Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at Hockey’s Future Stars. Over the next few days we will be previewing the 2017 NHL Draft by ranking our top 30 prospects and honourable mentions.
With the Junior seasons not just in Canada but throughout the world gearing up for the stretch drive and a number of international tournaments (Ivan Hlinka, Four Nations, Subway Super Series, World Juniors, Five Nations) in the books, we have gotten a decent overview of what some of the biggest prospects for the draft are doing this year. This is an up to date look and ranking of these prospects. That said, there is still plenty of work to be done and many important games to be played including junior league playoffs, European playoffs, and of course the Under-18 World Championships. While the rankings still have some fluidity, a pecking order is also starting to define itself. For now, this is what we have, we hope you enjoy the early preview and be sure to be ready in late March as we roll out our full player-by-player draft preview.
2017 NHL Draft February Rankings: Top Five
1.) Nico Hischier, Halifax Mooseheads; Centre (6’1″, 176 lbs) (Prev: 3)
The February rankings feature a new number one. Hischier has been dynamic all season long, and capped it off by outperforming Nolan Patrick in a head-to-head meeting at the CHL Top Prospects Game. Make no mistake though, this rating is based on his entire body of work, and not just one game.
Drafted 6th overall by the Halifax Mooseheads in the CHL Import Draft, the Swiss sensation is lighting up the QMJHL in his rookie season. He already has 37 goals and 77 points in just 46 games. He also did well in the World Junior Championships, putting up seven points in just five games. Hischier already has experience playing against men, with 15 games for Bern in the Swiss A League last season.
Hischier is a playmaker, with outstanding vision and passing ability. He has very good hockey sense, and anticipates his teammates movements in the offensive zone. Hischier has a very quick first step, excellent acceleration and agility, as well as great edgework. This, along with quick hands, allow him to avoid defenders and make him very elusive when working the puck in the offensive zone. His ability to make plays with the puck, while moving at top speed is something that is pretty rare to see in a 17-year-old.
Hischier can score goals with his quick hands in tight to the net, and a very quick release on his wrist and snap shots. Hischier also has a very high work ethic, he never seems to stop working during a shift. Size is the biggest concern at this point. Hischier will need to add muscle to his frame before moving to the next level.
2.) Nolan Patrick, Brandon Wheat Kings; Centre (6’3″ 195 lbs) (Prev: 1)
While Patrick has slipped a spot, this is more due to Hischier’s outstanding play than to anything that he is missing. Patrick recently returned from his hernia surgery and has been playing well for the Wheat Kings. He has 14 goals and 33 points in 21 games this season. That includes 10 goals and 24 points in 15 games since returning to the Wheat Kings lineup.
Teams around the NHL are looking for the big franchise centre. Already 6’3″ tall, Patrick has excellent size and a strong and powerful skating stride. A natural sniper, he has a tremendous wrist shot and quick release. He also has quick, soft hands and can bury chances in close to the net. His game is incredibly mature for his age. He has high end hockey IQ and always seems to make the right play both with and without the puck. Patrick has excellent vision and passing skills.
He can play both the power and the finesse game. Patrick works well down low, using his big body to shield the puck and to make plays in the cycle game. He can get in quickly on the forecheck and forces opposing defencemen to make a quick play, or make a mistake. Patrick’s big frame is quite intimidating. He also plays a strong two-way game, and is even used to kill penalties. His uncle is James Patrick, a defenceman who spent many years in the NHL.
3.) Timothy Liljegren, Rogle BK; Defence (6’0″, 190 lbs) (Prev: 2)
Liljegren suffered from mononucleosis to start the season. He has eased back into the Rogle lineup, bouncing between the Swedish Junior League (J20) and SHL. He put up five goals and seven points in 12 games in the Swedish junior league, while picking before picking up a goal and four assists in 19 games with the big club. In the summer, Liljegren was very good at the Hlinka tournament with four points in five games. Unfortunately, Sweden finished fourth. He did get a silver medal at last year’s Under-18 Worlds.
Liljegren is an elite skater. He moves well both forwards and backwards, with excellent speed and acceleration. He also has very good edgework and pivots. As such he can cover a ton of ice. He can make offensive plays rushing the puck, or pinching in at the blueline; but still has the speed to get back defensively. Liljegren has the poise and smarts to quarterback a power play. He has excellent vision, and makes good passes to set things up at the line. He can also make the long breakout pass to hit a teammate streaking through the neutral zone. Liljegren’s defensive game is very advanced for an 18-year-old. He already has decent muscle mass, and could progress quickly into the NHL.
4.) Gabriel Vilardi, Windsor Spitfires; Centre/Right Wing (6’2″ 185 lbs) (Prev: 4)
The second overall pick in the 2015 OHL Draft, Vilardi has decent, but not great footspeed. He uses it to get in on the forecheck and cause problems for defenders. He uses his size to shield the puck and maintain possession in the cycle game, and uses his powerful stride to fight through checks and drive the net. Vilardi has a very long reach and excellent puck handling ability. He uses these assets to extend plays and wait for teammates to get open, before hitting them with a pass. Vilardi is constantly moving and getting involved in the play. He is extremely gritty and involved in battles along the boards, and in front of the net. The power forward prospect also has a very good wrist shot and an excellent release.
With Windsor hosting the 2017 Memorial Cup, there will be plenty of opportunities to show off his skills to the scouts. He has put up 23 goals and 48 points in 37 games so far this year. He missed some time due to an appendectomy, but has not missed a beat since returning to the Windsor lineup.
5.) Casey Mittelstadt, Green Bay Gamblers, Centre, (5’11” 190 lbs) (Prev: 6)
Mittlestadt spent most of last season playing high school hockey. However, he impressed enough to get a spot on last summer’s American team for the Ivan Hlinka Tournament. A strong performance, seven points in four games, would lead to him being invited to join the US NTDP late in the season. He scored a point per game. Mittelstadt was also invited to the IIHF U18 World Championships. He had another impressive tournament, with nine points in seven games. Mittelstadt is playing for his high school team, as well as for for Green Bay in the USHL this season. In the USHL he has put up eight goals and 21 points in 16 games before leaving for the high school season. The Gamblers will be looking to get him back for the stretch run and USHL playoffs. He is committed to the University of Minnesota in 2017.
Mittelstadt has excellent puck handling ability. He can beat defencemen one-on-one with a number of moves, and has the soft hands to stick handle in a phone both. He combines this with excellent speed, and the ability to make cuts on a dime. Mittlestadt is an excellent playmaker who creates passing lanes with his quick puck movement, stops and starts, and deceptive moves. He only needs a small opening and can make difficult passes through tight spaces, or the tough saucer pass. He also has a good shot and release.