The World Junior Championship kicks off in 11 days, which means we’re about to be elbow-deep in one of the most fun parts of hockey fandom: prospect talk.
In addition to being an entertaining event, the WJC offers us a window into the future as we try to sketch out what these teenagers will become at the next level. That is, the ones lucky and good enough to make it, of course.
Next week on Sportsnet.ca, I’ll compile a list of prospects affiliated with Canadian NHL teams that fans of those clubs can hone in on while the event runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Halifax and Moncton, N.B. For power ranking purposes, though, let’s just use the WJC as an excuse to check in on teams’ draft records. We’ll have a strong recent bent — like the five drafts from 2017 through 2022 — but we’ll also zoom out here and there to identify teams that are really trading on what they’ve done at the draft table in the past decade-plus.
We’re not going to get all scientific about this or establish some elaborate scoring system; just a vibe check on how the coffee-stained scouts and suit-wearing higher-ups they report to have done identifying amateur talent around the world.
1. Boston Bruins (23-4-1) If we were only going back five years for Boston, these next few sentences would paint a bleak picture. Their biggest — maybe only — win at this point since 2017 is goalie Jeremy Swayman in the fourth round that year. But look up and down Boston’s league-leading lineup and you’ll find incredible pulls from the past. Charlie McAvoy (14th in 2016), David Pastrnak (25th in 2014), Brad Marchand (71st in 2006) and Patrice Bergeron (45th in 2003) are the calibre of player you’d be thrilled to get in the top five of a given draft, and the Bruins found them in the mid-to-late first round and beyond. Those are fifth-deck dingers, but the B’s need to hit one or two more soon if they want to keep the good times rolling.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs (19-5-6) Despite finishing last overall in 2015-16, the Leafs had basically an 80 per cent chance of falling to a draft position where they would not get Auston Matthews. But they did get the No. 1 pick, and it changed everything. Also, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly were all really, really strong top-10 picks that pre-dated Matthews. Even in the last five years, the Leafs have helped themselves out. Rasmus Sandin (29th in 2018) is a strong selection at the end of the first round and even late-round players Pontus Holmberg (156th in 2016) and Mac Hollowell (118th in 2018) are demonstrating they could be good.
3. Carolina Hurricanes (16-6-6) Carolina made a big jump in the 2018 draft lottery and wound up walking away with Andrei Svechnikov in the No. 2 hole. Lucky as they were there, Martin Necas (12th in 2017) and Seth Jarvis (13th in 2020) were excellent picks at that point in those drafts.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (18-9-1) People who love Quentin Tarantino movies often rave about the way he mixes high and low art. That’s Tampa’s formula for draft success: find cornerstone players when you’re picking very high — Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman — and blow minds with lower picks, such as on Nikita Kucherov (58th in 2011) and Braden Point (79th in 2014). Tampa has drafted higher than 27th just once in the past five years (Callan Foote, 14th in 2017), so it needs some more of that late-round magic.
5. New Jersey Devils (21-6-2) Drafting two consensus first-overall centres two years apart in 2017 (Nico Hischier) and 2019 (Jack Hughes) is a nice way to set your franchise. So is drafting D-men Luke Hughes (fourth overall in 2021) and Simon Nemec (second, 2022) in consecutive years. Strong as it is right now, this team is going to be so stinkin’ good in two years.
6. Vegas Golden Knights (21-9-1) Say this, the Knights did select Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki 13th overall in their first-ever draft in 2017. Their first pick that year, Cody Glass, was a whiff at sixth overall. At this point, Nicolas Hague is the only real homegrown success story in the desert.
7. Pittsburgh Penguins (17-8-4) The Penguins have made only three first-round selections in the past 10 drafts. The best player they’ve taken in the past five years is Calen Addison, who’s showing promise as an offence-first rookie D-man on the Wild. Pittsburgh won the lottery of lotteries in 2005, getting Sidney Crosby 12 months after selecting Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004. The Penguins are still dining out on that good fortune.
8. Dallas Stars (17-8-4) Name a better selection in the past five years than Jason Robertson at 39th overall in 2017. We’ll wait. Oh, by the way, the two guys Dallas took in front of Robertson that year were Miro Heiskanen (third overall) and Jake Oettinger (26th). Good lord. 2021 might not match that showing, but Dallas took Wyatt Johnson 23rd overall and Logan Stankoven — who figures to be a huge part of Canada’s offence at the WJC — in the second round.
9. Winnipeg Jets (18-9-1) Cole Perfetti kind of fell in the Jets’ lap at No. 10 in 2020 and they’ll likely be high-fiving for the next decade over it. Brad Lambert slipped all the way to No. 30 last July, so we’ll see how that works out. He’s got three points in 14 AHL games this winter. It will be interesting to see what 2021 first-rounder Chaz Lucius can do for Team USA at the WJC as he gets over a shoulder injury.
10. Colorado Avalanche (15-10-2) Two of the three players who went ahead of Cale Makar in 2017 — Nico Hischier and Miro Heiskanen — are franchise pillars; but we all know Makar would be No. 1 if we did that draft over. The reigning Conn Smythe winner has exactly 205 points in 205 NHL games played. Two years later, in the exact same slot, Colorado drafted Bowen Byram fourth overall and the only question about his potential is linked to health.
11. Seattle Kraken (16-9-3) The Kraken sure look like they killed it with the first pick in franchise history, 2021 second-overall pick Matty Beniers. If Shane Wright — who fell to No. 4 last summer and is at the WJC — works out, Seattle will be set down the middle.
12. Minnesota Wild (16-11-2) This team has built a really deep pool of quality prospects. Matthew Boldy at No. 12 in 2019 looks like a heist. Marco Rossi (ninth overall in 2020) has shown he can score at the AHL level, so we’ll see what he ultimately becomes at in the NHL. And as far as true late-round gems go, few — if any — are shinier than 135th pick in the 2015 draft, Kirill Kaprizov.
13. New York Rangers (15-10-5) It might not be panic time quite yet, but the Rangers drafted second overall in 2019 and first overall in 2020 and, as of this moment, there hasn’t been much of a payoff. Maybe Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere can flip the script, but that’s where we stand. K’Andre Miller (22nd in 2018) has turned out great.
14. Washington Capitals (15-12-4) There’s not a lot to put your arms around here. Defenceman Martin Fehervary looks like a solid second-round find in 2018; we’ll see if 2019 first-rounder Connor McMichael — who was sent down to the AHL this year — can get his career back on track.
15. New York Islanders (17-12-1) The Islanders snagged Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson with the 11th and 12th picks in 2018. Wahlstrom has yet to put it all together at the highest level, but Dobson is becoming a star.
16. Edmonton Oilers (17-13-0) This is a team known for drafting first overall and, for too long, not finding much else in the other rounds. That could be changing. It’s going to take some time, but the likes of Evan Bouchard (10th overall in 2018), Dylan Holloway (14th, 2020), Xavier Bourgault (22nd, 2021) and 2023 Team Canada WJC member Reid Schaefer (32nd, 2022) could really help the Oilers round out their lineup. Stuart Skinner at 78th overall in 2017 is looking like a key pick.
17. Detroit Red Wings (13-10-6) There’s probably a case to be made that the Wings have done the best job in the league at the draft table in the past five years, especially given their bad lottery luck. Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond might be having step-back sophomore years, but they figure to be huge parts of this squad for the next 15 years. Defenceman Simon Edvinsson (sixth overall, 2021) is likely the next one up and last year’s first-rounder, Marco Kasper, looks like a keeper, too.
18. Los Angeles Kings (15-12-5) It’s probably fair to say the excitement over the Kings prospect pool has cooled a bit in the past 12 months, but there’s still a lot to like. 2017 first-rounder Gabe Vilardi has shown something at the NHL level this year and Arthur Kaliyev is looking like a good pull from the 2019 second round. Quinton Byfield has been productive in the AHL, so we’ll see how long it takes for the second-overall pick from 2020 to put it together in the NHL.
19. Florida Panthers (14-12-4) Anton Lundell looks as though he could wind up being a very savvy 12th overall pick from 2020. The Cats weren’t afraid to go against the grain and take a goalie — Spencer Knight — high in the draft (13th in 2019) and they also may have unearthed a classic late-round stopper in Devon Levi, the sixth-from-last pick in 2020.
20. Calgary Flames (13-11-6) 2016 sixth-rounder Matthew Phillips is just now getting a look with the big club and 2019 first-rounder Jakob Pelletier’s time might be coming soon, too. Both are small wingers who’ve been big-time AHL point-producers and it would be a huge boon for Calgary if they can become NHL creators.
21. Ottawa Senators (13-14-2) Drafting well is sort of in the Sens’ DNA. Remember when we all thought they should hand the fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft to Colorado as part of the Matt Duchene trade (they had to give the Avs their ’18 or ’19 pick)? Well, they kept it and took the guy who is now their captain, Brady Tkachuk. Wise choice. Also wise choices: Drake Batherson (121st in 2017) and Shane Pinto (32nd, 2019) to go along with top-of-the-board guys Tim Stutzle (third, 2020) and Jake Sanderson (fifth, 2020).
22. Vancouver Canucks (13-13-3) There hasn’t been a ton to get excited about in the past three years, but Quinn Hughes (seventh overall in 2018) and Elias Pettersson (fifth, 2017) are picks that go a long way to covering up misses here and there.
23. Buffalo Sabres (13-14-2) In four consecutive years, starting in 2018, the Sabres used their first selection on the following players: Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn and Owen Power. The first-overall defencemen who bookend those names were no-brainers, but the two forwards in the middle — with the way they’re playing right now — are making it look like brighter days are really coming to Buffalo.
24. Montreal Canadiens (14-13-2) The former regime led by Marc Bergevin was largely done in by its inability to hit on first-rounders for most of its tenure. That said, it looks like Bergevin left new GM Kent Hughes a couple gifts in the form of Cole Caufield (15th in 2019) and Kaiden Guhle (16th in 2020).
25. Nashville Predators (12-12-3) It’s been a rough five years for the organization that found Shea Weber and Roman Josi in the second round (to say nothing of finding Pekka Rinne in an eighth round that doesn’t even exist anymore). They just put (and lost) 2017 first-rounder Eeli Tolvanen on waivers. He was one of only four players drafted by Nashville since ’17 to play in the NHL, and two of them have played 13-or-fewer games. 2019 first-rounder Philip Tomasino has also flatlined a bit.
26. St. Louis Blues (13-15-1) It sure looks like the Blues found a guy with their 2016 first-rounder, but Tage Thompson is lighting up the league for the Buffalo Sabres these days. (Not that the Blues want a do-over on that deal because they got Ryan O’Reilly as part of it.) That same draft also turned up Jordan Kyrou in Round 2 and the Blues helped themselves out by grabbing Robert Thomas 20th overall in 2017. 2022 first-rounder Jimmy Snuggerud is having a fantastic freshman season with Minnesota and is at Team USA’s WJC camp.
27. Arizona Coyotes (9-14-4) All Coyotes eyes will be on Logan Cooley, the third-overall selection six months ago, as he will surely represent Team USA and — at some point — possibly go head-to-head versus the fourth pick, Canada’s Shane Wright. Arizona may have laid into one when it snagged Dylan Guenther (who could wind up on a line with Wright at the WJC) ninth overall in 2021, and 2019 fourth-rounder Matias Maccelli is one of the top point-producing rookies in the NHL this season. Nicely done.
28. San Jose Sharks (10-16-5) It hasn’t been the prettiest picture for San Jose the past half-decade. Josh Norris (19th overall in 2017) just might be the best player the Sharks have found, and he’s an Ottawa Senator now. Mario Ferraro was a great selection in the second round that same year, but there’s not a lot of huge wins on the board since.
29. Philadelphia Flyers (9-14-7) About a year ago, Flyers legend Bob Clarke said on a podcast that Philly’s scouts wanted Cale Makar at No. 2 in 2017, but former GM Ron Hextall preferred Nolan Patrick. All we can say for sure is we wish Patrick’s career turned out better, as that young man has gone through such a tough time with concussions. 2020 first-rounder Tyson Foerster is producing well as an AHL rookie.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets (10-16-2) Cole Sillinger has struggled, no doubt, as a sophomore, but there’s still a chance Columbus solidified the centre position for years to come by taking Kent Johnson fifth overall in 2021 and Sillinger seven picks later at 12. The Jackets have actually made five first-round selections in the past two drafts and figure to make a high one in the loaded 2023 event.
31. Chicago Blackhawks (7-16-4) The Hawks have already traded Kirby Dach — the third-overall pick in 2019 — and their 2021 first-rounder went to Columbus in the Seth Jones deal, along with the guy they took eighth overall in 2018, Adam Boqvist. The scorched-earth rebuild started in July with three first-round selections and the first of them — offence-minded Kevin Korchinksi — will be wearing Canada’s colours at the WJC.
32. Anaheim Ducks (7-20-3) It’s a tough scene in Anaheim, but Trevor Zegras (ninth overall in 2019), Jamie Drysdale (sixth, 2020) and Mason McTavish (third, 2021) should help turn things around in the near future. Defenceman Olen Zellweger, who will drive things from the back end on Canada’s WJC entry, was a great find 34th overall in 2021.