Others fell victim to reshuffling on my part, which tends to happen from month to month, while some of the consensus fallers are still getting the benefit of the doubt from me — especially the first-round talents like Lucas Raymond (No. 2, viral infection) and Justin Barron (No. 16, blood clot), who have been sidelined recently following underwhelming starts to their draft year. I still believe in their upside, which can also be said for the first faller on this list.
Nevertheless, here are 10 notable fallers from my December rankings — my updated top 186 for the 2020 NHL draft.
1) Hendrix Lapierre (LC, Canada, Chicoutimi QMJHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 11
DECEMBER RANKING: 15
ANALYSIS: Concussions are always scary — even more so when they start adding up, which is now the case for Lapierre — so that is a serious concern going forward and will inevitably have a negative impact on his draft stock. Lapierre’s play prior to his latest concussion also left a lot to be desired, failing to maintain all his momentum from the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. Lapierre was a standout at that summertime tournament — with Craig Button touting him as a potential candidate for first overall — but he wasn’t able to carry over that success to his QMJHL season with Chicoutimi.
Perhaps the draft-year pressure and increased expectations were holding him back to some degree — only managing two goals through 19 games before getting hurt again, albeit with 15 assists for 17 points — but Lapierre hasn’t been as effective, let alone as productive, as anticipated. The bar was set awfully high coming out of the Hlinka — debuting at No. 9 in my preseason rankings and hanging around the top 10 until now — but I’m still confident he’s a top-15 talent in this draft class based on that starring performance, which drew favourable comparisons to Patrice Bergeron for his two-way prowess and all-around game. Lapierre was looking like a safer pick at that time, a safe bet to be a good pro, but not anymore — not after sustaining his third diagnosed concussion in the span of eight months.
2) Ty Smilanic (LW/LC, USA, NTDP U18)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 35
DECEMBER RANKING: 53
ANALYSIS: This fall — and the next — were largely the result of some reshuffling and subsequent groupings within my second round. Smilanic could still be the top American forward and the top player from the National Team Development Program to get drafted in 2020. That team and that nation in general are experiencing a down year — at least in comparison to 2019’s record-setting standards — but Smilanic remains one of their better talents. His competition on those fronts include Antonio Stranges of OHL London (No. 24) and USHL Chicago teammates Sean Farrell (No. 45) and fast-rising Brendan Brisson (No. 75) among forwards, plus fellow NTDPers Thomas Bordeleau (No. 32) and Luke Tuch (No. 54) — spoiler alert, Tuch is the next guy on this list — while defencemen Jake Sanderson (No. 40) and Tyler Kleven (No. 55) from The Program could also be selected ahead of those six forwards.
Regardless, there is lots to like about Smilanic — from his speed to his skill to his work ethic — and he has been producing just fine. His stat-line isn’t amazing and he’s not among the NTDP’s leading scorers because he missed time to injury — with 10 fewer games played — but he typically passes the eye test, so don’t read too much into this month’s fall. Smilanic could be back on the rise in January. For the record, Smilanic was a first-rounder for me in the preseason rankings (No. 27) and through October (No. 29), so I’ve been quite high on him overall despite landing here for December. I wouldn’t rule him out as a first-rounder going forward.
3) Luke Tuch (LW, USA, NTDP U18)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 37
DECEMBER RANKING: 54
ANALYSIS: Tuch is a real solid prospect, but he doesn’t “pop” like those other five and thus is the least likely to be the first American forward taken in 2020. Tuch plays more of a power game without much finesse — similar to his older brother Alex in Vegas, who was a first-rounder in 2014 — but Luke is looking more like a second-rounder as of today. In terms of playing style, he’s more comparable to NTDP alum Ryder Rolston (No. 76), now of USHL Waterloo, among this draft class. They could very well be good pros — good up-and-down wingers in the NHL — but they won’t “wow” the scouts in the same way as Smilanic, Stranges, Bordeleau, Farrell and Brisson. They simply aren’t as sexy.
Worth noting, I now have Bordeleau as the top-ranked NTDP forward — moving up four spots for December in pulling away from that grouping with Smilanic and Tuch, though there isn’t a ton separating those six Americans ranging from Stranges (No. 24) to Brisson (No. 75).
4) Pavel Novak (RW, Czech Republic, Kelowna WHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 46
DECEMBER RANKING: 56
ANALYSIS: Novak missed much of the last month — sidelined by an eight-game suspension that seemed heavy-handed — but has continued to produce since returning. He has been finding the scoresheet with regularity as a rookie in North America — he’s still in the running for WHL rookie of the year — despite some scouts knocking his size and skating style. There is no denying that Novak is an offensive catalyst.
However, it has been a disappointing month for Novak, with a couple of snubs in addition to that suspension. To some surprise, Novak wasn’t invited to the Czech Republic selection camp for the World Juniors after starring for his home country at the Hlinka. And to more surprise, Novak wasn’t named to the CHL Top Prospects Game, though he’ll still get a showcase in front of NHL scouts come May with Kelowna hosting the Memorial Cup tournament. All things considered, he’s still a second-rounder for me — for the time being — and this little fall in my rankings is surely the least of the December disappointments for Novak.
5) Oliver Suni (RW, Finland, Oshawa OHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 49
DECEMBER RANKING: 61
ANALYSIS: Suni slipped after slumping a little before suffering an injury — currently sidelined “week to week” with hopes of returning by the CHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 16. Suni had been trending up towards the first round thanks to his hot start — with some scouts seeing and sensing first-round talent — but he has levelled off in the second round since cooling off. It’ll be interesting to see how Suni responds to this layoff and whether he can return to form for the stretch run. I like the player — I already liked him at the Hlinka — so if Suni turns it up again, he’ll likely be back on the rise for me.
6) Lleyton Moore (LD, Canada, Oshawa OHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 62
DECEMBER RANKING: 72
ANALYSIS: Moore is Suni’s teammate in Oshawa, an impressive skater who has been underachieving offensively based on his skill level. Moore should be capable of more and often leaves scouts wanting more as a result. He is another prospect that passes the eye test — and catches the eye — despite not having eye-popping stats. Those may be plays on words, but it is the truth on all fronts. The upside is there for Moore to take a run at the first round — with a more productive second half — but his lack of production to date and as of late caused this fall for December.
7) Emil Heineman (LW, Sweden, Leksands J20)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 51
DECEMBER RANKING: 68
ANALYSIS: Heineman is still lighting it up — leading the Swedish junior league in goals at the time of my December rankings — and putting together an impressive season as a previously unheralded prospect in the midst of a breakout during his draft year. Heineman is outproducing Hlinka standout Daniel Ljungman (No. 57) and remains a riser in the big picture — not a faller — but I pumped the brakes on my aggressive ranking from November, when Heineman was my biggest riser overall in soaring up 69 spots (from No. 120 to No. 51). That felt a bit too high in hindsight, but Heineman is still in my second-round bubble tier despite landing on this list through no fault of his own.
8) Simon Knak (RW, Switzerland, Portland WHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 81
DECEMBER RANKING: 104
ANALYSIS: Knak’s fall was similar to Suni’s as another import slowing down offensively. I wouldn’t say Knak hit a wall as much as a speedbump, but he could get a boost by representing Switzerland at the World Juniors, assuming he makes the cut for his country. Knak isn’t lacking in skill and he’s in a good spot to excel under Mike Johnston in Portland, so he could certainly trend up again in the New Year.
Knak and Novak weren’t the only WHL prospects trending down for me in December, with a few others listed as honourable mentions among this month’s fallers and a handful being removed from my rankings as I made room for more U.S. high-schoolers. For those who don’t know, the WHL is my wheelhouse — the league that I cover and scout the most, being based in Kelowna — so I tend to be higher on WHL prospects to start the draft year before moving them down my rankings as I become more familiar with the rest of the draft class. That may not be fair to everybody — or anybody — but that is how it works for me. In saying that, I’m still fairly high on all the Dub kids listed here despite their falls from November.
9) Alex Gaffney (LC, USA, Muskegon USHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 90
DECEMBER RANKING: 112
ANALYSIS: Gaffney could fall in the draft because of size concerns — yes, many teams are still concerned about size and he is small — but his fall in my rankings was more a matter of being overtaken by risers amid my monthly reshuffling. Gaffney is having a decent season — putting up a good amount of points — and he has plenty of talent and potential, but it’s always easier to lower the little guys. Gaffney is a kid that could grow on me in the second half, but for now I’m fine with him in the fourth round — albeit, still in my third-round tweener tier that ends with this next guy.
10) Dylan Peterson (RC, USA/Canada, NTDP U18)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 84
DECEMBER RANKING: 113
ANALYSIS: Peterson isn’t producing as hoped in his draft year, but there is still lots to like in his package of size and skill. Peterson should be a man among boys at 6-foot-4 and almost 200 pounds and could become the total package as a pro, but he hasn’t been a consistent force or dominating like many anticipated. That has turned Peterson into a polarizing prospect, with some continuing to rank him as a first-rounder based on those tools and upside, while others — like me — are dropping him after failing to be impressed in the present.
That is fine — and fair — but we must remember that the draft is all about the future and so much of scouting is projecting, which may bode well for Peterson’s stock. Sure, he is underachieving to some degree, but his ceiling is still perceived to be higher than most. I see shades of Mark Jankowski and Joe Colborne — which isn’t necessarily a good thing — but they were both first-rounders. And Peterson is right-handed unlike those two lefties, which makes him even more of a coveted commodity in NHL circles. Realizing that, this is probably as low as I go with Peterson and he is a good bet to trend back up into my top 100 in the months to come — especially if the goals start coming for him.
NOTE: Here are seven more double-digit fallers from the top four rounds of my December rankings. For the most part, these prospects also fell through the reshuffling process, while the latter was removed due to a severe injury and uncertain return.
Kasper Puutio (RD, Finland, Swift Current WHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 70
DECEMBER RANKING: 81
Eemil Viro (LD, Finland, TPS U20)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 72
DECEMBER RANKING: 82
Cross Hanas (LW, USA/Canada, Portland WHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 89
DECEMBER RANKING: 117
Tristen Robins (RC, Canada, Saskatoon WHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 88
DECEMBER RANKING: 118
Dylan Garand (G, Canada, Kamloops WHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 109
DECEMBER RANKING: 120
Aidan Campbell (G, USA/Canada, Erie OHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 112
DECEMBER RANKING: 122
Tucker Tynan (G, USA, Niagara OHL)
NOVEMBER RANKING: 115
DECEMBER RANKING: Not Ranked (due to injury)