Depending on whom you ask, this year’s NHL draft class features as many as five elite prospects with the talent and upside to completely change the future of a franchise.
While this class also offers a few fringe candidates, there’s no denying the immense talent at the top of this draft board. The 2013 draft class boasts at least four prospects worthy of the “elite” tag.
The criteria that define an elite prospect are hard to explain, however. At its core, scouting NHL prospects is as much about projection and instinct as it is about stats and figures.
Let’s take a look at this year’s top prospects and break down why each falls under the “can’t miss” category, highlighting what makes each player worthy of being an elite NHL prospect.
4. Aleksander Barkov, C, Tappara Tampere (SM-Liiga)
Aleksander Barkov may be the most intriguing player in this entire draft class. At 17, he’s already playing at an extremely high level and is only going to get better.
The Finnish center played in the SM-Liiga last season, notching 0.90 points per contest with Tappara. Playing against much more experienced competition, Barkov’s success is hard to explain.
At 6’2” and 205 pounds, the 17-year-old has a tremendous frame to tie down the center of an NHL line—and he still has time to grow. Paired with his excellent skating ability, tremendous vision, and pinpoint precision with his passing, it’s hard to find a flaw in Barkov’s game.
But what makes Barkov a can’t-miss prospect is his willingness to play at both ends of the ice. When it comes to two-way prospects, there aren’t many as versatile as Barkov.
Given the depth of this class, Barkov may slip as far as No. 4 for the Nashville Predators, but don’t expect him to slide any further than that.
3. Seth Jones: D, Portland (WHL)
Offensive players typically steal the spotlight at the top of the draft. After all, goals and assists are easy to track; there’s no questioning their production.
Unfortunately for the teams at the top of this draft, that philosophy could result in missing out on one of the best defensive prospects in the last three decades of the draft.
Seth Jones isn’t an ordinary defenseman. At 6’4” and 205 pounds, he has prototypical size for the position, but it’s hard to find a defensive prospect who moves as well as the Portland product.
Jones can skate. He can hit. He can score.
And above all, Jones is also one of the most instinctual defensemen to come out of the draft in years, rarely finding himself out of position to make a play. Simply put, he is a two-way defenseman who has almost no flaws.
It’s hard to put a floor on his ability, but it’s impossible to put a ceiling on his potential. If not for the presence of a couple elite scorers in this draft, Jones would be the consensus No. 1 pick.
2. Jonathan Drouin: LW, Halifax (QMJHL)
Lost in the No. 1 shuffle, Halifax winger Jonathan Drouin could prove to be just as good as Jones or Nathan MacKinnon when all is said and done.
Drouin and MacKinnon played together on the same line last season, and while MacKinnon was the better all-around scorer of the two, Drouin flashed elite-level puck-handling ability that few prospects in this class even come close to touching.
At 5’10” and 186 pounds, the only question Drouin faces is his ability to hold up to the rigors of playing on an NHL line. He’s a finesse scorer and all-around playmaker who isn’t asked to mix it up often, but making the leap to the NHL level could prove to take its toll on the young winger.
Still, there’s a reason some compare Drouin’s playmaking ability to that of Pavel Datsyuk and Martin St. Louis. Simply put, there isn’t anyone who can handle the puck as well as Drouin.
Were MacKinnon not in this draft class, Drouin would be the unquestioned top offensive player.
1. Nathan MacKinnon: C, Halifax (QMJHL)
MacKinnon needs no introduction, but I’ve already given him one.
When looking at can’t-miss prospects, none come to mind more than the Halifax center. With an ideal blend of size, speed, power, vision and scoring ability, there isn’t a more complete offensive player in this draft—or perhaps any draft class in the last few years.
MacKinnon has long been compared to Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, and for good reason. He has all the tools to be an elite player at the NHL level.
It’s hard to find a single flaw in MacKinnon’s game. He still needs to get stronger at the defensive end, but he certainly isn’t a poor defender by any means and his willingness to play in the defensive zone suggests refining that area of his game shouldn’t be difficult.
There’s a case to be made for any player on this list to go No. 1 overall, but there’s not much need to make a case for MacKinnon. He’s far and away the best player available, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe he won’t be an All-Star at the next level.