Fresh off the completion of the highly regarded 2015 NHL Draft class, one which included potential megastars Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel being selected, the focus for draft lovers shifts to the summer of 2016, when all eyes will be on American forward Auston Matthews. While there are no generational talents available next June, the 2016 draft looks to be one of the deepest in recent memory, with several prospects who are on the cusp of breaking out and making a name for themselves. While all the buzz has been on the scoring prodigy Matthews so far (and rightly so), there are several other prospects who have the talent to make an impact for whatever NHL team is lucky enough to grab them.
Every year, there are prospects who enter their pre-draft season without much buzz, but play their way into a high draft pick with a huge leap in performance. Like Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner, and Thomas Chabot in 2015, players can drastically improve their stock throughout the course of the year, whether it ends as a top-3 draft pick or a surprise first round pick. Here are some lesser-known prospects who could take a huge leap forward this year and raise their draft stock dramatically.
C Logan Brown, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Logan Brown is, at the very least, the most physically intimidating forward prospect available for the draft next summer. Standing 6’6″ and tipping the scales at 225 pounds, Brown is a menace on the ice with his combination of skill and hulking size.
The son of former NHL defenseman Jeff Brown, Logan is far from just a big body lumbering around on the ice. The sixth overall pick in the 2014 OHL Draft, Brown was dealt to the Windsor Spitfires from the Niagara IceDogs for six draft picks before even suiting up for an OHL game. It’s not hard to see what the Spitfires fell in love with, as Brown finished his first OHL season with 17 goals and 43 points in just 56 games to finish second in the OHL in points per game amongst rookies.
Entering the season ranked 7th by Hockeyprospect.com and 11th by Future Considerations, one would think a budding power forward like Brown would be ranked much higher. There are a few qualms regarding his game that are holding Brown back from being mentioned as a potential top-five or even top-three pick. Still showing inconsistencies is a big problem, as is his reluctance to take full advantage of his massive frame. If Brown is able to put together his tantalizing package of size and skill, he has the ability to shoot up draft charts and challenge for a top pick in the 2016 draft. As Windsor GM Warren Rychel stated, Brown “…has unlimited potential.”
D Sean Day, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
One of the most polarizing prospects available next year without a doubt, Sean Day entered the OHL under tremendous expectations as the fourth player ever to be granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada, after John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, and Connor McDavid. However, he was also the first exceptional player to be taken after the first overall pick, as Day slid to the fourth overall selection and the Mississauga Steelheads. Admittedly, Day doesn’t exactly fit the criteria of “not much buzz”, but he didn’t exactly live up to expectations in his first two OHL seasons, registering a combined 16 goals and 52 points to go along with a -62 plus/minus rating over 121 games.
While Day’s luster has worn off a little bit, he still boasts the promising talent and physicality that made the best hockey minds in Canada deem him exceptional. Day is still one of the best skaters from the blueline in the OHL, and he uses his huge 6’2″, 240 pound frame to his advantage when he has to play physically against opposing forwards.
As with Brown, the main concern with Day is his inconsistent play at both ends of the rink. Day enters the season ranked just 10th by Future Considerations, while being unranked among the top 30 prospects by Hockeyprospect.com. However, if Day can harness his incredible talent and showcase the ability that made him just the fourth player ever to receive exceptional status, he could end up shooting up draft boards and landing inside the top-10 or even top five picks.
RW Julien Gauthier, Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
Continuing with the physically intimidating theme, Julien Gauthier is a towering winger out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Playing for the Val-d’Or Foreurs last season, Gauthier blew away his numbers from his rookie QMJHL season, increasing his goal total from 8 to 38 and his points total from 29 to 73. And at 6’4″ and 220 pounds, Gauthier is able to use his large frame to make an impact in every zone. Despite his impressive progression and desirable size, Gauthier is ranked just 28th by Hockeyprospect.com and 19th by Future Considerations to open his pre-draft season.
Gauthier’s complete game is not overlooked by some of the top hockey minds in Canada, as he was recently the only 2016 Draft-eligible player to be invited to Team Canada’s World Junior Championship summer roster. Hockey Canada’s director of player personnel, Ryan Jankowski, had this to say about Gauthier:
“In putting our roster together for summer camp, we kind of had everything out on the table and we felt we don’t have a lot of size, especially down the middle,” Jankowski told NHL.com. “We want to make sure we have somewhat of a presence with that. Julien has that. He has strength, but he can really skate.
It is this combination of size and skill that should make Gauthier a more coveted prospect, but his game is not without holes. He is seemingly undervalued as a prospect, and his conservative pre-draft ranking is reminiscent to that of 2015 11th overall pick Lawson Crouse. As with Crouse, if the massive winger can refine his game and showcase the ability to drive possession by himself, he could find himself shooting up draft boards.
C Alex DeBrincat, Erie Otters (OHL)
One of the more curious cases in the 2016 Draft, Alex DeBrincat’s numbers should indicate a potential high first round talent, as he exploded onto the scene with a 51-goal OHL rookie season. Despite a monster rookie season, DeBrincat starts off his draft year outside of the top 30 on both the Hockeyprospect.com and Future Considerations prospect rankings. There are some potential concerns that are keeping his draft stock relatively low heading into his draft season, however, as DeBrincat has definitely posted the numbers to justify a high draft pick.
The first issue is, of course, the Connor McDavid effect. The generational talent centered DeBrincat for much of the 2014-2015 season, and as a result, DeBrincat rose from undrafted OHL prospect to rookie of the year and 50 goal, 100 point scorer. The second is his small frame, as DeBrincat, a late 1997 birthday, stands just 5’7″ and weighs in at a measly 160 pounds. However, as undersized players are beginning to show that size is not as much of a factor in today’s NHL than in past years, with 2015 4th overall pick Mitch Marner the most recent high-profile name to join the list, DeBrincat could jump up prospect rankings with another huge season in 2015-2016. After all, he possesses the passing ability, shot, and hands to excel as both a playmaker and goal scorer.
With almost a full year to go before the 2016 NHL Draft kicks off, these prospects, among many others, will get every opportunity to showcase their skills and make a case to rise as high as they can in the draft. These are just a few of many hopeful NHLers that can improve their draft stock by making the necessary improvements in their game to make the most of their intriguing abilities.
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11