The end of the NHL season is less than two months away and normally for the teams not making the playoffs this year, it's about time to start looking ahead to the draft. However this season has been one of the more unusual ones that the NHL has seen because the standings are as tight as they've ever been. Teams probably won't be looking ahead of the draft as early as they usually might, because they still believe that they have a chance to make the playoffs. After Arizona and Colorado who are on their own at the bottom, the next 15 teams in the league standings are separated by just 10 points and teams are changing places by the day.
Despite the cluttered standings, we've decided to look at the potential best 15 prospects that will be drafted in the first round and where they should go. This of course doesn't mean that they will be drafted by that team, but it's a way of looking at the needs of teams that are sitting outside of a playoff spot, or that will miss the playoffs and determining which prospect could be a potential solution. Like the NHL standings, the rankings for the top prospects fluctuate as well - therefore we have not necessarily gone by the exact mid-season rankings that central scouting has provided us at NHL.com.
Also to be noted is that the NHL's newest franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, will be participating in this year's draft and will have the same odds of winning the draft lottery as the third-last team. This list won't be taking the draft lottery into consideration, so we will just assume that the Colorado Avalanche get the first overall pick, Arizona second and Vegas third. Here are the best landing spots for these 15 players in the 2017 NHL Draft.
15 Maxime Comtois, LW - New York Islanders
The Islanders have struggled to find a guy that could play alongside John Tavares ever since Kyle Okposo left to sign with Buffalo in 2016. With Anthony Beauvillier being drafted late in the first round of the 2016 draft, it's very possible that he becomes that guy in the near future. However if the Islanders selected Comtois, he could potentially work his way up to that top line in a few years as well.
At 6'1, 195 pounds, Comtois is a big body who plays the game with strength, but also combines that with skill. The winger's two-way game has been compared by some scouts to Columbus' third overall selection in 2016, Pierre-Luc Dubois. Comtois was originally ranked 4th by central scouting at the beginning of the season, but has dropped on some lists because of his decrease in scoring. The Quebec native had 60 points in 62 games with the Victoriaville Tigres last season, but only has 40 points in 54 games this season.
14 Lias Andersson, C - Nashville Predators
Nashville finally got a number one center when they traded Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen in January of 2016. However looking at the Preds' lineup, they are still in need of a second line centerman if they're going to want to compete with the league's best teams. It is unlikely that 36-year-old Mike Fisher will be able to carry that workload for much longer. If the Preds are lucky, Lias Andersson could potentially fall into their hands.
Andersson's midterm ranking has him third among European skaters, but he is likely to be selected around the halfway point of the first round. Being a sub six-foot centerman might not appeal to many teams; nonetheless, he wouldn't be a terrible risk for the Predators considering their need for centermen. Andersson's offensive upside has been put in question, but playing with men much older than him in Sweden could give him the experience he needs before stepping into the NHL.
13 Juuso Valimaki, D - Tampa Bay Lightning
Tri-City Americans defenseman Juuso Valimaki has been an absolute stud in the WHL this season. He currently sits with 52 points in 49 games, which is a significant improvement to the 32 points in 56 games he had last season.
The Lightning have made it clear that they need defense all season and if they fail to make the playoffs, they could add Valimaki to their deep prospect pool. As of now, it doesn't seem like they have anyone coming up other than Slater Koekkoek who could develop into a solid top four defenseman, but even he has seen his struggles and currently plays in the AHL. Recent call-up Jake Dotchin has impressed, though, so there could be some hope with him.
At 6'2, 200 pounds, the young Valimaki has shown impressive offensive upside this season in the WHL. Combining that with his size can definitely turn him into a solid NHL defenseman. The Bolts, however, are currently in a playoff push, so the likelihood of getting the Finnish born defenseman would certainly decrease if they make it.
12 Michael Rasmussen, C - Los Angeles Kings
We haven't heard much about the Kings drafting a prospect that they developed into a top player on their roster since Tanner Pearson, who was drafted in the first round in 2012 - and he is only just starting to come along.
It's hard to imagine the Kings drafting at #12 in the first round of a draft given the recent playoff success that they've had. However with a disastrous season starting with Jonathan Quick's injury to Anze Kopitar's struggles, and currently sitting outside of a playoff spot - it might not be a crazy situation to imagine.
Rasmussen is another big player in this draft class at 6'5, 203 pounds. He currently has 55 points in 50 games for the Tri-City Americans in the WHL. The big center has a great set of hands and can make life hard for defenders when he's on his game. He would certainly work out for the Kings if he can take his skill to an NHL level, as it seems that the Kings need to add another piece or two on offense. With their tight cap situation, drafting a top prospect would be one way to go.
11 Cody Glass, C - Philadelphia Flyers
Cody Glass currently leads the Portland Winterhawks in scoring with 81 points in 58 games in the WHL. Glass' midterm ranking is eighth among North American skaters; however there is a chance he drops to around the 10-11 spot. The Manitoba native is a big forward at 6-foot-2 and 179 pounds, and can become a reliable two-way center for the team that drafts him.
The Flyers are stacked with some great prospects on defense including Ivan Provorov who just cracked into the team's lineup this season. Guys like Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim look promising as well. The Flyers haven't had much recent success drafting forwards in the first round other than Travis Konecny in 2015, who is currently on the team. They should be looking to take a shot at another forward again in this year's first round.
10 Nicolas Hague, D - Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are already a deep team offensively, so picking a defenseman would be a logical first round choice. Mississauga Steelheads defenseman Nic Hague could be a suitable choice for the Sabres. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound defender is a shutdown guy who could develop into a tough NHL defenseman to play against.
TSN's Craig Button describes Hague as a physical defender with some skill to contribute offensively. While the Steelheads defenseman's skating has been put into question by some scouts, other scouts have him ranked in the top 10. Hague currently has 37 points in 54 games with Mississauga.
The Sabres would be a real tough team to play against if they could draft Hague and develop him into an NHL defenseman, especially playing alongside their top d-man Rasmus Ristolainen - who is a big body at 6'4, 203 pounds himself.
9 Callan Foote, D - Winnipeg Jets
Callan Foote is a highly regarded prospect by many scouts heading into the 2017 NHL Draft. While he is currently ranked 12th among North American skaters, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Jets pounce on the defender if he were available at this time in the draft. At 6'3, 209 pounds, the Kelowna Rockets defenseman is a poised, territorial defender who can help keep the puck out of his team's net. This would surely help the Jets, who've given up the most goals in the league so far this season.
The Jets have a roster full of young talent and still have more coming, so they wouldn't be too concerned about a position in need since they show promise in practically every one. However, given their struggles with keeping the puck out of the net, drafting a steady defenseman could help that. Of course, it isn't likely that Foote would have an immediate impact as it takes longer for defensemen to develop than forwards, but he would certainly help down the line if he turns out to be the top four defenseman he is projected to be.
8 Klim Kostin, RW - New Jersey Devils
Being ranked second-last in goals for this season, it's no secret that the Devils lack offense. Aside from top scorers Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, the Devils offense has been weak and they'll need to start developing some forwards if they want to have more success in the future.
Klim Kostin is a big power winger at 6'3, 196 pounds and is strong on the puck. The Russian forward also has a good burst of speed which makes him extremely difficult to stop, given his size. Kostin had 21 points in 30 games playing in Russia for Moscow last season, but has not seen much action this season due to injuries.
Being out for a long period of time might make teams hesitant to draft the big Russian forward, therefore we might see him drop a few spots in this draft. Nonetheless, he could definitely be one of the steals of this draft if he is able to bounce back from his injury-plagued season.
7 Casey Mittelstadt, C - Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks have an aging offensive core and it's become clear that center Bo Horvat will soon be the team's number one guy. Other than Horvat, the Canucks don't have any young forwards with high promise.
Mittelstadt is projected to be a top two line center which could perfectly slot him behind Bo Horvat in the future. Some of his noted strengths are how he uses his speed and agility to create offensive chances. Mittelstadt's potential currently has him ranked fifth among North American skaters.
The Minnesota native has, however, taken an unusual path in his pro hockey career. As The New York Times reports, Mittelstadt had left playing junior hockey in Green Bay to return back to playing high school hockey for Eden Prairie for the purpose of winning a state championship. He has also decided to make the transition to the NCAA where he will be playing for the University of Minnesota next season - before playing in the NHL. This isn't of much concern to scouts because Mittelstadt has proven his worth in international tournaments, and his 85 points in 41 games combined this season shouldn't be overlooked either.
6 Eeli Tolvanen, LW/RW - Detroit Red Wings
The Wings are in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in over 25 seasons as they currently sit near the bottom of the league standings. One of the recipes for the Wings' great playoff success has been great drafting. Although it hasn't worked well for them this season, don't expect them to be at the bottom of the league for many more. They've had a combination of different struggles this season, varying from basically every position. However with their current spot, they should draft winger Eeli Tolvanen.
Drafting Tolvanen would add to their group of young, talented forwards who have great futures ahead. The Wings have talented prospects such as Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanisiou, and Dylan Larkin all aged 22 and under who will be the core of their offense in the near future. Playing in the USHL, the Finnish forward has 37 points in 37 games for the Sioux City Musketeers and is projected to become an elite scoring winger, which would add to the potential of the Wings' young offense.
5 Gabriel Vilardi, C - Carolina Hurricanes
Gabriel Vilardi has the potential to be a top centerman in the NHL and is currently having a breakout season with the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL. The 17 year-old has 50 points in 38 games this season and showcases great offensive skill. The 'Canes have a ton of young, talented prospects coming up and will be a team to look out for in the future. However, adding a top center might be what's missing in this team's prospect pool. After their current top centerman Victor Rask, the Hurricanes don't have any young centers with the potential to become a top 2 centerman on the team. Many believe that Vilardi has all the qualities a centerman needs to become a number one guy in the NHL, which would certainly solve that issue for the Hurricanes.
4 Owen Tippett, RW - Dallas Stars
The Stars' season has been a complete tragedy for their fans and it is time that they get themselves a high-end prospect to be excited about. The Stars could use help on defence, but it is unlikely that Timothy Liljegren will drop to fourth in the draft. Therefore, they shouldn't hesitate on drafting Mississauga Steelheads forward Owen Tippett.
Other than Denis Guryanov, the Stars don't have much high-end talent coming up on offense, and have been trying to break in some of their young defenders this season. Tippett is a pure goal scorer and would be a great addition for the Stars. A big body at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, the Ontario native has 39 goals in 52 games for Mississauga this season, which is the most in this draft class. NHL defenders will have their hands full once this guy reaches his potential.
3 Nico Hischier, C - Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights could be drafting a potential franchise center in Nico Hischier with their first ever draft pick. Hischier is expected to become the highest drafted Swiss-born player in NHL history this year. He's had a tremendous first year in the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads, with 78 points in 47 games. The Swiss forward also had a great tournament at the World Juniors representing and leading his country with seven points in five games.
Many scouts have Hischier as the first overall pick in this year's draft, especially after his performance at the World Junior Championships. Regardless of where he ends up, he won't go past third overall and the Vegas Golden Knights would be more than happy if they got him at the number three spot. Hischier has elite scoring potential and has the second-most goals in this draft class with 37 so far. We will certainly be hearing a lot more about him when he enters the NHL.
2 Timothy Liljegren, D - Arizona Coyotes
Timothy Liljegren has been labelled as the top defenseman in this draft without question since the start of the season. The Coyotes are full of talented prospects on offense with the likes of Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Nick Merkley and others. They drafted defenseman Jakob Chychrun with one of their first round picks in 2016, who has top potential and has been playing with the team for the majority of the season.
Drafting Liljegren would be a monumental addition to the Coyotes' young defensive core. The Swedish defenseman has gotten tons of praise over his puck moving abilities and his defensive play. Having him alongside Jakob Chychrun and fellow countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson could make for one of the strongest defense cores in the future. Liljegren currently plays with adults in the Swedish Hockey League where he has a respectable five points in 19 games.
1 Nolan Patrick, C - Colorado Avalanche
The Avs are in complete rebuild mode and have been in the league's gutter for almost the entire season. With the best chances to win the draft lottery, and assuming that they do, it is likely that they will draft Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings. Despite not playing a lot this season due to injury, Patrick's ranking has not be affected and he will most likely be the first overall pick in 2017. He has still shown that he's worthy of being a number one pick in his 22 games this season, with 15 goals and 35 points. The 18 year-old also put up 102 points in 72 games last season.
The Avalanche have one of the weakest prospect pools in the league and that will have to change starting with this draft. Along with Mackinnon and Duchene, Nolan Patrick would be the third center that Colorado has drafted in the top three in the last nine years. They have struggled to build a team that could compete for many years to come around their top centermen, but drafting Nolan Patrick would certainly be a good start.