For the first time in eight years, the San Jose Sharks own a top-ten selection in the NHL entry draft as they'll pick 9th overall on June 26th in South Florida. Prior to the real thing, we at SB Nation conducted our annual mock draft with each website in our network of hockey blogs making picks on behalf of the team they cover. Unsurprisingly, The Copper & Blue and Die By The Blade went with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel 1st and 2nd overall. Here's how the rest of the draft board shook out prior to our selection:
- 3. Arizona: Dylan Strome (Five For Howling)
- 4. Toronto: Mitch Marner (Pension Plan Puppets)
- 5. Carolina: Noah Hanifin (Canes Country)
- 6. New Jersey: Mathew Barzal (In Lou We Trust)
- 7. Philadelphia: Ivan Provorov (Broad Street Hockey)
- 8. Columbus: Zach Werenski (The Cannon)
No matter what, the Sharks are going to have a chance to acquire the best prospect in their organization in two weeks assuming they keep the 9th overall pick. But the first eight selections transpiring the way they did in this mock draft was less than ideal. All three elite defense prospects have been taken, while Devils pick Mathew Barzal arguably represents the fifth member of a group of five top forwards who are clearly a cut above the other offensive talent available. Still, with the 9th overall pick, we're excited to select forward Pavel Zacha from the OHL's Sarnia Sting.
What do the scouts say?
Zacha has played so few games on either North American ice or against kids his age level (just 37 regular season appearances this year in his rookie OHL season due to a combination of injury and suspension) that the eye test, particularly of scouts who have followed him since his days playing in his native Czech Republic, is going to be paramount when judging the 6'3", 212-pound power forward. Here's ESPN's Corey Pronman, who has Zacha 11th in his final pre-draft rankings:
Zacha's elite hands and puck skills are a common theme throughout scouting reports of him, and it's not difficult to see why given that he can make plays like this:
Last Word On Sports ranked Zacha 9th and compared his playing style to that of a more physical Eric Staal. Here's some other stuff they had to say about him:
Pavel Zacha has the size and skills to be a power forward one day at the NHL level, but also possesses elite skill to be a sniper, or a top notch playmaker. In the offensive end, he really can do it all. He has the power to get through checks and drive the net, and the soft hands necessary to finish in close. Zacha’s wrist shot is elite. He shows great power and a hair trigger release. He also has a very hard and accurate one timer.
While Zacha is a shoot first type of player, he does show the vision and passing skills to be an very good playmaker as well. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and absolutely punishes defenders with hits in the corners and behind the net. He has the size and stickhandling to protect the puck in the cycle game and maintain possession, but he seems to lack the instincts to do it effectively right now. It should be something he can learn though good coaching though, as the tools are there. As he learns to extend plays, his production will improve.
In terms of the major scouting services, Zacha was ranked 8th among North American prospects by Central Scouting, 10th overall by ISS and 6th in Bob McKenzie's final rankings.
What do the stats say?
Here's where things get dicey with Zacha and why I personally wouldn't rank him alongside players like Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner as some of the safer bets to become first-line forwards in this draft: his draft-year production was very underwhelming. However, there are a number of mitigating factors that make Zacha's lack of elite-level scoring this season less concerning.
The biggest is that Zacha, due to two separate suspensions, an upper-body injury and participation on Team Czech Republic's World Junior team, played in just 37 games this season, his first in the OHL. There are plenty of elite prospects who have had 37-game stretches where they've "only" hovered around a point-per-game average; unlike Zacha, though, they had the luxury of a larger sample size in which to shine. This 37-game stint is literally all we have to judge Zacha off of in terms of his play in North America or against his peer group, as he spent the 2013-14 season playing against men in the Czech Republic's top pro league as a 16-year-old. That in itself was a good sign and it's also entirely understandable that Zacha may have had issues acclimating to an entirely new country this year as a teenager, which may have affected his production.
It also should be noted that, in context, Zacha's production isn't much different from some of the other forwards projected to go in his range. According to CHLStats.com, which estimates CHL ice time, Zacha's 5v5 points-per-60-minutes rate of 1.95 wasn't significantly different from that of Travis Konecny (2.14) and was better than someone like Lawson Crouse (1.69). Zacha's per-minute production this season was actually even on par with what some top OHL prospects from the 2014 draft managed this year, including first rounders Sam Bennett (albeit in just 11 games), Robby Fabbri and Sonny Milano. An April 1997 birthday, Zacha is also one of the younger players available in this draft, having just recently turned 18.
Based on Zacha's size, age and scoring in his draft year, a list of historical OHL comparables for him includes Hall Of Famer Ron Francis and Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry. Of course the list also includes noted draft busts like John McFarland, Akim Aliu and Philip McRae. There's no question drafting Zacha, especially as high as 9th, is a risk: we're essentially betting that the kid formerly considered a top-five prospect in this draft class and who possesses a lethal combination of size, skating, puck skills and finishing ability can rebound from a shortened and disappointing debut junior season to become the dominant power forward his toolkit suggests he can be. We're basically hoping Zacha's development path is similar to that of Brandon Saad, who fell to the second round in 2011 due to an underwhelming draft year after initially being touted as a top prospect, only to explode as a 19-year-old and evolve into a key contributor on a Stanley Cup-winning team.
Who did we pass on?
This was a difficult choice to make and there were a number of prospects considered. Ultimately we decided against taking a defenseman since blueliners like Oliver Kylington and Jeremy Roy felt like reaches at 9th overall, but they're certainly players to think about if the Sharks opt to trade down into the late teens. The final contenders up front, apart from Zacha, were Finnish center/right wing Mikko Rantanen, Ottawa 67's center Travis Konecny, Cape Breton winger Evgeny Svechnikov and USHL center/left wing Kyle Connor.
Rantanen's a very good prospect but his somewhat underwhelming draft-year numbers in the Finnish Elite League compared to what previous top prospects like Mikael Granlund and Teuvo Teravainen accomplished there in their draft seasons, along with the fact that Rantanen is one of the older players in this draft class, soured us a bit on the big forward. Svechnikov was a very tempting pick but seems like a player whom the Sharks would be best served to trade down for which, combined with concerns about his skating ability, took him out of the running. Konecny is a personal favorite but his lack of size, concussion history and good-but-not-amazing draft-year production saw him lose out to the bigger Zacha. Size clearly doesn't matter in the NHL as much as it used to but if you're picking in the top ten, you can afford to be a little picky.
The clear runner-up, and a player who I wouldn't be at all surprised (or disappointed) to see the actual Sharks select was USHL forward Kyle Connor. A 6'1", 183-pound two-way forward with zero discernible weaknesses to his game, Connor's draft-year and draft-1 year production in the USHL ranks among the most productive seasons that league has seen in the past decade. Connor's historical comparables include players like Max Pacioretty, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and Erik Cole and his commitment to the University of Michigan for next season is always a good sign in terms of his likelihood of developing into an impact pro.
Ultimately, though, we opted to swing for the fences a bit with a higher-upside prospect in Zacha rather than more of a sure-shot NHLer in Connor; the Sharks need to replace Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau eventually and while it's likely going to be impossible to do so without a top-3 pick, Zacha's impressive tools seem to make him a better bet to someday be that next-level scorer San Jose's system desperately needs. From Chris Tierney to Matt Nieto to Barclay Goodrow, the Sharks have tons of good young two-way forwards. What they need is an offensive star, and Zacha has a legitimate chance to be that.
What does he look like in action?
Be sure to stay until (or just skip ahead to) the end of this video; Zacha scored five goals in five games at the recent U18 world championships and every single one of them is highlight reel quality.