After the historic expansion draft in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, the hockey world is back to its regularly scheduled program. Up next in the offseason is the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, for which the finest young stars will blow into the Windy City in hopes of being whisked away by an NHL club. Of course, many of the players selected on June 23 and 24 will dazzle fans in the AHL, as well.
At the top of the draft rankings are two centermen separated by the slimmest of margins, creating one of the most hotly contested “Who’s No. 1?” debates in hockey history. By virtue of winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t a part of the Nico or Nolan conversation. Pittsburgh’s first selection will comes 31st overall, followed by picks in rounds three, five (2), six and seven.
Just because the marquee-name prospects won’t mean all the talent will be scooped up by the time the Penguins are on the clock. Recent Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton stars like Oskar Sundqvist, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Matt Murray weren’t even taken in the first 80 picks of their respective drafts. Jake Guentzel was selected 77th overall in 2013, and there’s not a hockey fan on planet earth who can try and belittle what he’s accomplished in his short pro career so far.
The point is: There’s always talent available at any point in any draft class. You just have to find it. Here are some names that Pittsburgh might be considering calling in Chicago this weekend…
This Czech forward is an intriguing combination of size, speed and skill. Chytil already measures in at six-foot-two and has the family tree to suggest he’ll grow even more. His long limbs don’t hold him back with his skating, though, as he really sits down low in his stance to build explosive strides and effortless acceleration. His hands are quick and he’s shown he can pull off some impressive moves when traveling at a high speed. Loves to get after the puck and get involved in the forecheck. He had a tough run of injuries throughout this season, which has left people wondering whether or not he has durability issues or if it was just a case of bad luck.
Norris is a skilled, playmaking centerman who played a big role on the United States National Team Development Program. He shows that high compete level that Pittsburgh loves and demonstrates a lot of subtleties to his game that make him effective. The Oxford, Mich. native combines his competitiveness with his swift skating ability to be dogged in pursuit of pucks. He doesn’t doll out bone-rattling checks, but he’s more than willing to get his hands dirty in tough areas of the offensive zone. He was an absolute beast at the draft combine and blew his competition out of the water in tests that test athletic ability. He’s also capable of making crisp plays on his backhand, a lost art. Some see Norris as a late first rounder, others list him as a mid-second round pick due to a lack of high-end speed and game-to-game consistency.
The Penguins loaded up on defensemen in the latter parts of last year’s draft, but they still might be tempted to take their first blueliner in the first round since 2012 if this guy falls into their lap. This is a stalwart defensive defenseman who’s already cut his chops at the pro level against grown men in Finland for two years. Vaakanainen showcases excellent multi-directional skating, but he prefers to use it for a wide range of coverage rather than end-to-end offensive rushes. That’s not to say he isn’t adept at moving the puck out of the zone, though. He very often delivers a crisp, accurate first pass. His slapper packs quite a punch and he keeps it low for tips and rebounds. There are a lot of circumstances that would have to play out for Vaakanainen to end up with Pittsburgh with the final pick of the first round, but if the dominoes fall just right, he could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Perhaps a more realistic target for the Penguins on D at the end of the first round is Portland Winterhawks rearguard Jokiharju. He’s a shifty, speedy rearguard who uses his skating skills more for transition than for offense. The breakout is his bread and butter, as he’s a first pass marksman who prefers effective, low-risk plays. Jokiharju might wreak havoc on your spell check, but he can always be relied on for taking the simple play at the right time to usher the puck up ice. That’s an underrated attribute that we saw Pittsburgh’s defense corps excel at during the playoffs in the absence of Kris Letang. While he’s proven to be processes the game well when the puck is on his stick, he doesn’t have the same defensive consistency at Vaakanainen just yet.
This prospect energizes teammates with his heart and soul approach to the game. Anderson-Dolan captained Canada at the recent U18 World Juniors. He plays the game “the right way” by being strong defensively, hard on the forecheck, maintaining a strong stick at all times and knowing his limitations. The Spokane Chiefs centerman’s greatest asset is his skating, which has an impressive top gear to go along with excellent edgework. He really impresses with his ability to change directions in the blink of an eye. This isn’t a guy who prefers a finesse game, but he’ll occasionally flash above average hands. Anderson-Dolan is a player with the skillset and intangibles that should make him a top-20 pick, but some scouts have been turned off by his sub-six-foot size. Their loss could end up being the Penguins’ gain at 31st overall.
This speedy sparkplug proved to be a reliable source of secondary scoring for the Brandon Wheat Kings this year, often hopping on the ice right after Nolan Patrick’s line. Lewis is a heavy attacker with wheels and plays in all situations for the Wheat Kings. This past season was a breakout year for Lewis, one that was rather unexpected. In fact, he went undrafted last year, but Pittsburgh has not been an organization to shy away from young men who were passed over in their first years of eligibility (Dominik Simon, Freddie Tiffels, Ryan Jones, Joe Masonius, Kasper Björkqvist, to name a few.)
The third Finnish defenseman on the list, which is more of a testament to the work the Finns have done to churn out quality prospects over the past few years. However, this college-bound blueliner has ties to the Espoo Blues junior system, a program that we saw the Penguins European scouts lean towards last year with the selections of Niclas Almari and Kasper Björkqvist. Unlike those two players, Kotkansalo already has one year of playing the North American game under his belt as he suited up in 47 games for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL this season. He’s got the skating ability to make him successful in this era’s style of hockey, and he plays as close to a mistake-free game as you can find for a rearguard of his age. He plays with jam, too, finishing hits. Scouts are divided on how his offensive upside will develop (if at all,) but if any staff will have a good gauge on what Kotkansalo will become, it’s Pittsburgh’s.
Just like last year, we will have our LIVE draft blog up and running on Skating on the Susquehanna being updated after every pick or trade made by the Penguins. Every selection made by Pittsburgh will be accompanied by a scouting report so fans can get an idea of what kind of player just joined the organization and might be tearing it up in Wilkes-Barre someday.
Pittsburgh’s draft picks are as follows:
First round – 31st overall
Third round – 93rd overall
Fifth round – 152nd overall
Fifth round – 155th overall
Sixth round – 186th overall
Seventh round – 217th overall (The “Mr. Irrelevant” pick)