While most of the hype has centred on Shane Wright and Juraj Slafkovsky, there are other names to be aware of. In the continuation of our four-part presentation of the latest episode of Habsent Minded, Elite Prospects writer and Eyes on the Prize alumnus David St-Louis joins host Patrik Bexell to discuss the other top prospects in this year’s draft class.
Patrik Bexell: Let’s talk about some of the other top prospects, starting with [Simon] Nemec and [David] Jiříček. As an aside, it’s great to see some excellent prospects coming from Central Europe. What differentiates these two defenders?
David St-Louis: There was a great debate about these two all season, and we flip-flopped for a while before Jiříček took the lead. Then Jiříček got injured and Nemec had a great postseason and World Championship, so the debate was back on.
Honestly, if Jiříček didn’t get injured, I don’t think it would be close. I’m really a big fan of Jiříček — probably the biggest fan out there. He was my main contender [for taking Shane Wright’s position] and I had him as my 1b for a while during this season. I’m not sure that everyone at Elite Prospects shared that view, but I really, really liked him.
What I liked about Jiříček is that he reminded me a bit of Moritz Seider in his draft year, except that he’s a little bit older than Seider was and his game is a little bit more refined than Seider’s was at the same point in time in both their draft years. He’s a very physical defender who can play a shutdown game, yet he can also move the puck, whether through short passes or by carrying it, so he has some offensive upside. Some people call him an offensive defenceman, but I don’t really see that future for him. He’ll probably put up points, but his primary game will be shutting down the opposition. And I think this because of his range, his physicality, his generally good skating ability, his knack for making short passes to teammates, his ability to pick up pucks off the wall and move it quickly, and how he can find the right options when regrouping. Again, he has offensive skills, but it’s these shut-down skills that I like and that make him NHL-projectable.
The issue with Jiříček right now is decision making. He has some wild sequences where he really tries to do too much, and that reminds me a bit of Simon Edvinsson. That said, when I evaluate hockey sense, I don’t care too much about decision making, as long as a player shows awareness, processing ability, and anticipation. For Jiříček, even if the decisions right now aren’t all that great, I see him have some really great flashes where he’s aware of teammates under pressure, where he can process the positions of teammates and defenders super quickly and make the right play. As long as a player has that, I’m confident that the decision making is going to improve, that a player will learn to better balance the risks and upside of individual plays as he ages. So I think Jiricek is going to be an above average thinker of the game in the NHL.
Nemec, on the other hand, is more of the prototypical “modern” NHL defenceman. [His play] is really smooth on the eyes. His puckhandling skills and his skating skills are clearly above average—he’s much smoother than Jiříček in terms of his skating stride. He’s always moving, he’s always activating with his teammates on breakouts, and he’s always moving up and down the blue line in the offensive zone, exchanging with his teammates and making great plays. I don’t think his hockey sense though is as high as Jiříček’s. I don’t see him trying to creating advantages for his team as much as Jiříček, and by that, I mean that while he’s really good at moving around the ice, sometimes, his moves lack a bit of purpose—he’s moving just for the sake of moving. That style will work super well inside some teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs or Tampa Bay Lightning, but if he’s asked to play more “old school” defence, to defend with physicality and just make simple passes, then I think there’s a risk there that Nemec won’t turn out to be the top 4 defender that everyone is hoping for. So I like Jiříček’s trajectory and projectability more, but Nemec has better tools.
Patrik: One other player that we shouldn’t forget is Logan Cooley, whom [Elite Prospects] have ranked fourth and I’ve seen him as high as number two. Is it only his height [5’ 10”] that brings him down?
David: I think people overestimate his skill level. Now, I project that his skills, relative to the NHL level, will be above average across the board in five years time. But in terms of skating, there are better skaters than him in this draft class like Brad Lambert or even Frank Nazar (who I think has a bit of a mechanics problem right now). So I think while Cooley’s skills will be good enough for him to play the same playmaker/creator role in the NHL that he’s playing right now, he’s going to hit a ceiling in certain areas at the NHL level. He definitely won’t be able to do what he did this season in the USHL, where the competition level was a little bit low and he had great team support. That said, Cooley is still obviously one of the best, if not the best playmaker in this draft class. I’m not sure many other forwards beat him when it comes to ideas, creativity, and ability to generate highlight reel plays.
Cooley’s season kind of existed in two parts. The first part, watching him, we projected him as “Wright-lite”. He was playing that sort of really efficient style, acting as a connector between his teammates. It was all about getting the puck, moving quickly, and making obvious passes and plays. He was more involved on the defensive side, and what really shone about his game was his positioning and capacity to make the right decisions. After he went to the World Juniors, everything changed in the second half. He became this wild offensive generator that would try every play in the book, constantly. At first, I didn’t like that transformation, but then I realized that this adventurism helped push his skill to an extra level. He really added to his game, he became more creative, he learned to manipulate defenders a lot better, and he’s one of the better manipulators one-on-one in this draft.
When you think of Cooley’s game at the NHL level, I imagine it will be closer to what we saw in the first half rather than the second half. If so, ultimately, I think his game will be closer to Wright than what it is right now. He’ll still retain his creativity, but he’ll become more efficient and better at positioning, better at choosing his moves. I like Cooley, but there are a lot of dimensions to his projection, a bit more uncertainty involved, and he had such different first and second halves of the season that I’m not sure where he’ll end up. Still, [like the Elite Prospects consensus,] I also had Cooley fourth on my own board.
Keep your eyes peeled for part three, coming soon, when Patrik Bexell and David St-Louis discuss whether the talent is there to justify the Habs trading up from the 26th overall position.
Readers looking for part one, explaining both why Shane Wright is the top ranked prospect and where Juraj Slafkovský has sown the seeds of doubt, can find it here.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The full, unedited conversation that serves as the source for all four parts is available below.