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Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2019 NHL Draft: forward preview

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A look at the forwards who might be around at #21 overall next month for the Pittsburgh Penguins

Canada v Denmark - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

The one NHL event a Pittsburgh Penguins’ blogger never has to really focus on: the NHL entry draft! The Pens have traded away every first round pick either shortly before or after the draft since they selected Olli Maatta seven years ago now.

This year could be different. Pittsburgh picks 21st overall, hasn’t traded the pick and the general manager has been pretty open about liking this draft class and wanting to build up the young talent pool from within the organization.

So spanning the internet, and with our SBN Nation mock draft to kick off next Monday with picks one and two (gee, I wonder who those will be...) it’s time to get some researching done to figure out which player to take once it rolls around to Pittsburgh’s chance to draft.

Here are the forwards that could be around that I enjoyed reading up on. Picking 21st overall is tough since some/many of these guys could be taken, being as NHL teams can have wildly varying draft boards.

(Not considered on account of likelihood of being drafted prior to pick: Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, Trevor Zagras, Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens, Alex Turcotte, Peyton Krebs, Alex Newhook, Matthew Boldy, Vasili Podkolzin)

Cole Caufield - also not considered, being as he scored 72 goals this season. That’s not a misprint, like, Patric Hornqvist’s jersey number of goals. Anyways, since I wrote about Caufield before a couple of months ago, just wanted to close the loop there. It was always somewhat hopeful he would last until Pittsburgh picked, but now it’s looking like he could easily be a top 10 pick.

Raphael Lavoie

Grabbing the 6’4, 200 pound Lavoie might be a preferred option for me. The size is obviously there, the puck skills and shooting looks good and he can skate well too. Lavoie also won the QMJHL’s Mike Bossy trophy this year, which goes to the junior league’s top professional prospect.

As The Athletic’s Corey Pronman said:

The pure tools scream first-round pick. He’s 6-foot-4, skates well for a big man and has a high skill level. There are times when you see him come down the wing, power his way to the net or make a skilled play to create a chance and you think that translates to an NHL scorer.

The one thing holding Lavoie back from being a clear-cut “top half of the first round” pick was his consistency in production. A lot of these concerns were alleviated when Lavoie scored 20 goals and 32 points in 23 playoff games this spring. For that reason, there might be 50/50 or better odds that he could be drafted before the Pens step to the podium. However, if he remains on the board at 21, Lavoie has to be a strong consideration to be picked based on his offensive tools and ability.

Ryan Suzuki

Suzuki is a very interesting prospect. He was drafted #1 overall into the OHL two years ago, and TSN’s Bob McKenzie’s consensus ranking has Suzuki #12 overall at mid-season, but he dropped out of the top-15 for the end of the season (exact spot not yet known as it hasn’t been released).

He’s sliding a bit in part because he is a playmaking center playing on a dreadful junior team that doesn’t have a lot of skill to play off of.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler said:

Suzuki was far-and-away the best player on a bad team and the 25-point gap between him and the nearest Colts forward (who also happened to be the coach’s son and 21 years old) speaks to that. Suzuki is a pinpoint passer who uses delays and a surprisingly-effective toe drag to pull defenders in before finding a teammate

Suzuki’s brother Nick was picked 13th overall in 2017 and was one of the best players in junior last year, which is a nice pedigree to be a part of. Suzuki is a center, which isn’t much a position of need right now, but that is basically irrelevant since needs change and best player available method is always the smartest way to go. Plus needs change, and top of mind the Pens don’t really have any sort of center in the organization who could develop into a top-six center.

Nils Höglander

Höglander piqued my interest when both the aforementioned Athletic writers had him ranked fairly high (#18th overall by both Pronman and Wheeler) compared to McKenzie’s mid-season 29th overall. Another Athletic writer and informed prospect watcher plus Pensburgh BFF Jesse Marshall also gives Hoglander a seal of approval. Pronman offered a sequence in his analysis that can’t help but to catch attention as well

Hoglander has the best hands in the draft. When he has the puck on his stick, he’s trying to make a skilled play.

Wheeler also had high praise:

He’s got excellent stop-and-start puck control, which he uses to spin off checks or when coming out of puck battles. And most of all, considering he’s 5-foot-9, he always goes to the middle of the ice.

Other sources compared Höglander a lot in his willingness to be physical and nonstop motor around the ice towards another small but effective forward in Brendan Gallagher. To me, with his hands, he sort of reminds of a mix of a player like Mats Zuccarello with a dash more of that Gallagher feistiness.

Add in the fact he’s already got pro experience in the SHL and this guy seriously impresses, to the point where honestly before doing my research I had not heard his name but after scouring a google search of scouting reports and watching exactly 4 youtube videos, I’m pretty much sold on Höglander as a good prospect and possible great fit in Pittsburgh.

Bobby Brink

“Believe in Bobby Brink, people”, Scott Wheeler says. I still think I’m on the fence though.

On the plus side - Brink is a tremendously skilled playmaking winger, was the USHL’s player of the year and is cited as having tremendous hockey sense, vision, anticipation and passing ability. With the puck on his stick he creates a ton on the ice.

On the negative side - as Pronman evaluated “What may hold him back is his skating. He moves around like he’s got two left feet, with a weird stutter in his stride, and his feet flail.” He’s also listed at 5’8 and has no appreciable physical game compared to a player like Höglander.

Brink is one of the younger players in the draft and probably has a three or four year wait to get to the NHL. For that reason, he’s not particularly useful timing-wise for the current window that the Pens have. I don’t think Brink would be a bad pick —in fact ceiling-wise he might be one of the higher forwards preview for pure potential. Just again, doesn’t seem like the right fit for a team like Pittsburgh considering the question marks and the probable long wait before development gets him to the point of NHL readiness.

Brett Leason

Brett Leason was almost an unknown at the beginning of the season. He had been passed over twice in the NHL draft. But something happened last summer, Leason was dedicated to improving and per scouting reports took his skating from below average to above average. With that, he became a dominant player in the WHL and even made Team Canada’s World Junior team where he was one of their better scorers in the short tournament. Pronman offered the following in part of his scouting report:

He’s 6-foot-4, but also has an intriguing skill set. He’s not a highlight reel player by any means, but he has decent puck skills and can create offense with very good vision. He’s aware of his surroundings and can put pucks into seams.

Leason was ranked 25th by McKenzie’s scouts at mid-season, and may figures to even have come on more over the second half of the season. Sportsnet had Leason #21 overall in their April ranking. Most scouting evaluators like Pronman and Wheeler have Leason a little lower (34th and 36th respectively) due to his age, he turned 20 last month.

However that big perceived weakness is actually a strength for Pittsburgh, who needs the first round pick to make an NHL impact sooner than later. Leason can be placed in the AHL for 2019-20, where almost everyone else has to be assigned back to their junior team if they don’t make the NHL.

Obviously you don’t draft a 20-year old in the first round very often, and it wouldn’t be because he’s near pro ready as the driving factor, it would have to be that a team believed he was still on the upswing and going to develop further and be worthy of the status. I’m not sure if Leason truly is, because I’m not a scout. However he’s at least on the radar as a player that really made a name for himself, has an interesting skill set and will be a pro a lot sooner than most the others that will be taken in the back-end of the first round.

Those are the five forward names that I really dived into and caught my eye, you can see if I ended up getting the opportunity to take any of them in a couple weeks here on Pensburgh. Be sure to make a case in the comments for who your favorite forward prospects are and who you are hoping the Pens are interested in at 21st overall.