Monday, May 9, 2016

Devils Draft Pick Options at 11th Overall

With the Draft Lottery completed and the final order for the June 24th first round set, it's time to take a good, long look at some of the likely players that will be available at the 11th Overall selection for the New Jersey Devils. This may be a pretty hefty read since I'm trying to make it as comprehensive as possible.

The Top Three:
This Top Three list isn't quite in order of preference. Before the landslide of work got to me, I was able to write a report for a few of the prospects on this list.

Clayton Keller
Keller's write-up can be found here.

It's not very often to see a 16-year old step onto the U18 team for the USNDP, proceed to force his way into the line-up and score at a 1.5 Point/game pace. Such was the year for Clayton Keller during the 2014-2015 season. The numbers are on Keller's side too; he's now the all-time leader for points at the USDP program (including 2nd in assists and 3rd in goals scored).

Looking past the numbers, Keller is a strong skating center with a strong, low center of balance, skating that's quick and agile, yet powerful While not the biggest of players (we'll get to that a little later), the vision he displays is almost second-to-none in this draft class. Keller was the crown jewel of the USNDP this season. He had responsibilities in all situations: top-line minutes, top Powerplay and Penalty Killing units. Keller is a real imminent offensive threat. While possessing incredible vision and IQ, his passing is phenomenal. At the most recent U18 World Championship, Keller was named Most Valuable Player for the Tournament, after scoring 14 points (4G 10A) in 7 games. I know numbers don't tell the whole story, but at every level of competition he's played at, Keller has put up phenomenal numbers. He's just a player that's able to find the score-sheet, plain and simple.

When Keller has the puck, he is able to make an explosive first step and accelerate to where he needs to go very quickly. He's nifty with the puck and is able to weave his way through defending traffic. As much of a cliche as it may sound, teammates and line-mates have to be ready for the puck whenever they may be on the ice with Keller. In addition to his excellent playmaking ability, Keller's wrist shot is smooth, quick, heavy, and very accurate. It makes him an all-around offensive threat.

A concern regarding Keller's game is his size. He's 5'10" and about 168 pounds. I agree that his frame gives him some trouble in the corners and along the boards, but I don't see this preventing Keller from reaching his full potential, which is that of a top-line center. I'm not concerned about Keller's game in the defensive zone because he is smart enough of a player and has good stickwork to cause turnovers. His speed and quickness are also capable of creating problems for attacking teams because of his ability to transition so smoothly from defense to offense. There are also plenty of top-line centers throughout the league that are under 6 feet tall...guys like Datsyuk, Giroux, Pavelski, and Duchene come to mind immediately. What Keller needs to work on is his lower-body strength and adding mass there to help him improve his game in the rough parts of the ice.

I should probably mention that the theme of him playing against older, bigger, stronger competition has been very consistent through his career. He's played against players of all ages, really, from NCAA players (up to 24 years old...7 years older than him), European players, and pending NHL players from the CHL leagues. The pure talent is there, and if he should continue through with his NCAA commitment (Boston University), I strongly believe that he will have a massive season. Don't want to get ahead of myself, but the kind of talent he has could lead him to a potential Hobey Baker award finalist spot. Did I go too far? Well let's extrapolate a bit on some prior numbers. In 12 exhibition games against NCAA Division-1 games, Keller scored 21 points (9G 12A). That also includes 11 points (4G 7A) in 6 games against NCAA D-1 tournament teams. That's an overall 1.75 Point/game rate for Keller. That's really favorable to Kyle Connor (drafted by Winnipeg, played one season at Michigan and recently signed an Entry-Level Contract). Connor played in 5 exhibition games before going to Michigan and scored 6 points (2G 4A) in those 5 games. I think Keller spends 2 years at the most in the NCAA before pushing for an NHL roster spot...more likely to be 1, but let's just see how he progresses.

Yes that's extrapolating on just a 5 game sample and a 12 game sample, but there is such an immense amount of talent in Keller. Keller has an internal motor to his game that reminds me a lot of Zach Parise (relentless, if you will), but Keller's poise with the puck and offensive flash remind me, purely stylistically, of Mitch Marner. There's a lot of flash to his game, but luckily for us, there's also just as much substance to it. Keller's one of the younger players in the draft, and won't turn 18 until late July. There's still plenty of time for him to grow out, to hone his skills, and become even better of a prospect.

Tyson Jost

Jost's write-up can be found here.

Jost took a bit of a different, albeit not uncommon, path of development. He played this season for Penticton of the BCHL and is opting to join the University of North Dakota next season, as opposed to taking the conventional Canadian Juniors path. As a result, there have been questions throughout the season about whether or not he'll be able to produce at a high level against tougher levels of competition. Hopefully some of these worries were put to rest after Jost set the record for individual scoring for Team Canada at the U18 World Championship, with 15 points (6G 9A) in 7 games. This was one more point that the previous record set by Connor McDavid (during McDavid's draft eligible year -1 ). Interesting to note that he also apparently had a broken finger during the tournament.

Jost is very solidly built and is an interesting combination of skill, intelligence, speed, and size. Jost is a remarkable playmaker and plays the game at a very fast pace. 
He's excellent along the boards, winning most of his battles and positions himself well.. He thinks the game at a high -level too. If Jones gets the puck while in the slot, it's almost certainly game over. Jost is a great all-around goal-scorer but his shot from within the slot area is fantastic. In addition to his scoring, he does really well in leading teammates with crisp passes. His overall awareness is just excellent. Jost is a ferocious offensive talent. A typical buzzsaw-type forward in terms of grit, energy, speed, and skill, Jost is absolutely a very inviting option on the board if he's still there at #11. I like the style comparison for Jost to Joe Pavelski. Another style comparison some people see is that of the Johnathan Toews mold. It's also good to note the intangibles, Jost was the captain of his BCHL team this season and was also the captain of Team Canada's U18 team.

Jost boasts a strong two-way game as well. 
Having to grow into hockey as a smaller player, he developed strong elements to his "small game" like stick lifts and other reads on the ice. While not huge in stature, he is very difficult to knock off of the puck. I think he has the potential to be a top-line center, but will ultimately be a heck of a 2nd line center with an all-around complete game. Jost has been excellent all year, but this extra boost from the U18 tournament may put him over the top into the Top-10, especially to a team that would be looking for a center, like Montreal. In comparison between Jost and Keller, I would say that Keller has a higher ceiling to his talent, but Jost has a higher floor. His skating is excellent, and I would be surprised if he didn't make it to the NHL.

Mentioned earlier, Jost is committed to go to the University of North Dakota next season. I believe he's another candidate to have a massive season. Can you imagine if he played on a line with Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz? Wow that would be impressive. UND also has some of the best facilities in junior/NCAA hockey and is a great overall program. I think he will need to work on honing his two-way game some more while at UND. I don't know if he'll be available at #11, but if the Devils were to select him, I'd be very happy. He's got a whole lot of potential.

Logan Brown

Logan Brown is definitely one of the more intriguing prospects of the first round this year. It's really uncommon to find a 6'6" player that skates as smoothly as Brown does and who also has the offensive potential that Brown does. The biggest area for improvement is consistency. Which Logan Brown is going to show up to the game? Some games, it's hard to notice him out there (yes, even for a 6'6" center), while others he can absolutely dominate, and take over a game. Thankfully the second half of the season (his 2nd so far in the OHL) has seen a massive increase in Brown's consistent play, and a good jump in the draft board for him. 

I can't emphasize enough how much I like Brown's skating. Brown also has a lethal of the best in the draft class, actually. It's just that he shoots the puck like Jason Spezza - not nearly as often as he should because he has a bullet.

In addition to a strong second half of the season, Brown's strong play into the U18's, where he tallied 12 points (3G 9A) in 7 games and was one of the United States' best forwards. Brown uses his frame to work well along the boards and in the corners. He battles down below the goal line well, but other than that doesn't quite play a physical game. In a sense it's like Eric Fehr in the sense of having a big frame but not using it with a real killer sense. That's not a problem, just don't expect that from him. His offensive game is very close to being NHL-ready and I think he'll go back for one more year of the OHL.

In terms of playing style, it's hard to ignore the Joe Thornton comparisons: a massive center with his game predominantly consisting of play-making. Brown's path to the NHL will be hammering out his inconsistency, but I don't really think that's going to be a problem. In terms of potential, the sky is the limit with Brown (this isn't a tall joke, I promise). He has the tools to be elite, a definite 1st liner in my mind if he can put it all together. The question at this point is whether or not he'll be available at #11, especially with Montreal picking at #9

Rounding Out the Top Six Options:

Michael McLeod

McLeod's write-up can be found here

McLeod is one of, if not, the best skaters in the draft class. His speed is incredible and his gear control is excellent. His speed and acceleration help him create many scoring chances. His explosive skating is key and while he has great lateral movement, his most impressive ability for skating, in my opinion, is just how quickly he can change between the "gears" of his toolbox. McLeod plays an excellent 200-foot game, supported by his skating. He has a great shot and a smooth release. I wouldn't call him a sniper, but he does have a strong shot. In order to improve his chances of being an effective NHL'er he needs to work on the placement of the shots and getting them away quicker as well as his overall finishing ability.

His offensive creativity and strong vision and IQ within the offensive zone are extremely impressive. He positions himself well and is able to go to the dirty areas to be effective to keep the cycle going. His strong size and frame also help him along the boards, in the cycle, and to fight off checks. He still needs to add more muscle before he makes it to the NHL. I don't like the idea of "compete level" (it seems almost cliche to me), but I think it's important to talk about how McLeod just never quits playing and competing hard every shift.

He has a very safe projection for the future. There are many other prospects who I believe will have higher offensive ceilings, but McLeod, in my opinion, has the potential to be a top-end second-line center for a competing team. A similarity to McLeod's game, in my opinion, would be Jared McCann, with the only real differences in play being McCann having a better defensive play, while McLeod is much faster. Another good comparison for McLeod would be a center version of Blake Wheeler: excellent speed and board play, high "compete level", excellent but not elite stickhandling and hands...albeit at a stylistically level and not quite the same skill level.

McLeod's combination of size, speed, IQ, and overall tools at center position, and relatively safe projection path will lead him to have a potential of being draft very highly. The biggest issue surrounding McLeod is his offensive production standpoint. Some folks viewed McLeod as being "carried" offensively this season by having Alex Nylander on his line. I don't like the idea of a player "carrying" another (and from there you could make the argument that McLeod "carried" Nylander defensively), but McLeod didn't quite help his case out when Nylander was with Team Sweden for the World Junior Championships.

What McLeod brings to the game is his fantastic complete game. If his offensive finishing was just as good as the rest of his game, he'd be projected to go in the Top-5 on draft day, if not challenge for the top spot. As mentioned earlier, he's a very safe projection to be an NHL player. The question is just how high he can go.

Julien Gauthier

Gauthier's write-up can be found here.

If you could make a check-list for everything within a prospect that is an organizational need for the Devils, Julien Gauthier would tick every box. A big, strong, Power-forward, goal-scoring Right Winger would be a God-send for the organization. I'll get into why I have him outside of my top-3 a little further below, but that being said, I would still be very happy if the Devils drafted him.

He's a huge power-winger with an incredible knack for scoring goals. He's very NHL-ready, and not simply because of his size. He plays a very strong physical game, protects the puck well, and has a significant net front presence. He's able to use his long reach to his advantage in these categories, which makes it even more difficult to contain him. His skating is excellent and his shot is exceptional.

Gauthier's has good offensive zone vision and he drives to the net with ease to drive the pace of play. Gauthier plays on a very deep Val-d'Or team, and as a result, doesn't get top-line minutes. In my mind, this makes him a good candidate for a breakout in points if he is able to get consistent minutes on the top-line. Despite that, Gauthier has been playing significant time in all situations. He's able to create offense while on the penalty kill and also plays a significant portion of time in front of the net on the power play. This presence at the front of the net is a big contributor to his "Cy Young" like numbers.

There was a video from earlier in the season where a Buffalo scout (I believe it was Buffalo) was talking about how he had Gauthier listed as #2 on his list, and could challenge Matthews for the top spot. I think this was back in November or December, so a lot has changed. Gauthier has disappointed scouts in the second half of the season. There are concerns of him being a "one-dimensional" winger (which is reverting back to the concerns about him coming into this season). He also had a pretty high, potentially unsustainable shooting percentage to start off the season. That's not to say I don't think he can score 40 goals again. It's just unlikely he goes back to an almost goal-per game for the first half of the season.

 His stick-work and positioning is excellent. I think the potential is there to become a very solid top-6 power forward. His style of play reminds me a lot of James Neal. Defensively I'd like to see Gauthier improve his positioning in his own zone. There are times where he gets caught staring at the puck and is not aware of situation awareness when it comes to opposing players in "high-danger zones". He isn't lacking in a defensive awareness type, but these are things that will most likely come with further experience...The combination of Gauthier's size and speed make him very hard to contain at top speed. What impresses me about him is how good he is in the corners and along the boards. He's not just big and strong, he positions himself well, and that's an aspect of his game that will be vital to being an effective power forward at the NHL level.

There may still be consistency issues, but when Gauthier is on top of his game, he's a relentless, hard working, and full of heart power winger with a brilliant scoring touch. Despite not playing center, Gauthier plays a strong winger's game and is the type of player who you can build a championship around. Can you imagine a line having Zacha and Gauthier on it? The speed, power, and forechecking would be ridiculous. As mentioned earlier, I think it's possible for him to step into the NHL right away this upcoming season, but I think that would hurt his development. At the most, I would have Gauthier play the 9 games at the NHL to not burn a year off his contract, and then send him back down to the QMJHL.

Kieffer Bellows

In case you're wondering why there's a "Top Six" option instead of 5, this player is the reason. I definitely think taking Bellows at #11 would be a "reach", but his shot and goal-scoring is too tantalizing. Bellows has all the tools to be a top-6, most likely top-line, power-forward at the NHL level. He scored 50 goals in 62 games for the USDP. The USDP and USHL are just harder leagues to score in, making his 50 goal season all the more impressive. Bellows is committed to Boston University next season, but I think he would have torn up the Canadian Juniors should he have decided to go there for his development route.

Bellows also had the benefit of playing on Clayton Keller's wing this season, which comes with its perks, but Bellows is extremely talented on his own. Even last year, when Bellows was on the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL (his rookie season of the USHL) he scored over 30 goals. I know the Devils may not be looking for a Left-Winger, but they are also looking for high caliber players, and Bellows has that potential. Bellows played center back in high school, but looks much better playing on the wing.

Bellows brings more than his shot to the ice. He plays an incredibly physical game and goes hard on the cycle and the forecheck. He also has a strong net-front presence. He very much reminds me of Timo Meier, who was selected 9th overall in last year's Entry Draft.

Bellows's wrist-shot is not the only dangerous tool in his offensive arsenal. He also has a strong one-timer and a good tendency of deflection goals. He protects the puck well, but can sometimes end up shooting the puck in situations where he should have passed. Sometimes having a volume shooter is not a bad thing, but that is pretty much what you are going to get with Bellows. His strong IQ also helps him out in the defensive side of the game. He is not afraid to hit either in the neutral zone or defensive zone. He hits quite a bit, too, but not all of them are highlight-reel worthy.

He needs to add more muscle to his frame if he wants to play his game at the NHL level. I can really see a "one and done" type situation with him being good to push for an NHL roster spot after just one year of development at Boston U., but we will have to see how next year goes for him.

The Reaches:
While each scout, scouting organization, and team may have different "top" lists, in my view, selecting any of these players in this list would be considered a "reach" in my opinion.

Luke Kunin
Taking Kunin at #11 would be a reach, but that's the point of this section. Kunin plays a very heavy style game, whether it be his physicality, willingness to get under opponents' skin, or his shot. Kunin played for a very depleted University of Wisconsin team this year and led the team in goals (was 2nd overall in points by 1 point).

Kunin is an extremely intelligent forward and has a very high offensive ceiling. The issue for Kunin is putting it all together. He needs to work on his stickhandling, but his skating is much better than last year, and he has also put on some good muscle mass this year. Kunin plays a very "honest" game in that he doesn't cheat in any of the zones. He plays the game the right way and it's not too often to see a player with his kind of on-ice work ethic.

Kunin's IQ is very impressive. Offensively, he's able to find soft spots in the opposing defense and work his way around them. When he doesn't have the puck he adjusts his positioning well to get open or keep the cycle going. Defensively, he does the little things right, and is able to read passes and position himself well. While not necessarily an IQ thing, one thing about Kunin is that he's a big-game player. He plays the game like he has so many times before, despite what the level of the competition may be. During the All-American Prospects game, he looked fantastic and wasn't overthinking anything, despite any tendencies to do so on a big stage like that.

There is a lot to like about Kunin's game. He has a quick, heavy shot as well as quick hands, quick skating, and a high IQ. The release on his shot is quite fast and he's got good aim and accuracy. In addition to that, he can distribute the puck very well. Kunin's good in the cycle and in protecting the puck. One area for improvement in Kunin's game is his first step. Despite all those, the facet I like most about Kunin's game is the level of intensity he brings on every shift. He was an important Penalty Killer for Wisconsin this season and he was blocking shots, working hard in the corners.

Kunin has the potential to be a top-6 center, but ultimately I think he ends up being a strong middle-6 center. Regardless of where his offensive progression takes him, he's absolutely the type of player your would want on your team.

German Rubtsov
The crown jewel of the newly founded Russian U18 organization, Rubtsov is built like a fire hydrant. I will admit that I don't quite know as much about Rubtsov as I'd like. To me he's such a wildcard. He's an unbelievably strong two-way center, one of the best two-way games in the draft class. Additionally, his frame and playmaking skills project him to have a very high potential floor.

I have no intention of getting into the debate for what is a better development path for young Russians, but I think it might be best for Rubtsov to return to Russia to continue his development, similar to the Kuznetsov development path. Rubtsov's overall skillset is pretty underrated, in my view. Part of this is because Rubtsov already plays a very strong "North American" style game.

Rubtsov is a very strong skater and has an extremely high IQ. I like his shot, but I'd like to see him use it more. Rubtsov is a very safe pick, in my mind, about making the NHL.

You may not have noticed him playing at the U18 tournament. That's because the U18 Russian team was suspended from participating at this year's tournament (and had to send the U17 team instead) because the team tested positive for a banned substance - meldonium. I don't think this will cause a drop in draft stock for him. But rather, I think the other prospects stepping up for major tournament performances will put them ahead of him. (I'm not going to speculate any further on that, because we really don't know too much about the situation and I don't think it's fair to judge or speculate based on what happened to a player, especially if he didn't know what was being given to him.)

A play style comparison for Rubtsov is that of Pavel Datsyuk - Rubtsov has a very impressive set of hands and can stick-handle very well all while boasting an incredible two-way game and plays a pass-first type offense. As for projection, I think Rubtsov will be an excellent 2nd line center on a strong, contending team. He's the type of player that really works well matching up against the top lines of opponents and will be a key asset moving forward. There's also the chance he breaks out offensively (he was 2nd in total points on his U18 team) and makes a lot of teams regret not picking him earlier. I know I'm moving the goalposts there, but I think those are the two most likely options when it comes to Rubtsov.

The Pipe-Dreams:
There are possibilities where these players will be available, but this post isn't about the ways in which they would fall to us from a projected top-10 pick, but rather just an overall look at the player.

Alexander Nylander

Nylander's write-up can be found here.

Nylander is leading up to the Draft with some very impressive accolades from this season alone. Nylander was in the top 20 in OHL total scoring and the highest rookie scorer. He won the OHL Rookie of the Year. Nylander also represented Team Sweden at the U18 tournament, where he helped lead them to a silver medal by leading the team in scoring (He was also 5th in scoring at the U18 tournament).  Alex has a remarkable shot, skates extremely well - he moves around the ice so well. His balance while handling the puck or avoiding a check is very impressive as well. Nylander's skating is phenomenal, with excellent top end speed and acceleration, accentuated by elite edgework.

Nylander's ability to distribute the puck is excellent as well, and I would argue he is a better play-maker than sniper, despite how good his shot is. He is a threat for offensive chances nearly every time he is on the ice. He's excellent at driving possession and also driving the pace of play. He mainly plays on the Left wing for the Trout, but I believe that if he is to make an impact at the NHL-level, it would be on either wing. 

Nylander's main area for improvement is his defensive play. Not that it's a liability, but there is room for improvement. His positional awareness and overall knowledge of the ice help give him the foundation for growth in his defensive game, so that doesn't quite concern me. It just needs some work.

Alexander Nylander's specialty really comes where his speed and fast-tempo offense can be shown, and this is mainly in the transition game. This is what leads me to believe that he will also be on the Devils' radar. The main reasons for this would be his immense skating ability, slick puck distribution skills, strong transition game, and excellent shot. He certainly does have top-6 potential, and possibly a ceiling of being a top-line winger...most likely on the left side. I'd say an interesting style comparison for Nylander would be a Loui Eriksson-type.

Jakob Chychrun

All I'll say before I begin is that if Chychrun falls to the Devils, then it would be a true blessing from the Hockey Gods. 

From the conventional stat-watching point of view Chychrun had a relatively disappointing season. For someone who was touted as having #1 D potential last year, the slow season (especially the slow half) didn't help the cause. Also, you'll notice this with similar discussion during Ekblad's draft-eligible season too. The stage was set for both of them and there was a lot of spotlight on them, which makes it easier for folks to pick out flaws and possibly even over-exaggerate them. From a numbers perspective, the second half of the season was a significant improvement for Chychrun, and he had a solid playoff performance to show for it.

Looking at the non-statistical approach (watching the game itself), Chychrun was an absolute beast. He was responsible for just every game situation and would log up to 30 minutes a night for Sarnia. Everything starts with his remarkable skating. Every physical part of his game: his skating, shooting, passing, etc. is borderline elite, if not elite already. He thinks the game at a very high level too. There's still plenty of room for improvement and refinement, but he could step into an NHL role immediately.

The big concern for me about Chychrun is his shoulder injury history. It's given him a good amount of trouble the past few seasons. I don't foresee this proving to be a major problem for him, but I would understand any uncertainty about it. Chychrun would be the absolute perfect defenseman to fall to the Devils, because of not only his immense potential, but also because the organization is rather low on Left-handed defensemen.

Chychrun is an incredibly complete defenseman, a two-way defenseman in every sense of the term. There are many ways he can beat a defenseman while attacking and there are lots of ways he can prevent an opposing forward from shooting or setting up in Chychrun's defensive zone. I'm particularly high on Chychrun so excuse me if these claims are outlandish. I think his floor is a Zach Bogosian type player and his ceiling would be Drew Doughty type player. Ultimately I think he'll end up in the Alex Pietrangelo tier. I think he has franchise potential.

I'll try and update this more content to help give you as best of an idea for each of these players. If you have any suggestions, feedback, or ideas, please let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts on who you think the Devils should pick with the 11th Overall Selection this draft.

Follow me on Twitter @DTJ_AHockeyBlog for more updates.

Thanks for reading!

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