While the timing may feel odd given it’s nearly October, we’re under two weeks out from the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. I’m not sure there’s been an appropriate level of excitement at the opportunity the Nashville Predators face early next month. Five of their seven picks are in the first three rounds; the organization could easily walk away with three high-end prospects.
As we approach October 6 and 7, this will be my last individual draft profile; however, I will be releasing my final 93-player ranking and a draft board for Nashville at each pick they own in the coming weeks.
Previous profiles of entry draft prospects can be found above, as well as my 62-player NHL Entry Draft ranking.
Vasili Ponomaryov - C
Shawinigan Cataractes [QMJHL] - 18 - Zelenograd, Russia
In his debut QMJHL season with Shawinigan, Ponomaryov was a dominant 17-year-old who scored 49 points in 57 games, while often centering the Cataractes second line behind Mavrik Bourque. His 0.4211 even-strength primary points-per-game were good for eighth among all first-year, draft-eligible forwards in the QMJHL, despite second-line minutes and a relatively diminished 11.02% shooting rate.
Ponomaryov also shone on the international stage in his draft year, scoring six points in five Hlinka Gretzky Cup games and four more in six games for Team Russia at the World Jr. A Challenge in December.
Thanks to Mitch Brown’s excellent tracking data, you can notice some trends in Ponomaryov’s game before we break down game tape. As a pivot, he isn’t much of a steady shooter but still provided consistent offense, dazzled in transition, and was remarkable at disrupting the play defensively while protecting his own possession.
Ponomaryov’s Scouting Report
|Great skating mechanics, excellent pace, strong crossover strength and good lateral speed||Decent puck skills and an underrated shot but he doesn't use them nearly enough in high-danger spots|
|Doesn't attack north-south on fore/backcheck but takes excellent angles to disrupt the play||Sometimes he can be too slow/reactive to make a play with the puck allowing opponents to close in|
|Never stagnant in any zone and skates well in transition with his head up and mapping the ice||Excellent defensive awareness but needs to work on leading the breakout from deep not just supporting|
A recent conversation I was involved in considered the idea of the ‘safest’ prospect outside of Alexis Lafrenière in this year’s class. While I don’t think he’s the runaway answer, Ponomaryov is likely near the top of my list. He won’t dazzle each shift every night, but he does so many little things well while playing a mature, 200-foot game; I think it’s a near guarantee he becomes a useful NHL player soon.
On this shift, Ponomaryov (#92, white) displays his hustle on the backcheck, moving quickly to disrupt a zone entry and then maintain proper puck support into the corner. He reads this well and understands he and his teammate can create an easy takeaway before sweeping the puck up the boards and catalyzing a breakout. His transition here is where he can land into some trouble with moving his feet—NHL defenders won’t allow that time and space—but he orchestrates this play start to finish, resulting in a primary assist.
Here he is on the penalty kill. You’ll notice a few details instantly: he’s tenacious on the puck, is constantly angling opponents into rushed decisions, and shows his lateral quickness to shift gears and hunt down the play in multiple directions. It’s that kind of pace and diligence that will help him succeed at higher levels.
And on the power play, that motor doesn’t stop. Again, he’s slower in transition but previews his underrated puck skills to buy time in the offensive zone. He’s an accurate and crisp passer from nearly any angle, too. For the remainder of the shift—despite not scoring—he’s constantly moving his feet into open ice, creating options for his teammates and forcing the penalty killers to chase the play.
While constantly moving off-puck to create options for his teammates, Ponomaryov is also able to consistently guide teammates to opportunities, too. The clip above shows a simple play, but I like how he uses his strong rotational power on his edges to rotate his hips and cradle that pass before delivering precisely to his teammate on the doorstep. If it weren’t for a great defensive play from the Cape Breton defender, that’s an easy tap-in.
There isn’t much noise made about Ponomaryov’s shot for reasons highlighted above, but he comes with a deceptive, powerful release that forces goalies to react quicker from long range (seen during the power play shift above) or cut their losses in high-danger areas show during this shift. Nearly all aspects of his game (pace, puck protection, passing, shooting, etc.) demonstrate how powerful Ponomaryov’s lower body is.
Finally, his tenacity extends to the defensive zone, where he’s often exceptional with his assignments. Notice how tightly Ponomaryov shadows F3 in the clip above; he impedes entry to open space in the slot, is not just chasing his man but battling him with every stride, and blocks shots out of high-danger areas before ultimately helping with the clear.
Nashville has the opportunity to secure a good mix of talent in the first three rounds, and Ponomaryov should be a part of that. He’s a dazzling, mature mix of skill and speed and can be used in all situations. He’s the exact type of center you want to groom to skate alongside finishers like Eeli Tolvanen or Egor Afanasyev.
Expected Pick Range
Colin Cudmore (@CudmoreColin) over at silversevensens.com has done remarkable work compiling draft rankings and establishing an ‘Expected Pick Range’ from a variety of different sources. You can read about his methodology here, track the compiled rankings here, and use his data viz (embedded below) here.
Ponomaryov’s Expected Pick Range: #34 to #71 Overall - Round Two to Round Three
Ponomaryov’s expected range spans two rounds, but I can’t see a scenario where he isn’t drafted in the top 62. Some may consider him a reach in the 40s—Bob McKenzie’s notoriously accurate board has him at 59—but with four picks in rounds two and three, Nashville should undoubtedly take a swing at him in round two, if available.