Pros and Cons of the Top Prospects Before the 2015 NHL Draft

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistJune 22, 2015

Pros and Cons of the Top Prospects Before the 2015 NHL Draft

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    We're now less than a week away from the 2015 NHL draft and all the activity that entails. 

    With that in mind, this is an opportune moment to glance at the 10 players currently expected to go in the top third of the first round and analyze their strengths and weaknesses.

    We've leaned heavily on the final draft list compiled by TSN's Bob McKenzie as well as the consensus industry rankings put together by Rhys Jessop of CanucksArmy.com in determining the order of selection for each of these players. We've relied on a number of different player scouting reports, cited within this slideshow, but have also drawn heavily on ISS Hockey's 2015 NHL Draft Guide in getting a read on the pros and cons of these skaters.

Honourable Mention: Pavel Zacha

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    Pros: There aren't many prospects in this draft better than Zacha when he's is at his best. A 6'3", 210-pound power forward, Zacha is also blessed with high-end skating. He can rush the puck, he can protect the puck from opponents, and when he's in a scoring area, he can be lethal with the puck. 

    "His explosive drive and terrifying offensive package reminds me of Vladimir Tarasenko," wrote Alex Tran of Maple Leafs Hot Stove. "He could absolutely be a top-flight sniper at the NHL level."

    Cons: Zacha's work ethic and consistency get questioned a lot, which probably explains how a player with such a fearsome offensive skill set ended up with just 34 points in 37 QMJHL games. This is the kind of player a team will take for his projectable physical tools rather than his production to date.

10. Zach Werenski

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    Pros: The second-best draft-eligible defenceman in college hockey has a lot going for him. Chris Dilks, who covers college hockey for SBNation, described Zach Werenski as "a strong four-direction skater with exceptional lateral movement for his size," and that mobility married to a 6'2", 206-pound frame makes him an intriguing option in the defensive zone. He posted strong offensive numbers too, actually outscoring more highly touted defender Noah Hanifin at the same level. 

    Cons: The difference between Werenski and Hanifin isn't size or skating; it's two-way reliability. Dilks wrote that Werenski was overly aggressive in the neutral zone, at times leaving himself vulnerable to opposition rushes. ISS noted that Werenski could develop more urgency to his game and that he had trouble with unforced turnovers at times.

9. Mathew Barzal

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    Pros: Barzal did a pretty good job of identifying his strengths in a conversation with Yahoo Sports' Kelly Friesen, telling him that "skating and hockey IQ" were the parts of his game that stand out the most. He's a top playmaker too, averaging better than an assist per game in the WHL. WHL observer Cody Nickolet ranked him as the best draft-eligible player in that league in February, citing "an intriguing combination of hands, skating ability and vision."

    Cons: Nickolet mentioned a broken kneecap that hurt Barzal's season; it's an injury that injects an element of uncertainty into his draft stock, particularly since as a 5'11", 175-pound player, any injury is going to be concerning. He scored just 12 goals in 44 games. Playmaking has value, but naturally, teams like players who can keep opponents guessing with a potent shot too.

8. Mikko Rantanen

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    Pros: NHL Central Scouting's Goran Stubb laid out the strong case for Mikko Rantanen in a January interview with NHL.com's Mike G. Morreale:

    He's a big, strong and mobile power forward that is always a consistent threat on the ice. He has a combination of hockey sense, smooth hands and an explosive shot. He probably could take better advantage of his size and strength, but overall he's a smart, two-way forward with good decision-making, reliable and a hard competitor.

    At 6'4" and 211 pounds, Rantanen projects easily to the NHL level physically, and his mature game and poise under pressure should make him a fit in the majors quickly.

    Cons: Rantanen isn't overly physical despite his size; bone-rattling hits are not terribly common, and ISS noted that he has success when he drives the net with the puck and could do it more consistently.

7. Lawson Crouse

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    Pros: There probably isn't a more impressive physical player in the 2015 NHL draft than Crouse. At 6'4", 215 pounds, he's already big by NHL standards, and he plays the kind of power game that scouts love to see from a player of that size. He's more than that, though. Crouse is a high-end skater, pays attention to defensive detail and was the consensus choice of OHL coaches as the hardest worker in that league's Eastern Conference.

    Cons: Crouse scored 51 points this season. That's not a first-round number, and in a lot of cases it's not even a second-round number. As an example, teams passed over Andrew Mangiapane in the 2014 draft after he had a 51-point season, though thanks to a breakout 104-point performance, he's likely to get drafted as an over-ager this year. If we were to judge forwards solely on their offensive production, there's no chance at all that Crouse would be rated anywhere near this high.

6. Ivan Provorov

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    Pros: Provorov is a highly intelligent defenceman with no obvious holes in his game. In assessing his individual skills, ISS ranked none of them as any worse than "very good" and called his hockey sense "elite." He scored at a point-per-game rate in the WHL, and as Copper and Blue's Scott Reynolds noted, his list of statistical comparables is highly favourable. 

    Cons: Provorov is Russian, but there shouldn't be concerns of him heading to the KHL; he's been playing in North America for years now and clearly has NHL ambitions. At 6'1" and 201 pounds, he's not massive, but he's still a very reasonable size, particularly given his age (18). There are some relative weaknesses here, but overall his game lacks obvious issues.

5. Mitchell Marner

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    Pros: Marner's offensive game is obviously excellent, but a quick comparison may serve to illustrate just how good it is. Marner plays for the London Knights, the same OHL team as 2013 No. 12 pick Max Domi. Domi, an accomplished offensive player, managed 102 points in 57 games for the Knights. Marner, two years younger, posted 126 points in 63 contests. The 18-year-old is quick, smart and he can do almost anything with the puck. 

    Cons: Marner is a crowd favourite not just because of his strengths, but also because of his outstanding weakness: size. There's always a constituency for small men who can play, and at just 5'11" and 160 pounds, Marner certainly qualifies. He had some injury troubles during the year (though obviously he played most of the schedule), and it's fair to wonder how he'll handle the rigours of an NHL career.

4. Dylan Strome

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    Pros: There isn't a franchise in the NHL that would turn its nose up at a big, point-producing centre, and that's what makes Dylan Strome such an intriguing prospect. The 6'3" pivot posted 129 points for the Erie Otters (OHL) this season, and while he benefited from playing on the same team as Connor McDavid, it's worth noting that total is 23 points better than what his brother, Ryan (currently with the New York Islanders), posted at the same age. 

    Cons: The knock on Strome is his skating. There doesn't seem to be a scouting report out there that doesn't point out that both his overall speed and his initial acceleration are lacking. In some ways he's similar to Mitch Marner in that his overall skill set is strong, but he lacks that one quality; in Marner's case it's size while in Strome's it's speed.

3. Noah Hanifin

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    Pros: Noah Hanifin checks off a lot of boxes for a team looking for a defenceman. At 6'3" and 203 pounds, he already has pro-level size. He's highly mobile too; one NHL head scout told TSN's Bob McKenzie that Hanifin "could be Scott Niedermayer. He skates like him." Marry size and speed to strong offensive production against older college players, and there's a lot to like about the 2015 draft's top-rated rearguard. 

    Cons: Kirk Luedeke of scouting service Red Line Report noted some weaknesses in conversation with Oilers Nation's Allan Mitchell, suggesting both that Hanifin's shot could use a little more power and noting that "he doesn't have a robust physical element to his game." These weaknesses need to be regarded in context; they're less areas of real deficiency and more areas that aren't as advanced as the rest of Hanifin's game.

2. Jack Eichel

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    Pros: The comparisons one generally hears for Jack Eichel are former first overall picks. USA Today's Kevin Allen summed up the situation nicely in a March column when he wrote that Eichel "in other years would be a highly desirable No. 1."

    Eichel has all the tools any team could want, combining size (6'2", 196 lbs) and speed with exceptional offensive skills. He topped 70 points for Boston University this season as an 18-year-old playing largely against much older men and was splendid for the Americans at this past summer's World Championships. 

    Cons: Eichel's only real flaw is that he isn't Connor McDavid. It was his misfortune to be drafted in a year where a generational player is expected to go first overall, and Eichel is just a notch below that.

1. Connor McDavid

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    Pros: Connor McDavid's accomplishments at the junior level have been such that he's already been anointed a franchise player. He's certainly the best draft prospect anybody has seen since Sidney Crosby in 2005. 

    There is no discernible weakness in his game. At 6'1" and 195 pounds, he already has good size at the age of 18. His offensive game is off-the-charts good, and his defensive game is excellent for his age. In trying to identify a weakness, ISS suggested he could utilize his shot more; given that he scored 44 goals in 47 regular-season OHL games and added 21 more in 19 playoff games that's pretty telling.  

    Cons: The only possible downside to selecting McDavid is in passing on the trade package that the first overall selection would be sure to land from another team. Back in April, I speculated on this site as to what the cost would be and ended up with a package similar to the one the Philadelphia Flyers surrendered for Eric Lindros; that package proved pivotal to the Colorado Avalanche's first Stanley Cup win a few years later.

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