Pronman vs. Wheeler: Debating the top prospects in the NHL Draft

Pronman vs. Wheeler: Debating the top prospects in the NHL Draft

Naoko Asano: We’re here today to debate the top prospects in the 2022 NHL Draft — specifically, the ones you two really disagree on. I’m hoping for a spicy discussion, but I also want us all to stay friends once this is over.

Let’s start with Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky. He’s No. 1 on Corey’s ranking, while Scott has him at No. 5. Corey, why are you ranking him above everyone else on your list?

Scott Wheeler: Friends?! Puh! The readers want blood!

Corey Pronman: I discussed this subject more in depth last week, but it essentially comes down to two things: 1. Unique skill set and 2: Unique accomplishments, at times.

On the first point, Slafkovsky is a high-end athlete as a 6-foot-4 forward who has NHL speed. You combine that with high-end skill level, good playmaking and finishing ability, and strong enough compete and you get a player with the attributes to become an NHL star. On the second point, Slafkovsky’s Olympics and IIHF World Championship performances were unique performances that you don’t see from a draft-eligible versus pros that often. He was a top player for Slovakia versus men, including at times vs. NHL players at the worlds. From watching a lot of senior men’s international tournaments over the years, such as the many in the European Hockey Tour, it’s rare for a draft-eligible to get a regular shift at those levels, never mind be a go-to player.

Obviously Slafkovsky’s profile isn’t perfect. His Liiga point production is quite middling for a projected top pick even if he played on a very good team and he doesn’t play a premium position. But those other elements make me think he has the potential to become an important player for an NHL team with star upside.

Wheeler: While I certainly see and understand Slafkovsky’s appeal (it grabs you as soon as you watch him, with that huge frame, pulling pucks through his feet and attack off the wall in control across the offensive zone), I do worry that his international showings have too heavily influenced his entry into the No. 1 conversation. I shared similar concerns about some of the hype that built around Vasili Podkolzin (following his stunning World Junior A Challenge and Hlinka Gretzky Cup performances for Russia) and Philip Broberg (following his own Hlinka Gretzky Cup and U18 worlds performances) ahead of the 2019 draft.

Slafkovsky has certainly made the most of his opportunities on the world stage (against men, no less) with the Slovakian national team, but he has also been given every opportunity to succeed there. Prominent usage. First power-play time. Talented linemates. Offensive-zone starts. You name it. Would his profile look as glossy had he suited up for Team Canada or Team USA in a lesser role in the same events? I’m not convinced it would, as great as he ultimately looked playing against those same teams.

I also wonder about just how much development is ahead of him vis-a-vis some of the other top prospects in this draft. He is one of the biggest, strongest, heaviest players in this draft class and that’s an advantage that will persist even against stronger competition at the NHL level, but it also comes with its own limitations. Just as there aren’t many star forwards in the NHL at 5-foot-8 these days, I think we can lose sight of the fact that there aren’t many star forwards playing above 220 pounds (which Slafkovsky will) either. In fact, last year, that group was basically only Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Chris Kreider. Can he be one of the latter, since Ovechkin is in a class by himself? I think he’s got a real chance. But I just wasn’t able to wrap my head around him at No. 1 on the back of his international showings (which were obviously stronger than his body of work in Liiga) and knowing he’ll never be particularly fleet of foot at that size.

Pronman: If we were talking about one tournament I get it, but it wasn’t just one tournament. Yes, his Olympics and IIHF World Championship were great, but his Hlinka Gretzky was dominant too. He was really impressive as a 16-year-old at last year’s world juniors and world championships. And even in the couple world juniors games this season, before it was canceled, he looked very impressive. Sometimes international performances can skew things too and you need to incorporate the full body of work, but in examples of cases like Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, and Moritz Seider, the international tournaments can reflect things you’re not necessarily capturing with just their club play. We’re not talking about him playing just well internationally. They were exceptional performances, especially versus men, and that, I think, is persuasive enough to be in the No. 1 discussion. Especially in light of anyone else having an obviously elite season and toolkit combination.

Wheeler: There’s certainly merit in his international resume, especially considering how varied it is already. It’s about as large an international sample as one player can have at his age. And I will say that one of his most impressive international performances for me was actually his 2021 world juniors showing as a 16-year-old when he went pointless but was maybe Slovakia’s most dangerous player inside the offensive zone in that tournament. So all of it matters and certainly reinforces his case as top prospect in this class. I’m just not quite convinced of that same case at No. 1. I think there’s an outcome where Slafkovsky becomes the best player out of this draft class. I think that outcome likely requires each of a few other players not hitting their ceilings though. And the two other top forwards (Shane Wright and Logan Cooley) both also play premium positions.

Cutter Gauthier

Asano: Corey had Cutter Gauthier ranked at No. 6 on his list, but Scott, you had him further down at No. 18. You admitted in your analysis of Gauthier that you’re in the minority when it comes to your rating of him as a player. Why aren’t you convinced that he’s a top-10 prospect?

Wheeler: More and more, it sounds like Gauthier is going to be one of the first forwards — if not the first taken after the big three. And while I’d consider him in and around the top 10 if I were sitting at a draft table there, it’s that four-to-eight range that multiple teams now feel he belongs in where I’d be hesitant. Gauthier is an athletic, pro-built, fast, scoring forward whom staff at the program worked hard to mould into a modern power forward type. He just looks like an NHLer when you watch him play or bump into him off the ice.

But he also played with Logan Cooley for most of this year. I think Cooley makes everyone on his line look good (Jimmy Snuggerud included). Gauthier’s statistical profile doesn’t scream star, and I think he’s better-suited as a winger than a centre because of his trigger-happy style and strength along the wall. While he has become the kind of player every team covets, I think he’s likely going to be picked a little too high over players with more talent than him, and that’s a tricky game to play. I’d sooner swing on the creation games of Matt Savoie, Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Joakim Kemell where Gauthier is now going to be picked.

Pronman: Players like Savoie, Kemell, and Lekkerimaki do have a little more pure offense in them, but when talking about what helps juniors translate to the NHL, which is speed and power, Gauthier has that over them in a major manner while not giving that much in terms of offense compared to those three. His shot is one of the best in the draft, he has good puck skills and can make plays. You combine that with a 6-foot-2 1/2 frame, a good compete level, and NHL speed and he looks every bit like a future quality top-six NHL forward. He did play with Cooley for a while, but he also centered his own line for stretches of the season when Charlie Stramel was out and did so quite effectively.

His production is a reasonable knock against him, it’s not elite, but he still scored at a high clip and against USHL players he scored 19 goals in 22 games which is elite even if he only had nine assists in those games.

It reminds me a little of Kreider (funny due to the Boston College connection) as a prospect who also didn’t post gaudy numbers but his tools and play on the ice screamed at you, with the mild exceptions that Kreider is an even better skater and I think Gauthier can play the middle.

Wheeler: Interestingly enough, I think a big part of his selection will ultimately come down to the conversation we’re having here, which is really about comfort level taking a player whose production doesn’t pop like some of his peers in favor of the projectability of his game to the eye. I think ultimately I’d argue that if he were projectable as a top-five pick that it would show up in higher-end production. But I also felt going into this that Gauthier was the player on our list here who was going to be the least contentious and I won’t argue against him as one of the top forward prospects in this class.

Asano: “I won’t argue”? Did I read that right? It sounds like you’re almost agreeing on something. This is like Homer Simpson correctly predicting that Bart’s Comet will burn up in the atmosphere, winding up “no bigger than a chihuahua’s head.” I’m scared.

Cutter Gauthier. (Lawrence Iles / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lian Bichsel

Asano: What about Lian Bichsel? Corey has him at No. 15, while Scott has him all the way down at No. 51. Scott, why are you so down on this towering Swiss defenseman?

Wheeler: Bichsel has been a challenging player for me to come to grips with this year. It almost feels like excitement around him built late in the year while he … didn’t play (Bichsel missed most of the last couple of months of the year with a concussion).

He’s another one of the very heaviest players in this draft (he’s even bigger than Slafkovsky) and while he moves well for his size and actually takes a great deal of pride in his ability to handle the puck and involve himself offensively, I’m not convinced that: A) He hasn’t been rushed up levels and will see his game with the puck suffer as a result and B) He isn’t another player whose physical makeup is overselling him.

I understand why teams want to build the big, long, strong defences that have been successful for both the Blues and Lightning in recent years, but I think the pendulum has swung too far in that direction in the past and could be trending back that way a little too fast again. There’s value in players like Bichsel. But are you getting ahead of your competition if you’re taking them in the first round? I haven’t seen enough from Bichsel to go to bat for him.

Pronman: Bichsel’s play elevated in the second half for me. He was injured on March 10 so he missed a month, but his SHL play in the second half caught the attention of a lot of scouts (there were often dozens of NHL scouts at his games late in the season mostly due to the fact that North American scouts couldn’t get to see him in the first half of the season).

I think you look at some of the big, mobile, physical defensemen in the final four this season like K’Andre Miller for the Rangers, Erik Cernak for the Lightning or Darnell Nurse for Edmonton, and they all played big roles in their teams’ successes. I think Bichsel can be the next one of those and you see how valuable those kinds of players can be in the playoffs as long as they have basic NHL puck-moving ability. I thought Bichsel showed the latter in his J20 games and when he’s played versus his age group at the Hlinka Gretzky or at last year’s U18 worlds. His offense won’t be his calling card, but as long as he can make a first pass he can play tough defensive minutes effectively in the NHL and be a solid top-four defenseman.

Wheeler: I was in the same spot on Miller in his draft year as I am on Bichsel as far as range. Both are players who were projected to go in the teens or 20s but I viewed more as second-rounders in the context of my board. Miller has certainly performed like a late first-rounder since, so I’m prepared for there to be a similar outcome here, too (though I think Miller’s skating was a cut above Bichsel’s). I don’t think anyone’s expecting Nurse’s level offensively (and Nurse was drafted seventh accordingly) out of Bichsel but I certainly see the Cernak comp, too.

I suppose I’d ask this, though: Do the Cernaks and the Millers bring more to the table than the young defenders who are breaking into the league with a much different look? A Samuel Girard, drafted 47th. An Adam Fox, drafted 66th. A Rasmus Sandin, drafted 29th. In some cases, the answer is yes. In others, it’s emphatically no. So should teams be swinging for the former group or the potential of the latter in the first round? If the choice is between taking Lian Bichsel in the teens so that he might become a Cernak or a Miller, or a Denton Mateychuk in the teens or even a Lane Hutson even lower for the chance that they might join that other up-and-coming group, I’d prioritize a Mateychuk or a Hutson (with a lesser-value pick, too). And I’m OK if a greater number of teams would go the other way.

Asano: OK, let’s move on to a guy that Scott ranks much higher than Corey.

Isaac Howard is a 5-foot-10 winger from the USNTDP. Scott describes him as short and stocky — “with a muscular build that makes him sturdy on his feet.”

Corey, you have Howard much lower on your list — he’s No. 31 on your ranking but No. 10 on Scott’s. You see Howard as having among the best stick skills in this year’s draft class and project him as a top-nine winger, but why don’t you rate him as highly as Scott?

Pronman: I think Howard is a very good player. The skill he has is fantastic and he has a strong track record of scoring. I have some concerns about how he’ll handle the NHL, though, as a smaller winger who is a good skater but isn’t a burner. I don’t mind his compete level, but it’s not amazing, nor is his speed. So what is his role in the league? It has to be as a scorer. If you have the elite skill/brain combo of a Lucas Raymond, that type of game can work for you, but I don’t think his stick or brain is at that level, particularly on the sense side — which is good but not as great as his individual skill.

I think he plays. I think he will be on a second power-play unit, but if I had a high pick I would want to get more player there than a guy I think you’re realistically projecting as a one-way middle-six winger. If he doesn’t score, though, it’s hard to see him as a regular NHLer.

Wheeler: This is one where I definitely disagree with your assessment/projection here. I think Howard’s a great skater (one of the better skaters in the draft, with impressive speed through his crossovers). I’m also really fond of his sense on the ice, especially offensively where there may not be a player in the draft who finds space off the puck to get open quite as well as he does. Add in improved work ethic (he was a hound on pucks in the second half) and a stocky, athletic build for his size (he’s really well-built), and combine all of that with his production and skill, and I see top-of-the-lineup, PP1 potential. I think his game and makeup check almost every box to the eye offensively and he’s definitely stronger than most other players his height. Plus we almost never see players as productive as he has been turn out to be anything but impact guys. I fully expect him to be one of college hockey’s top freshman producers next year. If he’s available into the 20s, I won’t be surprised if he becomes one of the best picks of the draft long term.

Pronman: Yeah, I just don’t see that with the skating. I pulled up some shifts of his after you said that to look yet again at that element and I maintain he has good, not great, feet and I don’t see true pull-away speed for the NHL. In terms of similar production, there is a small part of me that worries he follows the Jeremy Bracco/Sonny Milano path who did produce at similar rates with the program, and who also were undersized wingers without great feet, although Milano did have his first really solid NHL season just this past year. An NHL scout friend of mine likes to say “You can’t bring those points with you” for high-scoring junior players who don’t have great speed and size. To an extent I think that applies here. I just can’t see Howard being that high-flying a scorer as an NHLer even though, as I said above, I do think he will play and score in the league. Only time will tell, though, on who is right in this regard.

I do really like the player, but there are some limitations. There’s a reason when the chips were down in the gold medal game at the U18 worlds, the wingers the coaches kept throwing over the boards were Gauthier, Rutger McGroarty and Snuggerud. Those are all guys who have a little to a lot more “pro” in their games for me than Howard in terms of either the pace and power they have in their games.

David Goyette

Asano: OK, I sense that we’re going to start to spill some blood here soon so let’s switch topics. We can debate one more player: David Goyette. Corey has him at No. 61; Scott has him at No. 20.

Scott, you’ve said that Goyette is your favourite prospect in this year’s draft class. Why are you so high on him? And what do you think of Corey’s analysis that Goyette’s work ethic is “up and down”?

Wheeler: As one rival OHL head coach put it to me in my forthcoming 2022 draft survey — and as Sudbury staff certainly attest to also — Goyette “doesn’t stop no matter the score.” I actually think his feverish, go-get-it attitude became a bit of a hallmark of his game in the OHL this year, where he just willed big plays into existence with his effort level, speed, skill, and athleticism. And I would argue he not only wants to be in the fight/be the guy making things happen, but also that he has the tools required to be that guy.

I think a couple of unremarkable performances at U18 worlds, where he was misused in a third-line role on a Team Canada that really could have used his skill and pace more prominently, have lingered with folks, overcasting a stellar second-half in the OHL where Goyette manufactured offence every single night. He’s one of the fastest players in the draft, he can make plays at speed with hands that keep up with his feet, and I’d stick my neck out for him having a big year next year. I’ve said it before, but I fully expect Goyette to have the kind of post-draft season that recent OHL stars Philip Tomasino and Connor McMichael had when they became 100-point guys as late first-round picks. If Goyette’s U18 worlds pushes him into the second round, there’s going to be a very happy NHL club on Day 2 who looks past it.

Pronman: I would say that description of Goyette runs counter to a lot of NHL scouts I’ve talked to who watched him regularly, where they would describe him some nights in that glowing fashion as an impactful junior player and other nights would say you didn’t notice him at all. I think his U18 worlds was an example of that type of play, where he was benched in the medal round in favor of players who are bubble drafts due to some of the half-efforts he gave in that tournament.

He has some legit tools. He has great hands and vision, and while I think he’s a good skater I wouldn’t characterize him as one of the fastest players in the draft. I like the player, he scored a lot this season, but as a barely 5-foot-11 forward who is probably a pro winger I’d like more consistent impact from him or for the toolkit to be that obvious to be a first-round pick. I wouldn’t say either were the case for me this season.

Wheeler: That doesn’t square with what I’ve seen or any of the conversations I’ve had with scouts or folks in the OHL or Sudbury.

The U18 worlds are one thing. Though I think the criticisms confuse a couple of nights where he wasn’t at his best with lack of effort, and I’d squarely place Team Canada’s struggles at this year’s tournament on the coaching staff’s questionable lineup construction and deployment before I’d place it on lacking performances from any of the kids. But as far as his play in the OHL is concerned, or even his play pre-dating it in Calgary at last summer’s U18 showcase with Hockey Canada, those criticisms just don’t hold true.

And I think the skating is clearly high end in this draft. It has been his calling card all of his life (his top-five times in four different skating tests at the CHL Top Prospect Game’s combine, where he finished third in overall testing, speak to it as well).

Here’s Wolves GM Rob Papineau on both of those points: “He’s one of those guys where you see him play a shift and he just jumps off the ice with his speed … His agility and his mobility (are) exceptional at a high speed. In tight spaces, he can get out of them in a hurry. And that has really helped him playing against bigger guys in our league because he’ll get in, he’ll get pucks, and he’ll compete against anybody.”

Pronman: Well, I’ve laid out my case, but only time will tell on who is right on all of these players. We can revisit it in five years!

(Photo of Juraj Slafkovsky: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

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