Future Considerations’ Western Canada head scout Justin Froese gives his thoughts on who from the 2017 NHL Draft class left him impressed, who disappointed and who his sleeper is on draft day.
Despite the naysayers who have written off this class as less fruitful, the West enjoyed a rebound year of sorts. The list of feel good stories and rising prospects compounded as the year went on, but the player who made the biggest impact for me throughout the year was Brooks Bandits defender Cale Makar. Up until their 3-2 overtime loss to Cobourg in the RBC Cup final, Makar seemingly won everything he had a crack at. The recently-named CJHL MVP, RBC Cup MVP and tournament’s top defender also helped Brooks capture the AJHL title with a dominate performance throughout the playoff run. Putting up 75 points in 54 games, Makar not only finished 23 points ahead of the next highest defender in the AJHL, but also finished sixth overall in regular season scoring.
Although there have been claims that Makar’s achievements are a result of playing in a lower tier of junior hockey, he put to bed some of the concerns by matching up with stiff competition at the World Junior A Challenge in December, where he captained Canada West and carried the torch on the back end. Makar’s consistently dynamic play has elevated his draft stock into conversations of him being not only the top offensive defender on draft day, but also into considerations for a top-5 pick. While he has the skating ability, sense and offensive skills to consistently push the pace, his ability to defend the best players in the world is yet a question mark. This is something he did with ease while patrolling the blue line for the Bandits but is something he will hone further, starting next year when he embarks on new challenges in the NCAA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst next fall.
He’s going to need some time to fill out and appraise risk, but he could be one of the most exciting players to come from this class when he does make the jump to the NHL.
After landing in North America and turning heads in his rookie CHL season with Moose Jaw last season, Nikita Popugayev is a guy who I soured on with more exposure. Popugaev filled a vital role in the Warriors ‘offense last season and did so early on this season, putting up 51 points in 40 games before being dealt, surprisingly, mid-season to the Prince George Cougars for a package of players and picks. The fallout from the trade proved tough on Popugayev, as he struggled to replicate his dominance within new surroundings with18 points in 31 games and another three in six playoff games before the Cougars bowed out in the opening round of the WHL Playoffs.
The big, 6-foot-6 Russian has spurts of brilliance offensively, but looked to me as though he was a guy who was more prone to accepting a buddy car position rather than be the guy to jump up and man the handlebars. He is a raw skater who struggles at this point with acceleration and balance but is not limited in the rush game as he can overwhelm in full flight. His speed, coupled with his skilled hands, vision and passing ability, makes him a threat with the puck on his stick and also when he is able to find soft spots where he can pull the trigger on his rocket of a shot. Although a tantalizing highlight reel performer, the erratic variable is that he only shows up when he so chooses. In my many viewings of Popugayev, I have witnessed this disappearing act for shifts on end where he shows an ailing compete level and simply looks lost in the defensive zone. For a guy of his size he is not one to take the body and although only slightly disproportioned between weight and height, strength looks to be an issue even when matched up against much smaller, more compact opponents.
Although showing that he has the tools to succeed, the questions of whether he will translate to the pro game or not lies deeper than skill. Drive isn’t optional to play effectively as a professional, and for me he has dropped in the rankings because of this.
Given the year the Portland Winterhawks had, much credit can be passed around on a team that overachieved and reached the second round of the playoffs after an upset over the BC Division champion Prince George Cougars. A lot of the team’s success rested firmly on the shoulders of the emergence of Cody Glass, but fellow draft prospect Henri Jokiharju had a crucial role in the Winterhawks fortunes.
A Finnish import, Jokiharju not only put up impressive point totals for the Hawks, but also munched valuable minutes and showed a seamless transition to North America. A new-age type defender, Jokiharju has been successful thanks in part to his cognitive game two-way game and skating ability. Jokiharju’s edgework is crucial to his success as an elusive puck-mover who can conduct the flow of an attack or carve oncoming opponents to the perimeter. What he lacks in size he makes up for with his timing and quickness, picking up on moments of weakness and either stripping his man of the puck or moving in tune to box opponents out. You seldom see him make a mistake during games as he isn’t a guy who sells the farm to push play deep into the offensive zone or one that takes high end gambles to lead an attack. He is methodical and well-kept positionally, doing far more thriving than surviving in his rookie junior season, something that cannot be said for all who look to make not only stylistic changes but cultural ones as well.
While not for seen as a master of a particular skill, Jokiharju doesn’t have a notable weakness in his game and has put his name into the hat as a first round candidate as a result.
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