NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — There’s never been a secret formula to consistent success at the draft table, which is why the art of scouting has as much to do with luck as it does with the thousands of work hours one can put in during a given season.
Although most of the NHL’s current stars — both past and present — were plucked from or near the very top of their respective drafts, there are outliers whom, for whatever reasons, went relatively undetected or overlooked before joining a club via a late-round pick.
But most teams, if not all, will tell you that a key objective of the annual draft process is to find as many NHL-caliber players as possible, regardless of whether they become headline grabbers or not. For every star unearthed in later rounds such as Jamie Benn (129th overall in 2007), Joe Pavelski (205th overall in 2003), and Mark Stone (178th overall in 2010), there are just as many critical support players like Jesper Bratt (162nd overall in 2016), Andrew Copp (104th overall in 2013), Andrew Mangiapane (166th overall in 2015), and Jaccob Slavin (120th overall in 2012). Those names alone would be the start of one heck of a lineup, and all were drafted well after the 15 to 20 prominent names who dominated draft talk in their respective years of eligibility. And as you can see, it usually happens at least once every year.
How or why this trend is so prevalent would require an exhaustive study that should be made strictly on a team-to-team, and year-to-year basis. Again, luck plays a huge role in player development; a process which in the NHL’s case usually takes anywhere from four to six years post-draft until a draft prospect can be considered a full-time impact player. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a little fun trying to predict who from the Class of 2021 may become the next Henrik Lundqvist (205th overall in 2000) or Kirill Kaprizov (135th overall in 2015).
The 2021 draft, which will be held on July 23-34, isn’t the deepest we’ve seen in recent years but there will be quality found in every round. Below are just a handful of prospects who caught my eye this season and wouldn’t shock me if they make the NHL’s scouting community play the hindsight game in four or five years.
Eetu Liukas, LW (TPS, SM-Liiga)
25-Sep-2002 | 6’2, 198 lbs | Shoots Left | Finland
A rugged power winger who plays an effective 200-foot game, Liukas (pictured) has been on the draft radar for several years due to his late birthday which in 2019-20 allowed him to play at several under-18 competitions. Had it not been for the pandemic, the strapping forward should have been expected to play for Finland at prominent events such as the two U20 Four Nations and U19 Five Nations tournaments. He therefore spent the bulk of his first year of draft eligibility with TPS Turku’s A-Team in the adult-age SM-Liiga, where he appeared in only 19 games as a bottom-six and didn’t dress for a single playoff game.
Liukas plays a tough North American style. He is both physical and abrasive, and he has a penchant for getting on an opponent’s nerves. Liukas is not a limited player, however, as he is an effective penalty killer and on occasion will show some nifty stickhandling moves and agility as he attacks with the puck. His speed and quickness are average for a player his size, and an extra gear and sharper decision making are two things that are preventing him at this stage from being a consistent difference maker. Nonetheless, Liukas is a gritty “sandpaper” type of player with a decent motor who can do yeoman’s work in the front of the net and in puck battles.
Viktor Larsson, RHD (Mora IK, Allsvenskan)
26-Sep-2001 | 6’0, 168 lbs | Shoots Right | Sweden
You have to take notice when a teenage defenseman is playing regular minutes in an adult-league postseason game, which is exactly the situation Larsson found himself in for Mora IK during the Allsvenskan playoffs. In fact, Larsson was impressive enough to earn a contract extension with the club and should be expected to see SHL time in 2021-22.
Larsson spent most of the season on the bottom pairing for one of the better scoring attacks in the league. He was used on the power play as a second-unit but recorded most of his points at even strength. He plays a lot thicker and stronger than his listed playing weight, and Larsson doesn’t shy away from contract in the corners or along the boards. He delivers a crisp first pass and handles deliveries cleanly. The one drawback is his mobility, as Larsson is a rigid upright skater without much pop in his stride. But he has a strong upper body and will finish his checks with authority in addition to shoulder-checking upon retrievals and employing an effective stick-on-puck technique as he holds his line. Think of Larsson as a right-shot Kirill Kirsanov except a full year older.
Nikita Dishkovsky, RW (SKA-1946, MHL)
10-Dec-2002 | 5’11, 165 lbs | Shoots Left | Russia
#MHL: LW Nikita Dishkovsky is another one of those Russian throwbacks who could transport to the mid-1970’s and still get the crowd revved up. Soft hands, wicked shot, kills penalties, and hits anything that moves. Nice stick to pick off a pass and roof a rolling puck pic.twitter.com/7MtYiIk1D4
Dishkovsky easily is one of the most physical first-year eligible forwards I watched all season, which says a lot considering his measurements push him more towards the undersized category. This kid plays the game with a ton of energy and will hit anything that moves, but Dishkovsky also has translatable puck skills, hockey smarts, and reliable two-way play. Central Scouting appeared to be on board when they kept him on each of their three in-season watch lists. But for whatever reasons, they decided not to rank him at all among their top 150 Europeans in their final list, which when you factor in the 220-plus North American skaters they ranked, plus the 45 or so goalies, means they don’t consider Dishkovsky a top-400 prospect. Good luck with that.
Maybe Central Scouting is overlooking the fact that Dishkovsky played for one of the deepest junior programs in the world yet still finished third on the squad with 16 goals and also led them in short-handed makers (2) and hits (113). He also chipped in with four goals in seven playoffs games, including a pair of multi-goal efforts.
Hugo Gabrielson, LHD (Frolunda J20, Nationell)
24-Oct-2002 | 5’10, 160 lbs | Shoots Left | Sweden
Every year there’s at least four or five prospects who put up impressive numbers in their respective leagues and are acknowledged by the blogosphere but never get as much as a nod from Central Scouting. One of this year’s examples is Gabrielson, who is a power-play specialist and one of the top-scoring defensemen in the J20 Nationell’s shortened season in spite of playing middle to bottom-six minutes. Granted, there’s always the chance that the NHL’s official scouting crew has access to off-ice information that impact how they rate a prospect’s potential. But it’s starting to get a little annoying that they don’t even put these kids on either the watch lists or the final rankings.
Gabrielson as a depth defenseman on a loaded program did everything asked of him and then some. He’s got average speed but good size and a sturdy frame for a teenager, but what made him stand out as early as the first week of the J20 season was how well he kept his spacing (dependent on the situation) from occasional partner Simon Edvinsson. Although overager Theo Nordlund was Gabrielson’s most common partner at even strength, there were several occasions when Edvinsson was nonchalant and far sloppier with the puck while being paired with the safer, cleaner Gabrielson. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Gabrielson a stopper on defense but he’s certainly tidier with puck management than most J20 defenders his age.
Gabrielson is a good enough skater to breakout on his own but there was only so much puck to go around with Frolunda’s deep collection of Type-A forwards. His shot and puck distribution are assets on the power play but he didn’t kill penalties and was rarely used to shut down an opposing top line. His role with Hanals in the third-division HockeyEttan, however, was expanded to multiple situations during all strengths and the team seemed to count on him a lot more than Frolunda ever did. There’s something there and don’t be surprised is he starts popping up on next year’s lists if he goes undrafted.
Jacob Martin, RHD (U.S. U18, NTDP)
18-March-2003 | 6’0, 188 lbs | Shoots Right | United States
One of the few drawbacks to being selected for a premier program like the U.S. NTDP is that most of the kids who make it have to accept a decreased role from what they had as high-school underclassmen. This is especially prevalent within the defense corps, where a prospect who played 25-30 minutes a game for his previous team can see his usage halved and his role minimized. Such was the case with Martin, a Wisconsin recruit who has the skating and defensive acumen to excel in a top-pairing role for most junior programs but with the NTDP was relegated to the bottom pairing.
Martin is a smooth customer under pressure and delivers crisp first passes. He keeps a relatively tight gap and will hold his line, albeit without as much physicality as some of his fellow NTDP blueliners. Martin barely saw time on the power play or in late/close situations but was effective on the penalty kill on the second or third unit.
Statistically, Martin piled up most of his 14 points (4 goals, 10 assists) in garbage time and against inferior opponents. The pessimist marginalizes this as a byproduct of playing in laughers against demoralized doormats, while the optimist sees potential for greater production if the minutes are pushed higher. For whatever reason, Martin’s staff kept him as the No. 5 to No. 7 defenseman even after potential top-five pick Luke Hughes went down with an injury. Although it won’t get any easier whenever he gets to Wisconsin since the Badgers have a young blue line and several notable defense prospects on the way, Martin oozes pro potential and should be afforded every opportunity to play bigger minutes.
Kirill Gerasimyuk, G (SKA-Varyagi, MHL)
22-Aug-2003 | 6’2, 179 lbs | Catches Left | Russia
The bottom line is simple — any teenage goalie who posts a winning record and .931 save percentage while facing 37 shots a game deserves to be recognized, especially if that goalie makes his country’s under-18 squad for the IIHF world championship. But once again, Central Scouting completely overlooked Gerasimyuk’s herculean efforts in goal for a SKA-Varyagi team that is literally designed to serve as a farm system for a superior team in their own conference and actually has to face them in meaningful games.
Although Russia’s MHL is one of the more goalie-friendly junior leagues in Europe, that shouldn’t detract from a 17-year-old Gerasimyuk recording a 67-save performance against powerhouse Dynamo MSK and posting four shutouts on the season — two of which involved 40 or more shots against.
Since he’s part of the SKA program, Gerasimyuk follows the style of most of their goalies by playing mostly upright before exploding into his butterfly. He’ll use the RVH but generally keeps an upright post-lean on the short-side post. Gerasimyuk definitely is an inside-out goalie who doesn’t venture far from the crease and you rarely see him handle the puck, but he is a competitor who stays active in the blue paint while keeping his head on a swivel.
#MHL: SKA-Varyagi G Kirill Gerasimyuk (2021/2003) has been the team MVP through the first 31 games. He has eight of their 12 wins & has allowed one goal or less in each of his last five starts, including a 30-save effort in a 4-1 win over top-ranked Dynamo MSK. Not listed by CSB.
Avery Hayes, RW (Hamilton, OHL)
10-Oct-2002 | 5’10, 175 lbs | Shoots Right | United States
A coach may never publicly admit that they play favorites, but nearly all of them likely have one or two kids in their lineup who they wish they could clone for every available position. That’s the type of player Hayes is — an opportunistic dual-threat scorer with sick hands who kills penalties and throws his weight around. A native of Michigan who was drafted by Hamilton in the sixth round of the 2018 OHL Priority Selection and also played for Team USA at the 2019 Ivan Hlinka, Hayes already had two full OHL seasons under his belt before the pandemic forced him (and several other OHL’ers) overseas to play for Levice in Slovakia’s second division. There he posted a respectable nine points in 16 games before heading back to North America to take part in the PBHH invitational.
Hayes plays a similar game to former NHL’er Ryan Callahan, who himself became one of the league’s better two-way wingers after being a later-round OHL and NHL draft pick. He can be dogged on the puck and also get involved physically while battling bigger opponents in the corners, but Hayes displays a heads-up or quick-strike mentality the second he collects the puck. His hands play a big role in how he receives passes and quickly wires the puck with accuracy, but Hayes also looks off a ton to keep both defenders and goalies guessing as he creeps towards the danger areas. Hayes is a good skater who makes up for a lack or explosiveness with strong balance to power through checks and rapid directional changes at the opposing line. He’s usually on the ice in late/close scenarios to help prove the theory that his coach trusts him more than most of his teammates.
Dominick Campione, RHD (Brooks, AJHL)
25-Nov-2002 | 5’11, 165 lbs | Shoots Right | United States
The right side of Brooks’ defense drew a ton of attention this season because of potential first-round pick Corson Ceulemans, but he was there for only a portion of the abbreviated AJHL schedule. That allowed the focus to shift towards Campione, a swift puck mover with a blistering shot who is committed to Arizona State. Although Campione’s role and usage with the Bandits pegged him as more of a middle-pairing type, he was given a fair amount of responsibility that included occasional time on the second power-play unit (where he can be deployed as a quarterback) and either of the top two penalty-killing units. His puck management can be inconsistent and he can seem jittery on the puck, but Campione’s occasional flashy play can result in impressive end-to-end rushes.
The first thing you notice about Campione is his quickness to the puck in any direction. His speed and agility are key components to his game both on and off the puck, and he’s sharp enough to time his reads appropriately without grossly overcommitting himself out of position. Campione has a high compete level and keeps active in his own end, and he also switches between tracking the puck and scanning for backdoor threats. His defensive play is a lot better than you’d expect from a wiry puck rusher, which helps explain why he’s entrusted with penalty-killing duties. Although he’s slight of frame, Campione will engage in physical battles and do his best to make his presence felt. Adding muscle should be a priority but he’ll have plenty of time to do that in college. Brooks, much like his future NCAA program, plays an up-tempo attack which suits Campione’s skill set perfectly.