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A Preview Of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft (Part 4)

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It’s never too early to zero in on the next crop of young talent. Thus begins a new series covering many of the top prospects eligible for 2019.

2018 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome back to the fourth part of this ongoing series, where I cover many of the top prospects that will be available in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft next June in Vancouver. As a recap, in the first three parts, I covered prospects that I had ranked on my preliminary rankings between 1-12, which were as follows:

  1. Jack Hughes
  2. Kaapo Kakko
  3. Alex Turcotte
  4. Alex Newhook
  5. Bowen Byram
  6. Vasili Podkolzin
  7. Peyton Krebs
  8. Dylan Cozens
  9. Trevor Zegras
  10. Philip Broberg
  11. Raphael Lavoie
  12. Kirby Dach

In the present article, I will be covering prospects which I have ranked between 13-16 on my preliminary rankings. As a reminder, these rankings are strictly done on my observations from shift-by-shift footage. Any players which I have not had the opportunity to watch in shift-by-shift footage will not be included, and will be covered at a later point in time. With that being said, let’s begin with my 13th ranked prospect, Anttoni Honka.

13. Anttoni Honka (RHD - JYP Jyväskylä)

There are a few very talented blueliners coming out of the Finnish leagues this year, including Mikko Kokkonen and Lassi Thomson, but out of any of them, I would say that the Finnish D prospect that scouts will be going googly-eyed over the most is Anttoni Honka, who also happens to be the player that I’ve had the most opportunity to watch so far. If the last name Honka sounds familiar to you, it’s because his older brother, Julius Honka, was taken 14th overall by the Dallas Stars at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (I don’t think I need to remind you who the very next pick was).

While Julius has yet to truly pan out as an offensively gifted two-way defenseman at the NHL level, there is still plenty of time for him to blossom into that role at the next level. His younger brother may actually end up being the more talented of the two players, however. Honka played across three different levels in the Finnish hockey system last season. Honka had an impressive showing in the Jr. A SM-liiga, Finland’s highest junior league, playing 28 regular season games in Finland’s highest junior-level league for the JYP U20 team, and scoring 4 goals and 13 assists (his brother, at the same age, had fewer points in 14 more games played in the same league, for some perspective). He additionally played in the Metsis, Finland’s second-highest league, where he had 3 assists in 7 games, and got the opportunity to play in 20 Liiga games, where he scored 2 goals and 7 assists.

His Draft -1 season in the Liiga saw him produce similar numbers to Miro Heiskanen in his draft year, in 17 fewer games, and puts him at the highest single-season P/GP numbers for a U18 defenseman with 20+ games played in the Liiga since 1981. It would be foolish, of course, to look at those numbers in a vacuum and conclude that Honka is going to become a better prospect than Miro Heiskanen, but it brings great expectations for the young defenseman this season.

Honka follows the ongoing trend of defensemen who are slightly undersized, but can get by because their skating abilities are superb, they’re good with the puck, they have an active stick, and they have quick decision-making and make intelligent reads on a consistent basis. That describes Honka to a T.

I’d put his skating ability around the top of the class of defensemen. Honka has a very powerful first step and blinding straight-line speed in open ice, that is complimented by elite-level edgework, lateral quickness, and a very strong pivot to transition from skating forwards to backwards without losing a step. Without the puck, Honka’s defensive game revolves around his quickness in closing gaps with opponents, his ability to maintain tight gaps against even smaller, more agile forwards without losing a step on them, and his active stick, which make him good at defending on the rush. He makes intelligent reads and anticipates the play effectively, and is usually at the right place and the right time to intercept plays throughout the neutral zone and defensive zone.

His play with the puck in transition his excellent. He sees the ice very well, is quick to find open teammates when breaking the puck out, and can hit his stretch passes cleanly to transition the game up ice. He is also an excellent puck rusher, as his speed not only allows him to carve through opponents through the neutral zone on zone entries, his quickness and elusiveness in tight spaces gives him the the options that he needs to separate himself from forecheckers and start the rush, and make him effective at coming out of board battles without relinquishing possession. Even at such a young age, Honka rushes the puck with the poise and confidence of a veteran defenseman, and his ability to enter or exit the zone cleanly allows him to dictate the game in a way that you rarely see for a player his age playing in a men’s league.

Honka has a surprising physical element to his game. He doesn’t shy away from contact, and can deliver heavy bodychecks to puck-carriers. He is also more than willing to battle for the puck in the corners, and while not the largest player in these battles typically, Honka is good at digging the puck out and getting it out of danger. There are times where his slot management could improve. Part of it is just because he’s on the smaller side, and can find himself getting outmuscled in front of his net.

There aren’t too many positional issues that I’ve noticed after watching a few games with him. He is aware of his duties to protect the low slot, and will only venture away from that position if he knows that there is no imminent threat in that area. He has the positional fundamentals required to play defense, and knows where he needs to be in coverage to stop passes or take away the shot. I am still in the midst of compiling other notes on him, including how he deals with odd-man rushes, but I am encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and I’m confident I’ll get more opportunities to fill in these gaps in my knowledge of him as the season moves along.

The offensive side of the puck is where Honka really shines. I think Honka might be one of the most offensively-gifted defensemen in this entire talent pool. He’s so good, in fact, that I’d consider moving him up in future rankings. Honka is a right-handed shot with very good mechanics on his shot. He possesses a heavy slapshot, but he prefers trying to get the puck on net through traffic by keeping it low to the ice, as he understands that there are better opportunities to make his impact on a play if he can create redirections or rebounds.

His ability to change gears and directions quickly give him a lot of options when skating with the puck in the offensive zone, and opens up a lot of ice for him to find teammates to pass to, or to find a lane to shoot. He’s a wizard on the powerplay. Once he has the puck, he’s difficult for defenses to read. His shiftiness and agility can back defenses up, break down their positioning, and create openings that he can take advantage of with his high-end vision and excellent puck movement. He possesses an incredible degree of poise and confidence with the puck, and has legitimate game-breaking abilities. And the best part about it all is that he has the confidence to do all of this in a men’s league like the Liiga already at his age.

The way he plays against his own peers is the same way that he plays against the seasoned veterans that you’d find in one of Europe’s best professional hockey leagues. I’d project him as a top 4 defenseman in the NHL. His ceiling is a top-pairing D that can quickly start the transition game, and is a linchpin on the cycle game. His floor is probably a second pairing D with a lot of offensive upside.

I am personally a huge fan of him, and am hoping that gets a legitimate shot at the World Juniors this December.

Video Credit: bigwhite06 - YouTube

Video Credits - NHL Prospects - YouTube

Video Credit: Burgundy Rainbow Draft Shift By Shifts - YouTube

14. Victor Soderstrom (RHD - Brynas IF J20)

Victor Soderstrom is someone who I’ve personally seen all over the place on people’s rankings. Future Considerations, for example, ranks him at around 15th on their rankings, while Hockeyprospect ranks him 7th. I am extremely high on what I’ve seen from Victor Soderstrom, and it becomes almost immediate from the moment you watch him why. Soderstrom isn’t a big defenseman, standing only at 5’11” and about 176 lbs, but he has probably some of the most enticing tools of any defenseman I’ve watched so far this year, and I have yet to go through in-game footage of him and not leave with a very strong impression about him.

Soderstrom follows that mold of other defensemen that Sweden has been recently producing like Adam Boqvist and Erik Brannstrom. That is not to say that Soderstrom is as good offensively as some of these other guys, but one thing you’ll notice is how the ice stretches out quickly when he has the puck on his stick. Not only is he a fantastic skater that can rush the puck up ice at high speeds, he’s a superb passer, and a very quick thinker.

Soderstrom processes the game at a phenomenal pace, and nowhere is that more evident than when you watch how quick he is at reading the opponent’s forecheck, and finding the best teammate to lay an outlet pass to. There is essentially no hesitation or panic once he gets the puck on his stick in finding a teammate to spring up ice, and his execution on such passes is very impressive given how little he seems to have to think about it. He has a good understanding of opponents’ position on the ice overall, and can sniff danger out long before it happens, getting back in time to prevent odd man rushes or breakaways, for example when he senses that the direction of the play is going to change.

Like a lot of undersized defensemen, his defensive game heavily revolves around his footspeed, agility, his puck movement, and his active stick, although he can still play a surprisingly physical brand of defensive hockey as well. He maintains excellent gaps, and his closing speed usually puts him in a good position when dealing with quicker forwards. He consistently looks to angle opponents away from the dangerous parts of the ice towards the outside, which makes it easier for him to contain opponents and either strip the puck, or force them to dump and chase. He’s generally very good at not overcommitting to players around his zone, maintains strong defensive posturing in front of the net, and is very quick to spring on the loose puck and clear it out of danger. His slot management is impressive overall, and he’s good at positioning himself in lanes to take away passes in those regions of the ice. He’s a very valuable asset on the PK for these reasons.

I am overall very impressed with how developed his defensive game is. With a lot of puck-moving defensemen, the common criticism that you often hear is that they may need work defensively. I have yet to be left with that impression of Soderstrom.

It’s even more impressive when you combine it with his offensive abilities. Soderstrom is an outstanding puckhandler that can dictate the play in the offensive zone with a lot of authority. His puck movement is quick, decisive, and very precise on the cycle game, and he uses his speed and agility to his advantage when buzzing around the zone and opening up holes in opponents’ coverage to either lay a feed on the tape or wire off a blistering wrist shot.

His offensive game may not be at the level of a Rasmus Dahlin or Adam Boqvist, but his puck movement is so good, and his decision making is so quick that I see him as someone who can have a heavy impact in all three zones of the ice, especially when you combine that with his excellent skating abilities and very developed defensive game. If I am an organization that is looking for a slick-skating two-way defenseman with high offensive upside, Soderstrom is on my shortlist of options. In fact, it has been confirmed that the Red Wings and I are on the same page, as Kris Draper has recently discussed him in an interview with Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, along with Philip Broberg. The article can be found here.

Video Credit: Burgundy Rainbow Draft Shift By Shifts - YouTube

Video Credit: NHL Prospects - YouTube

15. Nils Hoglander (LW - Rogle BK/Rogle BK J20)

Consider me the president of the Nils Hoglander fan club. In my opinion, Hoglander could end up being one of the biggest sleepers in the entire draft, particularly if he falls out of the first round because of his size, and is one of my personal favorite players in this draft. An undersized, but physically developed winger, at 5’9” and 185 lbs, Hoglander is an absolute sparkplug, and such a joy to watch on the ice.

While his 2017-2018 numbers don’t necessarily pop out at you in the Allsvenskan when you look him up, you have to remember that the Allsvenskan is considered a men’s league, and Hoglander was not been playing heavy minutes on AIK. When you watch him, however, all of the tools that would warrant considering him a top prospect are on full display. Hoglander is an electrifying winger with fantastic footspeed and agility, incredibly deft hands and stickhandling abilities, high-end vision, and a deadly shot. Hoglander uses his agility and quickness in close quarters to win races to loose pucks, find open space to skate with the puck even along the boards, shake off defenders, and either find an open teammate to dish the puck to, or make a cut into open ice to wire a shot off.

Hoglander is just as good at dishing the puck as he is at scoring. He sees the ice extremely well, and is good at spotting open teammates, and consistently seems to find players that are in a position to score to feed the puck to. His shot is blisteringly heavy, and accurate from just about anywhere in the offensive zone that you can think of. He can also get his shot off in little time, even when defenders are draped on him. He has a good enough release that he can beat goaltenders cleanly from even just inside the blueline, but he typically can get his shot off in the slot, where he can be downright lethal. But perhaps the most notable thing about Hoglander’s game is the infectious tenacity and competitiveness that he brings with every shift.

I liken Hoglander’s on-ice behavior to that of the honey badger. Even though he’s considerably smaller than most of the players on the ice, Hoglander will fearlessly rush headfirst into the most punishing areas of the ice to battle for the puck, and he isn’t afraid to pay the price for doing it. This is the case, regardless of whether he’s playing against other junior-aged players, or playing in the Allsvenskan or SHL against grown men. There is no shyness, no hesitation, and no fear to his game. The puck’s behind the net, around the crease, or along the half boards you say? Hoglander doesn’t care. Hoglander is going to rush into those spots and battle, and Hoglander is going to more often than not win those races to the loose pucks and come away with it.

He has a surprising willingness to play physical, and is a hound on the puck, always looking to steal it away, using his footspeed to drape himself to a puck-carrier to try lifting their stick and take the puck away. The pressure that Hoglander can apply on opponents that are trying to break the puck out of their own zone is terrific. Confident, agile, intelligent, calculating, incredibly skilled, but most of all, tenacious, hard-working, fierce, and very effective. I am hoping that his coaches in the SuperElit and SHL entrust him with more ice time this upcoming season, because he is someone that I always relish getting a chance to watch.

A true heart-and-soul player whose competitiveness, incredible motor, and the breakneck pace at which he plays the game will endear him to any coach and teammates that he has in his career. I can guarantee Wings fans would adore him if the Wings brass manages to get him either in the late 1st or the 2nd round. Don’t sleep on this kid.

Video Credits: NHL Prospects - YouTube

16. Ryan Suzuki (C - Barrie Colts)

Realistically, Suzuki is someone who I could see coming out this upcoming season and blowing up, bringing him in the contention for an early first round pick. If the name Suzuki sounds familiar, it’s because his older brother, Nick Suzuki, was a first round pick of the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, and a prospect that I’ve been quite high on for some time.

The first overall pick in the 2017 OHL Priority Selection, Ryan plays a game that is remarkably similar to his older brother, so if you look up the reports on Nick Suzuki, you’re going to see a lot of similarity in Ryan’s game. Much like his older brother, Ryan is an incredibly intelligent forward that thinks the game out at very high speeds, and anticipates where the puck is going to be a step ahead of where it currently is. He has very strong vision, and a knack for finding openings and seams in the ice to feed the puck through, and his sense of timing on knowing when the right opportunity to pass or shoot is impeccable. He can thread the needle in close quarters very efficiently to his teammates, and his passes are very easy to accept and get a shot directly off of the pass, making him a good candidate to dish the puck for a one-timer opportunity.

Suzuki is very good at finding himself in scoring positions without the puck, and is constantly keeping his feet moving and repositioning himself after he makes a pass to get himself in a more favorable position on the ice for give-and-go plays. He sports quick hands and has a great nose for the net, and can finish plays in tight around the mouth of the goal, while his snap shot and wrist shot are very good, and sport a quick release with good velocity on it.

While Suzuki is not necessarily a large player, and doesn’t play a particularly physical game, he’s agile enough that he can outmaneuver defenders and find open ice for himself. Again, much like his brother, Suzuki has an excellent work ethic away from the puck. He plays a diligent two-way game that relies on his keen sense of positioning and timing, and will often find himself in the right spot at the right time to affect the play. He’s good in battles for the puck throughout all three zones of the ice, and is always looking to create turnovers, after which he’s very quick to transition to offense.

His well-rounded game makes him a staple on special teams, where he is not only great on the powerplay, but a particularly strong penalty killer. While I don’t think Suzuki is going to be a number one center in the NHL, I think Suzuki has a future in the top 6 if things pan out for him.

Video Credits: NHL Prospects - YouTube

Video Credits: Burgundy Rainbow Draft Shift By Shifts - YouTube

Next time, I will be discussing the prospects that I have ranked 17-20 on my preliminary rankings, including Matthew Robertson, Arthur Kaliyev, Blake Murray, and Maxim Cajkovic. Stay tuned!