It's inevitable that Riley Tufte will draw comparisons to Florida Panthers star forward Nick Bjugstad. They both played for Blaine High School. Both are really tall and fair-haired. Tufte even wore the number 27 in Bjugstad's honor. But having watched both extensively through their high school careers, there are a lot of differences as well. In many ways, Tufte was the better high school player--his incredible skating ability gave him the ability to take over games in away Bjugstad never quite could.
That's not to say that Tufte will be as good or better than Bjugstad. The key for Bjugstad was how much he improved after being drafted by the Panthers, being one of the rare players to develop and capitalize on his tremendous potential. Will Tufte do the same? That's anybody's guess. But if he can, he could be a really exciting prospect.
Player: Riley Tufte
Team: Blaine(MN) High School/Fargo Force(USHL)
Position: Center/Left Wing
Height: 6'5" Weight: 212 lbs.
Stats: HS: 24 games, 23 goals, 28 assists/USHL: 27 games, 10 goals, 4 assists, 14 points
Final NHL Central Scouting rank: 17th among North American skaters
What I Like:
-Great skater for 6'5"
Tufte is an incredible skater for his size. He's really light on his feet. He can fly down the wing, making him dangerous off the rush, and has the agility to change directions. The camera kind of misses this play, but here, Tufte does a 360 spin-o-rama to beat a defender one-on-one to create a scoring chance
You don't quite get the full effect of seeing him barrel down the ice full speed before hitting the brakes on that spin move, but that's crazy athletic ability. Forget guys his size, there aren't many players in the Draft that can do that that well.
Tufte's long legs and strong stride also give him great glide speed, allowing him to circle in the offensive zone with the puck and evaluate options to make plays.
-Decent hands for a big man
Tufte is a nice stickhandler and has soft hands capable of flipping saucer passes onto the stick of a teammate. He sometimes gets too cute by flipping a pass when a hard, crisp pass would be more effective, but that's an easy fix. He'll have to adjust because there are some things he got away with in high school that he won't be able to at higher levels, but he has the raw ability to be a really nice puckhandler.
Not surprising for a player his size, but Tufte can fire the puck and is a threat to score from distance. He doesn't have a super-quick release on his wrist shot, but has a very heavy shot. He also has a great slap shot one-timer that Blaine used quite a bit this season. His biggest moment of the high school season was this overtime game-winner water bottle shot against Edina:
A lot of people, including some NHL teams, might hold the fact that he left the USHL to go back for his senior season of high school hockey against him. I don't. I think it shows a lot of character and maturity to make a tough, unpopular(at least in hockey circles) decision because he felt like staying with the kids that he grew up with was the right thing to do.
What I Don't Like:
-Too much perimeter play
My biggest issue with Tufte's game over the years has been his habit of just playing on the perimeter rather than taking advantage of the fact that he's 6'5" and going into the dirty areas of the ice in front of the net to make plays. There are also a lot of times off the rush that he'll choose to pull up and try to make a cute pass rather than lowering his shoulder and driving hard to the net.
I thought he made a concerted effort to improve in this area over the course of the high school season, and that was a big factor for me in finally deciding to rank him in the top 30 of the Draft. It's an area that is not quite there yet, but is at least developing.
-Doesn't handle physical play well
The only times I saw Tufte held quiet during the high school season were games in which the other team was really physical against him; especially if they could put a big hit on him early. Tufte loves to play a finesse game, but as he progresses, the brand of hockey he'll face will be much more physical, and that's something he'll have to adjust to.
-Weak USHL numbers
Tufted finished with 27-game before-and-after-high-school USHL stint with a 10-4-14 scoring line, which is respectable, but a point every two games in juniors isn't typically the production one would expect from a first round draft pick. I'm not sure if I'd draw firm conclusions from that, however. There was certainly an adjustment period to the higher level of play at the beginning of the season, and when he returned in March, Tufte was relegated to fourth line duty because Fargo didn't want to disrupt the chemistry on their top three lines.
It's also worth remembering that as a bigger player, Tufte is going to take longer to develop than most other players. It could come eventually. The low scoring line is a reason for concern, and there's added risk in taking him, but it shouldn't disqualify him from being a first round pick.
Tufte is more or less the 21st guy in a Draft that goes 18-20 players deep. It's not a guarantee that he'll go in the first round, but he's probably the most likely of a group of 20 or so players in the running for those last 10 spots in the first round. There's a little too much risk involved in taking Tufte for him to qualify in that top group, but there's not another player with his combination of size and skating available in the Draft, which makes him an intriguing commodity.
As a bigger prospect, Tufte is likely going to need a longer timeline before he's ready to make an impact at the NHL level. He'll head to the University of Minnesota Duluth next year. If his slow transition to the USHL is any indication, it may take a year or two before he starts to make a big impact with the Bulldogs, but after three to four years in Duluth and some time spent in the minor leagues, Tufte could develop into a very good pro player. The sky is the limit for a player with Tufte's physical tools. He's got the upside to be a scoring line wing at the NHL level.