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 deep supporting cast or a key cog in Sault Ste Marie’s attack, the truth is Hayton is a very skilled, heady player regardless. He has excellent vision and makes most defenders mis when he’s controlling the puck below the circles.
4. Akil Thomas (Niagara Ice Dogs, OHL | 6’0, 171): It’s not too farfetched to predict Thomas making money in the NHL as a winger, but he was penciled in as a center for the entire season and proved to be one of the OHL’s better set-up men. Most of his points come from hard work and Thomas’s advanced brain that helps him create his own luck. He has a deadly shot and can stickhandle his way into clean zone entries with regularity.
5. Ryan McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads, OHL | 6’2, 203): The younger brother of Devils’ prospect (and teammate of) center Michael McLeod plays a similar up-temp game predicated on speed and power. Ryan consistently provides offense, but he’s also a responsible player who knows how to use his size, and strength to win most of his puck battles.
6. Jacob Olofsson (Timra IK, Allsvenskan | 6’2, 192): This Swedish beast had an outstanding season playing against adult competition, which included a strong playoff run that helped Timra win the title to join the SHL ranks for next season. He’s big, quick and has an array of moves to beat you 1-on-1 or 1-on-4.
7. David Gustafsson (HV71, SHL | 6’2, 196): Gustafsson is an underrated two-way center with a nonstop motor and excellent puck possessing skills. He’s big, strong and smart, plus his stickhandling and quickness allow him to control the puck for extended period inside the offensive zone. He also outperformed his more-heralded teammate Jacob Olofsson at the last U18 Five Nations tournament.
8. Ty Dellandrea (Flint Firebirds, OHL | 6’0, 185): Toolsy two-way center with a knack for scoring in a variety of ways. Dellandrea has enough confidence in his playmaking and creativity to attempt difficult plays that end up working out anyway. He owns a very good shot and soft hands, plus he can be trusted with late-game matchups against opposing top lines.
9. Ivan Morozov (Mamonty Yugry, MHL | 6’1, 178): One of the draft’s better two-way centers whose ability to create plays out of nothing bodes well for the team smart enough to draft him. Morozov has been a minute eater for Mamonty Yugry and was one of Russia’s best players at the under-18 Five Nations in February.
10. Isac Lundestrom (Lulea, SHL | 6’0, 185): Playing smart, two-way hockey at high speeds is something you rarely see from any teenager, let alone one that receives top-six minutes in Sweden’s top league. Lundestrom was far too advanced a prospect to play junior hockey, and he succeeded with an altered role for Lulea. He’s fast, aggressive and loves to cause havoc on the forecheck. But don’t think for one second that his speed is what makes him a tantalizing prospect – Lundestrom is very creative with the puck and can bury chances from in close.
11. Jakub Lauko (Chomutov, Extraliga | 6’0, 169): Lauko is a dynamic and explosive force whose abilities as a center get overlooked because there are times he looks like a goal-scoring winger. He has a great attitude, plays hungry and knows how to get under an opponent’s skin.
12. Philipp Kurashev (Quebec Remparts, QMJHL | 6’0, 190): This Swiss-born pivot is a pass/shoot threat who has been a consistent producer for a thin Quebec squad. Kurashev is a very good skater and owns a laser for a shot, but he’s a reliable puck distributor as well. He’s a nimble battler along the boards and gets aggressive on the forecheck, plus he won over 53% of his draws.
13. B.O. Groulx (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL | 6’1, 195): Groulx is the type of center you need and want on that wall to help defend everything you hold sacred – a lead, possession, whatever. He’s a hard-nosed competitor who has a clear understanding of the game, and Groulx couples his work ethic with an excellent shot and a great nose for the net.
14. Jake Wise (U.S. U18, NTDP | 5’10, 189): An early-season injury slowed down a much-deserved hype train that now is motoring like a locomotive. Wise isn’t very big, but he’s incredibly quick, crafty with the puck and sets up linemates with pinpoint accuracy. He’s one of the better power-play orchestrators among his peers.
15. Milos Roman (Vancouver Giants, WHL | 6’0, 188): A serious ankle injury kept this Slovak pivot on the shelf for over two months before returning for the playoffs. Roman is a powerful player who competes hard and can tailor his game to maximize the skills of his linemates. He can play either a physical or finesse game and is an effective player on special teams. It was on Vancouver’s top line where Roman did most of the necessary dirty work that freed up room for older linemates Brad Morrison (before he was traded) and Ty Ronning.
16. Aidan Dudas (Owen Sound Attack, OHL | 5’8, 162):Dudas is a speedster with excellent finishing skills and an assassin’s approach towards reversing his team’s fortunes. Dudas is small in stature, but he’s quick like a cat in the neutral zone and makes short work of defenders who are too nonchalant with their breakouts. He’s one of the better draft-eligible centers in terms of making plays on his backhand.
17. Jack McBain (Toronto Jr. Canadiens, OJHL | 6’3, 197): McBain is a big, skilled prospect who can play center or wing. His shot is almost pro-level, and he displays a consistent compete level with or without the puck. He’s a bit of a throwback to the days of the menacing, in-your-face power forwards that used their physicality and assertiveness to gain and maintain control of the puck. But McBain is capable of anchoring a top line and create chances for him mates as well.
18. Cam Hillis (Guelph Storm, OHL | 5’10, 168): Hillis improved his game immensely as the season progressed, to the point where he was the most reliable scorer on his team. He’s a good skater with a never-quit attitude, plus he’s capable of setting up quality scoring chances off of board battles. Hillis won over 50 percent of his draws and can run a power play as well.
19. Curtis Douglas (Windsor Spitfires, OHL | 6’8, 234): The NHL looks as if it is trending away from bigger players, but it’s not often you find a 6’8 center with soft hands and deceptive quickness. Douglas was far from a big kid who took advantage of smaller, teenage competition. He is a hard worker and makes smart, subtle plays in all three zones that make you wonder how a kid with his size can look both powerful and graceful at the same time.
20. Ryan Chyzowski (Medicine Hat, WHL | 6’0, 183): Chyzowksi is a big, strong powerful center who may very well be the first WHL forward to get drafted this year. He was a key contributor a Medicine Hat squad that was hammered with graduations, and his ability to wire a heavy shot with accuracy makes him a viable option for the wing.
21. Jay O’Brien (Thayer Academy, HS-MA | 5’10, 185): Matching speed with a ferocious appetite for success usually nets good results, so it didn’t come as a surprise that O’Brien recently was named the top high school player in New England. He’s a tough competitor who doesn’t quit on a play regardless of the score or how much time remains on the clock. He’s headed to Providence College in the fall.
22. Allan McShane (Oshawa Generals, OHL | 5’11, 185): A pass-first pivot who was Oshawa’s most reliable set-up man for most of the season, McShane is a battler who can pass the puck with pinpoint accuracy. He knows how to incorporate all his teammates into the attack, but he keeps you honest with a tricky shot hat snipes the corners. McShane is a low-maintenance player who knows how to create time and space regardless of how tight or physical a game is.
23. Mikhail Bitsadze (Dynamo MHK, MHL | 5’11, 173): The speedy Bitsadze entered his first draft-eligible season as one of Russia’s top young forwards. The injury bug, however, limited his ability to play for his native country at several high-profile international events, plus it took him a while to knock off the rust. When healthy, he’s a two-way center and an explosive skater with excellent lateral quickness. He can play extended shifts, applies pressure everywhere and finishes his checks.
24. Jake Pivonka (U.S. U18, NTDP | 5’11, 198): The stats don’t do this quick two-way center justice, as the arrival of 2019 draft phenom Jack Hughes bumped Pivonka down Team USA’s depth chart. He plays a different style than his father Michal, who appeared in over 800 games for the Washington Capitals. Jake likes to play a fast-paced game, and he can score off the rush thanks to a deadly shot. He’s a hard worker with a good attitude and gives it his all every shift.
25. Gabriel Fortier (Baie-Comeau Drakkar, QMJHL | 5’10, 170): Speedy, hard-nosed center who plays a 200-foot game and competes hard every shift. Fortier is a threat to score in any situation, including while on the penalty kill. He’s shown great patience and a soft touch around the net, and he’s capable of setting up chances off of board battles. Fortier is more of a finisher than a set-up guy, but he plays a high-speed game and the puck always seems to find him
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