1. Jonathan Drouin, Left Wing, Halifax (QMJHL)
Drouin is special offensive talent, with upside through the roofa prototypical elite, puck possession forward. Drouin has unique puck skills, with the ability to show consistent offensive creativity. He naturally generated highlight reel scoring chances on a regular basis for the Mooseheads, and his ability to make plays in tight spaces is second to none. What separates Drouin, though, are his hands, and his tremendous ability to think the game. He has elite vision and offensive hockey sense, which allow him to dictate the offense. If defenders try to man him up one-on-one, he will find a way to lose the check. If they double him, he can make incredible passes to set up scoring chances. Although he possesses just good top-gear speed, he is a top-notch skater with a high level of shiftiness to his game. His agility and his puck skills make him a nightmare to check in open ice. That said, Drouin can be a liability when the game turns physical. He is a tad undersized, and his strength level needs to be improved in order to be effective in pro-level board battles. Drouin was given top line duties at the recent World Juniors, which is a rare feat for a Canadian 17-year-old, especially given the availability of talent at that tournament due to the lockout.
Ranking explanation: The number one ranking was a very hard decision. The top three prospects on my board all have legitimate arguments for the crown, and all project as elite NHL players. I had Nathan MacKinnon at number one for most of the season, but in late February to early March, I began to consider Drouin's candidacy. The two are very different players, which made the decision even tougher. Drouin has significantly better puck skills and hockey sense. MacKinnon is a better skater, and has a better shot, a significantly stronger physical game, and better defense. He is also a right-handed center, while Drouin is a left-handed winger. MacKinnon has a better track record over the past few years, particularly with his 16-year-old QMJHL season. However, Drouin has had a better 17-year-old season, as well as a better record in international play, albeit in a small sample. MacKinnon projects as a better all-around player in regards to his physical and defensive value, but Drouin has a higher offensive ceiling.
In making the final call, I leaned towards the large edge for Drouin in puck skills and hockey sense. For forwards, these are the two most important skills. Skating is a close third, and MacKinnon's skating skills nearly close the value gap. Taking into account the edge MacKinnon has in physicality, along with his shot, defensive skill, his position, and his handednessin that orderthe argument for MacKinnon at number one is legitimate, to the point where I view this decision as a coin flip.
On a statistical level, MacKinnon had a fantastic 16-year-old season. He recorded 1.34 points per game, and he notched 3.6 shots on goal per game. Meanwhile, Drouin tallied a 0.88 and 2.39 marks in those categories. This season, at age 17, MacKinnon scored at a 1.70 points per game pace, and amassed 4.57 shots on goal per game. Drouin, at age 17, recorded 2.14 and 3.53, respectively. Shots on net are usually a decent indicator of puck possession skill, although very good playmakers can be great puck possession forwards without taking an elite level of shots. Based on scouting observations, Drouin is that type of elite-level playmaker. MacKinnon also has a September birthdate, while Drouin was born in March. Overall, the numbers do not clear up the picture; this area is a push between the two players.
The decision comes down to an emphasis on draft risk and reward, given a virtual tie in Drouin and MacKinnon's skill sets. I favor a risk-averse strategy at the top of the draft, especially at first overall. Drouin is a little undersized, he plays on the wing, and while he has been touted since he was 16, he took dramatic steps forward this season. These are minor risks. On the other hand, he has elite puck skills and hockey sense. Those skills make his ceiling higher than any forward to enter the draft in a few years. Because of the upside, and because I am not convinced the downside is a big concern, I lean towards Drouin. There is a moderate ceiling gap between Drouin and MacKinnon, but only a small risk gap.
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Center, Halifax (QMJHL)
MacKinnon is a simply fantastic prospect who has all the tools a GM would want in a high draft choice. His body and skills are advanced, relative to the fact he is a tad over two weeks away from being bumped to the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. MacKinnon is an elite skater, and possibly a generational one, easily the best in this draft class. He has an unbelievable first few steps, and he generates a ridiculous amount of power from his legs. When he gets in full flight, it is very hard to stop him (in fact, I once saw an opposing QMJHL player try to tackle him). One NHL source told me that MacKinnon will draw a lot of penalties because of his agility and speed. His puck skills are high end, as well as his offensive vision. MacKinnon is not simply a north-south kind of player; he has a ton of offensive creativity, including the ability to dangle defensemen laterally, or make quick, precise feeds. MacKinnon measures at six feet tall, 182 pounds, but has an unusual amount of power to his game. An NHL executive told me that his level of talent is matched by his work ethic. MacKinnon will power through checks, grind out board battles, and land big hits. He projects as a forward with defensive value. He generates a lot of shots, and he has quality finishing ability. In short, there are almost no weaknesses in MacKinnon's game, and he possesses a lot of skills that are in the upper tier. He projects as an elite NHL forward.
Ranking explanation: Ranking Drouin and MacKinnon together is natural. The obvious omission is Seth Jones, and I only considered ranking the Portland Winterhawks defenseman first or third. Jones is the most talented player in the draft, albeit by a non-significant gap. To put it simply, Drouin and MacKinnon are ranked ahead of him because of his position.
MacKinnon is a notably better skater than Jones, with a small advantage in offensive skill. However, Jones is a much better two-way thinker, and he has a significant size advantage on MacKinnon. Those two elements are more important for a defenseman (the skating and skill edges are more important for a forward). Skating value is applied differently for forwards than it is for defensemen (who have to move backwards). Hockey sense and offensive/puck-moving ability are the two most important skills in evaluating prospects. The edge in hockey sense that Jones has over MacKinnon is a stronger gap than MacKinnon's edge over Jones in offensive ability. MacKinnon's skating advantage is not enough to overcome the physicality advantage for Jones, but the difference remains small.
Given those facts, why are Drouin and MacKinnon ranked ahead of Seth Jones? I wrote about Jones earlier this season, discussing the general concept of drafting defensemen highly; there are six questions in that linked column that I said need to be answered. I answered the first two here already: positioning Jones against the top two forwards, and what the gap is. The next two questions: is Jones' development risk substantially lower than normal for a defenseman, and if so, by how much? Using the eye test, the answer to the first is yes. Jones is less risky than most defensemen as he has unique hockey sense and game-processing skills for a player his age. That is usually the major hurdle for young blueliners making the jump to the NHL. Other top defense prospects have had great hockey sense, but few display the high level of Seth Jones. Despite this, it is hard to quantify how smaller the risk is for Jones. Given that he is an extraordinary prospect, there are not many comparable reference points. My solution? Evaluate the individual's hockey skills and his intangibles, and make a best guess, using those traits, on how the player will develop. There is a very real chance Jones' development risk is significantly lower than normal for players of his position, but there is also a fair amount of uncertainty in such a statement.
The next question: how does Jones project over the next seven seasons relative to Drouin or MacKinnon? The answer shares similar elements with the previous questions. The best young defensemen have historically produced less than top young forwards in the first seven controllable years. This is not an absolute trendyoung defensemen like Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo have shown that it is possible to hit the ground running. However, they are anomalies. On a large scale, the historical evidence shows that there is some risk on that front. Jones has a slightly higher talent level than the two Halifax forwards, and he is uniquely advanced in terms of his hockey sense. He has the ability to become a deviation from most of the precedents. He could produce more than Drouin or MacKinnon over the first seven years, but there is a good chance he will not, based on how close the three players are in talent, as well as the position risk.
The final question I ask: given the historical evidence of how top defense prospects develop, is Jones worth the risk? My answer is no. Drouin against MacKinnon was a virtual coin flip, and ultimately, I favored Drouin because of a moderate ceiling gap against a slight risk gap. In this case, I see a slight talent edge for Jones, a slight ceiling edge, and a moderate risk factor. The risk worries me enough to the point that it becomes a three-way tie, and in a dead tie (with no other factors to consider), my natural instinct tells me to go with the forward. It is important to realize how close of a call this is. If one were to change a major assumption, or even a few minor ones, the conclusion would change. Possible deviations for a talent evaluator: not seeing the specific skill gaps the same way, having confidence in Jones' ability to play well immediately, or wanting to take a risk. There is also a potential organizational need factor that could come into play. There are many reasonable arguments to place Jones at first overall, but ultimately, the risk factor is too strong for me to place him above Drouin and MacKinnon.
3. Seth Jones, Defenseman, Portland (WHL)
If Seth Jones has a weakness in his game, I do not see it. He is a special defense prospect, and as I outlined in the previous section, he nearly made me break my tendency of preferring an elite forward to a defenseman. Jones is a high-end (arguably an elite) skater, who moves at a unique and unusual level for such a large man. With his very large wingspan and mobility, Jones closes gaps with high efficiency, and he can be difficult to get around. His best trait is his clearly elite hockey sense. Jones was making pro-level reads when he was 16, showing he was, and still is, advanced way beyond his years. He makes a multitude of good defensive plays with positioning, stick work and anticipation. He seems to always to be a step ahead of everyone else. This is evident in his offensive ability as well. He knows when to pinch, and he can exhibit high levels of offensive skill, creativity and vision. Jones has a cannon from the point, which can make him a very dangerous player on the power play. He is a big man with a ton of weapons. Finally, his size is a tremendous asset. He stands around 6'4'', and while he isn't a mean player, he takes his checks with the body. He projects as a top-end physical player.
Ranking explanation: Does anyone else deserve to be in the discussion with the so-called big three at the top of the draft? Valeri Nichushkin comes closest. He projects as an elite player, and I have heard some NHL scouts argue he should be regarded as highly as Drouin, MacKinnon, and Jones. Others maintain that is he projects as just a star caliber forward, fitting into the same tier as Aleksander Barkov and Elias Lindholm. I am on the fence, because of Nichushkin's hockey sense. Despite my skepticism, that issue is not an area of consensus among scouts I have talked to.
4. Valeri Nichushkin, Right Wing, Traktor (KHL)
Nichushkin is an impressive power forward who has a ton of natural gifts. He could be a potential star, if not an elite power winger in the NHL. His best skill is his skating ability, as he is a true plus-plus skater that defensemen need to respect when he's barreling down the wing. If a gap gets too tight, Nichushkin will likely be behind the defender in no time. He is also a strong, 6'4'' pillar who loves to drive to the net. Combining that with his speed and skill, he draws a lot of penalties. Nichushkin's north-south game is his strength, but he has a high level of ability with the puck, with the capability to make players miss. He can make plays to his teammates, and he has good offensive instincts, although his hockey sense is an area of division among scouts. Some question his vision, feeling he can be a little selfish. Others think his hockey sense is above average. He has the ability to skate through an entire team, so it cannot be considered surprising that he tries to do a lot. One area of concern: he needs to improve his defensive play.
Ranking explanation: Because of my high regard for Aleksander Barkov, this was a tough ranking to make. Ultimately, there is a slight-to-moderate gap between the two players. On a skill level, they are about equal, with Barkov having an edge in hockey sense. Barkov has one of the best hockey IQs in this draft class, and he is a center, which is typically preferable to a winger. However, Nichushkin has a giant advantage in terms of skating. He is one of the best in this draft class in that area, while Barkov is below average. Nichushkin also has an edge in terms of his physical game. The hockey sense issue is still paramount. If an evaluator felt the gap was enormous (as great as Nichushkin's skating gap over Barkov), then the two players are near equals, to the point where Barkov has a reasonable argument to be ranked fourth on this list. However, if the hockey sense gap was not considered to be that large, the reasonable argument to place Barkov ahead of Nichushkin does not exist, and the KHL forward could challenge for a top-three selection in this draft. I am placing myself somewhere in between, hence why I have ranked Nichushkin's prospect value as better than Barkov's by a slight-to-moderate margin.
Note: I am not taking into account transfer risk for Nichushkin.
5. Aleksander Barkov, Center, Tappara (SM-Liiga)
Barkov is one of the greatest NHL Entry Draft prospects to ever come out of Finland. He is a tremendously advanced player, with elite hockey sense. He regularly logged 20 minutes this season, which is rare for a September-born 17-year-old in Finland's top league. He has an incredible amount of patience, vision, and awareness. He can slow the game down and dictate the tempo, as well as be the focal point on the power play. He also has a high level of defensive skill, showing ability at a very young age to be a quality defensive center. He has good technique on faceoffs, as he keeps his hands low, pulling pucks back quickly. Despite having good puck skills, he is not a player who will consistently try to stickhandle around players. He is selective, but he has the talent to create offense out of nothing. Barkov is a big, strong player. He will not crash and bang, but he protects the puck well. His skating is a tick below average. It is possible he could improve to an average skater, but his game will not be predicated on blazing past defenders. When bringing the puck out of his zone, he tends to prefer making a good pass rather than rushing the puck up.
Ranking explanation: This spot was up for grabs between two forwards (Barkov and Elias Lindholm) who had fantastic seasons in two very tough leagues. The two have similar puck skills, but evaluating their hockey sense reveals a significant edge for Barkov. Lindholm is not a slouch at reading the game, as he has great hockey sense in both ends, but Barkov's hockey IQ is elite. Barkov's skating is not too impressive, while Lindholm is a top-end skater. That disparity closes the gap, possibly enough to push Lindholm into a dead tie with Barkov. Even though Lindholm shows a little more grit in his game, the size advantage and physicality Barkov brings is a factor. Barkov's accomplishments for a September 1995 birthdate are also very impressive. That is no discredit to Lindholm (even though he a late 1994), as he had one of the best seasons in recent memory by a first-year draft-eligible player in the Swedish Elite League. Barkov's resume is just a tick more impressive, and the fact that he has a lot of room to improve makes him more intriguing as a prospect.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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