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Talking NHL Draft with Scott Wheeler

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Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid, and Noah Hanifin
Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid, and Noah Hanifin
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Scott Wheeler is the site manager of SBNation's Toronto Maple Leafs outlet Pension Plan Puppets. He's also a writer that specializes in prospects for McKeen's Hockey. So we decided to lean on that expertise by asking Scott to answer a few questions on the upcoming NHL Draft, and he was gracious enough to oblige. Here are his thoughts on McDavid vs. Eichel, who comes after those two, and some other potential first round picks.

SBN College Hockey: NCAA fans are very familiar with what Jack Eichel did this year. What is it about Connor McDavid that puts him a clear step ahead of Eichel?

Scott Wheeler: As an evaluator, it seems hard to believe that there's a better player than Jack Eichel in any draft class. He's that good. But with McDavid, you don't even have to talk yourself into it. When you watch McDavid and Eichel play, there are two main differences in their games that stand out in McDavid's favour.

The first, is McDavid's remarkable hand-eye coordination at full speed. There might not be a more instinctual and creatively reactive player on the planet, let alone in this draft class, than McDavid. When there's a puck in someone's skates, or it's bouncing, or it skips off a body on a bad pass from a teammate, McDavid has this incredible knack for corralling and settling it down, or putting it through the defender who thinks the play is dead. It's reminiscent of the ability Crosby has to keep the tempo elevated when it ought to slow down, particularly early on in his career.

The second is McDavid's skating. Again, it seems odd to say there's a better skater than Eichel when he's got such strength in his stride, but McDavid can beat anyone wide off the rush, and that's what makes him special.

SBNCH: Noah Hanifin seemed like a pretty clear-cut third overall in this draft at the midway point of the season, but since then, both Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome have made a strong push to move ahead of Hanifin in some rankings. Again, I think a lot college hockey fans are familiar with what Hanifin brings to the table. What's the argument for Marner or Strome, and how do you rank the three?

SW:I have Hanifin third overall, but the gap has definitely tightened and the trio of him, Strome and Marner are almost interchangeable. I think that as each pre-draft season winds down, scouts have a tendency to look for things that indicate a player is wrongly ranked when really they aren't. I think Hanifin has been a victim of that bad habit, as scouts have dissected him out of that third overall ranking because of say, his lack of a heavy shot. With Hanifin, he's so gifted as a one-on-one defender and skater jumping up into the rush, that I have little doubt he'll project exactly how everyone has envisioned him for the better part of the last three or four years. His shot hasn't held him back, and I don't think it will.

Likewise, I don't buy into the notion that Strome won't excel at the next level because he's an average skater. Scouts said the same thing about Sean Monahan, John Tavares, Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf, among others. When a skill like skating isn't elite, and you're in the conversation as a top 5 pick, scouts aren't wrong in devaluing a player, but Strome protects and manages the puck so incredibly well that he dictates the tempo, rather than catches up to it. Similarly, Marner has shown, time and time again that his size isn't an issue. When you can adjust your speed and weave like Marner can you can break down bigger, stronger defenders.

Ultimately, I have Hanifin ranked third, Strome fourth, and Marner fifth, but you can't go wrong. I'd be shocked if a team in the top five passed either of the three of them up in favour of Werenski, Barzal, or Provorov, no matter the speculation.

SBNCH: One player I was very impressed with at the World U18s was Denis Gurianov. Do you see him as a player that makes it into the first round of the draft, or does the Russian Factor and concerns about him coming to North America drop him out of the first round?

SW:Gurianov (or Guryanov), is an intriguing prospect in that he's quite gifted for a player of his size but their remains question marks as to the strength of the MHL. I don't have Gurianov ranked in my top 30 but I believe this class has a clear top 20 players and then those ranked in the cluster from the late-first to early third round are extremely close so it wouldn't surprise me in the least if he slides up.

Gurianov's a shot-first power forward with size and a quick release, something all teams desire, but he's signed for two more years with HC Lada Togilatti in the KHL and the inability to get him into an NHL team's system quickly may push some teams away.

SBNCH: Ilya Samsonov seems to have separated himself from the pack as far as available goalies this year. Do you think he's worth breaking the cardinal rule of never drafting goalies in the first round? Who do you think are the best goalies available after Samsonov?

SW:Goalies are incredibly challenging to rank and even harder to project in a mock draft setting because they're the only position that's drafted for need with any regularity. Teams need pro goalies for their system and they aren't easy to come by. While Samsonov is a talented, agile, positionally sound goalie, I'm weary as to whether he merits a first round selection in such a deep draft, and have him ranked outside of the top-30 as a result. If a team feels their goalie pipeline is thin, he's an excellent option.

Beyond Samsonov, I think Felix Sandstrom is the best goalie in the class. Sandstrom, if it weren't for injuries and a bout of mononucleosis, would likely be more on the radar, but he plays an extremely sound style that projects easily. When you're evaluating younger goalies, you're looking for tools that can translate with technique that already exists. It's easier to develop a goalie with a conventional style than it is to train one whose talented but has quirks in his technique. Sandstrom plays a hybrid style with strong mechanics and his athleticism for a 6-2 goalie can't be taught.

World Junior standout and over-ager Denis Godla remains the biggest unknown, or wild card of the bunch.

SBNCH: Is there a player ranked in the top 10-15 by most in this draft that you absolutely wouldn't touch if you were drafting? On the flip side, which player generally ranked outside the top-30 do you think is worthy of a first round draft pick?

SW:There's a couple of players ranked near the top of the draft that I'm apprehensive about, but I wouldn't say there's any that shouldn't be touched, it's just a matter of when. Early on, I have both Pavel Zacha (13) and Lawson Crouse (15) ranked considerably lower than the consensus among scouts. Both are strong players and prospects but lack the high-end skill required to be a top 10 pick in a draft like this, particularly Crouse. I think there's a tendency, still (even as the game gets quicker), to over value size and strength. If you're lucky enough to be picking in the top-10 in a class like this, you need to make sure you're targeting the most talented players, because first line players are the hardest to come by at the NHL level.

On the flip side, and for the same reasons, I'm extremely high on Daniel Sprong (who I've written about for McKeen's and have ranked 16th) of the Charlottetown Islanders. Sprong is often ranked outside the first round because of knocks to his defensive game but he possesses top-10 talent and is one of the more gifted and creative puck carriers in the class. For a team drafting in the second half of the first round, he's a potential steal. There aren't 30 better players in this draft than him.

Likewise, I'm also high on Jeremy Bracco (22) who is consistently ranked lower than his talent suggests because of his size. Bracco's one of the most talented players in the draft with the puck on his stick and he plays the game so intelligently on the offensive side that he can navigate effectively against bigger players. And despite his size, Bracco is a thick kid with a low centre of gravity. He's not easily knocked off the puck.

Big thanks again to Scott for answering our questions. Again, for more of his coverage on the NHL Draft, you can find him over at Pension Plan Puppets.