The bid for Canadian Hockey League supremacy could be the last major-junior hurrah for the three highest-ranked North American skaters in the draft pool. And win or lose, their individual performances should still be relatively fresh when they convene yet again a month later in Newark.
That final performance should make the NHL's future appear brighter than ever.
Of course, there are other great prospects to keep thinking about before a franchise claims their rights.
Balancing best-case scenarios with a dollop of realism, here is what NHL fans can look for in 10 of the highest-ranked North American and European skaters over the next five years. Players are presented and assessed in alphabetical order.
This from columnist Kyle Woodlief in a USA Today report this past October:
Our scout in Finland reports that Aleksander Barkov has been playing in all situations for Tappara’s men’s team, and is logging an impressive 18 minutes of ice time per game…He’s generally just been in the right place at the right time, and getting a bit lucky with rebounds, deflections, and bounces.
Since then, Barkov has completed a 21-27-48 scoring log in 53 regular-season twirls and followed up with an assist per night in the playoffs. In the former, he topped everyone under the age of 24 in terms of total points.
Per his Elite Prospects profile, Barkov boasts a 6’2”, 205-pound frame, which has doubtlessly helped his production. The highlight package in the video reinforces that notion with a multitude of even-strength goals scored from the front porch of the net.
But the profile also notes that his contract with Tappara runs through 2014-15, which could amount to an Evgeny Kuznetsov type of situation. That could hurt Barkov’s stock, but the three nhl.com draft gurus are giving him the benefit of the doubt and focusing solely on the skill set he has to offer.
Assuming he goes as high as he can―especially if it’s fourth overall to offense-starved Nashville―and joins in sooner rather than later, he should quickly evolve into a franchise scoring nucleus.
Both this play and this one from the last season are a couple of soda-spitting testaments to Jonathan Drouin’s otherworldly maneuverability. There are times when a full quintet of backcheckers can each have a turn challenging him, and none will faze him or wear him down enough to dismantle the eventual scoring play.
In addition, his performance at the 2013 World Junior Championship is proof that he can make a thorough impact independent of his fellow Halifax Moosehead and high-end draft prospect, Nathan MacKinnon.
With the upswing in his development and the skill set he has revealed, one can envision Drouin emerging as an Art Ross contender within the next five years.
Prolific playmaking is often a critical deciding factor in the NHL’s individual points derby. All but one of the last eight Art Ross Trophy winners were among the top three in total assists.
Drouin has tallied his share of goals as well, amassing 53 between the regular season and playoffs in 66 Mooseheads games this season. But with his skill set, he'll likely produce more assists with bigger, more seasoned challengers in The Show.
Not that it will matter to anyone. Points are points all the same.
Save for Ryan Murray, who suffered a season-ending injury during the lockout after Columbus took him second overall, no defensemen have been taken with the NHL’s top two picks since 2008. That year, Drew Doughty and Luke Schenn bookended a succession of four straight blueliners between the second and fifth picks.
Seeing as those two are five years removed from their selection, they might as well serve as at least one barometer for Seth Jones. Already, it appears the consensus in Colorado is that the Avalanche will take the Western League defender with the top choice.
Assuming that comes to fruition, Jones will be an instant, important addition to the Avalanche’s youth movement.
There is no guarantee he will immediately become Colorado’s cumulative ice-time leader the same way Doughty did as a King from 2008-09 onward. But he cannot be far away from big minutes in the big leagues.
With that formula, Jones ought to settle into a top-tier slot no later than his sophomore season in 2014-15 and gain fast traction as a Norris candidate.
Elias Lindholm has drawn comparisons to Peter Forsberg. In the words of one reporter, Sunaya Sapurji of Yahoo! Sports, those lofty parallels come about because “Lindholm is a complete player – a good skater, extremely smart, skilled with and without the puck, and both a deft passer and capable goal-scorer.”
Coming off a year when he tied for No. 28 in the points department of his home country’s professional league, Lindholm could still use a little lower-level seasoning. His Elite Prospects profile claims that he will be back in Brynas for 2013-14, which does not necessarily need to change after he is drafted.
Listed as No. 3 in the final rankings among European skaters and as a center, Lindholm may not be in full NHL bloom by the end of 2017-18. But he will, in a worst-case scenario, be close.
Per Bill Meltzer of Hockey Buzz, “…the potential is there to be a top-six forward who is also reliable on the backcheck and kills penalties with second power play unit upside.”
A path similar to that of Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund might be the way to go. That is, any combination of Swedish League and AHL action over the next two years, culminating in a bridge from the AHL to a regular NHL presence.
Once he is there, he may or may not begin as a winger en route to a slot in the pivot position.
An October feature in the Toronto Star noted that Nathan MacKinnon, most likely the first forward to go in this year’s draft, has demonstrated “one main weakness” at the faceoff dot. This likely means he'll be in an NHL depth chart without fail but starting his professional career as a winger.
Either way, he will make nothing less than a moderate impact on his new team in 2013-14 and improve from there. In the video, Central Scouting director Dan Marr cites MacKinnon as a potential second coming of Steven Stamkos.
For what it’s worth, Stamkos did not break out until his second NHL campaign, tallying a 23-23-46 scoring log as a rookie before roughly doubling that output the next year. Although, some of that may have been because the 2008-09 Lightning were rich with veteran scoring prowess in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi.
Or, if Drouin pulls an upset, then MacKinnon could go to the Bolts themselves with the third pick. In that event, he would make for a sound understudy to the aging Lecavalier and St. Louis en route to helping Stamkos keep the bountiful offense coming.
Regardless of who picks him, though, one has to wonder if Monahan has anything left to prove in major junior after three years. He excelled on an otherwise plebeian Ottawa 67s team with a 31-47-78 scoring log in 58 OHL games, matching his 2011-12 output.
His prowess and propensity for aggression, which incurred a 10-game suspension when it went too far in November, may need more of a test at this point. Whether or not Monahan gets that right away will depend on who selects him and that team’s immediate needs.
He might be back for one more year with Ottawa and then have the option of bridging himself to The Show through the AHL starting in 2014-15. (He will turn 20 on Oct. 12, 1994.)
If Monahan does not turn pro right away, one untouched platform will be open to him in the World Juniors, which he barely missed out on this past season. That would certainly be a worthwhile way to pass the time and advance his profile.
Either way, he should cement his NHL membership no later than 2015-16. By then, he ought to have the requisite size and strength to make the most of his offensive gifts.
Similar to Barkov, Valeri Nichushkin has appreciable size that could ease his transition to smaller ice surfaces in North America. However, he too is committed to his home country’s league beyond this year.
Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times addressed that potential drawback in a report published last weekend. He posed the simple question on behalf of the local Lightning, and certainly other NHL teams: “Does Nichushkin want to play in the NHL?”
Despite the enticing assessment that Cristodero proceeded to relay from Tampa Bay scout Al Murray, the uncertainty as to Nichushkin’s commitment to North America could trump everything else.
The Russian prodigy will probably go somewhere beyond the top three but still within the top 10. After that and one or more seasons in the KHL, arguably the sport’s best circuit outside of the NHL, the worst-case scenario is a great gain for the likes of Nashville, Carolina or Calgary.
Competing in the KHL means Nichushkin will be a boy among men. If he does not add to his already impressive frame (6’3”, 201 pounds according to Elite Prospects), he will at least accrue strength and confidence.
All of that, barring overconfidence, will amplify his persona as an oncoming threat with the puck. If he takes that to this side of the pond circa 2015, Nichushkin should be a top-six power forward, possibly working gradually from second- to first-line status by 2018.
At least one more season of major junior will be in order for Darnell Nurse, who—based on the rankings—should be the second defenseman to go in the draft after Jones.
Nurse should use any additional time he spends in the OHL, as well as his first couple of years in the pros, adding power to his point shot. The embedded highlight package features a gratifying share of homeward-bound bids and setups, but Nurse will need to unload a harder, more precise slapper to get the same results in the NHL.
That could come hand-in-hand with sculpting a beefier frame. Naturally, so too will more effective NHL-caliber defense.
As Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News recently noted in the midst of drawing parallels to Shea Weber, “The Nashville star is a great touchstone for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds blueliner, who comes in at about 6-foot-4 and 189 pounds with room to fill out.”
By all accounts, being the nephew of longtime NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb has helped Nurse with refining his athleticism. There is no reason to think that will cease to be an advantage.
After proving all that is left to prove as an amateur and a couple of years of rigor-induced growth in the literal and figurative sense, Nurse should be an established upper-tier NHL rearguard by around 2017. Although, with everything he has at his disposal, it would not be a stretch to expect that a little sooner.
In this video from earlier in the season, TSN’s Craig Button gives Hunter Shinkaruk a complete checklist in the way of potential to be a pure offensive force.
Button also implies that, while lacking in overt physicality, Shinkaruk is one of those players who need not worry about that aspect of the game in order to attain long-term success.
What that does mean, though, is that it will take a little more time for a player of Shinkaruk’s mold to hit his stride. Because he is a cut below the likes of the two headliners from Halifax, he'll need more time to adjust to the intensity of NHL action.
Based on his likely picking order, a reasonable five-year bar for Shinkaruk is to hope for a season in the 40- or 50-point range no later than 2017-18. Or, for a best-case scenario, an even more prolific breakout year not unlike the one Cody Hodgson had in 2013, five years after he went 10th overall.
Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated relayed this brief assessment of Valentin Zykov from an anonymous scout this past autumn: “He’s got to work on his consistency like a lot of kids, but he’s been a real impact player…and he’s tough to knock off the puck.”
Since then, Zykov has emerged as the most promising prospect from the Quebec League not named Drouin or MacKinnon. He justified that position by leading his Baie-Comeau Drakkar to a league championship series date with the Mooseheads and cultivating four points in five games.
A hefty, 215-pound right wing, Zykov has not hesitated to make an impression within a relatively small window of time in North America. A second season of major junior action may be in order to keep gauging his development and wait out an appropriate opening on an NHL roster.
Zykov only turned 18 on Wednesday of this week, meaning he is on the younger end of the 2013 draft pool. But all of his other numbers, from his size to his scoring transcript, speak to maturity beyond his years.
As such, while he is a full year away from the age of 19, he ought to be seeing NHL ice before 20. From there, only he can get in his way of becoming an elite power forward.