In this most unprecedented of National Hockey League seasons, it’s been said the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs will require an asterisk for posterity’s sake.
To which the 2020 NHL draft says, “Hold my beer.”
A whole boatload of asterisks is required for this one.
Let us count the ways:
* No one knows exactly when the draft will be held. Probably October, if all goes well, maybe November. We just don’t know.
* We know the draft lottery is this Friday (June 26, 8 p.m. ET) but even when it is concluded that night, we still won’t know the actual order of selection. That’s because eight of the 15 teams in the lottery won’t be known until we see which teams lose in the best-of-five play-in qualifier series, probably in August, sometime after which a second lottery will be required.
* We don’t know when, where, or even if many of the top prospects for the 2020 draft will be playing to start the 2020-21 season because there is so much uncertainty as to whether junior or college hockey leagues in North America will be playing games this fall.
* In the modern history of the NHL draft, no class has been as severely under-scouted as the coronavirus-hampered 2020 class. Consider:
- The 2020 IIHF Under-18 World Championship, scheduled for April, was cancelled.
- The 2020 Canadian Hockey League playoffs, which would have started in late March and culminated with the Memorial Cup in late May, were all cancelled.
- The 2020 U.S. college hockey playoffs as well as the NCAA tournament, including the Frozen Four championship in April, were all cancelled.
- The 2020 NHL Central Scouting Combine, originally set for June, was cancelled.
“That is a lot of important, high-pressure hockey to be missed,” one NHL scout said. “It leaves a pretty big hole in terms of what a normal evaluation on a player would be. What will that mean? I have no idea.”
“Playoff hockey is the best hockey for top prospects to reinforce their high-end status, but it’s also the best hockey to expose weaknesses you might not see in the regular season,” another scout said. “It’s also a time when lesser prospects can really shine and make a big move [up].”
Clearly, for some prospects, it’s a huge missed opportunity.
“Not having the [NHL CSB] combine really hurts, too,” a third scout added. “We’ve been able to schedule a lot of Zoom interviews to replace the face-to-face meetings we would have had at the combine, and that part has worked out pretty well, but what I feel is really missing is our own doctor or [athletic] trainers being able to get hands-on reporting on the prospects. You often learn a lot from that and now we’re left to take medical or physical reports from doctors or trainers we don’t know.”
There have been some positive unintended consequences, too.
One scout said having the extra time to do so many Zoom interviews with prospects and review so much more video than would normally be possible has, in some ways, enhanced the knowledge on mid-range and lower-end prospects. Whether that pays dividends on day two of the draft remains to be seen, but the scout said there is clearly greater familiarity with the bottom half of the draft prospects this year.
“We’ve interviewed so many more prospects than we ever have in any other draft year ,” a scout said. “With the way we’ve used Zoom calls and additional video, I can see us adopting a lot more of that in the future – not to replace in-arena evaluation but to supplement it. We’ve certainly learned some things we can do differently for the future.”
And because we don’t know when the NHL draft will be, there’s a possibility the scouting work on the 2020 prospects is not over.
“I know we lost so much by all the spring playoffs being washed out,” a scout said, “but if the draft isn’t until October or November, and the European leagues or maybe even the junior leagues are starting up in September or October, we could be watching [the 2020 class] again for another month or two before the draft. It’s bizarre, really. We all have our final lists done, but what do you do with those lists if some of the players on them starting playing the new season? How do you blend what you saw last season and what you’re seeing now, and what if it’s only the Europeans who are playing?”
In a 2020 hockey prospect world fraught with so much uncertainty, it’s comforting to hang on to that which is a sure thing.
So, thank you very much, Alexis Lafreniere.
The Rimouski Oceanic left winger is the undisputed and unanimous No. 1 on TSN’s Final 2020 NHL Draft Rankings. Ten out of 10 NHL scouts surveyed by TSN ranked Lafreniere first overall, as was the case when he was No. 1 on TSN’s preseason list in September and No. 1 on TSN’s mid-season list in January.
“Easy call,” one scout said of ranking Lafreniere No. 1.
“No hesitation, clear cut,” said another.
Lafreniere, a late-2001 birth year, missed being eligible for last year’s draft by 26 days. Some scouts suggest that if he had been 2019 eligible, he conceivably could have been taken first overall, ahead of top prospects Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.
“There’s no guesswork involved this year,” a scout said. “We’ve seen [Lafreniere] for three full seasons [in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League], we’ve seen him at the Hlinka tourney, we’ve seen him in playoffs, we’ve seen him in the World Juniors, and he’s been the best player [in the Canadian Hockey League] in back-to-back seasons.”
Lafreniere is not viewed as a generational talent like Connor McDavid or necessarily labelled a franchise player, but there’s no doubting what he is.
“He’s a top-line NHL winger right now,” a scout said. “He’ll walk into the NHL whenever we play next season and he’ll be a top player.”
The 6-foot-1, 193-pound Lafreniere’s hockey sense and competitiveness are elite. He’s equally adept at scoring goals as he is making high-end plays. He’s a difference-maker every time he’s on the ice.
If, as expected, Lafreniere is selected first overall, it will mark an end to an unprecedented four-year drought for Canadian hockey. Not since 2015, when Edmonton selected Connor McDavid, has a Canadian gone No. 1.
Lafreniere would be the first Quebec-born No. 1 overall pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003 and the first Quebec-born skater to go No. 1 since Vincent Lecavalier in 1998.
While he’s the clear favourite to be No. 1 this year, some scouts did allow that it’s not heresy to suggest there may be a player or two in this draft, prospects who didn’t perform at Lafreniere’s level all season, who could eclipse Lafreniere in future years.
One of those prospects with at least a chance to do that is No. 2 on TSN’s final ranking: Tim Stutzle, the dynamic German forward (he can play centre or left wing) who excelled while playing for Adler Mannheim in the DEL and starred for Germany at the 2020 World Junior Championship.
“If there’s someone in this draft who could go by Lafreniere in the years to come, it’s this kid,” an NHL scout said. “It’s because of the skating.”
“Like Lafreniere,” another scout added, “Stutzle is going to be a top-line NHL winger or centre.”
NHL Central Scouting rated Stutzle’s skating as a 10 out of 10. There’s a big wow factor here.
Scouts rave about his dynamic speed, drool over the deft touch of his hands and gush over his smarts and hockey sense.
“He puts it all together so well,” a scout said. “He can move his feet, hands and mind at top speed. It’s his ability to process everything so quickly that stands out.”
Stutzle was No. 3 on TSN’s mid-season rankings in January, but has swapped spots with Sudbury Wolves’ 6-foot-4, 215-pound centre Quinton Byfield, who checks in at No. 3 on TSN’s final list.
Five of 10 scouts surveyed by TSN ranked Stutzle No. 2 overall; the same number had Byfield in that slot. But no scout surveyed had Stutzle lower than No. 3. Two of 10 slotted Byfield at No. 6, which is to say eight had him at No. 2 or No. 3. So there’s not a lot to choose between the two.
Byfield has all the tools to be a big, point-producing No. 1 centre.
He moves extremely well for a big man; he has outstanding puck protection skills; he has soft hands and a hard shot; and he gets himself and the puck to the net to give himself and his teammates the opportunity to score goals.
“All the physical ability in the world,” one scout said. “If he doesn’t turn out to be an absolutely elite No. 1 NHL centre, he’ll still be a top-line player.”
If there are any questions about Byfield’s game, they are more relative to the comparisons with Lafreniere and Stutzle than any actual glaring weaknesses.
“There are two things,” one scout said. “Lafreniere and Stutzle have elite hockey sense and creativity. Byfield can make plays but it’s not quite the same. Lafreniere and Stutzle have engines that rev high all the time. Byfield can do that too, but hasn’t done it as consistently as the others. If [Byfield] can do that more consistently, look out.”
The No. 4 slot on TSN’s final list belongs to Erie Otter right defenceman Jamie Drysdale. Eight of 10 scouts ranked him in that position, giving him the nod as the consensus top blueliner available in this year’s draft. Drysdale was No. 4 on TSN’s mid-season list.
It’s worth noting, however, that the next-best defenceman, No. 8-ranked Jake Sanderson of the U.S. U-18 National Development Team Program, did have two of the 10 scouts rank him at No. 3, ahead of Drysdale. So Drysdale is the consensus top defenceman, but it’s not unanimous.
Drysdale is an elite skater, incredibly agile, with outstanding hockey sense and offensive instincts. At 5-foot-11, he’s not a big pro-style blueliner, but he’s shown to be a capable defender who uses his smarts, body positioning, gap control and stick deployment to his advantage.
“He’s going to be a top-pair offensive NHL d-man who can run a power play,” a scout said.
TSN’s top five is rounded out by Saginaw Spirit forward Cole Perfetti, who has played both centre and left wing.
Perfetti is a shade under 5-foot-11 and 177 pounds and doesn’t have blinding straight-line, beat-you-to-the-outside speed, but it’s a testament to his elite hockey sense, creativity and goal-scoring ability that he still cracked TSN’s Top 5.
“He makes plays out of nothing,” a scout said. “He’s not a fast skater but he’s quick when he needs to be, very agile, moves well laterally and creates space for himself to make plays or score.”
Some scouts ranked Perfetti as high as No. 4 but as low as No. 12 and that type of scatter-shot assessment becomes much more common for the balance of the players in TSN’s Top 10. Perfetti moved up three slots from No. 8 on TSN’s mid-season list.
The rest of the Top 10 is as follows:
- Swedish forward Lucas Raymond at No. 6.
Raymond, down one spot from No. 5 at mid-season, is listed as a right winger but has played some centre at times. He was ranked as high as No. 5 and as low as No. 11 by TSN’s scouts.
He’s viewed by the scouts as having high-end hockey sense and creativity, which makes him a more effective playmaker than a goal-scorer, but don’t sleep on his ability to put pucks into the net. If there’s a knock on him, some scouts say he plays a bit too much on the perimeter. Nevertheless, he’s viewed by many as an elite offensive skill forward.
- Austria centre Marco Rossi of the Ottawa 67’s at No. 7.
Like Lafreniere, Rossi has a late 2001 birth year. In fact, he missed being eligible for last year’s NHL draft by only eight days. That extra year allowed Rossi to dominate last season, becoming the first European to win the OHL scoring title, with 39 goals and 120 points in 56 games. He remains in the same No. 7 slot he was in on the mid-season list.
At 5-foot-9, size isn’t on Rossi’s side, but he doesn’t play a small man’s game. At 183 pounds, he’s a strong, physically mature soon-to-be 19-year-old with a low centre of gravity and some power in his game. He doesn’t have huge pop in his skating but he’s smart and agile. He’s an outstanding playmaker and a very good goal-scorer. He’s plays a responsible two-way game and exhibits pro-level maturity on everything from how he trains to his overall approach on and off the ice.
Some scouts wonder how much more untapped potential there might be versus some of the younger, less physically developed prospects, that Rossi might be more of a what-you-see-is- what-you-get player. That said, nine of 10 scouts ranked Rossi as high as No. 5 and no lower than No. 10 with the exception of one outlier at No. 18.
- U.S. U-18 left defenceman Jake Sanderson at No. 8.
The son of former NHL speedster forward Geoff Sanderson, who is the pride of Hay River in the Northwest Territories, young American Jake is a shooting star in the 2020 draft class.
At almost 6-foot-2 and a 185-pound frame that will greatly fill out in the years to come, he demonstrated in the first half of the season that he has the physical tools, including elite skating ability, to be a big, mobile shutdown NHL defender.
But in the second half of the season he exploded offensively, and so did the projections, even though his consensus ranking on the TSN list improved by only one slot from mid-season. As previously mentioned, two of TSN’s 10 scouts have Sanderson as the top defenceman in the draft and ranked him third overall, behind only Lafreniere and Stutzle. He was No. 3 on the high side, No. 11 on the low side.
“Could be a star,” one scout said.
- Swedish winger Alexander Holtz at No. 9.
If his compatriot and international linemate Raymond is a playmaker first and a shooter second, it’s reversed for Holtz.
Holtz, who plays both the left and right sides, has one of the best shots in the draft and is among the best natural goal-scorers. If Raymond sometimes gets questioned for being on the perimeter, Holtz gets high marks for getting to the inside and playing a harder game.
He did, however, drop three slots from mid-season. Scouts seem to think the players ranked ahead of him in the Top 10 have more multi-dimensional games.
- Ottawa 67’s right winger Jack Quinn at No. 10.
Quinn is a bit of late bloomer, an Ottawa Valley kid who growing up wasn’t always playing for the top teams in his age group or known as one of the top players.
That has all changed now. Quinn’s 52 goals in 62 games qualifies him as one of, if not the best, goal-scorer in the draft. At 6 feet and 176 pounds, he still has some growing to do, but he’s been rocketing up the draft charts all season long. He moved up nine spots from TSN’s mid-season list. He did not play with Rossi on the 67’s top line, though they did see power-play time together.
Scouts like his natural sniping ability but are also impressed with his high-energy two-way game and project that he could be a top NHL scoring forward who can play on the PP and the PK.
There’s one other prospect who should be flagged for discussion and that’s No. 11-ranked Yaroslav Askarov, the gifted and athletic Russian goaltender who’s been labelled by some as the most exciting goaltending prospect since Carey Price. Askarov dropped one spot from No. 10 to No. 11 since mid-season but is still viewed as a potential franchise goalie.
The right-handed catching Askarov, who did not play well at all at the 2020 World Junior Championship, is supremely confident and has a marvellous international resume and reputation for stealing games and winning medals. But his uneven performance at the WJC left some wondering.
As always with top-ranked goalies touted to be top-10 threats, it will be interesting to see who steps up on him and at what point in the draft.
With Lafreniere expected to go No. 1, this draft should be a good one for Canada.
Eighteen of the Top 31 on TSN’s list are Canadian, five more than in 2019.
It’s also a great year for Germany, which has three prospects in our Top 31 versus only two for the Americans, who had 10 in last year’s Top 31.
It’s not a great year for defencemen. We have only six in the Top 31 compared to 11 a year ago.
1. Alexis Lafreniere
2. Tim Stuetzle
3. Quinton Byfield
4. Jamie Drysdale
5. Cole Perfetti
6. Lucas Raymond
7. Marco Rossi
8. Jake Sanderson
9. Alexander Holtz
10. Jack Quinn
11. Yaroslav Askarov (G)
12. Anton Lundell
13. Dawson Mercer
14. Kaiden Guhle
15. Hendrix Lapierre
16. Dylan Holloway
17. Braden Schneider
18. Seth Jarvis
19. Rodion Amirov
20. Lukas Reichel
21. Jacob Perreault
22. Connor Zary
23. John-Jason Peterka
24. Ridly Greig
25. Justin Barron
26. Mavrik Bourque
27. William Wallinder
28. Noel Gunler
29. Tyson Foerster
30. Brendan Brisson
31. Jake Neighbours
32. Helge Grans
33. Jeremie Poirier
34. Jan Mysak
35. Marat Khusnutdinov
36. Tyler Kleven
37. Ryan O’Rourke
38. Topi Niemela
39. Ty Smilanic
40. Ozzy Wiesblatt
41. Sam Colangelo
42. Shakir Makhamadullin
43. Luke Tuch
44. Daemon Hunt
45. William Cuylle
46. Jean-Luc Foudy
47. Dylan Peterson
48. Justin Sourdif
49. Luke Cormier
50. Luke Evangelista
51. Thomas Bordeleau
52. Roby Jarventie
53. Daniel Torgersson
54. Roni Hirvonen
55. Jack Finley
56. Brock Faber
57. Donovan Sebrango
58. Eemil Viro
59. Vasiliy Ponomarev
60. Joni Jurmo
61. Daniil Gushchin
62. Yan Kuznetsov
63. Maxim Groshev
64. Nico Daws (G)
65. Brandon Coe
66. Theodor Niederbach
67. Emil Andrae
68. Brett Berard
69. Emil Heineman
70. Eamon Powell
71. Jan Bednar (G)
72. Ian Moore
73. Zion Nybeck
74. Jaromir Pytlik
75. Martin Chromiak
76. Antonio Stranges
77. Zayde Wisdom
78. Kasper Simontaival
79. Ryan Francis
80. Tyler Tullio
81. Wyatt Kaiser
82. Jack Thompson
83. Egor Sokolov
84. Carter Savoie
85. Sean Farrell
86. Landon Slaggert
87. Drew Commesso (G)
88. Cross Hanas
89. Alexander Pashin
90. Evan Vierling
91. Oliver Suni
92. Thimo Nickl
93. Blake Biondi
Joel Blomqvist (G)
Calle Clang (G)