We head south of the border with the next stop on the NHL Draft Scout tour, and a look at the best prospects America has to offer. USA Hockey has been producing high-end prospects at a higher rate than ever before, and looks to keep the same pace in 2017.
Christian: USA Hockey and the USA as a whole has had some monster draft classes as of late, and 2017 is shaping up pretty good as well. What type of players can we see from the American class this year? More skill players or more depth?
Matt: Moving on to the NHL level, you are probably looking at a handful of first and second round American talents who project to be skill players at the next level. After that, most of the remaining USA-born skaters will likely turn into depth players once they reach the National Hockey League. It’s going to be interesting to see which way some of these players trend towards down the road! The top two skaters from the USA are Casey Mittelstadt from Eden Prairie HS in Minnesota and Kailer Yamamoto with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs.
Mittelstadt played a split-season schedule this year with both Eden Prarie and the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, and had a lot of success at both levels as a dynamic playmaker that often creates scoring opportunities. Yamamoto really excelled this season with WHL Spokane, where he showcased his elite skating skills, high-end hockey IQ and creativity with the puck. As an undersized forward, he ended up finishing in the top 10 among regular season WHL scoring.
After these two, potential first round talents Ryan Poehling from NCAA St. Cloud State, Ivan Lodnia from the OHL Erie Otters, and Jason Robertson from the OHL Kingston Frontenacs should be the next few Americans who establish themselves as legitimate NHL prospects. The USA NTDP program should have some intriguing prospects as well this year looking to fill roles down the line. Evan Barratt, David Farrance, Max Gildon, Tommy Miller, Grant Mismash, Josh Norris and Scott Reedy should be names to watch in the NHL Draft, along with standout Boston University goaltender Jake Oettinger who is an NTDP alumnus.
C: We haven’t seen a high schooler near the top of the draft rankings since Blake Wheeler, but Casey Mittelstadt has garnered a ton of hype despite playing against weaker competition than his peers atop the ranking boards. How does Mittelstadt project and is the hype around him justified considering he torched weak competition?
M: Casey Mittelstadt right now sits at the top when looking at the best American-born prospects eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft. Mittelstadt had a very successful season at the Minnesota high school level, putting up over two-and-a-half points per game for Eden Prairie HS and serving as the team’s captain. He also had an excellent stint in the USHL, playing with the Green Bay Gamblers and scoring at a very high pace during the games he played. He was the only player on the team to finish with higher than a point-per-game average and almost finished in the top five on his team’s scoring list despite playing less than half as many games as his teammates.
The fact that he put up elite numbers in both leagues should show doubters that he is a legit NHL prospect, not just another Minnesota kid who only played against weaker competition all season. Mittelstadt is a powerful and dynamic American-born player, one who can dangle defensemen with his strong puck-handling skills and generate highlight reel scoring chances. He sees the ice very well, has a strong body frame and skates with an explosive stride. He is currently committed to attend the University of Minnesota next season. Look for him to be one of the first USA prospects off the board in Chicago, IL at the 2017 NHL Draft.
C: Eeli Tolvanen’s stock has slipped a bit this year despite a solid season with Sioux City of the USHL. Diminutive at 5’10 too, Tolvanen is a prime candidate for an unjustified draft day slide. What type of player is Tolvanen and is a potential slide unwarranted given his skill level?
M: Personally, I don’t think Finland native Eeli Tolvanen will slide far at all on draft day! He’s a strong candidate for a top 10 pick based on his production in the USHL this season along with his past successes with the Finnish National Team. Tolvanen had a banner year as a scoring forward who put up over a point-per-game in a very tough and demanding league, helping to lead the USHL Sioux City Musketeers all the way to the Clark Cup Final. He also had great success at the 2017 World Juniors, averaging a point-per-game in the tournament along with accomplishing the same feat in all international competition dating all the way back to the U17 World Hockey Challenge.
Tolvanen is most well-known for his elite shot, which ended up helping him into the top three in goal scoring in the USHL along with the top 10 in total points. He’s got great stick skills, crafty moves with the puck and high-level hockey sense that keeps him confident when pressured. He utilizes smart positioning to put himself in the proper place to create opportunities, and really likes to make work of his high-end rocket of a shot. Tolvanen is on the smaller side at 5’10 and 179 lbs. but he does a great job using what size he does have working hard in the corners and playing with an edge.
Currently, Tolvanen is slated to attend Boston College next season, where he will look to make an immediate impact at the NCAA level. One thing I won’t forget anytime soon, I was able to see both Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen play with the Finland Selects when they were both 14 years old at the ’99 World Selects Invitational in Chicago, IL. It has been fun watching them develop the last few seasons, especially since I thought they were two of the most elite players at the tournament, and now they are two of the best NHL draft eligible skaters!
C: Jake Oettinger was a very young starter for Boston University of the NCAA this season and was sensational putting up a .927 SV%. How good is Oettinger, what is his ceiling and is he the best goaltender in this draft class in your estimation?
M: Jake Oettinger has been a top goaltender that I’ve kept my eyes on dating all the way back to my first viewing of him at the USA NTDP Evaluation Camp for the 1998-born players. As a really late ’98, Oettinger walked in from Lakeville North HS in Minnesota, made the team as one of the youngest players in attendance, and immediately became an impact goaltender for the U17 and U18 NTDP teams.
Oettinger advanced to the NCAA this season, playing for a young and very skilled Boston University team. He was the go-to goalie for the team, putting up stellar save percentage and goals-against-average numbers in the tough Hockey East conference. He’s a very polished goaltender, one who has solid athletic skills and great positioning, establishing him as the top goaltender entering the NHL Draft. He does have a little bit of work to do calming down his lateral movements, but he’s very promising for a goaltender this young and could become a #1 NHL goaltender down the road. It will be interesting to continue to watch him develop, and he should have a bigger impact at the World Juniors next season after serving as the third goalie on the 2017 Gold Medal winning United States team.
C: Shane Bowers doesn’t turn 18 until the July 30 and has two USHL seasons under his belt already and co-led his team in scoring this year. A potential target for the Flames at 16th overall, how good is Bowers already and just how high is his ceiling?
M: Shane Bowers has been on the radar for a while now, dating back to his high-production youth days in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Bowers made the choice to extend his amateur opportunities and gave himself more time to advance as a hockey player, deciding to make the move to the USHL to pursue potential NCAA opportunities. He was drafted by the Waterloo Black Hawks, and has had a great last two seasons playing for the squad, tying for the lead in team scoring. He earned a scholarship early on this season to attend Boston University, where he will likely suit up next year.
Bowers is strong skater with a good top-speed, who continually plays both ends of the ice very well. His puck-handling skills and vision are solid, as he can create chances with little time and space and generate quality opportunities. I believe Bowers will utilize his time at Boston University to become a stronger offensive catalyst, especially with some prime playing time roles opening up with all of their NHL signings this summer. Once he establishes himself and continues to develop, he should turn into a nice offensive player at the NHL level. Bowers will likely end up picked in the back-half of the first round, or early in the second round if he does slide a bit.
C: Which American draft eligible has been your biggest surprise this season?
M: How about I give you a Russian prospect that had an unbelievable freshman season playing in the NCAA? The forward who accomplished this feat came back into the NHL Draft picture as an August- born 1997 birth year, ended up ranked #167th by NHL Central Scouting and led Penn State University in scoring this year. That player was 19-year-old forward Denis Smirnov, originally from Moskva, RUS. Smirnov has had a lot of success in the past especially in the United States, winning the U14 USA Hockey National Championship with the Wilkes-Barre Knights (a team with both Philadelphia’s first rounder Ivan Provorov and Pittsburgh’s second rounder Daniel Sprong), winning a Clark Cup Championship with the now-defunct USHL Indiana Ice, putting up big offensive numbers with the USHL Fargo Force and quickly turning in a dynamite performance this year with Penn State University.
Smirnov was not expected to have this big of an impact at the NCAA level, but his elite hockey sense and skillful playmaking helped him bridge the gap relatively quickly to finish among the top 20 in NCAA scoring as a freshman. He’s primarily an offensive player, utilizing his precision passing and high IQ to put him and others in position to score goals. He’s listed at 5’8 and 185 lbs. but it’s hard to imagine he’s truly reached that size as his defensive play and overall intensity aren’t hallmarks of his game. But if you are looking for an elite offensive player with natural scoring ability, it might be worth taking a mid-to-late round flier on one of the most elite offensive creators in the NCAA this season.
C: Who has been your biggest disappointment?
M: From where he was ranked early in the season at #81 by NHL Central Scouting to ending up unraked in the final NHL CSS ranking, I would have to say that Matt Miller from the USHL Sioux City Musketeers had a tough time this season. Miller ended up playing most of the season with the Detroit Victory Honda U18 team vs. finishing the season with the Clark Cup Championship contending Sioux City team, but that did give him more opportunities to develop as a prospect with more playing time and a bigger role overall.
The Leo, Indiana native has been traveling every day almost two hours a day to-and-from his traditional hometown to practice in Detroit for the past few seasons, so you can’t knock his passion to play the game and compete at the highest level! He’s also a really big prospect already at 6’3 and 187 lbs. and he’s one of the youngest players in this draft class. The USA NTDP team has even called on him a few times to fill in when the injury bug hit their team in both their U17 and U18 seasons and he filled a depth role on Team USA at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. That shows me the kid just needs to keep his head down, keep grinding and developing his game and everything will turn out just fine.
He is currently committed to Michigan State University for the 2018-19 season, and I think he will have two very strong seasons the next two years in the USHL now that he’s got his feet wet a bit. If he is selected in the 2017 NHL Draft, he will likely be a long-term play with the potential to be a steal down the line.
C: If you had to choose a most overrated and most underrated American prospect for this year’s draft, who would they be?
M: Compared to where this player was projected to reach a little while back, you could probably consider Plano, TX native Max Gildon from the USA NTDP U18 team to be slightly overrated as a defenseman. Gildon, who played his youth hockey with the Dallas Stars Elite program, was listed in The Hockey News as a high-end prospect to watch for the top of the 2017 NHL Draft two seasons ago before he started his career with the NTDP team. He hasn’t quite lived up to the super high projections that some people had for him but the good news is that Max Gildon is back on the rise after struggling a bit early on playing against much older competition in the USHL. Gildon has really gained his composure and brought the passion back into his game during his second season with the NTDP, leading all defensemen on his team in goal-scoring. He’s always had some very good offensive tools in his game that have been utilized well, but he can sometimes be hot and cold with his decision making and hockey IQ. Once he settles down his game and continues playing at a consistent level, he could reach back in towards the upper echelon of this draft class. Gildon will be attending the University of New Hampshire in 2017-18.
Another player who was once considered to be one of the top prospects in his age group is Bradenton, FL native Michael Pastujov from the USA NTDP U18 team. Pastujov is probably one of the most underrated prospects right now mainly because we haven’t seen much of him the past few seasons due to injury. He missed almost all of his U16 season with Detroit Honeybaked after a stellar U15 season playing up with one of the most exciting Honeybaked U16 midget teams in recent memory. He missed most of his U17 season with the NTDP team last year due to injury, and even missed some time this year in his U18 season. However, Michael Pastujov has some legitimate offensive tools that could really benefit an NHL team down the line if he can stay healthy. He has a sniper’s mentality and good puck skills which were on display at the U18 IIHF World Championship. Pastujov rose all the way from unranked at the start of the season by NHL Central Scouting up to #80 in the final NHL CSS North American rankings. He plans on attending the University of Michigan next season where he will look to develop into the high-end offensive player that many hoped he would become a little sooner.
C: Lastly, who’s your favorite American draft eligible and why?
M: My favorite American draft eligible player for the 2017 NHL Draft is Kailer Yamamoto, the Spokane, WA late 1998-born skater with the WHL Spokane Chiefs. Yamamoto was another player that really jumped out to me at the USA NTDP ’98-born Evaluation Camp as the really speedy, smooth skating little guy from the Los Angeles Jr. Kings program. He hasn’t got too much bigger since then, but man has his offensive game progressed playing in the WHL. Yamamoto almost put up a point-per-game in his first season in the WHL, then followed it up with 71 points in his second season and finished this year with 99 points, the top dog on his team and good for sixth best in the WHL.
He’s been a strong performer with both the USA U17 and U18 teams in international competition, utilizing his great skating, high-end puck skills and superb passing to be a very productive player at every tournament. His talent level and hockey sense are tough to stop, but his smaller size at 5’7 and 153 lbs. will really give NHL teams some concern heading into draft day. However, you really can’t deny his elite creativity and ability to see plays develop before they do. Look to see Yamamoto selected right around the middle of the first round in Chicago, IL.