In the 2016 NHL Draft, Auston Matthews was the prohibitive favourite to go first overall. While he wasn’t the consensus best player available, Matthews’ all-around skill and his value as a centre with a complete array of skills was too much for the Toronto Maple Leafs to pass up with the first overall pick. Despite the end result, many felt that Finnish sniper Patrik Laine could’ve been taken instead, thanks to his booming shot and his impressive goal-scoring totals throughout the season.
The 2016 Draft aside, many teams opt to veer from the consensus pick due to the impressive tools of a player ranked behind them. This isn’t meant to be a ranking of the top prospects available in 2017, as the class currently looks to be led by Canadian centre Nolan Patrick and fast-rising defender Timothy Liljegren. Instead, the prospects listed here are the best among their class in individual tools, such as skating, shooting, and other skills that could make them the priority of an NHL team on draft day.
Best Skater: Timothy Liljegren, Rogle BK
Liljegren, as previously stated, is already considered to be one of the top prospects in the draft. The smooth-skating Swede conjures images of a young Erik Karlsson with his high-octane offensive style and impressive polish for a young player, already playing meaningful minutes in Sweden’s top men’s league. Liljegren’s puck skills and promise as an offensive blueliner have teams salivating already, but it is his skating ability that has him as the clear-cut top defenseman available in 2017 at this stage.
Liljegren’s breathtaking top speed was on full display at the 2015 World Under-17 Hockey Championships, adding five points to help Team Sweden to a bronze medal. His goal against Russia was arguably the goal of the tournament, blowing past multiple Russian defenders before unleashing his dangerous wrist shot. Nolan Patrick, the prohibitive early favourite to go first overall, plays a strong all-around game and has the potential to become a top-line centre in the NHL. Liljegren faces an uphill battle to usurp Patrick, but if he does, it’ll be because of his game breaking speed.
Best Shot: Owen Tippett, Mississauga Steelheads
Related: 2017 NHL Draft Profile: Owen Tippett
The fourth overall selection in the 2015 OHL Draft, Tippett had a midget season to remember, notching over a goal per game and leading the league in points. Tippett furthered his reputation as one of the top young snipers in the league, leading Team Canada White to a gold medal in the U-17 World Hockey Championship with five goals and eight points in six games. Joining the young and improving Steelheads for the 2015-16 season, Tippett was inconsistent throughout the year and despite tallying 15 goals, he was able to post just five assists playing sheltered minutes on the third line.
Tippett’s speed and offensive instincts allow him to be a threat in the offensive zone, but it’s his lethal shot that makes him one of the early top prospects for the 2017 Draft. He has one of the quickest releases in the OHL, and the power and accuracy of his shot make it tough to stop when he gets a good chance. This gifted goal scorer experienced a rocky first year in the OHL, but with a rising Steelheads team around him, he has the ability to truly break out this year and prove himself worthy of a very high draft pick next summer.
Best Stickhandler: Eeli Tolvanen, Sioux City Musketeers
A rare top Finnish prospect going the way of the USA college route, Tolvanen’s committed to Boston College but is currently suiting up for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. Tolvanen had an impressive first season in North America, pacing all rookies on his team with 17 goals and 38 points. He was even on pace to break the USHL record for points by a 16-year old player, but he was felled by an unfortunate injury mid-season. His play in international tournaments really cemented him as a future top draft pick, however, racking up nine goals in the Under-17 WHC and another seven goals in the World Under-18 Championships.
One of the most talented offensive forwards Finland has produced in recent years (right up there with 2016 picks Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi), Tolvanen’s small size has many underrating his immense skill level. His shooting ability and hockey sense are undoubtedly near the top of the class as well, but it’s his top-notch puck skills that make people take notice of the diminutive Finn.
He’s already off to a good start this season, impressing for Team Finland in the World Junior Summer Showcase as one of their top forwards. He’s already a threat to get drafted very highly in the first round, but if he can build on his extremely impressive rookie season in the USHL, Tolvanen could make a case for being taken with a top-five draft selection.
Most Physical Player: Jacob Paquette, Kingston Frontenacs
While concerns for many young skilled players involve playing more physical and adding strength to withstand the physical requirements of the NHL, defenseman Jacob Paquette is already playing big minutes for the Kingston Frontenacs thanks to his composure on the ice and his strength. Kingston was one of the very best teams in the OHL last season thanks to several trades and a veteran-laden lineup. Paquette, a 16-year-old OHL rookie, played big minutes for the Frontenacs and got valuable experience in on special teams due to his calmness with the puck and his ability to bring a physical presence to the lineup.
Fronts rookie Jacob Paquette has blown my mind this year. Rookie playing top 4 in key situations looks like a vet. Great draft in 2nd round
— Peter Harling (@pharling) April 2, 2016
Already standing 6’2″ and 195 pounds, Paquette specializes in playing a shutdown role. His long reach and strong skating ability allow him to shadow opposing forwards in the defensive zone, which is an invaluable asset on the penalty kill. Paquette’s strength is also a threat for opposing players, and he can lay a big body check when given the opportunity. While he doesn’t produce much offense, with just 13 points last year, Paquette’s value on the defensive end as a shutdown player and intimidating physical presence should be enough to get him serious consideration for a first round draft choice next summer.
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