3 Players I'm Higher on than Most
Taking a look at Brad Lambert, Ty Nelson, and Viktor Neuchev
On a yearly basis every single scout — beginner or veteran, young or old — latches on to some players that they believe in significantly more than most, be it due to a gut feeling they give them, the microstats they put up, or the individual skills or toolkits they possess. I’m no different. Last year, the four players I ranked higher than the vast majority of other scouts/scouting networks were Jesper Wallstedt (3), Fabian Lysell (4), Logan Stankoven (13), and Peter Reynolds (38). Thus far, I have three personal favourites of the 2022 class that I would stick my neck out for on draft day: Brad Lambert, Ty Nelson, and Viktor Neuchev.
First off, hockey/drafting philosophy
I’m a big believer in drafting for upside at the draft — as my rankings of Wallstedt, Lysell, and Stankoven should make apparent — the way I see it, there isn’t much of a point in drafting someone who has little chance of becoming more than a fourth-line forward or a third-pairing defenceman in the top three rounds of the draft. Take big swings; you’ll miss a lot, but at least you’ll end up with some valuable cornerstones rather than a myriad of replacement-level players.
With that in mind, taking big swings is also dependent on every individual’s hockey philosophy, what do they believe is most valuable. Is it hockey IQ? Physicality? High-level tools like a great shot or outstanding vision? Is it the cohesiveness of a player’s entire package? Each of these is valuable, but evaluating just how much value each brings in the NHL, and therefore the perceived potential value of a prospect at the pro level, differs from scout to scout.
Here’s my philosophy: When it comes to defencemen, I put a lot of value in transition defence. If a player defends their blueline at a high level, the opposing team will have a much harder time scoring goals and creating dangerous scoring chances as they would struggle to even get into the offensive zone with control. I also think that mobility is crucial for defencemen in the modern game, forwards have simply gotten too quick and elusive for cement-footed defencemen to excel. Lastly, transition offence, specifically controlled zone exits, are something I value highly. No matter how good your transition defence is, if you can’t get the puck up the ice with control, you’ll get stuck with the puck in your own net eventually.
For forwards, I put the most value in hockey IQ, transition offence, creativity, and — to a lesser degree — shooting. Hockey IQ plays such a huge role for forwards especially; it determines the routes they take — which can facilitate controlled zone entries, open up space for teammates to exploit, and open lanes for the player themselves to attack — the passes they can anticipate, the space they find, and their timing in exploiting such space. It forms the integral fabric of dangerous offensive plays. Transition offence is, of course, key, since without controlled entries, goals could never be scored. Creativity builds further upon the IQ, players with this tool make something out of nothing; every elite offensive player needs to be creative to a certain degree. Lastly, the shot. In order to score goals, you need to shoot the puck, but I don’t think that raw shooting talent is as valuable as others might. Mike Hoffman has one of the best shots in the league, but he’s on nobody’s list for the 100 best players in the league. At the same time, players that have this skill, and know how to use it are required on just about any contending team.
This is the outline of my philosophy. There are, of course, other things I value highly, like playmaking ability, manipulation, gravitational qualities, speed, etc. But these aforementioned aspects are things that always stick out to me immediately in prospects I watch because I think they are qualities that not only help determine the ceilings of these 17-18-year-old players but because I think they are valuable in determining their projectability to the NHL as well. Now, with this prelude out of the way, let me introduce you to five players that I value more highly than just about everyone else because they check a whole lot of the boxes I pay particularly close attention to.
Brad Lambert, C/RW, 6’0”, 179 lbs, JYP, Liiga, December 19, 2003
This is certainly less of a hot take than it would have been a mere week ago, but I believe that Lambert is in the top tier of draft-eligible players. At the moment, that tier consists of himself, Shane Wright, and Matthew Savoie. I still have Wright at #1, because I think his intelligence, anticipation, defensive play, and elite shot make him project quite nicely as a future first-line centre; but am I crazy to think that Lambert’s ceiling is higher? Before the WJC, most probably would have said yes. Now? I don’t know.
Few players are as gifted in offensive transition as Brad Lambert; he has the vision and processing speed to find the most effective routes, and the speed, deception, and hands to exploit them as effectively as possible. This is working to great effect against high-level professional competition in Liiga. His playmaking is also excellent, his aforementioned vision is not restricted to identifying routes; he finds open teammates with good scanning in the offensive zone, and he executes well-timed and accurate passes. With JYP, these passes have often been wasted by his rotating cast of linemates. He has had tremendously bad luck, with an unsustainably bad PDO (on-ice shooting percentage + on-ice save percentage, it should be around 1.000, his was under 0.800 earlier this season).
While Lambert lacks the shooting talent of his teammate Joakim Kemell, I rank him higher because of his elite impact in transition and his superior hockey IQ, offensive involvement, and play-driving capability. Despite his poor Liiga production by comparison to Kemell — who will break records if he maintains just half of his current pace — I Lambert is more projectable to the NHL game and has a higher ceiling than Kemell. I know some question Lambert’s decision-making, but I really think this has steadily improved over the course of the season in Finland and that he is successfully acclimating to an environment he cannot yet dominate, which he did throughout his entire prior development and at the WJC this year, for that matter.
Ty Nelson, RD, 5’10”*, 196 lbs, North Bay Battalion, OHL, March 30, 2004
There’s a possibility that Nelson ends up being my second highest-ranked defenceman by draft day. He’s currently fourth, and he could easily slip to sixth, but the tier of defencemen after Simon Nemec is really tight for me: Jiricek, Casey, Nelson, Mateychuk, and Odelius have all looked really intriguing to me for different reasons, and I would not be surprised if Nelson, the most consistent of the bunch alongside Calle Odelius, tops this group by July. On my current list, he’s sitting at 11, but 8 to 15 is really close for me, so I could see his ranking change rapidly based on a single great or poor viewing of mine from anyone in that range.
Unlike the other defencemen, I haven’t seen anybody list Nelson within their top-11, so I know I’m higher on him than most. The average ranking I’m seeing for him is around 22. I’ve just fallen in love with his transition defence. I’ve watched four of his games and I believe I’ve only seen two attackers gain a controlled 5v5 entry on his side of the ice. Simply put, he is a wall. While he’s listed as 5’10”, he’s closer to 5’8”, but that really doesn’t bother me because he’s as sturdy as an ox. He is rarely physically outmatched as his frame is far more reminiscent of Frankie Bouillon than it is of Victor Mete.
Nelson is also a fluid skater in all four directions. While his top speed isn’t amazing, he reaches it relatively quickly. One aspect of his game that impresses me more with each viewing is the functionality of his physicality. He never hits without a purpose, it is always to separate his opponent from the puck and gain possession; he is a very cerebral hitter: the brain and brawn work together. A few more of his stand-out qualities include an extremely active stick, crisp and accurate passing, and a very good shot, which he weaponizes in the offensive zone by often playing LD when attacking; as a right shot, this makes his shooting lanes far more central and dangerous.
His transition offence has mainly been very strong, but there is certainly room for improvement. His lack of a great top speed limits him somewhat as a puck carrier and he lacks some manipulative tools. He is good at carrying the puck into the neutral zone but is better off when making a pass to gain zone entries than carrying it in himself at 5v5; on the powerplay, I’ve really liked him as the primary puck carrier to gain the offensive zone. His hands are good, not great, which will exacerbate his limitations at the pro level. Once he gains the sense of when to carry and when to pass — and he’s a strong passer when he makes that call — he will have significant positive value in offensive transition, to go along with elite transition defence and very good in-zone impacts at both ends. He also has both PP and PK upside; he’s a very versatile defenceman, which I love.
Viktor Neuchev, LW, 6’2”, 165 lbs, Yekaterinburg, MHL, October 25, 2003
This is possibly a name you’re encountering for the first time, or at the very least a player you’re relatively unfamiliar with unless you’re actively scouting the MHL. It may come as a shock, then, that I have Neuchev in my first round (currently at #19) and in the same tier as prominent names like Marco Kaspar, Owen Beck, and Ivan Miroshnichenko… oh, and he’s at the top of that tier at the moment. He may very well be a player I hype forever and who never ends up playing a game in North America and/or fails to meet my lofty expectations, making me look like the right amateur I am, but I just can’t not believe in him.
He checks almost every single box I look for in forwards, and while I’m aware the MHL is a tire-fire league defensively, Neuchev dominates games in a way other highly-touted players in the league just haven’t done quite yet in my viewings — such as Gleb Trikozov and Ilya Kvochko. And for context, I’m a big fan of Kvochko (he’s sitting at #25) and I have Gleb in the tier above both Neuchev and Kvochko because he’s demonstrated the highest upside.
Neuchev is dynamic. He’s an elusive and fast skater who manipulates his opponents, has a constant gravitational pull, which, when combined with intelligent and creative routes through the neutral and offensive zones, creates space for teammates to exploit. He makes constant use of well-executed crossovers, which allow him to attack not only north-south but weaving east and west throughout his quick counterattacking game. He also knows how to exploit the space he creates with a well-timed pass to his teammate, which leads to many medium and high-danger scoring chances.
His playmaking is at its best in this scenario, where he carries the puck up the ice, creates a controlled entry with ease, and weaves through the defence before tapping the puck into the large empty space his movement and skill created and into which his teammate is skating. He is less of a “send the perfect cross-seam pass through three defenders” kind of playmaker, which is perfectly fine because he executes his style of playmaking so well. Neuchev also possesses a cannon of a shot, his one-timer is especially devastating, which is a big weapon on the powerplay.
His engagement and work rate are interesting. In the offensive and neutral zones, he’s constantly in motion. When his team has the puck, he’s zipping around trying to create space and exploit it. When his team doesn’t, he’s an extremely aggressive forechecker. The defensive zone is another matter. His positioning is fine, but he stops moving and loses his aggression. This passive defence is likely the only reason he doesn’t play on the penalty kill. His coach clearly loves him, he plays more than 20 minutes on most nights, unlike Trikozov or Kvochko — or even Danila Yurov who hasn’t hit the 20-minute mark in any of his 6 MHL games this season — Neuchev is averaging 20:47 minutes and has even hit 26 minutes twice according to the MHL website. The website also reveals that along with his 40 points and 23 goals through 39 games, he is averaging 6.1 shots per game, is shooting at a sustainable 9.7% and that 13 of his goals have come on the powerplay, with the other 11 coming at even strength.
The modern game is one of speed and skill. Neuchev is extremely quick and has really good hands, though I wouldn’t call either tool elite. When you add in his intelligence and dynamism with the puck, not to mention his playmaking and shooting skill, Neuchev seems tailor-made for the modern NHL to me. Maybe the MHL is a bad league and that’s playing tricks on my eyes, it’s possible, but I see a winger with top-6 upside and a decent fallback as a bottom-6 skilled checker, as a depth scorer and annoying forechecker. Whenever I watch him, I’m trying to poke bigger holes into his game, and I just can’t; he’s extremely fun and I cannot urge you enough to watch any Yekaterinburg MHL game on YouTube (the streaming quality is excellent). I guarantee to you that #79 will stick out positively on just about every shift, he has at least one McDavid-esque shift a game (against bad defenders on a larger ice surface, of course, but still, it’s electrifying).
All statistics are courtesy of EliteProspects.com unless stated otherwise
Brad Lambert image photographed and owned by Jiri Halttunen
Ty Nelson image photographed and owned by Tom Martineau