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2020 NHL Draft: Eight prospects with late 2001 birthdays to watch this season

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I’ve been wanting to write this since May, for the record.

Rimouski Oceanic v Blainville-Boisbriand Armada Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The 2019-20 season is fast approaching, and although the draft is still months away, there are still a number of draft-eligible prospects to keep an eye on throughout the year. Now, I could probably bore you with a “here are the projected top ten draft picks for 2020” piece, but because 2020 is regarded by scouts as one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, there are more interesting ways I could go.

For example, unlike 2019, 2020 is not a particularly strong draft for Americans. Instead, Canadian and Swedish prospects will dominate rankings throughout the year. We could see the first goalie drafted in the top ten since Carey Price in 2005. Also, there are a number of 2001 born prospects who weren’t eligible for the 2019 draft because of their late birthdays, and but we will see a lot of them go early in 2020’s first round.

I’ve been looking forward to the 2020 draft for several years now, just because of how truly talented this crop of prospects is. But it’s pretty rare that there are so many top prospects who could’ve been drafted last June if it weren’t for the NHL’s September 15th cut-off date. Here are eight top prospects with late-2001 birthdays that you should watch this season, because we’ll be seeing them take the stage at the 2020 draft in June.

Last Season’s Numbers

Because it’s easier to have all the stats in the same table, here they are. The table is organized by points-per-game, and all of the stats were pulled from Pick224.com. It’s is a fairly new statistics website dedicated to prospects, which was started earlier this year and is an absolute god-send for prospect writers such as myself. I highly recommend everyone check the site out and give Dave a follow on Twitter if you haven’t already!

2018-19 Statistics

Player Team (League) GP G A P P/GP EV P1 EV% EV GF%
Player Team (League) GP G A P P/GP EV P1 EV% EV GF%
Alexis Lafreniere Rimouski (QMJHL) 61 37 68 105 1.72 53 67.95 72.65
Dylan Holloway Okotoks (AJHL) 53 40 48 88 1.66 55 74.32 N/A
Noel Gunler Lulea (SuperElit) 31 27 19 46 1.48 28 73.68 66.18
Marco Rossi Ottawa (OHL) 53 29 36 65 1.23 33 70.21 85.19
Connor Zary Kamloops (WHL) 63 24 43 67 1.06 35 71.43 57.58
Justin Barron Halifax (QMJHL) 68 9 32 41 0.60 18 72.00 69.16
Anton Lundell HFIK (Liiga) 38 9 10 19 0.50 12 85.71 N/A
Braden Schneider Brandon (WHL) 58 8 16 24 0.41 10 71.43 54.88
Statistics from Pick224.com

For those of you who aren’t as familiar with advanced stats, let me explain the last three columns some more. EV P1 is the number of primary points the prospect scored at even-strength, and EV% is just that number converted to a percentage. EV GF% is the percentage of even-strength goals scored by the prospect’s team while he was on the ice.

Scouting Reports

Alexis Lafreniere (LW)

Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
October 11, 2001
6’1”, 192 lbs

The projected first overall draft pick in 2020 was the first 16-year old in the QMJHL to score 60 points since Sidney Crosby, so expectations were high for Lafreniere’s sophomore season. He didn’t disappoint at all, either. Lafreniere captained Canada to gold at the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, made Canada’s World Junior team as a double under-ager, was named MVP of the QMJHL’s regular season, and finished third in league scoring with 105 points.

While his rookie year in the ‘Q’ was all about offense, Lafreniere’s two-way game really blossomed this season (and yes, I say that aside from his offensive production). He was a more aware and involved player in his own end (despite the Canadian World Junior coaches stating otherwise). Lafreniere played on a line with Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jimmy Huntington and made a lot of his teammates better simply by being on the ice with them. Lafreniere is a difficult player to strip of the puck, can score from anywhere on the ice, and is an excellent puck-mover and rusher (he even played the point on the powerplay for the Oceanic this season). The only thing to nit-pick of Lafreniere’s game would be his skating. It’s not bad by any means, though; Lafreniere’s top-speed is dangerous and he can beat just about anyone in one-on-one situations. It’s just that he could take his already elite offensive game to another level if his acceleration became more explosive.

Anton Lundell (C/LW)

HIFK (Liiga)
October 3, 2001
6’1”, 183 lbs

Another projected high draft pick, Lundell is the best Finnish prospect available in 2020. He won World Junior gold with Finland last year and had lethal chemistry with recent second overall pick Kaapo Kakko. He had a brief stint in Liiga’s junior league, but he dominated with 15 points in 10 games and was moved up to the men’s league mid-season, where he continued to produce offense. His nineteen points as a 17-year old in the Finnish elite league is impressive, especially given that most of his primary points were produced at even-strength.

Lundell is a playmaking center with fantastic vision (arguably the best in the draft). He can find his teammates anywhere on the ice, and Lundell’s soft hands allow him to make dynamic plays with the puck (including dangling around defenders). He’s also an adaptable player who can play and have success with anyone, while also making them better (see: Eeli Tolvanen at the 2019 WJC). He’s a responsible player in his own end, using his stick and body to stymie opponents on the rush. Lundell is a fine skater, but he doesn’t have the natural acceleration and explosive speed that a lot of his fellow draft prospects do. Although his current abilities won’t prevent him from being a successful professional player, it’s the one area of his game that could use some work.

Dylan Holloway (C/LW)

Wisconsin Badgers (NCAA)
September 23, 2001
6’0”, 192 lbs

If you need a bandwagon NCAA team to follow this season, it has to be Wisconsin. Aside from Holloway, their freshman class also consists of 2019 draftees Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte, and Owen Lindmark. Holloway (who is my favourite 2020 draft prospect) had a monster of a season in the AJHL, finishing second in league scoring and being named the league’s MVP. Despite having his CHL rights traded in April, Holloway stayed true to his commitment to Wisconsin and will undoubtedly continue to put up points in college next season with the offensively-loaded Badgers.

Holloway plays the power forward role well, but he is an incredibly fast and deceptive skater. He can rush the puck all over the ice, has sublime edges, and he’s nearly impossible to catch once he hits his top-end speed. Holloway’s vision and intelligence allows him to make plays at high speeds on the rush, but he can also create off the cycle and is a force down low along the boards. He’s not just all speed and offense, either. Holloway is an excellent defensive player who uses his body and stickwork to force opponents to the outside and off pucks. He has an incredibly well-rounded game for a draft-eligible prospect and he shouldn’t have much trouble transitioning to the NCAA.

Marco Rossi (C)

Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
September 23, 2001
5’9”, 176 lbs

The Austrian-born Rossi, who shares a birthday with Holloway (and myself), had spent most of his developmental years playing in Switzerland before being taken in the CHL Import Draft and coming over to play in Canada last season. Rossi took to the North American style of hockey extremely quickly and became a dominant player for Ottawa as a 16-year old. His 65 points in 53 games was good enough for second among OHL rookies, and he was lights-out in the playoffs, putting up an additional 22 points in 17 games.

Rossi is a great, fluid skater with soft hands who can make creative plays at high speeds. He played with Dallas Stars prospect Tye Felhaber, and they developed great chemistry together. Rossi has exceptional vision, and he can make plays off the rush or along the half-wall. He can create space for himself and his teammates in tight spaces. Because of his speed, Rossi is usually the first player in on the forecheck, and although there’s a size disadvantage, he has the ability to strip defenders of pucks and feed his teammates for scoring chances. Rossi played on both special teams for the 67’s and has great defensive and positional awareness. Like a lot of smaller players, Rossi’s strength needs work, but will improve as he gets older. Ottawa will rely on Rossi more heavily for offense next season as their top scorers have aged out of the OHL.

Justin Barron (RD)

Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
November 15, 2001
6’2”, 187 lbs

Barron could be first defenseman to be drafted in June (although Jamie Drysdale looks to be challenging that), and he is Halifax’s top man on the blueline. Barron plays in all situations for the Mooseheads, can produce offense (though not at the expense of defense), and was the youngest member of the QMJHL’s team at the Canada-Russia series last year. Barron’s biggest improvement last season from his rookie year was his production on offense. He got more powerplay time last season, but also contributed 27 points at even-strength (18 of which were primary points).

Barron is an almost effortless skater with excellent puck-rushing abilities, which is unique for a larger defenseman. He prefers to take the puck to the net using his skating rather than trying to dangle through opponents, and has a accurate wrist shot from the point, but is also a solid passer. Although he is reliable in his own end, Barron can be guilty of a defensive lapse every so often. He’s also not the most physical defender (although he’s capable of throwing booming hits), and will need to put on some more weight to fill out his 6’2” frame.

Noel Gunler (RW/LW)

Lulea (SuperElit)
October 7, 2001
6’1”, 176 lbs

He’s not the highest-ranked Swedish prospect in the draft, but Gunler is still projected to go early in the first round (at least right now). He dominated the SHL’s junior league with 46 points in 31 games last season and, for a stretch, looked as if he couldn’t stop scoring. He was promoted to the men’s league near the end of the season and didn’t look out of place there either, putting up five points in 15 games.

Gunler is a finisher, and a deadly one at that. His release is elite, and he always seems to find the right areas to open himself up to get a shot off. Gunler is also a good playmaker, whose vision and stickhandling abilities allow him to thread passes to teammates through heavy traffic. He has good acceleration, but he’s not as fast as his peers and could work to improve his top-speed. Gunler also needs to work on his play without the puck, particularly in his own end. He can be passive, and Gunler has the tendency to flee his own end too soon in an effort to create offense. He doesn’t necessarily drive play either, which is something that will hopefully become a part of his game as he matures and gets stronger.

Braden Schneider (RD)

Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
September 20, 2001
6’2”, 209 lbs

As one of the oldest draft-eligible players this season, Schneider is a solid two-way defenseman who is excellent in his own end and also capable of rushing the puck when necessary. Brandon’s blueline was fairly young last season and Schneider did an admirable job of shouldering a lot of defensive responsibilities as a draft-eligible player. Schneider also put up a respectable amount of points for a defender who isn’t known for driving offense.

There are a lot of similarities between Schneider and the aforementioned Justin Barron, though the former is less likely to dazzle offensively and plays more physically. Already the size of an NHL player, Schneider is a powerful, smooth skater who can break up the cycle and box out forwards in front of the net easily. Schneider is rarely out of position in his own end and his skating ability allows him to keep up with speedy opponents coming in on the rush. Schneider’s patience and puckhandling skills could use some work, and his physical play can sometimes lead to some unnecessary penalties, but he’s already an excellent defender and leader on Brandon’s blueline.

Connor Zary (C)

Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
September 25, 2001
6’0”, 174 lbs

All Zary has done since the WHL bantam draft is exceed expectations. He was Kamloops’ best player last season and could have been a first-rounder in 2019 if he was born ten days sooner. He was a man on a mission to drag the Blazers to the playoffs, as Zary’s five goals and ten points in Kamloops’ last five regular season games helped secure the team a playoff berth. Although they were swept in the first round, Zary still put up three points. His late-season heroics caught Hockey Canada’s eye and Zary donned the Canadian jersey for the first time at the U-18’s, putting up seven points in seven games.

Zary is a crafty and creative player who likes to have the puck on his stick. He likes to create from below the goal line (he fed teammates passes from there more than once at the U-18’s) and has the innate ability to anticipate defenders’ moves and adapt quickly. Although a nifty playmaker, Zary also has the ability to finish with an accurate, quick-releasing wrist shot. He loves to drive offense, and can spot and capitalize on holes in opponents’ defensive coverage. Zary thinks the game very quickly and can make split-second plays with the puck. He’s not the fastest or most agile skater, but it hasn’t held him back either. Zary is projected to be a late first-round pick at the moment, but a strong draft season and noticeable improvements to his skating could see him vault higher up.

All player information from Elite Prospects and advanced statistics from Pick224.com.