NHL draft: These are the 10 burning questions

Let’s start at the very top ... How good is Macklin Celebrini really?

The Athletic’s prospects writers, Corey Pronman and Scott Wheeler, get asked a lot of questions in the months leading up to the draft. This year, as part of our 2024 NHL Draft coverage, they decided to answer the 10 biggest ones together.

Here are their responses to the most common questions they’re asked, from how to differentiate the top D to who the second-best prospect in the draft is and more.

How good is Macklin Celebrini, and how does he compare to recent No. 1 picks?

Corey Pronman: I think in light of the hype train behind Connor Bedard, and given that he didn’t have the lights-out world juniors that Bedard did, it has gotten a little under the radar how good Celebrini is. He’s one of the most well-rounded hockey players I’ve ever seen. As a pro prospect, he is not far off Bedard at all even if I would have him marginally behind. He projects as a true franchise No. 1 two-way center. He is a lot closer to Bedard than to Owen Power/Nico Hischier at the same age.

Scott Wheeler: Celebrini is a legitimate A-level prospect. This kid is a summer birthday who followed up the best 16-year-old season in the history of the USHL by becoming the youngest Hobey Baker Award winner in NCAA history. He was dominant at U18 worlds with a bad shoulder as an underager, and dominant on a disappointing Team Canada at the world juniors. And he looks the part — a strong, sturdy center with high-end ability as a skater, handler, shooter, playmaker, driver. He’s not the A+ prospect Connor Bedard and Connor McDavid were, but he’s a clear cut above Juraj Slafkovsky, Power, Alexis Lafrenière and Hischier, and right there in the echelon Jack Hughes was in in his draft year for me. He might not become a superstar but he projects to be a frontline center and star player whom you can build a winning team around.

Who is the second-best prospect in the draft and why?

Pronman: Artyom Levshunov. He projects as a potential star No. 1 defenseman in the NHL, which is among the hardest profiles to acquire. He’s a 6-2, mobile defender full of offense and he’s shown he can make stops at the college level too. He had a better draft season in the Big Ten than Power or Quinn Hughes did. There are other appealing options, forwards with more skill, or defensemen with a better quality in some area, but he has the cleanest profile and a ton of upside.

Wheeler: I had Levshunov and Ivan Demidov behind Celebrini on my list all year, with Levshunov holding the spot for the majority and Demidov finishing there. There are teams who will make a case for Anton Silayev as the No. 2 prospect, but I was never able to quite get there. Ultimately, Demidov’s individual skill level on the puck (and word from a source that his work ethic was off the charts) sealed it for me. He’s got game-breaking upside that I just don’t think the others quite have — and I love Levshunov’s upside.

How do you group and distinguish the top group of defensemen?

Pronman: There are four defensemen I think project as No. 1 defensemen in the NHL, which is a highly unusual statement in itself: Michigan State’s Levshunov, Calgary’s Carter Yakemchuk, Torpedo’s Silayev and Denver’s Zeev Buium. Levshunov, Yakemchuk and Silayev all have size, mobility, compete and skill, although there are varying degrees for them on those fronts. Buium isn’t as big, but he’s an excellent skater with high-end offensive abilities and dominated college hockey this season. After them, it would be a drop for me toward Saginaw’s Zayne Parekh, London’s Sam Dickinson and Stian Solberg from Norway. They all look like potential top four defensemen but Dickinson and Solberg may not have elite NHL offense, and Parekh’s defense will worry teams until it doesn’t.

Wheeler: There are half a dozen premium D prospects in this class for me and they divide into three different tiers: Levshunov (top 2-3), Buium, Parekh, Dickinson and Silayev in a grouping (top 5 consideration), and Yakemchuk (top 10 consideration) on the cusp of that first group. Levshunov’s two-way ceiling, range, physical maturity, and free-spirited game make him the best prospect of the bunch for me, but all are high-end players, with concerns about Yakemchuk’s skating and decision-making leaving him sixth. I’m a big believer in Parekh’s offense being of a special quality and winning out to turn him into a star.

Where does my team need to pick to have a realistic expectation of landing a future top-six forward or top-four defenseman?

Pronman: I have 18 players in this draft that I’m very passionate about and project as top-six forwards or top-four defensemen on competitive teams.

Wheeler: A clear top-17 emerged for me in this draft, and I think all of those players project as that caliber of player. I expect 14 of those players to be gone in the front half of the first round but there are three who could conceivably linger into the late teens or 20s: Michael Brandsegg-Nygard (the least likely of the bunch to linger), Trevor Connelly and Michael Hage, all of whom are forwards. There are others who I think could become that (players like Solberg and Adam Jiricek could become second-pairing D, for example, and there are others who will develop nicely and become second-line forwards) but my “expectation” does lower once those 17 are taken. If your team is drafting in the top 15 this year, you’re going to get a very good player. There may be a small group of them available for a short time after that.

Would you rather have a high pick in the 2024 or 2023 draft?

Pronman: The 2023 draft was stacked at the very top. Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson are No. 1 overall type of prospects and Matvei Michkov and Will Smith were close behind them. The drop-off from those five to the next best player was quite massive though. I like the depth in the top 10 of the 2024 class; I think teams picking in the top 10 can get an excellent player who can project as an impactful pro. I’d rather have a top-five pick in 2023, but I’d also rather have a 6-10 pick in the 2024 draft.

Wheeler: The answer to this question I think depends on where you set the bar for how high we’re talking. If we’re measuring top-fives against each other, 2023 wins out pretty decisively. I was higher on all of Michkov, Fantilli and Carlsson than I am on guys like Demidov, Levshunov, Buium, and Parekh, and Smith is a comparable prospect to those names for me as well. If we’re talking about the front half of the first round, though, for example, I think the gap shrinks and it becomes a more interesting debate. While I was quite high on Zach Benson and Gabe Perreault at No. 6 and No. 7 on last year’s list, there was a drop-off after them for me and I’m higher on the players I have ranked in my 8-17 range on this year’s list (guys like Berkly Catton, Cayden Lindstrom, Tij Iginla, Konsta Helenius, Yakemchuk and Beckett Sennecke) than I was on the prospects who slotted 8-17 on my list a year ago (guys like Ryan Leonard, Dalibor Dvorsky, Matthew Wood, Brayden Yager and Axel Sandin-Pellikka). That edge a little deeper probably isn’t enough to equal the gap at the very top for 2023 though.

Cole Eiserman was once a consensus top-five pick. Where do you stand on him and why?

Pronman: When I saw Eiserman as a 16-year-old, I saw not only the great shot, but I thought he displayed elite one-on-one skills. That combination I thought would lend itself to a true top prospect even if his sense and compete didn’t overly wow you. As his draft season went on I walked back that assessment of his skill. I still think he’s very skilled, but it’s not exceptional, and although he was a goal/game winger this year, I thought his offensive impact in games wasn’t the level I expected particularly at even strength. In the must-win international games in November, February and April as well I thought he faded a bit into the background for example. He’s a potential top-six wing, but I don’t see a true game changer and thus I’ve moved off a top-five pick into more of a teens pick.

Wheeler: I’ve cooled on Eiserman a little (he’s no longer a top-five prospect for me) but to a lesser degree than the consensus that now places him outside the top 10. I see the concerns about his play off the puck, his play selection on it, his reads, and even the slightly tougher go he had at times creating one-on-one than I expected he would. But goal scoring comes at such a premium, and he has such a track record of it (a track record that, frankly, risers like Iginla and Sennecke lack relatively speaking, even if I understand the cases in their favor), that I just have a hard time being too down on him. He’s still going to be a PP1 focal point in the NHL. He’s still an August birthday who does hockey’s hardest thing at the highest level in the draft.

Tij Iginla, Beckett Sennecke and Stian Solberg seem like this year’s late risers. Are you buying or selling their hype?

Pronman: Yes on all three, although to varying degrees. They’re all top 15 picks for me. I don’t have Iginla or Solberg as top 10 players in this year’s draft, but Sennecke crossed that threshold for me into the very top tier of players. Some scouts have Iginla there, but I have minor hockey sense questions on him for that range of the draft especially given he’s barely a 6-foot-0 winger. Sennecke’s regular season production will rightfully get picked apart, but when you watched him in the final two to three months of the season he jumped off the ice at you with his skill. He’s dynamic, and was a major reason why Oshawa won so many games. When you’re that skilled, and can skate well, and have size, at some point you bet on the loud tools even if the numbers aren’t elite.

Wheeler: I’m buying on all three. It doesn’t take long watching Iginla and Sennecke with the puck to realize that they’re among the most purely gifted players in the draft. They both get high marks as skaters and handlers. Iginla’s also got the added appeal of an A-grade shot. Sennecke’s got the added appeal of a long frame that still has a long way to go (a positive thing). His game has also matured and cut down on some of the bad habits and inconsistencies. I’d have some reservations about taking Sennecke in the top 10, I think, but he has put himself in the conversation and he’s a top-16 guy all day now. And Solberg just has the physical tools/makeup of an NHL defenseman. Once he showed me in the final months of the season that he could make better decisions on and off the puck and just generally clean up his game (the big criticism of his game in the first half), I was sold. He’s a physical presence who has shown pro elements at both ends of the rink. Once the big six D are gone, he belongs in that next tier for me now. I’d consider him in the top-20ish range if my team needed/wanted to go after a defenseman.

Where does Cayden Lindstrom fit in this draft and how much of a concern is his health?

Pronman: Lindstrom is one of the top prospects I struggled with the most this season. I didn’t love his hockey sense coming into the season and at the start of the year. Then he came out of the gates flying, and although he was riding a high shooting percentage, he was making plays more consistently than I’ve seen before. The Lindstrom of the first two months of the season looked like a potential No. 1 center in the NHL due to his 6-3 frame, high-end skating and physicality combined with good offensive touch.

Then he got injured, and didn’t play the rest of the season, and everyone around him had great full seasons. So is Lindstrom the player I saw from September through November, or the player I had seen the prior year, or something in between? I think if you believe in his hockey sense, which I don’t think is unreasonable, he’s a top-five pick, and if you have more hesitation, which I do, he’s closer to 6-10.

Wheeler: As I recently reported, the doctor and physio who’ve been treating Lindstrom have now provided a pair of reports to NHL Central Scouting outlining that “they feel Cayden will make a full recovery without requiring surgery.” Back injuries are tricky though (recent stories like Gabriel Vilardi’s are obviously going to be front of mind) and he has dealt with some complications during his recovery process. Had he been healthy, and continued to play like he had in the first half, I think he quite likely would have been in my top five. He might still go there, even if I’ve slotted him closer to the top 10. That has more to do with sample size and the strength of the other prospects in that range though, too.

When is the earliest you would take a goalie, and who would it be?

Pronman: In the second round I would consider Leksand’s Marcus Gidlof. He’s 6-foot-6, moves well for his size, is smart and had a great statistical year in Sweden. Ideally I’d like to wait for the end of the second or beginning of the third round though to discuss a goalie.

Wheeler: I believed in all of Trey Augustine, Michael Hrabal, Adam Gajan and Jacob Fowler as second-round candidates in last year’s draft. All four of those goalies would firmly be my top-ranked goalie in this class, though. As a result, I’m probably not turning my attention to the net until the third round. And my considerations there would be 21-year-old KHL breakout star Ilya Nabokov, Owen Sound’s Carter George and Swede Gidlof, in that order.

We’ve heard about Aron Kiviharju for a while but it seems like he’s going to go much later than initially expected. Why is that and where are you at on him?

Pronman: Kiviharju was injured for most of this season but based on what he showed at the U18s in April and his early play versus men in the fall his game hasn’t shown material development over the last 12-18 months. He’s a super smart player who sees the ice at a unique level, but his skating, while good, isn’t amazing for a 5-foot-9 defenseman, he hasn’t grown much as well in the last few years and he’s not overly physical. He needed to have a gangbusters good draft season to still be a first-round pick with that frame, and he didn’t. While he looked like a great young player when he was 15/16 years old, I think picking a player like him in the top two rounds is exceptionally risky because he needs to have elite offense to make it to the NHL. He reminds me a lot of Scott Perunovich, who was great in college but has been a third-pair defenseman for St. Louis.

Wheeler: The lost season to a knee surgery and his fine but unspectacular return at U18 worlds are the leading factors in his fall, no question, but it also feels like the NHL game has moved away from his type even since he burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old a few years ago. Smaller D are again having a tougher time carving out roster spots and scouts are increasingly looking for length and skating. Kiviharju is small and his straight-line speed going forward is an issue. It doesn’t sound like he’s going to be a first-rounder. Where scouts land on him depends on their belief in his IQ piece, which is a major asset. I believe his smarts are enough to project him into the NHL and would be eager to take him early on Day 2 for that reason.