The draft wouldn’t be all that much fun if everyone stuck to their predictions from the start of last season. If that was the case, Vasili Podkolzin would still be a contender for the second spot in June after showing just how dominant he could be in international play. Heck, nobody had a December as dominant as Podkolzin, who ripped the World Junior A Challenge and World Junior Championship to shreds for Russia.
The discussion could have stopped there. Podkolzin is a pure talent capable of putting up big numbers each season. End of story. Or is it?
Just saying Podkolzin’s name on social media sparks debate. If you look at his international performances, you’re staring at a potential gold mine. Even when he had a rough U-18 World Championship – and it’s believed he was injured there, whether he admits it or not – there were some flashes of brilliance. But in league play, Podkolzin seemed like a totally different player. He wasn’t impressive in any level of Russian hockey and was accused of hogging the puck, which led to his lack of production. You can’t become an NHLer on skill alone in this day and age, but he’s still young and teams can afford to be patient in his development with two years remaining on his contract in the KHL.
There are the people who love what Podkolzin brings to the table. There are those who think he’s severely overrated. He is the definition of polarizing. But he’s not alone. Here are several other top prospects people can’t seem to agree on ahead of this weekend’s draft in Vancouver:
Arthur Kaliyev, RW (Hamilton, OHL)
Like Podkolzin, Kaliyev is a strong offensive threat but he has enough deficiencies to warrant a spot farther down the lineup. Of this year’s core draft class, only three players finished with at least 50 goals: Cole Caufield (72, seriously), Kaliyev (51) and overager Jonathan Yantsis (50). In terms of pure goal-scoring ability, there are few better than Kaliyev. But watching him try to defend in his own zone can be frustrating. Scouts have taken note of his one-dimensional nature and teams really need to make sure he’s paired with a defensively responsible center to make up for that.
Cole Caufield, RW (U.S. NTDP, USHL)
Caufield’s performance at the U-18 World Championship – where he scored 14 goals and 18 points in seven contests – made him a true contender for the top five, and with 72 goals this season, the most of any player in the draft, it’s clear Caufield knows how to put pucks in the net. But is that a product of playing with Hughes? Is his 5-foot-7 frame too small for the NHL? Is his average skating ability going to hurt him when he turns pro? There are a lot of questions that typically get answered with “but he can score,” and with the success of Alex DeBrincat in Chicago, that’s extremely important to keep in mind.
Alex Newhook, C (Victoria, BCHL)
Newhook could end up being one of the best forwards to come out of this draft. Even with how good he played with the Grizzlies this year, though, one has to wonder if his numbers were inflated as a result of playing Jr. A. He was only OK at the World Junior A Challenge or the CJHL Top Prospects game, but finished off the year with a mega U-18 World Championship performance. People know he’s got talent for days, but the real challenge will be how he fares once he departs for Boston College and plays against older, tougher competition. For now, Newhook will likely fall closer to 10th in the draft as teams look for players that appear more NHL ready, but the explosive two-way forward will be a fantastic NHLer some day.
Anttoni Honka, D (JYP, Liiga)
Honka is akin to Ryan Merkley, a first-round pick by San Jose in 2018 (21st overall) with incredible skill but a tendency for defensive lapses. One year ago, Honka looked like one of the best defensemen available in an already strong blueline class. But as his first year of Liiga play went on with Jukurit and JYP, Honka’s flaws became exposed. He’s a dangerous shooter and moves very well with the puck, but he’s often guilty of unforced turnovers and can become unengaged from the play. He’s got the raw talent to be a top-four defenseman in the NHL, but he still needs some significant massaging.
Philip Broberg, D (AIK, SHL)
Oh, Broberg. What a talent, but what a divisive player in a draft filled with a bunch of great defensemen in the first round. He’s a wizard at moving the puck and can be the most entertaining prospect on the ice in any given situation. At the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup and U-18 World Championship, Broberg was one of the best players, period. But his hockey sense can be debated. Broberg is prone to giveaways and will get caught trying to be too fancy when dishing out the puck instead of making the simple play. Broberg could end up being the most skilled defender from this class when things are said and done, but take note of how he actually defends the puck. He will be one of the first blueliners to go with his great shot and fantastic skating, but he has his liabilities, too.
Bonus: The No. 3 pick
From amateur and pro rankings, the consensus No. 3 prospect for the draft is… nobody. Chicago has one of the toughest draft decisions we’ve seen in quite some time. Hughes and Kakko will be gone when the Blackhawks pick, and a multitude of players have put their name in the hat as being worthy of the third pick. From Caufield’s dominant scoring touch, Alex Turcotte’s stats despite significant missed action, Bowen Byram’s upside as a top defenseman or the list of talented pivots behind Hughes, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’ll wear a Blackhawks jersey in the future. The word from the draft combine is that Turcotte is the favorite to go third, but only time will tell.
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