Dark-Horse Fits for Lottery Teams in the 2016 NHL Draft

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistJune 20, 2016

Dark-Horse Fits for Lottery Teams in the 2016 NHL Draft

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    The NHL entry draft is just days away, and fans of the game are discussing options for their favorite teams. Experts have spoken—rankings, mock drafts and every possible scenario. If there is one thing NHL draft history tells us, it is to expect the unexpected on Friday and Saturday. 

    In previous drafts, fans have had major wow moments. Seth Jones falling to No. 4 overall and the Nashville Predators, Samuel Morin landing just outside the top 10 overall, the Winnipeg Jets choosing Mark Scheifele in front of Sean Couturier and there will be more surprises this summer.

    Despite the ability to follow each year's draft closely, there is so much fans don't know about what teams are thinking. The NHL combine gives a clue about the top 100 or so prospects, but teams dig deep in testing and interviews—and that has major impact on the final decision.

    The odds of Auston Matthews being chosen No. 1 overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs is high, and it is also extremely likely the Winnipeg Jets will select Patrik Laine with the following selection. For our purposes, here are the remaining lottery teams—No. 3 through No. 14—and the dark-horse possibility for the 2016 draft.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets: Logan Brown, C, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets moved up to No. 3 in the draft lottery, with Rob Mixer from the team website setting the scene and getting management reaction. The top three available players were mentioned in the article, with no specifics from general manager Jarmo Kekalainen about direction. It is easy to assume Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine will be off the table when the Blue Jackets select, making Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi the obvious choice.

    The less obvious choice is actually a better fit in terms of roster need. Logan Brown is a gigantic center—6'6'', 220 pounds—who moved up from No. 14 to No. 7 on Central Scouting's final North American list. He projects as a two-way player and scouts rave about his mobility and size combination—he is somewhat unique because of his height.

    The Blue Jackets traded franchise center Ryan Johansen in the Seth Jones deal with the Nashville Predators and are weak at the position—at the NHL level and in terms of prospects. Brown is not likely to be NHL-ready this fall, but trading for franchise centers—or signing them in free agency—is extremely rare, and Brown is an outstanding prospect. Columbus could take him at No. 3 overall or trade down inside the top 10 and select him there.

4. Edmonton Oilers: Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat (Sm-Liiga)

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    The Edmonton Oilers sit No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft, and the universal top three have Jesse Puljujarvi listed as No. 3 overall. His page at Elite Prospects has six different draft services—all ranking him as third in the 2016 draft.

    The obvious choice for Edmonton if the draft goes according to plan is Matthew Tkachuk. However, his Memorial Cup performance for the London Knights—five goals and eight points in four games—was so strong it is not out of the realm of possibility that the big winger goes No. 3 overall—either to the Columbus Blue Jackets or a team trading up to get him.

    If a team trades up to take Tkachuk, Edmonton may walk to the podium and select Puljujarvi—who might be a better fit for the organization—a player it likely never dreamed would be available on the night of the draft lottery.

5. Vancouver Canucks: Matthew Tkachuk, LW, London Knights (OHL)

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    By the time the Vancouver Canucks select, it is extremely likely all of Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi will be gone. Logic also dictates Matthew Tkachuk would be taken before the No. 5 selection—as Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet wrote early in June, Tkachuk's star is on the rise.

    The Columbus Blue Jackets' situation at No. 3 could shake things up—either with an off-the-grid selection or by trading down—and that could benefit Vancouver in a big way. 

    Tkachuk would be a perfect fit for the Canucks. Although he is probably not NHL-ready, the skill winger will probably be ready in the fall of 2017. By that time, the current Vancouver lineup should be ready to push up the standings with a young, energetic group.

    There is also a chance the Canucks trade up to get Tkachuk, who represents the fourth and final possible franchise player. If Vancouver can trade up, he would represent a real coup. If he falls to them at No. 5, fans should consider it an actual miracle.

6. Calgary Flames: Clayton Keller, C, U.S. National Development Team (USHL)

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    The Calgary Flames have been successful in recent years drafting skill players. Johnny Gaudreau—5'9'', 157 pounds—was a brilliant selection, and the team could go any number of ways in this year's draft. Central Scouting's list has several young defenders of varying ability in this range, along with Logan Brown who might be a very good fit.

    A dark-horse match for Calgary at No. 6 might be brilliant offensive forward Clayton Keller. Another small player—listed at 5'10'', 163 pounds—he dominated everywhere he went in 2015-16. Although he is likely to be taken outside the top five overall, Keller has the offensive potential to be one of the best players in this draft.

    The Flames will pick at No. 6, just outside the consensus impact group. Although Keller's size has him on the outside looking in, Calgary could be blessed if it looks past that one thing. Johnny Gaudreau is a great example of the riches that could await the team.

7. Arizona Coyotes: Jakob Chychrun, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL)

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    The Arizona Coyotes are in a rather difficult spot at the 2016 entry draft. The top-ranked player available is Auston Matthews, who is from nearby Scottsdale, Arizona—and highly ranked Matthew Tkachuk was also born there.

    From a marketing point of view, trading up for one of these prospects might be an outstanding business decision—and a good hockey move, too. However, the option to trade up may not be there and the fallback position is going to be attractive.

    Jakob Chychrun is the top-ranked North American defenseman on Central Scouting's list. If a run on forwards happens at the top of the draft—and late surges from men like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Logan Brown make it possible—then grabbing a defender with a complete skill set is a wise move. The Coyotes may receive a fantastic defenseman at No. 7 overall, and five years from now it could be one of the draft's best picks.

8. Buffalo Sabres: Kieffer Bellows, C-LW, U.S. National Development Team (USHL)

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    The Buffalo Sabres appear poised for a giant leap up the NHL standings in 2016-17—and for the first time in years appear to have balance and a strong prospect pipeline. The addition of Jack Eichel at the 2015 entry draft gives the team its franchise center, and the 2016 draft appears to be gifting them a defender like Mikhail Sergachev or Olli Juolevi.

    A counter move of some value is drafting scoring forward Kieffer Bellows. Although he has a range of skills, the fact he is a born shooter will have enormous value to any team. Buffalo did not feature a strong offense in 2015-16 and Bellows—who won't be NHL-ready for some time—might be a big part of that solution closer to the end of the decade.

    The Sabres are in an excellent spot, with the assets to move up if the team believes there is a sweet spot available to grab a more substantial offensive player like Tkachuk. As it is, Bellows represents great promise in an area of the game that NHL teams value highly.

9. Montreal Canadiens: Luke Kunin, C, Wisconsin (NCAA)

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    The Montreal Canadiens are one of the most intriguing teams at the top of the draft this year. A trade up is possible—Pierre-Luc Dubois is a big power forward and close to a perfect fit—but there is a nice group of players likely available when the club picks at No. 9 overall. There is also a chance Logan Brown falls, and he would be a dynamic pick.

    For Montreal, the draft board will probably feature at least two defensemen—candidates are Olli Juolevi, Mikhail Sergachev and Jakob Chychrun—but the club's need for offense may send them in the direction of impressive forward Luke Kunin.

    He is undersized—5'11'', 192 pounds—but he scored at almost a point per game in the NCAA at age 18. That is a very strong sign of offensive ability, and a team like Montreal may select him out of order in hopes he blossoms into an impact offensive player.

10. Colorado Avalanche: Michael McLeod, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

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    The Colorado Avalanche have endured some difficult drafts over recent years, but they should fetch a gem this year at No. 10 overall. The Central Scouting list suggests a mixture of scoring forwards, two-way defenders and a power forward here and there.

    The dark-horse pick may also be the logical one—rugged power center Michael McLeod of the Mississauga Steelheads. He plays a gritty style—that should complement Patrick Roy's coaching style—and he has enough skill to be a good bet for placement on a top line when he arrives in the NHL.

    Colorado would be passing on more offensive skill, but McLeod's appeal is range of skills. The Avalanche and the player appear to be made for each other.

11. New Jersey Devils: Julien Gauthier, RW, Val-D'Or Foreurs (QMJHL)

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    The New Jersey Devils haven't drafted a player out of the QMJHL since 2010—and the last first-round pick out of the Quebec league was Jean-Francois Damphousse in 1997.

    Julien Gauthier of the Val-d'Or Foreurs may change all that, and the reason is offense. His 41 goals in 54 games during 2015-16 came on the heels of a 38-goal performance in the previous season. Gauthier is more than a scorer—he has a power forward's skill set and could help impact a line in several areas.

    The Devils often shop in the USHL, NCAA and Sweden. The search for offense is real for the Devils, and Gauthier—despite being a less obvious choice—would be a astute addition.

12. Ottawa Senators: German Rubtsov, C, Team Russia (MHL)

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    The Ottawa Senators are a fun team to follow at the draft. The club is often found shopping in Europe, the three Canadian leagues or the United States.

    One area the Senators generally stay away from is Russia. The last time Ottawa picked a player out of a Russian league was 2005, and the last first-round pick from that nation was Anton Volchenkov in 2000.

    German Rubtsov might be a player who catches the eye of Ottawa scouts, due to his range of skills and two-way ability. He showed well at the Ivan Hlinka tournament last summer and is ranked No. 5 overall on the European list via Central Scouting. It has been over a decade since the Senators chose a Russian who played in his own country, but stylistically this is a good match.

13. Carolina Hurricanes: Jake Bean, D, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

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    The Carolina Hurricanes enter draft day with possibly the best young stable of defensemen in the entire NHL. The team's last two first-round picks—Noah Hanifin and Haydn Fleury—appear to be locks for quality careers. In addition, the parent team boasts youngsters Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Ryan Murphy and others.

    Although, the smart money would be on Carolina choosing a forward—the offensive potential of Jake Bean of the Calgary Hitmen. His 64 points in 68 WHL games is outstanding for a draft-eligible player, and that kind of offensive potential normally gets rewarded in the first half of Round 1.

    The Hurricanes are still likely to take a forward—the prospect pool could use the boost—but Carolina runs a solid procurement department, and Bean may be too much potential to pass on.

14. Boston Bruins: Alexander Nylander, W, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

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    The Boston Bruins choose No. 14 overall and may have a difficult decision. In that range, Central Scouting suggests some nice options for a rugged team like Boston: power winger Max Jones, physical defender Logan Stanley and power scorer Julien Gauthier.

    Alex Nylander may also be available, and that could be an issue for the Bruins. He is probably the last substantial offensive prospect available among the forwards—the group we might describe as a sure thing—and the value on him is equal to a top-10.

    Nylander does not fit the traditional style for the Bruins—he is somewhat similar to David Pastrnak—but the talent is compelling. The team could trade down for extra value, but if the more traditional potential Bruins are gone, Nylander represents outstanding value at No. 14.