Name: Dylan Peterson
Team: United States National Team Development Program (USHL and other)
Position: Center / Right Wing
Stats: 19 games played, 4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points, 22 PIMs, even plus/minus rating (USHL)
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 43rd (North American skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Kevin Hayes / Roope Hintz
Scouting hockey prospects is a very subjective art. Sure, anyone who watched a 17-year-old Sidney Crosby or a 17-year-old Connor McDavid could easily tell that they were destined for greatness. But in many other cases, two different scouts could watch the exact same player in the exact same game and come away with two very different opinions about the player.
It’s a common occurrence for a scout in any given draft to come away with a prospect who they consider to be “their guy”: someone they seem to appreciate more than other talent evaluators do.
For the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, my guy is forward Dylan Peterson of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
It might come as a surprise to some to see me write about Peterson like this, considering my series of 2020 draft profiles here on Defending Big D is focused on potential 1st-rounders who could conceivably still be available whenever the Dallas Stars make their first pick (somewhere in the low 20s, most likely). If you look at the rankings of him from the independent scouting services, the highest he is listed is 67th, at EliteProspects.
Statistically, there wasn’t a lot to write home about after this season, either. He only had 11 points in 19 USHL games with the NTDP, and 25 points in 45 games in the team’s other games, which includes NCAA teams. There’s no denying that those aren’t particularly good numbers.
However, after watching more than 10 of Peterson’s games in the 2019-20 season, against a variety of different competition, I feel confident enough about him to stick my neck out and say that he deserves consideration as a 1st-rounder in the 2020 draft.
There’s a big difference between evaluation (how good a player is right now) and projection (how good a prospect could be when they reach their peak playing years) in scouting. And with Peterson, there are so many different tools at his disposal that it can be tantalizing to think about what the finished product will look like down the road.
The first thing that jumps out about him is his size and speed combination. His frame is huge, at about 6-foot-4 and 192 pounds, and he’s quite fast and agile. Not only can he hit a nice top gear in a straight line, but he’s also easily able to shift directions and move east-west coming through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. There’s some real explosiveness to his movement, and once he gets a head of steam going he’s difficult to contain.
For a guy his size, Peterson possesses a surprisingly soft touch on the puck. He’s able to feather subtle passes to teammates in traffic and while in motion, and he loves to utilize drop passes, which is an especially effective tactic given how well he can back opposing defenders up with his size and speed after he enters the offensive zone. He also has the confidence to circle enemy territory with the puck, powering around the perimeter as he tires out defenders and looks for pass openings or lanes to cut to the net himself. However, it must be said that Peterson doesn’t have high-end vision and isn’t as effective as a playmaker when he has to slow play down. There are also times where his hands aren’t as fast as his feet and his intentions are, as he’ll be moving at full speed in transition only to bobble the puck and have it get left a few feet behind him.
When it comes to shooting, there’s a good foundation with Peterson that’s still a work in progress. I’ve seen him fire absolute bullets with his wrist shot, but he’s still a little too pass-focused at the moment and doesn’t have enough of a triggerman mentality. Additionally, his accuracy needs refinement, as he’ll often freeze goalies but put the puck high and/or wide. That being said, he does a good job of getting himself into dangerous shooting areas, and he can make beautiful toe drags to pull the puck around sticks and bodies before releasing it. Most of his goals right now come from his net-front work, jamming home rebounds or dropping down to a knee to connect on one-timers from the slot, but with more practice and experience he has the potential to be a dangerous shooter from the faceoff circles and in between.
There’s also a lot to like about his game off the puck. He’s a hard worker who puts in an honest, consistent effort, and his motor and confidence were notably improved from the early part of the season to the later part. He’ll backcheck hard regularly, and with his speed and long reach he has an easy time catching opposing puck carriers and disrupting their possession. While he isn’t the most consistent with his physical play, Peterson can absolutely demolish opponents with his checks, and there were a few scattered games of his that I watched this season where he was an imposing, dominating force from shift to shift, gaining possession by separating the man from the puck. At this point in time he’s not an especially effective defensive player overall, as he can be prone to puck watching and drifting out of position at times in his own end, but there’s enough to work with here that any team should be able to develop him up to being above average in this category.
So, if there’s so much to like about Peterson, why were his scoring totals so low this season? For one, he was used primarily as a net-front screen on the NTDP powerplay, so he wasn’t touching the puck as much as the others on the ice, limiting his ability to pick up points. For another, as mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, his pass-first tendency and loose shot accuracy hampered his goal totals. Additionally, this was a relatively down year talent-wise and scoring-wise for the NTDP, and one of Peterson’s most frequent linemates — Ty Smilanic — played much of this season with a broken finger, hurting his shoot and make plays.
It’s when you watch Peterson play — really watch him closely, across multiple games — that you can see just how much offensive potential he has. I track scoring chances when I scout, and Peterson is a guy who kept standing out again and again and again with regard to what he generated. I couldn’t even count the number of “just abouts” I watched this season, where he’d make an amazing play but miss the net with his shot or feed the puck to a teammate who failed to convert.
It’s also worth mentioning the rich development environments that Peterson has accessed and will access. After performing with the prestigious NTDP over the past two seasons, his next stop will be Boston University, which is one of the better programs in the NCAA. The forward group for the Terriers in 2020-21 will be young and quite small, so it seems likely that Peterson will get to play a significant role and earn lots of all-important ice time. Just because a lesson hasn’t been mastered yet doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been learned.
One of the players that I compared Peterson to above is Roope Hintz, and their similarities don’t end with their playing styles. When the Stars selected Hintz 49th overall in the 2015 draft it came as a fairly big surprise, as he was picked higher than most independent scouting sources had him ranked and, more notably, ahead of bigger names such as Oliver Kylington and Jeremy Bracco. The pick raised even more eyebrows when the Stars said that they had Hintz as a 1st-rounder on the team’s board.
Fast-forward five years and it’s safe to say that the Stars knocked that one out of the park. Not only is he currently one of the 30 best players from that draft class, there are scarce few names who were taken after him throughout the remainder of the rounds who bring as much value and further upside as he does now. They applied projection when scouting him instead of evaluation, and they accurately predicted what he could become after they trained him through their development system.
Now, there’s no guarantee that Peterson will become a player of Hintz’s caliber — or even be an NHLer at all, given how difficult scouting and development are. There are also many similarities between Peterson and 2016 Dallas 1st-rounder Riley Tufte, a pick that hasn’t worked out nearly as well as hoped or expected. But the potential payout for gambling on Peterson is tremendous, much more so than most others who will still be around after pick 20 or so.
Given how much the Stars like to gamble on forwards who combine speed and size (Hintz, Tufte, Denis Gurianov, Albin Eriksson, Fredrik Karlstrom), it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the team is taking a good, hard look at Peterson as well. Will they (or another team) risk it big and end up hitting the jackpot one day?