Future Considerations’ Western-based scout Justin Froese gives his thoughts on who from the 2016 NHL Draft class left him impressed, who disappointed and who his sleeper is on draft day.
For the first time in years, it is unlikely that a Western Hockey League skater breaches the top 10 of the NHL Draft, and a possibility exists that skilled Penticton Vees teammates Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro miss the cut as well.
Despite the absence of a true franchise-shaping player in the WHL, there are plenty of good building blocks for teams to look at. But there are players of every shape and size that provide value within the ranks, and although they are not without flaws, a lot of these players have the makeup to be solid professional players at either the NHL or another level.
One of those is Moose Jaw Warriors center Noah Gregor.
Some may be a little bit surprised here, but with a smaller sample size of elite talent Gregor went on tear and really made a strong impression in his rookie season. He made a flawless transition to Major Junior and ascended up the lineup early in the year, soon becoming one of the most important offensive players on his team.
I know what the burning question here is. Who wouldn’t put up the kind of points he did when on a line with two of junior hockey’s elite in Dryden Hunt and Brayden Point? Gregor finished above a point-per-game pace, registering 73 points while suiting up for all 72 games. According to WHLstats.ca, of the 45 assists he registered on the year, Gregor was primary puck distributor on 30. He also registered 26 single-point games, while adding multiple points in 20 more — an admirable sign of consistency unseen by most first year players.
The silky center, who was often flipped to the wing, executed on his chances and was often in the right frame of mind to make a play that directly attributed to the team’s offensive success. Besides Gregor’s offensive coming out party, his play away from the puck shone as he was one of the best when tackling defensive assignments and attacking opponents on the forecheck. Not often a physical guy, Gregor showed tenaciousness and grit for a guy who will eventually fill out and develop into a tougher player.
There’s a lot of questions about high-end ability with Gregor but make no mistake, the kid has the ability to stand alone and will prove so when Moose Jaw experiences a significant roster turnover.
On the other side, Prince Albert Raiders left wing Simon Stransky struggled under heightened expectations.
In his second major junior season, the Czech import forward saw his responsibility and stat line increase as he became a focal forward for the Raiders. While there are impressive signs from afar, based on an impressive 62-point season and an appearance at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, there is more to the story.
Stransky has proven his offensive value with a high IQ game and skilled stick handling ability. He is a fine passer and doesn’t play a selfish game that some silkier players tend to do. The issues I had with him were away from the puck, when the spotlight wasn’t shining directly on him. There were questions about his ability to compete away from the puck coming into the year and it became painted crystal clear. The more that I saw Stransky, the more I saw that he struggled dearly withstanding the rigors of defensive assignments and physical play.
The lack of compete in critical moments defined the player I saw him as. Stransky is a guy who needs that open ice to make a play as his foot speed isn’t superior at this level and only gets him short windows of opportunity. Without this space I saw a player who withered under pressure and was forced off the puck or tricked into making a poor decision with the puck. Like other scrutinized players of draft years gone by, another considerable deficiency was the effort level he exhibited when backchecking and assuming a defensive position. I too often saw a player who reserved urgency for the offensive zone and would often take lengths of time off when in between outbursts.
To individuals who look behind the smoke screen of stats, these holes in his game are deemed as red flags and strongly impacted the ranking that I have for him. Not to say that he can’t be an offensive guy at the professional level, but his game is a lot farther away than most realize.
While his game may take some time to develop, Victoria Royals center Matthew Phillips surprised immensely this season.
As soon as anyone purses their lips and utters the Phillips name in the same context as the NHL draft, stereotypes come to the forefront. Being freshly 18 and measuring in at 5-foot-6, 137 pounds doesn’t scream NHL prospect as the old adage of being ‘too small, not physical enough’ would insist.
Phillips missed the memo if that philosophy still exists.
The concerns will always follow him and his play will always be in question but his offensive game is at the same level as other peers that are on an NHL team’s radar. As a rookie, Phillips helped lead the charge in an impressive season as the Royals won the title as the league’s regular season champion. Phillips put together a great offensive season, putting up 37 goals and 39 assists while suiting up in all 72 of the Victoria’s games.
He excelled right from the onset of the season thanks to his quickness, high intellect and tenacious approach to the game. He’s a skilled puck handler who goes to all areas of the rink with purpose in making a play. He may get jostled around by larger players, but the heart and drive is present that has him competing in situations that usually are reserved for someone much bigger.
He has a few holes, mainly physical, but knows how to play his game and stay the course when given special attention and tough assignments. He was a considerable riser for me during the year as I was more impressed with each passing glimpse. Due to bias that he faces, his final destination on draft day is a crapshoot, even though he is a guy who I see as a top-120 talent.
As we have seen before, today’s NHL is one that accommodates smaller skilled players and who is to say that Matt Phillips isn’t the next mite to make his mark.
By Justin Froese