The CHL Top Prospects Game runs this Thursday in Vancouver and it will be a strange year for the showdown. To begin with, three of the top four prospects in the NHL draft aren’t even eligible to participate – Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi all play in Europe. On top of that, hometown hero Tyler Benson of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants will miss the contest due to a lingering injury, so his captaincy of Team Cherry has been ceded to top defenseman Jakob Chychrun instead. The other bad news out west is that Red Deer center Conner Bleackley (Colorado) will miss six weeks with a fractured kneecap. The Rebels host the Memorial Cup, so at least his season’s not finished. Let’s get to the rest of the prospect world:
Rasmus Asplund, C – Farjestad (SHL): One of Sweden’s better players at the world juniors, Asplund centered the second line with Alexander Nylander (2016) and Dmytro Timashov (Toronto) on his wings. That unit played more like the first line, leading the Tre Kronor in scoring with 21 points in seven games.
Coach Rikard Gronborg loved Asplund’s smarts and all-around game and despite being one of the youngest on the squad, Asplund almost made the team last year. The lessons from his late cut before Toronto were important.
“You have to be in the front seat and take a space on the team, show what you're good at,” Asplund said. “That helped me a lot for this year.”
His own cheering section helped him in Helsinki, too. A crew from his small-town home of Filipstad made the trek, bringing a customized Swedish flag with them.
“I know the guys, it's so fun that they came to see me play,” he said. “My hometown means all to me. When I'm home I skate with the little kids and try to help them as much as I can.”
A big fan of Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg, Asplund is in his second SHL season with Farjestad and has already doubled his offensive output year over year. And while seven points in 31 games doesn’t sound like much, it’s good for top-12 amongst junior-aged players in Sweden’s best circuit.
“I would like more points,” Asplund said. “But I'm playing well and creating chances, so I don't wonder about the points.”
The top-rated Swede in Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings, Asplund will also be a crucial part of Sweden’s world junior squad next year, when the Tre Kronor try to erase consecutive fourth-place finishes.
In the Pipeline
Anthony Richard, C (Nashville): So quick and so skilled, Richard has been near the top of the leaderboard in the Quebec League all season. The Val-d’Or sniper is currently on a seven-game point streak for the Foreurs and now has 72 points overall through 46 games.
Brock Boeser, RW (Vancouver): I feel Boeser was underused at the world juniors, but that’s not a problem at North Dakota, where the strong and talented winger has been excellent for the Fighting Hawks. The Canucks first-rounder has six points in four games since returning from Helsinki with his bronze medal.
Giorgio Estephan, C (Buffalo): It’s time for some Lethbridge love. The WHL’s Hurricanes have been a big surprise this year thanks to a veteran lineup that has clicked and Estephan is doing his part. The Sabres pick is your WHL player of the week, with eight points in three wins. His release and finishing skills are great.
Jake Evans, C (Montreal): A very intuitive player with a nice offensive skillset, Evans has been hot for Notre Dame as the Fighting Irish burn up Hockey East. The Habs pick and Toronto native has 10 points in his past six outings, pacing the team alongside linemate Anders Bjork.
2016 Draft Stars
Auston Matthews, C – Zurich Lions (Swi.): Yes, Matthews is still blazing through Switzerland. After a great world juniors, the Arizona native returned to Zurich with no lag – he’s tied for the league lead in goals with 21, despite playing far fewer games (28) than the other two players. Matthews has nine points in his past five games.
Jake Bean, D – Calgary Hitmen (WHL): It’s a down draft year for the ‘Dub,’ but Bean is one to watch. A whip-smart defenseman with an excellent stick, Bean is probably underrated defensively, where his positioning is excellent. When you put up 43 points in 46 games, that part can get overshadowed.
Evan Fitzpatrick, G – Sherbrooke Phoenix (QMJHL): Fitzpatrick’s draft year started as a nightmare and scouts worried that he was trying to stop every shot that came within a county mile of him. But the big netminder has settled down and earned league first star honors this week with a .949 save percentage in three games.
Jordan Sambrook, D – Erie (OHL): The Otters are deep and deadly this season, but keep an eye out for Sambrook. He’s 6-foot-2, moves well and has a nice shot from the blueline. Hard to believe he was playing AAA minor hockey last year and is now part of the best team in the CHL.
2017 Draft Stars
Eeli Tolvanen, LW – Sioux City Musketeers (USHL): I’ve mentioned Tolvanen in this space before, but it’s high time for an update because the kid is still hot. The Finnish import now has 31 points in 30 games, putting him top-15 in a league that skews towards older scorers. It’s all about the quick release with him.