The 2020 NHL Draft is coming into focus ahead of this year’s Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Beyond the consensus top two prospects – Alexis Lafreniere of the Rimouski Oceanic and Quinton Byfield of the Sudbury Wolves – a handful of other Canadian Hockey League players have emerged as candidates to be selected in the top half of the first round.
Jamie Drysdale of the Erie Otters is a puck-moving defenceman who sees the ice and skates very well. Those qualities have been evident all season and were the primary reason why Hockey Canada saw little alternative but to keep him on their final roster at the World Junior.
“I called his coach in Erie and he told me that once you invite him to the camp, you’re going to keep him,” remembered Ottawa 67’s head coach Andre Tourigny, who handled Team Canada’s defence in the Czech Republic.
“And we did – he gave us no choice.”
Drysdale is the quintessential modern back-end player. Tourigny pointed out that he showed prowess playing both the left and right side (he’s a right-hand shot). Barring an unexpected development before June 26th, Drysdale will be the first defenceman to step on to the stage on Friday evening in Montreal. That unofficial honour is richly deserved in any case but is helped by the relative lack of blue chip blueliners – he could move inside the top 10.
Cole Perfetti of the Saginaw Sprit has held his status inside the top 10 after scoring 35 goals as a 16-year-old.
Imagine potting that many goals as a rookie and not winning rookie of the year?
That was Perfetti’s fate last season as he had the misfortune of being in the same OHL rookie class as Byfield. Perfetti had an equal number of assists in 2018-19, and he has now expanded that part of his game in his sophomore campaign. A year after benefitting by playing with older, accomplished linemates, he now has become the playmaker in setting up/elevating others.
Perfetti could be the single most exciting player with the puck in the entire Draft class, in how he dangles and create chances with the puck already on his stick. With his unworldly hockey sense, anticipation and slick moves, if Perfetti can improve his explosiveness over time, he projects as an exciting NHL sniper.
“I was fortunate to play with a lot of good players my rookie year,” said Perfetti, during the media conference for this year’s Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, “They really helped me… and now I know that my first stride, my explosiveness is something I need to work on.”
Scouts seem unconcerned that Perfetti will do the necessary work.
“You’ll see a lot of Perfetti jerseys in an NHL arena some day,” said one scout.
Perfetti’s was invited to Team Canada’s final selection camp but was left off the final roster, which was a mild surprise.
Marco Rossi , a centre with the Ottawa 67’s should have the opportunity to play in the World Junior next year in Alberta after his native Austria earned promotion to the top group back in December. He is a classic stud centre on a great team, as the 67’s are currently rampaging through the schedule on a 17-game winning streak.
“I’m surprised I still had a job when I came back,” joked Tourigny.
Had there been any concern about how Rossi would adjust to the North American game, he showed few ill effects last season and is even more comfortable this year.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked and more,” said 67’s general manager James Boyd, “nothing really seems to deter him and that extends back to playing in Europe against men when he was just 16 years old.”
Rossi is smart with and without the puck and an inclusive player in how he distributes the disc. Given his gaudy numbers, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his play in the defensive zone and on the forecheck. He benefits from having good linemates/teammates but he’s also a big reason why so many 67s players have had good offensive seasons. Though not a concern at the major junior level, Rossi’s relative lack of size is a mild concern in how it translates to the pro ranks.
One of Rossi’s 67’s teammates is Jack Quinn. He, like Rossi, is another late birthday who if he was born a week earlier would already be drafted. Quinn has helped his status by putting up good numbers in his third OHL season. He scores pro-like goals, with a quick release and an ability to wire the puck from pretty much anywhere on the ice. He’s a decent skater and has average size but will need to improve on the former and be more assertive in the latter in pro hockey. One variable, in addition to his late birthday, that makes Quinn tougher to gauge is how much he benefits from playing on such an excellent team for the past two seasons.
Boyd says that the late birthday variable should be viewed as a positive for both his draft-eligible players.
“What I think people don’t realize is how being born late in the year has forced guys like that to always play with older players when they were younger,” said Boyd. “When they were young, being almost a year older than some of the players in their age group forced them to be better, to improve. I think it’s a positive.”
With the 67’s poised for another long playoff run, the evaluation window for both Rossi and Quinn will be likely be extended well into April.
Dawson Mercer of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens is another 2001-born player and one of the strongest risers in this year’s crop of draft-eligible players because of a workmanlike two-way game. Mercer seems to like the dirty areas, especially down low and on the boards. He would have been drafted last year if he was a conventional birth date but has improved his status during the extra year. He was more comfortable with a bigger role with the Drummondville Voltiguers this season, picking up from his very strong playoff last spring (16 points in 16 games) and now should get an opportunity for another playoff run with the Sags.
All told, Mercer seems to give scouts the collective impression that he’ll “find a way” to become an NHLer in much the same way he’s done it at the major junior level. That perseverance also earned Mercer a spot on Team Canada in the Czech Republic.
Beyond Drysdale, Braden Schneider of the Brandon Wheat Kings is another defenceman earning positive reviews in his draft year. He continues to progress and is now one of the WHL’s best defenceman. He plays a no-nonsense game and is both reliable and sensible in his own zone. He has shown an ability to keep opposing forwards at bay in his end and then uses his effective size/strength to often knock them off the puck. Although not a classic offensive defenseman, Schneider has good overall puck skills and hockey sense to make the right play when exiting his own zone. Scouts would prefer to see a bit more mobility in containing opposing forwards who try and beat him wide. His game both now and in the professional ranks translates as a minute-munching, meat-and-potatoes defenceman that all NHL clubs covet.
Also out west, Kaiden Guhle of the Prince Albert Raiders is also coming into focus as well.
As odd as it may seem for a former No. 1 overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft, Guhle had to fight hard for playing time last season on a championship squad. The relative lack of ice time in his rookie year could be the reason why he hasn’t quite asserted himself this season until recently.
Guhle has an impressive package of defensive qualities and opponents always know he’s on the ice. He is a very good skater, especially for his size and his mobility allows him to recover when he makes a mistake. Two scouts speculated that “when the penny drops” mentally and he gains more confidence, that he could become the dominant d-man that many are still expecting him to become.
One of those scouts, consulted more recently, confirmed that Guhle has become more assertive and is “coming into his own.”
Compiled by Peter Robinson