Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column looking at Hockey’s Future Stars. Over the next few days, we will be previewing the 2018 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) 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 the five nations, 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. Be sure to check back in late March as we roll out our full player-by-player draft preview.
Our last update, the late November Rankings are here.
2018 NHL Draft Ranking, February Edition: #11-15
11.) Ty Smith, Left Defence, Spokane Chiefs, 5’11” 176 lbs
The first overall pick in the 2015 WHL Draft, Smith has seven goals and 47 points in 48 games. Last season, he put up 32 points in 66 games. He also captained Team Canada Black to a silver medal at the Under 17s. Smith is another excellent skater. He can rush the puck up the ice, or pinch in at the blue line and still cover up his spot defensively. He has excellent speed in both directions. Smith also has the pivots, agility, and edgework to cover large areas of the ice. His defensive game is based on smart positioning and a quick stick, but he is undersized. Smith must continue to get stronger, to be better in front of the net and in the corners.
Offensively, Smith is a very good stick handler. He can lead the rush, but also has the poise to control the puck at the blue line and quarterback the play. He has excellent vision and reads the play extremely well. Smith also works well as a trailer, reading the play and finding the open ice to create an offensive threat. He is a very good passer and can set things up on the rush or from the point on the power play. Smith has a good wrist shot but could stand to improve his slap shot. He is good at getting his shot on net, despite the traffic, finding shooting lanes. He keeps his shot low and allows his teammates to get screens, tip-ins, and rebounds.
12.) Joseph Veleno, Centre, Drummondville Volitigeurs, 6’0″ 181 lbs
Granted exceptional status to enter the QMJHL at 15-years-old in 2015, Veleno put up 40 points in 45 games last year. He helped the Sea Dogs to a QMJHL Championship and appearance at the Memorial Cup. He was outstanding at the Ivan Hlinka tournament with seven points in five games. His performance helped lead Canada to a gold medal. Returning to Saint John, he put up six goals and 31 points in 31 games before he was traded to Drummondville. Now with a stronger team, he’s seen his production increase with four goals and 22 points in 14 games.
Veleno has tremendous speed and outstanding acceleration. It is his skating skill that truly gave him a leg up on older competition and earned him the exceptional player status. However, the offence has not followed the level of previous exceptional forwards. Veleno is more of a playmaker than a goal scorer. He has great vision, hockey sense, and passing skills. Veleno reads the play well and anticipates where his teammates will be. He needs to add muscle to his frame and get more power on his shot to be a consistent goal scorer.
Veleno is also gritty and not afraid to get involved in battles on the boards at both ends of the ice. He is good on the backcheck and works hard in his own end. His compete level is very high. He could use a bit of work on his positioning. Continuing the consistent offence of his time in Drummondville would help him climb draft boards. He is projecting as a solid two-way centre. Veleno needs to show that he has the offensive game to be a franchise player instead of a good top-six forward in the pros if he wants to be a top 10 pick.
13.) Bode Wilde, Right Defence, US NTDP U18, 6’2″ 194 lbs
Despite being born in Montreal, Wilde plays for the US NTDP and is part of a strong American contingent for the 2018 NHL Draft. After scoring 19 points in 57 games last year, Wilde has picked up his offensive game this year. He has seven goals and 23 points in 36 games with the Under-18 program. He was committed to Harvard, but has changed that and is now committed to the University of Michigan for the 2018-19 season.
Wilde pairs excellent size with smooth-skating and two-way ability. He is strong defensively, with the physicality to clear the front of the net as well as win battles in the corners. His speed and footwork allow him to keep attackers in front of him, maintain good gap control and force them to the outside. It also allows him to join the rush. Wilde has an absolute bomb of a point shot and understands how to keep it low and on the net to give teammates an opportunity for a deflection or rebound. He is a decent passer, starting breakouts and making plays at the point as well.
14.) Ryan Merkley, Right Defence, Guelph Storm, 5’11” 170 lbs
The first overall pick in the 2016 OHL Draft, Merkley had a tremendous first season while playing for a rebuilding Guelph team. He put up 55 points in 62 games to lead all OHL rookies, and take home the Rookie of the Year award. Merkley followed that up with six points in five games, helping Canada to gold at the Hlinka. This season, he continues to show high-end offence with 57 points in 48 games for the Storm.
Merkley is a dynamic offensive defenseman, with great skating in both directions. His tremendous edge work, pivots and agility allow him to cover a ton of ice. He also has an excellent point shot and loves to let it go from the point. His slap shot is powerful and accurate. Merkley is a very good passer. He can quarterback the power play and lead the rush. He shows poise at the blue line, and good stickhandling ability to get the puck out of danger and to create offensive chances. However, he must show improvements in his strength and defensive play to continue to move up the ranks. There are some big question marks concerning his work in his own end. He must get stronger, as well as improve his positioning and decision making in the defensive end.
15.) Rasmus Kupari, Centre/Right Wing, Karpat, 5’11” 163 lbs
Kupari burst onto the international stage last year. He played for Finland in the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge. He was also an underager on Finland’s Under-18 World Championship team. His real coming out party though was the Hlinka tournament, where he put up seven points in just four games. This season he has split his time between the SM-Liiga (five goals, eight points in 28 games) and the Mestis (one goal, four points in five games) playing against men, and in the Finnish U20 league (three goals, seven points in 11 games). He also played in this year’s World Juniors but did not register a point in five games.
Kupari is most dangerous with the puck on his stick. He is a tremendous stick handler and can beat defencemen one-on-one. He is an outstanding skater. Kupari is exceptionally fast. He also has very good acceleration and agility, which allows him to make quick cuts or change speeds to fool defenders. Kupari also has very good passing skills and excellent vision. His wrist shot has a good release, but he needs to work on both the accuracy and power. He needs to add mass to his frame though, as he can have issues being pushed off the puck right now.
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