Mika Zibanejad is a power forward who has jumped onto the radar of NHL scouts. (Photo by Andreas Grandin)
The time is nigh for drafting. Minnesota is just days away and every permutation of the order has been pondered. But who helped themselves the most during the second half of the year? For this week’s list, we look at the draft’s high-risers heading into the weekend and how they got there.
Mika Zibanejad, C – Djurgarden (Swe.)
Z-Bad’s stock has soared throughout the season, particularly since his brand of power forward hockey has such an entertaining edge to it. He can hit, he can score and he did it all in Sweden’s best league against older competition. Even he’s a bit surprised that some are considering him a top-5 pick and buzz-worthy player.
“It means a lot to me, actually,” Zibanejad said. “I’m not used to this kind of attention. But it’s fun.”
Along with his exciting game, Zibanejad comes from an interesting background. His father is Iranian, while his mother is Finnish. Alongside Sweden’s Jeremy Boyce-Rotevall and Finland’s Christopher Gibson, Z-Bad is part of a growing wave in Europe of top prospects who don’t fit the blonde Scandinavian stereotype, though it’s not something he puts a lot of thought into.
“It doesn’t mean that much,” he said. “It’s fun to have cousins in other countries so you can explore those countries, too.”
With a 6-foot-2, 191-pound frame, Zibanejad already has pro size and in fact, was quite happy cutting his teeth against players nearly twice his age in the Swedish Elite League this year after starting the campaign in junior.
“It’s much more organized to play up there,” he said. “They know what they’re doing and that’s easier for me too, to know what my teammates are doing and that I can expect more from them.”
Zibanejad certainly met all expectations himself this year.
Oscar Klefbom, D – Farjestad (Swe.)
Captaining the Swedish entry at the world under-18s propelled Klefbom upwards on draft lists and the fact he carries a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame doesn’t hurt. He has a varied skill set and is quite mobile for his size, but the leadership qualities really shine.
Ryan Sproul, D – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
He started the season playing Jr. A, but Sproul got a chance to shine in the Ontario League on a poor Soo team and did not disappoint. Big, mobile and talented, Sproul recorded 14 goals and 33 points in 61 games. Great hands and feet for a 6-foot-4 teenager.
Nikita Kucherov, RW – CSKA Moscow (Rus.)
It’s a sour year for draft eligible players still plying their trade in Russia, but Kucherov’s huge offensive splurge at the world under-18s alongside 2012 prospects Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko will help his case. His 11 goals and 21 points in seven games led the tournament. A creative player with a quick shot and great stickhandling skills, Kucherov just needs to work on consistency.
Jamie Oleksiak, D – Northeastern Huskies (Hockey East)
The wave just keeps building for Oleksiak, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound beast on the blueline. As a freshman with the Huskies, he put up standout performances when his team needed them most and his skating ability is ahead of the curve for a player his size. Plus, he can be surly out there – good thing for opponents that fighting is heavily punished in the NCAA.
Michael Morrison, G – Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
Goalies aren’t really expected to dominate at the draft combine, but Morrison led the field in push-ups with 45, nearly twice the weekend’s average. On the ice, Morrison took over for starter Brandon Maxwell midway through Kitchener’s first round tilt with Plymouth and almost rallied the Rangers back, winning two before dropping Game 7.
Alexander Ruuttu, C – Jokerit (Fin.)
The son of former NHLer Christian Ruuttu was one of the highest-rising Europeans in the second half thanks to his gritty style of play and deft scoring touch. At the draft combine, he was impressive, doing 66 curl-ups to rank third overall and demonstrate his core strength.
Joel Edmundson, D – Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
A stay-at-home type of defenseman who didn’t get a lot of headlines, Edmundson improved throughout the year and used his physical game to his advantage. He can also really throw haymakers when he fights and scored decisions over draft contemporaries Duncan Siemens and Kale Kessy this year.
Luke Lockhart, C – Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
One of those gritty energy players every NHL team needs, Lockhart was a little hidden on a mediocre Seattle team, but got himself an invite to the draft combine anyway, where he excelled. A late birthday, he tripled his point total, notching 48 this season.
Andy Welinski, D – Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)
The Minnesota-Duluth commit has parlayed team success into individual honors. Welinski helped the Gamblers all the way to the United States League final before they fell to Dubuque, but his ability to move the puck is well-noted and had him climbing several rounds in the draft according to Central Scouting.
The Hot List, a roundup of minor league, junior, college and high school players we’re excited to one day see in the NHL, appears every Tuesday only on thehockeynews.com. A player is eligible for The Hot List until they play in their first NHL game.
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