With all the glamour that surrounds the top of the NHL draft, many quality players who go later on don’t get the attention they deserve. As important as day one is to building a Stanley Cup contender, mid-round picks can change the fortunes of an NHL franchise just as much. Hitting on just one or two players deep into the draft can accelerate any teams ambitions tenfold.
The names that follow in this post are some that I have identified as “sleepers.” Players who have flown under that radar and are relativity unknown commodities to casual draft followers. All these players earned a spot on my final draft board, however, I do want to point out that a player’s perceived value did not increase or decrease value to the stock I put into their evaluations. This is all purely my opinion.
One last note: The players I prefer to target (specifically late in the draft) are ones with high-end skill and speed. I like to take home-run swings on high-upside players. I’d rather take a project with a low-floor but high-ceiling than a safe, high-floor player without much headroom. Many of the players you’ll see listed meet that criteria.
Alexander Campbell, LW, BCHL
Skating: 50 – Puck Skills: 55 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 55 – Physicality: 30
Campbell is one of my favorite prospects in this years draft. He is a shifty forward who can make skilled plays on his own and is coming off an impressive season in the BCHL. However, Campbell will certainly be waiting to hear his name called deep into the draft due to concerns about his size, listed at 154 lbs and 5-foot-11. Those concerns are warranted especially since he struggles to avoid physicality. He’ll have to put on at least 20 pounds if he wants a chance of lasting in the NHL. Scouts are also wary about the influence that CJHL MVP Alex Newhook had on him, playing on the same line for most of the season.
While I’m not disputing either of these matters, I saw too many wow plays from Campbell to ignore him. If he can learn to get by the size disadvantage he’ll be an exciting young player to watch. His ability to weave through traffic and not be distraught by a lack of space makes his size a little easier to stomach.
Liam Keeler, C, WHL
Skating: 60 – Puck Skills: 50 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 50 – Physicality: 45
If you’ve been reading my recent work, you’ll have recognized Keeler’s name, being one of top skaters of this years draft class. Speed, speed, and more speed is what you’ll get in Keeler. He pushes the pace of the play from the center ice position and can be dangerous any given shift. His strides are long and effective in getting up ice.
Speed is certainly the calling-card of his game, but some other areas need refinement. He won’t overly wow you with his puck skills and he makes a few too many mistakes. Those weaknesses took a toll on his production as he still figures things out. 8 goals and 24 points in 65 games is not encouraging, however, he was pushed down the lineup of a very good Edmonton team. I feel that with more opportunity, we will see the growth in the rest of his game to go along with those fantastic wheels.
Case McCarthy, D, USNTDP
Skating: 50 – Puck Skills: 50 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 55 – Physicality: 60
After Cam York, the U.S. National Team Development Program’s best defensemen was a bit of a mystery going into the season. I had my eyes on Domenick Fensore, Henry Thrun, and Marshall Warren, so when McCarthy emerged I was caught a bit off guard. A quick glimpse at his play style and there isn’t much to get excited about. I thought he was going to be nothing more than a stay-at-home top-6 defensemen.
While I prefer Fensore over McCarthy due to upside, the kid proved to be a beast, and I feel he isn’t getting enough credit for how good he was this past season. He supported the USNTDP’s elite forward group so well as a puck mover, and is the most efficient player in this draft class at completing stretch passes. His vision down ice is top-notch, making him a strong passer.
The Boston University commit rarely makes mistakes and is ultra-reliable. Coaches will fall in love with him. He’s not dynamic enough to quarterback a powerplay, but will make for a rock-solid penalty killer. Overall, he is great defensively, showing good gap-control, stick work, and physicality. I see a legit mainstay in any top-4 who can serve a purpose at both ends of the ice.
Rhett Pitlick, LW, USHS
Skating: 65 – Puck Skills: 50 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 40 – Physicality: 40
Like Keeler, Pitlick is among the elite skaters of the draft and has made an argument as being the fastest player of those hoping to hear their name called in Vancouver. I’ve developed concerns about his play away from the puck, which is why I wouldn’t consider him around the first round, but man when the puck is on his stick…woof. He has breakaway type speed and forces defenders to back off every time he flies down the ice.
His overall instincts with hinder him from becoming a legitimate top-6 forward one day, but you could potentially be nabbing a quality top-9 player who can contribute offensively and on the penalty kill.
Cameron Rowe, G, USNTDP
Rowe has flown under the radar with much of the spotlight in the crease for the USNTDP going to first round talent Spencer Knight. But don’t be fooled, Rowe is a legit talent in net himself and was my second ranked goaltender behind Knight in the 2019 NHL draft.
What makes Rowe so highly touted on my board is his elite lateral movement. Post-to-post you won’t find anyone better, due to how light he is on his feet. He gets across quick and has the ability to make highlight reel saves.
What I really like about Rowe is that he doesn’t over rely on his freakish athleticism to get by. While he isn’t as well-rounded as Knight when it comes to tracking and playing the puck, I still see so much potential in Rowe, and believe he can develop into a starting NHL goaltender with the ability to steal games.
Jakub Rychlovsky, LW, Czech2
Skating: 50 – Puck Skills: 55 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 55 – Physicality: 40
The first time I ever saw Rychlovsky play was in an exhibition game between the Czech under-18 team and Russian under-18 team. With names like Vasili Podkolzin, Ilya Nikolayev, and Michal Teply playing, Rychlovsky was the best player on the ice. He impressed me with his smarts, being able to read the play so well and create for his teammates.
An intelligent playmaker, Rychlovsky can drive a lines offense from the wing and has the puck skills to make things happen. He has a relentless motor and is a thorn in the side of defensemen trying to break the puck out. He may not develop into a top-6 forward, but there is reason to believe you’re landing a strong depth player who can contribute on special teams and be reliable when deployed.
Jordan Spence, D, QMJHL
Skating: 55 – Puck Skills: 55 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 50 – Physicality: 45
Spence enjoyed a breakout season for Moncton where he emerged as QMJHL rookie of the year — and for good reason. When you think about how the NHL is trending when it comes to defensemen, they are getting smaller, can move the puck well, and run a powerplay.
That is exactly what you get in Spence, a slick offensive defensemen who plays a style of game that is highly coveted. As equipped as he is for the NHL, the defensive side of his game is a work in progress, which is why he hasn’t gotten as much love as other offensive-minded blue-liners in this draft. But if he pans out, you’d be getting a high scoring top-4 defender who can run a top powerplay unit. As low as his floor is, the ceiling is high enough to warrant the risk.