NHL Draft Watch: Plenty of European sleepers rise at U18 championship
NHL Draft Watch is your guide to eligible players worth keeping an eye on leading up to June's draft.
Rising: Denis Guryanov, RW/LW, Ladia Togliatti (MHL)
The uncertainty surrounding where Russian prospects will decide to play has affected their draft stock in recent seasons, but it's difficult to ignore a goal-scoring talent like Guryanov.
Guryanov split his season between Ladia Togliatti's junior team and their KHL squad, scoring 15 goals in 23 games in the MHL and one assist in eight games at the top level. He scored three goals in four MHL playoff games but his team was swept in the opening round.
Guryanov was the brightest spot on a disappointing Russian entry at the IIHF under-18 World Championship. He led the team with six goals (and seven points) in five games.
NHL Central Scouting ranks Guryanov seventh among European skaters, putting him in the conversation for the first round. He should attract interest from a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who smartly selected Nikita Kucherov with a second-round pick in 2011.
Rising: Vili Saarijarvi, D, Green Bay (USHL)
Saarijarvi had a smooth transition to North America this season, leading the Green Bay Gamblers' defense in scoring. His first USHL goal was an overtime winner, which demonstrated his ability to pinch down from the blue line and add to his team's offense.
The diminutive defenseman enjoyed a very productive under-18 tournament, leading all defensemen with nine points while helping Finland capture a silver medal. Saarijarvi was the only Finnish blue-liner to record more than one point.
Saarijarvi's size will certainly give some teams pause, but his USHL performance hints at an ability to overcome whatever disadvantages his 5-foot-9 frame present. While he is off the radar for the first round, Saarijarvi's offensive gifts should make him an intriguing option later on in the draft.
Rising: Martins Dzierkals, F, HK Riga (MHL)
It's basically impossible to be more of a sleeper than Dzierkals. He began the season playing in the Latvian pro league after lighting up the junior divisions in two previous campaigns, but he was quickly signed by the KHL's HK Riga and assigned to the franchise's junior team.
Dzierkals averaged nearly a point per game in the MHL and his production continued in international tournaments. He recorded four points in five games with Latvian's U20 team during the Division 1A tournament and led the U18 team with nine points.
Dzierkals is a relatively raw talent, but his quick, accurate shot release is on par with some players getting first-round consideration. He has been a productive player at every level of competition thus far, which is more than enough of a reason for a team to take a flier on him with a late-round pick.
McDavid vs. Goliath
Connor McDavid is trying to do something Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby couldn't: win a Memorial Cup in his draft season.
Lemieux and Crosby both led their respective teams to the tournament, but fell short of a championship. It appeared McDavid's run could end in the OHL's Western Conference final against the top-ranked Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who entered the series as favorites.
The Greyhounds boast a roster stacked with high draft picks like Darnell Nurse and Nick Ritchie, possessing the depth on paper to counter McDavid's game-changing talent, but the Erie Otters are in firm control of the series after four games, leading 3-1 thanks in no small part to McDavid's torrid scoring pace.
McDavid has 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in the series, putting an exclamation mark on a month in which he hasn't recorded fewer than two points in a contest.
Even more impressive than McDavid's stat totals is how he's recording them. He scored a natural hat trick in Game 1 and topped that feat with this absurd short-handed Forsberg-deke goal in Game 3:
"His dynamic speed, his pursuit of the puck, he sees the ice really well," Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli said after watching McDavid in Game 4. "The Greyhounds are a tough team and he battles. He battles well for the skill and speed that he has."
Instead of fading down the stretch, McDavid is only getting better, and that might be the most exciting part about his game.