Five 2018 NHL Draft Prospects to Watch

One of the most intriguing and entertaining dates within the annual NHL calendar has begun to glisten on the horizon. Sure, it remains months away, however, there is no time better than the present to begin looking forward to the 2018 NHL Draft.

Boasting one of the deepest and most highly skilled draft classes in quite some time, the NHL’s group of elite prospects in 2018 hold immense talent and skill which will undoubtedly be highly sought after by each and every NHL organization. Come Jun. 22-23rd, 2018, the draft floor at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas will be littered with individuals of varying position, skill and promise.

Miro Heiskanen
Miro Heiskanen rocketed up the draft board in 2017 to be made the third overall selection. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, although those poised to be selected within the top-3 are well known, there stand a number of other quality prospects whose strong and consistent play this season has gone somewhat unnoticed. So, with scouts desperate to determine the true potentials of an endless number of players prior to the season’s end, let’s analyze five prospects whose stocks have continued to rise throughout the current campaign.

Five On the Rise

Forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders alike all endure their fair share of successes and struggles throughout the season in which they are first eligible for the NHL Draft. Further, given the length of each campaign, fluctuations in performance and production should come to be expected rather than anticipated.

It is these changes in output which can have a dramatic effect on the stock of each individual prospect, and as such, a number of which see their value fall throughout a calendar year while others sky-rocket up respective draft rankings.

Timothy Liljegren, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL Entry Draft
A season laden with health issues saw the uber-talented Timothy Liljegren tumble to 17th overall in 2017. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

With this being said, let’s take a moment to inspect and examine five particular prospects whose values have continued to rise dramatically in 2017-18 due to their exceptional play.

Filip Zadina

Although he has long been projected to be made the fourth or fifth overall selection in the coming draft, Zadina’s impressive play thus far in 2017-18 has elevated him into contention as one of the top-3 players available in the 2018 NHL Draft, and not surprisingly so considering his domination of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season.

Able to read developing plays well and position himself accordingly, Zadina is a shifty and speedy skater who can burn his opponents to the outside of the ice before either ripping a shot on goal or passing the puck off to a fellow teammate. Composed while in possession and never rushed in his decision making, Zadina will possess the puck until the perfect scoring opportunity arises and is very calculated in doing so.

Further, there is Zadina’s shot, which is one of the greatest qualities which he possesses. Capable of blasting the puck on net in the blink of an eye and with serious velocity, Zadina’s pinpoint accuracy has allowed him to garner a massive goal total thus far this season in addition to his spectacular abilities as a playmaker.

If Zadina can continue to lead all draft-eligible players in scoring, it will undoubtedly increase his overall value as a prospect ahead of the 2018 event. As a player somewhat similar, in my opinion, to Nico Hischier of the New Jersey Devils, Zadina’s incredible skill-set should continue to strengthen as he garners greater experience against stiffer competition.

Joe Veleno

There’s a reason why Joe Veleno became the first player in QMJHL history to be granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada. Nabbed by the Saint John SeaDogs with the first overall selection in the 2015 QMJHL Entry Draft, Veleno has quickly become a tantalizing two-way force whose complete game has NHL organizations drooling.

Yet, which particular facet of Veleno’s game will make him a top-10 selection in the coming NHL Draft, you ask?

Joe Veleno Saint John Sea Dogs
Recently traded to the Drummondville Voltigeurs, Veleno is a blistering skater who pairs excellent vision with creativity. (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

Well, the most notable capability which Veleno possesses – and there are many – is his scorching skating. Capable of blowing past opposing players and nimble on his skates, Veleno can dance through his opposition while, at the same time, keeping them on their heels owing to his impressive agility. As a result, Veleno has no issue creating space for himself and can generate both shooting and passing lanes with ease – an ability which has cemented him as a persistent offensive threat.

If Veleno can generate a much more substantial point-total in addition to his remarkable consistency, the NHL organization which selects the Montreal, Quebec native will have landed a terrific and potentially corner-stone centre.

Evan Bouchard

A crafty skater who loves to jump up in the rush, Evan Bouchard’s ability to play a strong defensive game while also playing a major role offensively will combine to make him a highly valuable first round-pick in the coming NHL Draft.

Effortless on his skates and of substantial size, Bouchard’s sizeable frame allows him to create room for himself in all three zones of the ice from which he can both pass and shoot the puck. Capable of making crisp breakout passes to his teammates in a timely fashion, Bouchard has a knack for jumping up in offensive rushes, yet only when he judges it safe to do so.

In all, Bouchard’s complete, two-way game from the blue line will draw a ton of interest both prior to and during the 2018 NHL Draft. Although he would do well to strengthen his frame ahead of his looming professional debut, Bouchard’s high ceiling and proven play have combined to make him one of the most valuable and intriguing defenders within this year’s draft class.

Sure, many worry that offensive defencemen play with a general disregard for their own zone, however, such is certainly not the case with Bouchard.

Ryan Merkley

When most think of Ryan Merkley, they imagine a reckless defenceman eager to generate a high-point total, and one who is willing to sacrifice his defensive responsibilities in order to do so. However, such could not be further from the truth, as the first overall selection in the 2016 OHL Priority Selection continues to learn from his mistakes and, in doing so, become a complete defender.

Merkley’s incredible skill-set has been turning heads for quite some time. (Terry Wilson / OHL Images.)

Incredibly creative and shockingly confident, Merkley is an excellent skater who combines exceptional vision with the puck into a truly lethal offensive game. Capable of undressing opposing defenders before either passing the puck or shooting it, Merkley stands as a legitimate two-way threat who competes without relent on a nightly basis.

Now, while his defensive game does remain a work in progress, Merkley’s incredible puck-skills and ability to generate offence simply can not be overlooked. While he would also do well to strengthen his rather diminutive 170-pound frame, Merkley’s improving overall game and incredibly high potential will make him a guaranteed first-round choice in the coming NHL Draft.

While he may be a long-term project, Merkley could quite easily develop into the NHL’s next Erik Karlsson.

Barrett Hayton

While he isn’t one of the flashiest players available in the 2018 NHL Draft, Barrett Hayton is one of the most complete and consistent. A centre who prioritizes his own zone, Hayton loves to strip his opposition of the puck when they least expect it and can generate scoring opportunities from his takeaways with a startling frequency.

Hayton’s strong play within his own zone has now allowed the Kitchener, Ontario native to place greater emphasis upon his developing offensive game. Blessed with sturdy and quick hands, Hayton moves the puck with ease and can navigate well within tight spaces – a capability which has made him a staple on the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ power play.

Boasting a shot with plenty of velocity, Hayton’s accurate release generates its fair share of rebounds which his fellow teammates are quick to gobble up. In all, Hayton is a slowly yet steadily developing centre of immense potential. Confident and consistent, Hayton’s strong two-way game and study skating should allow for a rather seamless transition to the professional ranks upon his arrival.