The Top of the Class
The top of the 2019 Class is slowly starting to set in stone for me, barring a massive drop off or rise in play from one of the top prospects in this year’s draft. The Top 3 remains unchanged with the trio of forwards – Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, and Vasili Podkolzin – at the top and in the same order I had them in back in November. Kakko with his performance throughout the season and at the 2019 World Juniors has closed the gap between himself and Hughes at the top of the class, however, I don’t foresee Kakko overtaking Hughes as the consensus #1 barring something catastrophic. Don’t misinterpret it though, this is shades of Matthews & Laine at the top of the 2016 Draft in terms of what I feel Hughes and Kakko can add to their respective future franchises come June. Podkolzin I do feel at this time is just barely below the cut in terms of tier behind Hughes and Kakko, however, I’m pretty set in stone with the skilled Russian as my #3 in this draft.
Following the Top 3 is where the order starts to shift, however, I’m feeling pretty confident in what I would call my Elite tier at this time. Moving from the trio of forwards at the top of the class, we go to the trio of WHLers in Dylan Cozens, Kirby Dach, and Bowen Byram. Cozens and Dach have jockeyed back and forth for me all year as the top center in the 2019 Draft behind Jack Hughes, and at this time I’m giving the edge to Cozens. Cozens and Dach share some similar characteristics that I love in both of them – high-end skaters for their massive frames with hockey sense and skill to match – which is why it’s like splitting hairs when choosing between the two. I recently mentioned I’ve wavered between calling Cozens’ hockey sense elite or just very good, and I’m starting to lean towards the former to match what I already thought of Dach’s hockey sense. At this time, the thing I favor Cozens for is his ability and potential as a goal scorer, as Dach’s shot hinders his projection as a goal scorer by a considerable amount in comparison to Cozens. Byram came into this draft at the top defenseman, and that notion hasn’t changed for me at all. Byram can do it all – skate, defend, play with skill in the offensive zone – and it’s easy to see his projection as a top pair defenseman. He’ll be in my elite tier at the end of the year without question, just as he is here.
A quartet of OHLers highlight my biggest risers since the start of the year: Thomas Harley, Philip Tomasino, Nicholas Robertson, and Connor McMichael. Harley is a player that I didn’t have on my radar at all to start the year, but he’s played himself into being considered one of the best defensemen available in the draft this year. He’s a big and mobile blue liner that’s taken the next step in his offensive game this year as he ranks in the top 10 in both goals and points amongst defensemen in the OHL. Based on his current trend, he’s a contender to jump into the Top 15 by year’s end. Tomasino is a speedy and skilled center that I’ve grown to love the more I’ve watched him, and as others graduate from that stacked Niagara team he seems bound for a major breakout season in the OHL after this year. Nicholas Robertson is the brother of Stars 2nd Round draft pick Jason Robertson, whom I’ve long been a fan of. Nicholas I find has a bit more high-end skill to his game than his brother which makes him a 1st round pick for me, though I question his hockey sense a bit more than Jason’s. McMichael is a high smarts center who’s in the midst of a major breakout season in the OHL with London. McMichael may not have the high-end skill that others in this draft have, but that’s not to say he has no skill. His hands and skill are good, he can make plays, and I particularly love his play in the slot and near the crease in the offensive zone as he’s excellent at deflecting pucks.
In the European leagues, there are a few players I’ve become attached to, starting with Pavel Dorofeyev. Dorofeyev was one of the best forwards in the MHL while playing there this year and has since made the jump to the KHL. He’s not a dynamic skater, but I do find him to be above average in that category and what makes him shine is his skill on the puck. He has elite level hands and a good shot which makes him one of the best goal scorers available in the draft. In Finland, I’ve really gravitated towards Patrik Puistola and Ville Heinola. Puistola is a capable two-way winger whose offensive game has flourished this year while playing in Finland’s 2nd-tier pro league. Offensively, he’s best as a goal scorer as he has very good straight line speed and plays unafraid to drive to the net, with capable hands and a good shot to match. I really like his hockey sense and at this point he looks like a 1st Round pick to me. Heinola has become a regular for Lukko in the Finnish Liiga and he’s a mobile blue liner with very good hockey sense. He’s best used in an offensive role, but I like his two-way ability and find him to be very dependable and poised in his own zone.
In addition, I’ve really fallen in love with much of this Russian age group as I find a lot of their forwards in particular to have a lot of upside. Dmitri Sheshin, Matvei Guskov, Yegor Spiridonov, Yegor Afanasyev, Mikhail Abramov, and Yegor Serdyuk are all firmly in my 2nd Round as of now and some may challenge to jump into my 1st Round by year’s end as well, as they’ve all been steadily rising since the start of the year.
There are quite a few players that started the year as 1st Rounders for me, but as the year has gone on they’ve likely settled somewhere in the 3rd or 4th Round at this time. A trio of forwards, in particular, comes to mind in that sense in Sasha Mutala, Maxim Cajkovic, and Valentin Nussbaumer. Mutala’s hands I still rate as very good, but I still find his skating to be just average and that limits how dangerous he can be on the offensive side of the puck in terms of generating chances off the rush. Cajkovic has me still hanging on to his U18 performance from last year where he lit the tournament on fire, and there are skill attributes to his game that I still like, however, I have questions regarding his hockey IQ although he’s showing some more consistency in his performances lately. Nussbaumer is very hot and cold for me; just like his performance at the World Juniors this year, I either find him to stand out in a big way in some showings while in others he’s completely invisible with not much in between. Consistency is the key for Nussbaumer, although his speed is a major concern for me as well.
Daniil Gutik is likely the biggest faller for me, and I thought I’d point him out as he’s the outlier in my infatuation with this year’s Russian class. I still love his hands and skill on the puck in combination with his size, but just above everything else is a concern for me. His skating is a major issue for me, his feet are well below average and, despite his high-end hands, that can limit his ability to create offensive opportunities. He’s still worth a draft pick, and with the right skating coach he could be a sleeper pick in this draft, but I wouldn’t advocate for him higher than the 4th or 5th Round at this time.
There are a few players that have fallen out of my 1st Round, such as Nolan Foote, Albin Grewe, and Anttoni Honka, however, I still see upside in all of those players and at this time I still see them worthy of a 2nd Round pick and could easily see them going in the 1st Round on draft day.
Midterm Top 100
Have any questions on anyone I didn’t touch on or on this class as a whole? Ask me in the comments or on Twitter @BHolmes_Hockey