Which 2018 NHL draftees are most likely to stick with the big club this year?
On June 22, thirty-one NHL hopefuls had their name called before a packed American Airlines Center. Scouts had spent years meticulously analyzing and reporting on these players back to their organizations, hoping their intuition would pocket them an impact NHL player that would occupy a regular roster spot in the coming few years.
The reality is, of those 31 players called up to the podium on June 22, only about 24 of them will play more than 100 games. Between 2005-2010 only about 67% of players drafted in the first round managed to hit the century mark and only 80% played 50 games. After the first round the number will drop even further to less than half that of the first, sitting around 27%.
Those numbers are somewhat shocking after hearing the organizations expectations, media hype and fanfare of these players after the selection is made.
Months (if not years) of preparation, 7 rounds of drafting, 217 players selected and there will only be roughly 43 players from this years draft class that will play more than 100 games in the NHL. Selecting players who can slide into a teams lineup and become a regular is clearly no science, and predicting when they’ll be ready to make the jump is even more difficult. Few, for example, predicted 24th overall selection David Pastnrak to crack the Bruins roster as an 18 year old, or Ryan O’Reilly, who was the 33rd overall selection in 2009 yet still played a full season with the Avalanche as an 18 year old.
NHL Regulars in their Draft Year
There are a number of different factors that come into play when trying figure out who the candidates are for starting this year. Overall skill and hockey IQ are the most obvious criteria, narrowing the list of potential suitors to first round selections.
Players need to have the size and physical maturity to play with men. Many of these kids have only just turned 18, some of whom need time to fill out or add muscle. This may be the case with players such as Canucks pick, defenseman Quinton Hughes (5-10, 173) or Chicago’s Adam Boqvist (5-11, 165) who also plays defense.
Commitments to other leagues can hinder a players chance of joining an NHL team as well. Although rare, pro contracts outside of the NHL system that don’t have an ‘escape clause’ will force a player to finish his contract. More often though, the commitment from the player is to a university or college. This appears to be the case with Islanders pick, skilled forward Oliver Wahlstrom, who is very close to NHL readiness and has committed to Boston College next year.
The last consideration is organizational needs. This will largely eliminate players drafted in the latter half of the first round; these teams will have made the playoffs the year prior and generally don’t have as many holes to fill in their lineup. They have the luxury of not rushing players into the NHL and potentially hampering their development.
When applying the factors above to this year’s draft class, the list of players who will potentially make the jump to NHL regular this year is greatly reduced. Let’s examine who’s left on that list.
Rasmus Dahlin, D
1st Overall, Buffalo Sabres
6’2 – 181 lbs
Dahlin, the indisputable first overall pick will surely join the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL this year. His effortless skating stride, impressive agility and slick stick handling will allow for a smooth transition into the NHL.
He joined Frolunda HC at 16 years old and began playing against men, putting up one goal and three points over 26 games. His ability to adapt and improve became evident with his second season as he put on 15 lbs of muscle while significantly improving his points totals. During his second campaign with the team, he became the highest scoring under-18 defenseman in the history of the Swedish Hockey League putting up 7 goals and 13 assists in 41 games. His draft year also consisted of him being named the best defenseman of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship; and as if that wasn’t enough, he was also the youngest player by 7 years to be named to Sweden’s Olympic national team.
He joined Frolunda HC at 16 years old and began playing against men. His ability to adapt and improve on his first season became evident in year two as he put on 15 lbs of muscle while significantly improving his points totals. During that second year, he became the highest scoring under-18 defenseman in the history of the Swedish Hockey League putting up 7 goals and 13 assists in 41 games – a stark improvement on his 3 point performance as a 16 year old. His draft year also consisted of him being named the best defenseman of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship; and if that wasn’t enough, he was also the youngest player by 7 years to be named to Sweden’s Olympic national team.
Last season Buffalo finished dead last in the league standings, dead last in goals for and third last in goals against. With top tier forwards such as Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt and offensive blueliner in Rasmus Ristolainen in the ranks, a player of this calibre and skill set is exactly what Buffalo needs to start crawling out of the NHL basement. He’ll be able to step into the top-4 right away and although he may not be an elite offensive threat in his first year, he’ll continue to mature physically and gain valuable experience under the watchful eye of his coach, Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley.
In a relatively short time he should join fellow countrymen John Klingberg, Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson in the conversation as elite, franchise defensemen.
Andrei Svechnikov, RW
2nd Overall, Carolina Hurricanes
6’2 – 188 lbs
Russian power forward Andrei Svechnikov, like Rasmus Dahlin, will undoubtedly play in the NHL this year as the most NHL ready forward in the 2018 draft class. Dahlin may have been the undisputed first overall pick this past June, but had Svechnikov not missed 2 months with a hand injury he may have muddied the waters around who the consensus first overall pick would be.
The big Russian has what’s becoming a rare but extremely sought after skill set in today’s NHL. He’s a big, strong, fast, power forward that can shoot. Svechnikov was voted first for the best skater category and second for the best shot in the OHL Eastern Conference coaches poll.
Some Europeans have difficulty transitioning to the North American ice but not Svechnikov — it’s only made his game stronger. His first year on the smaller ice surface earned him the USHL’s rookie of the year award before he moved on to the OHL and won the Canadian Hockey League Top Prospect of the year. He’s said he prefers the smaller ice surface because it forces the game to be played much faster and more physical.
As impressive as his achievements are, taking a closer look at his stats over the last year reveals just how dominant he really was. He finished his OHL rookie season with 40 goals and 72 points in 44 games. That’s a higher goals per game average than Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, and Taylor Hall in their draft eligible years. When digging deeper you can see that since 1998 his primary points (goals + primary assists) per game is second only to Connor McDavid.
This is a physically mature player with high end skill, already showing that he can transition to new leagues seamlessly and not only thrive, but dominate. Look for him to adapt well to the NHL game and make an immediate impact.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C
3rd Overall, Montreal Canadiens
6’2 – 181 lbs
The Canadiens finally get the centerman that they’ve been looking for. Sure, he’s not French-Canadian; but Kotkaniemi is a highly skilled, playmaking center with a dangerous shot and exceptional hockey IQ.
Kotkaniemi spent the last year playing in Finland’s top professional league as a 17 year old rookie, appearing in 57 games and putting up 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists). He still has two years remaining on his contract, though there is an escape clause if he lands an NHL job. Lucky for him, the job he’s auditioning for doesn’t have much competition.
The Montreal Canadiens search for a bonafide first line center was supposed to be over after acquiring Quebec born Jonathan Drouin for blue chip prospect Mikhail Sergachev. One year removed from the trade and they were just as weak down the middle and Sergachev is flourishing elsewhere. GM Marc Bergevin then shocked many Canadiens fans by using the third overall pick to select Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was projected to go somewhere outside of the top ten.
Bergevin was clearly prioritizing organizational need over selecting the best player available but make no mistake; Kotkaniemi was the best center available. Unfortunately there were just better players to be drafted. While the strategy has its merits, Bergevin’s history of quick-fixes makes you wonder whether the they will rush him into the NHL. Already, there appears to be cautious optimism from within the front office that he can step in right away.
There’s no doubt Kotkaniemi has the skill and hockey sense to do so, but his long term development could be hindered in the process.
Brady Tkachuk, LW
4th Overall, Ottawa Senators
6’3, 191 lbs
Brady Tkachuk, son of Hall of Fame forward Keith Tkachuk and brother to Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk, will be an interesting player to watch this fall at training camp. Described by scouts as a nastier, faster and more skilled version of his brother (who is already off to an impressive start to his career), Brady fits the mold of what has become a dynasty of Tkachuk power forwards.
Brady, unlike his brother Matthew who chose to play in the OHL, spent his draft year at Boston University. He finished fourth on the team in scoring with 31 points, second with a plus 15 rating and first in with 23 assists. Before the draft it was believed that his preference was to return to Boston for the U.S. college hockey season. However, with Ottawa’s rebuild in apparent full swing, he may be pressured to stay with the team as they try to ice a younger squad this coming season.
Unfortunately, the current the situation in Ottawa is, for lack of a better term, a dumpster fire. Discord between players have been spilled out into the media and reportedly lead to a number of trade requests while owner, Eugene Melnyk, has drawn the ire of all Senators fans for his poor handling of franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson. It’s not exactly the type of situation you find players running towards. With the franchise in desperate need of a rebuild and most importantly a rebrand; they may be able to entice Tkachuk to stick with the team as a cornerstone of that movement.
If Tkachuk chooses to sign a pro contract to play in the NHL this year he should have immediate success similar to when his older brother Matthew came into the league. Their playing styles allows them to play up and down the lineup effectively. Brady, being bigger, faster, nastier and more skilled may give him the tools for more personal success than his older brother but he won’t have the supporting cast that Matthew did.
Filip Zadina, RW
6th Overall, Detroit Red Wings
6’0, 196 lbs
Ken Holland must have been absolutely salivating when Zadina fell to the Red Wings at 6th overall. Nobody expected the skilled, Czech winger to drop to 6th with the consensus projection among hockey pundits being for him to go third or fourth overall.
Zadina is a big, physically mature winger with explosive mobility and a goal scorer’s toolbox. His exceptional puck control and agility allows him to carry the puck into high traffic areas to create scoring chances; earning him the comparison to St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko.
After being loaned from his pro team in native Czech Republic, Zadina’s adjustment to the smaller ice appeared seamless. Going on to lead all QMJHL rookies in goals (44) and points (82) through 57 games. His loan from HC Dynamo Pardubice has created an interesting legal dilemma for him and the Detroit Red Wings as they try to argue that he is a European player on loan, therefore exempt from having to return to junior. Understandably, after decades of drafting, Detroit would like to keep their first blue chip prospect firm within their reach to groom him into the elite player he has the potential to become. After all, their last true blue chip prospect was way back in 1985, when they selected Joe Mullen first overall. After years of developing late draft picks into key offensive contributors, Detroit finally gets the luxury of drafting a top-10, can’t miss pick.
Zadina should be ready for NHL action if given the opportunity, and is a huge addition to Detroit’s slowly growing core of young talent.
Evan Bouchard, D
10th Overall, Edmonton Oilers
6’2, 195 lbs
Evan Bouchard is an intelligent, all-around defenseman with tremendous offensive instincts and a great shot. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli went into the draft dangling the 10th overall pick in the hopes of acquiring a right shot power-play specialist through trade, but when Bouchard fell into their laps that strategy quickly changed. Chiarelli says he is the right shot, power-play quarterback that they need.
Unlike most players in their draft year who’ve only played one or possibly two seasons of junior, Bouchard just finished his third. He finished seventh in OHL scoring with 87 points (25 goals, 62 assists) in 67 games while leading his team by a whopping 33 points. His ability to quarterback a power-play will certainly be a factor in him staying with the big club as he accumulated 42 points on the man advantage last year.
Edmonton’s power-play last season was a dismal 14.8%, good for dead last in the league. The team scored 229 goals (20th in the league) last season and only 32 came from their blueline. When the Oilers made the playoffs they had two players with over 35 points while last year their defensive point scoring leader was Nurse with just 26 points. That’s a glaring hole in the teams structure that needs improving if they are to climb back into a playoff position and GM Peter Chiarelli appears intent on addressing that need from within the organization. This doesn’t inevitably mean Bouchard will be given the reigns as the teams power-play quarterback out of training camp, though he will undoubtedly be given every opportunity to succeed as they attempt to find capable players from within their lineup and organization.
With three years of junior under Bouchard’s belt, his former coach believes he has nothing left to gain from returning. It poses an interesting dilemma for the Oilers as he’s not old enough to play in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons. With Edmonton’s recent history of rushing first round picks (Puljujarvi, Draisaitl, Gagner) into the league, it seems likely that Bouchard will do the same. At 6’2 – 195 lbs he’ll be able to hold his own against men immediately. His poise and intelligence will soften his transition to the NHL while his offensive skill set will be an excellent asset to a league worst power-play.