2020 isn’t that far away anymore, and it’s time to begin addressing the draft that will occur that year.
Although most drafts end up being pretty similar in quality regardless of the hype going in, it’s difficult to deny the apparent strength of this draft. Led by Alexis Lafrenière, who’s about as good as it gets in a sub-generational prospect, the 2020 draft packs significant firepower at the top, better than we’re used to, followed by average to above-average depth moving down in the order.
After Lafrenière, Quinton Byfield — who would arguably be seen as an above-average #1 in a different year — holds the runner-up spot. After that duo, things are a little murkier as far as a definite ranking goes, but several high-end prospects with bright futures follow.
This is an introduction to the five players that appear to have established themselves in the consensus top five so far. It’s not any kind of ranking, just a way to become familiar with those names that you could hear quite frequently in the future.
Alexis Lafrenière (LW)
Generational is a term reserved for the very best — Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby are alone in that group — but Lafrenière is just one tier below that. A franchise player, Lafrenière is the type of player you build your team around.
Players as good as Lafrenière are almost always centres– the last winger drafted first overall was Nail Yakupov in 2012. To be clear, this isn’t to say that wingers drafted first overall don’t usually turn out well (we all know how Yakupov’s NHL career went). Of the six wingers taken first since 2000 (Yakupov, Taylor Hall, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuck), only Yakupov hasn’t been successful.
Lafrenière is the total package, combining jaw-dropping offensive tools with a developing defensive game that should cause him no problems at the NHL level. Like pretty much every elite NHL player nowadays, Lafrenière is an excellent skater; a powerful stride allows him to cover ground very quickly, and his balance makes him difficult to knock off the puck.
It’s difficult to find a better word to describe Lafrenière than “quick.” Whether it’s his skating, hands, or mind, Lafrenière is always playing a fast-paced and highly-reactionary game, one that few opponents can keep up with. He’s always a step ahead of the play, another trait he shares with the NHL’s elite, and we know from watching those superstar’s how huge of an advantage that can be.
Lafrenière has had no trouble translating his skill into results, dominating the QMJHL in his rookie season. Playing for the Rimouski Océanic, the Quebec native posted 80 points in 60 games– 1.33 per contest. That total led his team, and made him the 8th strongest producer (measured in points-per-game) in the league, despite being several years younger than the majority of players at the top of that list.
Lafrenière produced at almost the same rate in the draft-minus-two season as Nathan MacKinnon did in his draft-minus-one campaign. Granted, Lafrenière is an early birthdate (October 11), and MacKinnon was a late one (September 1), so the age difference is just a little over a month, but it’s still an insane accomplishment to be on a similar level to Nathan MacKinnon, whose 97 points in 74 games last season earned him a nomination for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the player deemed to be “most valuable” to his team (whatever that means). I think MacKinnon is a strong approximate of Lafrenière’s potential.
Quinton Byfield (C)
Byfield is an excellent consolation prize as the #2 guy in the draft. I think he projects as a stronger all-around player than Jack Eichel and Patrik Laine, both considered to be very strong second overall picks, also drafted in years with extraordinarily skilled first overall picks.
The first thing that stands out about Byfield is his size: Byfield is already 6’4″ and 214 lbs, despite being just 16 and a late birthdate (August).
Byfield’s main offensive tools are his hands and shot. He can be deadly in one-on-one situations because of the variety of ways he can beat you: he skates very well, so he can beat defenders to the inside or outside; he has the hands and creativity to make defencemen look silly; and an incredible shot that makes him a scoring threat from just about anywhere within the offensive zone.
Unlike Lafrenière, Byfield wasn’t eligible for the CHL until this season, where he’s gotten off to a decent start with 6 points in 10 games. A peek at his game log over that time displays the lethality of his shot: in the four games where Byfield recorded 4 shots on goal, he has recorded four points, versus just two points in the remaining six games where he’s had less than four shots. It will be interesting to see if shot generation could become a potential issue for Byfield– when he’s putting the puck on net, he’s succeeding, not so much when he isn’t, so it will be important that he can consistently generate shots at a high level.
Last season, Byfield played in the ETAMMHL, an Ontario midget circuit, and was absolutely dominant. His 2.71 points-per-game was 3rd highest in the history of the league– Steven Stamkos and Taylor Hall were 1st and 2nd, respectively. Byfield was a step below them production-wise, and probably will be in the NHL as well. I’m wary of using midget stats to approximate NHL potential, but that’s a strong arrow right there. This season will be critical for Byfield if he wants to cement his position entering the even more important draft season.
Lucas Raymond (LW/RW)
There’s very little not to like about Raymond. He’s an exceptional all-around player with very few weaknesses, and has been excellent in essentially every league he’s played in throughout his young career.
Raymond has 14 points in 11 SuperElit games this season, and has gotten into three SHL contests at just 16 years old. Last season, he bounced around a variety of leagues, playing the majority of his games in the Swedish J18 Elit (34 points in 18 games) and the J18 Allsvenskan (29 points in 15 games). Granted, those are pretty poor leagues (not far off from the quality of Canadian Jr. A leagues like the BCHL, probably a little bit below), but it’s still promising that he was able to rip those leagues up.
Raymond’s a really impressive player. He’s a rare breed, gifted with above-average tools in almost every strand of the offensive game, and projects as an impact forward and a potential game-breaker.
He’s smart, able to recognize lanes and soft spots in the defence to attack, but also has the physical tools to make him a major threat. He’s a threat off of the rush because of his speed and hands, and can act as an effective dual-threat option, capable of making things happen with his playmaking or goal-scoring ability.
It’s rare to find a player as talented as Raymond outside of the top two selections at the draft, but it looks like a lucky team could be going to get more than they may have expected with their top five selection in 2020. We’re talking about a future first-line winger here, and, even better, one that looks like he could be a driver on that top line.
Alexander Holtz (LW/RW)
Holtz has gotten a lot of hype over his time, once being seen as a potential challenger to the Lafrenière/Byfield group at the top, but that’s cooled off a fair bit as the top two draft candidates really distinguished themselves in a separate tier. Now, it looks unlikely that he’ll even crack the top three, being passed by countryman Lucas Raymond in the eyes of the consensus at this point.
Holtz is actually a little like Raymond, but without the playmaking ability. I think Holtz said it the best when he called himself “a technically skilled sniper who can also see openings to make good plays.” First and foremost, he’s a scorer, with a fantastic shot, excellent offensive instincts, good hands, and speed, but he can also act as a secondary playmaker, and is at the very least proficient in that area.
Statistically, Holtz was fantastic last season, with an incredible 45 points in 17 games in the J18 Elit, and 29 points in 13 games in the J18 Allsvenskan. His statistical profile is superior to Lucas Raymond’s, but I think Raymond has a larger range of skills that are still comparable to Holtz’s in quality.
Justin Barron (RHD)
It wouldn’t be an NHL Draft without a top prospect from the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, who churn out top talent at a ridiculous level. Justin Barron is another major talent to come through that pipeline, and could join the ranks of very talented Mooseheads-alumni in the NHL sometime in the future.
After being drafted 13th overall by the Mooseheads, Barron was able to step in and make an immediate impact, totaling 21 points in 51 games, putting him 12th on the team in scoring, fourth among defencemen. For a 16 year old, that isn’t bad at all, although production could end up as a concern considering his early birthdate as well if he can’t take a big step forward this season.
Barron is a mobile, intelligent defenceman. He’s not extraordinarily flashy, but he transitions the puck and can create offence from his position. He can start a breakout, distribute the puck from the blueline, and run a powerplay, and there’s a lot of value in that that NHL teams will be looking to capitalize on.