NHL Future Watch: Top 10 prospects currently outside the NHL
The 2011-12 National Hockey League season has been a brilliant campaign for rookie breakthroughs. The Calder Trophy race for Rookie-of-the-Year is currently being hotly contested between a trio of brilliant young blue-chippers: New Jersey center Adam Henrique, Colorado power-forward Gabriel Landeskog, and Edmonton prodigy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Not far behind them, Buffalo just made a huge deadline deal to acquire a top center from Vancouver in first-year stud Cody Hodgson, while Philadelphia has debuted a pair of terrific young pivots in Matt Read and Sean Couturier. On the blueline, Justin Faulk is already the top two-way defenseman in Carolina while Jake Gardiner and Adam Larsson have been indispensible to the Maple Leafs and Devils, respectively.
What can we expect for next season? The 2012 NHL entry draft is considered extremely deep, especially for defensemen, but outside of surefire top pick LW Nail Yakupov there is no guarantee any of those 18 year-olds will be rushed into the professional circuit. This column tracks the top 10 of current NHL prospects, most of which are set to make their mark in the NHL next season. (NOTE: Any player currently in the NHL is ineligible; sorry, David Rundblad.)
10. LW Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
A scoring prodigy, Huberdeau led the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs to the 2011 Memorial Cup championship and was promptly selected third overall in the 2011 NHL draft by Florida. Panthers’ GM Dale Tallon is no stranger to identifying scoring talent, having previously drafted superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane while running the Chicago Blackhawks. Huberdeau has not disappointed this season, scoring over two points a game for Saint John, considered by many the top candidate in the CHL for a second consecutive league title.
Called “an offensive wizard when the puck is on his stick” by scouting site www.hockeysfuture.com, Huberdeau is blessed with tremendous hands, stickhandling ability and vision. There is little doubt he will score at the NHL level and be an absolute force on the power play, but his slight frame (6’1″, 170) might leave him physically challenged in the rigorous NHL. This is likely to be off-set by his phenomenal compete level. I find it hard to imagine he will not blossom into a first-line, 80+ point player for the very fortunate Florida Panthers.
9. D Jonathan Blum, Nashville Predators
Whether or not you agree that Blum is the #9 prospect in the NHL, it is hard to argue that he is the top native Californian prospect in hockey history. Raised in Long Beach, Blum overcame a tragedy-stricken youth which included the death of his twin sister in a 2004 house fire to become a star two-way defenseman for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. Selected 23rd overall by Nashville in 2007, Predators’ GM David Poile is well-reknowned for identifying blueline talent, having drafted NHL stars Shea Weber and Ryan Suter previously, and Blum projects to be a slightly smaller version of longtime NHL stalwart Jay Bouwmeester.
An excellent skater who displays extraordinary confidence with the puck, Blum is a steady presence who will excel on the power play or shorthanded, the type of player who we can expect to see on the ice in the final minute whether his team leads or trails by a single goal. Though he will never light up the scoreboard like a Mike Green or Erik Karlsson and at 6’1″, 18o will never be the physical defensive presence of a Zdeno Chara or Dion Phaneuf, Blum is a good bet to be a very dependable first-pairing defenseman for a long time to come.
8. C Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
A super-skilled top-line talent, Schwartz oozes a rare, tremendous character and heart which led to his being named the captain of the Canadian team in the 2012 World Junior Championships. He plays with a grit and tenacity which belies his slightly undersized stature and, like Blum, has been forced to endure brutal tragedy and hardship. In 2011, his sister Mandi, a fantastic hockey player herself who skated for Yale University, died following a three-year battle with leukemia. Despite this, Schwartz has emerged as a Hobey Baker-worthy stud for Colorado College.
Drafted 14th overall by the Blues in 2010, Schwartz projects to be a first-line prodigious point producer and one-day NHL captain-candidate. Though the word most often used to define his on-ice play is “smart”, he is also a sublime skater with a sniper’s set of hands. His puck skills, size, skating and off-the-charts hockey IQ prompt comparisons to Claude Giroux, currently battling for the NHL scoring title. It is no small compliment, but not an entirely unrealistic one.
7. G Jack Campbell, Dallas Stars
The big kid from Michigan quickly developed a reputation as a big-game goaltender, starring in the 2009 and 2010 U18 tournaments and, most notably, absolutely shining in leading Team USA to gold in the 2010 WJC tournament. In the 2010 draft, Dallas wasting no time in selecting their future franchise netminder with the 11th overall selection.
Goaltending talent notoriously is most difficult to identify at early ages and then takes the longest and most care to develop, but if there is one amateur goalie with can’t-miss talent, it is Jack Campbell. Incredibly talented and competitive with a history of rising to his best in clutch situations, he should find himself in the NHL within the next season or two.
6. C Mika Zibanejad, Ottawa Senators
Everything about Zibanejad indicates he is far above the typical athlete. Off the ice, he is far from an average individual — raised in Sweden to an Iranian father and Finnish mother, he is fluent in four languages and impressively intelligent. On the ice, he has displayed uncommon two-way talent and a penchant for scoring huge goals, most notably the highlight-reel game winner he netted in overtime of the 2012 WJC gold-medal game against the favored Russians: Zibanejad Golden Goal
Not the best skater or puck-handler among the top NHL prospects, Zibanejad makes up for it with a fierce power game and off-the-charts hockey smarts. He compares favorably at the same age to Boston’s indispensible center Patrice Bergeron and should move on from his current home in Djurgarden, Sweden to play a major role in Ottawa at the start of next season.
5. LW Chris Kreider, New York Rangers
It is rare to find a young hockey player who mixes elite speed with a huge (6’3″, 210) frame, rarer still to find one with Kreider’s skill and hockey sense. Yet what truly sets this burgeoning star apart from the pack is that he combines the physical skill with a penchant for winning — in 2010 he won a WJC gold medal with a team-leading six goals for Team USA, then followed it up with a NCAA title for Boston College that same year.
Kreider was drafted 19th overall in the 2009 draft by the New York Rangers who value his talent so highly that they refused to include him in a rumored trade for perennial all-star LW Rick Nash at this year’s trade deadline, reputedly preventing the swap. With elite athleticism and 40+ goal upside, Kreider will enjoy a long career in the NHL proving the Rangers right.
4. C Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild
As with many players on this list, it is impossible to read a scouting report of Granlund without seeing the word “smart” or the word “leader”. Not imposing physically at 5’10, 180, the young Finnish blue-chipper makes up for it with extraordinary vision, creativity and puck-handling ability. He plays the game like an improvisational genius, seemingly inventing new forms of brilliance as he goes. Against Russia in the 2011 IIHF World Championship, he used this almost supernatural ability to score one of the most dazzling goals in competitive hockey history: Granlund lacrosse goal
Granlund’s intelligence and hockey sense invoke a young Pavel Datsyuk, and next year he will certainly move from the Finnish Elite League to the National Hockey League, where he can learn the professional game in Minnesota under the tutelage of teammate and countryman Mikko Koivu. He is destined to one day become a team captain and NHL all-star, a staple of several highlight reels to come.
3. RW Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
In the 2010 WJC, Russia won the gold medal with a stirring championship comeback against Team Canada. Kuznetsov was an integral part of the Russian team’s top line, getting three assists in the third period and finishing the tournament with a sparkling scoring line of 4-7-11 in seven games. Despite his obvious sublime skill, he somehow fell to 26th in the 2010 NHL draft where Washington euphorically snatched him up. He captained Team Russia in the 2011 WJC and proved the Capitals right, dominating for 13 points in six games as Russia took the silver medal.
An incredible skater, stickhandler and passer, Kuznetsov mixes a startling skill set with a grit and fearlessness far from the stereotype of European hockey players. He is a demon in the corners and a beast in front of the net, as well as a tsunami of raw ability in open ice. Kuznetsov has been compared to another Evgeni, soon-to-be two-time Hart Trophy winner Malkin, and although that might be impossible to live up to it is difficult imagining someone of Kuznetsov’s talent not becoming a star at the NHL level.
2. D Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins
Chosen 8th overall with the second #1 pick Boston received in the ballyhooed Phil Kessel trade in 2011, Hamilton represents a juxtaposition of size and skill which makes the Bruins’ brass drool. The son of a Canadian Olympian, he has athletic bloodlines leading to a speed and fluidity of skating which belies his 6’6″ frame. Hamilton possesses a huge shot from the point and displays a great deal of on-ice intelligence. His defensive game has improved to the point where he is likely the best defenseman currently playing in the CHL, and of late his game has developed some edge, as well.
Playing for the Niagara Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League, Hamilton has tallied 17 goals and 50 assists thus far this season for an astounding 67 points in just 44 games. He will be given every opportunity to make the Bruins out of training camp next season, where he can learn the NHL game alongside a player with a similar skill set in the Norris Trophy winning superstar Zdeno Chara.
1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
Oh, to be in St. Louis. Not only are they a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season, but they are the only team with two players on this list. And also the very best of the bunch in the young man they call “Tank”.
In the 2011 WJC, Russia was not expected to make the gold medal game. When they did, it was behind the electrifying skill of Tarasenko. In the gold medal game itself, Russia was not supposed to have a chance against heavily favored Team Canada, which entered the third period with a 3-0 lead.
When Russia came back with a stunning, 5-3 comeback victory, it was again behind the talents of Tarasenko, who scored the game-tying goal before getting the primary assist on the game-winner. Playing against adults in the KHL since he was 16, Tarasenko has never been a stranger to overcoming adverse odds, and the WJC gold was just further evidence of that.
Yet that is in Tank’s past. What of his future? A fiery and tenacious competitor nicknamed for his 5’11″, 210 tank-like build, Tarasenko plays the game with the reckless abandon of a cannonball on skates. Mix that with elite skating ability and agility. Then throw into the combination a lethal wrist shot which gets off with the accuracy and swiftness of a Joe Sakic or Paul Kariya and you have a future NHL goal-scoring leader on your hands.
The St. Louis Blues traded up to draft Tarasenko 16th overall in 2010 when he somehow fell in the draft due to ”signability concerns”, but he reportedly will be willing to play in the NHL next season. When he does, the league will be lucky to have one more scintillating, edge-of-your-seat talent to watch, with the drive and desire to keep it up over an 82-game NHL campaign. Tarasenko is a unique talent indeed, but if forced to compare him to a recognizable talent, a slightly smaller but more tenacious Taylor Hall would be a good place to start.
G Jacob Markstrom, Florida
RW Charlie Coyle, Minnesota
C Ryan Strome, NY Islanders
C Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg
D Jon Merrill, New Jersey