Scouts preview 2016 NHL draft’s top 10 forwards

Kelly Friesen
Auston Matthews is regarded as the top prospect in the 2016 NHL draft class. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Auston Matthews is regarded as the top prospect in the 2016 NHL draft class. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Led by Scottsdale, AZ., native Auston Matthews, there is no shortage of big-bodied forwards in the 2016 NHL draft class. At least five forwards with 6-foot-1 or taller frames are regarded as potential top 10 selections.

With the help of some key insight from scouts, here’s a look at BTN’s take on the top 10 forwards in the 2016 draft.

1. Auston Matthews, centre, Zurich (NLA) – The 6-foot-2, 194-pound Matthews is expected to don the first sweater this June in Buffalo. He has the tools to develop into one of the NHL’s top centres within the next three to four years.

Scout’s take: “Matthews is a rare hockey breed due to his strong power game and exceptional possession skills, but it’s his dogged worth ethic and suffocating hunger for loose pucks that makes him absolutely exhausting to defend,” says Mckeen’s Hockey scout Brendan Ross. “He’s got the size, wingspan and strength to fight off checkers and the skill, puck touch and finishing abilities to excel in tight spaces. Not very often do you see a high-end skill player compete with rare unpredictable offensive attacks also play the game with such a blue-collared mentality. He’ll be loved wherever he ends up.”

2. Matthew Tkachuk, wing, London Knights (OHL) – Like his father, former NHL star Keith Tkachuk, the St. louis, MO., native plays a strong two-way game. In addition, he’s created his fair share of offense in his first year with Knights, scoring eight goals and 34 points in his first 18 contests.

Scout’s take: “Coming off a standout season with USA’s NTDP Under-18 team, Tkachuk will impress scouts with his high-pace attacks and overall physically strong game,” says Ross. “With his size (6-foot-1, 194 pounds) and strength advantage, clever playmaker’s touch and skilled reads, Tkachuk has the chance to step right into the OHL and produce as one of the league’s top scorers. He plays a pro-style of game that combines strength, skill and smarts. Tkachuk plays a pro-style game and he should remain a top five candidate throughout his draft season.”

3. Jesse Puljujärvi, wing, Karpat (SM-liiga) – Puljujärvi is regarded as the top European draft prospect who is playing overseas this season. On top of his 6-foot-3, 196-pound build, slick hands and powerful stride, scouts like that he will have two years of pro experience under his belt by year’s end with Karpat.

Scout’s take: “He’s a hungry attacker who blends size, quick in-tight mobility and a seeing-eye shot to be dubbed one of the most feared attackers of his age group,” says Ross. “Puljujärvi is a high volume shooter who attacks seams with quick powerful strides that separate him from opposing checkers. Inside the offensive zone, Puljujarvi evades defenders using elusive inside-outside cuts on the fly as he slashes off the half wall striking quickly. The promising Finn utilizes his lengthy reach to shield off pressure extremely well.”

4. Max Jones, wing, London Knights (OHL) – The 6-foot-2, 201-pounder uses his tank-like frame to outmuscle opponents while making them pay physically. He has the makings of an elite power-forward who has the tools to thrive at the next level.

Scout’s take: “A “throwback” player in every sense of the word, Max Jones is a highly competitive sharp shooting winger with the physical gifts to dominate as a trigger man,” says Ross. “His pro-level shot features blazing quickness, combining rare timing and pin-point accuracy that snaps twine before goaltenders can even begin to react. He utilizes a wide powerful skating stride to burst out wide before cutting inside to unleash one of his lethal shots from a well-equipped arsenal. Jones displays solid skill in possession with precise passing abilities and an ability to dangle when needed, but he definitely projects as a shoot-first type of player. He’s extremely hungry for loose pucks and uses his size and strength advantages to gather up possession quickly.”

5. Patrik Laine, wing, Tappara Tampere (SM-liiga) – With a 6-foot-4, 209-pound stature, it’s easy for Laine to standout on the ice. But with a high-end scoring ability, soft hands and solid vision, there’s much more to his game than a big frame.

Scout’s take: “The 2016 draft class is trending towards players combining above-average size, power, strength, as well as skill and Patrik Laine meets all of that criteria,” says Ross. “The burly winger displays a shoot-first approach yet remains a viable playmaker with slick puckhandling ability. His skating remains a work in progress and while there appears to be plenty of questions regarding his character, work ethic and defensive commitments, Laine’s package of brute strength, hockey sense and feared shooting abilities earn him top 10 consideration.”

6. Alexander Nylander, wing, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – He’s shown glimpses of his brother, Toronto Maple Leafs pick William Nylander, in his rookie season with the Steelheads. He’s displayed his soft hands and impeccable vision while racking up 10 goals and 26 points in 21 matches.

Scout’s take: “Nylander is a long, lanky skater who plays an attacking game with these big loops regrouping with the puck before heading into the slot for another shot,” says Future Considerations scout Dan Stewart. “He has a fantastic feel for the offensive game recognizing how to create chances for himself. Nylander possesses a quick first step in his acceleration, making his separation speed incredible and something that cannot be matched on the ice. He uses his edges well to accelerate up ice with the puck and has a quick first couple of steps to gain separation. He has received some flak for some bad body language in the past with regards to his teammates and has lots to learn about playing a complete team based game because right now he is that pure offensive wild stallion. Nylander is a treat to watch though, especially when he is given time and space with the puck in the offensive zone.”

7. Michael McLeod, centre, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – The Mississauga, Ont., native is having a breakout season as a sophomore in the OHL. He has scored six goals and 21 points in his first 21 contests following netting 29 points in 63 games last year.

Scout’s take: “McLeod is thoroughbred with a powerful stride and a large frame that makes him incredibly difficult to contain off the rush,” says Stewart. “He also showcases an unstoppable motor that makes him relentless on the forecheck and punishing in the corners. He is a guy that first and foremost looks for opportunities to score, but also has the vision and creativity to play the role of playmaker. He needs to show that offensive skill more consistently though to move up in the rankings. A beast in the faceoff circle, he is responsible defensively, showing he will do his job to chip in down low and cover for missed assignments. McLeod plays a strong, up-tempo, no quit game and reaps the rewards of it. Not a real high end offensive kid, he looks like someone who will play a very effective two-way role at the next level if he reaches his potential.”

8. Pierre-Luc Dubois, wing, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL) – The 6-foot-3, 201-pound Dubois is a lanky winger who possesses an enticing blend of elite vision, a strong skating ability and a solid all-around game. He’s regarded as one of the QMJHL’s top draft eligible talents.

Scout’s take:  “Dubois is a rangy forward that seems to be always on the attack,” says Stewart. “He shows flashes of high-end offensive ability and pro potential. He has very strong vision, which he uses to hit streaking teammates on the rush. He skates well, making quick deliberate strides get going with the ability to step it up and go to another gear when he needs to create some space between himself and hungry backcheckers. He possesses solid hockey awareness and no matter where he is on the ice he makes good decisions with the puck and shows good positioning without it. Dubois is noticeable every time he's on the ice as he's always involved in the play. He has no glaring weakness for defenders to key on and he is comfortable whether he's playing a grinding cycle game or in a run and gun offence.”

Vancouver's Tyler Benson has five points in 10 games this season. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)
Vancouver's Tyler Benson has five points in 10 games this season. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

9. Tyler Benson, wing, Vancouver Giants (WHL) – Benson’s a wildcard among the draft’s top forwards. His elite vision and top-notch offensive skill set is among the best; however, he has trouble staying healthy and has only mustered two goals and five points in 10 matches this year.

Scout’s take: “Benson has a high IQ with the puck and displays a well-balanced offensive arsenal,” says Stewart. “He is equally adept on the cycle or on the rush and knows when to attack the net and when to defer to a teammate. What stands out most with Benson is how well he understands the game and what it takes to be successful. Benson is not the fastest, biggest, or most skill

ed player out there; however, he always has a noticeable impact on the game. The reason for this is his attention to detail and his consistent execution of the little things that can impact a game. Overall, Benson is a very complete pro-style forward. While is ceiling is arguably lower than other draft eligible prospects, we think he has a high likelihood of being an NHL contributor likely as an effective top six forward.”

10. Dimitri Sokolov, wing, Sudbury Wolves (OHL) – The Russia native has netted six goals and 11 points in 16 games since joining the Wolves this season. He has the potential to hurdle some of his peers on this list if he elevates his game in the latter half of the season.

Scout’s take: “Physically, Sokolov is a stocky forward who flashes creative, highly skilled no-look passes that are generally unexpected given his bullish stature,” says Ross. “He’s not a high-end skater as his stride can be sluggish and heavy, particularly in lateral movements.  Because he owns such crafty puck skills and thrives in tight quarters, he hasn’t had trouble creating chances with just average skating ability. Sokolov is armed with a downright wicked shot that’s extremely effective due to its high end velocity and a tricky release point.”

Honourable mentions: Val-d’Or Foreurs winger Julien Gauthier is a force on the ice with his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame… Regina Pats centre Sam Steel is one of the WHL’s top draft eligible forwards…. Penticton Vees centre Tyson Jost committed to the University of North Dakota for the 2016-17 season after having several prestigious colleges try to recruit him… Kieffer Bellows, the son of NHL great Brian Bellows, has been one of the top players on the U.S. U-18 Team this year.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen