As you might have noticed, I finally got around to updating the RotoWire Top 100 NHL Prospects list - my New Year's resolution is to keep it updated once a month - and I anxiously await your criticism and/or acclaim.
Perhaps the toughest player to rank on this list was Brayden Schenn, whom I long considered the NHL's top prospect. Schenn's game hasn't had time to develop because of injuries this year, but this is the third straight season that he's spent time on the shelf, and he's starting to develop a reputation for being injury-prone. He also suffers from playing on a deep Flyers team that doesn't have any openings in the top two lines. As a result, he dropped off from the top spot to No. 7 - still a very high ranking to reflect his extremely high skill level. It was a bittersweet moment at the time for me to see him come up big in the Winter Classic with his first NHL goal - I didn't want to see it come against the Rangers, but that all worked out in the end, now didn't it? Schenn is going to have to earn his way to the top with Philadelphia, and it may not happen this year. Still, even in limited ice time, he should find a way to make contributions both offensively and with the body.
That brings us to the new No. 1, the Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko, who's been lighting up the KHL this year. Selected 16th overall by the Blues in 2010 - with a pick they acquired by trading top-notch defense prospect David Rundblad to Ottawa - Tarasenko has blossomed into one of the best young players in the world. With 33 points in 35 games for Novosibirsk Siber, Tarasenko is 10th in scoring in the extremely veteran-tilted league. (One-time Predators winger Alexander Radulov leads the league.) The 2010-'11 season was somewhat disappointing for Tarasenko, as he fell back a bit in his goal and point totals in the KHL, but he balanced that out by coming up big at the most crucial time - in international play at the World Junior Championships.
As good as Tarasenko has been, it's becoming hard for me not to rank Evgeny Kuznetsov ahead of him. Half a year younger, Kuznetsov has been a monster as a teenager in the KHL, collecting 56 points in 76 games over the last two years - that's at ages 18 and 19. As a comparison, Alexander Ovechkin managed 50 points in 90 KHL games when he was 18 and 19. That's the kind of company we're talking about for Kuznetsov. In last year's WJC, Kuznetsov and Tarasenko put up 11 points each, but with Tarasenko no longer eligible for the tournament, Kuznetsov has taken off, scoring three goals and dishing out six assists in four games thus far - well, okay, actually he went scoreless in three games, and put up all nine points in the fourth. Consistency has been an issue for him before, but if he can find a way to channel his immense talent on a regular basis, we could have two Russians at the very top of the list.
Amazingly, this WJC has given us yet another dramatic emergence out of Russian anonymity, Nikita Gusev, a 19-year-old who, on the surface, has puttered through parts of two uninteresting seasons with CSKA Moscow of the KHL, totaling two points in 26 games. But with a seven-point explosion against Latvia last Thursday, the small, speedy Gusev has as many points as his linemate Kuznetsov. Listed at 5-9, he's grown and will be big enough for the NHL. And hidden beneath his sad-sack, limited-minute KHL stats is his performance in the MHL, the Russian junior league, where Gusev has utterly dominated, racking up 21 goals and 31 assists in only 22 games. Passed up in two NHL drafts already despite producing heavily in the MHL, Gusev could very well be a first-round pick this time around.
Oh, and John Tortorella had every right to gripe about the refs in the Winter Classic. Penalty shot? Delay of game? Crazy talk. It's amazing that the Rangers won in regulation (great success!), since it looked for all the world like the league was doing the very best it could to get to a shootout. And there's nothing more exciting to the lay fan than a shootout. I'm just saying.
Ryan Ellis, D, NAS - RotoWire's No. 5 NHL prospect was called up the day after Christmas and has played four scoreless games, but has held his own with an even plus-minus and seven shots on goal while averaging 17:11 of ice time. From a young defenseman - Ellis turns 20 on Tuesday - all you can ask for is for him to play his game and be solid in his own zone. Ellis has done that, and he's got loads of offensive talent, as evidenced by 101 points in the OHL last year and 17 in 26 AHL games this year. There's no doubt the production will come in due time as long as he remains with the Preds. Sure, Ellis is a notch undersized at 5-10, 179, but high-end talent and a top-notch work ethic can make up for a lot.
Zac Dalpe, C, CAR - Dalpe suffered a massive fall on our list, being listed as the No. 20 prospect back in March all the way to No. 70 today, as constant call-ups and send-downs seem to have impacted his game. He averaged close to a point per game in the AHL last year, but has been sent between Charlotte and Raleigh constantly this season, and as a result he has just eight points in 16 games with the Checkers and two points in 12 NHL contests. His ice time has been ramped up since this latest call-up, though, as he's been playing 11-15 minutes per game and seeing noteworthy power-play time. The increased action was rewarded with a goal and an assist Dec. 29 against Toronto, and although the 22-year-old was scoreless in the New Year's Eve game in Tampa Bay, he was entrusted with 15:43 of ice time. Things seem to finally be moving in the right direction again here.
David Savard, D, CBJ - After a cup of coffee early on this year, Savard was returned to the AHL, where he's struggled to recapture last season's productivity. He collected 11 goals and 32 assists for Springfield last season, part of what's been a surprising emergence for a guy who was taken in the fourth round in '09 by Columbus. He rewarded the draft selection with a huge increase in productivity in the QMJHL in '09-'10, as he ramped his point total up from 44 to 77, then followed with the remarkable AHL debut, but it may be too much too fast for the 21-year-old. This year, he's got just two goals and nine assists in 23 games for Springfield and also notched a couple assists in eight NHL games. He skated 18:51 in his first game back, but received little power-play time and generated less production (no points, one shot, no hits).
Gustav Nyquist, C, DET - With Tomas Holmstrom on IR, RotoWire's No. 23 NHL prospect got the call to Detroit; unfortunately, with few minutes to go around, he's stuck with fourth-line ice time. In three games this season (two since the call-up and one earlier in the year), he's averaged just 7:40 of ice time. Meanwhile, the 22-year-old has been honing his craft in Grand Rapids, where he's the Griffins' leading scorer, averaging a point per game (nine goals, 21 assists in 30 contests). The fourth-round pick in '08 was a dominant force at the University of Maine; over the last two seasons, he compiled 112 points in just 75 games.
Gabriel Bourque, LW, NAS - After Bourque's first game, coach Barry Trotz said he regretted not giving him more than eight minutes of ice time, and so Bourque has skated much heavier minutes in the two games since, although he still hasn't produced anything offensively and has just three shots on goal in three games. The 21-year-old wasn't an exceptional point-producer in his QMJHL days, collecting a fairly pedestrian 127 points in 155 games over his three-year junior career. In the AHL, he's delivered about what you'd expect given that information - 36 points in 78 games last season and 16 in 25 this year. At this point, Bourque's upside appears to be as an undersized checking-liner with some grit and playmaking skill.
Andy Miele, C, PHO - The Hobey Baker winner was called up and then sent down, and he remains without a point in seven NHL games, though his ice time has been limited (8:56 on average). Miele's had no such problems with AHL Portland, collecting 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in as many contests. Undrafted and undersized, Miele is a very talented scorer, but as a 23-year-old with no draft pedigree, he's not going to get a whole ton of opportunities before being stuck with the dreaded “career AHLer” label. You've got to wonder how long the Coyotes feel like sputtering on both sides of the puck with guys like Daymond Langkow and Lauri Korpikoski skating top-six minutes when they could be rolling Miele and his Portland teammate Brett MacLean instead.
Brandon Pirri, LW, CHI - Since my last column, Pirri has been sent down, called back up, and sent back down again. Ah, the life of a young hockey player. Now in his second season with the Rockford IceHogs, Pirri has added some size since last year, filling out his six-foot frame to 183 pounds, and that added strength has resulted in a massive spike in production in the AHL - 14 goals and 32 points in 31 games. He's already exceeded his goal total from last year (12) and, assuming he stays down in the minors, he'll blow by last year's point total (43) quite soon. Pirri's notched a couple assists in four games with the 'Hawks and has four shots on goal, a plus-3 and five hits to show for it as well. At just 20 years old, he's a fast-rising prospect. You'd do well to check in on his availability in keeper leagues.
Tim Erixon, D, NYR - Erixon has nothing to prove at the AHL level, where he's racked up 16 points in 16 games, but he looked tentative at the NHL level and has gone scoreless in 13 games with the Rangers this season. At just 20 years old, his game has nowhere to go but up, and he's got the good fortune to play for a Rangers organization that seems to specialize in developing defensemen. Like teammates Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, the son of former Ranger Jan Erixon will find his confidence and start contributing for New York at some point. Fortunately for all parties involved, Marc Staal has returned to the Rangers' lineup and other reinforcements are on the way as well, meaning Erixon has a reasonable shot at spending the rest of the season with AHL Connecticut to work on the finer points of his game.
Tom Sestito, D, PHI - Fantasy camp for him.
The Future to Come
Every week in this space, I'll feature one college player and one junior player who are making their mark.
This week's college prospect is University of Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz, a second-round draft pick by the Ducks in '08. Featured in this space for his breakout last season, Schultz has managed to pick up his game even more, to the point that he's now fifth in scoring among college skaters. Schultz's 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) in just 18 games have set the pace for Wisconsin, putting him among the top contenders for the Hobey Baker Award for the second straight season. He was a finalist last year after potting 18 goals and adding 29 assists to lead Wisconsin in points, outscoring such teammates as Craig Smith, an impact rookie for the Predators this year. An excellent skater, passer and shooter, the one real knock on Schultz was his size, but he's over six feet tall and not nearly as slender as he was even last year; by the time he gets to the NHL, he'll have developed the size and the strength to keep up with the men of the pros. RotoWire's No. 22 NHL prospect could step into Anaheim's blue line next year, but with the difficulty that young defenseman often have coming into the league, it's likely that the Ducks will give Schultz some AHL time first - assuming that he chooses to forego his senior year at Wisconsin.
Our junior prospect of the week is 16-year-old - yeah, 16 - Nathan MacKinnon, who's playing in his first season for his hometown Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. It's a little bit crazy when you're 16 years old and being compared to fellow Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby, but he's done nothing to discourage us. At least he's probably a bit humbler than Bryce Harper. Despite playing for a Halifax team with little in the way of goaltending or offensive talent aside from their star right wing, MacKinnon is 14th in the league in scoring, having racked up 49 points (19 goals, 30 assists) in 31 games. He's missed time with a shoulder injury, but when he's been in there, the superstar prospect has done nothing but rack up points. The No. 1 pick in the QMJHL's midget draft, he's an early favorite for the NHL's No. 1 overall pick in 2013, and MacKinnon has the kind of franchise-saving talent that, like Crosby, will be capable of wholly reversing a cellar-dwelling team's fortunes within just a few seasons.
Something to ask? Something to say? Prospects you're dying to hear about? You can contact me here.