The NHL draft is less than a week away and while there is a fair bit of certainty at the very top of the board, every year produces surprises. Some of those shocks just turn out to be savvy scouting – like when Winnipeg took Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011 – while others become duds (insert example from your favorite team here).
And while predicting the draft order is fun, it's also a mug's game. Not only are there trades every year that screw up which teams are picking when and what their needs are, but some prospects just make things difficult for folks like me. After all, these are teenagers just beginning to develop as elite athletes and they all have flaws. But it only takes one team to believe in them to go higher than anticipated.
On the flip side, some players slip for random reasons and still become excellent NHLers – Filip Forsberg and Cam Fowler being two great recent examples.
So here are the 10 players in this year's draft that are giving me fits as I prepare my final rankings:
Ilya Samsonov – He's most likely the first goalie off the board this year, though Mackenzie Blackwood may have something to say about that. But when should Samsonov be picked? I was talking to a scout this year about goalies in general and he recalled a saying his community has: "If you pick a goalie in the first round, you should have your (expletive) head examined." That's a saying among scouts! Meaning they have invoked it often!
Yes, Carey Price worked out and Andrei Vasilevskiy is looking pretty good already, but which team will take the plunge on Samsonov, who also invokes the dreaded 'Russian Factor?'
Denis Guryanov – Since we're on the 'Russian Factor' topic, let's talk about Guryanov, a big, talented right winger who plays back home right now. Scouts were actually asking me how he looked at the World Jr. A Challenge, so interest is high, but is he a first-rounder? Or do teams wait until Day 2, just in case? Franchises such as Washington and L.A. have largely ignored the warnings about drafting Russians and benefitted.
Nicolas Roy – Sometimes certain areas of improvement are put in the spotlight and can hurt those associated. Fowler wasn't regarded as an intense player in his year, causing his drop (not that it mattered, clearly). With Roy, scouts wonder about skating. He's still a 6-foot-4 center that can play at both ends of the ice, however. Again, is he a first-rounder?
Jesse Gabrielle – Gabrielle is unabashed about his ability to bash and while it's good to have confidence in your game, what if teams aren't buying what you're selling? One GM I spoke with wanted to see Gabrielle cut down on the rough stuff and actually show off his skills. Who will take a chance, and when?
Erik Cernak – Having seen Cernak in person, I can understand the dilemma surrounding the big, Slovakian defenseman. He can play a ton and add offense, but his decision-making is shaky at best. One NHL exec I talked to said that his North American scouts were intrigued by him during the world juniors, while his European scouts were mortified at the thought. So who wins out?
Jeremy Bracco – A record-breaking playmaking right winger with the U.S. NTDP, Bracco admitted during the draft combine that his reaction to being cut from the world junior team wasn't ideal and that he struggled for a few games after. Scouts had a big problem with that. Plus, the Boston College commit is a smaller talent – but on the other hand, he does have a lot of skill. You can't discount a player who broke his own record for assists in a season at the NTDP this year, but when do you take him?
Ryan Pilon – The nephew of ex-NHLer Rich Pilon has been on the radar for years thanks to his quick development and late birthday. He has size and puts up numbers from the blueline on a great WHL Brandon team, but scouts are worried about his engagement on the ice. That's a big concern for some, but again, it only takes one believer for Pilon to go in the second round instead of the fourth.
David Cotton – Prep schoolers can be a tough read because the competition they face isn't as strong. Cotton is a big, scoring center from Cushing Academy and he's committed to Boston College, but some scouts just aren't interested because they didn't see a killer instinct in the kid. On the other hand, if Cotton does develop an edge, then all of a sudden your team has an incredible diamond in the rough.
Rasmus Andersson – Conditioning was an issue when the Swede first came over to OHL Barrie, but he improved on that. Footwork was another gripe from scouts and that's a tough knock on an offensive defenseman, but at the same time, Andersson was basically a point-per-gamer on the blueline as a rookie. He has vision and the quickness is coming. Will a team strike early in the second round for him, or wait until later?
Graham Knott – Like several others on this list, Knott concerned scouts with his compete level and that could really zap his stock once the picks come down. But he's also a 6-foot-3 left winger with top-six potential once he gets a bit stronger – and getting stronger is an easy fix for players this age. Could a patient team cash in with Knott?