The Nashville Predators, owners of the fourth overall pick for this month’s NHL Draft, are in position to select a prospect more than capable of developing into an NHL star.
The consensus top-five prospects are Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Drouin, Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin. Any one of those players would be a major coup for the Predators, who haven’t drafted this high since they nabbed David Legwand second overall in 1998.
The one defenseman from that group (Jones) is expected to go first overall to Colorado; the other four are all forwards. Nashville, who needs an impact forward, will get one if they don’t trade the pick. But they don’t exactly have their choice of those four forwards. Florida and Tampa Bay are slotted second and third overall, respectively, which means two of those forwards will be off the board.
If the Predators had to pick which forward they’d most like to have, it might be Barkov. And most draft projections have the Predators drafting Barkov with the No. 4 pick, right after MacKinnon and Drouin.
MacKinnon is explosive, Drouin is electric and Nichushkin is considered by some as the draft’s top talent. That being said, Barkov’s all-around game would project to fit like a glove in Nashville’s system. If he fulfills his potential, Barkov would become that true top-line center the Predators have been missing for quite some time.
Janne Kekalainen, Nashville’s European scout based in Finland, has ties to Barkov’s father. The two played together for Tappara Tampere of the Finnish Elite League in the late 1990s. The last name of Barkov is of Russian descent, but Aleksander was born and raised in Finland after his father, Alexander, moved there from Russia during his playing days.
Nashville has not drafted a Russian player since they took Alexander Radulov in the first round in 2004. Kekalainen said there is no concern whatsoever about Barkov having a Russian background in his family.
Kekalainen considers Barkov purely a Finnish prospect – and a good one at that.
“This is my 14th draft and there hasn’t been an offensive prospect like this from Finland. Ever. Not even close,” said Kekalainen, whose brother, Jarmo, is the general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. “What he did this year in the Finnish Elite League playing against men as a 17-year-old, collecting a point per game and playing 20 minutes a game, was something nobody has ever done.”
TSN analyst Craig Button, a former NHL general manager and scout, added, “He wasn’t just a 17-year-old playing in the Finnish Elite League; he was one of the very best players in the league. I saw him against NHL competition in the fall. I saw him one night match up against Mikko Koivu and he was outstanding – outstanding.”
At this time every year, pundits like to draw comparisons between draft prospects and regular NHLers. Since most hockey fans don’t get to see these prospects up close or on TV too often, if ever, some pay attention to the comparisons. Barkov has been widely likened to Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, which Kekalainen calls “very accurate.”
The only knock on Barkov’s game from draft experts is his skating. He has other great tools – most notably his elite hockey sense – but if there is one weakness in his game, his skating may be it. However, Barkov’s large 6-foot-3 frame makes up for what he may lack in speed.
“It’s not a red flag,” Kekalainen said of Barkov’s skating ability. “Kopitar was a worse skater when he was this age. For bigger guys it has less effect because they have the size advantage, they can protect the puck.”
This past season at the young age of 17, Barkov compiled 48 points in 53 games while playing against grown men. Not only did he produce under those circumstances, but he dominated at times. Most believe, including Kekalainen, he is NHL-ready and will eventually be a difference-making center.
Button is also very high on Barkov, projecting the Finn to be “an elite No. 1 NHL center.” Most draft rankings have Barkov ranked outside of the top three, behind Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin, but Button doesn’t see much difference between those four prospects (five if you include Nichushkin).
“If you wanted to have Barkov in the conversation [for the No. 1 pick], it’s not out of the realm of possibility. That’s how good he is. Remember, a lot of people haven’t seen Barkov as much as they’ve seen Jones or MacKinnon or Drouin. Just because he may not be there in draft rankings or mock drafts doesn’t mean he’s not in a class with those players,” Button said, adding, “If the team picking first stood up and said, ‘With the first pick we draft Aleksander Barkov,’ it wouldn’t be one of those things where I fell out of my chair.”
One of the Predators’ shortcomings over time has been the lack of a true top-line center and/or game-changer at the forward position. When you look at some of the teams that have ousted the Predators in recent postseasons, they had those elite players that made a difference in crunch time. The Detroit teams had Steve Yzerman (2004) and Pavel Datsyuk (2008), Chicago had Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Vancouver had Ryan Kesler, San Jose had Joe Thornton.
When those players took over a game, the Predators didn’t have a response. That is one reason, in addition to the down season in 2012-13, why GM David Poile would like to become more “dynamic” offensively.
No matter who the Predators select fourth overall, they’ll be getting a dynamic player that has potential to be a great NHLer. With a No. 1 center being a need, Button believes it would be best if they came out of the draft with either MacKinnon or Barkov, as Drouin and Nichushkin are both wingers.
MacKinnon and Barkov have different styles of play. MacKinnon utilizes his speed to create offense, while Barkov is three inches taller and uses that size to his advantage on both ends of the ice.
The numbers both Drouin (105 points in 49 games) and MacKinnon (75 points in 44 games) posted this season with Halifax of the QMJHL stand out on paper, but stats in Canadian junior leagues are not always a tell-tale sign for players (not a knock on either player, mind you). Barkov was still productive against older competition, which is a big reason why he’s likely to go in the top-five.
(Nichushkin, whose game has been likened to Rick Nash and Evgeni Malkin, is the wild card at the top of the draft. He seems to be the prototypical risk-reward type player, as concerns still exist when it comes to prospects from the KHL. Nichushkin did recently state to R-sport that he has the intent of playing in North America next season (strictly the NHL). The same report suggests the Predators have expressed interest in Nichushkin, but the fact remains the team hasn’t selected a Russian in nine years.)
Sitting at fourth overall, the Predators won’t have their choice of MacKinnon or Barkov. At least one of them, if not both, will likely be taken in the top three. Hypothetically, if the Predators had to decide between the two centers, Button would lean slightly towards Barkov as being the better fit for the Predators’ future.
“Barkov may be a little less dynamic [than MacKinnon], but he’s a little bit more of that player that can thrive on his own,” Button said. “And if you’re looking at [Filip] Forsberg as a left or right winger, who would he benefit more from playing with? If you’re asking me, today, I think the better fit with Forsberg is Barkov.”
Especially after an impressive performance from the Halifax duo in the recently-completed Memorial Cup, draft experts will be drooling over MacKinnon and Drouin between now and June 30th – if they aren’t doing so enough already. But the player the Predators could very well end up with is just as good a prospect as those two.
“The bottom line is Aleksander Barkov is an elite prospect,” Button said. “I just don’t see any way he’s not going to be a really good player in the NHL.”