The 2017 NHL Draft is three months away (June 23-24 in Chicago), and the full-time scouts at NHL Central Scouting are hard at work.
In addition to charting players within their respective regions throughout the course of the season, two of those scouts, David Gregory and Matt Ryan recently took a 13-day trip through the Western Hockey League to evaluate the top prospects available in the area.
Ryan spends the majority of the season evaluating players from the Ontario Hockey League, and Gregory primarily tracks players in the Northeastern United States. They also schedule crossover viewings in other regions to help their colleagues at NHL Central Scouting.
[Related: On road with NHL Central Scouting]
"I like to get a feel for all leagues so when it comes time for the final [Central Scouting] meeting (in April) you have a reference point on where you believe your guys are at versus the players in other leagues," Ryan said. "There are certain guys you like more than others but when meeting time comes, you try and rely on the people who have seen them and are most comfortable with the player."
Here are six top draft-eligible skaters Gregory and Ryan evaluated during their trip (the number in parentheses is the ranking on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of North American skaters):
Nolan Patrick (1), C, Brandon
Patrick (6-foot-3, 198 pounds) has 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in 33 games; he missed 35 games because of an upper-body injury earlier this season. "He plays such a mature game," Ryan said. "There are guys at the junior level who have excellent skill and are able to make plays when they have the puck, but his play without the puck is fantastic. Just the way he works to put himself in good areas to receive it, the way he angles his opponents to dictate the play, the stick positioning to force turnovers or win battles. This is the stuff that might not show up on the scoreboard, but defines a player as far as what it takes to play in the NHL."
Kailer Yamamoto (17), RW, Spokane
Yamamoto (5-7, 153), in his third WHL season, ranks sixth in the league with 95 points (42 goals, 53 assists) in 64 games. "He possesses high-end offensive instincts and thinks the game extremely well," Ryan said. "He's constantly moving without the puck to put himself in positon to receive it and there's an elusiveness about his game that puts opponents under pressure whenever he has the puck. He's very unpredictable and that keeps defenders on their toes, allowing him to open up time and space for himself."
Nikita Popugaev (18), LW, Prince George
Popugaev (6-5, 217) is a prototypical power forward with good hands around the net. Has 69 points (29 goals, 40 assists) and five game-winning goals in 71 games. "Possesses one of the best skill sets in the draft," Ryan said. "He blends both size and skill, making him very difficult to defend in 1-on-1 situations. Excellent offensive instincts and has the ability to score a number of different ways."
Nick Henry (25), RW, Regina
A rookie in the WHL, Henry (5-11, 191) has 81 points (35 goals, 46 assists) in 72 games. He had 61 points (26 goals, 35 assists) in 50 games for Portage of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in 2015-16. "The thing that gets you excited about Nick is, here's a guy in his first year in the league and he's worked his way to play on the top line with A-ranked players from previous years and he's contributing and making something happen every game," Gregory said. "You want to see it happen consistently so when you're ranking him against other high-end players, you want to see how he goes against them head-to-head."
Aleksi Heponiemi (36), C, Swift Current
Heponiemi (5-10, 147), a left-handed shot, has 86 points (28 goals, 58 assists) in 72 games in his first season in North America. "He's undersized but extremely dynamic and an excellent skater," Ryan said. "He has very good hockey sense. Every time he touches the puck something positive is happening. He's made a seamless transition to North America from Finland."
Josh Brook (75), D, Moose Jaw
The right-handed shot has set career highs in goals (eight), assists (32), points (40) and rating (plus-17) in 69 games during his second season with the Warriors. Brook (6-1, 182) plays with poise and smarts. "I like the way he processes the game in all zones and seems to make the right play with the puck on his stick," Gregory said. "He has his head up all the time. Brook makes good decisions. He's not a join-the-rush-late-guy, but someone willing to lug it and make a nice play in transition. I've seen a lot of growth in his game from the beginning of the year until now."