As Jon Steitzer mentioned in his preview of Team Cherry yesterday, the NHL has been shut down for the next few days over All-Star Weekend. Lucky for us in Tank Nation, we get the CHL Top Prospects game to hold us over. With the Leafs at the bottom of the standings, this game will be incredibly relevant as Mark Hunter et al look to make use of their potentially record number of draft picks this coming June.
Why Jon Says We Should Care About The CHL Top Prospects Game
Besides being an exciting game to watch where you focus on individuals rather than the final score, it plays nicely into the fact that The Leafs Nation has now become The Tank Nation. While we want to keep as many eggs as possible in the Auston Matthews basket as possible, and the two Finns are lovely consolation prizes, additional contingencies are needed thanks to the new lottery format, and after that top pick is made, the Leafs still have 10 other picks to work with, including another 1st thanks to the Penguins climbing into a Wild Card spot on Tuesday night.
While Team Cherry has a couple of my favorite players in this year’s draft (Mikey McLeod & Max Jones), Team Orr has a pretty nice roster itself. Thanks to the World Juniors, Matthew Tkachuk, Alex Nylander and Olli Juolevi are probably three of the biggest names in the game and will likely be the key focus on Team Orr for many Leaf fans. Nylander’s linemate in Mississauga, Nathan Bastian as well as Erie Otters forward Taylor Raddysh will look to show scouts what they can do without their more hyped centermen.
One area of the Leafs prospect pool that has been of great concern to the fan base is the goaltending depth. Having not picked a goalie in either of the past two drafts, the Leafs could be looking to select one in the middle rounds this year and Team Orr netminder Carter Hart might be the perfect candidate. The 17-year old is having a great year for the WHLs Everett Silvertips and is a guy to look out for as Hockey Canada starts putting lists together for this summer’s World Junior evaluation camp.
On the back end, Libor Hajek and Luke Green are two guys who have been sniffing the top-30 and could propel themselves into the first round conversation with a great performance. Green is the only right-shooting defender in the game and with the premium put on that in today’s NHL, he is a guy the Leafs might be looking at with their pick in the 30-35 range.
Here is the full roster:
Five to Watch
Mikhail Sergachev – D
It’s been a long time since a potential top-10 pick was talked about less than Sergachev. Along with Juolevi, he has risen through the year and is now being talked about in the same breath as the draft’s best defenceman in Jakob Chychrun. Playing in his rookie season in the OHL, Sergachev has looked every bit as impressive as Juolevi. He’s a complete two-way defender that plays with a confidence not often seen in junior hockey.
He’s an offensively dynamic player that makes decisions quickly to catch the opposition off guard and has a penchant for engaging in plays not often seen from defenders. He’s big for a 17-year old and is able to use his strength both with and without the puck.
Currently ranked in the 9-11 range, he may not be an option for the Leafs but if he starts to slip into the mid-teens he may be a very good target to consider with the Pittsburgh pick as he’d automatically become the top defensive prospect in the Leafs’ system.
Will Bitten – C
Playing in Flint this season could not have been easy for any player, let alone a draft eligible prospect that is trying to prove his worth to scouts and show that he is a first round pick. Earlier in the year, Will Bitten had to put up with all the nonsense that comes with a feud between coach and owner, and now has to finish his season living in a city that is going through a tremendous standard of living crisis.
Bitten was electric in the Canada/Russia series earlier this year. As one of Team OHL’s best players he showed an ability to elevate his game with high-end teammates, something that bodes well for him in the Top Prospects game.
Scoring at over a point-per-game, Bitten as been the offensive catalyst on a bad Flint team. He is a player that isn’t afraid to drive deep into the offensive zone with the puck on his stick. He’s a smooth skater that while quick and elusive, he will have to work on getting a little stronger on his skates.
Ranked 22 on Mckeen’s wacky January list, Bitten is viewed by many as a very early second rounder and may be a very interesting to a Leaf team that will likely be picking in the 31-35 range.
Brett Howden – C
Like Bitten, Brett Howden is another guy that has had a sniff of the top-30 rankings but seems to be falling back into the second round. Heading into the season as #14 on Craig Button’s list of players to watch, Howden has seemed to underwhelm scouts this season, which is a little odd for a player who is averaging almost a point per game in the WHL.
A 5th overall pick by the Moose Jaw Warriors, Howden is a very skilled player who has the intelligence and size to stick as a center at the pro level. He’s a well above average skaters and has some pretty good puck skills that allow him to dictate the offense for his line.
With 22 goals as a 16-year old in the WHL, he hasn’t necessarily taken the next step that many expected this season. Howden was named Captain of Team Canada for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament this past summer and given an ‘A’ by Moose Jaw at 17 speaks to how his coaches and teammates feel about him in a leadership role.
He will almost certainly be an NHL player but some scouts seem skeptical that he will be able to be a regular in a team’s top-6 when he gets there. A lot will likely have to do with how he develops in the system of the team that drafts him. He likely isn’t someone the Leafs would look at with their first two picks but if he starts to drop the way Jansen Harkins did last year, he’d be a prime candidate to try to trade up for in the early to mid second round.
Jake Bean – D
The fact that the Maple Leafs farm system is very forward-heavy at the top end has made many fans believe that drafting high-end defensive talent is necessary this year. While drafting for need can often get an organization in trouble, the idea of drafting a top flight defender with Pittsburgh’s pick is very intriguing as there are a number of good options, Jake Bean chief among them.
Bean is falling anywhere from 12 to 25 and slots into that second tier of defensemen along with McAvoy and Fabbro. Bean is an excellent skater that has the ability to lead the rush up the ice with either a great first pass or with the puck on his stick. Tied for third in the WHL in terms points, Bean is an offensive threat especially on the powerplay.
While an elite puck-mover, Bean is also very defensively sound and the kind of minute-eating blueliner that junior teams covet and NHL teams hope can translate to the next level. He was never drafted into the WHL and has seen exponential growth over the past two seasons.
Bean is one of the youngest prospects in the entire draft and while he’s already a high-end prospect there is still a lot of room to grow. He could be a home run for a team picking around the 20th pick and would become the Leafs top blue line prospect the second he’s drafted.
Pierre-Luc Dubois – F
Dubois has been going back and forth with Julien Gauthier as the top prospect coming out of the QMJHL all year. Like Gauthier, Dubois is more physically mature than most players his age and knows how to use his strength and size advantage. The question is whether or not his game will be as impressive when he’s playing against guys closer to his own size.
Dubois is the prototypical big-bodied forward that scouts drool over. He can play any of the three forward positions and has been an offensive catalyst in Cape Breton. He uses his size and strength to drive the net and out-muscle opponents to win puck battles.
Dubois might not be available to the Leafs as he isn’t good enough to be drafted as high their first but he’ll almost certainly be gone before the Leafs pick again unless they decide to package some assets to move up to the 10-15 range. Dubois is an interesting prospect who clearly knows how to score and would compliment what the Leafs have in the system very well. My biggest issue is that every time I see him play I’m more impressed by his linemate Evgeny Svechnikov who was drafted by the Red Wings in the first round last year.
The Leafs enter today’s All-Star break with the fewest wins in the NHL – the season has been rough and only stands to get worse. In embracing the tank, we are looking towards the future and while admiring Nylander and Marner is all well and good, it’s time to start learning about guys who could be complimenting them down the way. With 12 draft picks and Lou looking to turn the team’s veterans into even more, we can watch tonight’s game and theoretically find an argument for any of the players being Leaf prospects this time next year.