2023 NHL Draft Eligible
Position: C, Shoots: R
H/W: 6’1”, 185lbs
Date of Birth: 2004-09-27
There might not be another prospect available for the 2023 NHL Entry Draft who is as underrated or misunderstood as Nate Danielson is. He doesn't get talked about very much on social media, nor does he get ranked overly high on most public draft lists. However, when you watch him play closely and better understand the circumstances of his situation, it becomes much more apparent how great he really is.
One of the bigger challenges in scouting is to go beyond finding the most exciting, purely skilled prospects and also identify which ones project as becoming impactful NHLers. These two things usually align (the best NHLers are usually the most skilled junior players), but that’s not always the case. For a perfect case study of that, look at Ryan O'Reilly. He has never finished Top 10 in NHL scoring, and his single-season career high for points is 77. He’s never been especially talented as a skater, shooter, puck handler or playmaker. However, he has won a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and a Frank J. Selke Trophy. His success has stemmed primarily from a combination of smarts, competitiveness, consistency and versatility. If you were to redo the 2009 NHL Entry Draft today he would get picked significantly higher than where he actually did that year, which was 33rd overall.
Which brings us back to Danielson.
He hasn't been a prolific point-producer at the WHL level thus far, nor should he ever be expected to be someone who contends for the Art Ross Trophy. And that's totally OK, because he still projects as a player who can be a major difference-maker at the NHL level. He is able to affect almost every facet of a game. He routinely leaves his fingerprints all over his shifts. While he might never be a player who scores more than 70 points in a season, it's easy to foresee him nevertheless becoming a Top 6 center who can play both sides of special teams, succeed in both transition and in the cycle, and match up well defensively against the top centers on other teams. If Danielson reaches that ceiling, he could realistically be a player who eventually crosses the 1,000-game threshold and plays a key role on a Stanley Cup-contending roster.
A lack of international exposure has undoubtedly hurt his public profile. Hockey Canada did not participate in the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup at all, and Danielson was not able to head to the 2022 IIHF World U18 Championships because that year's iteration of the tournament began much sooner than usual in relation to the start of the WHL playoffs (Brandon made it to that postseason but was bounced almost immediately, making it the worst of both worlds for Danielson). Those are two high-profile events where he would have been a lock to suit up for Canada and been given the chance to make a bigger name for himself.
NHL teams will regardless have a very detailed book on him by now, though. Players who can do what he does have a lot of value, and the ones who are excellent at it are especially hard to find. All that said, let's take a detailed look now at precisely what makes Danielson such a special prospect.
Danielson is one of the best skaters in the 2023 draft class, and sometimes it's easy to lose sight of that fact because he's so effortlessly good that it looks like he's often not trying or doing anything special. Not only does he get a ton of extension in his strides, his mechanics are also incredibly clean and smooth. That combination allows him to reach his top gear from just a few pushes, and while in his top gear he can easily create separation space from chasing backcheckers or blow past opposing defenders before they can stick to him. He's a monster with his zone exits and entries, and is at his very best in transition, circling back deep into his own end to offer defensive support, picking up the puck, and then turning it around up the ice before the other team can react and adjust accordingly. The argument could be made that his footwork could get more elusive and deceptive, but that would be nitpicking given the overall effectiveness that his skating produces.
He has a little extra time and space in this clip because of it happening during a powerplay, but just watch how quickly he covers the entire length of the neutral zone, and then how easily he beats the defender wide and gets behind him. His posture and technique are already very impressive, and moving forward he’s going to add even more strength and power into his lower body as he continues developing physically.
Saskatoon’s Charlie Wright is one of the best backwards-skating defensemen in the WHL, yet watch how easily Danielson backs him up, forces him to turn, and then beats him wide. This is also a great example of just how good his acceleration is, going from almost a standstill to his top speed in just a couple of seconds. Even though the scoring chance doesn’t convert he stays in motion looking to quickly get back into the play, and ends up throwing a hit along the boards.
Danielson moves around the ice so effortlessly, which allows him to readily activate and become a central figure in whatever’s happening in the play. However, as good as his skating is in a straight line, he could still improve his lateral movement further, which would make it easier for him to cut to the inside more often and not be as reliant on driving the outside lanes. In this clip he does use his crossovers to help him weave through some traffic, but you can see how he loses some of his speed while doing so.
Describing Danielson as a shooter is a little tricky. He's not a particularly good shooter from a technical standpoint, but he still projects as a guy who could be a 20-30 goal scorer at the NHL level. How? By applying his speed and his smarts to routinely get into high-danger scoring areas, a strategy that usually works better in the pros compared to just hammering shots from medium- or low-danger areas. He's not much of a threat to score from distance because his shot lacks power (though this aspect should improve to some degree over time, as he still has room to add muscle to his frame) and because he's not great at getting it elevated or firing from inopportune positions. There's a certain unteachable knack to shooting that some elite players have, which appears to be missing here. However, he already has a professional-level understanding for arriving first at the net-front for rebounds or getting to the back door just in time for tap-ins, and with his skating and his reach that skill should translate upwards. He projects very well as a "goal-scorer" even though he doesn't project highly as a "shooter," so to speak.
This is how most of Danielson’s goals are scored now, and how most of his goals in the NHL will likely be scored. The Portland defender doesn’t quite glimpse the Brandon counterpart in his periphery early enough, and by the time he does it’s too late — the Wheat Kings center came in with too much speed and easily won the race to the net, getting there at the perfect time to redirect the centering pass.
Same sort of play here. The Moose Jaw blueliner isn’t necessarily in a bad position defensively when the zone is entered, but his reaction window is significantly narrowed because of Danielson’s speed. Danielson bursts behind the unaware defender right in time as the pass arrives and there’s almost nothing that the goalie can do to stop the shot.
Shooting is far from Danielson’s strongest suit, but it’s not like he’s Rod Langway out there, either (no offense, Rod!). There are still times where he can spot holes in a goalie’s net coverage and wire pucks where he wants them to go. Watch the lovely little delay he utilizes in this clip to draw the Prince Albert defender into an ill-advised attempted block that also creates a screen for the goalie, solving two problems at once, before depositing the puck into the open bit of net on the far side.
Danielson is criminally underrated as a playmaker. His assist totals from this season aren't gaudy, but the biggest reason why is because Brandon has a painful absence of offensive depth and firepower. He routinely makes beautiful passes into high-danger areas, only to have the majority of them get missed upon reception, mishandled, or turned into low-quality shots. He possesses a deftly soft touch on the puck, and can thread passes through traffic or sauced over obstacles with expert precision. Even more impressive, he can do all of this in motion at full speed. His ability to open up new passing lanes is among the very best in this entire draft class, and that’s a hugely valuable trait in the NHL, where defenders are experts at closing gaps and where defensive systems and structures are locked down tight. All that being said, there is work that can still be done with his puck handling and transportation. He does lose control with his hands at times, as well as bobbling the odd pass reception. There are times that he needs to recognize where he would be better served sacrificing a bit of speed to gain a bit more control in exchange.
You see this kind of play all the time out of Danielson, which is why I’ve included two similar clips right next to each other. It’s such a core aspect of his game. He’ll dynamically gain entry into the offensive zone, draw defensive coverage towards him, and then feed the puck to a teammate who enters the newly opened space for a dangerous scoring chance. He does it so often and so efficiently that it’s practically routine for him now.
This one is a little different, but even more impressive. He takes the pass in stride and then works a little give-and-go with a teammate on the entry, before then — you guessed it — opening up the passing lane for the assist.
Something a little different this time: a textbook odd-man rush and saucer pass, with this one coming shorthanded. He displays a perfect amount of poise to get the Portland defender to bite and open himself up for that split second, making it easier for the pass to get across.
This is the sort of play that Danielson could stand to iron out of his game a little more. He mishandles a loose puck, and then directly turns it over twice in the matter of seconds. It’s a good example of where he will want to improve the precision of his puckhandling, as well as recognizing when the best option in a play is to slow things down a little instead of defaulting to reacting as quickly as possible.
There are different ways to be a smart hockey player. One way can revolve around someone having a knack for slowing the play down to his liking, to help him better survey options, let teammates arrive into place, and identify defensive weak points. However, being able to make correct reads and decisions at full speed, with minimal time to think or react, is a different type of hockey intelligence. Danielson falls primarily into the latter category. Not only does he love applying pressure, he picks critical, decisive places to apply it. With the puck on his stick he correctly reads whether trying to beat a defender one-on-one, deferring to a teammate, or dumping the puck in deep and chasing it is the best option available to him. Without the puck, he is outright felonious with intercepting passes on the forecheck or catching enemies on the backcheck, often before opposing players even realize trouble is so close to them. And when he has to fall back to support the defensive side of the puck he oozes hockey sense and maturity. He almost always seems to be in the right positions in all three zones, which strongly suggests that he will be able to stay a center at the NHL level.
Danielson is a killer forechecker. He starts this shift without the puck and his team under siege, but he helps turn possession back over to his side through battling along the boards. From there, his mind shifts into attack mode. Even though his linemate botches the rush up the ice and hands possession right back to Red Deer, Danielson isn’t far behind in support. He pounces on an errant pass and single-handedly generates a prime scoring chance.
Here is another great example of how opponents have to be on high alert when Danielson is on the ice. Saskatoon bobbles the puck and Danielson, circling like a shark defensively, quickly scoops it up, turns it around, and gets it deep for a forecheck seconds later (only to be let down by his teammates, who fail to hold the zone).
I absolutely love this shift. He recognizes that one of his blueline teammates has been caught up ice so he calmly slides into a position of defensive support, sticking to the opposing player like glue and angling him to the outside. As the play continues he catches another Prince Albert player, pins him to the boards and helps win the puck back. The whole time he is keeping his head up and his feet moving, looking for ways to offer support.
One more example of how Danielson uses alertness and active motion to his advantage defensively. He starts circling and looking for the right spot to apply himself. As soon as one of his teammates wins a puck battle he activates, building up a small head of steam while also getting himself into space to be a pass option. He gets the pass and, using the speed he had already built up, easily drives the play out of his zone and all the way to the other end.
There are times where Danielson can be a forceful player physically. He can really get some momentum behind his hits because, as already explained at length, he generates speed so easily. More important, though, is that he's not shy about contact or getting his hands dirty. As good as he is at driving wide and creating openings from the perimeter, he's also not afraid to battle for pucks in the corner or go hard to the net front. He plays such a pacey, engaged game all of the time, and will make a hit or take a hit so that he doesn't have to take his foot off the gas and disrupt his flow. His compete level is very impressive overall, both shift to shift, as well as game to game. He never takes a game off, which can't be easy to do considering the ice time and heavy lifting he is given, and considering how far away the Wheat Kings are from being a contending team in the league right now.
The Red Deer Rebels have a longstanding reputation for being one of the toughest, most physical organizations in the WHL. Danielson would be well aware of that by this season, and in this clip decides to give Red Deer a taste of their own medicine with a couple of feisty hits — while on the penalty kill, no less.
Danielson doesn’t disproportionately win his physical battles or come out on the right side of the contact that he’s involved in, but that doesn’t deter him. In this clip he takes a hard hit along the bench, only to shake it off, get back in the play and throw a hard hit of his own on the other side of the ice.
Being an effective physical player goes far beyond just taking and making hits. Having the ability to fend off checks or outmuscle opponents to free up space is incredibly important too, like we see in this clip. Danielson fights off and breaks free from a Winnipeg defender to retain his possession of the puck, which he then feeds back into the slot for a goal.
OFP: 56.75 (ranked inside the lottery, pushing top-5)
A note on the 20-80 scale used above. We look at five attributes (skating, shooting, puck skills, hockey IQ and physicality) for skaters and six for goalies (athleticism/quickness, compete/temperament, vision/play reading, technique/style, rebound control and puck handling). Each individual attribute is graded along the 20-80 scales, which includes half-grades. The idea is that a projection of 50 in a given attribute meant that our observer believed that the player could get to roughly NHL average at that attribute at maturity