Calgary Flames 2020 draft preview: upper first rounders who could fall to the Flames

All signs point to the NHL moving forward with an early-June 2020 NHL draft. While we don’t know exactly what this will look like, how the final draft order will be determined, or what will happen with the many unresolved conditional picks, it looks like the Flames will be picking somewhere around the middle of the first round. If the order is determined by points percentage at the time of the pause, the Flames would have the 16th overall selection.

There are lots of great draft resources out there, so we took the liberty of consolidating all those rankings using a mean rank, and putting together a list of players who will likely be selected just ahead of the 16th pick, but could slide to the Flames.

Previously: Potential Mid-First Round Picks, Potential First Round Reaches

1. Jake Sanderson

Mean RankLow RankHigh RankPos.Ht.Wt.TeamLeagueGPGAP
111711LHD6’-1″185 lbsUSA U-18NTDP4772229

Jake Sanderson is just one of many, many impressive prospects trained and developed in the United States National Team Development Program. Currently a member of the USA U-18 team in the NTDP, Sanderson is commited to the University of North Dakota for the 2021-22 season. He’s a left shot defender that brings size and skill to the defensive end of the rink.

There is debate over who is the second best defenseman of the 2020 draft class. Behind Jamie Drysdale, there are several prospects that are in the running. If the past few drafts are an indication, it’s very likely that more than one, and maybe even three or four defenders are selected in the top 10. Defense is one of the most difficult positions to find, and that’s why last year saw players like Moritz Seider and Phillip Broberg join Bowen Byram in the top 10, even when they were projected to go much later in the round. Teams value defense and there’s a good chance Sanderson is gone well before the Flames pick. However, if he is available, he’s an intriguing prospect.

Before anything else, Sanderson is firstly a leader. He was the captain of his U-17 team in 2018-19, and captain of the U-18 team in 2019-20. At almost every level, Sanderson has worn a letter and been a key member of the leadership group. This is a quality that teams look for, and there’s no doubt this helps his draft stock.

Sanderson is the textbook definition of a top pairing defenseman. First and foremost, he’s an elite defender. His play in defending opposition chances below the circles is second to none, and he relies on excellent hockey IQ to anticipate passes before they happen and break up down low plays from the corners or behind the net. His first couple steps are powerful and allow him to keep strong positioning at all times, clear the crease, and bust up the wings on the counterattack.

He’s a key contributor on the penalty kill, even as a true freshman this past season, and he does all of this within the bounds of the rulebook. Sanderson is an incredibly disciplined player and rarely finds himself in a position where he needs to take a hook or a trip to keep opponents from gaining inside position. His skating is also one of his best assets and you’ll find lots of highlights that showcase Sanderson breaking up a play and flying right up the ice the other way. He’s got great edgework and agility and has a keen ability to turn defense into offense.

It’s unfortunate for Sanderson’s draft stock that none of the scheduled international tournaments were able to occur this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The USNTDP’s mandate is to not only develop players to produce in professional hockey, but also train teens to participate and dominate at international events. Sanderson would have likely gained a lot more fans had he been able to show off his talents at the U-18s or other tourneys usually on the regular calendar. He did have a great performance at the BioSteel All-American Prospects Game where he was named MVP, but that’s not a hugely scouted or viewed event.

Sanderson’s main weakness is on the offensive side of the game. His point totals and contributions on the power play are limited, which does hamper his overall ceiling. However, Sanderson projects to be a top pairing defender, and an incredibly reliable player who coaches can pair with less defensively minded blueliners.

Defense is always a sought-after position and any team would benefit from adding a player like Sanderson to their prospect pool.

2. Dawson Mercer

Mean RankLow RankHigh RankPos.Ht.Wt.TeamLeagueGPGAP
122012RW6’-0″172 lbsDrummondville, ChicoutimiQMJHL42243660

In the first round of the draft, team’s generally look to find top-six forwards, top-four defenders, or starting goaltenders. Mercer definitely fits the bill as a top-six forward, and has been an offensive leader in the QMJHL this season for Drummondville and Chicoutimi. He’s a six-foot right winger and can play up and down the lineup.

Most scouting reports on Mercer begin with the disclaimer that he’s not a playmaker or a sniper. He’s both.

On the playmaking side, Mercer has shown a penchant for being a great distributor. His passes are swift, accurate, and smooth. He can set up his teammates tape-to-tape in one fluid motion and can find seams with ease. However, if passing lanes are blocked, he’s not afraid to shoot either.

Mercer possesses what has been described as an elite shot, some paint him as a natural sniper, and this is evident with how he keeps his stick close to the ice at all times, always ready to rip the puck at the net.

And it doesn’t even end there. Combining keen playmaking skills and an incredible shot, Mercer has impressive offensive awareness and instincts. His hockey IQ is strong in all three zones, and he uses a quick first step to create time and space for himself both in his own zone and on offense. He’s a big player who is tough to knock off the puck as well, just another notch in his offensive belt.

His play in his own zone isn’t something scouts usually compliment, but his work on offense is undeniable. If he’s paired on a line with a defensively responsible center, he should be just fine. One of the most intriguing lines from Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analysis was this: “An 18-year-old force who can look like a flashy 10-year veteran in one instance and a smothering checker the next ? Sign me up”.

For what teams look to target with their first round picks, Mercer seems to be a perfect fit.

3. Connor Zary

Mean RankLow RankHigh RankPos.Ht.Wt.TeamLeagueGPGAP
13249C6’-0″174 lbsKamloopsWHL57384886

Connor Zary is the top-line center for the Kamloops Blazers. He’s six-feet, 174 pounds, and shoots left. He’s also fifth in scoring in the WHL with 86 points in just 57 games, 38 of them goals. He’s an offensive juggernaut on a division leading Blazers team, but also plays in key defensive situations. He boasts size, skill, and a solid 200-foot game.

Zary is the kind of player you win with. He plays in all situations, serving as the top line center 5v5, and also a key contributor on the power play and penalty kill. He possesses excellent vision and hockey IQ that allow him to process the game at a high level. His anticipation and ability to see the play develop is impeccable and is one of the surefire reasons he projects to be a top-six center in the NHL.

A consistent evaluation of Zary’s game is, well, how consistent he is. Scouts have noted on numerous reports that one of the most appealing parts of what Zary brings to the table is that he never disappears. He plays with remarkable consistency, always bringing it for the full 60 minutes each and every night. This is a unique quality. Elite junior players can often fade in and out of games simply because they don’t need to show up for the full contest. They can put up a couple points on a few shifts and then coast for the rest of the game. This tendency can cause issues when the going gets a lot tougher in the NHL. You can be sure that Zary will not fall into that trap. When he gets to the NHL, he’ll be a tough competitor and bring his A-game on every shift. That’s something that coaches love, but isn’t something you can teach.

A quote from the Blazers’ BM Matt Bardsley reaffirms that note: “He wants to be the best, he wants to be a difference-maker. He’s very aware of what’s going on and he’s a student of the game. He’s really dialed in.”

That’s great praise from the big boss.

Zary’s key weakness is his skating. It’s probably the only reason he will fall a few spots in the draft, but he more than makes up for it in smarts. He projects as a versatile second line center, likely in a playmaking role. Big, reliable, centers who play with consistency and drive on every shift don’t grow on trees. Zary would also be a great addition to the prospect pool of any team in the league.

4. Dylan Holloway

Mean RankLow RankHigh RankPos.Ht.Wt.TeamLeagueGPGAP
14219C6’-0″192 lbsUniv. of WisconsinNCAA358917

Dylan Holloway is a hulking, left-shot center currently playing for the University of Wisconsin in the NCAA. His hometown is Bragg Creek, AB, and prior to the NCAA, he played AAA for the Calgary Flames, and for the Okotoks Oilers in the AJHL. He’s a local kid, and is a prime candidate to be selected in the middle of the first round.

The first thing scouts notice about Holloway is his relentlessness. On defense, he’s always engaged in puck battles, he never backs down from a challenge from the opposition, and he’s a pain to deal with in his own zone. On the forecheck, he has a knack for creating turnovers and bearing down on opposition defensemen. This guy plays with heart. His give-a-crap meter is through the roof on every shift, and he lays it all on the line for his team whenever he’s out there. Talk about an attractive quality.

Holloway projects as an offensive power forward. He’s got good skill, but good grit to go along with it. He won’t be bothered by bigger NHL players and he’ll be able to hold his own along the boards, in the corners, and in front of the net.

His NCAA offensive totals don’t jump off the page, but that has a lot to do with his position on the depth chart. Top NCAA schools are often loaded with the best of the best graduates from the USNTDP, and Wisconsin is one of those schools. Holloway was forced to play second fiddle to the likes of Alex Turcotte, Cole Caufield, and Owen Lindmark this past season, so it’s not really fair to assess his abilities on his point totals solely.

Even with the trio of stars on his team, he was a key contributor for Wisconsin this season. Holloway is a hound off the puck and even when he’s not denting the scoresheet, he’s still making a positive impact on every single shift. He can play up and down the lineup and obeys his coach’s instruction to a tee. An interesting observation from Steve Kourianos of The Draft Analyst speaks to this: “By watching him react to puck movement accordingly while maintaining positional flexibility, you get the sense that Holloway is not trying to do everyone’s job and listens to the coaching staff’s instructions.”

This is unique. Coachability isn’t something that every top prospect has. It’s a quality that speaks to his ability to fit in on a team and stay accountable for what his job is on the ice.

Holloway is a jack of all trades. He can play down the middle or on the wing, can play the role of playmaker or finisher, and can be relied on to play against the opposition’s best players. He’s solid in both ends and can really be described as a complete player. What really makes him a top prospect is his high-end hockey IQ and vision.

His stick is always in the right place, he seems to always be able to read the play a second ahead of everyone else, and this helps lead to both quick transitions on offense and quick break ups on defense.

With the chance to take on a more responsible role next season, Holloway could explode on offense. His point totals could skyrocket and whichever team ends up selecting him in the draft will probably end up with an absolute steal. His skills are undeniable and he will thrive given the opportunity.



Which of these four do you think are most likely to fall to the Flames? Which is the most intriguing? Let us know on twitter @wincolumnblog.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part three of our draft series focusing on first round dark horses.

TWC’s 2020 NHL Draft Coverage Series: Potential Mid-First Round Picks | Potential First Round Reaches

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