You definitely know the first two names on this list, and the top five might not be strangers either, but that’s not the point. The key to a successful keeper-league draft is knowing when to pull the trigger on the stars of tomorrow, and how to get those picks right when you do.
Every summer, after the NHL Draft has ended and the free-agency madness has died down, we get our best talent scout, Gare Joyce, to talk to the best talent scouts from across the hockey world and compile this list—the best keeper-league prospects in the game. Since every league’s rules are different, we’ve tried to find a formula that’s useful in both deep and shallow leagues.
These rankings factor in age (all these players are 20 or younger, with an edge given to players who are better as teenagers), rookie eligibility (players must have it to appear here, otherwise Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel would still be sitting atop the rankings, and that helps nobody) and future star potential (the scouting here tilts heavily toward upside, which is what you should be looking for in any rookie draft).
Only you know when to start drafting rookies over the veteran talent available in your league’s draft, but when it’s time to pounce, follow this ranking for maximum return.
1. Auston Matthews (TOR, 2016)
Projects as a first-line centre for a winning team with the upside of second-team all-star—which would be a first in Toronto hockey history. Will face inevitable comparisons to McDavid and Eichel and is likely not going to be as dynamic, at least as a skater, as those two teenage franchise centres, though he possesses first-rate hockey sense and puck skills. If he succeeds as a first-year pro, it might spur elite North American prospects to play in European pro leagues in their draft years rather than in the Canadian Hockey League, NCAA, USHL or Junior A.
2. Patrik Laine (WPG, 2016)
With both game and personality, he’s the player on the list most likely to sell tickets and affect his team quickly. A power forward’s frame combines with five-star skill, making him not just a potential all-star but also a unique package. Teams that spoke to him at the combine weren’t bothered by his brashness one little bit. When he said he could be the best player in the league down the line, he wasn’t talking through his hat. Laine vs. Matthews = Ovechkin vs. Malkin.
3. Dylan Strome (ARI, 2015)
He showed last season that his stock in his draft year wasn’t just a matter of riding McDavid’s coattails. Improved skating is key to his place on this list. Some players on the disappointing Canadian side at the U-20s were knocked as selfish or lacking commitment—this is not remotely the case with Strome.
4.William Nylander (TOR,2014)
The pivotal call for the Leafs: Do you play Nylander at centre, where he’s No. 2 behind Matthews, or move him to the wing? He’s gained significant muscle since his draft year, which puts to rest questions about his size—and rumours of entitlement. Him producing in the American Hockey League could only have been wishful thinking for Leafs brass until he made it happen. He bought into the Leafs’ patient development plan when others might have resented it.
5. Mitch Marner (TOR, 2015)
Was ridiculously prolific in the CHL with a championship team, but is his body ready for the rigours of NHL banging, especially considering the way he holds on to the puck? The AHL is unfortunately not an option—it’s NHL or London this season. A fourth season with the Knights would represent a holding pattern, which is less than ideal, but Max Domi went through the same thing and turned out just fine.
6. Jesse Puljujarvi (EDM, 2016)
Curiously passed over by Columbus, he won team MVP at the U-20s and U-18s, playing hurt in the latter. He’ll have no learning curve when it comes to playing both ends of the ice and without the puck. Some questioned his maturity in interviews and think he’d fare better with veteran influence in the dressing room, which, if you haven’t noticed, is an issue with the Oilers.
7.Sebastian Aho (CAR, 2015)
Notched 20 goals as a point-a-game player in the SM-Liiga, and was the second-highest scorer for the Finns at the world juniors. A late July ’97 birthday, there’s nothing to pick between him and Puljujarvi. He’s unlikely to be a player on the scale of Laine, but he was the steadiest forward for the gold medallists. He makes others better rather than performing a solo act, in contrast to Finns higher on this list.
8. Ilya Samsonov (WSH, 2015)
A goaltender with upside, he put up a .925 save percentage in 19 KHL games with Magnitogorsk. Given how great he was in the semis at the U-20s, it was odd that he didn’t play in the final. With a Vezina winner in Holtby ahead of him for the foreseeable future, the Caps (and his fantasy owners) will have to play the long game in development—not as easy as it sounds. At what point does patience stunt a goaltending prospect’s growth?
9. Thatcher Demko (VAN, 2014)
The San Diego native has improved each season at Boston College, with a .919 save percentage as a freshman, .925 as a sophomore and .935 with a 1.88 GAA and a 27-8-4 record last year. He has pro size and great work ethic, and is a student of the game—in part because he didn’t always have technical support as a youth. He’s extremely confident and single-minded.
10. Pierre-Luc Dubois (CLB, 2016)
A strong second half in the QMJHL raised his stock, but now he’s going to be compared to Puljujarvi. As an 18-year-old centre with Columbus, it’ll be hard to live up to expectations. That he’ll play in the middle was cited as the reason GM Jarmo Kekalainen surprisingly selected Dubois at No. 3—but Dubois told anyone who asked him at the combine that wing is where he wants to play at the next level.
11.Mikko Rantanen (COL, 2015)
Straight out of draft, he had a nine-game taste with the Avs then scored 24 goals in 52 games in the AHL. He’s a six-foot-four left-winger on a team that needs size up front. Plays the game in straight lines rather than with any sort of skilled flourish, but there’s a crying need for that sort of winger in Denver. His effective two-way game will serve him well as a rookie breaking in on the third line.
12. Kyle Connor (WPG, 2015)
Tough to project coming out of Youngstown in the USHL in his draft year, but his stock shot up as soon as he landed at the University of Michigan. Most comparable in prospect development to Detroit’s Dylan Larkin. As a freshman with the Wolverines, Connor’s 71 points (35 goals, 36 assists) eclipsed Larkin’s production in his frosh year in Ann Arbor. Played for the U.S. at the World Championship this spring. Signed with the Jets in April, and it would be a shock if he’s not a 15- to 18-minute player with the big club right off the hop—the possibility of him working in tandem with Laine is reason for optimism in Winnipeg.
13. Ivan Provorov (PHI, 2015)
Maybe not as impressive in the WHL last year as in his draft year, but his play had raised expectations. He’s a heady, physical player with top grades in hockey sense. He projects as top-pair on the blueline and a power-play quarterback. Not the explosive jump-up-into-the-rush D-man so much as the one who reliably handles forechecking pressure and makes breakout passes.
14. Mikhail Sergachev (MTL, 2016)
Brings potential for an even more physical game than Provorov. A thick and fit 220 lb. at the combine, he has the most pro-ready physique of any in the class of ’16, but is still most likely back in Windsor this season after a look with the big club. Comparable to a young Shea Weber, which makes the presence of Weber in Montreal interesting. Scouts gave Sergachev high marks for showing up at the U-18s when the Russian team was depleted by suspensions.
15. Matthew Tkachuk (CGY, 2016)
A natural finisher on the left wing, he’s set up with surrounding talent with the Flames. There were questions before the draft about skating and first-step burst, but it’s never stopped him from scoring. There’s probably room for growth in that department, though more likely in terms of strength on skates rather than speed. Son of former NHLer Keith, he knows what life in the league is like, which is something teams never sell short.
16. Alexander Nylander (BUF, 2016)
It’d be a rush job if he was in the Sabres’ lineup this fall, but he has elite skills and skating. Size and strength are questions, as he seemed to tire late in Mississauga’s campaign. Rochester is an option—with Euro status, he was on loan to the Steelheads last season. Playing next season in Sweden is also an option the Sabres will consider.
17. Clayton Keller (ARI , 2016)
Keller was the breakout player at the U-18s. Teams were concerned about his size, but he skated miles every game at the year’s biggest tournament and was a step or two ahead of everyone in every chase for the puck. The question now is position: Some in the Coyotes organization project him on the wing rather than at centre. A fit with Strome or Christian Dvorak is a possibility.
18. Pavel Zacha (NJ, 2015)
He’s been in and out with Sarnia this year, and predictions of first-line upside might have been downgraded. Still, he has a strong two-way game and a high degree of hockey sense. He plays a heavy style with an edge and, on occasion, with a low boiling point. Physically a man among boys in major junior from day one, he needs a new challenge. Another year in Sarnia might be counterproductive—he could project in the short run as 19-year-old third-liner with the big club.
19. Christian Dvorak (ARI, 2014)
Not just a spare part on his Knights line with Marner and Tkachuk but rather the linchpin. Projects as having second-line upside with the ’Yotes, but that’s what they’ll need. Coming off summer prospects camp, Dvorak’s place in the opening-game lineup is his to lose
20. Daniel Sprong (PIT, 2015)
The Pens did him no favours by keeping him around as long as they did last fall. He’s not quite ready for the show, but he does have a precocious skill set, well suited to Pittsburgh’s style. A great second-round pull in 2015 for the the Penguins, no one should be surprised if he sticks this year. A bigger role with a younger emerging club might be worse for him than what he’s looking at here, which is a back seat to veterans who know how to win.
21. Colin White (OTT, 2015)
The 21st pick coming out of the USNTDP, White was a driving force on the U.S. team that took the bronze at the U-20s. Not as dynamic or creative as Connor, White will require more patience in development (i.e., a return to Boston College for his sophomore season, another world juniors, then likely a year in Binghamton). History shows that’s been the Sens’ MO. At six-feet and 195 lb., White has second-line scoring upside in the long run.