Action from Game 5 of the 2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup between the Saint John Sea Dogs and Seattle Thunderbirds at the WFCU Centre in Windsor, ON on Tuesday May 23, 2017. Photo by Aaron Bell/CHL Images
By Steve Kournianos
NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) –There’s no way to sugarcoat it – the 2018 NHL draft is one of the thinnest for centers in quite some time. In fact, you have to go back to the 2000 draft to find the last time a pivot was not one of the first 10 players chosen. History likely is to repeat itself when the NHL converges on Dallas for the June draft, as almost a dozen elite two-way defensemen and a handful of skilled wingers are expected to bump the best of the center-ice prospects to the middle of the first round or later. Still, the position is too critical a piece to in-game strategizing, and there always are teams that put a premium on the ability to present opponents with an attack spearheaded by star centers.
Below is a list of the best center options available, beginning with Drummondville’s Joe Veleno, who isn’t getting as much love from a rankings standpoint as I think he deserves. He’s big, fast and incredibly skilled, plus he plays a well-rounded game. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari is the best pivot being offered from Europe’s deep pool of talent, and there’s a good bet he shoots up on NHL team draft boards if he dominates the upcoming under-18 world championship the same way he did at last August’s U18 Ivan Hlinka.
Nonetheless, the early portions of this year’s draft are expected to be defense-centric, with a group of elite wingers tantalizing enough to accent what should develop into a deep first round. Some teams may think the lack of center depth eventually will create a war amongst those looking to fill an organizational void, and if that happens, most of the kids listed below will be gone by the third round.
1. Joe Veleno (Drummondville Voltigeurs, QMJHL | 6’1, 193): One of the fastest centers among draft eligibles also is a premier set-up pivot. Veleno became an unstoppable force following a midseason trade from Saint John to Drummondville, placing third in the QMJHL with 57 assists, including a league-best 31 on the power play. But Veleno isn’t just a threat on offense – he kills penalties, back checks and can be trusted to win key draws.
2. Rasmus Kupari (Karpat, SM-Liiga | 6’1, 183): One of the flashier forwards among 2018 draft eligibles, Kupari settled into a support role for Karpat in Finland’s elite SM-Liiga. There are periods where he’s an unstoppable force that uses agility and highlight-reel moves to get himself into areas that make goalies sweat.
3. Barrett Hayton (Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds, OHL | 6’1, 190): Whether you view this two-way center as the beneficiary of a de