Just tell me if this is too early for a 2016 draft post, since we haven't even started our own prospect development camp, but I wanted to put out my initial top 10 list before the season started. In all honesty, I think the Devils are most likely looking at another top-10 pick next season, which is why I'm only including 10 prospects to look at. As the season progresses, I will be keeping track of the new prospects as well as how ours are doing.
So without further ado, here is my current top-10 prospects for the 2016 draft and a quick bio about each one.
1)Auston Matthews C - This 6'2" 195 center is another franchise center. Born and raised in Arizona, a big part of me is hoping that he goes to the Coyotes (if the Devils don't win the draft lottery). Very much like Jack Eichel, Matthews is an American-born potential franchise centerman that is an all-around player with a 6'2" roughly 195 pound frame. With that being said, the similarities pretty much end there. While Eichel's game was around speed and his elite-level acceleration, Matthews' game focuses more on strength and practically better vision. It is still undetermined where Matthews will play next season, as he was trying to sign with ZSC Lions of the Swiss NLA (top-tier league in Switzerland), but had troubles with customs. I assume he's looking to play in another European professional league, but if he does not, he will be with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. It's amazing to think that if Matthews was born 2 days earlier, he would have been eligible for the 2015 draft. But either way, Matthews is the clear-cut #1. His vision and passing is incredible, and his ability to finish plays makes him look like a pure goalscorer. He thinks the game well, he's a phenomenal skater, an all-around great player and is willing to be physical to get the job done. For those who don't remember, Matthews played for Team USA at the World Junior's championship as 2nd line center. As an underager that's impressive enough, not even including scoring 3 points in 5 games. Miles Wood also played a little bit on Matthews' line. One last bit on Matthews and then I'll move on: He broke the single season record for points scored for the USNDP, with 116 points (55G 61A) in 60 games. He's an incredible blend of offensive talent, all-around responsibility, speed and strength.
2) Jakob Chychrun D - I watched Chychrun's play while I was initially looking at Zacha while they were playing for Sarnia of the OHL. Chychrun already has the demeanor of a top-pairing defenseman. I don't want to take away from Chychrun's own personal abilities, but when you see him, think of Aaron Ekblad. That is a phenomenal professional style comparison. Skill-wise, some scouts think Chychrun is actually further along in his development than Ekblad was at that age. As another testament to his skill level, Chychrun was selected to Team Ontario U17 team in the World Hockey Championship U17 tournament during his 15-16 year old season. This was the first time that had happened in the history of the entire program. Really, Chychrun has everything one could want in a defenseman. He's active on both sides of the rink, has incredible vision, is incredibly mature both physically and mentally. (6'2" 194 lbs). His shot is fantastic as well. It's important to know that Sarnia was not a strong offensive team, and when Tampa Bay Lightning top defensive prospect, Anthony DeAngelo, was traded to Sault St. Marie in the middle of the season, Chychrun was able to step up big time to quarterback the powerplay. This is a bit of a cliche saying, but Chychrun would go 1st overall in just about any other draft, and he still has the potential to, but he will need to have a legendary season to surpass Matthews. Nonetheless, I think Chychrun is a fantastic young defenseman and will have a strong impact on whatever team selects him next year in Buffalo.
3) Jesse Puljujarvi RW/LW - One of my favorite prospects in the upcoming draft, plain and simple. I wish I could get the accents on his name right, but anyways, Puljujarvi is currently playing in the Finnish *Liiga*, the top-tier professional league in Finland. If you look at the stats on his EP page I linked right above, it says he put up 11 points (4G 7A) in 21 games, however he didn't get any ice-time at all in 2 of those games, which means he had (when he was playing, at least) 11 points in 19 games. He switched back and forth between the top and second-best professional leagues in Finland. While Karpat played in the playoffs and ultimately won the championship (from a goal scored by Carolina's 35th overall pick this last draft, Sebastian Aho...but that's a different story), Puljujarvi was playing in the playoffs for his loaner team in the second-highest league. There are rumors that Puljujarvi was not in good shape and therefore did not do as well in the later part of the season, but this is not a problem in my opinion. Yes physical fitness is incredibly important, but he's also playing against men much older than him, and all-in-all last season, with all the league play, playoffs, and international tournaments, Puljujarvi played about 96 games last season. While he's a big guy, 6'2" 185 lbs, that's still a lot on a yougn man. Where Puljujarvi intruiges me the most is his pure offensive talent...it might just be the best in the draft class. Defensively, he's okay..needs some work, but nothing good coaching and a good work ethic can't work on. Puljujarvi played for Team Finland in the most recent World Junior Championship and was (like Matthews) an underager. In 5 games, he didn't put up any points, which was really astounding considering how many shots he took and how many scoring chances he created. To me, he's like an Ovechkin/Kovalchuk hybrid in terms of pure goal-scoring potential. He's a great skater, but doesn't quite have that explosive stride that younger Kovy had. Puljujarvi played on the 2nd Powerplay unit for Karpat (in Liiga) and is an important key to the Powerplay. Much like Ovechkin, Puljujarvi's go-to spot (it seems) is staying around the top of the left face-off circle and unleashing bomb after bomb of shots. If he can refine his accuracy on his shot and work on his skating and defensive play, he might be the best Finnish prospect to come around in a very long time...and that's saying something with how good of a prospect Rantanen was/is.
4) Chad Krys D - Krys was the best defenseman on the Team USA U-18 team. I think he has the potential to be the second best defenseman of this draft. Had he announced an intention of going to the QMJHL, he would most likely have been drafted 1st overall in their Entry Draft, but was instead drafted in the 7th round. However, he is most likely to go play in the NCAA this upcoming season, as both of his parents are alumni of BU, and since he's from Connecticut, he is also considering BC as well. Krys is a high-end offensive defenseman. He needs to work a little on play in his own end, but from the neutral zone up, he's an explosive player. His major strengths include puckhandling, speed, and overall intelligence on the ice. Krys oftentimes joins the offensive rush as a 4th forward. Krys is extremely patient with the puck and has a pass-first mentality, and while his shot isn't great, his incredible vision allows him to view open passing lanes. His skating and agility is really superior. His combination of skating and puckhandling makes him terribly difficult to stop in 1-on-1 situations. Krys sometimes tends to get out-muscled along the boards and in front of his own net, but when he addresses his defensive work he will be a great offensive defenseman. I look forward to following his career wherever he may end up at this next level.
5) Matthew Tkachuk LW - Tkachuk plays a game that's bigger than his size. He's improved his skating a lot in the past season. He's a pretty smart player, so he always finds his way around the puck. His positioning is very impressive as well. He is strong on the forecheck with his ability to intercept passes and read plays. He's one of the top American-born players this draft year. He plays well below the face-off circle in the offensive zone and has good vision and passing ability. I really like his shot too. All-around he's a good and effective scorer with top-6 potential. He needs to refine his game and improve his overall abilities. The next year in London of the OHL will be a big step for him, and I think he will transition well.
6) Max Jones LW - It's going to be an interesting course to watch over the next season who becomes the better LW, Max Jones or Matthew Tkachuk. They are both committed to playing in London of the OHL next season, and that will make it easier for me to watch. Max Jones is a very impressive power forward winger. He's got some soft hands and never seems to back down from opponents. He does possess a deceiving shot as well. He's extremely physical in his play and is extremely competitive in his physicality. He just plays a hard game overall. Sometime he can lose his cool, and needs to work on his discipline. I do like his quickness and shot. He's got one of the better shots in the draft class. It's going to be great to watch him develop his two-way game and his defensive play. However, he does have great potential. He is one heck of a hitter. He's lower on certain lists too, but I view him as the Lawson Crouse of this draft...big skilled guy that may get some flack because he's not necessarily as skilled as some of the others, but still has a lot of potential and skill to go along with his size.
7) Clayton Keller C - Keller plays a very fast and creative game. He is very patient and poised when he carries the puck. The concern about him is his size (5'9" 165 lbs), so it will be good to see how he overcomes that at BU next season and possibly the years after. He's got great hockey sense, which is one of his best attributes. Although I mentioned his size possibly being a holdback for him, I think he will do a good job adjusting to it, if he hasn't already...In a sense he doesn't have a choice. Offensively, he's a dynamic talent, and has the potential to be a true offensive force for BU. For what it's worth, he's a graduate of Shattuck St. Mary's, one of the best prep school hockey programs in the country. Keller was a real stand-out talent in the U-17 World Championship tournament. Additionally, I thought he played very well for Team USA at the World U-18s this year. I will mention his size one more time because it is important to understand the importance for him to build strength and size because sometimes he has trouble standing his ground against bigger opponents along the boards and whatnot. However, he has a great motor to drive to the slot and he scored a beauty of a backhand at this year's U-18 World Championships. He is a very intriguing prospect and I hope he is able to add some major strength to his frame.
8) Dmitry Sokolov C/LW - I put Sokolov this high because I really like the skills he brings to the table, but am worried about the organization he is going to play with. Born and raised in Russia, playing throughout their junior systems and whatnot, he was just drafted 3rd overall in the CHL Import Draft by the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL. I'm worried since there are questions about the structural organization as well as the structure make-up of the team, and if a team doesn't have a good overall structure, it can severely hamper a young player's development. That being said, there are some very promising skills from the young Russian. While not necessarily a skill, he's a beast of a man, standing at 6'2" 212 lbs. He's a shot generating machine but has fantastic vision and patience at the same time. I do think his game is better suited as a winger, but we will see where he is positioned in Sudbury next season. It's interesting because he most likely would have made it into some KHL games this next season had he stayed in Russia. Of the guys on this list so far, I think Sokolov has the chance to move around the most on draft lists. I don't think it will be nearly as much as Gurianov's all-over-the-place'ness (if that makes any sense at all), and especially since he will be most likely playing in North America next season so we'll all get a better look at him, but I think there is a high chance to not only rise, but for him to drop as well. I know his numbers aren't too impressive on EP, but just remember that he did that as a 16-17 year old kid playing in a league against guys up to 20 with significantly more experience. At the beginning of the season he scored his first goal of the season in his second career game, and then in his third career game, he scored a hat trick. I think we are sitting on a ticking time bomb of a player with Sokolov. There is just such raw intense skill that is waiting to be unlocked. He's #8 on my list because of the issue of whether or not he unlocks it. He's kind of like the Pavel Zacha of this draft. There's an immense amount of talent, we just need to give him the best conditions in which to have that flourish. I will be eagerly watching Sokolov because after Puljujarvi, Sokolov is my second favorite prospect for the 2016 NHL Draft.
9) Sam Steel C - Awesome name. Playing in his first full season (played 5 games the year before and looked great but put up no production) in the WHL, Steel registered nearly a point per game. He's a highly-intelligent, very quick player with a good shot. He's not the biggest guy on the ice, nor is he the smallest (5'11" 175 lbs), but his IQ level allows him to not have that be a problem for him. He's like a Sam Reinhart-type player with better skating and smaller size. Steel's best assets are his vision and passing abilities, and he is able to produce a lot of offense off the rush. He's a very hard worker too. He starts this season as a top-10 pick for me but he can easily slide up to as high as #7 in my book or as low as #18. We can only see as the season progresses. I wouldn't be surprised to see him eclipse 50 or even 55 points this upcoming season.
10) Logan Brown C - Logan Brown is another monster of a man in this top-10, right now he's up to 6'6" 216 lbs. In all joking aside, I think it brings up an interesting point of discussion in terms of his production. Is he able to put up points simply by bulling his way through smaller defenders his age? From what I've seen from him, I would say he does not, but sometimes he does (lame answer, I know). It's the times that he does that I'm okay with, but he needs to make sure he does not continue with it, because he may not be able to push around people at the NHL-level with significantly more training and strength training. That being said, Brown has a powerful stride and is able to move quickly across the ice. He is able to use his massive body to shield the puck and position himself during board battles. He's also able to use his really long reach to a great advantage, whether or not it be in board battles, or to protect the puck from a defenseman. His positioning and size combined to make his two-way game an excellent part of his game. He's also able to make offensive moves that kids his size don't really do, and I think there is a lot of potential here, but I view Brown as a sort of longer-term project. He needs to properly develop his offensive game and physical play separately, so he can become a more solidified power-forward prospect. His shot is outstanding, almost elite, but he needs to be more physical in terms of a mean-streak. He's just starting to tap into his potential though, which is very exciting because not even including his massive frame and high-level skating ability, including elite-level speed, Brown has an incredibly high offensive ceiling.
I hope you don't mind that I posted about the 2016 draft even though the 2015 draft just happened less than a month ago. It's just the thought of possibly having one of these kids as a Devil gets me very excited, whoever it may be. There's a lot of talent in this upcoming 2016 draft as well, and while I don't know as much as I'd like about it, I've got all of next season to watch the kids, form my opinions, and write them down.
Give me a follow on Twitter @DTJ_AHockeyBlog so we can chat, or feel free to DM me. I'm more than happy to answer any questions you have, or just talk! Please let me know if I made a mistake in any of my brief bios as well!
Thank you so much for reading, and I really hope you enjoy this post!