2017 NHL Draft: A NAHL Perspective

By: Collin Schuck – IceRays Staff
Jun. 23, 2017

It’s been considered the “Super Bowl for hockey scouts” and what the hockey world will be fixated on for the next two days.

The 2017 NHL Draft.

217 amateur players will begin their path to a potential NHL future thanks to selections by now 31 teams in the world’s top-tier hockey league. Nearly a full week of pageantry and speculation has led from the revelation of 31 brand new jerseys, the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights, and the NHL Awards in Las Vegas all the way to United Center in Chicago, where the rest of the hockey operations has been calculating their next moves and executing trades to get their draft board finalized.

Over the last 10 years, the NAHL has seen 17 different players selected at the NHL Draft, 10 of whom were selected in the last two seasons. Prior to the 2012 NHL Draft, names were sparse, if at all called, from USA Hockey’s Tier II level, and if they were called it was a sixth or seventh round pick to take a potential chance. Two of the three players selected between 2007 and 2011 made the best of it: Patrick Maroon (St. Louis Bandits), who was selected 161st overall (6th Round) by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, and Nic Dowd (Wenatchee Wild), who was selected 198th overall (7th Round) by the Los Angeles Kings in 2008. Dowd recorded 22 points in 70 games last year with the Kings, and Maroon has 135 points in 301 career NHL games, now playing a bigger role with the Edmonton Oilers.

But the big catalyst moment for the NAHL came in 2012 with the selection of two goaltenders: Anthony Stolarz (45th overall) and Connor Hellebuyck (130th overall). The former Corpus Christi and Odessa goaltenders were the first goaltenders selected in the NHL Draft since 2001 (Jason Bacashihua, Chicago Freeze – 26th overall, Dallas) and the first duo picked since 2007.

From that point on, the NAHL has seen players selected every season, and 10 of the 14 players were goaltenders, re-defining the strength of the league only bolstered by recent restrictions on foreign goaltenders by the CHL (Major Junior) and the USHL. Instead of staying at the bottom of the barrel, the NAHL has one player selected, on average, by the end of the third round and has had nine of those 14 players selected before the final round.

So, what does that all mean for this year’s draft?

A lot and a little. Mainly, it shows that more attention is being shown to the NAHL from NHL organizations and reinforces the importance of goaltending in this league. It also shows the potential for growth of future selections as players like Hellebuyck (who is considered the top goaltender for the Winnipeg Jets) and Stolarz (who could be in line for a NHL roster spot this season after impressing during his NHL debut in a fill-in role) continue to become strong pieces for NHL programs. And with over 1,000 NCAA commitments over that time as well as an increase in NCAA alumni on deep playoff teams, the “alternate route” that the NAHL provides is only building its own draft portfolio.

As far as specifically where certain players will do, well, that’s more complicated.

Throughout the course of the year, NHL scouts flood rinks across the world and begin evaluating talent, like little Jimmy from Michigan and Dmitry in Russia. NHL Central Scouting also puts together their list of prospects to watch for each. On top of that, both groups are still scouting for future draftees and players that can jump on a draft board by the end of Saturday night, regardless if they were previously on a list or not. Then there’s advanced statistics, genetic backgrounds, league affiliation, collegiate eligibility, etc.

So, let’s make it as simple as we can despite the complexity and keep it between 2012 and 2016.

First, draft potential.

Let’s start with NHL Central Scouting Final Rankings, which is one of the most public and fan-friendly ways of projecting potential draftees. In the five-year span we’re studying, there have been 15 players listed on the final rankings, and eight of those players have been drafted. Now, largely, the highest-rated player in each category has been selected with the exception of last season: Erich Fear (D – SPR), who was ranked 157th among North American (NA) skaters but not selected–he was beat out by forward Todd Burgess (FAI), who was ranked 185th. Goaltenders have had the easier road with seven of the 11 players on the final rankings selected, and the highest-rated player has always been picked. Skaters, on the other hand, have had just one of four ranked players picked, but all four players on the final rankings were in 2016.

Five players in the last two seasons have also been selected without making the final rankings. Some to note: Peter Thome (ABD), who was just off the final rankings among NA goaltenders in 2016; defenseman Cameron Clarke (LSB), who never whiffed the scouting rankings last year (more on him later); Jake Kupsky (LSB), who also never hit the NA goaltenders in 2015; and defenseman Dmitry Zaitsev (WBS), who snuck in during the 7th Round in 2016 but never made the board. As the NAHL gains more attention, more of these “surprise” picks will come about, so don’t count out the unranked players that may have seen time on the board previously.

The final rankings aren’t the be-all and end-all, just a projecting factor.

Second, league awards.

Some of the players mentioned above, drafted or undrafted, have often gained large league awards that helped their draft stock. Burgess, who was the highest overall pick for a NAHL skater since 2001, earned NAHL MVP and Forward of the Year in 2016, which helped combine with his scouting ranking to become a 4th Round Pick. Jack LaFontaine (JNE) was also ranked among NA goaltenders and earned Midwest Goaltender of the Year. He went 3rd Round and first among 2016 NAHL players. Matej Tomek (TOP) was similar. NAHL Goaltender of the Year and ranked 5th among NA goalies in 2015. He went 90th overall.

Hellebuyck wasn’t listed on the final rankings but raked in league awards, earning NAHL Goaltender of the Year and going 130th overall (5th Round) despite the prospect shadow cast by Stolarz, who went 45th overall and was ranked 4th among NA goaltenders despite not earning any league awards. Similar to that is Ivan Chukarov (MNW), who earned All-NAHL 1st Team as a defenseman and, despite being unranked in 2015, went in the 7th Round. On the other hand, Kasmir Kaskisuo (MNW) was ranked 9th among NA goaltenders and earned Midwest Goaltender of the Year, went undrafted.

Third, college commitments.

In today’s NHL, the “alternate route” through collegiate hockey is of the utmost importance to continuing development before reaching the professional rankings. In reference to the NAHL, it’s a huge factor in draft potential. 18 of the 22 players studied between 2012 and 2016 that were either listed on rankings or drafted were committed to a NCAA Division I program. That’s just fewer than 82 percent. NHL teams want college commitments from the NAHL selections, and they’re largely picking them.

The four that weren’t committed were Tyler Johnson (G – TOP – 2016), Dmitri Zaitsev (D – WBS – 2016), Evan Smith (G – AUS – 2015), and Logan Halladay (G – JNE – 2014). Johnson went undrafted but is in the OHL, Zaitsev was drafted 207th overall last year and is in the WHL, Smith was drafted 205th in 2015 but went to the USHL and WHL, and Halladay went to the USHL. All four turned 18 during their draft year.

Fourth, draft strength.

This is usually the hardest to gauge from year-to-year on the outside. It also depends on who you ask and when. For instance, last year was considered to be a deep draft when the first NHL Central Scouting rankings came out, but then as the year went on other chimed in saying it was “short on big names” and “mixed bag.” That same year, the NAHL saw two skaters drafted for the first time since 2007 and tied for the most players drafted in a single year. The 2015 NHL Draft, another five-player year for the NAHL, was considered the “best this century” but its strength came from skaters. Four NAHL goaltenders were then picked. With a very small sample size, it appears the NAHL selections somewhat follow trends that arch across the board, but as we’ve seen with above criteria that could change as the years go on.

Now that the messiness is out of the way, let’s look at this year’s players. There were six players that made the NHL Central Scouting Final Rankings that played in the NAHL this season. Two of those played less than 10 games: forward Sam Huff (MNT, ranked 131st), who played only two games, and defenseman Keaton Pehrson (AUS, ranked 158th), who played just eight games. Both also have college commitments. One other skater, defenseman Benton Maass (FAI, 159th), joined the IceDogs mid-season but played over 20 games and also has a commitment. The other three played a full season: defenseman Hunter Lellig (MNM – 188th ranked), goaltender Tomáš Vomáčka (COR – 14th ranked), and goaltender Ivan Prosvetov (MNM – 31st ranked). We’ll go through each player by order of ranking and length in the NAHL this season.

Tomáš Vomáčka (G – COR) – Rank: 14th • College: Univ. of Conn.
Originally selected 136th overall (6th Round) by the Corpus Christi IceRays, goaltender Tomáš Vomáčka is one of the biggest steals of the 2016 NAHL Draft relating to national attention and team importance. The 18-year-old has been on the NHL Central Scouting Radar all season long, staying just above the median all year long. In 41 games this season, the 6-foot-3, 175-pound goaltender recorded a 19-13-6 record with a 2.43 GAA and .923 save percentage, with the latter two better than the only other IceRays player from the IceRays drafted: Anthony Stolarz (23-22-4, 2.84, .920). He was named to the NAHL Selects at the 2017 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament and earned an overtime win against Team USA, named to the All-NAHL Rookie 1st Team, South Division Goaltender of the Year, and IceRays MVP, and carried one of the best numbers throughout the playoffs for a goaltender (5-0-3, 1.43, .951). A solid comparison is Jack LaFontaine from 2016: similar regular season stats, a little bit less playoff numbers (in half the games), and ranked one spot above Vomáčka by season’s end. Out of the full-year players, there’s no doubt that Vomáčka will get taken, and I believe that with meeting all three individual criteria and a good draft for goaltenders, he’s a solid mid-round pick.

Hunter Lellig (D – MNM) – Rank: 188th • College: Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth
One of the hardest questions is deciding where a skater from the NAHL could go in the NHL Draft. The NAHL hasn’t had a defenseman ranked and drafted in the same season in the 21st Century, so his drafting would be a new best for the league’s defensemen. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound defenseman was ranked 153rd in the midterm rankings but slipped 35 spots by season’s end. However, as a 1999 birth year, he has a lot of upside and was lifted onto the rankings after going unranked pre-season. He recorded 16 points (2 goals, 14 assists) and was a -7 through 54 games on a team that slipped a bit by season’s end to an early playoff exit but spent seven games with the Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) midway through the season and put up three points. The latest ranked player since 2012 selected was 2016 NAHL MVP and forward Todd Burgess, so it’s a hard comparison. However, two defensemen were taken last season that went unranked, so there’s a shot he could sneak in the later rounds.

Ivan Prosvetov (G – MNM – Rank: 31st • College: N/A
A big question mark is the Russian netminder Ivan Prosvetov, who has been scouting all season long but has floated low in the rankings all season. At 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, he has the size NHL teams look for in modern goaltenders and will fill more to his frame as he develops, and he fills much of the net. Many have talked about his glove hand being a liability, but I expect that to be corrected with more years and more coaching. He shared the crease with Vomáčka at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament and was in the top-10 in goaltending numbers this seaosn, recording a 21-15-3 record with a 2.52 GAA and .928 save percentage. However, his postseason numbers didn’t help his cause (0-3-0, 3.47, .877) and more mirrored the team’s performance in the late portion of the season. As the last ranked player in a good year for goaltending, he’ll possibly be a bubble player by either sneaking in late or going undrafted, but there’s no doubt with his size that he’ll turn into a professional goaltender one way or another.

Benton Maass (D – FAI) – Rank: 159th • College: Univ. of New Hampshire
Like Lellig, Maass is heading into unprecedented territory as a NAHL defenseman, but after finishing high school and joining a touted program like Fairbanks, his insertion into the lineup for sure helped the IceDogs make a late push for the playoffs and a deep run. Though playing just 22 games in the NAHL, he put on an offensive clinic, recording 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) with a +3 rating and added another four points in seven playoff games. He also has solid NHL size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds), comes from one of the highest-rated states for prospects (Minnesota), and is committed to a NCAA Division I program, so the linings are there for him to be picked up. He recorded 29 points in 25 games for Elk River High School this year and has a similar consensus to rankings across multiple platforms. He’s two spots under where Erich Fear (SPR) was last season, and Fear went undrafted. The hope is that he doesn’t follow the same undrafted path.

Sam Huff (F – MNT) – Rank: 131st • College: Univ. of Minnesota
Another player with less time in the NAHL was Sam Huff, who only played two games with the Minot Minotauros as an affiliate in March. He does come from the state of hockey (Minnesota) and was nominated for Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award. He has speed, strength and experience at a higher level than high school, but much of his draft prospects could be unknown because he hasn’t been tested at a Tier I or Tier II level. He’s also a 1998 birth year, which is one year older than those spending the whole year in the NAHL and also on the final rankings, so that may hinder his hopes, but in a year that’s considered to be lacking in skating depth, that could place him around his projection but could also shuffle him later because of chances on unranked players. It may have to be a longer road journey for Huff, and it’s so difficult to forecast him one way or another.

Keaton Pehrson (D – AUS) – Rank: 158th • College: Michigan Tech
Keaton Pehrson played just eight games with the Austin Bruins this season, so it’s another player with a small sample size, but he assisted twice as a defenseman. He’s just one spot ahead of Maass, who played more time in the NAHL this season but follows a similar track record: small sample size, NCAA Division I commitment, Minnesotan, 29 points in 25 games for his high school team. There’s no surprise that Pehrson and Maass were ranked so similarly because, on paper, they are very similar players. His best bet is being a late selection, but there’s no telling where he could be targeted, if at all.

There will be others to watch out for from this season like 6-foot-6 forward Justin Addamo (LSB), who was left off the midterm and final rankings but has a high upside as a power forward and was a NAHL Selects player (just to name a familiar face), but that doesn’t mean more surprises like Dmitri Zaitsev and Cameron Clarke could crop up drafted thanks to late season progression and league awards. The easiest forecasting is early picks. The depth is where scouts and hockey operations earn their money.

The NHL Draft is full of surprises. Let’s hope that the surprises work in the NAHL’s favor for a third-straight season.