The 2015 NHL Draft has been one of the biggest hot topic conversations for the past year. With some of the best talent we’ve seen in many years, there’s no question as to why that is. But outside of the best from this year, the top prospects from the 2016 draft class have proven to be equally as talented, with some players that could easily compete for a top five spot in 2015.
With the book closed on the 2015 prospects, it’s time to look forward to what’s next. To help get you ready, here are ten prospects that are likely to turn heads in 2015-2016, with young, American talent proving to be a major story line a year before the draft in Buffalo.
10. Matthew Tkachuk, F: When you look at Auston Matthews’ success at the 2015 Under-18 World Juniors, you need to factor in how effective Tkachuk was throughout. The fourth top scorer in that tournament, Tkachuk finished with ten assists and 12 points, setting up many of Matthews’ eight goals during the event. His strong year, capped off with a 96 point (38G-58A) campaign with the US National Development U18 team, led the London Knights to sign their former fourth round pick to a deal right after the U18’s. Tkachuk had to previously decommit from Notre Dame in order to make it happen, but his fast, electric style will be more suited for the OHL. Tkachuk, the son of former NHLer Keith, has an absolute laser beam of a wrist shot, picking off invisible angles to put up high offensive numbers. When he isn’t making your goalie look silly, his play-making skills are simply wonderful and it all comes thanks to his great hockey sense.
9. Chad Krys, D: Krys is another stud in the strong defensive draft. Practically a forward standing on the blue line, Krys isn’t afraid to join the offensive rush, yet doesn’t get caught out of position on the transition backwards. A seventh round pick in the 2013 QMJHL Draft by the Moncton Wildcats, Krys has yet to commit to anywhere for the upcoming season, but it’s believed that there are some NCAA options available. Yet another product of the U.S. National U17 Development Team, Krys won a goal medal at the 2015 U18’s World Juniors in April, just months after leading the U17 WHC with seven points as a defenseman en route to a silver medal. A two-way defensemen, Krys’ strongest offensive asset is his passing, using his solid vision to find unique lanes throughout the ice. He may not have enough skill to beat out Chychrun as the top defensive prospect, but look for the Ridgefield, CT. native to take a run at the top five before the draft heads to Buffalo in 2016.
8. Sean Day, D: Unlike the rest of the top ten, Day will always have big expectations placed on him thanks to being granted OHL Exceptional Status back in 2013. For the most part, Day has done everything fairly well up until now. Arguably the weakest player to gain early acceptance into the OHL (well, his opponents are Aaron Ekblad, John Tavares and some McDavid fella), Day has been a bright spot on the Mississauga Steelheads blue line the past two seasons despite having limited options to play with. A great skater who excels both offensively and defensively, Day can change a game positively with one of his various weapons, whether it be his body checking ability, his tremendous shot or his breakneck speed. Day has been the subject of trade rumors for the past few weeks, so there’s always the chance that he could find himself playing for a stronger club before eventually getting drafted. If that’s the case, watch for him to land somewhere in the top five.
7. Tyler Benson, F: Tyler Benson is one of the lesser known names on the list, but the play-making winger did anything but shy away from the action this year. A member of the Vancouver Giants, Benson put up 45 points in 65 games in his WHL rookie season, a year after potting 95 points with the Pursuit of Excellence U18 Prep Midget team. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WHL bantam draft, Benson is a quick thinker that allows him to outsmart his opponent on many last second plays. Benson knows how to put pucks in the net, having broken the AMBHL scoring record of 131 points in a season back in Alberta in 2012-2013 (he finished with 146 points in 33 games, 15 more points than Ty Rattie’s previous record). During his campaign with the Giants, however, Benson proved to be a remarkable play-maker. A fast, skilled forward, Benson put up 31 points this year, showing great vision and smarts for a kid of his age. Look for Benson to make an impact with Canada at the U18’s next year, as well as developing into a scoring winger on Vancouver’s top line thanks to a few key cogs from the Giants leaving due to age.
6. Patrik Laine, F: Laine may not be the most hyped prospect heading into the 2016 NHL draft, but that’s not to say he isn’t one of the best youngsters around. Before heading to the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament last year, he scored four points in an exhibition game against Finnish league team Espoo, an incredible feat for a kid amongst men. Laine didn’t impress all too much at the Hlinka tournament, posting only one point in three games, but Finland wasn’t exactly a top team. Regardless, Laine has already been successful at the international level, and he was easily the top Finnish forward at the U18’s in April. Finland has been successful at developing great young prospects, and with Laine set to take on to potentially take on the top Finnish league this coming season, you’ll hear a lot about him in the near future.
5. Clayton Keller, F: Keller is a product of one of the most incredible hockey development programs in the world, the US National Development Team Program. A potential top ten pick in 2016, Keller is consistently the best forward on the ice against skaters three years older, a sign of greatness that is hard to find in most players. While small (5-8/150), Keller is an incredible skater with a great stride and a high top speed. Every time he touches the puck, you can expect to almost always see him make a great play, whether it be a great long range pass or a powerful slap shot. The Boston University commit has played in one previous international tournament, scoring 13 points in six games to finish first in scoring at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. If that isn’t good enough, Keller finished first in USDTP U17 scoring with 59 points in 45 games this year. Keller is a special kid, and this is just the beginning of a wonderful career.
4. Max Jones, F: The fact that the London Knights have two players on this list is just downright scary. Jones, a 2014 first round selection by the club, is a product of the U17 US National Development Program, scoring 18 goals and 10 assists in 38 games with the club. At the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge early in the year, Jones led the tournament with seven goals in the tournament. finishing with 11 points in six games. An aggressive winger with a blast of a shot, Jones is the best prototypical two-way forward heading into the draft, with the ability to knock you out before scoring an incredible goal. Jones’ calmness with the puck makes him a tough player to play against, making plays seconds before you would expect him too. Jones will likely see action in the Under-18’s right before he gets drafted later in the year, and if he plays anything like he did at the U17’s, Jones will easily challenge for the tournament scoring lead once again. With London, Jones has a chance to suit up with Mitch Marner and fellow American Matt Tkachuk, giving the Knights one of the best lines in the entire Canadian Hockey League, so look for his stock to stay strong all year long.
3. Jesse Puljujarvi, F: Puljujärvi is a big forward with all the skills and traits of an 18 year old ready to take his game to the next level. One problem: he’s only 17 and isn’t even eligible for the NHL draft until 2016. There is a ton of hype for the youngster, and rightfully so: he’s been well over a point-per-game player in every single Junior league he’s competed in. While playing with the Kärpät U20 squad at the Jr. A SM-liiga last season, Puljujärvi finished with 23 points in 18 contests to go along with 14 points in 8 Jr. B games earlier in the year. This season, Puljujärvi put up a respectable 11 points in 21 games with Karpat in the top Finnish division, adding an extra 13 points in 15 games in the Mestis minor league. While he was unable to put up any points at the World Juniors this year, which, considering he was 16, was impressive enough, he put up over 20 points in other junior events, split between the U18 and U20 levels. Think he’s the next Finnish scoring star? That’s a bet you shouldn’t go against.
2. Jakob Chychrun, D: The 2016 NHL Draft features a ton of big name defensemen, with as many as three looking for a spot within the top five. When healthy, Jakob Chychrun is the number one favourite at the back end, and if anyone is to up-end Auston Matthews for the first overall pick, it’ll be Chychrun. The Sarnia Sting defenseman had a huge OHL rookie season, often being the best player on the ice for both teams on any given night. A finalist for OHL Rookie of the Year, Chychrun, an American-born defenseman turned Canadian, put up 33 points in just 42 games. An American born defenseman, Chychrun has represented Canada in two seperate Under-17 events, even becoming the first Minor Midget player to ever represent the country after his Team Ontario appearance in 2013-2014. Chyrchun is easily one of the best defenseman in all of junior hockey right now, even considered to be better than Aaron Ekblad at this point in his development by some scouts. He has been plagued with some injury issues the past two seasons, something that even took him out of the OHL Cup a year ago, so if he can avoid that in his sophomore season, look for a 60+ season as Sarnia’s top defender in 2015-2016.
1. Auston Matthews, F: Hey look, another American! Like Jack Eichel? You’ll love Auston Matthews. Some scouts believe that this scoring machine could have been a huge threat for a top two selection at the 2015 NHL Draft had he been born just days earlier. Regardless, Matthews has been a scoring star every where he’s gone, and if it wasn’t for him being born in September, he’d be a top five pick in the draft this year. He’ll have to settle with being first overall in 2016, and after ammasing 94 points in 51 games with the U.S. National U18 Team this year, are people really questioning his star power? Matthews is the next best thing to come out of the USNTDP, and with stellar performances at every international tournament he’s been apart of, he’s proving why. Last year, he was able to win the U17 and U18 World Championship tournaments, and after being the top scorer at the U18’s in April, he managed to take the top scorer award. If he does indeed go pro in the NLA this year, all of North America will make sure to take a sigh of relief.
Justin Bradford caught up with Auston Matthews this past season when the USNTDP visited the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Give it a read for more on the projected first overall pick.
Steven is a junior hockey reporter for the Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, and also focuses on international hockey for his website, TheHockeyHouse.net. You can follow Steven on twitter @StevenEllisNHL.