As much as every season in the National Hockey League is all about winning the Stanley Cup, the 2014-15 season, especially, was all about winning the top prospect.
Teams like the Buffalo Sabres, the Arizona Coyotes, and the Edmonton Oilers were the subject of teams who were “intentionally” losing, also known as “tanking,” to have the draft position to take one of these generational players. Buffalo ended up finishing dead last in the NHL standings, which guaranteed them one of either McDavid or Eichel. The Oilers ended up winning the annual NHL Draft Lottery to draft with the top overall pick. Edmonton would take McDavid with the first overall pick, while the Sabres would take Eichel with the second overall pick.
This year, there are a few good players at the top of the draft, but one in particular is in the same class as McDavid and Eichel were last season.
If he was born only two days before his September 17th birthday, Auston Matthews would have been eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. The 17-year old native of Scottsdale, Arizona is the prize of the 2016 NHL Draft which will be held in Buffalo, New York.
Matthews last year shattered the scoring record with the United States National Developmental Program with 116 points in 60 games. The 6′ 2″, 194-pound forward also had 20 goals and 28 assists in 24 games with the U.S. Program in the United States Hockey League. Matthews also took part in the IIHF World Junior Championships this year, where he registered a goal and two assists in the five games played for Team USA.
Matthews was also the Most Valuable Player at the IIHF U-18 World Championships in Switzerland this past April with eight goals and seven assists in seven games played with Team USA. The Americans would eventually go on to win the gold medal in the tournament against Team Finland.
For the 2015-16 season, Matthews will play for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland’s best professional hockey league. Matthews will be the third youngest player in the NLA this year, and will get a taste of professional hockey before he even gets to the NHL level. However, he will not be able to start the season on time because he must be 18-years old in order to have his work visa working in Switzerland.
As for the talent below Matthews, they could be great players, but not to the caliber of Matthews.
Jesse Puljujärvi is the next best forward in the draft after Matthews. The 17-year old winger from Finland is a high octane offensive player who wants the puck on his stick all the time. Standing at 6′ 2″ and 181-pounds, Puljujärvi has good speed and skill to be one of the best offensive weapons in the 2016 NHL Draft.
As a 16-year old, Puljujärvi was playing in Finland’s professional hockey league, Liiga, with Kärpät. In 21 games with Kärpät, Puljujärvi had four goals and seven assists, which is stellar for a kid of his age.
Puljujärvi also had the chance to play for Team Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championships, where he did not score or register any points, however he had a tournament-high 26 shots on goal in just five games.
Puljujärvi also competed in the IIHF U-18 World Championships in Switzerland, where he finished with two goals, five assists and 21 shots on goal in the seven games he played. Puljujärvi and the Finns would fall to Team USA in the gold medal game.
This season, Puljujärvi is expected to play the entire season in the Liiga with Kärpät, where he is currently the fourth youngest player in Finland’s professional league.
The best defenseman on the draft board is Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League. Chychrun, the son of former hockey player Jeff Chychrun, is about to begin his second season with the Sting..
In 2014, Chychrun was the first overall pick in the OHL Priority Draft by the Sting. In his rookie season in Sarnia, Chychrun scored 16 goals and added 17 assists in 42 games. Chychrun did deal with some injuries during the season, and missed the entire playoff series against McDavid and the Erie Otters.
For the start of the 2015-16 season, Chychrun is expected to be 100-percent healthy, and also expected to be a leader on the Sting roster. The 6′ 2″ and 194-pound defenseman has already been named an alternate captain for the upcoming season, and is expected to have a break-out draft year.
Chychrun is also expected to contend for a spot on Team Canada’s roster for the IIHF World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland this winter.
Another prospect who has some bloodlines in the NHL is London Knights forward, Matthew Tkachuk.
His dad, Keith, played a span of 18-years in the NHL with three different organizations. In 1,201 career NHL games, Tkachuk scored 538 goals and registered 1,065 points in an illustrious NHL career.
As for Matthew, the 17-year old winger is gearing up for his first season with the Knights in the OHL. Last season with the U.S. Developmental Program, Tkachuk had 38 goals and also registerd 58 assists in 65 games. With the U.S. team playing in the USHL, he had 33 points (13 goals and 20 assists) in 24 games played. Tkachuk was also a linemate of Matthews in the U.S. Developmental Program last year.
Tkachuk also took part in the IIHF U-18 World Championships, and played on the same line with Matthews once again. Along with Winnipeg Jets first round pick this year, Jack Roslovic, their line would combine for a total of 38 points on the tournament. For Tkachuk, he scored two goals and had 10 assists en route to Team USA’s gold medal.
This year, Tkachuk is expected to be the top left winger on an already stacked London team. Tkachuk would replace Max Domi, who has graduated from the OHL level and will, most likely, play in the NHL with the Coyotes. Tkachuk would play on a line this year with Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Mitchell Marner and another Coyotes prospect, and possible Team USA teammate Christian Dvorak. These three players could be some of the highest scoring players in the OHL this season.
Tkachuk’s teammate, Max Jones, is also expected to be a top prospect in the 2016 NHL Draft. Some other names that could be top names available are Windsor Spitfires center Logan Brown, Mississauga Steelheads defenseman Sean Day, U.S. Developmetal Program defenseman Chad Krys, Finnish left winger Patrik Laine, and University of North Dakota committee Tyson Jost among others.
While the 2016 NHL Draft class may not be as deep as the 2015 draft class was highly coveted, there are still some highly talented players at the top of the draft.
What also makes this draft different from last year is the format in which the draft lottery will take place. Last season, the NHL Draft Lottery was for the first overall pick and only the first overall pick. This year’s Draft Lottery will be up for the top three pick in the draft.
Last year, the Sabres only fell back as far as the second overall pick after losing the Draft Lottery. This year, the Sabres could fall back as far as fourth overall in the NHL Draft. The reason being that the NHL does not want a team to intentionally lose like the Pittsburgh Penguins the year when Mario Lemieux went first overall in the NHL Draft. Back then, there was no NHL Draft Lottery.
But there are some teams in the NHL this year who are in rebuild mode, and would love to have a player such as Matthews, Puljujärvi, or Chychrun who could be an impact player for a franchise for years to come. Who are they?
In the 2014-15 season, the Coyotes finished with a 24-50-8 record with only 56 points, which was the second worst record in the NHL. The Coyotes ended up selecting third overall in the NHL Draft where they selected Erie Otters center Dylan Strome.
During the year last year, the Coyotes made some moves in which they shipped some of their veteran players to acquire young assets for the future of the franchise. Veterans like Keith Yandle, Zbynek Michalek, and Antoine Vermette were all traded before the trade deadline in order to get draft picks and players for the future.
This season, the Coyotes expect to have a young roster with the veteran presence similar to that of the Sabres from last year. Young players like Strome, Anthony Duclair and Max Domi could have a role on this year’s team while veterans like Shane Doan and Antoine Vermette will help guide the group of young players along their way in the NHL.
Yet come the NHL Trade Deadline on February 29, the Coyotes could make some moves again to acquire more young assets to build for the future. That could mean trading a player like Doan, Martin Hanzal, or Mikkel Boedker could happen to get future players and picks.
In the end, Arizona will end up being right at the bottom of the NHL standings with a record of 24-47-11 with 59 points. The Coyotes will finish in last place this year, and will have the best odds of winning the Draft Lottery come April.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season in Toronto was a mess. The attention was surrounding the downfall of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf in the Leafs locker-room. The organization was in a transition period starting with newest team President, Brendan Shanahan. The team fired head coach Randy Carlyle, and did not play any better under Peter Horachek. The fans were throwing jerseys on the ice after losses, not waffles. And the team did not play well on the ice, finishing the season with a 30-44-8 record and finishing 27th overall in the standings.
During the offseason, the Leafs won the Mike Babcock sweepstakes and landed the best coach in the NHL.
At the NHL Draft, the Leafs took Marner fourth overall, and also acquired Martin Marincin from the Oilers.
The team also traded Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, along with defenseman Tim Erixon, forward Tyler Biggs and a 2016 second round pick. In return, Toronto acquired 2014 first round forward Kasperi Kapanen, forward Nick Spaling, defenseman Scott Harrington, a conditional first round pick in 2016, and the Penguins’ third round pick in 2016.
In free agency, the Leafs signed players like Shawn Matthias, Daniel Winnik, P.A. Parenteau, Matt Hunwick, and Mark Arcobello to fill out the depth on the roster.
Toronto still has players like Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul on the roster who could be turned into future assets before or at the NHL Trade Deadline. The Leafs are expected to continue its rebuild, which will mean another year of being in the basement of the NHL standings. After projecting Toronto’s season, the team will finish with a 28-45-9 record, which is good for 65 points and 29th overall in the NHL standings.
Last year, the Hurricanes finished the season with a 30-41-11 record, 71 points, and 26th overall in the NHL standings. It was a year of offensive struggles for the Hurricanes, as the team averaged only 2.23 goals per game even with a 30.8 shots per game average. The Hurricanes also had some inconsistencies on defense and in net, which never helps.
Also at the draft, the Hurricanes traded for goaltender Eddie Lack from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a couple of draft picks. With Lack coming in, the Hurricanes later traded goaltender Anton Khudobin to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for defenseman, James Wisniewski.
The Hurricanes were relatively quiet in free agency, only signing Hanifin and a few other players to entry-level contracts. The Hurricanes also signed Derek Ryan, last year’s Swedish Hockey League’s leading scorer, to a two-way contract.
This season for the Hurricanes could see much of the same from both Arizona and Toronto with the team turning current players into future assets. Players like captain Eric Staal, goaltender Cam Ward, forward Nathan Gerbe, defenseman John-Michael Liles, and Lack have one year remaining in their current contracts. Other players like forwards Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner have multiple years remaining on their contracts, but the team would like to rid themselves of their contracts if possible.
Come season’s end, the Hurricanes are projected to finish with a 29-41-12 record with 70 points and place themselves 28th in the NHL standings. Not much of a change from last season, but the Hurricanes will have some work to do over the next year or two.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils last season struggled mightily on the offensive side of the puck as the team did not want to ever shoot the puck or score. New Jersey averaged only 24.5 shots per game, second worst in NHL, and only 2.15 goals per game, which was third worst in NHL last season.
Cory Schneider carried the Devils throughout the year last year, winning 26 of New Jersey’s 32 wins, and finished the year with a 2.26 goals against average, a .925 save-percentage and five shutouts. If it were not for Schneider’s play in net, the Devils could have finished in the bottom three of the NHL standings for the 2014-15 season.
This year, Schneider may be able to keep the Devils out of the very bottom of the NHL basement, however the team needs to find some offense, which the team failed to do in the offseason. The Devils did draft high-octane forward, Pavel Zacha at the NHL Draft, but he may not be ready for NHL action this year.
When all is said and done, the Devils are projected to finish with a 33-37-12 record, very similar to last year’s 32-36-14 record. That would be the fourth worst record in the NHL, and give the Devils the draft position to draft a prospect who can bring some offense to the Devils’ future.
The puzzling offseason for the Bruins could leave the team in trouble not only for this year, but for the next year or two down the road. It began with the firing of general manager Peter Chiarelli at the end of the 2014-15 regular season, after the Bruins collapsed in the last stretch of the season to miss the playoffs. The Bruins then proceeded to name assistant general manager Don Sweeney as the new general manager of the hockey club.
At the NHL Draft, Boston traded away 22-year old defenseman Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames for the 15th overall selection and two second round picks in the draft. Then they traded away left winger Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for goalie Martin Jones, prospect defenseman Colin Miller, and the 13th overall pick in the 2015 Draft.
With the three consecutive picks the Bruins had at the draft, they selected defenseman Jakub Zboril from the Saint John Sea Dogs, and forwards Jake DeBrusk from the Swift Current Broncos and Zachary Senyshyn from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Later on, the Bruins would trade goalie Martin Jones to the San Jose Sharks and acquire a 2016 first round pick and a prospect. The Bruins also traded a 2017 third round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for forward Zac Rinaldo. But the Bruins were not done, as they would also trade forward Reilly Smith and the contract of forward Marc Savard to the Florida Panthers for forward Jimmy Hayes.
In free agency, the Bruins landed one of the top free agents forwards available in Matt Beleskey, and also signed defenseman Matt Irwin to a one-year deal.
Boston still has Tuukka Rask in net, and players like David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara on the roster, but the roster is aging, and the prospect depth in the AHL has taken a hit due to some trades the team has made to try and win in previous years.
The Bruins’ projections this season show that they will struggle once again this year, and will once again miss the playoffs. Boston will finish with a 35-37-10 record with 80 points and the 26th overall position in the standings.
The 2015-16 season is just two weeks away, and the anticipation for the upcoming season could not be any higher. Even for the teams who may not make the playoffs, they can focus on the prospects that await them at the 2016 NHL Draft.
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