Taking a look at three potential first-round centers.
With a month to go until the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, teams’ draft boards are still all over the place. I’ve also been increasingly thinking about the idea of Nashville trading back to a spot later in round one and picking up a second-round pick in the process.
With that in mind, I took a look a three more draft-eligible forwards. Two—Gauthier and Kulich—are certain first-round picks in my eyes (Gauthier, in fact, is picking up steam as a potential top-ten pick), and the third has sparked significant debate about whether he’s a top-32 talent or not.
Cutter Gauthier | C | U.S. National Team Development Program (USHL)
Amongst another strong U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) class, the standout prospect is Logan Cooley. Behind him, there’s an outstanding question of who comes next, and Cutter Gauthier has been doing his best to make his case.
In 54 total games this year, Gauthier finished fifth on the team in scoring (but second in goals) with 34 goals and 65 points; he posted a 0.818 even-strength, primary points per game rate in 22 contests against USHL teams and added another nine points in six games at the U18 World Junior Championship.
Finishing the season on Logan Cooley’s wing, Gauthier plans to play center at Boston College next season, and I think his tape shows that’s his more natural position.
Gauthier (#19, blue) was used regularly on the penalty kill this season but don’t take that to mean he’s offensively challenged. The 6’3” center is physically imposing and blends that with a soft set of hands and wonderful skating mechanics. On the PK shift shown above, he’s able to wrestle the puck off the boards with ease and jump into his full skating stride right away, which includes proper knee bend and fluid extensions and recoveries. Gauthier doesn’t overhandle the puck as he beats the other defender, and he opens his blade, pulls the puck back, and snaps it so quickly that the goalie doesn’t have a chance.
Gauthier’s breakout pace and positioning are, albeit subtle, often very effective. He puts himself in areas of the ice to contract his opponents’ forecheck and make outlet passes easier for his teammates. His ability to receive a pass in-stride or jump straight to full pace, without sacrificing puck protection, makes him a handful for defenders in the neutral zone. Above, Gauthier uses linear crossovers to blow by the Swedish defender he doesn’t have to rely on overhandling the puck to fool the defense, so he can quickly get into a great passing position and set up a near goal for Cooley.
Some may criticize Gauthier’s pace, but he’s not the kind of forward that dive bombs the puck on every play. He’s more methodical off the puck and rarely makes mistakes in that regard. But, he does have areas for improvement; he can be careless with his passes at times, and he’ll shoot the puck from anywhere (literally anywhere). That doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but sometimes he forgoes better options in doing so as we can see with his half-wall shot above.
On the other hand, I don’t think Gauthier sacrifices his defensive responsibilities often. You can tell he’s more comfortable as a center, wanting to be the player that directs the puck through the middle of the ice. As a result, I haven’t seen many shifts where he isn’t fighting hard on the backcheck, annoying an opposing puck carrier, and digging hard for a takeaway. In most development scenarios, Gauthier becomes a top-six NHL regular, but I’m betting on him to really take a step forward at Boston College and become a top-line forward in the pros.
Owen Beck | C | Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
Another center, Owen Beck has divided evaluators this draft season. Some see him as a responsible two-way pivot whose offensive ceiling is more limited and some see him as a center who does everything right with another level of scoring to unlock. I may be a mix of both.
Missing his first OHL season due to COVID-19, Beck finished this year with 21 goals and 51 points in 68 games for the Mississauga Steelheads—good for third on the team in scoring. Among OHL draft-eligible skaters, Beck was tenth in scoring and 14th in points per game. So, what separates him from those who outscored him this year like David Goyette or Cedrick Guindon?
Beck (#92, blue) already has so many pro-level aspects to his game. He may not have the scanning ability that those at the top of this draft class do, but his vision is very good, and he plays such a cerebral brand of hockey. In the clip above, his quick stick skills allow him to secure the neutral-zone turnover, and you can see how quickly he bends his knees and leans into his accelerating crossover steps.
Beck has a really good engine, but his top speed isn’t elite nor is his accelerating gear. Nonetheless, he works hard to win pucks and has a good frame that helps with puck protection as shown above. He frequently knows just how long he needs to hold onto the puck when under pressure before executing some creative or ridiculous pass like this behind-the-back dish to the slot.
Beck rarely plays a lateral game; when he gets the puck in the defensive zone, he’s headed north and north only. He’s got a powerful stride and strong hands to navigate pressure in the neutral zone, and I love how well he’s developed his puck-protection skills, which leads to primary assists like the one shown above.
Beck is no slouch shooting the puck either. He’s more of a playmaker than a shooter, but he’s so strong on his stick that he can navigate his own way to shooting space if need be. I’d love to see him work more on releasing the puck mid-stride and adding speed to explode through that pressure shown in the clip above. But, overall, Beck is a durable offensive force and a responsible center who has great fundamentals in his game. Likely to be taken late in the first round or early in the second, one team could have a long-term middle-six center in their pipeline soon.
Jiří Kulich | C | HC Energie Karlovy Vary (Czechia)
The final center we’re taking a look at is Kadan, Czechia native Jiří Kulich. Kulich hasn’t gotten as much attention with all eyes on countryman David Jiříček, who could be a top-five pick, but the center has a good claim to be a first-round pick as well.
At 6’0”, Kulich played his first full season in Czechia’s top league this year after an eight-game stint in 2020-21. In 49 pro games this season, Kulich notched nine goals and 14 assists and tacked on another assist in three playoff games. He also played in international duties at the U18 and U20 levels and led Czechia with nine goals and 11 points in six games at the U18 World Junior Championship.
Kulich (#25, white) is another strong skater with good pace and jump all over the ice. One thing I’ve noticed in so many of my viewings is how well he reads forecheck positioning in deploying his team’s system. So many young players want to attack north-to-south as much as they can, but Kulich regularly shows maturity in dropping back into an F3 position to defend against breakouts as we see above. When he doesn’t have the puck, his skating mechanics can suffer and his acceleration along with it, but then, look at his knee bend and stride extension when he’s engaging through the neutral zone above.
After controlling the pass, Kulich lowers his right shoulder to eat the contact from the far-side defender and pulls the puck behind him to keep it away from the near-side defender, buying time for his teammate. It looks like a simple puck touch, but by engaging with the far-side defender like that, Kulich distracts him from the F3 crashing the net, who ultimately buries this goal.
In the offensive zone, Kulich doesn’t chase the play, and he recognizes well when his teammates need better passing options and finds those good puck-support positions. With the puck, he’s mobile, effective with his stickhandling, and can navigate the zone with good speed, shifting into quieter areas after dishing off the puck in search of a shot or deflection opportunity.
Kulich’s skating mechanics can appear a bit awkward at times, and I think some of that is just him needing to fill out his frame. But, I’m impressed at how his pace never slows down from when he breaks out of the zone, receives an outlet pass, and attacks the offensive zone. Kulich has a good set of hands and shows some true flash here and there (and above), and his wrist shot and snapshot releases are deceptive, powerful, and accurate.
I’m curious to see where NHL organizations would rather play him and if they feel he can develop into a higher-in-the-lineup player on the wing.