The 2019 draft was seen as somewhat of a step back for the CHL, draft-wise. It was usually seen as the best development path by prospects, but the attention shifted to the power of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program thanks to the likes of Jack Hughes, Alex Turcotte, Cole Caufield and Spencer Knight, among others. Of note, only four OHL players were chosen in the first round compared to the seven in 2018 – three of them (Andrei Svechnikov, Barrett Hayton and Evan Bouchard) going in the top 10.
But the CHL will get a big boost this season thanks to the top two prospects for the 2020 draft, Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield. Fresh off of a gold medal at the World Junior Championship with Canada, Lafreniere alone has been a favorite of scouts for the past four to five years and, despite fighting through injuries, he’s been the CHL’s best player from the get-go this season with QMJHL Rimouski, notching 73 points in 34 games just a season removed from a 105-point campaign. Byfield has come into his own this season with OHL Sudbury, doing a lot for the Wolves without much around him. Together, the two prospects lead a group that could see 15 to 17 CHL players selected in the first round of the 2020 draft, considered by many to be the best iteration since 2003 – the draft that produced Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Brent Seabrook, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns and Patrice Bergeron, among others.
Thursday’s Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Hamilton, Ont., will give fans their first look at the league’s top prospects all in one place. Lafreniere and Byfield will serve as captains in the first major game between the pair. It’s the last prominent showcase to get the whole group together before the playoff stretch run, but some of the best 2002-born players will be available for the U-18 World Championship in April (Lafreniere is a late 2001-born forward, so he will not be eligible). Others will be chasing the Memorial Cup in hopes of adding some extra hardware to their résumés before the draft, but showcasing their abilities towards a legion of scouts in Hamilton is their priority right now.
Using Ryan Kennedy’s latest draft rankings as a base, here’s a look at a host of other top prospects that will take part in Thursday’s game – and don’t expect them to wait long to have their names called during the draft in Montreal in June:
Jamie Drysdale, D, Erie (RK Rank: 3)
Drysdale has been projected to be the first defenseman taken for the past three years, and if you saw him at the World Junior Championship with Canada earlier this year, you’d know why. When Bowen Byram missed the semifinal due to an illness, Drysdale filled in and played heavy minutes and was one of Canada’s best players in the 5-0 victory over Finland. Drysdale doesn’t have any clear weaknesses: he can shut your top players down and then take the puck to the other end and make you pay with a quick move or a nice shot. Think Byram or Cale Makar when it comes to Drysdale’s playing style, and look for him to go in the top five of the draft in June.
Cole Perfetti, C, Saginaw (RK Rank: 8)
Few forwards are as gifted with the puck as Perfetti is, as shown by his 69 points in 40 games to sit third in OHL scoring. Having Carolina Hurricanes prospect Ryan Suzuki center Perfetti in Saginaw will only help unleash Perfetti’s true potential for the remainder of the season. Perfetti is always moving, looking for open spots to shoot from and he can hold his own physically along the boards, but he could benefit from a bit more muscle. Perfetti’s skating continues to improve, so once he finds out how to reach a high max speed, Perfetti will be able to flourish as an NHL sniper – perhaps similar to Patrick Kane.
Marco Rossi, C, Ottawa (RK Rank: 10)
Thomas Vanek was one heck of a player in his prime with the Buffalo Sabres, but Rossi could overtake him as the best Austrian in NHL history. How, you ask? While Vanek was a true goal-scorer, Rossi leads the OHL with 74 points in 32 games with Ottawa and, simply put, is a highlight-reel machine with the puck. Rossi uses his high top speed to win races to the puck, and you can count on him to go end-to-end at least once a game without difficulty. A strong penalty killer, Rossi can play just about any role asked of him, and that will make versatile in the NHL. He may not be a first-line center on a lot of NHL teams, but if he’s your second option, clear your calendar each spring – you’re going to be busy.
Mavrik Bourque, C, Shawinigan (RK Rank: 13)
He’s got one of the coolest names in the draft, but he’s also got one of the best talent bases to work with. From October until the start of December, Bourque had a 16-game point streak with 29 points over that span for one of the best runs by a 2020 prospect. Heading into the TPG, Bourque was eighth in league scoring with 53 points, but he has a 15-point advantage over the Cataractes’ second top scorer. Playing on a poor team hasn’t hurt Bourque’s production, clearly, but he would benefit from having better linemates around him. But given how consistently he sets up the guys around him without fail, there’s likely more to Bourque than we’ve seen at this point.
Dawson Mercer, C, Chicoutimi (RK Rank: 23)
Mercer is another polarizing prospect: some think he’s a top-10 pick, while others question whether he’ll even land in the first round. Mercer has yet to play with Chicoutimi since getting traded by Drummondville, but with 42 points in 26 games and a trip to the World Junior Championship, Mercer has given scouts a lot to look at. He’s a high-volume shooter, and you can count on him to win puck battles, but consistency can be an issue – for someone who has a past as a natural goal-scorer, Mercer is prone to long runs without putting anything in the net. He’s equally skilled as a playmaker, so he projects as a skilled middle-six option for an NHL team in the future.
Ryan O’Rourke, D, Sault Ste. Marie (RK Rank: 16)
O’Rourke’s two-way game has taken big strides this year. He tied his previous total of 22 points in 62 games in exactly half the contests this season. O’Rourke is a tremendous skater who isn’t afraid to rush the puck, and he’s always fighting to gain possession of the puck. Physically, O’Rourke handles himself very well, and he’s a solid shot-blocker when needed, too. He’s a well-rounded option heading into the draft: he won’t be your best defenseman, but he does enough well that he’ll have a long, successful career as your do-it-all second pairing guy.
Connor Zary, C, Kamloops (RK Rank: 17)
Since the start of 2018-19, Zary’s 120 points in 100 games makes him the fourth highest-scoring U-19 player in the WHL, 10 points behind prized Buffalo Sabres prospect Dylan Cozens. If that doesn’t suggest that Zary, a prolific playmaker and 0.5 goals-per-game goal-scorer, isn’t going to be a good pickup at the draft, then nothing will. Zary plays at a high pace every shift thanks to high top speed, and he isn’t limited to just a few moves with the puck, either, allowing him to get creative when trying to beat a defenseman. Overall, he’s a player that can do a bit of everything well, and his coaches like to play him in any situation – that’s a coach’s dream for a second- or third-line center. There’s a lot of Elias Lindholm in him.
Kaiden Guhle, D, Prince Albert (RK Rank: 18)
Scouts and fans alike seem split on Guhle: NHL Central Scouting has him as the seventh-ranked North American skater, but many scouts don’t even have him pegged as a first-round prospect. Regardless, the No. 1 pick at the 2017 WHL bantam draft is an incredible skater who can move the puck well from end to end and can take over a shift when needed. His real strength is the stay-at-home style that allows him to play a good shutdown role, and Prince Albert hasn’t hesitated to push Guhle’s boundaries to get the most out of him in any situation. He isn’t lighting it up with 25 points in 43 games, and he’ll need a bit more seasoning before going to the NHL, but Guhle’s basic tools give him enough to build upon.
Jack Quinn, RW, Ottawa (RK rank: 25)
Quinn doesn’t possess a game-breaking ability but, considering he can run a power play and play the role as shooter and passer with the same effectiveness, that won’t be an issue if he makes the NHL as a middle-six option. Quinn trails NHL prospects Arthur Kaliyev and Pavel Gogolev (31 each) by just one goal for the OHL lead, so 45-50 goals as a second-year forward aren’t out of the question. Quinn wasn’t high on anyone’s radar heading into the 2019-20 season, so his offensive explosion has opened some eyes – but his effectiveness away from the puck in his own zone has improved to make him a more well-rounded prospect.
Nico Daws, G, Guelph (RK Rank: none)
Six months ago, Nico Daws was just trying to figure out where he’d play for 2019-20, not about the NHL draft. That quickly changed when Guelph moved its experienced starting goaltender and put Daws in charge, with the 2000-born kid becoming the best goalie in the league. Daws made Team Canada for the World Junior Championship but lost the starting role after the second game of the tournament, but he has a 13-3-1-3 record with four shutouts and a .935 save percentage through 21 games this season – so he can’t complain. Daws is a big goaltender at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds and moves very well from post to post, but his quick glove hand is typically what you notice first. Daws wasn’t a threat for the 2019 draft due to a lack of playing time, but now, he’s the top goaltending prospect in North America.