By now you’ve probably at least heard his name as he’s been pegged for years as the consensus number one prospect for this season’s NHL draft. Over the next few months, you’ll hear it more and more.
And for good reason.
Patrick’s got a tremendous blend of just about everything you want in a centre: skill, size, vision—he has all of it. And hockey bloodlines, too. His father Steve played for the New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres and Quebec Nordiques (to say nothing of the Brandon Wheat Kings, where his son has been a standout for two seasons) and uncle James had a 20-year NHL career.
He’s that player a coach has no trouble tapping on the shoulder at any point in the game. He’s offensively creative and defensively responsible. There were occasions in his rookie season where former Brandon coach Kelly McCrimmon would use Patrick as the lone forward on a five-on-three penalty kill. At the age of 16!
Patrick is a future franchise centre.
Jeff Marek hosts Sportsnet’s NHL prospects podcast, a one-stop shop for news, analysis, opinion and interviews covering all the top names ahead of the 2017 NHL Draft.
But he doesn’t stand alone. Swedish defenceman Timothy Liljegren, who is currently going through an unfortunate bout of mononucleosis, is this year’s top-ranked defender. He’s a great skater with an Oliver Ekman-Larsson-esque stride and the ability to go end-to-end with the puck. He played some good minutes at the Swedish top level last season and did not look out of place at all.
Interestingly, Liljegren decided to take a break from hockey last season while playing in the Swedish Hockey League, but it’s not that he quit. A mature kid, he realized he was burning out playing at the top level plus U18, U20 and all the international commitments. Combined with the media pressures of being a highly ranked player, he was exhausted by Christmas. With the support of his family, he took some time off to recharge and it paid off with a strong finish at the end of the season.
And while nobody is comparing the draft this year to 2009, when John Tavares went No. 1 and Victor Hedman second, this season’s draft has many wondering if the teams who select 1-2 will pick up corner pieces for the next decade.
The initial list of the season is always a tricky affair since games are just starting and some teams have key players still at NHL camps. We’ll start to get a better picture by our November ranking. In the meantime, think of this as a working list of players we’ve identified as being in the conversation for the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago.
These players and their order were chosen using a combination of personal viewings along with conversations with scouts, GMs, coaches and various hockey analysts.
A lot of coffee.
1. Nolan Patrick, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL) Scouts have been lavishing praise on this second-generation player since he popped 30 goals as a 16-year old rookie. He followed that up with a 41-goal, 102-point performance last season and picked up the WHL playoff MVP award as well. Great combination of skill and size. Can be used in any situation and excels in them all.
2. Timothy Liljegren, D, Rogle (SHL) Top blueliner available. Remarkable and tireless skater with outstanding mobility and range. Can QB your power play with confidence. Sees the ice and all of his options really quickly. Liljegren has a legit shot at grabbing the No. 1 ranking this season.
3. Maxime Comtois, C, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL) One of the most versatile players available—he can play every forward position. A third-overall pick in the QMJHL draft, Comtois had an impressive rookie season putting up 60 points. Can be used in all situations and, because of his size, speed and skill, brings a number of dimensions to his game.
4. Gabe Vilardi, C, Windsor Spitfires (OHL) Like many rookies, he had to work on his leg strength last season. Missed the Ivan Hlinka tournament and the start of the OHL season with a knee injury, but it wasn’t considered serious. Scouts love his high skill set and potential to fit into an NHL team's Top 6. Windsor will use him on the wing with either Logan Brown (OTT) or Julius Nattinen (ANA), but he will also see time at centre, his natural position.
5. Klim Kostin, RW, Moscow Dynamo (KHL) Selected first overall in CHL Import Draft by the Kootenay Ice, but is staying in Russia to play for Moscow Dynamo. More of a playmaker than a shooter. Has a big frame and plays with tremendous skill. But with Valeri Nichushkin bolting the Dallas Stars for the KHL you wonder if the ‘Russian flight factor’ may come into play on draft day.
6. Owen Tippett, RW, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) Quintessential “shoot first, ask questions later” type who plays with a real high compete level. Effective at 5-on-5 and on special teams. He put in a ton of work this summer bulking up from 185 lb. at season's end to 204 now. Has a quiet and professional approach to his game and his first cousin of Tampa prospect Mitchell Stephens.
7. Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Sioux City Muskateers (USHL) Such an exciting player. Tolvanen has the ability to bring fans out of their seats. Was drafted by the OHL’s Oshawa Generals but is heading to Boston College.
8. Casey Mittlestadt, C, Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) Smallish yet skilled player with great hockey sense and instincts. Can play both centre and the wing. Named MVP at the All American Prospects Game in Philadelphia. Some scouts worry about him going back to high-school hockey for his senior year at Eden Prairie in November, not unlike what Riley Tufte (DAL) did last season. Middlestadt is committed to the University of Minnesota.
9. Nico Hischier, C, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL) Really creative and skilled pivot who can also fire the puck and is a highly effective player off the rush. Has the potential to be deadly on the power play. Scouts wonder about his strength and if that’s reflected in his being selective about when he competes hard. Wasn’t at his best at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, where some scouts said he seemed uninterested at times. Other scouts think he’s a better Swiss prospect than Kevin Fiala (NSH) or Timo Meier (SJ).
10. Nicholas Hague, D, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) Evaluating Hague means checking a lot of boxes. A big bodied blueliner (6-foot-6) with a solid first season in the OHL under his belt. Many nights he was Mississauga’s best defenceman. Runs the power play, has a nasty streak and won the OHL’s academic award last season. Scouts have some concern about his skating while others maintain he’s a bona fide top-10 pick and the skating isn’t an issue at all.
11. Elias Pettersson, C, Timra (SWE – 2) The cliché "200-foot game" applies to Pettersson. The younger brother of Nashville prospect Emil Pettersson, he’s a lanky centre who excels at distributing the puck. Still very lean and needs to pack on some pounds for the next step, but as he gets stronger and more mature the debate will be how high can he go? Because the potential is there.
12. Kristian Vesalainen, LW, Frolunda (SHL) Strength and power along with extremely deceptive speed handling the puck. Most project him to be at least a second-line player and many see him as a top-tier guy. Doesn’t play at the level of Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, but he did see 19 games of action with Swedish champs Frolunda (five in the playoffs) as a 16 year-old, so there is definitely something there. The Big Finn is fluid in Swedish, which has helped him excel in the SHL.
13. Cal Foote, D, Kelowna Rockets (WHL) The defenceman factory in Kelowna is still open for business. Now serving: the son of former NHLer Adam Foote. Cal Foote plays a sound defensive role but can also chip in offensively. He has a bullet from the point, but seems to always default to the pass first. He’s loved by his teammates and has captain material.
14. Michael Rasmussen, C, Tri-City Americans (WHL) Big bodied, responsible two-way centre with a load of upside and potential.
15. Ryan Poehling, C, St. Cloud State (NCAA) A straight ahead player with good speed, but isn’t explosive. Needs a couple of steps to get going. Fast-tracked his education to get to St. Cloud early to play with twin older brothers Jack and Nick.
16. Lias Andersson, C, HV71 (SHL) A late ’98 birthday, Andersson is an excellent two-way player who excels in every part of the rink. Can completely drive a line with the way be attacks the game. Not sure if he’ll ever have elite skill, but is such a valuable player.
17. Kailer Yamamoto, RW, Spokane Chiefs (WHL) Goes all out, is tenacious and driven at all times. On the smallish side but compensates with top-end skill.
18. Martin Necas, C, HC Kometa Brno (Czech) A smallish center (5-foot-11, 150 lb.), Necas is agile and elusive and really likes to handle the puck. He’s a natural playmaker with a pass-first mentality. Scouts worry about his tendency to over-handle the puck and he can be predictable at times—driving up the ice, posting up and looking for pass options is his go-to move.
19. Adam Ruzicka, C, Sarnia Sting (OHL) Has super hands and loads of offensive skill but some scouts wonder about his skating and pace. At 6-foot-4, 210 lb. he has a traditional pro-sized body.
20. Nikita Popugaev, LW, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL) He’s a second-generation player whose father Andrei played with Moscow Dynamo and Spartak. A big kid (6-foot-5, 208 lb.) who can really move his feet and make plays at top speed. He’s a right-hand shot who plays the left wing (traditional Russian). Between Noah Gregor and Brett Howden he’ll have a high-end centre to play with this season. Even with a huge frame, Popugaev still makes nice plays in tight.
21. Urho Vaakanainen, D, JYP (Liiga) His game includes a strong offensive element that can handle quarterbacking a power play. Solid all-around skills.
22. Dmitri Samorukov, D, Guelph Storm (OHL) Has a bomb from the point and good size to go with offensive instincts. Loves the big hit in the middle of the ice and is business like in his approach to development. Major upside potential here.
23. Shane Bowers, C, Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) As one scout told me: "There’s nothing fancy, but there’s a lot to like." Bowers plays a 200-foot game and is good on draws. A north-south player who isn’t shy out there.
24. Jacob Paquette, D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) Good range and mobility, brings a healthy dose of size, strength and physicality. Missed the Ivan Hlinka due to injury.
25. Marcus Davidsson, C, Djurgardens (SHL) A slick skater with good hockey sense who distributes the puck well and can create offensively.
26. Henri Jokiharju, D, Portland Winterhawks (WHL) On the smallish side, but makes up for it with smooth skating and a good first pass.
27. Antoine Morand, C, Acadie-Bathurst Titans (QMJHL) Not the biggest centre in the draft by any stretch (5-foot-9), but Morand compensates at the junior level with high end speed and a motor that doesn’t stop.
28. Erik Brannstrom, D, HV71 J20 (SWE Jr.) This year’s Samuel Girard? Undersized by traditional standards for a defenceman but transitions pucks smoothly and plays hard.
29. Mackenzie Entwhistle, RW, Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL) A responsible 200-foot player who goes hard every single night. Not the most creative, but makes up for it with a high compete level and by being in the right position at all times. Elite level penalty killer. Will be dangerous when he grows into his lanky frame. Plays the right wing but some wonder if he’s better suited to centre because he distributes the puck so well.
30. Luke Martin, D, USNTDP As a late birthday, he just missed the draft by a handful of days. A very solid, safe blueliner. Still waiting to see if he develops an offensive upside.
31. Sasha Chmelevski, C, Ottawa 67’s (OHL) Good wheels and scary one-on-one, Chmelevski’s game is all about creating offence. Was the key piece going to the Ottawa 67’s from the Sarnia Sting in the Travis Konecny deal. Injured collarbone at the end of last season.
Don’t Sleep On
Nick Suzuki (Owen Sound Attack), Markus Phillips (Owen Sound Attack), Miro Heiskanen (HIFK), Isaac Ratcliffe (Guelph Storm), Scott Reedy (USNTDP), Juusso Valimaki (Tri-City Americans), Robin Salo (Vaasan Sport), Stelio Mattheos (Brandon Wheat Kings), Matthew Strome (Hamilton Bulldogs), Marian Studenic (Hamilton Bulldogs), Antoine Crete-Belzile (Blainville-Boisbriand Armada), Samuel Bucek (Shawinigan Cataractes), Josh Norris (USNTDP), Jack Studnicka (Oshawa Generals), Max Gildon (USNTDP), Pavel Voronkov (Avto Yekaterinburg), Fabian Zetterlund (Farjestad), Ostap Safin (HC Sparta Praha), Ian Mitchell (Spruce Grove Saints), Adam Thilander (North Bay Battalion), Tobias Geisser (Zug), Ivan Chekhovich (Baie-Comeau Drakkar), Kalle Miketinac (Frolunda).
Jake Oettinger (Boston University), Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (HPK Finland), Stuart Skinner (Lethbridge Hurricanes), Maxim Zhukov (Green Bay Gamblers), Ian Scott (Prince Albert Raiders), Daniil Tarasov (UFA Tolpar), Jordan Hollett (Regina Pats), Olle Eriksson Ek (Farjestad), Michael DiPietro (Windsor Spitfires).