He often looks better... Prince George Cougars leader Jansen Harkins is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

He often looks better... Prince George Cougars leader Jansen Harkins is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

NHL Draft: Who Could the Vancouver Canucks Take 23rd Overall?

After a playoff loss to Calgary, Vancouver's focus turns to the draft and prospects like Nick Merkley, Jansen Harkins, or Oliver Kylington.

A first-round exit doesn’t just end your season with a thud, it also scratches the shine from an arriving offseason.

On Wednesday, the Canucks were conducting their most important exit interviews – the ones with the fans, through the media. Jim Benning, Trevor Linden, and Willie Desjardins discussed the team’s future and the franchise’s dedication to youth, which could actually be real or might just be what the seagulls covered in news print wanted to hear. (Think about it: they lost just four days ago, and now they’re giving us the next decade’s answers. Such is the job atop an NHL lighthouse.)

Me? I could care less. Not that I don’t want to know what my management’s thinking or where my team’s headed. I just know it’s softball – the year-end press conference is designed to satisfy the pencils and keep the fans in the building.

It’s that ‘Bank Run’ speech from George Bailey to his customers when the Great Depression hits in It’s a Wonderful Life. Even Jimmy Stewart’s not sure what’s gonna happen, but if you’ll just take $20 from now until next week, I promise I’ll have it worked out by then.

I’m already onto the Draft. The Canucks are, too. But they’re drafting at No. 23, far back of their Pacific rivals like the Oilers (No. 1) and the Coyotes (No. 3), even the Sharks (No. 9) and the Kings (No. 14). It’s the flip side of a playoff run – if it’s brief, you’re bumped to the back of the line.

See: 2015 NHL Draft – Central Scouting’s Final Rankings (April 8, 2015)

Luckily for us, this draft class is as heralded as they come, with many comparing the potential of 2015’s first-and-a-half rounders to 2003’s all-time great Top 30, when now-established stars like Eric Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter, Brent Seabrook, and Zach Parise were all scooped up on the first day.

As well, this year’s rankings are as fluid as the NHL’s standings – guys like Mathew Barzal and Oliver Kylington, at one time locks for the top 10, have seen their stock drop. After strong CHL Prospects Game performances from Timo Meier and last year’s OHL rookie of the year, Travis Konecny, those guys could go anywhere in the first 30, even after it in Konecny’s case.

What about Gabriel Carlsson, Jacob Larsson, and Joel Eriksson Ek? Are all ranked two to four in Central Scouting’s International Skaters list, and you’ve heard next to nothing about all three.

From the top to the bottom, the skill in this year’s draft is overwhelming, and Vancouver can find a gem if they’re up for the sifting.

The Likely

Nick Merkley, Kelowna Rockets – Ranked 23rd in North America by Central Scouting

Nick Merkley

They couldn’t get ‘Einstein on Ice’ – North Van kid Sam Reinhart – last year, so the Canucks opted for speed and size with Jake Virtanen at No. 6 overall.

But this year, the Canucks could see Merkley fall to them at 23rd, if the draft obeys Central Scouting’s final rankings. The Calgary native had 70 assists in 72 games this year to lead the West-best Rockets with 90 points.

Of course, there’s a very good chance Merkley goes earlier, even much earlier. (MyNHLDraft.com has him going to the Boston Bruins at 14.)

Still, let’s put him up top of The Likely category. Because if he’s there, no way Vancouver should pass on a player of his calibre.

He’s only 5’10, but Merkley’s hands and vision are a commodity any NHL club would be lucky to draft.

“In the mould of a true playmaker, Nick Merkley’s vision, anticipation and imaginative passing abilities are in the top echelon of the draft,” writes Brendan Ross of Dobber Sports. “Blessed with a fantastic motor and relentless work ethic, Merkley has the ability to push the pace of the game and force turnovers on the attack. He doesn’t shy away from traffic and engages physically with one focus on his mind – getting possession of the puck.”

(NOTE: He’d do well in Boston in the long-run, too, as a David Krejci-type.)

Travis Konecny, Ottawa 67s – Ranked 14th in North America by Central Scouting

Travis is already a journeyman.

The guy has travelled across more teams in the mock drafts leading up to the draft than Mike Sillinger did in his actual career, starting the season definitively in the top 10 – for some, with a chance to jump into the top five – before dropping out of the first round entirely, and then using a strong showing at the CHL Prospects Game (alongside Connor McDavid) to keep himself firmly in the middle of the teenagers’ top 30.

“Leader… difference maker, electrifying skating, hard shot, ability to use his teammates, willing to play physical, willing to play at both ends of the ice,” sums up Konecny, according to The Hockey Writers‘ Christopher Ralph.

His size (5’9″, 175 pounds) may hurt how some look at him, but his explosiveness and skill are undeniable. Konecny scored 138 points in 123 games for the OHL’s Ottawa 67s – in over two seasons, with a slump or two mixed in – and he could even fall to the Senators in the draft, at No. 18.

He is in Vancouver’s wheelhouse, though, if guys like Merkley, Hansen Harkins, Jake DeBrusk, or Jeremy Roy leap-frog him, and could come gift-wrapped in an Orca jersey at 23.

Of course, like Merkley, Konecny could be taken 10th to 15th, and then I’m the idiot for having him on this list.

Oliver Kylington, Farjestad (Sweden) – Ranked 6th in International by Central Scouting

What happened to Oliver Kylington?

Most mock drafts had him going fifth overall way back in the fall – ahead of Lawson Crouse and Mitch Marner, maybe even Dylan Strome – and NHL.com still has him in their fan survey for ‘Who will be drafted 3rd overall?’ (behind McDavid and Eichel).

But maybe Kylington has become the victim of the hype his video game-like playing style has created. Watching only snippets of YouTube videos of the guy – which is really how fans judge their teams’ new talent in 2015 – shows a defenceman who skates like Bobby Orr or Gilbert Perreault, who’s playing with men and flying around them like they’re parked cars on a freeway. Eldon MacDonald (of The Hockey Writers) called him “poetry in motion” in October.

Still, he’s dropped from Central Scouting’s top-ranked European player to its sixth, behind shoo-in Top 10 pick Mikko Rantanen and several others from Scandinavia.

Could he be there for the Canucks at 23? For sure.

But don’t be shocked if someone else takes a flyer on him – he’s the sort of talent you risk it for.

*Here’s a longer look at Kylington, 10 minutes of his game against Canada during this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. It’s not terrific overall, as he’s playing a vastly superior Canadian team, but there’s some brilliance here, too.

Jeremy Roy, Sherbrooke Phoenix – Ranked 23rd in North America by Central Scouting

Roy’s stock has been rising all season, a sturdy two-way blueliner with his head up and speed to burn.

How do I know this? I don’t, really. What can a B.C. kid really learn about a middle-rounder melting the ice over there in Sherbrooke? Nothing, not that you can’t read somewhere else.

So, let’s do that:

“(Roy’s) followed up a 44-point rookie season with a 43-point sophomore season. That stat isn’t all that impressive until you realize he scored those 43 points in almost 20 less games,” writes Shawn Reznik.

“Jeremy Roy is the best QMJHL defender available in this year’s draft bar none. Instinctually, he’s head and shoulders above the rest. He does his best work in the offensive zone where he’s quick, agile, and makes smart plays to contain pressure against the opposition. He runs the powerplay like an experienced veteran.”

Defenders are tough to gauge. There are guys like Drew Doughty, obvious future NHL stars. There are guys like Noah Hanifin – who will most likely be drafted 3rd overall by Arizona, this year – who are sure-things. Or maybe not sure things, because nobody is, but they’re bets you’d be happy to make.

Defenders need to be offensively inclined but defensively aware, with the skill and athleticism to account for their deficiencies. Defenders need to be the smartest guys on the ice, and they need to adapt quicker than anyone else – when a blueliner gives the puck away or blows a tire, the other team gets a 2-on-1 or a chance to snipe.

Fair or not, that’s the game. One mistake could be your last mistake.

That’s why guys like Kylington or Ivan Provorov or maybe even a Brandon Gormley (selected in 2010) are risky plays, even if they’re the most dynamic in the draft. You just don’t know whether their gaffes are gaffes, or whether they’re fragile and it’s a sign of worse to come – or whether they’ve hit their ceiling.

Roy doesn’t carry those concerns. He won’t be the first defender picked, but he may have the highest return on some team’s investment. He’s a good pick from 20 to 30, even earlier.

Brandon Carlo, Tri-City Americans – Ranked 25th in North America by Central Scouting

With Mikko Rantanen being the only European likely to crack the Draft’s Top 10, Carlo could go right where Central Scouting ranks him – 25th, or 26th, meaning he’ll be there when Benning heads to the stage.

As I outlined above, defencemen are boring picks – when they’re not an Aaron Ekblad or a Doughty. Carlo – at 6’5″, 185 pounds – would be a boring pick. But, so what?

“Normally known as a shutdown defensive defenceman, Carlo has added some offensive punch with 21 points in 45 games this year,” writes Ben Kerr, of Last Word on Sports. “He has greatly improved his stickhandling, poise with the puck, and his passing skills.

“Carlo has very good mobility for a big man, showing a good first step, solid acceleration, and a powerful skating stride.”

We could do better, and we could certainly do worse, at 23. (That’s the case for every one though, isn’t it?)

But if you trust in Benning and Desjardins – and AHL coach Travis Green – to develop their players properly (and I do), then you’re probably going to like Carlo a lot more down the road than you may on draft day, if you’re hoping they ride the lightning with Merkley, Kylington, or Konecny.

Jansen Harkins, Prince George Cougars – Ranked 15th in North America by Central Scouting

If I’m putting money on it, I’d go with Harkins. Right now, I’d say that’s who the Canucks pick, barring another team taking him first.

Benning went with a B.C. kid last year, taking Virtanen at sixth overall. Would he have taken Jake if he wasn’t from Abbotsford? It’s likely, but probably not. Nikolaj Ehlers and Williams Nylander had more skill, and Nick Ritchie had Virtanen’s size. But Benning knows he’s building a program in Vancouver, and he bought loyalty when he picked the kid who’s hero growing up was Markus Naslund.

Harkins – from North Vancouver – is a reliable centre, a smart player, and a leader. And while the Canucks have a few young centres in their pipeline – Jared McCann, Brendan Gaunce, Cole Cassels, and certainly Bo Horvat – I wouldn’t put it past Benning to bolster his depth down the middle. He’s done the same with his goaltending and he’d do it with his defence, too.

And Harkins could be a special player, and a special person, so why pass on a No. 1 or No. 2 centre if he’s available?

(Besides, the Canucks will have to counter Edmonton and Calgary and what they have in the middle for the next 15 years, with McDavid/Nugent-Hopkins/Draisaitl and Monahan/Bennett, respectively.)

The predictive eyes at MyNHLDraft have Harkins going 22nd, just before Vancouver’s on the clock, as of their April 30th mock draft:

“A highly intelligent two-way forward…skates well and will only get better with added strength…consistent and reliable…impressive in the faceoff circle…high-end defensive zone play due to his smarts, a long reach and positioning…has impressive vision and good puck skills…strong on the cycle…protects the puck well…possesses impressive playmaking skills and delivered pucks at proper times…not many holes in his game…has room to grow physically.”

(The Hockey Writers have him ranked 12th on their big board, including Europeans, so perhaps considering Harkins as a Canuck is a waste of time. But we’ve seen big drops before and very recently – think Robby Fabbri, Kasperi Kapanen, and McCann last year.)

Paul Bittner, Portland Winterhawks – Ranked 26th in North America by Central Scouting

He’s big. And, well… he’s big.

At 6’4″ and 204 pounds, Bittner’s got that NHL size thing taken care of. He’s a good winger that plays into the niche several clubs look to to plug that hole in their lineup – a Shawn Matthias-type really, but with more perceived upside since he’s going in Round 1, as of right now.

“Big, long good skating winger who is smart and can make very good plays,” wrote TSN’s Craig Button, back in September. “Paul will attack with his speed but has the awareness to make plays off of it after he has created room. Good shot and will jump into openings quickly to take advantage. He is a winger who makes it very hard on defenders because he asserts with his size, not in a punishing manner, but in an imposing one.”

MyNHLDraft has him going to Winnipeg, before the Canucks pick. Fair enough – he’d fit in well with the Jets and their size, and I think Winnipeg will have to constantly re-stock their cupboard in the years coming. (They won’t be able to convince all of their talented players to stay and live in Manitoba for eight months a year, after all.)

Jake DeBrusk, Swift Current Broncos – Ranked 19th in North America by Central Scouting

I’m a fan of DeBrusk, who – like everyone else I’d imagine the Canucks taking in the Twenties – could be drafted anywhere from 15th on. He’s not unlike several of the other forwards in the draft – he’s not necessarily tall (at 5’11” or 6’0″, depending on who’s writing) but he plays big and he’s got slick hands, almost like a shorter Michal Handzus, or a smoother skating Johan Franzen.

(Curtis Joe went another step and compared him to Daniel Sedin. Perhaps he’s just fooled because DeBrusk wears green-white-and-blue with Swift Current, or perhaps he’s onto something.)

“His work ethic is off the charts but what also helps are those 42 goals scored; he’s a 40-goal scorer who does the dirty work in front of the net on power play,” said Central Scouting’s Peter Sullivan.

“Guys have made a career of standing in front of the net, and have played 10-to-15 years doing so. But he drives that car for them. I love his work ethic and his greatest strength is his compete level.”

Daniel Sprong, Charlottetown Islanders – Ranked 20th in North America by Central Scouting

Think Jordan Eberle, on the high end. Or Jordan Schroeder, on the low end.

With a lot of skill but not much of a physical game, Sprong could go anywhere in the first – or second – round, and his NHL career could unfold much the same. He’s not terribly under-sized at 5’11”, but you’ve seen players like Sprong before. They’re a gamble at the next level, even though this guy scored 39 goals in 68 games this season in the Q.

He’d probably be a fan favourite, too.

“Sprong has smooth dangles, but what has impressed me is his quick turning and agile movements,” wrote Shawn Reznik in March. “It looks like he’s heading one way, but changes strides on a dime and creates openings through the neutral zone.”

Reznik also noted Sprong’s deadly release and powerful shot. But there’s always a but…

“He lacks in the defensive department. Of the games I’ve watched, for as quick as he is on his skates, he doesn’t seem to hustle much to get back into the play… Another thing I saw from Sprong is that he tends to be trigger happy and a bit selfish at times with the puck.”

Well, he’s 17. And he’s playing junior. And he scored 39 times. So can you blame Sprong for holding onto the puck a few too many times?

I’ve never thought it fair, actually, to knock a draft-eligible play for perceived lapses in defensive play or things like that – most of the time, that has a lot more to do with his league or his team than it does with him or his ability.

And if he’s a good teammate, I wouldn’t read into it. Draft-eligible players have to somehow simultaneously play for their junior team and their future NHL team at the same time – Well, I’d like to win the Memorial Cup, or at least a playoff game, and I have to play a certain way to do it. But what if those general managers watching me are looking for something else?

Bo Horvat may be the perfect example of that. He never knocked the scoresheet off its perch, but he didn’t need to in London. Bo plays up to his opponent and often above them.

So, I wouldn’t dock Sprong for little flaws in a 39-goal season. I’m just not sure he’s the kind of guy the Canucks need – but he’ll be there, most likely, at 23rd.

The Long Shots

Honestly, the Canucks won’t get either of these guys at 23.

But I have to mention them anyway, because what if there’s a trade? What if someone tumbles and tumbles, like Hunter Shinkaruk two years ago, out of the first 20? What if you just want to know what else is going on, outside of British Columbia?

And hey, we can dream…

Mathew Barzal, Seattle Thunderbirds – Ranked 11th in North America by Central Scouting

Barzal dropped down Central Scouting’s final list again in April – down from 9th a couple months prior – and there doesn’t seem to be much reasoning behind it.

Barzal represents the last of the best in the drop-off from Top 10 talent to the rest of this year’s first round, several of whom are in my Likely list above. He’s a complete forward and a Vancouver-area kid, and every other forward projected from 15th to 30th (even Merkley, Harkins, DeBrusk, or Konecny) is a consolation prize compared to Barzal.

Vancouverites have known about him all season, and are crossing their fingers Benning knows about him, too – it would take some shuffling to get the Canucks from 23rd to somewhere near 10th, but if the team’s serious about investing in their future, they could always package a veteran (or two) with a no-trade clause to make it happen.

*Keep in mind, attractive franchises like the Flyers, Avalanche, Sharks, Stars, Kings, and the Bruins are all in Barzal’s range this year, so who’s to say one of our longtime contributors wouldn’t waive their no-trade for somewhere more American?

Check out Barzal’s ‘Shift by Shift’ video below. He reminds me quite a bit of Brendan Gallagher, with an inch or two more. He’s the kind of player you’ll never have to worry about bringing it every night.

Timo Meier, Halifax Mooseheads – Ranked 10th in North America by Central Scouting

Timo kept climbing this season, finally cracking the continent’s top 10 after a great season with the Halifax Mooseheads and a CHL Prospects Game where he played alongside Konecny and Connor McDavid.

Meier had 44 goals and 90 points in Nova Scotia this year. And while some might say he just benefitted from playing with Nikolaj Ehlers, his final ranking and the praise he’s been getting stands in opposition to that. (Besides, a lot of people said Ehlers just benefitted last year from playing with Jonathan Drouin. Sometimes, these guys are just good.)

Keep in mind too, a lot of teams covet the kind of winger who can slot in with a great centreman, or other offensive players. James Neal has always been one. Chris Kunitz, too. If teams could have drafted them and known the kind of supporting stars they’d become, they would have. And Meier fits that mould.


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