Who do the top 2018 NHL draft picks remind us of?

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One of the old standbys of scouting reports that enter the public sphere is comparison scouting. It’s easier for fans to visualize what a player can be if you can compare him to a similar player.

With recent advancements made in analytics and within scouting departments in general, there have been more efforts to make those comparisons less subjective with various models created to see how a prospect stacks up against historical comparisons. One of the more popular examples of comparison modeling is “Prospect Cohort Success,” better known as PCS, a system developed by Josh Weissbock and Cam Lawrence, both of whom now work for the Florida Panthers. I also look at per-game scoring rates against a player’s age-related peers historically quite a bit when making my own evaluations of prospects. It’s a very basic element, but it is an objective fact and another point of reference when you look at historical comparables.

Here is a very basic look at some of the historical comparisons for this year’s top draft picks based on their per-game scoring production in their respective leagues, while also considering the more subjective stylistic comparables that may help tell the story of what a player will eventually become.


2018 draft: No. 1 overall draft pick
Top comparison: Brian Leetch

One of the things that makes Dahlin special is that he is essentially without a historical peer. Pretty much every great Swedish player who entered the NHL came through either the Swedish Hockey League or second-division Allsvenskan. Dahlin’s 20 points in 41 games this past season as a 17-year-old marked the most productive season by a U18 defenseman in SHL history and the second-highest scoring season by a U18 player in any position. For reference, Erik Karlsson had 10 points in 45 games when he was a year older, and he only played in seven pro games for the same Frolunda side that Dahlin just dominated with. The closest recent statistical comparable to Dahlin is Victor Hedman, who had 21 points in 43 games in his draft-eligible season. As a late birthdate, Hedman was older than Dahlin when he did it, so it’s not exactly a perfect comparison. You have to factor in that Hedman was taller and stronger than Dahlin in that season.

Stylistically, the two play somewhat similarly, but I keep coming back to something Nicklas Lidstrom said during Dahlin’s draft season because I think it’s spot on. Lidstrom told hockeysvierge.se that he thought Dahlin reminded him much more of Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, particularly in his skating ability. I went back to watch some old Leetch clips, and I came away noticing just how similar Leetch played the game to that of a modern defenseman. It’s a really apt comparison because Leetch had incredible feet and excellent vision, and he could thread a pass with the best of them. I think that all fits into Dahlin’s skillset.

I don’t see Karlsson nor Hedman as direct comparables, but I do think Dahlin is a freak of nature much the same way his Swedish counterparts are. I don’t know that it’s ever fair to compare a prospect to a Hall of Famer, but I think Lidstrom was on to something with Dahlin. Even if he isn’t an all-time great, Dahlin has the makings of an elite No. 1 defenseman in the NHL.

2018 draft: No. 2 overall draft pick
Top comparison: Rick Nash

When Svechnikov was playing as a 16-year-old in the United States Hockey League with the Muskegon Lumberjacks, I was speaking with a scout friend about the buzz that was building around this exciting talent. He told me that some of the scouts in his circle of friends were calling Svechnikov “Baby Malkin.”

He was a big kid, at times physically dominating the older players in the league with his strength and speed. He was pretty difficult to contain. The Baby Malkin moniker has faded over time, as Svechnikov is a power winger who plays the game at a faster north-south pace than the shifty, deliberate Evgeni Malkin. But there is little doubt that Svechnikov is a special offensive talent.

After moving to the OHL, it didn’t take him long to start scoring goals at a blistering pace. A wrist injury knocked him out of action for about a month, which cost him a chance at really padding his stats, but they still ended up pretty gaudy. Since Svechnikov missed chunks of his season due to injury and international team duty, he appeared in 44 of a possible 60 games with the Barrie Colts last season. He scored 40 goals in those 44 contests and ended up with a 1.64 points-per-game average. While his full point total does not necessarily put him among the elites as a U18 in the OHL, his goal-scoring rate absolutely is. Since the 1999-2000 season, only four players under the age of 18 have averaged better than 0.90 goals per game in the OHL with a minimum of 40 games played: 16-year-old John Tavares (1.07 goals-per-game), Steven Stamkos (0.95), Connor McDavid (0.93) and Svechnikov. That’s elite company right there.

Stylistically, Malkin isn’t quite the comparable I’d go with. I think Svechnikov plays the game more similarly to Rick Nash in his prime. His power moves down the wing, cutting to the inside and beating the goalie with a quick shot or fancy move in tight were hallmarks of his game. Svechnikov is a better pure shooter and lets it fly from all over the ice, but his speed and power could be overbearing for opposing defenders if he continues to build strength and confidence. He’s a legit goal-scoring threat from Day 1 in the NHL.

2018 draft: No. 3 overall draft pick
Top comparison: Claude Giroux

The Canadiens broke with consensus to add Kotkaniemi with the No. 3 pick. It wasn’t a reach, but also not the way many had felt the top three picks should have played out. The Habs were undoubtedly comforted in selecting Kotkaniemi based on his performance in Finland’s top professional league where he was averaging middle-six minutes at forward. He is a natural center, but Kotkaniemi played most of his professional season on the wing, while playing down the middle at various points for Finland’s national U18 team. When we look at the numbers he put up as a 17-year-old in Liiga, his per-game production (0.51 points per game) compares most favorably to Jesse Puljujarvi and Tuomo Ruutu at the same age. He’s definitely above average for a teenager playing in Liiga, but it’s not the special rate of production that, say, Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund enjoyed in their U18 seasons.

When I’ve watched Kotkaniemi play down the middle, you see flashes here and there of guys like Barkov and Anze Kopitar. I don’t think Kotkaniemi is nearly as capable a defender as either of those two — not yet at least — and I don’t know that he’ll project out that way. In that regard, I think he may trend more similarly to Claude Giroux. He engages physically, hunts pucks very well and has the ability to transition quickly to offense. There’s definitely a two-way element to him, and he has a lot of skill to match that ability to battle.

2018 draft: No. 4 overall draft pick
Top comparison: Ryan Kesler

When I spoke with the Tkachuk brothers a few weeks back, Matthew viewed the younger Tkachuk’s upside to that of a Jamie Benn-type player. I thought that was pretty apt in terms of a ceiling. It’s a long way to that ceiling, though.

When looking at Tkachuk’s statistical comparables in NCAA hockey over the last 20 or so seasons, he did not score at an elite level for a U19 player. He had a bit of a slower start to the year and really picked it up late, which can happen to a lot of freshmen. Tkachuk had 31 points in 40 games, an admittedly modest total. However, his freshman season favorably compares to that of Ryan Kesler, a gritty power center, and Alex Tuch, a scoring power winger, in their own 18-year-old seasons in the college ranks. That’s decent company to be in at this point.

Interestingly enough, when I asked a scout who he compares Tkachuk to, the first player he mentioned was Kesler, while noting that Kesler is a better goal scorer and Tkachuk is a better distributor. That’s a pretty fair stylistic comparison. Both have that high level of competitiveness and grit, combined with enough offensive ability to be a top-line player (in Kesler’s case, a few years ago). You also have to give Tkachuk the benefit of the doubt considering he’s still growing and might one day be able to touch that Benn projection his brother bestowed upon him. It should be noted that the Dallas Stars winger took a while to grow into the player he is now. For me, it’s a bit too lofty a comparison, but not out of the realm of possibility.

2018 draft: No. 6 overall draft pick
Top comparison: Filip Forsberg

Filip Zadina is probably one of the more skilled players in the draft, which makes him both exciting and a little difficult to compare. He plays a style very much his own and showed many different sides of himself throughout his draft season. You can see how he pulled different things from different players. Most of all, however, he is a goal-scorer.

Zadina averaged 0.77 goals in his first and likely only QMJHL season with the Halifax Mooseheads. As a late birthdate, his goal rate was similar to that of both Nikolaj Ehlers and Giroux in their draft-plus-one seasons, and slightly ahead of Anthony Mantha‘s draft year in which he was also a late birthdate. Additionally, his 1.44 points-per-game rate was similar to that of Mikhail Grigorenko, Anthony Beauvillier and Zadina’s countryman Jakub Voracek in their U19 QMJHL seasons.

You can see some elements of Milan Hejduk, who Zadina grew up idolizing, in his game. You can also see some David Pastrnak in there, too, based on how proficient he is at both scoring from distance and attacking the net. Pastrnak, as was pointed out by Patrice Bergeron during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, has become especially committed to forcing turnovers and getting the puck back when he doesn’t have it. I saw that a ton with Zadina last season, as well. He is all energy, all the time.

One of the scouts I spoke with said he sees bits of Vladimir Tarasenko in there, and some Filip Forsberg, too. The Forsberg comparison is the one that stuck with me the most. The skill level that Zadina possesses is one thing, but the confidence he has on the puck is where I see the most striking similarities. He isn’t afraid to try things, and he believes he’s going to beat the defender every time out. He also protects the puck very similarly to Forsberg. I think both stylistically and impact wise, Zadina is going to trend very similarly to the Nashville Predators winger.



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