Neutral Zone will be highlighting players in certain leagues that our scouts in that area think deserve extra attention leading up to the NHL Draft on October 6th. Below are players that will go really high and some that may not get drafted at all. We have over 10 reports on some of these players and several on the rest. Having watched a lot of these athletes closely since they were Bantams, we have the luxury of knowing and seeing things others do not. We take into account how players mature physically, mentally and positionally. We know them well and have enjoyed covering their games. It’s been an odd year as we all know but rest assured we have watched video and spoken together to fine tune our list.
We will have live coverage of the NHL Draft with input from all our scouts, local and in Canada. Stay tuned for details. See our Top 100 Rankings and our next hundred with the final 100 to be released today. Kudos to the players below, you make scouting a pleasure.
Alexis Lafreniere-#1: There’s so much to like about Lafreniere’s game whether it’s his playmaking ability, his strength on the puck or his overall dominant physical presence. In term of what makes him such a great playmaker, he can attack you with different speeds where he shifts opponents, finds open spaces and has world class vision to pick the open seams or thread the needles. What further makes his vision elite is his ability to make deceptive creative passes in his danger areas on his backhand, reminding us of the way Joe Thronton can shield the puck and find the open man. His puck protection is elite as well whether its winning board battles, working around a defenseman or lowering the shoulder on his opponents. What impresses NZ with Lafreniere is his ability to step up on the big stage as well as he’s dominated the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the most recent World Junior Championship- he’s the ultimate competitor. Although some may find it off to build a team around a winger, if memory serves us right there’s been some first overall wingers who panned out just fine- Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Taylor Hall to name a few.
NHL comparison/projection– Ron Francis/Peter Forsberg
Hendrix Lapierre -#41: The biggest wildcard of the draft due to his recurring health issues, you can’t look past Lapierre’s impressive skill set. The former first overall pick to the Q is another cerebral player who possesses a very high level of hockey IQ. Lapierre loves keeping the puck on a string and makes difficult passes look tremendously easy. When you hear the term, “eyes behind his head” this is literally what it feels like seeing him make some plays. He scans the ice effortlessly with smooth skating technique allowing him to create so much space. If there’s another knock on his play along with his health issues, it’s his killer instinct to score and shoot the puck. There’s time where he does not show a willingness to drive the net or direct pucks towards traffic. His shot needs work as well: players will start to realize this and back off as he’s not a shooting threat, especially on the power play. Lapierre is a joy to watch and could potentially evolve into a first line centerman in the NHL.
NHL comparison/projection– Evegeny Kuznetsov
Dawson Mercer-#14: One of our favorite players in the draft, Mercer is a coaches’ dream. There is no significant area in his game that lags or needs improvement- he’s the complete package who competes every night. Mercer already plays a mature style of game using his hockey sense and quick stick to creep around the offensive zone to let off his bullet shot. He has a deceptive, accurate wrister allowing him to pick corners and catch defenseman off guard. Watching him closely throughout this year, he makes some slick plays in tight quarters showing off his quick hands and ability to quickly get off shots- which is an underrated skill. Although he had a limited role in the World Junior tournament, it was a testament to his play which highlights his ability to fill in anywhere in the lineup as his game is extremely well rounded. Being an older player for this draft, don’t be surprised if Mercer makes the NHL as soon as next season. If not, he will absolutely torch the junior ranks.
NHL comparison/projection: Jeff Carter
Egor Sokolov-Not Ranked: Another overage player for the draft, Sokolov enjoyed a breakout season for the Screaming Eagles almost potting close to 100 points. Sokolov was a nightmare for defenseman in the Q as he was just too strong and too big to contain. Sokolov moves fairly well for a player who’s 6’4, 240lbs where he scored most of his goals this year with blistering wrist shots from the slot area. we enjoyed watching this player and think there’s potential for him to be effective at the next level with the right coaching staff. Another positive note was his play with his national team- brought the same energy and stayed true to his game by using his rocket shot to create offense. He scored a couple of nifty goals at the WJC for Russia, one notably against Sweden. As he matures moving forward where he will be challenged by older, stronger players, it will be extremely interesting to see how he adjusts.
NHL comparison/projection: Tyler Toffoli
Justin Barron-#16: Coming into the season some viewed Barron as a potential top 10 talent in the draft due to his two-way game from the back end. He’s a heads-up defenseman who distributes the puck up ice with ease or can skate it up and break the puck out if he has too. At 6’2, 190lbs he possesses a solid frame to compete at the next level where he shrinks space for forwards and plays tight on gaps. What makes him intriguing is what we mentioned earlier: two-dimensional defenseman who can eat up valuable minutes. Unfortunately for Barron he had medical issues over the last year, specifically a blood clot which hindered his development. When he returned from the injury he was just average, looking gassed and out of shape after missing so much time- which is completely understandable. Seems like he is health issues as well which can hurt his draft stock. If Barron can stay healthy, he will undoubtedly become a stud at the NHL level, most likely a top pairing defenseman.
NHL comparison/projection: Jeff Petry
Vasily Ponomaryov-#74: One of the more underrated players in the draft in our opinion, Ponomarev is a tireless, energetic player who brings his intense work ethic every game. Playing in his first year in the Q coming from Russia, Ponomarev adjusted well fitting in as a top line player for his Shawinigan team producing at near a point per game clip. He possesses a strong lower body which allows him to get low on defense and cut to the net for a quick opportunity where he scored a couple of goals. He does not possess blistering straight line speed but we love his edge work along with his agility in tight spaces where he can move laterally around his opponents while keeping his balance. Along with his great puck possession skills Ponomarev is a pure sniper who scored many goals with his patented wrister. If he continues to develop at the pace he is, he can turn out to become a dominant two-way forward at the next level.
NHL comparison/projection: Ondrej Palat
William Villeneuve-#35: An awesome year for Villeneuve as he put himself on the map. Villeneuve has an upright skating style where he always has his head up in dissecting the play. He knows to pick his spots to join the rush or find an open player with a long stretch pass hanging behind the defense. What NZ loves about Villeneuve’s game is the commanding presence he has when he’s out there: he has poise with the puck, he calms the play down and sets the tone for his team. He moves extremely well on the blue line allowing his to change directions quickly to give him that extra time and space with the puck to make a play. As Villeneuve continue to develop and grow, he will need to add more muscle to his frame to allow him to excel at the next level. With added strength and power, it will enable him to win loose puck battles and defend the forecheck with ease. As we touched on earlier, Villeneuve is a born leader who will work his tail off to make it to the next level. Don’t forget Villeneuve was first in the CHL for points and assists by a draft eligible defenseman
NHL comparison/projection: Chris Tanev
Mavrik Bourque-#30: He’s an offensive wizard who constantly finds a way to produce and make himself relevant. There can be games where you have not really noticed him but out of nowhere, he will make a great play or pass that can turn the outset of the game. We were watching a game earlier this year which he was quiet but at some point was given some space near the bottom of the circles and roofed one under the bar. He’s a shifty forward with an extremely dangerous stick who score as well as distribute. Where Bourque shines as well is on the power play where he switches between his strong side or his off-side wing for the one timer- if teams are choking up on him, he can dish out a beautiful cross box back door tap in. At times what turned me off about his game is his willingness to compete or battle. There are times where he looks like he’s going through the motions worrying about his personal stats rather than his team’s success. At the next level he won’t be able to take shifts off. Nonetheless, the production along with the high hockey IQ is undeniable.
NHL Comparison/Projection: Travis Konecny
Lukas Cormier-#62: As we continue to move through a couple of my favorite QMJHL players from the last season, Cormier is another cerebral power play defenseman. He’s a bonafide power play quarterback specialist who dishes the puck so effortlessly. He distributes the puck showing deceptive fakes, selling shots and faking passes to rip pucks on net. Positioning and defensive awareness is a strong point of his game as well as he does not get caught out of position keeping his opponents in front of him. If there is one knock on Cormier, it would be that he’s a little undersized where he does not possess dynamic, explosive skating ability. Although he’s not a bad skater or slow by any means, he will need to gain strength and add some power to his skating to allow himself to continue his style at the professional level.
NHL Comparison/Projection: Samuel Girard
Jeremie Poirier-#43: If you’re a team in the NHL looking for a power play quarterback then Poirier is your guy. Playing for the Saint John Sea dogs, he’s so exciting to watch as he walks the line with ease, has a quick release in stride and has the awareness to jump into the rush to create an odd-man opportunity at any given point. During the top prospects game last January, Poirier was paired up with Drysdale where he shined as one of the best defenseman on the ice. NZ Quebec are a huge fan of his game because players like him who can contribute the way he does from the back end don’t come around very often. Scouts and coaches have been on him about his defensive side of the game or his hockey IQ where pick on him saying he does not show a willingness to defend or won’t be able to sustain his style at the next level. We believe with the right coaching along with a high tempo system, Poirier will flourish.
NHL comparison/projection: Shayne Gotisbehere
Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images