There hasn't been much mystery in regards to the best forward in the 2016 NHL Draft. A strong push from Finnish forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi has made things interesting, but American Auston Matthews has been the presumed favorite for almost the entire year.
Things have been much less clear on the blue line, where Jakob Chychrun, Mikhail Sergachev and Olli Juolevi has all been in the running to be the first defenseman selected in this year's NHL Draft. There was some hope that the picture would begin to clear a little bit when both Chychrun and Sergachev were late additions for this year's World U18 Championships.
But through the opening days of the tournament, the picture has only become more muddied with a fourth candidate, Canadian defenseman and Boston University recruit Dante Fabbro, making a strong push to be the top defenseman taken.
Chychrun started the year as the presumed favorite to be the first taken, and possibly to even push Matthews for the top overall selection, but has slid back to the rest of the pack as the season has progressed. This is somewhat understandable. Chychrun has always been a very mature player for his age. He was a solid 6'2" defender as a 15-year-old when he gained "exceptional status" to enter the Ontario Hockey League a year early. And while he's been very good ever since then, there's some concern that Chychrun has hit a bit of a ceiling in his development earlier than most, and that he might not have the same exceptional high-end ability of some of the other players in the Draft. Chychrun is a rock at the blue line. He's a really smooth skater for his size, and he can be a physical presence along the boards. There's little doubt that he'll be a good, reliable NHL defenseman. But with the modern NHL favoring defenseman that can contribute on the offensive end as well, Chychrun hasn't really shown the offensive abilities to suggest a big contributor in that area at the pro level.
Next is the one defenseman not playing in the World U18s: Finnish defenseman Olli Juolevi. Juolevi is still involved in the OHL playoffs with the London Knights(though he'll miss a potential U18s bump, he's got a good chance of showcasing himself at the Memorial Cup this year). Juolevi was consistently ranked as a mid-first round pick until the World Juniors this year, where he played a big role as an underager on Finland's gold medal winning team. Juolevi is the player I've seen the least of, but he is regarded as a tremendous four-direction skater with promising offensive upside. He's still improving on the defensive side of the puck, but might have the most potential of any of the four defensemen.
Mikhail Sergachev has been steady and consistent all season with the Windsor Spitfires. It wasn't expected that he would participate in this tournament. The Russian hockey federation had said players that left for North America rather than playing for their national U18 team would not be selected for international play. But Russia's decision to pull their national U18 team from competition over fear of testing positive for meldonium left them scrambling for other options. As a result, Sergachev is far-and-away the best player on an otherwise very young Russian team. He isn't a flashy straight-line skater, but his first step is very strong, which allows him to evade pressure, and he uses his strong, wide base to gain leverage on defenders, negating any speed advantage with positioning. He also possesses one of the best shots from the point in the Draft, which means he should be productive offensively at the Draft.
Dante Fabbro is the wild card in the group. He had a strong Ivan Hlinka Tournament this summer, which solidified him as a top round pick. But going back to play for Penticton in the BCHL, I think it was a little tough for scouts to really evaluate how good he was playing on a Penticton team that was so far ahead of the rest of the league. But he is showing himself to be Canada's top defenseman at the U18s. His patience and poise in moving the puck is really high-end. He may not have the same physical attributes as a player like Chychrun, but the way he thinks the game is arguably better and he definitely seems to have more upside as an offensive defenseman at the NHL level. Fabbro sees the ice really well and is always thinking one or two steps ahead of everybody else, which allows him to find passing lanes few other players can and maintain team possession of the puck consistently.
There's not likely to be much in the way of consensus by the time we get to late-June and the NHL Draft. That should set up a fascinating draft day with the final decision coming down to individual team preference, and any one of the four--or even a wild card like Charlie McAvoy or Jake Bean sneaking into the picture if the right team holds the pick--could end up hearing their name called first.
If I had to rank all four, I would order them: 1. Sergachev 2. Juolevi 3. Fabbro 4. Chychrun. Sergachev, to me, offers the most in terms of a complete game on both sides of the puck. Chychrun might be the best of the bunch right now, but with a top-10 Draft pick, I think a team has to try to get a really exceptional player, and I think the other three offer a little more upside in terms of long-term potential. But those four are all very close together. I really believe it's going to come down to personal preference of the team drafting, and even though we'll likely look back some day and say there were some clear winners and losers, I'm not sure there's a definite wrong choice to be made on draft day.