Future Watch: the top 2020 draft prospects at the CIBC Canada Russia Series

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It would be fantastic if we could just skip ahead to December and call it a day. Everyone’s happy, the NHL season is nearing the halfway point and Spengler Cup mania hits levels only previously achieved by the Beatles. Or, maybe that’s the World Junior Championship instead.

With the second international break of the 2019-20 season, the CIBC Canada Russia Series serves as a marquee event among the various under-20 tournaments around North America. The six-game tourney, played in six Canadian cities from Nov. 4-14,  serves as the last true showcase to evaluate players for Canada and Russia prior to heading to the Czech Republic for the world juniors in December.

The Canada-Russia series, which is modeled after the famous Summit Series in 1972, is the second under-20 tournament for both countries this season, even if Canada technically doesn’t have a national team in the tournament, but instead is split into three squads based on the three CHL leagues. But for Russia, the team isn’t at full strength, either. Russia’s ‘B’ team will play in a Four Nations event in Helsinki later this week, splitting the overall talent pool. Most of the key players will be in Canada, but forwards Pavel Dorofeyev and Grigori Denisenko and defenseman Alexander Romanov are among the stars staying in Europe.

With 96 games played between the CHL and Russia since 2003, the CHL has won 60 individual games and 12 of the 16 series. Russia took the series last year when goaltender Pyotr Kochetov went on a roll and allowed just two goals in three games. This year, the QMJHL won’t have the added benefit of projected No. 1 prospect Alexis Lafreniere, who’ll miss the two games out east with an undisclosed injury. But, fortunately, fans of the NHL draft will have more than a few names to follow over the next two weeks. Here are a dozen 2020 NHL draft prospects you need to know about, sorted by team:

Russia

Rodion Amirov, LW
The only player that could go toe-to-toe with Vasili Podkolzin in international under-20 play last season, Amirov had 22 points in 27 games as one of Russia’s top scoring threats from the age group. Amirov may have the quickest hands in the 2020 NHL draft and makes the most of his opportunities in close. Amirov was born in October 2001, so he’s actually not much younger than someone like Podkolzin, despite missing the cutoff for the 2019 draft by half a month. Amirov should be able to make Russia’s WJC team, albeit in a minor role.

Maxim Groshev, RW
As a full-time KHLer with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, Groshev has the highest output of any under-19 player in the KHL this season with four assists through 21 games and is the only skater to play in over 20 games in that span. Groshev isn’t a dominant player, but he’s got so much energy and he can surprise people with flashy individual efforts on a nightly basis. A strong under-18 tournament in April could help his case to make Russia’s WJC team, but cracking the bottom-six could be a challenge. Let’s see how Groshev fares on the smaller North American ice.

Yegor Sokolov, RW
Passed over twice at the draft, this might be the year a team takes a long look at the 6-foot-4, 240-pound monster of a forward. Sitting fourth in QMJHL scoring with 14 goals and 34 points, Sokolov is the best player on the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles for a second consecutive season and could crack the 100-point mark for the first time in his junior career. So why has he been passed over twice? Among the top-scoring players in the QMJHL, few skate as poorly as Sokolov does, so that’s something he’ll need to improve if he has a shot at the NHL.

QMJHL

Justin Barron, D
Barron’s game has truly taken to new heights over the past year-and-a-half, going from merely a good QMJHL defenseman to a star prospect. Born in November 2001, Barron does have age to his credit compared to other defensive prospects, but the WJC candidate is a strong two-way defenseman who can play just about any role asked of him. Hockey Canada will use this showcase as a chance to see if he fits in as Canada’s seventh defenseman after a strong showing at the World Junior Summer Showcase in August.

Mavrik Bourque, C
With Lafreniere on the sidelines, Bourque has a perfect opportunity to help boost his own draft stock. Bourque had a quiet Hlinka Gretzky Cup showing in August with just one assist in five games, but it’s been smooth sailing ever since: he enters the series on a six-game point streak with 11 points in that span. His 23 points through 17 games gives him a 10-point advantage over Vasili Ponomaryov for the Shawinigan Cataractes’ team lead in scoring after showing he can handle top-line duty on a full-time basis. Bourque is a smart player with a flashy skill set, but it would serve him well to add some more strength to his game.

Ryan Francis, RW
Currently sitting sixth in league scoring and a lone point behind Cape Breton teammate Sokolov, Francis has quickly become one of the most improved players in the QMJHL with 33 points in just 18 games. In comparison, his previous high was 34 points in 58 games, but a promotion to the top line has clearly done wonders for his production. The obvious knock against him right now is the fact that he’s just 5-foot-8 and 176 pounds and he’s prone to be pushed around, but he’s got a fantastic release on his wrist shot and might be one of the hardest-working forwards in the QMJHL with an explosive first stride to win most puck races. This is a perfect opportunity to help boost his draft status as he projects to be more of a late-round pick at this point.

OHL

Quinton Byfield, C
Byfield has been one of the hottest offensive performers heading into the draft this year, failing to record a point in just one of his 18 games this season after exploding for three goals and five points for Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. In fact, with 33 points in 18 games, he’s quickly closed the gap between him and Lafreniere for the No. 1 spot on draft boards, even if Lafreniere simply has the edge for being the better offensive talent, among other reasons. For a big 6-foot-4 forward, Byfield has tremendous top speed and he can overpower just about anyone he comes across. Byfield isn’t a guarantee to make Canada’s world-junior team, but a strong performance here will make it tough for the coaching staff to leave him off.

Cole Perfetti, C
Byfield may be the forward with all the hype in the OHL this season, but Perfetti is almost certainly going to have a couple of 50-goal seasons during his NHL career. Compared to Chicago sniper Patrick Kane, Perfetti led all OHL rookies with 34 goals and 74 points in 2018-19 and is once again leading the Saginaw Spirit offensively with 29 points through 17 games. Perfetti can play with just about anyone because he reads the game so well, putting himself in a position to succeed and make something out of nothing with the puck. Perfetti has one of the most dangerous shot releases in the OHL, and if he can figure out how to improve his top-end speed, he’d be even higher in draft boards. Still, he’s a surefire top-10 pick in June.

Jamie Drysdale, D
Drysdale is the most coveted defense prospect for the 2020 draft and it’s not even close at this point. Drysdale’s 19 points in 14 games is the best among all under-18 defensemen in the OHL and his 1.12 points-per-game average as a draft-eligible prospect is the third-best over the past 20 years (Ryan Ellis’ 1.56 in 2008-09 and Ryan Murphy’s 1.25 in 2010-11 take the top spots). Drysdale is very confident with the puck, showing a strong willingness to rush the puck down the ice himself if he believes it’s the best option, which it regularly is. In terms of pure two-way ability, it doesn’t get better than Drysdale this season, who has a real shot at cracking an NHL roster in 2020-21.

WHL

Connor Zary, C
Born exactly 10 days after the draft cutoff of Sept. 15, the 2001-born forward is ripping up the WHL as the top undrafted prospect with 22 points in 15 games. Zary couldn’t have asked for a much better 2018-19: he saw his offensive production explode in Kamloops from 29 points as a rookie to 67 as a sophomore, and he was one of Canada’s best players at the under-18 World Championship with four goals and seven points in seven games. Canada’s depth down the middle means that Zary’s odds of making the world-junior team are low, even with the hot start to the WHL season – he won the league’s player of the month in September and October – but he’ll be a vital member of the team’s 2021 efforts. In fact, Zary has the overall skill with the puck, mainly as a playmaker, to be a 50-point center in the NHL someday.

Braden Schneider, D
Schneider entered the World Junior Summer Showcase a few months back as one of Canada’s long shot defenders, but it seems like he excels in just about every showcase event he plays in. Schneider was Canada’s best defenseman during the under-18s on most nights last April and he thrived in most situations he was thrown into with the under-20 team over the summer. Born late in 2001, Schneider has the advantage of being older than other first-year eligible defensemen, and his combination of top-end speed, size and offensive mindset make him a well-rounded prospect for his age.

Nolan Maier, G
The Saskatoon Blades have a chance to win it all in the WHL this season and Maier is the man tasked with helping to make that happen. Passed over at the draft table last June, Maier has a history of representing Canada at international tournaments at every level so far, most notably as Canada’s starting goaltender at the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup which saw the nation strike gold in Alberta. Maier seems to play better the more shots he faces during a night, and with the scouting world putting its focus on the tournament, a busy performance could really boost Maier’s stock before entering the draft for the second time.

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