2020 NHL Draft: Top Sleepers

Even with the vast scouting networks employed by today’s NHL teams, there is always plenty of value to be had outside of the top 31 picks at the NHL Entry Draft. In fact, three of the NHL’s ten top scorers this season were drafted outside of the first round: Artemi Panarin (undrafted), Brad Marchand (71st overall, 2006), and Nikita Kucherov (58th overall, 2011).

There is a fair chance that at least one player selected on the second day of the 2020 NHL Draft, whenever it is held, goes on to become a star in the National Hockey League. It’s impossible to say who– if we could, they wouldn’t last long at all at the draft– but these are some of the under-the-radar players I feel have the best odds of becoming very impactful NHLers (in no order). Some project go in the second or third round at the draft but have the upside to provide NHL value well beyond that draft position, whereas others might not hear their name called until the 4th round or later but turn out to be very solid NHL players.I used Bob McKenzie from TSN’s rankings from January, a list compiled by a panel of anonymous NHL scouts, as a baseline to determine where the players profiled below should be expected to be drafted. One player here was recognized as an honourable mention there, whereas the rest were omitted fully.

Zion Nybeck, LW/RW, HV71 U20 (SuperElit)

With the season prematurely over and the U18 Worlds cancelled, it looks like Nybeck’s window of opportunity to prove his worth as a legitimate top 20-calibre prospect (which he is) to many North American-focused scouts is just about closed. The Swedish winger led the U20 SuperElit in scoring as a 17 year old with 66 points in 42 games, but his visibility as a prospect was severely limited by a lack of SHL opportunity. He played 15 games with HV71’s pro outfit, but averaged less than 5 minutes per game as their 13th forward and managed just one point.Nybeck was listed as an honourable mention on Bob McKenzie’s list, failing to crack the top 62. He’s been a fixture of my personal top 20 for the entirety of the year, and realistically isn’t overly far off the tier of the ‘Big Three’ Swedes of Lucas Raymond, Noel Gunler, and Alexander Holtz (looking at their D-1 production in the SuperElit, it should’ve been more of a ‘Big Four’ the whole way; the only difference this season has been that Nybeck has gotten close to no opportunity in the SHL). We talk about how tragic it is that Lucas Raymond has been limited to less than 10 minutes per game for Frolunda; well, Nybeck is getting half that.A high-energy forward, Nybeck has a quick, powerful stride and an excellent first step. He creates a lot of odd-man rushes with his speed and motor, and has terrific vision and touch as a playmaker. He’s more of a playmaking forward for sure, but he’s a real scoring threat coming down the wing and potted 27 goals in the SuperElit. For a 5’8″ guy, he spends plenty of time around the net and shows no fear of that area.

You can see that scoring touch coming down the wing demonstrated in the first clip above, followed by his high-energy style resulting in a goal in the second. Nybeck is the most underrated player in the draft: I’m expecting a peak of about 60-70 points a year from him across his prime years. That would be incredible value if he isn’t drafted until the third round as McKenzie’s list would suggest.

Roby Järventie, LW, KOOVEE (Mestis)

A high-octane winger, Jarventie played the majority of the season on loan to KOOVEE of the Mestis, Finland’s second-tier professional league. He was exceptional at that level, posting 38 points in 36 games– the 8th best per-game rate in the entire league as the third youngest player to suit up for a game. As an August birthdate, Jarventie is still just 17 years old and on the younger side of the draft, suggesting plenty of growth to come in the future.

Patrik Puistola, a third round pick of the Hurricanes last year regarded by some as one of the best value picks in the draft, had 26 points in 22 games in the same league as a draft eligible. He played only a sparse role in the Liiga this season, but posted 8 points in 7 games at the World Junior Championship and should produce considerably more in a larger role next year. Jarventie can be expected to follow a similar trajectory.

It can be difficult for some draft-eligible Liiga prospects to attract attention through the draft process (including another Finn we’ll look at in this article), so it’s no surprise that Jarventie, playing in the league under it, is flying far under the radar. Another reason for that could be the inconsistency that the winger shows– not just on a game to game basis, but from shift to shift as well.

When Jarventie is “on”, he’s capable of plenty of excellent things. A power forward, Jarventie is very mobile with a big frame, excellent puck skills, and a heavy shot. The two clips below are an excellent representation of what Jarventie could be: a big winger with a powerful stride, good offensive instincts, a dangerous shot, and good enough vision to be a decent secondary playmaker:

But Jarventie’s hockey IQ can be spotty, and there are also moments like this where he looks absolutely helpless:

Combine that with an iffy defensive record— for the record, I don’t think he’s that bad defensively, he just doesn’t go beyond his basic responsibilities in his own zone as a winger, which is essentially confined to guarding the point and being present on the breakout— and it’s not overly difficult to see why he might not get all the hype you would expect for his statistical profile. But there are plenty of promising tools in his skillset, and I think he’s well worth a second-round or even late-first selection. He has real upside as a complimentary winger: he can carry some of the load in transition, goes hard to the net, and can snipe the puck.

William Villeneuve, RHD, Saint John (QMJHL)

If NHL teams are as low on him as NHL Central Scouting is, Villeneuve should have a good shot at becoming the biggest steal of the draft. Central Scouting ranked him as their 99th North American skater, suggesting that he won’t be drafted until the middle rounds at least. The second overall selection in the 2018 QMJHL Draft, Villeneuve was partnered with potential first round pick Jeremie Poirier in Saint John this season. In my viewings of the Sea Dogs, I was more impressed by Villeneuve than Poirier.

A mobile and intelligent blueliner, Villeneuve can positively impact the game in transition through his ability to find space on the breakout and exit the zone with control. He isn’t the most aesthetic or explosive skater, but he’s fast enough to keep forecheckers at bay and has the agility to dodge opposing defenders while moving through the neutral zone with the puck. 

Villeneuve earned a nomination for the QMJHL award for best defenceman and led all CHL draft year defencemen in even-strength primary points per game. I’m definitely higher on him than most, but the defender is a first rounder on my board and could provide major value even if he goes as high as the second round. His awkward skating style and lack of experience on the powerplay are seen as his biggest knocks, but I love his even-strength impact and believe he has the mobility needed to translate his transitional impact to the NHL level.

Veeti Miettinen, RW, Kiekko-Espoo (Jr. A SM-Liiga)

Miettinen is commited to St. Cloud State University for next season, making him one of few high-calibre European forwards to play out their draft seasons without a single professional game under his belt. This was his third season in the Jr. A SM-Liiga and he absolutely destroyed the league. Miettinen led the league in scoring with 73 points in 52 games, recording a point on 43% of his team’s goals. Anything over 40% is pretty much unquestionably elite for any level of hockey.

As a European in a junior league, Miettinen hasn’t gotten a lot of exposure as a prospect. He did not appear on Bob McKenzie’s top 62. But he’s an extremely talented sniper that easily could have been in the first round conversation had he played in Liiga games and performed well, and could be one of the greater steals in the draft if NHL teams discredit him as a result of his decision to forego professional hockey for the NCAA. He’s a hardworking sniper with good wheels and a fairly well-rounded offensive profile. He can run a powerplay from the half-wall, skate the puck through the neutral zone, and is a versatile scorer with great instincts and hands. He’s pretty clearly far too good for the Jr. A SM-Liiga– look at how dominant he looks with his lethal release and quick foot speed here:

I expect Miettinen will go in the second or third round at the draft, but could potentially provide first round value at the NHL level. He’s a high-upside forward that should do well in the NCAA next year.

Brandon Coe, RW, North Bay (OHL)

Coe was one of the top players on the OHL-worst North Bay Battalion this year. A big, powerful forward, Coe’s talent was shrouded by the lack of surrounding pieces on a young North Bay roster that won only 17 games all season. The third overall pick in the 2017 OHL Draft, Coe very well could’ve excelled on a much stronger roster– if we apply the percentage of North Bay’s goals that he recorded a point on to the Ottawa 67’s totals, we can approximate that the forward would have managed around 100 points over a full season on the OHL’s best team. On a more average team like the Sarnia Sting, who finished with the tenth most team goals in the league (out of 20 clubs), we can expect that Coe would have put up more than 80 points, which is in the range of Sting forward and potential first round selection Jacob Perrault.

He’s a powerful skater with quick hands and a willingness to take the puck right to the net.

Coe could turn out to be one of biggest steals out of the CHL in this draft. He could explode next year if North Bay improves or if he’s traded to a contending team at some point. He checks a lot of boxes: excellent statistical profile, proficient skater, big guy that can use his body and get to the net, and quick hands. For a projected mid round pick, he looks like he’ll provide a lot of value.

James Hardie, LW, Mississauga (OHL)

Another prospect that did not appear on McKenzie’s mid-season list, Hardie is a dangerous sniper that played a key role on a mediocre Mississauga Steelheads team. He shares some parallels to Brandon Coe: he put up great numbers on a middling team and has an excellent scoring touch. Mississauga had the 6th fewest goal total of OHL teams, recording a point on 28% of the team’s goals. If we perform the same exercise as we did with Coe and prorate his involvement in team goals to other environments, we can assume that Hardie would have put up more than 90 points over 68 games with Ottawa and over 75 with Sarnia.

Hardie’s top asset is his shot. He amassed 34 goals over 59 games for the Steelheads as a major scoring threat from the top of the circles in. He’s a versatile shooter that can get hard shots off in a variety of scenarios, whether it’s wheeling down the wing, in tight from the slot, or cutting into the slot from the wing like he does here:

He can also handle passes and get quick shots in from the slot:

And finally, this is an older clip but it really displays the power of his shot. An absolute rocket of a one-timer.

Hardie was ranked as the 163rd best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, suggesting that he could end up not hearing his name go called until the late rounds of the draft. With his statistical profile and finishing ability, he should be a tremendous value pick in that range.

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