Connor's 2017 NHL Mock Draft – Top 10 Edition

DISCLAIMER: These picks are made with the assumptions that teams will keep their respective picks and do not trade. It also assumes that each team is picking based off their own BPA lists but for the sake of simplicity we are homogenizing that ranking to pick based on need/culture fit/direction.

#1 Nolan Patrick - New Jersey

The New Jersey devils are in purgatory with their current roster. With the next wave of talented forwards being sprinkled into the lineup this past season, and the coming years, the Devils are struggling with their identity. Their leadership group comprised of Andy Green, Michael Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac is aging, and they risk regressing further, so this pick is integral to their future. Evaluating New Jersey’s past picks, their prospect pool is littered with two-way forwards such as Michael McLeod, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Kyle Anderson, John Quenneville and Blake Speers. They lack high-end defensive prospects and the book is still out on if Mackenzie Blackwood will ever amount to anything in goal. With their current prospect pool so heavily dominated by similar players, it is unclear which player they’ll take #1. Nolan Patrick is more of the same; a two-way forward who can play in many situations. Nico Hischier would be seen as deviating from their current trend, but he plays a speed and skill style that the league is leaning towards. In a year where there isn’t consensus on the best player at the top of the draft, my guess would be that Ray Shero will opt to take the safer, more philosophically aligned pick in Nolan Patrick.

#2 Nico Hischier - Philadelphia Flyers

Philadelphia could be in the best position in the draft, because as many have cited before, they get to pick the player New Jersey doesn’t want and the leftover player may end up being better in the long run. The Flyers main need, goaltending, cannot be addressed at the draft with this pick. Their defence currently lack top-pairing defensemen, however, they have Gostisbehere, Provorov and Sanheim hopefully filling that void in the coming years. The no brainer option is to pick Nico Hischier at #2. While he’ll be pressed to find time in the lineup as a top 4 center on the flyers with Giroux, Filppula, Couturier, Konecny and Schenn down the middle, the option of Hischier returning to Junior is not far fetched but a question for another day.

#3 Gabriel Vilardi - Dallas Stars

Injuries to key players were a problem for Dallas this past year. The Stars are in a great position picking #3 because their key players are in their prime, their veterans are not heavily depended on, and they have young talent (Ritchie, Faksa, Gurianov, Shore) to infuse speed and skill. Their defence was an issue last year, and with fast riser Miro Heiskanen on the board at 3, that may be a good fit for Dallas. It would be a great investment long-term, however, Dallas is poised to make a playoff run as quickly as next year after the acquisition and signing of Ben Bishop. This past season was seen more as a blip on the radar for a team that should be contending. Enter Gabe Vilardi: the smart, steady, powerful pivot out of Windsor. With Jason Spezza on the wrong side of 30, and the emergence of Radek Faksa as a bona fide NHL pivot, there is a sufficient succession plan down the middle. Adding Vilardi will solidify a center corp of the future with Seguin, Vilardi, and Faksa, that can beat you in all types of ways depending on how the game develops. Vilardi is the player Dallas can pick at #3 that will have the most effect in the short & long-term of this team's current direction.

#4 Miro Heiskanen - Colorado Avalanche

Colorado had a historically bad season, and the cherry on top was losing a top-3 pick. Not all hope was lost, because Colorado’s needs as an organization are not at center - it is the reason they traded Ryan O’Reilly and is as an organizational strength. The silver lining is tough to see, but Miro Heiskanen is not merely a consolation. The NHL is seeing a revolution in how defenceman approach the game. Being played at such high speeds, the job of the modern defenceman isn’t just to headman the puck to forwards, but be able to keep up and join/defend the rush. The Colorado Avanlache D-corps is stuck between two generations with Erik Johnson, Patrick Wiercioch, Nikita Zadorov, Fyodor Tyutin, all between 6 2” to 6 “5 and represent the old philosophy of big, rugged, imposing defencemen. Other than Tyson Barrie, and at times Erik Johnson (when healthy), Colorado has trouble transitioning the puck to its dynamic forwards. Miro Heiskanen is the perfect complement to what the Avs are trying to build - a heavy, hard to play against team that will beat you with both size and skill. Heiskanen is a great puck mover, with the ability to skate his way out of trouble. Given the current landscape on the back end, Heiskanen could jump into the lineup on opening night, however, I see benefit of him starting in the AHL next season with other d-men who are almost ready to crack the lineup (e.g. Kyle Wood).

#5 Timothy Liljegren - Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canuck for the 2nd straight year, after losing the lottery and falling from the 2nd best odds (3rd last year), are picking at #5. They're the first team picking in the 2017 draft who are just beginning a full-scale rebuild after trading Alex Burrows and Jannick Hansen at the deadline. They’ve been poor recently nonetheless, picking in the top 10 in 2 of the last 3 Entry Drafts, and so the organization has accumulated some talent in top pick Olli Juolevi, goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko, and collegiate sniper Brock Boeser. They do lack high end skill players both on the blueline and upfront, with the Jake Virtanen pick at #6 in 2014 not looking promising. Many are pointing and praising the two remaining Western Conference teams, in Anaheim and Nashville, in how they’ve build their teams from the goaltending position outwards. This philosophy entails that you’ll defend less and be ready to transition to offence quicker and more effectively if your defence can limit the other team’s possession. With that, I believe the Canucks will go defenceman for the second straight year and take Liljegren. Pundits have pointed at Liljegren’s season in comparison to 2015 Swedish prospect Oliver Kylington who had the same hype coming into their respective draft years, only to fall throughout the year. To Liljegren’s defence, he was battling mononucleosis and as a person who dealt with the illness at the same age, it takes a lot out of you physically and mentally; the recovery period is anywhere from 2-6 months. I believe Liljegren’s fall is due to the same effect that we saw last year with Jacob Chychrun, who ended up being a serviceable defenceman at 18 this past season, and would easily be a top 10 pick in a redraft.

#6 Casey Mittelstadt - Las Vegas Golden Knights

This inaugural selection for the Las Vegas Golden Knights reminds me of the Winnipeg Jets pick in 2011 when they officially moved back from Atlanta. That pick was Mark Scheifele, and poor Mark couldn’t even wear the Jets jersey because it had not yet been announced. I'm just imagining the same scenario playing out for the #6 selection in 2017 if the new Golden Knights' jerseys aren't approved in time. At this juncture for a newly minted organization, they’re going to be looking at offence. I had the pleasure of attending the Hockey Analytics conference in Ottawa held earlier this month (OTTHAC17) and one of the major talking points was the roster composition of the Golden Knights. What they found is that given the current projected protection list, Las Vegas will have a very sound defensive corps and good goaltending, however they’re going to struggle to find scoring because teams will do their best to keep offensive talent protected. I have to believe that after the 2 defenceman taken in my mock draft, Las Vegas will go center, and pick Mittlestadt. Mittelstadt has been labelled as a skilled, competitive and elusive player who has some dynamic quality to his game - but what puzzled me is why he played an extra year in high school hockey instead of playing full time in Green Bay for the 2016-17 season. As a late 98’ birthday, it seems odd for a top prospect to take a victory lap in high school. Nonetheless, Mittlestadt will be a key offensive force in at UMinnesota next year and a cornerstone piece for the Golden Knights moving forward.

#7 Cale Makar - Arizona Coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes are loaded up front. There is no lack of skill, speed and offence amongst the next generation of Coyotes forwards with guys like Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome, Christian Fischer, joining their other young talented forward group led by Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and Brandon Perlini. Best player available is very subjective, given that every team has their own rankings and that the player they choose is always their “BPA”. Therefor, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Arizona picks a defenceman here to try and help Oliver Ekman-Larson, because some nights, that’s the only defenceman people recognize on that blue line. I believe the Coyotes will pick Makar out of Brooks in the AJHL. He’ll be playing at UMass (Amherst) for at least a year. The cerebral and competitive blueliner must find a way to dominate the same way in the NCAA as he did Tier 2 Junior A. He is a player who has climbed very fast on the draft boards because of his supreme confidence carrying and rushing the puck, so we’ll see how he fairs at the next level.

#8 Owen Tippett - Buffalo Sabres

It’s just a matter of time before the Buffalo Sabres are knocking on the door of the playoffs. They have their generational pivot in Jack Eichel and have surrounded him with good young talent such as Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Evander Kane. They also have good young talented prospects in Alex Nylander, Brendan Guhle, Cliff Pu, and JT Compher. As long as the Sabres can find a way to defend better, their offence will be one of the most dynamic in the Eastern Conference for year’s to come. The Buffalo Sabres biggest need is defence, however, the value of picking a defenseman this high wouldn’t be good asset management, and the best player available is Owen Tippett - a player I’ve had highly regarded all season. His ‘shoot-everything-on-net’ mentality looks great in the analytics community, but he also passes the eye-test with flying colours. The way Tippett can create space with his speed, but also position himself into scoring opportunities is a perfect blend of smarts and speed for the gifted sniper.

#9 Cody Glass - Detroit Red Wings

With Henrik Zetterberg on his last legs as an NHL’er, the dynasty that incorporated players like Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Franzen, Holmstrom and co. parading the Western (now Eastern) Conference is over, after the Red Wings failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 25 years. They’ve retooled through the draft, to no surprise, without picking in the top 10 - however, all good things must come to an end and 2017 marks the first time Detroit has picked this high since since they selected Keith Primeau at #3 in 1990. The Red Wings do have a few young building blocks in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Evegeny Svechnikov, but it may be time for some pain in Motown. I believe they’re going to pick Cody Glass from the Portland Winterhawks, who will be a great compliment to Dylan Larkin down the road as a one-two punch down the middle. Glass is a player that has also risen quite remarkably over the course of the season, producing consistently at an increasing rate from start to finish. He’s been compared to Ryan Johansen, also a Winterhawks alum, as a skilled, smart, two-way centerman. He makes his teammates better and would be a key building block for a Detroit team that needs to reset and reload.

#10 Nick Suzuki - Florida Panthers

All in on the analytics! It was a fascinating season for the Florida Panthers organization from its management off-the-ice and in the boardroom, to their injury plagued, analytically enhanced roster that performed rather stochastically (get it? math jokes). I am definitely a huge proponent of analytics and using data to drive decision-making, however, it seems as though many believe that approach should be married with the old-school philosophy and that data should not completely dominate hockey decisions. This pick is all of the above - Nick Suzuki has the numbers, the heart and the skill to be a top 10 pick, and Florida will definitely see his value at #10. His play style and dogged determination reminds me a lot of another NHL player who dons the same jersey number in Patrick Bergeron. Suzuki always seems to be in the right place at the right time, but will also beat you with dazzling stick handling and balance. He has the “heart” quotient that is (currently) immeasurable, but something that Florida has been boasted for and needs more of. A no-brainer pick in my opinion.

Honourable mentions (no order): Lias Andersson, Elias Pettersson, Kailer Yamamoto, Kristian Vesalainen, Klim Kostin, Eeli Tolvanen, Erik Brannstrom, Nicolas Hague,  Michael Rasmussen, Martin Necas, Juuso Valimaki