The 2018 NHL Entry Draft is roughly eight months away but it’s never too early to start getting familiar with some of the names that will be announced at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas, next June. This year’s class is considered to be much deeper than 2017’s and is full of impactful talent.
In this edition, I’ll break down some of the top-ranked Canadian-born centers who are expected to be selected in the first round. The players being mentioned are based on preliminary rankings from International Scouting Services (ISS), Future Considerations (FC), and our own Larry Fisher’s preseason rankings (THW).
Keep in mind that individual player rankings will undoubtedly change as the season progresses, but many, if not all of these names will still remain near the top of the draft board as we inch closer to the month of June. So let’s take a look at some of the exciting young centermen born in the Great White North.
Joe Veleno – Saint John (QMJHL)
ISS: No. 3
FC: No. 4
THW: No. 6
If you’re unfamiliar with Veleno, you won’t be for long. In 2015 he was granted exceptional-player status by Hockey Canada, which allowed him to be drafted into the CHL a year early at age 14. He joins Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, and Sean Day on the list of players granted this exclusive designation but the first to ever lace up his skates in the QMJHL. Speaking of Tavares, Veleno’s play has been compared to that of the New York Islanders’ captain.
Since being drafted first overall by the Sea Dogs in 2015, he’s posted back-to-back 40-point seasons with the club, including a QMJHL Championship campaign in 2016-17 in which he totaled 11 postseason points (eight goals, three assists) in 18 games played. In 2017-18, Veleno will serve as Saint John’s captain.
Reading through his scouting reports, it’s hard to find any flaws or red flags when it comes to his game. Listed at 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, he already has the physical frame of an NHL player and if you add that to his impressive skill set, he has a real shot at making the immediate jump to the big league.
Veleno is the type of highly-skilled playmaker that would boost any team’s lineup. He’s a powerful and quick skater who creates quality scoring chances while simultaneously wreaking havoc in the offensive zone. He is not afraid to battle in the dirty areas and pitch in with an aggressive forecheck. Veleno is a responsible two-way center who does all the little things well, a quality that will certainly endear him to his future NHL coach.
Ryan McLeod – Mississauga (OHL)
ISS: No. 3
FC: No. 4
THW: No. 6
Like Veleno, McLeod already possesses the physical attributes of an NHL player (6-foot-2, 190 lbs) and is also a responsible tw0-way centerman. During his second season with the Steelheads in 2016-17, he posted his first 40-plus-point season (nine goals, 33 assists), two points shy of doubling his 2015-16 rookie season total of 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists).
Despite not being the fastest north-south skater, McLeod is still able to cover ground quickly with strong and sudden bursts of speed while using his large frame to drive to the net. In what seems to be a running theme with this year’s eligible centers, he likes to dig the puck out of the corners to generate offensive chances. He uses his size to his advantage in creating scoring chances, especially in the slot. Often generous in passing the puck, he’s a playmaker who likes to set up his linemates.
His stock could very well rise by the time the draft rolls around, as he is a prime candidate to have a breakout year in his third OHL season. Already off to a good start early on in 2017-18, he totaled nine points (five goals, four assists) in Mississauga’s first eight games played.
Akil Thomas – Niagara (OHL)
ISS: No. 13
FC: No. 21
THW: No. 27
Listed at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Thomas isn’t as physically imposing as some of the aforementioned centers in this year’s class, but he’s definitely one of the most intriguing. Riding confidence he earned from an impressive showing while representing Canada at the 2017-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, he’s already off to a hot start with the Ice Dogs, scoring 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in the team’s first 10 regular season games.
During a recent interview with The Hockey Writers, Thomas was asked to describe what makes his style of play stand out in such a talented and deep draft:
“My speed, my grit, my vision, my playmaking ability. I always want to hold on to the puck and make very nice plays with it. I can also play a two-way centerman’s role. I really try to take pride with my faceoffs and my d-zone.”
His speed and jaw-dropping playmaking ability definitely make the young forward a standout player everytime he hits the ice. He likes the puck on his stick, and despite his size, he protects it extremely well. His ability to fly into the offensive zone at top speed while controlling the puck is impressive. If you combine his speed, skill, and ability to constantly improve as a player, it’s not surprising why some NHL teams may consider drafting Thomas in the first round next June.
Benoit-Olivier Groulx – Halifax (QMJHL)
ISS: No. 19
FC: No. 13
THW: No. 28
Like Thomas, Groulx was also a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning squad at the 2017-18 Hlinka tournament. In five games played he scored three total points (two goals, one assist). Now, returning to a talented Mooseheads lineup, he will look to build on a 31-point season (17 goals, 14 assists) that he posted in 2016-17.
While his game may not be as complete as that of some of his peers, there’s still a lot to like about the young forward. Groulx is a strong two-way center who protects the puck well and possesses both a hard and accurate shot. Creative with the puck and always a threat when driving to the net, he could very well develop into a well-rounded and complete player at the NHL level someday.
One of the most common critiques on prospects is the need to improve their skating ability, and Groulx himself knows this is an area he needs to work on:
“You always need to work on little things, little details of your game. For me, I need to improve my skating, my shooting, my skills,” said Groulx.
Another strong and productive year in Halifax will undoubtedly help boost his ranking as the draft approaches, especially if he’s able to improve his skating ability. He’s a player to definitely keep on your radar.
Related: Q & A with Top Prospect Akil Thomas
Jack McBain – Toronto (OJHL)
ISS: No. 26
FC: No. 15
THW: No. 25
Measuring in at 6-foot-3, 196 pounds, McBain is the largest top-ranked Canadian-born center in this year’s draft class, a fact that will not go unnoticed by NHL clubs. Like Groulx, he needs to improve his skating but already possesses the ability to use his long legs to make impactful strides up and down the ice.
TSN’s Director of Scouting Craig Button offers up this assessment:
Has a big motor and the will to make things happen at all times. Has a solid set of skills and high potential with improvement in his skating.
Posting a 41-point rookie season (13 goals, 28 assists) with the Jr. Canadiens in 2016-17, McBain is a big and skilled player who works tirelessly at improving his craft. Not the most physical player on the ice, despite his size, he still knows how to efficiently use his long reach to his advantage.
Another standout player for team Canada at the Hlinka Tournament last August, he could end up being a highly-desired commodity by the time the draft rolls around. As he fine tunes his already impressive qualities, McBain could develop into a dominating NHL center further on down the road.
Barrett Hayton – Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
ISS: No. 24
THW: No. 14
Hayton’s offensive numbers may not be as impressive as the previously mentioned centers on this list, but that doesn’t mean he’s not receiving serious first-round consideration. He’s one of six OHL players who received an ‘A’ rating on the NHL Central Scouting early watch list. The ‘A’ rating is assigned to players projected to be selected in the first round.
During his rookie season with the Greyhounds in 2016-17, Hayton totaled 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists). However, he put up 11 points (four goals, seven assists) during the first 12 games of the 2017-18 season. Credited with a great IQ on and off of the ice, he’s a student of the game with a very promising future.
Barrett Hayton is going to be shooting up draft rankings over the course of this season. Has shown he's ready to take the next step
— Scott Palmer (@SPHockey87) August 31, 2017
The former ninth overall pick in the OHL Draft skated on the wing much of last season with the Greyhounds but found success (three goals, three assists in five games) playing as a center for Team Canada at this year’s Hlinka Tournament. Listed as a center, the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Hayton looks to thrive at either position.
Used often as a net-front presence while his team is on the power play, he also isn’t afraid to play with a bit of an edge. As his point total appears to be trending upwards during his junior season, it’s safe to assume his draft ranking will move in the same direction as well.
Once again, keep in mind that these projections are based on preliminary rankings and are subject to change. Keep checking back with The Hockey Writers for our continuing coverage of the 2018 NHL Draft Class.