Hendrix Lapierre, Lukas Reichel, Sam Colangelo, Jacob Perreault, Justin Barron, Jeremie Poirier, Anton Lundell, John-Jason Peterka, Dylan Holloway, Ozzy Wiesblatt, Ridly Greig, Zion Nybeck, Braden Schneider
Every year, there’s a player selected late in the draft that ends up being a superstar.
Dustin Byfuglien, who turned out to be pretty good at hockey, wasn’t drafted until the eighth round in 2003.
Pekka Rinne, one of the top goalies in the NHL over the last decade, wasn’t drafted until the Nashville Predators nabbed him with the 258th overall pick in 2004.
Even Henrik Zetterberg, one of the greatest players in Detroit Red Wings history, wasn’t picked until the seventh round of the 1999 draft.
It’s not out of the ordinary that good hockey players simply wind up slipping through the cracks, and it’s essentially a given that it will happen again in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft — especially considering that this year’s draft class is considered one of the deepest in years.
One candidate to be a late-round steal is Saskatoon Blades forward Kyle Crnkovic. Standing at 5’7 and weighing just 161 pounds, many consider the Chestermere, Alberta native too small to handle the physical play necessary to thrive in the NHL. But the more I watch Crnkovic, the more confident I am that he has the potential to develop into a legitimately exciting NHL player one day.
What do the stats say?
It took Crnkovic some time to develop into the star player he’s become in the Western Hockey League. In his first season as a full-time contributor for the Saskatoon Blades in 2018-19, he logged 11 goals and 31 points in 52 games — good statistics, but nothing to write home about.
This past season, however, Crnkovic became a true game-changer for the Blades. In 63 appearances, he averaged over a point per game with 21 goals and 43 assists on the season. His 64 points ranked second on the team behind only Tristen Robins (73) — another promising draft-eligible forward.
While Crnkovic wasn’t necessarily a dominant player in the WHL last season, he showed all the traits necessary to become one in the very near future — perhaps as soon as 2020-21.
The Eye Test
Despite being one of the smallest players in the WHL, Crnkovic is pretty hard to miss when he’s on the ice. Though he may not be a physical specimen that catches one’s eye, he’s a speedy player capable of exploding through the zone and creating a quality scoring chance on his own.
His skating isn’t perfect — his stride particularly has room to improve — but his quickness is undeniable.
On this play, Crnkovic uses his speed to blow past an enemy defender and force the goaltender into making an ill-advised play on the puck, eventually resulting in a score for Saskatoon.
It was also a pleasant surprise to learn that Crnkovic, despite being a smaller player, does not shy away from making contact. He often attacks the net even when there are defenders bearing down on him, regardless of whether he’s skating in on the rush or creating sustained pressure in the offensive zone. In the clip below, Crnkovic uses his deceptive strength to hold off a defender long enough to draw a penalty, which resulted in a penalty shot.
For many smaller players, elite puck skills are essentially a must. And while Crnkovic may not be the next Johnny Gaudreau or Patrick Kane, he certainly has the potential to pull off some ridiculous moves in order to get around enemy defenders and deke goalies out of their skates.
Paired with an excellent shot, it’s understandable why so many teams struggled to contain Crnkovic last season.
But fancy puck skills and a good shot aren’t all Crnkovic is good for. In fact, he was one of the better playmakers in the WHL last season. He routinely put his slick hands, speed and vision to good use in 2019-20 in order to create high-danger scoring opportunities for his teammates.
As one of the Blades’ best playmakers, it should come as no shock that he was also one of their top point producers on the power play. He ranked second on the Blades with 20 power-play assists in 2019-20, and with a nickel’s worth of power-play goals to his credit, he ranked third on the team with 25 total points on the man advantage.
Crnkovic’s vision stands out regardless of whether he’s playing at 5-on-5 or even the penalty kill, but unsurprisingly, he’s a particularly dangerous playmaker with an extra attacker on the ice, as is showcased in the following two clips.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Crnkovic’s game is his defensive play. While many players his size most often find success strictly on the power play or at even strength, the Blades used Crnkovic heavily on the penalty kill in 2019-20. While Crnkovic is undersized, he has a good reach and a very active stick. Pair that with his quickness and smarts and it’s easy to see why he was such a useful player for Saskatoon in shorthanded situations.
In the clip below, Crnkovic anticipates the drop pass, intercepts it and skates in for a shorthanded goal to give his team the lead.
This play isn’t quite as flashy as the shorthanded goal above, but it exhibits how hard a worker Crnkovic is away from the puck. After noticing that one of his teammates had lost his footing in the neutral zone, Crnkovic turned on the jets while backchecking the puck carrier. Thanks to his hustle on the play, Crnkovic disrupted what could have ended up being a decent scoring chance for the enemy attacker.
The next two clips also do a good job of showing off Crnkovic’s active stick. He’s relentless when the puck is in his vicinity, and he’s not afraid to get aggressive in order to create a potential rush the other way.
It’s unlikely that Crnkovic will ever be in the running for the Selke as an NHLer, but it’s nice to see a smaller player making an impact away from the puck in spite of the stereotypes that seem to restrict slighter forwards into being pure offensive dynamos.
Crnkovic may not be a franchise-changing player like Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield are expected to be. But for someone likely to be available in the mid-to-late rounds of the upcoming draft, Crnkovic could certainly prove to be a low-risk, high-reward investment.