The Winnipeg Jets at the Draft: Riley Tufte

The similarities between Riley Tufte and Florida Panthers winger Nick Bjugstad are quickly apparent, and if Tufte turns out as good as Bjugstad has, some team is going to get a late first-round steal.

Yes, we’re back to the series of potential draftees for the Jets, and while there are too many potential players available at pick number 22 for me to go in depth on all of them between now and June 24, Tufte was one I felt I couldn’t ignore. After all, almost every scouting service has him tabbed right around where the Jets are supposed to pick.

Tufte’s stint with the Fargo Force of the USHL didn’t yield otherworldly offensive numbers, but that’s to be expected from a kid adjusting to the tempo of juniors after spending four years playing high school hockey. Whatever your feelings on the competition in Minnesota high school hockey are, his numbers with Blaine jump off the page in the best possible way.

Now, like most prospects out of high school hockey, Tufte is a work in progress. He’s not going to be in the NHL next season, or even the season after that most likely. Bjugstad spent three years at the University of Minnesota, growing his game and his frame until he was a 6’6 centre with a deft scoring touch. The Panthers would no doubt say Bjugstad was worth the wait, and if the Jets take Tufte, they’ll have to be prepared to wait as well.

Tufte vs. Bjugstad

So how are these two players similar, and is it fair to compare the two? Well, to answer the second it’s almost never fair to compare an 18-year-old to one of the NHL’s rising stars, but it’s hard not to see a certain mirrored development, or at least the potential for one.

Like Bjugstad, Tufte spent his pre-draft years at Blaine High School and ripped the league apart. In fact, comparing their stats, Bjugstad posted very impressive numbers, but his pale in comparison to Tufte’s. With 47 goals and 78 points in just 25 games, Tufte had a leg up on his fellow Blaine alumnus in the scoring department.

Both players played for Blaine, and with Tufte committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, both will have played their college hockey in Minnesota. At 18-years-old, Bjugstad was tall, lanky, and raw, but offensively gifted, and the same can be said of Tufte. It’s an encouraging sign when your development track so closely resembles that of a player seemingly poised for a big breakout at the NHL level, and who already has a 24-goal season under his belt.

The Hockey News noted in their annual draft preview that Tufte also has a bit of a mean streak, something not always present in Minnesota high school players. A big player willing to play big is always a bonus, even if you have to wait for that player for a few years, as whoever drafts him inevitably will.

The Waiting Game

As mentioned above, Tufte isn’t likely to step foot onto NHL ice for a few years. He’s still raw and in need of development time, but given that time he could be a huge part (literally) of an NHL forward core. The Jets are in the enviable position of being able to give him that time.

Because the Jets have the second overall pick, and because whoever they take is likely to jump straight to the NHL, help is on the way for them from the 2016 draft right away. The second of their two first-round picks, a product of the Andrew Ladd trade, can be a project, someone with a longer development curve just as their second pick in 2015, Jack Roslovic, will take a longer route to the NHL than 17th overall pick Kyle Connor. The Jets are playing with house money, and while they can’t afford to waste it, they can afford to wait to reap the benefits of it.

Tufte would fit perfectly in with this mantra. This is a player that you know isn’t jumping into the NHL anytime soon, and that’s okay. You don’t need him to be in the NHL by 2017. At the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Tufte can develop at his own pace, and hopefully develop as well as Bjugstad has for Florida. If it takes him four years to get to the NHL, that’s just fine.

Then again, Tufte has really risen up the ranks this season, especially since joining the Force, so maybe he isn’t as far from the NHL as he seems. Maybe his steady upward trajectory continues and he follows in the footsteps of other Jets prospects and leaves college early. He doesn’t have to do that, and there won’t be pressure on him to do it either, but there’s no ruling it out, especially since he’s already almost NHL size (he needs to put on some weight but the height is there).

One More Forward

The Jets have a prospect pipeline blessed with a lot of forwards, and no doubt some observers would like to see them stock the cupboard with defensemen. As much as I too would like to see the Jets walk away from the draft with a top-tier left-shooting defenseman under their belts, it seems increasingly unlikely. Logan Stanley is probably the most viable candidate, but defensemen at the draft are difficult to predict, and a lot of teams drafting ahead of the Jets need help on the blueline. Stanley, Jake Bean and others could be long gone by the time the Jets make their pick.

If that happens, Tufte is a great candidate for the 22nd overall pick. Jets fans will have to be patient with him, but having the second overall pick step into the lineup next year will go along way to building that patience. And with Tufte, all indications are the patience will pay off in a big way down the line.