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Tufte's mix of size, skill make him intriguing prospect

by Joe Yerdon

Every Thursday, will look ahead to the 2016 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

If NHL teams are looking for a physically large forward with a skill set to match his size in the 2016 NHL Draft, then Riley Tufte will draw a lot of interest.

At 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, the Minnesota high school standout is one of the tallest forwards eligible for the 2016 draft and he understands having that kind of size at his age is useful.

"It's awesome," Tufte said before the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in September. "I'm 6-5, and I know there's a couple other guys out here that are my size too, but it's just such an advantage to my reach. It's just an advantage to me."

Riley Tufte is one of the tallest forwards eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft. (Photo: mJoy Photography)

While most forwards his size are assumed to eventually become power forwards, that may not be the case for Tufte. He has traits commonly associated with more skilled forwards such as strong skating ability and excellent hands.

"I don't see him being a guy that's going to be a huge pounder and the prototypical power forward, but I see him understanding how to use his size more and make that a part of his game because he's going to have to to be a successful player in the NHL," NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "There's going to be that sweet spot somewhere in between that skilled and power forward for him in my mind. Maybe it's a Rick Nash-type of player where he has unreal hands for a big guy but can eventually understand he's using his size because it can give him such an advantage."

Bigger players that are skilled come along only so often, and that helps make Tufte out to be a more interesting prospect, but he realizes what skills he has and how best to use them.

"I think I'm a good skater, but I still need to work on it a little more," Tufte said. "I kind of call myself a power forward that likes to make plays and put the puck in the net."

One aspect of Tufte's game that helps set him aside and differentiates him from being a typical power forward is his ability to get a shot off in difficult areas of the ice or in tough situations. Good hands on a big forward can help set him apart from others relying on their size alone to get them by.

"I think when you have a player that big that has the mobility and the stick skills that Riley has, it makes him a tough combination to hold back and I think that will happen at every level as he adjusts to the level of play; he has that upside," Gregory said. "He gets his shot off so quickly, he can move in traffic and get clear to make a pass or shoot the puck, and those are things that when a guy has the size that he does it's a great combination."

Last season, Tufte had 23 goals and 51 points in 24 games for Blaine High School in Minnesota before playing seven games for the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League. Tufte began this season with the Force, but returned to Blaine after 12 games.

"Riley's got a great future ahead of him," Fargo coach Cary Eades said. "He's almost 6-6 and can skate like the wind. His game was maturing and growing here. He's adding some more stop and start to his game, a little more physicality, winning more puck battles, utilizing his size, speed, and strength to go to the net and getting to the net creating scoring chances. He was tied for our team lead in scoring goals with five. He was really showing some nice progression."

At Blaine, Tufte made the varsity team as a freshman and has totaled 42 goals and 89 points in 73 games through his first three seasons. His skill has been noticeable for a while now and he's committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for 2016-2017.

"The sky's the limit," Eades said. "There's some uniqueness to him being that big and that skilled. I'm talking skating ability, very good hands, so on and so forth. It's all starting to come together, but the best Riley Tufte is going to be 23 to 26 years old."

Tufte was rated a B prospect by NHL Central Scouting in the preliminary September 2015 players to watch list, but he was upgraded to an A rating on Oct. 12. An A rating indicates he's a first-round candidate for the 2016 draft. That upgrade came before he returned to Blaine High School, but that move isn't expected to affect his rating.

"It makes the scouts' job harder because, let's say for example, he goes back and he doesn't perform at the level he did in previous years," Gregory said. "I think he had something like 50-something points in high school last year in 20-something games, so he was a dominant player and that's completely expected of him.

"Is he going to learn anything more or are skills going to develop? Like the defensive part of the game or the compete level; some of those are going to suffer because they just won't be as challenged at that level, but that doesn't mean that they won't come quickly or he's going to go back to the USHL after high school is over and have a pretty complete season. I'm not that concerned about it and it's just a matter of let's figure out where this player belongs in this draft."

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