"That's between him and I. That was my decision."
- Devils coach John MacLean on why Ilya Kovalchuk was made a healthy scratch for Saturday's game against Buffalo.
Connor Hellebuyck and Auston Matthews. Image by: Mark Blinch/Getty Images
As we count down to the March 1 trade deadline, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
We're now one week away from the trade deadline, which means the entire league is being divided into buyers and sellers. This year, there's far more of the former than the latter, so much so that it might throw the market into chaos, or maybe lead to a very quiet week.
Still, most teams know where they stand by now. If you're a Cup contender or desperate for a playoff spot, you buy. If you're already toast, then you look to the future and let the firesale begin.
But what about those teams that are stuck somewhere in between? Even this late in the season, there are still some teams that could make a good case for either side of the equation. Maybe they're not quite sure if they're still in the running, or maybe they can't decide if this is the right year to make a push. But either way, they've got a few days left to make up their minds.
As we count down until March 1, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
The case for buying: One year into the Auston Matthews era, the Leafs have been better than most expected and are right in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot – and a run at home-ice or even a division title isn't completely out of the question. The team has access to a ton of cap room and plenty of picks and prospects to work with.
And maybe more importantly, they have a three-year window while Matthews and Mitch Marner are on their rookie contracts. James van Riemsdyk's cheap deal runs for one more year after this one. William Nylander needs a new contract after next season. The time to strike could be soon.
The case for selling: "Soon" doesn't mean now. The Leafs have been patient during this rebuild, and waiting another year to really swing for the fences would be the smart play. And with a handful of rental options like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, collecting a few more future assets might be a smart way to prepare for what's to come.
Where they'll end up: You never know with Lou Lamoriello and his fortress of silence, but for now it sounds like they're not planning to do much.
The case for buying: After making the playoffs last year, the Flyers have taken a step back and are fading from the race. But this team is good enough to do some damage, as they showed earlier this year when they won nine straight and briefly moved into the mix with other elite teams in the Metro. Ron Hextall has been patient since taking over the GM's job, but this team hasn't won a playoff round since 2012 and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are in the late stages of their prime. At some point, it's time to take a step forward.
The case for selling: Timing is everything, and this year's Metro Division is so stacked that taking a run at it seems foolish. Better to move rentals like Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto (and maybe even Steve Mason) and regroup for next year.
Where they'll end up: Their next two games are against the Capitals and Penguins, if they lose those, Hextall likely folds his hand.
The case for buying: We've been talking about the Jets as the NHL's team of the future for years now, but that future never seems to arrive. The West is wide open this year, and the path out of the Central doesn't seem as daunting as it has been in recent years. Their biggest need is goaltending, and there could be some good ones available, even as short-term rentals. With the team on the edge of the playoff bubble, this could be the year to make a push.
The case for selling: This team is good enough to make the playoffs, but are they really a threat to do much damage once they're there? The franchise has been patiently building up a young talent base since returning to Winnipeg, and abandoning that approach now just to get swept in the first round could seem like a panic move.
Where they'll end up: History tells us that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets won't do much at all, no team has been as reluctant to trade in recent years. This could be the year that changes, especially if a goaltender shakes free as a decent value buy. Then again, it feels like we've said that before.
The case for buying: They've been bad for five straight years. Some of those were strategic, granted, but that phase of the rebuild was supposed to end in 2015 and give way to progress. There's been some, but not as much as fans probably hoped, and they're on the verge of missing the playoffs yet again.
But they've been better since a rash of injuries torpedoed their start, and they've got assets to work with to plug some holes. And in an off-year for the Atlantic, a push into the playoffs isn't far-fetched.
Again, most teams don't want to load up at the deadline just to make the playoffs and go out early. But this isn't the same situation as a team like the Jets, who didn't have to endure hitting rock bottom like the Sabres did. In Buffalo's case you wonder if even a first-round exit wouldn't represent a worthwhile investment, if only to offer long-suffering fans some hope that things are moving in the right direction.
The case for selling: They're not winning it all this year, and the roster is still young. Sure, missing the playoffs again will be frustrating, but there's no need to rush. Trust the process, trust Jack Eichel and the young core, and most of all, trust Tim Murray. At least for one more year.
Where they'll end up: Murray might tinker here or there, but any big moves to improve now would also have to extend to next season and beyond.
The case for buying: They're the Lightning. They went to the Cup final in 2015, and to the conference final in 2016. Plenty of us picked them to win it all this year. They'll be facing a cap crunch soon and their window may be closing, but on paper this team is still good enough to win it all, especially if Steven Stamkos comes back by the playoffs.
So of course you're buying. This team can win the Stanley Cup. They're the Lightning.
The case for selling: They're also terrible.
I don't know why. You don't know why. I'm not sure Steve Yzerman knows why. But they just haven't clicked all year, and they remain outside the playoffs with multiple teams to pass. Better to accept that, recoup some assets for guys like Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle, and maybe even figure out a way to dump some deals with term. For whatever reason, this just isn't their year, so start setting the table for the next ones.
Where they'll end up: Yzerman's earned the benefit of the doubt over the years, so you figure he'll make the right call one way or another. The betting is with two more home games before the deadline, he waits as long as he can before throwing in the towel. But I have them in the "sell" column.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
Patrik Laine. Image by: Getty Images
The origins of Patrik Laine’s lethal shot lie buried in his family’s backyard. And imagine, if it weren’t for his father, Laine would still be stopping pucks instead of shooting them.
It takes somewhere in the neighborhood of five centuries for aluminum to decompose. That means there are 490-odd years left for some archaeologically inclined Finnish hockey fans to get their hands on some precious pieces of memorabilia. The dig site is a backyard in Tampere, Finland, and soda can shrapnel is the treasure. Those fragments of old aluminum cans, bashed, battered and burst to bits by six ounces of hard-charging vulcanized rubber, are a reminder of where Patrik Laine began his path to becoming one of the most fearsome rookie scorers ever.
Laine’s shot, used to blast soda cans apart years ago, has been the talk of the NHL this season. It’s lethal, both in strength and accuracy, and it didn’t get that way overnight, which is to say it’s not Laine’s gift so much as his passion project. In his backyard, on the ice and in every moment he could spare, Laine would shoot. And when he was tired, he would shoot again. He’d shoot until his hands bled, as they did while training this past summer, and then he’d shoot some more.
“I had a net in our backyard and I spent many hours there every day, just shooting,” Laine said. “When the coaches would blow the whistle and everyone would get water, I stayed and took shots to improve it.”
Laine has long since graduated from obliterating soda cans in his backyard, moving on to dominating the SM-liiga in Finland and now to destroying the already high expectations put upon him as an 18-year-old rookie in the NHL. On his first night in the league, Laine showed off the skills built in his parents’ backyard with a laser wrist shot from the left point that sparked a Jets come-from-behind victory. He called his first NHL goal “the best moment in the world,” made more special with his family there to see it. Days later, he had a hat trick in a showdown against Toronto Maple Leafs phenom Auston Matthews – the only player drafted ahead of him last June – capped off by an overtime snipe that sent the MTS Centre into a frenzy. At the season’s midway point, only Sidney Crosby had more goals than Laine, and he and Matthews were on pace to be the first teenaged rookies to score 40-plus goals since Eric Lindros in 1992-93.
The irony in all of this, of course, is that Laine came close to spending his entire career trying to stop pucks. If Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn’t sent Laine’s father, Harri, a thank you card yet, he may want to get out his finest stationary and draft up something special, because if it weren’t for him, Laine might still be plying his trade as a goaltender somewhere in Finland. He didn’t give up the position until he was 12.
“I would have kept going but then my dad decided for me, and I went being a forward all the time,” Laine said. “I was a better goalie than a forward, but I think I’m good with his decision.”
That position change came only six years ago. Imagine what Laine could be capable of had he focused all his energy on scoring goals instead of stopping them from the outset. But there may be something to the connection between Laine’s goaltending days and his current goal-scoring ways. Facing Laine’s shot hundreds of times already in practice, Jets goaltender Michael Hutchinson made note of a trait Laine has that few players, be it rookies or veterans, possess – the ability to use a goaltender’s understanding of a shooter’s tendencies against them.
“He doesn’t just pick the top corner every time,” Hutchinson said. “A lot of kids, especially at 17 and 18 with a shot like that, want to come in and just shoot the puck as hard as they can and try to go bar down and blow one by the goalie every single time. He’s not like that. He has no problem shooting for a rebound to get his teammates a goal, shooting for five-hole or picking a low corner over the pad. That’s maturity beyond his years.”
And impressive maturity given how swift his progression has been from goaltender to goal scorer. Laine is used to progressing quickly, though, because his six-year rise to becoming one of the world’s best teenage players was preceded by a year-long skyrocket up the draft rankings.
“I was a better goalie than a forward, but I think I’m good with his decision.”
In The Hockey News’ Future Watch and Draft Preview issues in 2015, Laine was nowhere to be found among the projected top 10 for 2016. Instead, a panel of scouts deemed the likes of Logan Brown and Kieffer Bellows as top-10 selections, with fellow Finn Jesse Puljujarvi considered the shoo-in second-overall pick behind Matthews. By the start of 2015-16, however, the winds of change were blowing fiercer than a blustery chill at Portage and Main. Laine had vaulted up the charts, projected to go as high as fourth, with Matthew Tkachuk and Jakob Chychrun often separating Laine from the top three. It was following the 2016 World Junior Championship that Laine completed his rise up the draft board.
“A year ago him and Jesse Puljujarvi were more or less even,” recalled NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb. “But after Christmas, and after the world juniors, Laine just took off and was unbelievable.”
Laine had seven goals and 13 points in seven games at the world juniors en route to winning gold with Finland. He then returned to the Finnish League and scored at a torrid pace, dominating the post-season with 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games as Tappara, his hometown team, captured the league title with Laine taking playoff MVP honors. His unpredictable rise continued at the World Championship in May, where he scored seven goals and 12 points in 10 games on his way to a silver medal and yet another MVP honor.
“His understanding of the game is exceptional,” Stubb said. “He always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. What people also forget is he’s also a very good playmaker. It’s not only the shot.”
Laine had come a long way from being that petulant kid sent home from the 2014 Ivan Hlinka tournament following a highly publicized dispute with his coach. Petteri Lehto, Laine’s European agent who has grown to know both Laine and his family the past four years, said the incident was overblown and taken out of context. But instead of stirring up the controversy more, Laine, on the advice of Lehto, stayed quiet in hopes the story would go away. And eventually, it did.
“It was very tough for Patrik and his family,” Lehto said. “But it probably helped him to understand that when you’re a good player, media is a part of it and you better watch yourself.”
Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.
The same passion that got Laine into trouble earlier in his career has now become one of his greatest assets, according to Kimmo Vaha-Ruohola, his former coach. When Laine came under Vaha-Ruohola’s guidance, first in the under-20s and later for two seasons with Tappara, his all-consuming desire to score often led to frustration and distraction. Vaha-Ruohola and Laine would talk honestly about what happened after each outburst, and learning to harness his passion led to a rocky road that required a benching from time to time. Laine grew to understand how he could handle his emotions and channel them to help his team. That continued into the men’s league.
“He had to analyze his game, every game, mental-wise,” Vaha-Ruohola said. “How did it go? Did he lose his temper and at what cost? How did he try to handle it? And so on. That process took two-and-a-half years.”
It’s clear how hard Laine can take the difficult moments, though, as evidenced by his gaffe in a December game against the Edmonton Oilers. Defending in his own zone, Laine inadvertently shot a loose puck into the Winnipeg net, for what ended up being the game-deciding goal. He looked distraught as captain Blake Wheeler comforted him on the bench. It was an impressive show of maturity post-game when Laine sat in his stall and answered questions, owning up to his mistake, but the sight of him on the bench following the goal was a reminder that this dynamic scorer who has set the NHL ablaze in his first few months in North America is still a teenager.
"The thing that often divides good players and top players in the world is how eager they are to learn and how fast it happens.”
It’s sometimes forgotten that Laine is still a kid, and it’s easy to see why. At 6-foot-5, 206 pounds, he’s a teen in a grown man’s body. And if it’s not Laine’s size that makes us forget how young he is, it’s his outspoken confidence that does.
In a sport filled with braggadocios boasting about the merits of humility, Laine has never shied away from being upfront about the fact he’s a talented player. He openly stated he believed he had what it took to be the first-overall pick ahead of Matthews, he turned heads with his stick-twirling celebration and he has outright said he knows how good he is. That’s a rare quality found in a small handful of players, and it has only increased his appeal.
It’s all about how Laine expresses that confidence, however. It doesn’t come across as if he’s gloating. There’s a truthfulness in the way he says it, an almost Honest Abe-like inability to tell a lie. It’s more endearing than anything, as are the other aspects of his personality, like his dry, subtle sense of humor.
For instance, Laine calls his father, a plumber, a “beer-league” player in Finland. When asked about his living situation, he glowingly refers to his mother as his roommate, remarking around the holidays how she did the decorating because that’s not really his thing. And he’s more than willing to take playful jabs at teammates. When asked about a scoring drought plaguing Nikolaj Ehlers, Laine’s road roommate and one of the teammates he’s closest to off ice, Laine quipped it was similar to the struggles that haunt Ehlers during their Playstation battles in FIFA. Ehlers shakes his head and chuckles in Laine’s direction when it’s brought up.
“He’s a great guy on and off the ice, and he’s a pretty funny guy sometimes,” Ehlers said, later comparing the duo to an old married couple. “We do chirp each other in a healthy way.”
Despite his steady growth both on and off the ice, Laine isn’t a finished product. He understands there’s room to improve, specifically on the defensive side of the puck. Even in Tappara, he was striving to be better defensively, sharpening his skating in order to be in the right place at the right time in his own end as often as he is when on the attack in the other direction.
But outside of his shot, Laine’s other great weapon is his ability to adapt and learn at a rate few others can.
“His development is probably the bigger thing for me as a coach,” Vaha-Ruohola said. “He’s not just scoring goals and being good offensively, but it’s how much he wants to learn and how quick he learns. The thing that often divides good players and top players in the world is how eager they are to learn and how fast it happens.”
It’s a skill of Laine’s that Vaha-Rouhola compared to Crosby, adding he believes Laine had the capability to be that kind of two-way forward. And it’s in his playmaking skill and ability to “take you out of your pants” that Lehto, who had a brief stint playing with a rookie Mario Lemieux, sees flashes of a young No. 66. For Stubb, there will always be the parallels drawn between Laine and great Finnish scorers like Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri. And every time Laine unloads a one-timer from the top of the circle on the power play, there will be inevitable comparisons to his childhood idol, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. Yet Laine sees things differently.
“I don’t have to compare myself to anybody,” Laine said.
“Everybody is different, and I want to be me. I don’t have to think about what everybody else has done. People can say what they want, but I just want to be me and create my own path.”
Dale Hawerchuk's letter to Patrik Laine.
Matt Dumba and Artem Anisimov
The Eastern Conference used to be the land of opportunity, but now it’s the West that looks ripe for the taking if a team can get hot at the right time.
There’s a term, “Group of Death,” that’s usually used in soccer to describe a particularly strong collection of teams that will have to battle each other in order to advance in a tournament. To translate that to NHL terms, it’d be like if, heading into the post-season, one single division boasted the league’s first-place team, defending Stanley Cup champions and a squad that had gone on a 16-game win streak during the regular season. You know, like the Metropolitan Division.
Only one team can emerge from the group and represent the Metropolitan in the Eastern Conference final, and right now the odds for the Eastern representative would have to favor whichever team escapes the NHL’s current powerhouse division. The Metropolitan teams have led the charge for much of the season with stacked lineups that are performing at the top of their game. That’s not to say the Atlantic Division teams stand no chance in the post-season, but rather that most of the favorites to represent the East — and, honestly, to win the Cup — are all in the Metropolitan.
That’s a change from the way things have been in recent years, however. Formerly, the Eastern Conference was the land of opportunity, almost entirely wide open with five or six teams who could be honest-to-goodness contenders. Heading into the post-season in 2015-16, for instance, the Penguins, Capitals, Lightning, Rangers and, to a lesser extent, Panthers were all considered teams with potential for a deep run.
In the West, however, years of dominance by a handful of teams has led to the conference boasting a few teams as contenders entering the post-season with a number of also-rans. From the 2009 post-season until this past season, the Blackhawks appeared in five Western Conference finals, the Kings in three and the Sharks in three. Those three teams account for more than half of the total appearances in the Western Conference final over the past eight campaigns, and the Kings and Blackhawks, especially, were the biggest road blocks en route to the Western Conference title for several years.
It would seem that’s starting to shift, though, and we could be in for a Western Conference that’s more wide open than we’ve seen in some time. The defending Western Conference champion Sharks look like a threat to go deep in the post-season again, without a doubt, and the Blackhawks are still contenders, but they’re not as faultless as they’ve been in the past. Each team has it’s pros and cons, giving to reason to believe it’ll be their year to take home the West title or a season in which they come up just that much short.
The Minnesota Wild, for instance, are the top team in the Western Conference, and the strength up and down the roster is near unquestionable. That includes the crease, especially, where Devan Dubnyk is turning in an outstanding season that is almost sure to end with him receiving the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. The Wild also boast more depth than possibly any other team in the league and few teams will be able to roll four lines against Minnesota. In the same breath, though, that depth is necessary because the Wild lack that one, game-breaking star. Zach Parise has shown that ability, for sure, but he’s not in the same category as a Connor McDavid, Vladimir Tarasenko or Patrick Kane.
And when it comes to Kane, his Blackhawks have been on fire of late and he’s been no small part of that. Chicago is going to enter the post-season as the favorite for some simply because the team has been atop the league so often of late they seem a constant threat. You mix in the talented core group that has remained in tact and the goaltending the team gets from Corey Crawford, and the Blackhawks are a contender. But the depth can be questioned, and there are a handful of rookies who haven’t seen playoff action before.
Rounding out the top three in the Central Division is the St. Louis Blues, a team which most expected would be competing for a division title, not barely holding onto one of the three divisional playoff spots. The issue in St. Louis has been goaltending. The Blues have one of the West’s more prolific offenses, but their 172 goals against are the most of any team currently holding onto a playoff spot in the West. Things have been looking up under coach Mike Yeo, and the Blues will be very dangerous if goaltender Jake Allen gets hot.
Then there’s the Pacific Division, led by the aforementioned Sharks. The two wily veterans, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, are still chugging along in San Jose, but the team has been led this season by an absolutely outstanding performance by Brent Burns. The defenseman is on pace to have one of the greatest offensive seasons by a blueliner we’ve seen in recent years. Captain Joe Pavelski has also cracked the 20-goal plateau once again, but the depth contributions have been sporadic. The Sharks really were hoping for more from Mikkel Boedker, too.
South of San Jose, the Ducks have stumbled of late under coach Randy Carlyle, but this is still a team with enough top-end talent that a close game can be taken over in an instant. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are still a remarkable one-two punch up front, and the depth on the back end is excellent. Cam Fowler is having a great year, and Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have been as steady as ever. The recent injury to John Gibson is worrisome, but if he’s only out for a short period of time, it shouldn’t hinder the Ducks down the stretch. Relying on Jonathan Bernier might lead to disaster, however.
And, of course, everyone is going to be paying close attention to the Oilers. For some, Edmonton will be the Pacific Division favorite solely because of the McDavid factor. His first full season has been a treat to watch and the Oilers have benefited big time from his league-leading point total. Edmonton would probably love a boost to their back end and maybe some bottom-six scoring punch, though. They’re top heavy right now, and if the Oilers match up against a defense that can slow down McDavid, that could result in an earlier exit than some are expecting.
Even in the wild card, the teams appear threatening. The Predators were early season favorites after their acquisition of P.K. Subban, and you’d still be hard done by to find a defense that is better, top to bottom, than that of Nashville. Trouble is the goaltending has been below average, which is the same issue that has plagued Calgary despite the Flames holding onto one of the wild-card spots. Short of acquiring Ben Bishop from the Lightning, there isn’t a quick fix for Calgary in goal, but they’re still competitive. And this is to say nothing yet of the Kings. Los Angeles is still well within striking distance of the post-season, and getting Jonathan Quick back and finding some scoring at the deadline could be a game-changer.
This might not be a one-off in the West, either. With the changeover that’s going on throughout the conference, from the Blackhawks’ in-house retooling to the Oilers’ resurgence and continued build around McDavid, there are more teams in the mix with a real, honest chance to represent the West in the final than we’ve seen in some time. That stands to continue for a few years until one team establishes Western Conference dominance. But until that happens, it’s going to make the playoff race and post-season battles all the more exciting to watch.
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Isaac Ratcliffe. Image by: Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images
Isaac Ratcliffe pairs good hockey sense and deft hands with a 6-foot-6 frame, though he could add some weight and muscle.
The big news of the week in the prospect world is that Regina will host the 100th Memorial Cup next year. The WHL’s Pats are one of the best teams in the CHL already and won’t lose too many significant parts over the summer, so they’ll be very competitive hosts – and hey, perhaps the defending champions. Elsewhere, Chicago pick and Erie Otters star Alex DeBrincat continued his assault on the record books by breaking the 50-goal mark for the third straight season. No one had done that in the modern OHL and Dale McCourt was the last before that, dating back to 1977. Let’s take a look at who else is making noise around the world right now.
Isaac Ratcliffe, LW – Guelph Storm (OHL): At 6-foot-6 and nearly 200 pounds already, there’s an obviousness to Ratcliffe’s potential. The fact he marries his great frame with good hockey sense and deft hands makes it all the more clear why the left winger will be one to watch in the first round of the draft this summer. Not that it’s easy to grow that frame.
“The past couple years I’ve definitely been conscious of what I’ve been eating,” Ratcliffe said. “I have that skinny-lean body and I need to get thicker. Eating well, putting on some mass and muscle will be part of getting to the next level.”
Right now, he’s getting help from fellow Storm forward Givani Smith, a Detroit Red Wings pick who plays a hard game, but laces it with skill.
“Being an older guy here, he’s definitely a strong leader,” Ratcliffe said. “He’s a big man like me and I’ve taken some pages from his book, try to play a bit like him.”
Ratcliffe likes to use his size and smarts to his advantage, whether it’s along the wall or down low by the net. He showed a nice touch at the CHL Top Prospects Game and leads the Storm with 44 points through 55 games. That’s not exactly a huge total, but Guelph is in the midst of a serious rebuild that saw the team bottom out last season. With Ratcliffe, Smith and top OHL pick Ryan Merkley growing together, there’s hope for the future. And even though the Storm will likely finish last in the Western Conference, at least there has been more wins than in last year’s rough campaign.
“It was tough, but we tried to keep a strong head on our shoulders,” Ratcliffe said. “We weren’t separate off the ice, we just weren’t clicking on the ice.”
The big left winger still wants to get stronger and faster, but with his foundation, he already has a nice set of tools to entice scouts with.
In the Pipeline
Jonathan Dahlen, LW (Ottawa): One of the top junior-aged snipers in Sweden’s Allsvenskan (just below the SHL) all season, Dahlen is playing on Timra’s top line and excelling. The smart and skilled youngster now has 39 points in 41 games against men.
Ethan Bear, D (Edmonton): The WHL’s player of the week, Bear put up a sick 10 points in his past five games – not bad for a blueliner. The right-shot D-man has a sturdy frame and loves to jump into the rush for the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Filip Hronek, D (Detroit): Thanks to eight points in his past three outings, Hronek is now averaging more than a point per game in his rookie OHL season with Saginaw. The offensive defenseman from the Czech Republic has a wicked shot and lots of puckhandling skills, though he still needs to get stronger.
Peter Thome, G (Columbus): Part of a big USHL goalie trade carousel, the new Waterloo Black Hawk repaid his squad by earning goalie of the week honors in the league. Thome, a 6-foot-3 North Dakota commit, had two wins (including a shutout) and a .964 save percentage to pick up the honors.
Adam Gaudette, C (Vancouver): Now riding an 11-game point streak for Northeastern, Gaudette has been deadly as the Huskies’ second-line center. The NCAA sophomore goes to the tough areas and is reliable in both ends, as well.
2017 Draft Stars
Finn Evans, RW – St. Michael’s Buzzers (OJHL): A two-way forward who plays in all situations for the Buzzers, Evans has five points in his past five games. The Princeton commit works hard and loves to spin off defenders when he has the puck.
Denis Smirnov, LW – Penn State Nittany Lions (Big Ten): His size and skating will likely hold him back until the later rounds of the draft, but Smirnov has incredible offensive skills, no doubt. One of the top scorers in the conference, the puck wizard has 39 points in 28 games as a freshman.
Rickard Hugg, C – Leksand Stars (Swe.): A two-way center who can also slide seamlessly to the wing, Hugg captained Sweden’s Five Nations squad recently and has been very reliable wearing the blue and gold. Locally, he had three points in his most recent win with Leksand’s junior squad, one of the best in the league.
Aleksi Heponiemi, C – Swift Current Broncos (WHL): Small but feisty, Heponiemi is quick on the forecheck and creates a ton of offensive opportunities for the Broncos. The 5-foot-10, 141-pound Finn has 70 points through 58 games in his first ‘Dub’ campaign.
Mathieu Charlebois, D – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL): There’s a lot of raw potential in the 6-foot-3, 206-pounder, but it will take time for it to come together. Charlebois has taken on a big, physical burden for a young Mooseheads blueline and scouts like his “boisterous” game.