For the past few weeks, The Hockey Writers have been bringing you a series of articles detailing several intriguing aspects of the 2016 NHL Draft, including Winners and Losers of the Draft and The Biggest Surprises of the NHL Draft’s First Round. With the 2016 NHL Draft finally in the books, here are several players whose humbling draft ranking far underscores their high skill levels. And of course, be sure to check out THW’s 2016 NHL Draft Guide to see how we did.
From Jamie Benn (129th overall in 2007) to Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall in 1999), the NHL is littered with players who have made their mark as a professional despite being taken in the later rounds of the draft.
The first round of the 2016 unfolded largely as expected, with the Toronto Maple Leafs selecting Auston Matthews first overall and Patrik Laine coming off the board with the next pick. Heading into the second day of the draft, several top prospects remained on the board, with top prospects such as Pascal Laberge, Carter Hart, and Tyler Benson still waiting to hear their name called.
After the Montreal Canadiens made some noise on the first day of the draft by dealing Lars Eller to the Washington Capitals and subsequently acquiring Andrew Shaw from the Blackhawks for a pair of second round draft picks, the early portion of the second day of the draft held some intrigue. Here are just a few players who could prove to be draft-day steals a few years down the road.
Alex DeBrincat, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
Taken with the 39th overall pick they acquired in return for Andrew Shaw, the Blackhawks may have found themselves another diminutive NHL player the day after moving the two-time Cup champ. Having been firmly in the national spotlight after a breakout 51-goal season playing alongside Connor McDavid in 2015 and capturing OHL Rookie of the Year honours, Alex DeBrincat had to answer questions about his slight frame and if his production was just a product of the generational talent.
He responded to his critics with another 51 goals in 2015-16, adding 19 points in the Erie Otters’ playoff run. Standing just 5’7″, DeBrincat’s height and strength will always be questioned on his path to the professional ranks.
However, his elite-level shot and hockey sense was on full display throughout the season, and it was somewhat surprising that he fell completely out of the first round on Friday night. The Blackhawks, who are in what is seemingly a never-ending cap crunch, did extremely well to land what could be a future top six forward in the NHL with a mere second round draft pick.
Vitali Abramov, RW, Columbus Blue Jackets
After surprising nearly everyone by passing on Jesse Puljujarvi with the third overall pick and reaching a bit for American blueliner Andrew Peeke at 34th overall, the Blue Jackets reached their third selection of the day with a wealth of options on the board. They landed their presumptive number one centre of the future in Pierre-Luc Dubois, but without their fourth and fifth round picks due to trades, Columbus needed to acquire a high-upside prospect with their 65th pick.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen may have landed himself a stud in Russian sniper Vitali Abramov. After his eye-opening performance in the CHL Top Prospects Game, Abramov’s production in the QMJHL skyrocketed, culminating in a QMJHL Rookie of the Year award for his 93-point season. Widely projected to go in the late first round, Abramov’s draft-day slide was somewhat surprising given his track record and offensive skill set.
A brilliant skater with some of the smoothest hands in the entire draft, Abramov’s light frame is likely what contributed to several teams passing on his tantalizing offensive potential. With several promising young forwards in tow already in Oliver Bjorkstrand, Sonny Milano, and Dubois, Abramov should make a nice addition to the Blue Jackets in the future.
Will Bitten, C, Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens made arguably the biggest splash of the day when, in back to back trades, they dealt away Lars Eller and acquired scrappy winger Andrew Shaw. While the move for Shaw added a player who has won multiple Stanley Cup rings and brings a healthy dose of grit to the Canadiens, the trade left Montreal without a selection in the second round of the draft after entering the weekend with two.
With a gap of more than 60 picks in between their first round pick and their next selection, Montreal likely wasn’t expecting highly skilled centreman Will Bitten to still be available by the time GM Marc Bergevin made his next draft choice.
A highly regarded prospect as the seventh overall choice in the 2014 OHL Draft, Bitten’s draft stock was sunk by his abysmal situation with the Flint Firebirds. However, Bitten put up nearly a point per game and proved his play wasn’t affected by his poor supporting cast when he put up eight points in the Under-18 World Championships for Canada.
The Canadiens may have unwittingly passed up the chance to draft DeBrincat in the second round, but their savvy selection of Bitten in the third adds a much-needed prospect with a high ceiling to their middling system. Originally projected to go early in the second round with some even saying a late first round pick wouldn’t have been too much of a reach, getting Bitten at 70th overall could prove to be quite the steal for Le Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge.
Adam Brooks, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s rare to see a player twice passed over in the NHL Draft enter for his third year of eligibility and get selected with a pick in the top 100 slots. Then again, the season that Adam Brooks enjoyed for the Regina Pats isn’t too commonplace, either. After notching just 85 points over his first three seasons with the Pats, Brooks exploded in his final junior season.
He racked up 120 points, leading the WHL with 82 assists and adding 23 more points in just 12 playoff games. He also finished an astonishing 50 points ahead of his closest teammate, demonstrating his value to the Pats and the ability to elevate the play of his teammates.
Brooks’ size is one of the few knocks on his game at this point, as he stands just 5’11” and weighs in under 180 pounds. Still, his high-level hockey sense, sublime playmaking ability, and impressive production all point to a successful career as a professional. While some are wary of drafting overage players in the NHL Draft, more and more teams are realizing that the value an overager presents often goes overlooked in an exercise of luck such as the NHL Draft.
Adam Brooks a late bloomer who dominated the WHL this year.. Impressive instincts and big point totals #NHLDraft
— Andy Levangie (@AndyLevang) June 25, 2016
From Joe Pavelski to Ondrej Palat, the stigma surrounding drafting these late bloomers seems to be decreasing with each passing year. Brooks appears to be the latest potential star to be overlooked by NHL clubs. Sitting at 11 draft picks in 2016 following the Frederik Andersen trade, the Maple Leafs could afford to take risks with some of their picks. Brooks’ play this season certainly earned him consideration to be drafted, and kudos to Toronto for realizing a player with immense potential and grabbing him with a late pick.
Dmitri Sokolov, C/RW, Minnesota Wild
Originally touted as a potential top ten draft selection in 2016, Dmitri Sokolov came to North America this year after being tabbed by the lowly Sudbury Wolves in the CHL Import Draft. Battling a shoulder injury for the majority of the season, Sokolov’s stock plummeted throughout the year and he went from a prospective lottery selection to a possible mid-round pick.
Minnesota takes Dmitry Sokolov. Came in to season as a potential top ten pick. Conditioning an issue but still scored 30 on a bad team.
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) June 25, 2016
While his conditioning and relatively poor skating ability contributed to his draft day fall, Sokolov’s natural abilities and lethal shot still allowed him to finish first among all OHL rookies in goals with an impressive 30 tallies.
His offensive instincts are particularly notable, as he is one of the most dangerous players in the OHL below the hashmarks and his stocky build allows him to be quite effective protecting the puck in the offensive zone. While the question marks surrounding his work ethic and skating ability were enough to sink his draft position, he still has the talent to become a top six forward at the NHL level.
For a team that has been searching for a legitimate top six centre to replace the aging Mikko Koivu, the Wild were smart to gamble on a talent such as the enigmatic Sokolov with one of their last picks in the 2016 NHL Draft. If he can answer the questions about his skating ability and physical fitness, Sokolov has all the tools to become a dangerous sniper in the NHL.
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