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NHL Draft Team of the Month: The Early Season Sleeper Squad

The Hockey News logo The Hockey News 12/2/2021 Tony Ferrari

In Tony Ferrari's team of the month for November, he takes a look at some of the top draft sleepers from early season play.

Terry Wilson/OHL Images © Provided by Hockey News on Sports Illustrated Terry Wilson/OHL Images

At the end of each month, I'll be bringing you a themed ‘Team of the Month’ for the 2022 NHL draft. 

Much like any all-star team, we will have three forward slots, two defenders, and a goalie who will get some love and recognition.

This month, we are going to take a look at some of the unsung prospects. These are players widely ranked outside of the first round at this point in the year. While there is plenty of season left for these sleepers to earn first-round status, as the calendar turns to December, these guys are all under the radar.

Forwards

LW Alexander Suzdalev, HV71 J20 (J20 Nationell)A sneaky skilled forward who has found himself on the highlight reel many times this season, Suzdalev is a Swedish-Russian winger that's known for the fun factor in his game. When Suzdalev has the puck on his stick, there is always a chance that he makes his opponent look silly with his high-end puck skill. His quick and decisive hands give him an edge against the junior-aged competition he’s playing against, leading to a stat line of 27 points in 24 games.

Suzdalev’s offensive creativity is right up there with some of the best in the class. He anticipates play and pressures the opposition as they attempt to break out of their zone to create turnovers. Suzdalev seems to have the mindset of moving the puck up ice and advancing play positively. He does make some questionable decisions at times but creativity often comes with a few moments of head-scratching. If he can refine his game a bit, Suzdalev could be a really fun player at the NHL level.

C Paul Ludwinski, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)Folks watching the Kingston Frontenacs have been primarily focused on Shane Wright, and for good reason, but Paul Ludwinski deserves some love. There have been many nights this season when Ludwinski was the team’s best draft-eligible prospect, especially early on. He combines a solid two-way game with crafty offensive tools to make for a very talented OHLer.

His scoring has cooled off a bit recently but Ludwinski doesn’t need to find his way onto the scoresheet to ensure he leaves a positive mark on the game. Whether he is diving to save a puck off the goal line in his own zone or carrying the puck from his own end to the offensive zone, Ludwinski seems to understand how to play the game of hockey with a maturity seldom seen in 17-year-old players. He could be a sneaky good second-round pick this upcoming July.

RW Gleb Trikozov, Omskie Yastreby (MHL)Do you enjoy fun, intelligent hockey? Then welcome to the Gleb Trikozov show! An August 2004 birthday makes him one of the younger players in the draft class. His skill and pace make him one of the most entertaining players in the draft class. He can rip the puck from all over the offensive zone with a tendency for getting to the slot and the left faceoff circle. Trikozov locates his shot well and he isn’t afraid of using it whenever he gets the chance.

There is a rawness to his game but the biggest thing for Trikozov will be continuing to do what he is already good at. He is intelligent offensively, a cerebral passer, skilled at his top speed, and plays at a high pace. He has decent size at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds and has looked good against men in the limited VHL action he has seen this year. If Trikozov can translate some of his tools into rounding out his game, particularly defensively, there is a really interesting, high-upside prospect here.

Defensemen

D Pavel Mintyukov, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)It is a joy to watch Mintyukov in the offensive zone as he is one of the most active blueliners in the draft class when it comes to attacking off the blueline. He activates from the point with regularity and lives in the slot when his team has the puck. The Russian import is creative and daring offensively which gives him plenty of chances to be a difference-maker in the OHL. Playing with Saginaw this year, Mintyukov has looked more and more comfortable with each passing week and could be a fast riser as the OHL gets into the meat of the schedule.

There are some valid concerns when it comes to Mintyukov’s game in his own end as he tends to be inconsistent with his pressuring of the puck carrier. He doesn’t always make the right reads in the defensive zone but the tools are all there to improve upon that. Mintyukov’s offensive game and the promise he shows on that side of the puck give you plenty of reason to have faith that he can translate some of those skills to his own end. If he does, there is a really valuable player here.

D Owen Pickering, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)At 6-foot-4 and 179 pounds, Pickering is the perfect example of a player who needs to grow into his body but that also means that his potential is still growing. The Broncos defender does a good job of flashing what his tools can do at various moments in just about every game. He is a fluid skater who has some sneaky puck skill, although he doesn’t always bust out the dangles. Pickering is a good shooter who likes to pinch in a bit and find space to set up for a one-timer as well.

The tall and lanky blueliner is as raw as they come but the prospect of him being able to pack on a few pounds and utilize the tools he has to their fullest extent is enticing. Pickering suffers from some questionable decision-making, particularly on the breakout in his own end, but there is plenty to like. Pickering is like a toolbox with all of the tools you need to complete the job, he just needs to organize the toolbox and figure out which wrench is needed for the given task. He is one of the most intriguing prospects in all of the WHL.

Goaltenders

G Cameron Whitehead, Lincoln Stars (USHL)

The Lincoln Stars netminder is an overager who has put himself on the scene this year with a stellar start this season, his first in the USHL. Through eight games, the June 2003-born netminder boasts a .944 save percentage and has been a steadying presence in the crease for the Stars. His athleticism gives him the ability to make the big save while he has good size which helps cover a good portion of the net.

He isn’t the outright starter in Lincoln yet as fellow undrafted overager Kaiden Mbereko has gotten the slight edge in starts thus far, but that may not last long. In a draft without any truly high-end goalie prospects, Whitehead may wind up being a good bet in the mid-late rounds of the 2022 draft. He has projectable size, fluid movement, and some highlight-reel saves to his name already this season. Goalies are always a difficult projection but Whitehead looks solid in the early going.

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LW Alexander Suzdalev - C Paul Ludwinski - RW Gleb TrikozovD Pavel Mintyukov - D Owen PickeringG Cameron Whitehead

Altogether, this team boasts a bunch of players who have clear flaws in their game but also bring some of the most fun skillsets to the table. Upfront there is a ton of creativity and offensive flair while also having a smart, two-way center in Ludwinski. The backend has two of the rawest prospects in the draft class but also two of the most intriguing. With Pickering flashing his all-around game and Mintyukov acting as a fourth forward at times, this team would be as entertaining as any in the offensive zone. Whitehead between the pipes is a wildcard but most goalies at this age are. If you like fun, you’d love watching this hypothetical team play together. 

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