Two forwards and two defencemen were the big risers in this month's draft rankings.
Brooks Bandits' defenceman Cale Makar not only made his debut in the top 30 rankings, he rocketed up the charts to crack McKeen's top 20 and be rated as the top Canadian defenceman in the draft. As the leading scorer among all AJHL defencemen this season we were seriously considering him for our top 30 going into the competition, but were waiting to see how he performed at the WJAC before anointing him first-round status.
Quite simply, he exceeded all expectations from the moment they dropped the puck for the tournament, notching two goals and three assists in his opening game versus the Swiss in the most dominating performance we have ever seen at the World Hockey Challenge.
Tri-City defenceman Juuso Valimaki is the other blueliner to rise significantly in the past month as he started to light up opposing WHL goaltenders at a rate rarely seen at the CHL level. The 6-2 Finn scored nine goals over a ten-game span in the past month, and racked up 16 points in his last 11 games before leaving to join Finland for the World Junior tournament. Add to that his improved play defensively, and it wasn't hard to move him up into the top ten in the rankings as others such as Klim Kostin slid down the rankings.
The big Russian winger was still being given the benefit of the doubt up until mid November after his sterling play at the U-18's last spring, but Kostin's spotty effort and lack of production at the recent Canada-Russia Super Series only helped confirm what was first suspected at the Ivan Hlinka in August - he's an inconsistent winger with concerns about his hockey sense, work ethic and puck support, beckoning some comparisons to Julien Gauthier in that he possesses lots of tools but perhaps not the tool box.
Kostin went into the WJAC tournament with a wonky shoulder so we won't be overly harsh on his lacklustre play to date...but the first period of his game against Canada West offered a glimpse of the yin and yang with this prospect. He scored a goal on the power play to stake Russia to a 1-0 lead, then was caught way up ice on two goals against when he failed to stay deep enough to support his defencemen, choosing instead to look for an impossible 100-foot pass through two opponents. He has lot of time to right the ship before the draft much like Valeri Nichushkin did in his draft year, and it will take a similar improvement in his work ethic and team game for that to happen.
Nikita Popugaev is another Russian whose bloom has wilted somewhat in the past few weeks after tearing up WHL opponents in the first couple of months of the season. When he's not moving his feet he's not nearly as effective, especially in his own zone, and the 6-5 winger has seen a drop in his energy level in the past month on some nights, which is now also affecting him on the scoresheet as he's gone without a goal in his last five games.
Questions are popping up about his skating, and some scouts have even suggested that he's a risky player to select in the first round because of it, but it's likely more a case of him hitting a wall in terms of his energy level than real skating concerns as he moves pretty well when he's motivated, and his technique seems fine. He has the skill level to move back up in the rankings if he rediscovers his work ethic, which in fairness his last game against Saskatoon didn't look all that bad. He's moved down some in the rankings also because some players have jumped ahead of him based on improved performances from the likes of Pettersson and Valimaki.
Elias Pettersson is the other skater that moved up into the top ten following his scintillating performance at a U-20 event in Sweden last month and continued strong play in the Allsvenskan. The 18-year-old center is one point back of the scoring leaders in Sweden's second-best league, uncharted territory for a draft-eligible player. Pettersson is a speedy pivot with excellent puck skills and hockey sense whose main need is to get stronger. Once he develops more lower-body strength, he'll will be a formidable force on the ice. He has the tools to be a top-two center in the NHL.
London center Robert Thomas was the other forward that climbed up the rankings as it became clearer that he was one of the most skilled all-around forwards in this draft class. Thomas never has a poor game thanks to his smarts, work ethic and elite skating skills. If he's not putting up points it doesn't mean he's not playing effectively, and when he does...such as that notable game in early December when he had five points against Flint that included a highlight-reel shorthanded goal where his team was down two skaters...he is a dominant junior player at the tender age of 17. It looks like the London prospect factory has manufactured another gem.
|1||Nolan Patrick||C||Brandon (WHL)||6-3/200||19-Sep-98||6-4-5-9|
|2||Casey Mittelstadt||C||Green Bay (USHL)||6-1/200||22-Nov-98||16-8-13-21|
|3||Nico Hischier||C||Halifax (QMJHL)||6-1/175||4-Jan-99||31-23-25-48|
|4||Michael Rasmussen||C||Tri-City (WHL)||6-6/215||17-Apr-99||34-22-16-38|
|5||Elias Pettersson||C||Timra (Swe 2)||6-1/160||12-Nov-98||26-11-15-26|
|6||Juuso Valimaki||D||Tri-City (WHL)||6-2/205||6-Oct-98||32-12-23-35|
|7||Timothy Liljegren||D||Rogle (Swe)||6-0/190||30-Apr-99||9-0-3-3|
|8||Owen Tippett||RW||Mississauga (OHL)||6-1/200||16-Feb-99||30-23-14-37|
|9||Eeli Tolvanen||RW||Sioux City (USHL)||5-10/175||22-Apr-99||23-16-11-27|
|10||Kristian Vesalainen||LW||HPK (Fin)||6-3/205||1-Jun-99||9-1-0-1|
|11||Miro Heiskanen||D||HIFK Helsinki (Fin)||6-0/170||18-Jul-99||25-3-4-7|
|12||Nikita Popugaev||LW||Moose Jaw (WHL)||6-5/205||20-Nov-98||31-20-22-42|
|13||Gabriel Vilardi||C||Windsor (OHL)||6-3/200||16-Aug-99||16-9-13-22|
|14||Martin Necas||C||Kometa Brno (Cze)||6-0/170||15-Jan-99||29-6-7-13|
|15||Ryan Poehling||C||St. Cloud State (NCHC)||6-2/185||3-Jan-99||15-4-2-6|
|16||Lias Andersson||C||HV 71 (Swe)||5-11/200||13-Oct-98||24-5-4-9|
|17||Cale Makar||D||Brooks (AJHL)||5-10/175||30-Oct-98||28-11-27-38|
|18||Robert Thomas||C||London (OHL)||5-11/185||2-Jul-99||30-11-20-31|
|19||Urho Vaakanainen||D||JyP Jyvaskyla (Fin)||6-2/185||1-Jan-99||23-2-1-3|
|20||Cody Glass||C||Portland (WHL)||6-2/180||1-Apr-99||33-16-29-45|
|21||Maxime Comtois||LW||Victoriaville (QMJHL)||6-2/200||8-Jan-99||33-8-14-22|
|22||Klim Kostin||LW||Dynamo Moscow (Rus)||6-3/195||5-May-99||8-0-0-0|
|23||Matthew Strome||LW||Hamilton (OHL)||6-3/205||6-Jan-99||30-16-14-30|
|24||Cal Foote||D||Kelowna (WHL)||6-3/215||13-Dec-98||33-3-26-29|
|25||Jesper Boqvist||LW||Brynas (Swe Jr)||5-11/175||30-Oct-98||14-10-5-15|
|26||Conor Timmins||D||Sault Ste Marie (OHL)||6-1/185||18-Sep-98||31-4-23-27|
|27||Shane Bowers||C||Waterloo (USHL)||6-1/180||30-Jul-99||23-9-9-18|
|28||Grant Mismash||LW||NTDP (USA)||6-0/185||19-Feb-99||29-8-11-19|
|29||Kole Lind||RW||Kelowna (WHL)||6-1/175||16-Oct-98||32-18-23-41|
|30||Erik Brannstrom||D||HV 71 (Swe Jr)||5-10/175||2-Sep-99||18-8-13-21|