The 2022 Draft isn’t seen as one with any potential generational talent, but the strength of this draft will be in the quality of players available later into the second or even third round. Despite the success of the 2019 Draft class out of the United States, there is still less emphasis placed on scouting American junior leagues, as the United States Hockey League (USHL) is considered a weaker cousin to the Canadian-based Canadian Hockey League members.
Having fewer eyes on prospects and some holding that point of view will allow many quality prospects to be undervalued. Here are five underrated American prospects that have the potential to be draft gems.
5. Cole Knuble, Right Wing, USNTDP (USHL)
NHL Central Scouting rank: 84th (among NA skaters)
Cole Knuble’s name may sound familiar to anyone watching hockey between 1997 and 2013 as his father Mike Knuble played for five different NHL teams over that time. He lacks the size his father boasted, but he did inherit his father’s work ethic. He’s physical, loves to go to the front of the net, score goals from in close, and play a physical style on defense.
His strength is his hockey IQ. Cole’s defensive game relies on reading plays developing and being in proper positioning to break them up, jumping on loose pucks, but also providing puck support for his teammates, allowing controlled breakouts to occur. Offensively, his hockey IQ lets him identify passing lanes, and use deceptive movements to create them when needed. He can also quickly identify plays where he can provide support by being a passing option or creating space with a shift in position to draw defenders.
Knuble is projected to be selected in the late fifth round. This is a direct result of his skating. He lacks the first-step speed and fluid mobility needed to keep pace at a professional level for now. An NHL team taking a chance on him with a late-round selection is going to be looking for a boom-or-bust selection. Committed to Notre Dame’s NCAA program beginning in the 2022-23 season, he will have four years of development that he can use to polish that weakness in his game and could become a useful bottom-six winger in the NHL.
4. Cruz Lucius, Right Wing, USNTDP (USHL)
NHL Central Scouting rank: 41st (among NA skaters)
Cruz Lucius is a gifted offensive player. Seen as a playmaking winger, he creates scoring opportunities using his high hockey IQ and vision to identify openings in a defensive set, or by using deceptive changes in speed to create those lanes. He does have a scorer’s touch, especially in close to the net where he can use his accurate shot and quick release. He is used to playing an important offensive role as seen with his seven points in six games with USA’s gold-medal-winning 2022 under 18 World Junior Championship team.
Related: 2022 NHL Draft Guide
Despite the obvious offensive skills, Lucius enters the 2022 Draft class ranked as a mid-tier prospect. This is due in large part to his need to improve on the defensive side of his game, as well as his skating. He often sacrifices defensive positioning to cheat onto the offensive side of the game, something that will take time to work out. His skating will need improvement on his first-step speed and edgework. Currently, he can create separation using changes in speed and direction, but will need to improve if he is to use these as weapons at the professional level.
“Lucius is an offensive-leaning winger who excelled in this viewing as a puck distributor and playmaker. The standout aspect of Lucius’ game was his excellent playmaking vision and how he was able to combine that trait with his smooth puck skills.”– Brandon Holmes, FC Hockey
Having missed games due to injury this season, there is a concern with his durability, especially in a more physically taxing professional game. Adding strength will be a major part of his development.
Committed to the University of Minnesota in the NCAA, Cruz Lucius will be set to join his older brother, Winnipeg Jets 2021 first-round pick Chaz Lucius. This will provide the team drafting the young winger with several years of development to add strength and defensive maturity. Any NHL team with multiple second-round selections may take a chance on him in that round, but he will likely fall into the third round. If he does, based on his top-six offensive potential, he could become a steal in the 2022 Draft.
3. Sam Rinzel, Defenseman, Chaska High/ Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL)
NHL Central Scouting rank: 19th (among NA skaters)
There’s sometimes a player that flies under the radar for most who follow the draft. This year that player is Chaska High’s Sam Rinzel.
A University of Minnesota commit, Rinzel played both high school and in the United States Hockey League (USHL). In his 21 games with Waterloo, the big defenceman was able to take on a top-four role and provide quality offensive production. He pairs his large frame with very strong and smooth skating. Despite his size, he is highly mobile and displays good speed.
“Rinzel is patient with the puck on his stick, drawing in opponents and then making a move right as the lane opens up. Rinzel is a skilled passer who can make a smart breakout pass or find a teammate on the backdoor from the blueline. He is agile enough on his feet to escape pressure and create space for himself. High schoolers are always a difficult projection but Rinzel is gaining praise from analysts and scouts with each game he plays. If he finds his way into more USHL action, he could solidify himself as the top U.S. high school player in the class. ”–Tony Ferrari, The Hockey News
His defensive play is strong, but still raw and in need of practice to become more effective without chasing the play. His size, skating, and puck-moving ability make him an intriguing prospect.
Rinzel is ranked 19th among North American Skaters by NHL Central scouting, but the majority of scouting lists have him likely being selected in or around the third round in 2022. Being committed to a strong NCAA program in Minnesota gives the hulking defender time to fill out his frame, develop his defensive game, and refine his offensive game. If this young man had been in the USHL all season and not in high school, he could very well have been ranked as a first-round talent by all scouting services. Patience will be needed for any team selecting Rinzel, but they may end up with a mid-round steal that can become a top-four defender.
2. Gavin Hayes, Right Wing, Flint Firebirds (OHL)
NHL Central Scouting rank: 51st (among NA skaters)
Gavin Hayes is a right-shot winger with the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League. This season Hayes earned a top-six role in his rookie season scoring 19 goals and 49 points in 65 games. Like most prospects, he missed significant time last season, which may slow his development and has left some holes in his game.
Hayes is a straight-line, north-south skater. He has good speed and uses his mobility for changes of pace and direction that he uses to create separation with the puck or to pursue the puck carrier. Offensively, he is a good puck handler with an ability to protect and keep possession. He also has a good pass and a quick release that makes his shot dangerous from everywhere in the offensive zone. Also, he does well playing on the forecheck and the cycle, but is most dangerous when he battles his way to the front of the net. His work ethic playing on the offensive side of the puck is well developed.
Defensively, Hayes is usually in a good position to defend, but isn’t consistent with his ability to provide support for his defence to create an outlet or win board battles. With his NHL size, he does well in the physical aspects of the game, but lacks consistency in all aspects, making him more of a complementary player as opposed to a play driver. This could be due to the lost year of development due to the pandemic.
Hayes’ deficiencies aren’t skill, skating or size, it is consistency. Due to this, he is seen as more of a mid-round prospect in this draft. That being said, a team with a good development department can take advantage of his desire to improve and his strong work ethic. Along with two more years of OHL eligibility and some time in the American Hockey League (AHL), Hayes can find that consistency to his game, making him a strong candidate to become a very strong two-way middle-six forward.
1. Lane Hutson, Defenseman, USNTDP (USHL)
NHL Central Scouting rank: 25th (among NA Skaters)
Lane Hutson is a consensus second, early third-round prospect, and if not for his size, he would be a sure-fire late first-round pick. Hutson is a highly mobile and shifty offensive defenceman. His game is based on his exceptional skating ability, allowing him to be involved over the entire 200 feet of the ice surface. He is adept at using shoulder shrugs, fakes, and shifts in speed to create offensively. For his size, he has an accurate and powerful shot, and he uses these tools to be a highly effective power-play quarterback. Using his high hockey IQ to take advantage of his skill set, he has been able to put up impressive offensive numbers at every level he has played so far.
Defensively is where Hutson will have problems. While he is a strong positional defender who can use his body and stick to slow down attackers and cut off passing lanes, he will never be able to be a threat in board battles and will need to rely on his hockey IQ, which will limit his effectiveness somewhat.
The only reason for his slide in the rankings is his size. As a Boston University commit, he will have up to four years to gain some strength and allow his defensive game to mature. Playing a similar style to Minnesota Wild defenceman Jared Spurgeon, Hutson shouldn’t be overlooked. He has the potential to become a very good second-pairing defender who will improve a team’s power play, which is something 32 NHL teams are always in need of.
This draft class will give teams that hold multiple selections many options that will help them add depth and skill to their prospect pools. These same teams will be well served to take a second look at this year’s crop of American prospects as more than one should exceed expectations and become a well-known NHL player in the years to come.
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Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 29 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist with the goal to be a trusted source of information and entertainment.