Making lists is hard. What makes another player better than another? How can one predict potential? If the NHL Draft has taught us anything, sometimes even the professionals get it wrong. Luckily for me, my job doesn’t hang in the balance of making such a list and I’m able to do it without much regard for the long-term success of an NHL team. Basically, us bloggers, journalists, pretend scouts, have it easy.
That said, it’s still interesting to gather opinions from people of all levels of expertise. There’s a real value in reading as much as you can from different people. Everyone is going to have something a little different, which is what makes this a little more fun and unpredictable, I think.
You’ve seen all of the other Draft rankings and mock drafts by now and even if you’ve never seen any of these players you’re beginning to form your own opinions about who your team should take.
So with the Draft just days away now, here’s the first half of my contribution to your Draft preparation.
The following is the back half (9-15 + honorable mentions) of my ranking of the Top 15 Americans for the NHL Draft. Based on my own viewings of the players and the opinions of others I value, I put together what would basically be my draft board if I were a U.S. scout for an NHL team (just use your imagination). I’ll share the top half of my rankings Thursday.
Though I’m probably a little higher on McCabe than most, he’s on the back end of my Top 15, just barely. The thing that stands out most to me about McCabe is that in each of the last three years, he’s taken a dramatic step forward in his development. I think if there are teams that have seen McCabe more than just this year will notice that too.
He saw some major minutes at Wisconsin after overcoming a freak injury via a skate blade and didn’t ever look out of place. The Badgers struggled quite a bit this year, but McCabe was a very reliable defender as a true freshman. There wasn’t an instance where he was over-matched and that is a result of his tremendous strength and sturdiness.
McCabe has also improved each year in adding more offense to his game. I think he sees the ice pretty well and can make a good first pass. He has gotten better at picking his spots to jump into the rush. Still, for McCabe, the defensive tools and awareness that he possesses are going to keep him high on Draft boards. Having shown improvement in each of the last three seasons in rounding out his game, it will be really interesting to see how McCabe does in a featured role with the Badgers as a sophomore next year.
Stat Line: 26 GP, 3-9–12, 12 PIM, 2 PPG, 0 SHG, 2 GWG, 0.46 pts/gm
Vail has come a very long way since his first year of Junior hockey at age 15 with the Waterloo Black Hawks. He was a bit invisible as a rookie in the OHL in 2010-11, but really came into his own this year in Windsor.
Vail had 52 points this season, and possesses a really nice shot with good release, but what will make him stand out among his peers is his commitment to defense and ability to hang with top players.
According to one NHL scout, Vail got a lot of assignments against opposing teams’ top lines and was able to do well against guys like Nail Yakupov and Ryan Strome among other top OHL players. A lot of that has to do with his high level of hockey sense and defensive awareness. On top of that, the centerman has built up a lot of strength over the last few years and has a good solid 6-1, 190-pound frame.
There’s always going to be a spot in the NHL for guys that do what Vail does. It’s not the most sexy thing to be good on defense as a forward, and that’s why he likely won’t go until the later second-round, maybe even third. Either way, a player with Vail’s hockey sense and ability is going to make an NHL team pretty happy down the line.
Stat Line: 68 GP, 22-30–52, 55 PIM, 5 PPG, 2 SHG, 2 GWG, 0.76 pts/gm
The big thing about Nieves is that he’s got loads of skill and is a very good skater. However, there are concerns that he’s too much of a perimeter player and at 6-3, that can’t happen. That’s probably why I bumped Nieves down a bit on my personal list, but I still really love the puck skills and speed that this player possesses.
Nieves has really nice vision and can create space really well. He’s certainly a good distributor of the puck, while he can also use his feet to make him tough to defend.
I think there are going to be teams that would be willing to reach a little bit for his skill, but certainly not in the first round. The thing about Nieves is he has to get stronger and he should be able to do that at Michigan next year. He’s headed to a good place for his development and will be forced to round out his game to get ice time with Red Berenson’s group.
Nieves has a good frame to build on. If he adds some strength and just a little bit of grit, he could turn into a really nice player in the future.
Kent School: 26 GP, 7-32–39, 24 PIM, 1.50 pts/gm
Indiana: 13 GP, 2-8–10, 2 PIM, 1 PPG, 0 SHG, 0 GWG, 0.78 pts/gm
At 6-2, 216, Hart is a big kid with a lot of potential that he hasn’t even begun to tap into yet. His numbers will have to be taken with a grain of salt, as he is a late 1993-born forward playing prep school hockey. As one of the oldest kids in prep, he probably should have put up numbers, but when you have a guy at his size that can produce, it’s something to take note of.
Hart was invited to the U.S. World Junior camp, which is a pretty strong indication of where he sits among his peers. There appears to be quite a few big, powerful forwards, especially among the American-born guys. Without knowing how Hart would have fared against older, stronger competition like the other guys, I had to keep him in this range.
Stat Line: 29 GP, 32-36–68, 20 PIM, 2.34 pts/gm
Coming out of the same Junior program that propelled Charlie Coyle to be a first-rounder in the NHL Draft, Vesey had a dynamic offensive season for the Kings. He has good enough size and a high level of skill.
One coach told me he really likes Vesey’s on-ice work ethic and smart play, which should be big factors in his rise up the charts in his second year of eligibility.
Vesey broke EJHL scoring records this year as well. He averaged over a goal-per-game, which is impressive in any league.
The offensive skills are there and he’s continually getting bigger, too. He’s headed to Harvard next year, which will only help him get bigger and stronger along the way. Vesey’s offensive tools and his rapidly developing game are both huge factors in his inclusion on this list. After passing him last year, there will be several NHL teams looking to correct the mistake.
Side Note: Vesey’s dad, Jim, was a star player at Merrimack College and managed to appear in 15 games in the NHL. Jim was also a scoring machine in the minors.
Stat Line: 45 GP, 48-43–91, 52 PIM, 16 PPG, 2 SHG, 10 GWG, 2.02 pts/gm
This one might be a little off the board, but this is a player that has shown a lot of growth over the last few years in the OHL and could be one of those riskier picks that pays off in the end.
Blujus still has a ways to go before he’s an NHL defenseman, but he’s got good size at 6-3, 193, and can play well at both ends of the ice. He had a nice uptick in offensive production this season and showed improved play in his own end.
He has a little more room to grow into his frame and add a little more nastiness to his game, but I think there’s enough offensive ability there to offset any concern. He does need to improve his defensive positioning a bit, but the physical tools and his offensive upside are why I’ve got Blujus in my Top 15.
Stat Line: 66 GP, 7-27–34, 38 PIM, 1 PPG, 0 SHG, 1 GWG, 0.52 pts/gm
Central Scouting is really high on Kurker and it’s not terribly hard to see why. He’s yet another 6-2, close-to-200-pound forward that has a fair amount of offensive upside. He had terrific production in the Prep ranks and obviously when you look at that size, it gives him that little added bump.
Without knowing much about Kurker, I had to rely a little bit on outside sources. Opinions have been very split on Kurker, but there is a general belief that he can excel with a little more rounding out of his game. He had it fairly easy in prep with his size and natural talent.
He’ll be headed to Boston University next year, which has really helped a lot of guys from the New England Prep ranks blossom. I don’t think anyone would consider Kurker’s game to be overly gritty, which is something he’ll probably have to add to have success at his size.
Kurker was part of the U.S. Ivan Hlinka team in the summer and got a few games in with the NTDP U18s over the season. It should be interesting to watch him develop at BU as he’ll only get bigger and stronger there with the school’s vaunted strength and conditioning program. He’s worth keeping a close eye on.
Stat Line: 24 GP, 32-28–60, 23 PIM, 2.50 pts/gm
F Thomas Di Pauli — Woodridge, Ill. — U.S. National U18 Team
Di Pauli is really strong in possession, which was a big factor in why he was a strong competitor for the Top 15. Ultimately, his lack of production this year led me to keep him in the honorable mention section. I think he has potential to be a little more offensive down the line, but he’ll be a really strong mid-round pick this year.
F Ben Johnson — Hancock, Mich. — Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Johnson is still growing a lot as a player, having been just one year removed from Michigan high school hockey, but what he was able to accomplish in his first year of Junior was pretty strong. He’s a great skater that will just continue getting better in all aspects of the game. There are some teams that may look to Johnson a little earlier than others due to his potential. There’s a lot of room for him to get to his ceiling.
D Brian Cooper — Anchorage, Alaska — Fargo Force (USHL)
Cooper has the right kind of mentality, and I think that will come across to a lot of NHL teams. He doesn’t have great size, but he is continually engaging in the physical aspects of the game. Cooper needs to add more productivity to his game if he’s going to make it at the next level, but there are certainly attractive elements to his game that teams are going to like a lot.
G Anthony Stolarz — Jackson, N.J. — Corpus Christi Ice Rays (NAHL)
It’s all about potential with Stolarz. I’m really not sure where this kid is going to go in the Draft, just because he really has come out of nowhere. There’s always an element of risk in drafting goalies, but there is going to be a team that is more than willing to take that risk with this 6-5, 200-pound netminder.
G Jon Gillies — South Portland, Maine — Indiana Ice (USHL)
Gillies definitely has a lot to like about his game, especially in that he has improved so much over the last two years. He’s also going to see a ton of playing time at Providence College, which might accelerate his development a little bit. His size is a big factor and his extra polish might lead him to be selected ahead of Stolarz.
F Danny O’Regan — Needham, Mass. — St. Sebastian’s School
O’Regan is one of the more creative American forwards available in the draft, but his size is going to scare some teams off. I think he has some really oustanding puck skills and makes his teammates better. There’s a good work ethic to his game and by getting to Boston University next year, he’s going to build strength and once he adds that, you’ve got a pretty nice forward prospect.
D Max Iafrate — Livonia, Mich. — Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
The son of Al had a big year in the OHL after being dealt from Plymouth. The change of scenery allowed Iafrate to flourish a bit. He’s a big kid at 6-2, 220. He plays with some snarl, but his offense has a little ways to go before he’d be considered a top flight prospect. He’s obviously got the good bloodlines, which might help a few teams make up their minds about him.
F Austin Czarnik — Washington, Mich. — Miami University
I still think it was a mistake that Czarnik didn’t get picked up last year, but I think he’ll go this time around. Despite being undersized, Czarnik goes after every loose puck, has terrific speed and engages physically. He has a lot of great offensive skills that are worth taking a chance on. I think he could be a productive player down the line.
Make sure to come back Thursday for Nos. 1-8 of the United States of Hockey Top 15.