Under normal circumstances, we’d be talking a lot about playoff matchups today. We’d be debating Cinderellas, favourites, filling out brackets and doing the last pool drafts before the Stanley Cup Playoffs started later tonight.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed those plans and as the NHL continues its season pause — with every option for a continuance on the table, though no end in sight — today the attention is instead on the 2020 draft class.
On Wednesday, Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino released his latest top 31 rankings for the draft and there’s no surprise at the top, where Alexis Lafrenière, Quinton Byfield and Tim Stützle hold the top three spots. Later on in the day, NHL Central Scouting released its final rankings, which splits the prospects into four categories based on where a player spent his season: North American skaters, European skaters, North American goalies and European goalies.
These final rankings from the league were released about a week early this season and while everyone is wondering what the coronavirus disruption will do to the draft from a league and individual team perspective, Central Scouting was able to compile its list from nearly a “business as usual” perspective. The biggest difference to this year’s process may have been that the meetings had to be done remotely, rather than getting together as a group.
“Most of our ranking is based on regular-season play, it gives us a balanced assessment,” said Dan Marr, Director of NHL Central Scouting.
Added Central Scouting’s J-F Damphousse: “Our list was pretty much completed the way we scouted all year. I don’t think this situation changed much about our list.”
Lafrenière was the top North American skater in Central Scouting’s list, and on the European side Mannheim’s Stützle became the first German player to ever earn the distinction of top prospect from that side of the pond. Mannheim is the same program Leon Draisaitl played through before joining the WHL and also produced Moritz Seider, who was taken sixth overall by Detroit in last year’s NHL Draft.
In a recent episode of the Tape to Tape Podcast Todd Hlushko, director of North American scouting for Mannheim, compared Stützle to Mitch Marner, and Sam Cosentino has written that discussion is building around Stutzle as the second-best prospect in this draft, over Byfield. Lafrenière may be the runaway No. 1 this year, but Stützle made great strides through the season.
“With both these players their ability to perform under pressure really stands out,” said Marr. “It’s their consistency to play and compete at a high level and consistently produce results… Keep in mind that both of these players have been the youngest players on their teams coming up here and have played major roles.”
Lafrenière has been a notable player in Canada for some time now, having joined the Rimouski Oceanic at 16 years old and posting 297 points in 173 games across three seasons. Stützle, however, hasn’t garnered the same attention. He elected to stay in Germany and play in that country’s top pro league rather than play major junior or NCAA hockey, and posted an impressive 34 points in 41 games there this season. Hlushko noted that Stützle was a focal point of Mannheim’s power play and handled it well, which is rare to see from an 18-year-old in that league.
Stützle believes playing in a men’s league for his draft year will help him both now and in the long run.
“Playing with men and training with men all the time was a big part of my life and they helped me out a lot,” he said on a Wednesday conference call. “They wanted to make me better. I’m so thankful for my teammates.”
Aside from the top prospects, there were also some notable names making a climb. Defenceman Jake Sanderson jumped from No. 11 on the mid-season rankings of NA skaters to No. 4, right behind the top-ranked blueliner, Jamie Drysdale. The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, Jake is the top-ranked player from the US National Team Development Program this season, after a record number were taken out of that program in the first round of last year’s NHL Draft.
“His development curve over the year kept getting better and better and we started thinking there’s no ceiling in sight,” said Central Scouting’s David Gregory. “Oftentimes a young player figures out how dominant they can be… and he’s done that. I think the ceiling is very high with him.”
As for the goalies, only one will likely get taken in the first round this season, and Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov could really go anywhere from fifth overall on. Askarov posted strong numbers in Russia’s VHL this season, but in the biggest international stage at the WJC, he struggled to an .877 save percentage. He’s a wild card at a hard-to-project position, but one with a terrific base to his game.
“He’s one of the more athletic goalies available in this draft,” Marr said. “He’s got a shelf full of medals already. He brings the size, the compete level, and he has all the goaltending tools he needs to be a No. 1 in the National Hockey League.”
We’re always excited about the guys at the very top of the draft, but the 2020 class has been identified as an especially deep one for some time now. A franchise player or two will be had at the very top, even those picking later have a shot to come away with a steal.
And what a great year this could be to hold multiple picks, even outside of the first round.
“Teams are going to get very, very good players as they pick into the second- third- and fourth rounds and there’s gonna be some hidden gems there,” Marr said. “There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for the NHL clubs.”
Originally scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal, the NHL Draft has been postponed like everything else, with no firm date yet.