There may not quite be a player the caliber of Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine available in the 2017 NHL draft, but teams picking near the top will have the chance at a potential cornerstone prospect.
Even though the 2017 draft appears to be a drop-off in comparison to the stacked classes of the past two years, dynamic forwards such as Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier and Gabriel Vilardi are possible future All-Stars who could make an impact as early as next season.
With the 2017 NHL draft approaching, here is a breakdown of some of the top prospects who figure to come off the board in the early going.
Patrick may no longer be the slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick he appeared to be entering the 2016-17 campaign, but there is little doubt that he will hear his name called within the first few selections.
The one thing that could give teams pause is the fact that Patrick struggled mightily through injuries during the season, missing time due to sports hernia surgery and an upper-body injury.
Although he was limited to 33 games, Patrick was highly productive with 20 goals and 46 points, which kept in line with what he accomplished the previous season.
In 2015-16, the 6'3" center truly put himself on the map with 41 goals and 102 points for the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings. He then added another 30 points in 21 playoff contests.
According to Mike Morreale of NHL.com, NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr believes Patrick is set to enter the NHL healthy and that he has done enough to cement himself as a top pick:
Injuries are part of hockey and it's unfortunate for Nolan that he's having to miss playing due to injury during his draft year. The injuries Nolan incurred require time to heal and rehabilitation. He is expected to fully recover.
He has more than proven over the last three years that he is the real deal and he will be an impact NHL player.
The team that picks Patrick will be rolling the dice on him staying healthy, but it is likely worth the risk since he looks the part of a No. 1 center when he is on the ice.
It is entirely possible that Patrick simply had a run of bad luck in 2016-17 from an injury perspective, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt based solely on how incredibly productive he is when healthy.
Little was known of Hischier entering the 2016-17 season, but it hasn't taken long for him to establish himself as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
After seeing limited action last season in Switzerland, Hischier was loaned to the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads, and he has blossomed into an electric offensive player.
In 58 regular-season games, Hischier posted 38 goals and 86 points. He then added three goals and seven points in six playoff games.
According to CBC's Paul Palmeter, Halifax general manager Cam Russell didn't expect Hischier to become such a big star so quickly: "What he's accomplished, it's surprised all of us. He's adapted so quickly and he's become so comfortable and he's been so consistent on a nightly basis."
Perhaps the most impressive part of Hischier's season was the fact that he posted a plus-20 rating, which suggests he is defensively responsible in addition to his offensive dynamism.
Hischier also proved that he can get the job done against the world's best players in his age group, as he registered seven points in five games at the World Junior Championships.
NHL teams may have some pause in selecting him early since he only has one year of top-level production under his belt, but Hischier is too talented to pass up near the top of the draft.
While the top tier of forwards begins and ends with Patrick and Hischier in the 2017 NHL draft, Vilardi has put himself in the top-five conversation with a strong year of his own.
As a key player for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, Vilardi posted 29 goals and 61 points in 49 regular-season games, and he already looks the part of an NHL forward at 6'2" and nearly 200 pounds.
Vilardi has a nose for the puck and rarely misfires on opportunities in close, as evidenced by this video courtesy of DobberHockey's Kathryn Jean:
Kathryn Jean @msconduct
Gabriel Vilardi intercepts a pass & makes no mistake to score his first of the playoffs. Lightning release. #2017NHLDraft https://t.co/hAdPw05HPJ2017-3-29 13:45:17
He uses his size to his advantage from an offensive perspective but also isn't afraid to throw his body around.
As seen in this video from Mississauga Steelheads data tracker Mitch Brown, Vilardi enjoys the physical aspect of the game:
Mitch Brown @MitchLBrown
Gabriel Vilardi hits Brandon Crawley into an involuntary line change. #2017NHLDraft https://t.co/1RRPKoKxVY2017-3-26 20:43:49
The combination of size and skill is paramount in the NHL due to the league's tight-checking nature.
There often isn't much space to be had on the ice, but Vilardi makes his own space due to his power and physicality.
Things aren't always pretty when it comes to Vilardi, but he gets the job done and puts the puck in the back of the net, which makes him one of the top targets in the 2017 draft.