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Ottawa Senators Draft Profiles: Top Forwards

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We kick off our 2018 draft profiles by previewing potential forwards to choose with the 4th overall pick.

United States v Czech Republic: Bronze Medal Game - 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship
Potential Senator Brady Tkachuk.
Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

It’s draft season! GMs, scouts and NHL hopefuls will be gathering in Buffalo on June 22nd and 23rd for the annual NHL entry draft, and it would be an understatement to say that this year is an important one for the Ottawa Senators.

After a tumultuous regular season, finishing second last with a mere 67 points, Ottawa went into the draft lottery with a 13.5% chance at picking 1st overall. Unfortunately it didn’t go quite as planned, as Carolina and Montreal slipped past bumping the Sens to pick #4. The 4th overall selection is still extremely valuable, and Ottawa is going to draft a fantastic player with the pick. However, with a pretty clear top three prospects, the options will be wide open for Dorion and company.

In this post, we’ll look at the top forward prospects that will likely be in consideration for the Sens with the 4th overall pick. Look forward to more posts from now until draft day, with the top defencemen next on Wednesday.

As a preface, the following prospect analysis is done by our two prospect gurus Colin Cudmore and Ary Maharaj. They both evaluate forward prospects slightly differently, so here’s a little insight into each of their processes. If you want to hop right to the prospect stuff, it’s just a few paragraphs below.

Colin:

For forwards, I put strong value on two aspects: speed, and offensive creativity. To me these are the more innate signs of a skilled prospect, with other aspects such as defensive ability and (a bit less so) shooting being adopted more through a learned process.

I also believe statistics can do a lot in filling the eye test, especially for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time throughout the year to watch junior hockey. Data may be limited, especially for European players, although things like passing data and expected goals are gaining prominence. Of course, limitations always need to be taken into consideration.

Ary:

I’m a huge fan of risk-takers, and with all positions, I think players are only worth drafting if you think that they have top-six, top-four, or starting goalie potential. With forward tools, I value those who are the linchpins of their teams, and use statistics such as even-strength primary points (looking only at goals and first assists) to see who are the primary drivers of offence. It means a lot to me if you can do more with a worse supporting cast — good players on bad teams — or get put into a top role as a first-year player on a strong team. I also tend to favour players with later birthdates (Kotkaniemi, Wahlstrom) over those with earlier ones (Zadina, Tkachuk). This, of course, means that I have some blind spots. It’s hard to evaluate European players playing in non-Swedish/Finnish leagues due to lack of information. I was also a bit skeptical of a pick like Alex Formenton, who despite having a decent first-year in the OHL, was buried on London’s fourth line. I’ve learned to try and recognize good “programs” — London, Sault Ste. Marie, Penticton (BCHL), Boston College/University, etc. — and put some weight in the talent evaluators of those perennially successful franchises recruiting certain players, but like all talent evaluators, I’m a work-in-progress.

Andrei Svechnikov (RW) / Filip Zadina (LW)

Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Andrei Svechnikov 2 2 2 2 3 1 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 1 (NA)
Filip Zadina 3 3 3 4 2 3 3 3 3 3 4 3 3 3 (NA)

With the exception of only a few reports, there seems to be a pretty clear consensus as to who should be taken in the top three. Rasmus Dahlin is #1, Andrei Svechnikov #2 and Filip Zadina #3. However, things don’t always go as planned, and one of the two forward phenoms may drop to Ottawa. Montreal in particular is in the draft market for a centre or defencemen, according to Zadina himself. If this ends up being the case, and Montreal decides to reach for someone else, Pierre Dorion should jump on the opportunity immediately, without hesitation, to draft the remaining winger.

Let’s start with Svechnikov, who’s the less likely of the two to fall. The younger brother to Red Wings prospect Evgeny Svechnikov, Andrei spent last season dominating in the OHL for the Barrie Colts. His 1.64 points per game was head and shoulders above the league’s second best U18 skater, making it the highest mark since McDavid, Marner and Strome in 2014-15. He also accomplished this while playing the majority of the season alongside OHL leading scorer and Sens prospect Aaron Luchuk.

Standing at 6’3” and 187 lbs, he can overpower opponents by using both his size and skill set. He’s a mobile skater, although is even more highly praised for his offensive creativity in setting up scoring chances for his teammates. There’s really no outstanding fault in Svechnikov’s game — his shot also netted him 40 goals this past season, and he occasionally will help out defensively with his physical edge. The key to his game is power, power, power, which despite battling an early-season injury, earned him the honours of being named the CHL’s top draft prospect.

As for Filip Zadina, he would also be a slam dunk pick if he ends up falling to Ottawa. Hailing from the Czech Republic, he jumped ship to North America this season, racking up the most goals, assists and points amongst QMJHL rookies. Just looking at his scoring, his points-per-game rate of 1.44 is close to last year’s 1st overall pick Nico Hischier at 1.51, who also happened to play for the Mooseheads.

Zadina’s most notable asset is his elite shot, which he used to rack up 44 goals in only 57 regular season games. He gained notoriety for his dominant performance at the World Junior Championships, notching seven goals in as many games and being named to the All-Star Team. He’s not quite as massive as Svechnikov, although his 6’1” frame still gives him a powerful presence on the ice. He’s a dynamic player with offensive creativity for days, and ranks as one of the draft’s best players on the power play. He has no trouble processing the game at a high level, maneuvering around opposing defenders with ease. He’s one of the class’ older players (born late November 1999) which has surely helped his dominance. However, his skills speak for themselves, as he’s vaulted himself into the draft’s top three.

Highlights

Jesperi Kotkaniemi (C)

Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Jesperi Kotkaniemi 4 9 9 12 10 11 10 5 19 13 8 16 13 6 (Euro)

The latest in the line of top Finnish forwards that includes the like of Patrik Laine, Sasha Barkov, Teuvo Teravainen, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho, Kotkaniemi was one of the biggest risers from the start of the season to now, and finds himself in contention for a top-five pick for a team looking for a top centre. Kotkaniemi started to make waves as a 15-year-old putting up 15 points in 23 games for hometown Ässät in Finland’s top U20 league (the Jr. A SM-Liiga) and starring for Finland in the youth Olympic games (U16). The following year — at 16 — Kotkaniemi spent the full season with the U20s, and put up his first of two strong performances at the U18 world championships on a team that featured first rounders in Winnipeg’s Kristian Vesalainen, Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen, and Boston’s Urho Vaakanainen.

This year, Kotkaniemi, like Sens prospect Markus Nurmi, was one of only thirty U20 players who played 20+ games in the Liiga — Finland’s top men’s league — and he finished third in points (29) and fourth in points-per-game (0.51); the top mark among draft eligible players. Kotkaniemi’s U18 points-per-game rate is historically strong, with the slick forward behind players like Mikael Granlund, Barkov, and Laine; ranking similarly to Jesse Puljujarvi, a third overall pick; and ahead of Carolina’s Teravainen and Aho.

Thanks to the wonderful Simo Teperi, we have a fantastic array of statistical information available for Liiga, and this helps add context to Kotkaniemi’s case. For example, 23 of his 29 points were at 5-on-5, and 19 were primary points — both good percentages. Kotkaniemi was also a 50.13 CF% player on the league’s worst shot driving team (47.99%), put up great relative expected goals numbers (xG), and didn’t benefit from a high shooting percentage or on-ice save percentage (PDO). In the Micah Blake McCurdy-inspired playercard below that Simo created, you can see that Kotkaniemi generally lined up on his team’s second line, but delivered first-line production at even-strength. He got a fair bit of powerplay time, but couldn’t produce (like most of his team), and was a positive player both in terms of shots and goals. Two additional tidbits that are important to Kotkaniemi’s narrative: 1) Much of the talk around him has centered around Kotkaniemi as the draft’s top centre, but it’s important to note that he played wing almost exclusively in Liiga this year. Now, that’s not meant as a slight: it’s fantastic that Kotkaniemi was even playing top minutes against men, let alone at centre, but is important to keep in mind when you read analysis that credits his ability to play centre among men (likely due to lack of information or watching him) when that wasn’t the case. Kotkaniemi played centre at the U18s and excelled — being named one of the top-three players on his team — so that’s where I see him at the NHL level. But, like most young forwards, he’s got work to do defensively. 2) Despite this, Kotkaniemi was only slightly sheltered by his coaching staff in terms of 5-on-5 zone starts, and was trusted to play in all situations, with all types of players, at a variety of game scores. Good stuff for a player who’s a month away from turning 18.

Simo Teperi

What makes Kotkaniemi successful? He’s an extremely intelligent forward, capable of using his pro (6-foot-2, 190 pound) frame and deceptive speed to leverage his quick decisions with the puck. He’s keen on passing the puck into dangerous areas, and can continue to work on increasing his first-step explosiveness to help him with his stops and starts at the NHL level. Scouting reports, such as the one below from Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analyst, are often glowing.

“Alert and versatile forward with good speed and a wide range of attributes who has performed well beyond expectations as a 17-year-old playing key minutes in Finland’s top league. Kotkaniemi comes across as a smart, clean player with or without the puck and can play either center or wing. He is used on the penalty kill and in late-game situations, showing defensive prowess regardless of the job he’s assigned. He has a nose for sniffing out opposing intentions, and his quick hands and keen vision can turn a run-of-the-mill enemy breakout into a quality chance for him or his mates. One skill that stands out is his playmaking ability — Kotkaniemi is quite creative with the puck and threads the needle with ease. Kotkaniemi is a central figure on the power play, where he likes to control the puck along the wall and look for backdoor cutters or point men open in the high slot. Although he comes across as a playmaker rather than a finisher, Kotkaniemi has an excellent shot/release combination and can corral a puck in traffic and still wire it on net. He makes up for an average first step with excellent awareness and anticipation, and he’s difficult to knock off the puck once he maintains control. Strong on his skates and heavily involved in puck battles, Kotkaniemi is highly reliable on odd-man rushes but also nimble enough to cut sharply across the grain and throw defenders into a state of confusion.”

Despite having luxurious centre depth in the likes of Logan Brown, Colin White, and Filip Chlapik, Kotkaniemi would add a potential first-line player to the Senators organization. The Finnish game and the North American game are different, but the fact that he’s played among men helps up his arrival time, and the team could let him play out his two remaining contract years in Finland, send him to Belleville (as European drafted teenagers like Toronto’s Timothy Liljegren can play in the AHL), or give him depth minutes at the NHL level.

Highlights

Brady Tkachuk (C/LW)

Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Brady Tkachuk 9 8 11 9 6 7 4 4 4 4 3 4 4 2 (NA)

You’ll notice with the draft rankings listed above that there’s a bit of disagreement when it comes to Brady Tkachuk. Some have him as a clear #4 in the draft with the potential to sneak in the top three, while others have him on the brink of the top ten. While Tkachuk has an undeniable skillset, there are a bunch of reasons why I believe he shouldn’t be as highly ranked as many are making him out to be.

But before we get to that part, let’s start with some positives. First, Tkachuk played in the NCAA this season, so he already has experience playing against tougher competition. Excluding draft overagers, the only other 2018 prospect that can say the same is defenceman Quinn Hughes. Tkachuk also plays for Boston University, which has one of the best development track records from the NCAA, producing recent NHL talents such as Clayton Keller, Jack Eichel and Charlie McAvoy.

There are two halves to Tkachuk’s game: the playmaking side and the physical side. He can dish the puck in the offensive zone, and frequently makes strong drives towards the crease with the puck. He’s also a big player standing at 6’3” and 196 lbs, and plays with an edge unlike anyone else in this class, much like his older brother Matthew. He had a dominant performance at the World Juniors as well, putting up nine points in seven games. All the tools are there for Tkachuk to become an effective NHLer.

With all this, however, there are a few major caveats to consider. Tkachuk was born on September 16th, 1999, one day before the cutoff for last year’s draft. For comparison, Ottawa’s 2017 2nd round pick Alex Formenton was born only three days earlier. This is what allowed Tkachuk to enter the NCAA, although the adjustment definitely needs to be made when comparing him to his peers.

One example would be last year’s 28th overall pick Shane Bowers, a fellow rookie teammate with Tkachuk on BU. He was born only a month and a half before Tkachuk, making him a more reliable age benchmark than other 2018 top prospects such as Adam Boqvist and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Comparing results, both Tkachuk and Bowers played 40 games this season, with Bowers scoring 32 points, and Tkachuk scoring 31. For two players expected to go on opposite ends of the 1st round, the results are surprisingly similar.

Another comparison for Tkachuk is to the aforementioned Quinn Hughes, a defenceman also expected to go in the top of the 2018 draft. The two were born a month apart, and also played on the same USHL and USDP teams prior to parting ways in the NCAA, so the age benchmark should be fairly even. Looking at their past scoring rates when playing on the same team, this is what transpired:

Tkachuk/Hughes Comparison

Team Season Tkachuk Hughes
Team Season Tkachuk Hughes
GP P P/GP GP P P/GP
USNTDP Juniors 2015-16 32 8 0.25 34 11 0.32
U.S. National U17 Team 2015-16 55 25 0.45 57 24 0.42
USNTDP Juniors 2016-17 24 23 0.96 26 26 1.00
U.S. National U18 Team 2016-17 61 54 0.89 65 53 0.82

Considering Hughes is a two-way defenceman and Tkachuk is an offensive centreman, you would hope the difference to be more in Tkachuk’s favour. He also has much more of a negative penalty impact, taking 61 minutes in penalties in 2017-18 (40 games), and 202 minutes in 2016-17 (85 games).

In summary, Tkachuk has always played above his age, and is still likely worth taking in the first round due to his great playmaking skills and his high floor. However, some adjustments need to made to his perception, which as it currently stands is significantly too high.

Highlights

Oliver Wahlstrom (C/RW)

Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Player Pronman Wheeler Scouch Robinson Davis Kournianos McKenzie Button Cosentino McKeen's HockeyProspect ISS Future Considerations NHL Central Scouting
Oliver Wahlstrom 6 5 10 6 5 9 7 10 6 5 7 5 5 7 (NA)

Constantly in battle with Svechnikov and Zadina for the “best goal scorer in the draft class”, the Swedish-American Wahlstrom has an elite shot that’s helped him rocket up the draft lists this season. A June 2000 birthday, Wahlstrom has taken the Colin White route to the NHL: developing through the U.S. National team (U17/U18) and committed to Boston College for next season.

This season, Wahlstrom rode shotgun for Jack Hughes — a Connor McDavid-esque prospect eligible in 2019, brother of Quinn Hughes, and a player who game within one point of Auston Matthews’ U.S. Development program records despite being a whole year younger. Playing with Hughes has surely raised Wahlstrom’s profile to that of a likely top-10 pick, but also makes him incredibly hard to evaluate. I’m of the opinion that who you play with — your teammates — has a bigger impact on your play than who you play against, and this debate (QoT vs. QoC) has played out in the analytics community for many years now. Wahlstrom wasn’t the top scorer on his bantam and midget teams at the prestigious Shattuck St. Mary’s, and was bested by fellow 2018 picks Joel Farabee and Jake Wise at the U17s level last season. He did manage to make the U18s squad and play at the world championships as a 16 year old last season — a great feat for a bonafide first-round pick — but his performance wasn’t something that seemed to warrant a top-10 selection.

That being said, it’s his performance this season that has caught the eyes of most evaluators. Here’s Scott Wheeler ($) on Wahlstrom:

“He needs less time to get his release off than any other player in this draft and it allows him to score from anywhere in the offensive zone. He’s also a strong enough skater off the rush that defenders are forced to back off of him to avoid getting burned wide and that creates time and space for him to change the angle of his shot and shoot through them. He’s also just a hard-working kid and gets in on the forecheck to win pucks back and attack. He’s got game-breaking upside few in this class have and he has progressed faster than anyone.”

Due to their development commitments, Wahlstrom and Hughes only have half the number of games played as most of the other prospects with USHL time this season, but the results are impressive. Wahlstrom’s 0.92 5-on-5 primary points per game is second to Hughes’ 1.07 (although six of the top-10 are made up of USDP players) and his 0.65 goals per game exceeds all others. At the U18s, Wahlstrom’s seven goals ranked second behind Finland’s Niklas Nordgren, and his 45 shots on goal in 7 games (!) was 11 more than the next closest player, teammate Farabee.

With 77 goals in 97 games across the USDP, USHL (a league full of 19 and 20 year olds), and the U18s this year, Wahlstrom’s shot is prolific. He’s got a heavy, 6-foot-1, 210 pound frame and is able to use his physical attributes to consistently drive play into dangerous areas. He doesn’t appear to have the complete play of a player like Tkachuk or Zadina, and can work on his straight-line speed so that he can push stronger defenders back on zone entries at the next level. Likely a right-winger at the NHL level, Wahlstrom will give the Senators a legitimate top-six option behind Mark Stone and (potentially?) Colin White on the right-side.

Highlights


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