The World Junior Championship gave us a glimpse of some NHL draft eligible talent, but since that tournament is really more about the 19-year-olds, the scope is generally limited.
On Thursday night in Hamilton, however, we’ll get a full view of the best draft eligibles who are playing this season in the CHL.
The CHL/NHL Top Prospects game will feature the biggest names at the top of the rankings, including Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield, but also some others you may not be as familiar with yet. Airing on Sportsnet and Sportsnet 360 Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. ET, you can watch two teams of players who will all likely hear their names called when the NHL draft descends on Montreal in June.
Consider this your best chance to see a bunch of prospects in one place, competing against each other.
With that in mind, here are 10 players to keep an especially close eye on for Team Red and Team White.
Alexis Lafreniere, Rimouski Oceanic, Ranked No. 1 skater in North America by Central Scouting: Many will say he has nothing to prove by playing in this game, that it’s a “fait accompli” that he will go first overall in June. After an MVP performance at the world juniors, Lafreniere returned to Rimouski and was in on all three goals in a 3-0 win. Oh ya, and he missed a penalty shot as well. Lafreniere can do it all and a masterful performance here wouldn’t be a shock.
Quinton Byfield, Sudbury Wolves, Ranked No. 2 skater by Central Scouting: This game will provide the competition between the top two-ranked prospects that didn’t take shape at the world juniors. Admittedly, Byfield was amazed by the performance of his teammate Lafreniere in Ostrava, but make no mistake, he’s out to do some damage of his own to try and re-ignite the first overall conversation.
Cole Perfetti, Saginaw Spirit, Ranked No. 4 skater by Central Scouting: The Saginaw stud did not make the cut for Canada at the WJC and has used that as motivation to tear apart the OHL. After scoring 37 goals as a rookie, he started the season with two goals in his first 11 games. But in the 11 games since being cut from Team Canada, he has eight goals and 24 points.
Samuel Hlavaj, Sherbrooke Phoenix, Ranked No. 3 goalie in North America by Central Scouting: Arguably the QMJHL’s first half MVP, Hlavaj took his minuscule numbers to Ostrava to play for his native Slovakia. It didn’t go well there, and now Sherbrooke is poised to make noise in the second half. A recovery to his first half play may very well be kickstarted by a good performance here.
Ozzy Wiesblatt, Prince Albert Raiders, Ranked No. 14 skater by Central Scouting: If you haven’t seen the feature from Hometown Hockey, watch it. This is the type of kid and family you root for.
Jake Neighbours, Edmonton Oil Kings, Ranked No. 30 skater by Central Scouting: A perfect opportunity for someone on the edge of the first round. In recent years, this game has been friendlier than many (myself included) have liked. Neighbours has the size and the spirit to mix it up and get under the opponent’s skin. There’s no better place than here to do that.
Braden Schneider, Brandon Wheat Kings, Ranked No. 8 skater by Central Scouting: Schneider has a lot of throwback in his game. At almost 6-foot-3, he’s physically menacing and enjoys that part of the game. He’s a good skater, with some untapped offensive upside, thanks to a big shot. With a Sept. 20 birthday, he’s the second-oldest player in the game.
Ryan Francis, Cape Breton Eagles, Ranked No. 42 skater by Central Scouting: Francis was among the QMJHL’s top scorers at the time of the CIBC Canada-Russia series and earned a late invite due to injury. The same thing has happened for this game, only Francis will feel more at home thanks to that November outing. A smaller player (5-foot-9) with big compete, good feet and the ability to pace the game, Francis will get yet another chance to improve on his already-rising draft stock.
Marco Rossi, Ottawa 67’s, Ranked No. 5 skater by Central Scouting: His game rarely takes a night off and watching Lafreniere, Byfield and Jamie Drysdale ahead of him will ignite a fire. He’s the type of player who can take advantage of a game like this to ensure he stays in consideration for a top five pick. Since Nov. 10, he’s recorded a point in all but one of Ottawa’s 20 games, for a total of 48 points. By the way, he leads all CHL players in points (74) and assists (48) on the season.
Nico Daws, Guelph Storm, Ranked No. 1 goalie by Central Scouting: Although he will only get to play half a game, Daws goes in as the top-rated goalie in North America, according to Central Scouting. He’s the only 2000-born player in the game, and was passed over by all 31 teams at last year’s draft. It’s no longer a question of whether or not he will be drafted, but just how high will he go?