Instead of the usual FPF article this week, we’ve decided to roll out some words on the focal point of the hockey world this weekend: The NHL Entry Draft.
It’s always fun to see what a few months can do; draft picks go from a mere afterthought at the NHL trade deadline to being a highly valuable and difficult to obtain asset by the time June rolls around.
The closer we get to the draft floor; the higher value top-end picks earn. Teams become infatuated with specific players, and those selections at the very top of the ladder become almost impossible to acquire. However, this draft has a funny feeling to it. Oft-discussed as a weak crop, teams are open to moving up, moving back, and with Vegas owning roughly 64 percent of all the draft picks (or so it feels), we could see a handful of surprise moves this weekend in Chicago.
With that in mind, this week on Frozen Pool Forensics, we will outline a handful of potential surprise moves that could rock the draft floor and have people choking on their deep-dish pizzas (if we can even classify those as pizzas… a debate for another day!)
Surprise #1 – Cale Makar goes first overall
For years, the formula at the front of the draft has been simple: take the proven player, playing in the proven league that will most likely become the best pro. Size never hurts here, either. However, this season we have a new contender that may be shifting those beliefs.
Playing in a tier two junior circuit in Alberta (AJHL), Cale Makar has exploded up the draft charts thanks to his incredible edge-work, elite speed, booming slap shot, offensive creativity and bold plays. He isn’t overly large, standing just 5-foot-11 and weighing 187lbs.
Ranked as a pretty safe top-ten selection in the finals weeks leading up to the entry draft, some feel he’s risen even further up a few team’s boards. Critics will question his ability to defend at the next (few) levels, as he’s often been a true rover on the ice as the Brooks Bandits utilize a man-to-man defensive scheme that will often have Makar up at the point in his own end waiting for an outlet pass to drive the offense forward.
Not your typical set up for a defender.
This doesn’t instill a ton of confidence in how he’ll be able to withstand some of the elite forwards in the NHL bearing down on him. However, Makar is a very cerebral and hardworking player, and that should bode well for him as he steps into more strict systems at the NCAA and then professional levels. If you’re smart and willing to work for it, you can play defense.
New Jersey craves an elite, offensive driver of play on the backend, and it would do well to add a dynamic player like Makar to their stable of prospects. It would certainly be a surprise selection but one that becomes more plausible with each day.
*Note* Potentially less of a surprise move now that Corey Pronman tweeted out New Jersey’s keen interest in Makar
Surprise #2 – Kailer Yamamoto falls to the second round
Let me preface this by saying, if this does happen, I’ll be outwardly angry (but secretly happy if he falls to the Canucks at 33rd overall – yes, I’m a long-suffering Canucks’ fan).
Yamamoto has done nothing but produce elite numbers in his time with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. Back in 2014-15, he had one of the most dominant 16-year-old campaigns in recent memory, and all he did for a second encore is lead all CHL draft eligible players in points-per-game with 1.52 this past season.
Digging deeper, of Yamamoto’s 99 total points, 76 were primary – meaning either a goal or first assist. That equates to a 1.17 primary points-per-game mark – which led all WHL forwards. He also didn’t go two games without recording a point and hit the scoresheet in 54 of his 65 contests. (Thanks CanucksArmy)
Yamamoto is a truly dynamic and creative offensive player. He owns terrific acceleration, top end speed and changes gears to create separation as many of the truly gifted offensive players can do. He’s a player who loves to shoot the puck and has top notch vision to compliment it. Not to mention the puck skills that leave you drooling or his willingness to engage physically and battle into difficult scoring areas.
The only knock is his size, which is note-worthy.
Standing just 5-foot-7 and 146lbs, he needs to be able to continue to thrive on skills and determination to have his production translate to the next level. If he makes it, it’ll be as a high-flying top-six winger, and in this particular draft class, that type of ceiling needs to be targeted.
Now for the but … we’ve seen it time and time again: tiny offensive dynamos slipping out of the first round. It was Alex DeBrincat, Vitali Abramov and Adam Fox a year ago, Sebastian Aho in 2015, Johnny Gaudreau back in 2011…the list goes on and on.
While it would be a travesty if it were to occur, Kailer Yamamoto slipping out of Round 1 is a potential surprise that could become a reality.
Surprise #3 – Timothy Liljegren isn’t one of the first three defensemen selected
At this time last year, Timothy Liljegren was coming off a terrific season playing against top competition in the Swedish Hockey League. He appeared to be a lock for a top two selection in the 2017 draft.
Fast forward a year and boy how things have changed. A bout with mononucleosis that hit last June can be credited with sucking some life out of the talented defender’s game, but he struggled to find consistency throughout 2016-17, playing against a myriad of talents and age levels.
Failing to display much more than his amazing — and we do mean amazing — skating ability, there are questions whether Liljegren can process the game at a high enough level to handle the defensive responsibilities that come with being a top-four NHL defender.
Being a right-handed, offensive player should keep him reasonably high on a few draft boards, but with risers such as Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar and Erik Brannstrom and some potentially safer selections in Juuso Valimaki and Urho Vaakanainen floating around, it wouldn’t be craziest thing to see Liljegren slip to the middle or late first round and be the fourth or even fifth defenseman selected.
The upside remains very high with Liljegren, but we’ve seen fallers slip countless times before, and we don’t have to look back much further than a year ago when Jakob Chychrun went from a probable lottery pick to 16th overall and the fifth defender selected.
Surprise #4 – Jake Oettinger will be selected early
Goalies are voodoo. We’ve heard it before, and we’ll hear it many more times. They are more likely to experience deviations from the norm, as the position takes an inordinate amount of time to master, and it’s wildly difficult to assess a 17-year-old’s ability and how that might translate as he grows and matures into the professional game.
However, there is one goaltender who stands out above the rest this year: Jake Oettinger.
Tasked with the starter’s role at Boston University this year as the youngest goaltender and second-youngest player in college hockey, Oettinger was the backbone of a team that showed extremely well. He posted a .927 save percentage, a paltry 2.11 goals-against-average and four shutouts in 35 NCAA contests.
His save percentage was good for ninth best in the country, and while he was the fourth-ranked freshman in that category, the three ahead of him were all three or more years older.
Oettinger blends athleticism with his size and skill. He fights through traffic to make the first save and is quick to recover to stop second and third chance opportunities.
While the goaltender market may be saturated at this moment, that doesn’t mean teams aren’t sniffing around a potential workhorse netminder for the future; and Oettinger has all the earmarks to be that type of impactful player.
Don’t be overly surprised when a team jumps up and snakes him well into Round 1 – especially a team with multiple first round picks and an organizational need *cough* Vegas *cough*
So, as you sit down to watch what should hopefully be a thrilling draft that's chalk full of players who have nice upsides, remember these things never go as planned and there will always be a surprise or two. Maybe even one that you just read about.
Thanks for reading and as always, feel free to follow me on twitter @CrazyJoeDavola3 where I’m almost exclusively talking prospects this time of year.
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