Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at hockey’s stars. Over the next few days we will be previewing the 2017 NHL Draft by ranking our top 30 prospects. We will also do some honourable mentions. As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
With the CHL season a good eight weeks old; a month or so of NCAA hockey; plenty of games for the US National Team Development Program; the Ivan Hlinka Tournament; an international break in Europe; and the CIBC CHL/Russia Series all being played since we last updated our draft rankings, we have gotten a decent overview of what some of the biggest prospects for the 2017 draft are doing this year.
That said, as a staff we haven’t seen every player yet—it’s quite simply not possible this early in the season. If there is an obvious name left out, we’ll do our best to get a look before the February rankings; as well as before our final rankings that go from April through June.
The group we haven’t seen a lot of are European prospects who, for whatever reason, haven’t had much exposure on the international stage. With the World Juniors, Five Nations, and the Under-18 all to come later in the year, we should get a better look at most of those players.
2017 NHL Draft November Rankings: 21-25
21.) Juuso Valimaki, Tri-City Americans; Defence (6’2″ 201 lbs)
Valimaki captained the Finnish team at the 2016 Under 18 World Championships that took home the gold medal. He was also part of the Finnish team at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka tournament, and won a Silver as an underager at the 2015 Under 18s. Valimaki is playing on Tri-City in the WHL, and has put up 10 goals and 30 points in just 27 games this year.
Valimaki plays a simple but effective game in both ends of the rink. He is a good skater and has good size. Defensively he has solid positioning and an active stick. Offensively he has become more assertive in his second year in the league. He has started to carry the puck and lead the rush more often. However, he is still more likely to start things with a good first pass and getting involved as a trailer. He has an excellent point shot that can be a real weapon on the power play. He is not the flashiest player, but he does a lot really good things out there and is having a productive campaign.
22.) Nikita Popugaev, Moose Jaw Warriors; Right Wing (6’6″ 203 lbs)
Popugaev has outstanding size, already measuring in at 6’6″. He combines this with excellent stickhandling to be very tough to defend one on one. Add in good hockey sense and a strong wrist shot, and we’ve seen some other analysts looking at Popugaev as a top 10 or top 15 pick. We aren’t quite there though. The skating is holding him back as he needs work on being quicker in his acceleration and improving his top end speed and agility. His stride is awkward and needs some work. He also could work on his intensity. There are times he looks a bit disinterested, especially in the defensive zone.
Popugaev has had a good start to the season with Moose Jaw. The Russian import has put up 19 goals and 37 points in 25 games. He is particularly adept on the powerplay, where the Warriors seem to run everything through him. He has the vision and passing skills to set up others in these situations.
23.) Urho Vaakanainen, JYP; Defence (6’1″ 187 lbs)
Vaakanainen played for the national team in both the Under 17s and Under 18s (as an underager) last season. He also spent some time with SM-Liiga’s Blues, putting up a goal and six points in 25 games in Finland’s top men’s league. He was picked by the Windsor Spitfires in the CHL Import Draft, but has choosen to stay in Finland. This year Vaakaneinen is again playing in the SM-Liiga, but is representing JYP. In 17 games he has two assists. He also played at the Ivan Hlinka in August.
Vaakanainen has excellent hockey IQ. He reads the play very well in both the offensive and defensive ends of the ice. He chooses to make the smart plays both with and without the puck. Defensively he has great gap control and positioning. He also can skate the puck out of danger in his own zone, and start the transition game with a good first pass. Offensively he has a hard accurate shot, and the vision to be a play maker from the blue line. He will likely never be a huge offensive contributor, but can score a bit. Overall his game is well rounded.
24.) Shane Bowers, Waterloo Blackhawks; Centre (6’0″ 170 lbs)
Despite being drafted twice in the QMJHL Draft (1st round 2015, 2nd round 2016), the Halifax native Bowers has opted to go the USHL route. He has also committed to play for Boston University in 2017-18. Bowers has put up eight goals and 16 points in 19 games for the Blackhawks. He also played for Canada at the 2015 Under 17 World Hockey Challenge, and at the Ivan Hlinka tournament.
Bowers is strong down low. He has good balance and a powerful lower body that make him extremely tough to knock off the puck. He can control play below the hashmarks, protecting the puck in the cycle game and making good passes to open teammates. Bowers is willing to take the puck to the net, and is willing to take the physical punishment to make plays. He is also responsible in his own end of the ice.
25.) Alexander (Sasha) Chmelevski, Ottawa 67s; Centre (6’0″ 187 lbs)
Born in Huntington Beach, California the son of Ukrainian immigrants was part of last seasons big Travis Konecny to Sarnia trade. It is paying off for the Ottawa 67s this year, as he has put up 14 goals and 22 points in 25 games. He was also a dominant force at the Ivan Hlinka tournament with four goals and nine points in just five games in helping the USA to a silver medal.
An incredible skater, Chmelevski has outstanding speed, excellent acceleration, and the ability to change directions on a dime. He reads the play extremely well and makes very good decisions with and without the puck. His stickhandling is very good, with the ability to control the puck and make fancy moves while moving at top speed. He also has a strong wrist shot and a quick release. He couples this with an excellent one-timer, and the ability to score in tight to the net to be a pure sniper. Chmelevski has good passing skills, but can sometimes focus a little too much on his own shot.
Check out Ranks #26-31.