHL
18. DALLAS: Pamo Fimis, C, OHL
19. EDMONTON: Rutger McGroarty, LW, US NTDP
20. BUFFALO (FLORIDA): Tristan Luneau, RHD, QMJHL
21. NY RANGERS: Lian Bischel, LHD, SWISS
22. MINNESOTA: Ludwig Persson, C/W, SWE
23. PITTSBURGH: Miko Mattikaa, RW, FIN
24. WASHINGTON: Jack Hughes, C, US NTDP
25. NY ISLANDERS: Jonathan Lekkeriamaki, C/W, SWE
26. MONTREAL: Devin Kaplan, RW, US NTDP
27. BOSTON: Ludvig Jansson, RHD, SWE
28. CAROLINA: Frank Nazar, RW, US NTDP
29. TORONTO: Julian Lutz, RW, GER
30. LAS VEGAS: Kasper Kulonummi, RHD, FIN
31. ARIZONA (COLORADO): Noah Warren, RHD, QMJHL
32. TAMPA BAY: Spencer Sova, LHD, OHL
33. DETROIT: Fabian Wagner, RW, SWE
34. BUFFALO: Jani Nyman, LW, FIN
Rd1, #2: Logan Cooley, C, US NTDP:
Looks like a bit of a reach now, but I’m really liking Cooley’s progression even under suboptimal COVID circumstances. I think it will continue, and he’ll be a name in the mix for #2 overall by the time the Draft rolls around. He’s a later birthday as well (May of 2004) so there may be a little more runway for him to develop. Watched him most recently in a couple games at the World Junior Summer Showcase, and he played with a number of NHL draft picks on his team – including those from last year’s Draft, as well as this past year – and was, in the games I watched, the best forward out there. He wound up leading his team in goals during the round-robin with 3 in 3 games despite being one of the youngest players on the team. For the NTDP, Cooley put up 32P in 28 games, 3rd on the U-17 team in PPG, before being called up to the U-18 team where he notched a very respectable 14P in 19 games. And he finished strong, with 9P in his last 9 games before the U-18s started.
Enough with the stats, what does he bring to the table? Everything. First off, he’s an excellent skater. Really good burst – not elite but getting there – with great top speed and really precise change-of-direction. He plays with a lot of pace and gets up and down the ice quickly. Stride is smooth and compact, lateral movement exceptional with or without the puck, and transitions well as a 4-way skater. Once he gets a step on you, he’s gone, and he knows how to use his wheels to pressure defenders and his body to seal them off. At the same time, he can make plays with the puck at high speed and see plays develop as he moves up ice with or without the puck. Really good face-off man. Excellent work ethic, he brings it every night, every shift. Not afraid to go to the middle of the ice or to the ugly areas to make plays (or prevent them). Defensively, he’s advanced. Not quite to the same level as a Matthew Beniers, but at the same age, not far off. Recognizes where opponents are trying to attack and immediately identifies how to neutralize it. Good on-puck defender, especially in transition, and really smart off the puck, which is so important for a center.
He can get caught puck-chasing once in a while, and he’s not strong enough yet to prevent bigger forwards from getting inside of him and pushing him around. But he put on more than 20 pounds this season, and I expect he’ll wind up around 6’0 190# when all is said and done. Pair his high-end defensive smarts with his rapidly developing offensive game, and you’ve got a future #1C. Cooley isn’t flashy. He doesn’t dangle you to death (although he has dynamite hands) or hang on to the puck forever like an Eichel can. He’s very efficient. Head always up, he knows where to go with the puck and delivers it on time and on the tape. It doesn’t stay on his blade for long.
Again, he plays with really good pace, and getting the puck to teammates in good position before the other team can set up is really valuable. His shot is deceptive. It’s not heavy, and needs to improve its velocity, but his release is super-quick and he disguises it well. Not to mention he’s highly accurate. Sneaks up on you. Snapper and wrister both effective, especially in transition, where he can beat a lot of USHL goalies clean from the dots. He attacks from everywhere in transition. Will make a beeline for the near post from the wing, and barrel down the slot when in the middle. No fear in going to the net. To me, at this early date, Cooley is looking like a Claude Giroux – Brayden Point hybrid. And that’s something the Sabres could use, right?
Rd1, #20: Tristan Luneau, RHD, QMJHL:
Big (6’2 180#) defender who isn’t particularly physical but brings two high-end talents to the dance: skating and smarts. Luneau has a sparkling pedigree and comes into the year as one of the top defenders in the class. But I think as the love affair with blazing fast, offensive-minded blueliners continues (and rightly so), Luneau may get passed over for players like Chesley and Salmonsson and may slide a bit as a result. This could be BFLO’s gain. Luneau plays with a serenity on the back-end that would make him an ideal partner for a Dahlin or an Owen Power. Has a very high panic threshold, rarely coughs up a puck or makes a bad decision, and coupled with his superb skating, marks him as a textbook two-way defender. Luneau came into the Q with a reputation as a high-end offensive D-man, but I think his future NHL role is more geared toward being a Jacob Slavin-type of player thanks to his smarts and his skating. The latter is borderline-elite; his stride is textbook, has a great burst out of the blocks but never looks labored.
Transitions from forward to back, pivots, and gap control are all near the top of the class. Can get the puck and fly up ice, leading the rush, then pivot back and shutdown a counterattack at the other end without breaking a sweat. His sharp lateral movement gets a lot of credit for allowing him to be a highly effective PP QB, but where it shines to me is his ability to close out forwards in his own end. He can be a really good on-puck defender, especially in transition, thanks to those light feet. No slouch with his stick either. A really astute poke-check artist, Luneau is heavy on his stick, and it’s always active, disrupting plays and causing opponents to panic with the puck and turn it over on the rare occasion he’s out of position. That skating also makes him a 4th forward in transition, where he – like Dahlin – is more than capable of serving as a zone-entry weapon and letting his forwards fill their lanes to create chaos in the O-zone. He’s a great heads-up defender. If he can identify the pressure, Luneau can beat forecheckers with his skating and stickhandling, or calmly snap off a pass on the tape of an exiting forward. Has an excellent stretch pass that he doesn’t employ nearly enough, but that may change this year, as Gatineau should be very good this year – they should challenge for the Memorial Cup. This will put the spotlight on Luneau, but I suspect he’ll be up for it.
His shot is iffy – he can struggle to get pucks through, and he doesn’t have much of a one-timer – but that’s something he can work on. Most of his work in the O-zone focuses on puck distribution. Runs a PP with authority and effectiveness, but at even strength he can zip the puck around the perimeter and pressure the D by forcing them to move. Can be very elusive with the puck on his stick. Doesn’t pinch indiscriminately but does push the envelope when it comes to getting deep into the O-zone…certainly more than I’d like sometimes! Put up 18P in 31 games for the Olympiques, making him their leading scorer from the back-end. He could really round out the young Sabre defense corps.
2#34: Jani Nyman, LW, FIN: Monster power-forward with buttery soft hands recalls his countryman Mikko Rantanen in terms of size-skill combo package. A later birthday (end of July), Nyman really had his coming-out party at the U-20 level in Finland last year, where he started slow, but took off in the second half and finished with 23P in 36 games. The 6’3, 215# wing followed that up with a dominant Hlinka tournament, notching 6P in 5 games and tying for the Finnish team scoring lead. He’s already begun the preseason for Ilves in the Finnish Elite Men’s League (Liiga), so if a 17-year-old gets a regular shift on a team loaded with former and current NHL prospects, that says a lot about his potential. I’ve already mentioned Nyman’s size, but what makes him such a quality prospect are his hands. He has a rocket of a clapper but has the touch to make precise saucer passes in tight on both his fore- and backhands. Unlike some bigger power forwards that handle the puck like a grenade, Nyman uses both his immense reach and his hands to control the puck along the walls, or in the corners, making him a possession monster. But it’s possession with purpose. Really dangerous getting the puck to the middle of the ice from the walls, usually after winning a board battle. Can thread pucks through sticks and skates to an open man on the far post or in the high slot. Owns a bomb of a shot that hurts – it’s heavy and hard, and his release happens in a blink. All of his repertoire of shots come with great velocity, even wristers that he tries to get to the net from a bad angle or from up on the blue-line. His skating is good – technique-wise, it’s smooth and classic – while his lateral movement makes him super-effective in tight spaces or in the corners, as well as defensively in front of the net or on the boards. Burst needs to improve, especially first step, but if he can upgrade those first couple strides, he could be a real weapon in transition, particularly with that shot of his coming down as the late forward. One other area in need of improvement is his defending in space. His awareness in his own end is lacking, where he will lose his check more than you would like, but that can come with time and experience. Good on the puck, he puts his hands on you and if he can body you up, he’s very effective. The Sabres could use a big, skilled power forward. Nyman isn’t going to drop the gloves or blow people up with bone-crushing hits, but he can use his size and strength to wreak havoc around the net and in the corners. With all the speed and skill they drafted this past draft, Nyman seems like a smart addition.