Ranking the Top 15 American NHL Draft-Eligibles (1-8)

Starting Friday night, 211 young men will be selected in the National Hockey League Entry Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream and taking the next step in reaching the ultimate goal of becoming a professional hockey player. It’s difficult not to envy the players for the opportunity they’re all about to receive, but up until their name is called, there’s bound to be tension and anxiety so fierce we’ll be glad not to be in their shoes.

Wednesday, I posted the back half of my Top 15 list. Today, I’ve got my choices for Nos. 1-8. It was particularly difficult to get through the 9-15 rankings, as there are so many similar players and a lot of unpredictability with that crop. The top half was a little easier to get through, but it got a little tougher when I had to put a number next to a players’ name.

Each player in this portion of the list has his own very specific skillset and potential. There’s a wide range of abilities in these eight players, which is actually really great to see from a future-of-American-hockey perspective.

I’d expect at least seven of these players to be drafted within the first two rounds of the NHL Draft, with three to four getting the nod in the first round.

Coming up after the jump, I list the eight best American-born players eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

1. F Alex Galchenyuk — Milwaukee, Wis. — Sarnia Sting (OHL)

Though he lost much of the season due to injury, there’s no denying that Alex Galchenyuk is one of the best American-born prospects in a long time. If he wasn’t hurt, who knows what his Draft stock would look like.

The injury certainly is a risk for teams looking to select him, but not a big enough one to consider picking him early a blind gamble. Having produced 83 points as a rookie in the OHL in 2010-11, there’s at least some kind of body of work to point to.

He has a terrific frame and will just keep getting stronger as he has room to grow. Galchenyuk’s hockey sense is awfully high, and his puck skills are undeniable. His vision and ability to create time and space not only makes him better, but makes those around him better too. He didn’t get enough games after the injury to safely declare his skating back to 100 percent, but even if it gets close, it’ll be above average.

In addition to that vision, he has a great release on his shot and shows some natural goal-scoring ability. Assuming he reaches his ceiling, he’s looking like a guy that could be ultra-productive in the NHL.

His ties to Russia have given some in the media pause, but the Milwaukee-born centerman has been trying to make it known he considers himself American. He grew up on the road practically, as the family moved a lot when he was young. Sure, he has a Russian accent, but as mentioned in a previous post, he’s as American as Abe Lincoln.

He shouldn’t last past the Top 5, and if he does, well… he won’t.

Stat Line: 2 GP, 0-0–0, 0 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 SHG, 0 GWG, 0 pts/gm*

* – Appeared in last two games of regular season. Posted four points (2g-2a) in six playoff games.

2. D Jacob Trouba — Rochester, Mich. — U.S. National Under-18 Team

Size, skating, toughness, a bomb from the point and character make Trouba an elite prospect. There are so many things he does well and the best part is, he’s still getting better.

Tracking Trouba from his U17 season to his U18 season is quite astounding. The confidence he gained really showed in his more mature decision-making, his reads and his impact on every game. That maturity came into play when he made the U.S. National Junior Team as an under-ager, which is a pretty rare feat for a defenseman.

Trouba is a man-child, who is just plain bigger and stronger than most of the guys he plays against. He asserts himself physically in just about every game and sometimes the results are devastating for the other guy.

While his offensive game is still developing, he has some really nice tools that can help him develop into a more consistent two-way defenseman at the next level. A big part of that is due to his skating. He has speed and power in his stride and is remarkable on his edges. He makes a good first past out of the zone most times, but his distribution is going to need a little work.

Trouba excels on the power-play, particularly when he’s able to let his one-timer go. His shot is heavy and gets to the net quickly. There’s a pretty good release on his wrist shot as well.

His defensive awareness and positioning have both come a long way and are now strengths. Trouba has great recovery speed if he gets into trouble and makes it tough on opposing forwards trying to break into the zone with a great sense of when to step up.

There aren’t many things Trouba can’t do and he’ll still have a shot at going in the Top 10, depending on how much a team believes he can improve offensively. He projects a little more safely into the 12-15 range, but this is a guy who might not be terribly far from the NHL, especially after getting in another solid year of development at the University of Michigan.

Stat Line: 54 GP, 9-23–32, 71 PIM, 6 PPG, 0 SHG, 0 GWG, 0.59 pts/gm

3. D Brady Skjei — Lakeville, Minn. — U.S. National Under-18 Team

When you get past the fact that Skjei is a 6-3, 200-pound defenseman, which obviously is attractive on its own, you begin to see the breadth of his talent. For a player at his size, mobility is almost an added bonus. When you consider some scouts are calling Skjei the best skater in the draft, it’s enough to make a few teams in the latter half of the first round drool at their good fortune.

Skjei’s standout tool is obviously his skating. It’s not just speed, it’s the ability to use his feet efficiently with good edge work and an explosive first step. He doesn’t have overwhelming puck skills, but he certainly makes up for it with his feet. He knows how to pursue and protect the puck and uses his physical tools pretty well.

It figures that Skjei has an uncle that is a skating coach, because I don’t know that I’ve seen a player come into a draft as technically sound as this guy on his feet.

While his offensive upside is questionable, it’s a part of his game that has shown marked improvement and could eventually round out enough to him being more of a two-way guy.

Defensively, he is pretty sound. He makes really great decisions and as long as he keeps his game simple defensively, he becomes really tough to beat. Again, a lot of that has to do with his feet.

Skjei is going to have a lot of room to skate next year at Minnesota on the Olympic ice, which should help make him an instant impact player in college. He’s going to be an exciting talent to watch as his game continues to round out.

Stat Line: 60 GP, 4-19–23, 36 PIM, 2 PPG, 0 SHG, 1 GWG, 0.38 pts/gm

4. F Stefan Matteau — Chicago, Ill. — U.S. National Under-18 Team

The big key to Matteau’s game is his ability to bring power. It’s easy to see why so many believe he can be an effective power forward at the NHL level. He’s already got great size at 6-2, 210 and often plays with that all-important chip on his shoulder.

As the son of a former NHL player, Matteau understands what is necessary to get to the next level and how he’s supposed to handle himself. That lends itself well to dealing with the pressure of possibly being a first-round draft pick and all the expectations that come with it.

He has pretty good, but not great puck skills, he’s a strong skater and he is obviously physically strong. While he doesn’t have a high top speed, he skates with power and efficiency. Matteau has a pretty heavy wrister and is pretty good when it comes to shooting on the fly. He engages physically and can use his body to win board battles and fight for loose pucks.

He obviously has some nastiness to his game, sometimes getting too nasty and losing his head a little bit, but he’s not one to shy away from any kind of physical contact. Having those elements of his game combined with some pretty solid offensive abilities go a long way to making him a more complete player.

Most projections you see out there have Matteau headed to an NHL team in the first round, and I certainly think he has some first-round tools. As he continues to hone his game and his skills, he very well could be a long-time NHLer.

Stat Line: 46 GP, 15-17–32, 166 PIM, 4 PPG, 0 SHG, 2 GWG, 0.70 pts/gm

5. F Nicolas Kerdiles — Irvine, Calif. — U.S. National Under-18 Team

Kerdiles is similarly sized as Matteau at 6-2, 201, but doesn’t necessarily project as that power-forward type the same way Matteau does. There’s a little more technicality to Kerdiles’ game, which I like. This really could be 4a and 4b between him and Matteau. Definitely the toughest decision of this portion of the ranking.

Kerdiles is an effective puck handler, but I don’t think anyone would call him a dangler. He can get by defenders with good skating and knows what to do when he gets near the net. He has a pretty solid stride and does display some quickness.

One of the great things about Kerdiles is that he is defensively responsible and has a pretty good amount of hockey sense. He can play center or wing to varying degrees of effectiveness. When he’s on the wing, he’s a little more free to create offensively, but is very aware of the responsibilities of a center and executes them well at both ends.

With the size and strength that he has, he should be a good two-way forward at the NHL level. Kerdiles has a nose for the net, and while his shot is good, it’s his desire to get to the front of the goal and attack loose rebounds, get a tip or bury a centering feed that allows him to produce.

He might not have that natural goal-scoring ability that teams desire in the first round, but there are some elements to his game that are first-round worthy. Kerdiles is on the first-round bubble right now, but if he doesn’t go Friday night, he won’t last long Saturday morning.

It should be interesting to see what kind of impact he has at Wisconsin, where he should get into a big role right away. As he adds more strength and continues inserting some more grit to his game, there’s definitely a place in the NHL for him.

Stat Line: 54 GP, 22-26–48, 38 PIM, 7 PPG, 0 SHG, 4 GWG, 0.89 pts/gm

6. Henrik Samuelsson — Scottsdale, Ariz. — Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)

After his wild season, starting the year with Modo in the Swedish Elitserien, Samuelsson really re-asserted himself in the eyes of scouts during a Memorial Cup run with Edmonton. He has so many elements of his game that teams are desirous of early in the draft.

His skating is likely a big factor that will probably prevent him from going in the first round. That said, he has terrific size at 6-2, 211 and uses his big body well. He plays with some nastiness like his father Ulf used to.

Samuelsson has some touch around the net and does a good job of going to the dirty areas in front to get the garbage goals. He’s tough to move around when he gets set in front of a net, or anywhere else on the ice for that matter.

His stumble in Swedish hockey is notable, and something I definitely took into account here, but I think his tools are just too good to ignore earlier in the second round. He could be a dominant player in the WHL next season.

Stat Line: 28 GP, 7-16–23, 1 PPG, 0 SHG, 0 GWG, 0.82 pts/gm*

* – Samuelsson joined Edmonton late in the WHL season. In 15 games in the SEL, he put up two assists, while he posted nine points on the Modo U20 team and another five on the U18 squad.

7. D Patrick Sieloff — Ann Arbor, Mich. — U.S. National Under-18 Team

Perhaps in another year where there weren’t so many dynamic defensemen, Sieloff would get more credit, but this year just so happens to be loaded with D prospects. As a result, a guy who is more of that pure defensive defenseman gets bumped to the back-burner a little bit.

One usually doesn’t notice a defensive defenseman, but Sieloff is different. You not only see him, you hear him, especially when he connects on one of his trademark blow-up hits. For a while scouts worried that Sieloff tried to destroy every forward coming near him and his defending suffered. Sieloff showed much better resolve at the World Under-18 Championship in that regard and really zoned in on the puck and making the puck the priority. It payed off in a big way.

Sieloff is a good skater and moves from side to side well. He is strong along the walls and shows good defensive awareness. For a guy who likes to play the body so much, he has a good defensive stick. He’s not afraid to drop the gloves, which he obviously has to do with the style he plays.

He’s not traditionally big, either. Sieloff comes in at 6-0, 198, but his strength really offsets any lack of height.

I think Sieloff could shrink a little ways toward the middle of the second round, maybe even the latter half. That said, there are a lot of teams that will put a premium on toughness, so long as the player is able in other ways as well. Sieloff isn’t going to put up a ton of points, but he will defend well and make his opponents aware of his presence in every game.

He’s headed to Windsor in the OHL next year, which could be an interesting move, after he de-committed from Miami University. I think his style works in any league, but we’ll see how it works out with the longer schedule for him.

Stat Line: 60 GP, 3-7–10, 113 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 SHG, 1 GWG, 0.16 pts/gm

8. D Jordan Schmaltz — Verona, Wis. — Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)

In 108 career USHL games, Schmaltz put up 85 points, which is pretty impressive considering the much more defensive-minded play in the league.

Schmaltz is a pure puck-moving defenseman that skates extremely well and has strong vision.

I debated for quite some time between Schmaltz and Sieloff, but I felt like Sieloff’s fairly advanced defensive game and that toughness gives him the edge. Schmaltz is a great offensive defenseman, but his defense and decision-making are areas that will need improvement for him to reach the next level.

If this were purely from a skills standpoint, I think his tool box is first-round worthy. Schmaltz needs to get stronger over the next few years at the University of North Dakota, which he should. He doesn’t have to be a physical presence on the ice to be effective, but at 6-2, 189, he has room to fill out.

There needs to be a little more patience in Schmaltz’s game, which should help lead to better decisions. Positioning in his own end has improved over the course of the last two years and he’s become less of that all-or-nothing offensive defenseman, but there’s still room to work.

Schmaltz has massive potential, which is why I think there might be a few teams willing to bet on him earlier in the second round. There’s something there and as long as he continues to tap into that potential while adding other elements to his game, which I think he will at North Dakota, he could turn into a great second-round value pick down the road.

Stat Line: 55 GP, 10-31–41, 20 PIM, 3 PPG, 1 SHG, 2 GWG, 0.74 pts/gm

There might not be the depth in the first two rounds among American-born prospects, but there’s certainly a lot of intrigue and top quality prospects. It will be interesting to follow where these guys end up in the draft and watch their development going forward.

The NHL Draft is wildly unpredictable and occasionally dramatic. No matter what you’ve read or what mock drafts you’ve seen, expect none of them to accurately predict what happens over the course of Friday and Saturday. It makes it equal parts frustrating and fun.

There’s not much left to do now except wait and watch. Unlike the kids listed above and beyond, your entire future doesn’t hang in the balance. So kick back and relax a bit. Should be a blast.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in American Prospects, Junior Hockey, NCAA, NHL Draft, NTDP. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ranking the Top 15 American NHL Draft-Eligibles (1-8)

  1. ecac is underrated says:

    Shayne Gostisbehere not listed? we’ll see what the GM’s think…

  2. Anonymous says:

    From the horses mouth:

    Matteau left the development program after the International Ice Hockey Federation ruled in April that he was ineligible to play for the American team at the under-18 world championships because he had not played in the United States for two consecutive years since turning 10.

    Matteau said he was surprised by the ruling, which he called a “bummer.” Although he is also eligible to play for Canada, he said he hoped to play for the United States in the future.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/sports/hockey/the-game-the-name-the-goal-another-matteau-in-rangers-future.html

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  4. PC says:

    Dave Hakstol and Brad Berry will help Jordan Schmaltz develop the physical side of his game. They usually have an easy time with that at UND. St Louis won’t regret taking him in the first round.

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