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NHL Draft 2017: Potential good buys in the first round

A couple weeks ago, I wrote up a shortlist of potential “bad buys” in the first round of the upcoming NHL draft. A player who has too much risk to justify their apparent draft position was generally my definition of a “bad buy”.

Today we’re going to break down some players who would classify as the opposite, a “good buy”. But the opposite of “too much risk” would be “not enough risk” doesn’t make any sense. So how should a good buy be defined? Let’s go with: players with a typically overblown risk attached to them.

Last time I promised I wouldn’t focus on tall players who don’t score very much, and I think I delivered on that promise. This time I’ll promise this piece’s corollary: I won’t only focus on short high-scoring players.

Here is the list of players with we’re going to be working with from the last piece. The list is a combination of Bob McKenzie’s prospect rankings: the draft lottery ranking for the top 15, and the mid-season ranking for everyone else.

PLAYER DRAFT LOTTERY RANK MID-SEASON RANK
NOLAN PATRICK 1 1
NICO HISCHIER 2 2
GABE VILARDI 3 4
MIRO HEISKANEN 4 13
CASEY MITTELSTADT 5 5
OWEN TIPPETT 6 6
CALE MAKAR 7 12
MICHAEL RASMUSSEN 8 7
CODY GLASS 9 14
MARTIN NECAS 10 8
ELIAS PETTERSON 11 11
TIMOTHY LILJEGREN 12 3
KLIM KOSTIN 13 10
LIAS ANDERSSON 14 15
KRISTIAN VESELAINEN 15 19
EELI TOLVANEN 16 9
JUSSO VALIMAKI 17 16
RYAN POEHLING 18 17
CAL FOOTE 19 18
SHANE BOWERS 20 20
NICOLAS HAGUE 21 21
MAXIME COMTOIS 22 22
KAILER YAMMAMOTO 23 23
URHO VAAKINAINEN 24 24
JAKE OETTINGER 25 25
NIKITA POPUGAEV 26 26
NICK SUZUKI 27 27
ISAAC RATCLIFFE 28 28
MATTHEW STROME 29 29
ROBERT THOMAS 30 30
CONOR TIMMINS 31 31
HENRI JOKIHARJU 32 32
KOLE LIND 33 33
U-P LUUKONEN 34 34
MORGAN FROST 35 35

Bold rankings are from the draft lottery top 15 prospect rankings.

Italics means assumed no relative change from mid-season rankings, given the top 15.

The last few years have seen the Leafs make some really good buys late in the rounds, but with such high picks in the first, it’s not really a situation where “good buys” as defined above are necessary. They have just gone with the obvious picks, in Marner, Nylander, and Matthews, and it has worked out spectacularly.

This year things start to become different. With the 17th overall pick, you can get Curtis Lazar or you can get Anthony Mantha. Nathan Beaulieu, or Oscar Klefbom. Marek Schwarz, or Travis Zajac. The list is nearly endless. The swings in this area of the draft can be enormous.

So who is on the list for good buys?

Timothy Liljegren

A smooth-skating offensive defenseman with a lack of a presence at the World Juniors in his draft year is falling from a top 5 pick to somewhere near the middle of the first round. Wait a second, I think I’ve seen this movie before; last year it was Jakub Chychrun, who wasn’t able to make Team Canada and then dropped in the rankings from 2nd overall to 16th.

The year before it was Oliver Kylington, who didn’t make team Sweden, and dropped from 2nd overall all the way to 60th.

A while ago, it was Cam Fowler, who had a mediocre showing on a great Team USA, who dropped from 3rd overall to 12th.

With 5 points in 19 games at the SHL level, Liljegren easily meets the 51% rule for Sweden, which really suggests he can be a legitimate NHLer, at a minimum.

Unquestionably Liljegren at 12 is a great buy. I don’t think he gets that low, but then again, looking up at Oliver Kylington, anything can happen. Anywhere outside the top 10 for Liljegren and you’re looking at a certified good buy.

Nick Suzuki

The speedy offensive center falls into 27th on Bob’s list and frankly, that’s ludicrous.

Scoring at a pace of nearly 1.5 points per game, and standing at “basically 6’0″, also known as 5’11”, Suzuki is a very interesting player to keep an eye on in the early parts of this draft.

Suzuki has the kind of skill that you dream of in the NHL draft, and if 26 teams choose to pass on that, I’ll be utterly shocked.

Obviously, the overblown risk here is that he’s “short”, but at 5’11” that’s hardly a short player. At 183lbs, Suzuki starts to fall into the “bulky” players which is exactly what you want to look for in the draft. Players who grow up playing thick and strong will adjust better to the NHL than skillful, lanky players (in general, this is absolutely not a hard and fast rule).

Either way, Suzuki will be a great pickup for whatever team is lucky enough, and he is our second certified good buy.

Nikita Popugaev

Popugaev is not your typical small skilled forwards that typically piques interest in these “good buy” lists. This is a Russian kid, who stands at 6’6″ and 200 pounds, and brings a ton of skill to the ice. And yet, he is ranked only 26th in McKenzie’s rankings.

A lot of the time you worry about massive kids muscling their way through the children they play with and inflating their point totals – but with Popugaev that’s not the concern. That’s not how he plays. Pop is a top-tier trigger man, and exactly the kind of player you want to put with the aforementioned smaller skilled players. He isn’t on the same level of Patrik Laine, but stylistically he’s along those lines.

It’s hard not to be a little concerned with his showing in Prince George, scoring only 18 points in 31 games. But his excellent play in Moose Jaw prior to that has him at very close to a point per game.

This isn’t a case like Suzuki where teams really should be looking at this player in the top 10, but there’s a lot to suggest that Popugaev could be deserving of a selection well higher than where he is currently slotted in BOb’s rankings.

Kailer Yamamoto

There wasn’t any way this list could be written without Yamamoto’s name on it.

Standing at just 5’8″, and weighing just 159 pounds, and scoring 99 points in 65 games, Yamamoto is the prototypical “NHL GM’s are definitely going to undervalue this guy” player.

This is the kind of small center who makes you think of what Tyler Johnson ended up becoming for the Lightning. Which is hilarious, because Yamamoto was taught how to skate by Tyler Johnson’s mom (they are both from Spokane, Washington), and they have spent summers training together in the past.

Yamamoto led the WHL in points by draft eligible prospects on one of the worst teams in the WHL. To do something like this is impressive, to do it almost entirely lacking support is something else. The next-highest scoring player on Spokane had 23 fewer points; this was fellow draft-eligible player Jaret Anderson-Dolan.

Yamamoto is the player every amateur scout is talking about, and, seemingly, few NHL GMs will be willing to take even in the middle of the first round. He probably should be in or around the top 10, and he’s definitely a good buy.

Conor Timmins

This defenseman for the Soo Greyhounds has been an interesting sleeper pick for a little while. Flirting with a 1st round ranking all year, Timmins landed 31st in McKenzie’s ranking. (That’s in the first round now. Thanks Vegas!)

Timmins scored 61 points in 67 regular season games, and another 8 in 11 in the playoffs. What’s not to like about a near point-per-game defenseman?

Well, the big knock on Timmins here is that his production had a huge jump in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16. Is it massive growth in ability? Or a massive change in situation that is out of his control? And if it is a situation out of his control, is that necessarily an indication he’s not a good prospect?

Another factor is his age. He has one of the earliest birthdays in the draft, born September 18th, 1998. That can be an issue if he has matured significantly more than the competition he faces in this draft.

Still, Timmins sits 3rd in the OHL in primary points per game out of defensemen, which is impressive no matter what age he is. He possesses both the skill and the potentially unfairly low ranking to be considered a good buy.

Honourable Mentions

Once again, there were a few players considered for this post, but didn’t end up being included. Partially because we’re already running long, but mostly because there just wasn’t enough to go on.

  • Nicolas Hague
  • Eeli Tolvanen
  • Henri Jokiharju
  • Erik Brannstrom
  • Gary Empey

    Using Ryan’s draft ranking, the best D-men availible at 17th are:
    17 – JUSSO VALIMAKI
    19 – Cal Foote
    21 – Nic Hague

    Using Ryan’s draft ranking, the best centers available are:
    18 – RYAN POEHLING
    20 – SHANE BOWERS
    27 – NICK SUZUKI

    The goalie Jake Oettinger is available at 25th
    Jake Oettinger
    Goalie — shoots L
    Born Dec 18 1998 — Lakeville, MN [18 yrs. ago]
    Height 6.04 — Weight 205
    In 35 games last year for Boston University he posted a 2.11 goals against and a 0.927 save percentage
    ————
    Does anyone fancy any of those players? Is there any conscientious on who the best player available is at 17 ?
    Suzuki is the only one on Ryan’s list.