In the second instilment of my pre-draft musings, the focus will be on players that the Avalanche have an actual shot at getting, many of whom you will already be somewhat familiar with thanks to the pre-draft discussions that have been taking place on Mile High Hockey the last few weeks. If any of you read through this list and feel I have made an obvious omission, let me know. I'm always open to discussions and suggestions. And in this particular draft, I'm bound to miss someone; the draft order this year is so uncertain that ten different scouts could give you ten very different opinions on what the first round will look like, making it all the more important that the Avs brain trust does their homework. Without further ado, here are just a few of the players the Avalanche could take a look at with their first round pick as well as some quick thoughts on each.
1) The similarities between Red Deer Rebels center Connor Bleackley and the Avs own Ryan O'Reilly in his draft year are a little startling, making me think that Bleackley is likely a player on the Avs radar. He's even projected at roughly the same place the Avs are drafting. Like O'Reilly at the same age, Bleackley was about a point per game player on a lower end team (O'Reilly's Otters lasted just five games in the playoffs that year, while Bleackley's Rebels missed the playoffs altogether). Like O'Reilly, Bleackley is a two way center, lauded for his leadership (he was captain in Red Deer this year) and his 200 foot game. Like O'Reilly he was a fixture for Canada at the U18 World Championships this past year, relied upon heavily by the coaching staff in all situations. And much like our own Radar as an 18 year old, the big knock on him at the moment is his skating, but the consensus is it won't keep him out of the NHL. It may be tempting to say that Bleackley lacks the offensive punch of O'Reilly, especially after the latters most recent NHL season, but remember that O'Reilly wasn't projected as a point producer right out of junior either; he scored just 16 goals in his draft year (compare that to Bleackley's 29). Bleackley has a higher offensive ceiling than it seemed O'Reilly would at the same age, and watching him play, his goal scoring instincts are impressive for a forward known more for his complete game. He also has a physical edge that O'Reilly never displayed. There are no major holes in his game, and if he's still around at 23 the Avs would be hard pressed to get better value for that pick. He is rated about the range the Avs are drafting, and this is the kind of kid that makes scouts slap their foreheads and wonder what they were thinking when they passed on him.
2) As has been mentioned, this year's draft is notably thin on defensemen, and this is the area in which the Avs need the most help. The most likely candidate at the moment appears to be Roland McKeown. To put this in perspective for you: last year, all the scouts were saying about Winnipeg first rounder Josh Morrissey was that he was guaranteed to play in the NHL someday, the only question was in what capacity. The same is being said of McKeown. Where the difference lies is that Morrissey is unquestionably a puck-moving offensive defensemen; the Kronwall-esque hits he throws are just a bonus. With McKeown, scouts wonder what exactly it is he will do well at the NHL level. Scouts are not shy about their concerns that he seems to lack a specialty. Phrases like "identity crisis" and "there needs to be some tough love" and "lacking the wow factor" (though this is not the worst thing one could say of a defenseman) jump off the page when reading the scouting reports on McKeown. He has decent offensive instincts (11 goals and 43 points in 62 games) but the question is whether his skill set translates to offensive defenseman in the NHL. His defensive game is sound, both physically and in terms of his positioning, but while he has decent size (6-1 195 lbs.) many question whether he has enough of it to play a punishing style at the NHL level. But there is much to like here; all scouts agree there are no real weaknesses to his game. One area of his that does come off as a real strength is his shot. He has a good ability to get hard shots through traffic, and he even scored a shootout goal with a slap shot. He'll need development, but this player would be a safe, if unspectacular pick. However, as this draft is thin on defensemen, he may be gone long before the Avs draft.
3) One feels a little bad for Nikita Scherbak. The kid has size, skill, compete level, good vision and hockey sense, and he was a standout at the prospects game. If any other player had those attributes, you get the sense they'd be talked about more. But Scherbak has several misfortunes: one, he played on an absolutely miserable Saskatoon Blades team (which, thanks to a trade made last season, didn't even have the first overall pick in the Bantam Draft to console them) where he had virtually no teammates as strong as he was. Two, and this will always be a factor, he is Russian. It's a bit unfair, but there it is; Russians just don't get the same love from NHL teams, and every time a Russian player bolts for the KHL the distinction seems more and more justified. Will Scherbak flee? Probably not. He came over to North America and was willing to play on one of the worst teams in the circuit to make his NHL dream a reality. He's still a little skinny, but his 6-1 frame leaves lots of growing room. He might be a project, and he's no sure thing the way McKeown and Bleackley are, but his ceiling could be among the highest in the draft.
4) The commenters on this site are giving a lot of love to Travis Sanheim these days. If you don't know much about Sanheim, don't beat yourself up over it. Up until this year, almost nobody in the NHL community did. He spent the last two seasons playing Midget AAA in Manitoba for a Yellowhead Chiefs team that hasn't enjoyed much success in a league traditionally dominated by the Winnipeg-based Wild and Thrashers. He started very slowly this year, hardly putting up any points in the first half, but by the end of the year scouts saw him as the best defenseman the Calgary Hitmen had. His totals don't jump off the page (29 points in 67 games) until you remember that he put up almost all of those points in the second half. By the time the U18s rolled around, he was comfortable at the junior level and led all defensemen in scoring at the event. His puck movement is excellent, and while he isn't a physical player per se his 6-3 frame tantalizes. After all, playing the body is a skill that can be taught, but the poise Sanheim displays is far harder to teach. Another less safe pick, the Avs will have to decide whether Sanheim has peaked, or whether he will continue his meteoric rise. If its the former, he'll still be a serviceable player. If it's the latter, the sky is the limit for this young man.
5) I'm a bit unsure of what to make of Brendan Lemieux. Some scouts say he's a carbon copy of his dad, while others say he has little of Claude's game to him. Leaving aside the family comparisons, let's evaluate him objectively, based on what has been seen as opposed to what is known. Lemieux has good size, and underrated offensive instincts. He plays a physical game, drawing penalties and getting under the skin of his opponents. He had a very strong prospects game and was a key contributor on a solid Barrie Colts team. Most people who watch him come away impressed, and a little surprised, with his release, and I'm among that number. He won't be offensively challenged at the NHL level, and his size (6-0, 206 lbs.), while not massive, is solid. There are questions about his ceiling, for certain, but his skating and release are both solid. He may not end up being a first rounder, but man, is some team going to be happy to get him in the second.
6) For those wondering, just remember that Alex Tuch's last name rhymes with truck. Not hard to remember; the kid is 6-3 and 213 lbs. Second only to Nick Ritchie in terms of pure power forward in this draft, I can't imagine this guy is still around when the Avs draft (ISS had him ranked as high as 8, and most other services have him in the teens). Yet the more draft previews I read, the more I see this guy (to my surprise) in the twenties, even still available when the Avs are picking, and the fact is, this draft is so whacky that this could well end up being the case. We would be extremely fortunate to land Alex Tuch. His size intrigues, but for scouts who come to watch him play it's his offensive game that impresses them. Scoring 32 points in 26 games with the U.S. NTDP this past season, scouts come away from watching him marvelling at his shot. By all accounts his release is quick, and the resulting shot frighteningly hard, among the hardest in the draft apparently. Players with his impressive shot on a 6-3 frame don't come along that often, which is why he'll likely be gone by the time the Avs draft, but on this one I would be very happy to be proven wrong. Tuch would be a great addition to this team.
7) Another player who I think will be gone by the time we draft, but whom I see on more and more lists available in the Avs range, is NTDP player Dylan Larkin. He was a point per game player for the NTDP against USHL competition, posting 17 goals in just 26 games this season. He has decent size (6-1, 190 lbs.) and is a great skater. Any time you hear the words "guaranteed player" or "he'll wear a letter some day" you can't help but get a bit excited. Some people have questioned his ceiling, but like McKeown and Bleackley there is no question whatsoever that he will end up playing in the NHL. Again, not a player I expect to be available when the Avs draft (most scouting services have him in the early teens) but a player who would make a welcome addition to any club. Larkin's work ethic, fearless play, speed and leadership make him an enticing prospect.
8) This is a draft full of players with red flags, and few players have more such red flags than Josh Ho-Sang. On the one hand, Ho-Sang's mentality and work ethic have been questioned to no end. He was even suspended for a hit from behind in the OHL playoffs (though the suspension was reduced, and rightly so). Some say he lacks discipline off the ice. On the other hand, this is a kid with blazing speed, fast hands, and among the best individual talent in the draft. He put up 85 points in 67 games on a mediocre Windsor Spitfires squad that traded away his running mate Kirby Rychel. If you can get through to him (which is an if) he could be among the best players in the draft. However I see him as an unlikely choice for the Avs, who have plenty of skill up front and need players with some intangibles, intangibles which Ho-Sang seems to be lacking.
9) While there are many questions about Ho-Sang's work ethic, there are none about Robby Fabri in that department. At the Memorial Cup, in the Prospects Game, during the OHL playoffs, it didn't matter. The kid just battles. He is everything a small player needs to be in the modern NHL. A hard worker, fast on his feet, skilled, willing to mix it up a bit, and with a drive that shames many of the players in this draft. He had 45 goals in just 58 regular season games, and he led the OHL playoffs in scoring and was named the MVP. This on a Guelph team loaded with snipers like Kirby Rychel, Scott Kosmachuk, and Brock McGinn. With all of those players likely graduating this coming season, Fabri will be relied upon even more, and the diminutive but competitive forward will relish the task.
I still have one more part to go, so if I missed someone feel free to tell me about it. I welcome the discussion, as mentioned (hey, the draft is still a ways off and I'm bored). Next instilment will feature the likes of Ivan Barbashev, the curious case of Hunter Smith, and a few other players and thoughts leading up to the draft.