In deeper fantasy leagues, you’ve got to scoop up potentially useful minor leaguers before they even get promoted. In that interest, let’s talk about a few guys in the AHL who have a combination of talent and potential opportunity.
The Lightning may be hurting in the wake of the Steven Stamkos injury, but they’re fortunate to own two of the AHL’s top four scorers in the dynamic Russian duo of Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov, their first- and second-round picks in 2011.
I talked about Kucherov in my last column – before I got derailed by a computer disaster that’s kept me out of the game a little while here – but what he’s done is worth an update. In just 13 games this year, Kucherov’s racked up a dozen goals and 10 assists, while Namestnikov has dished a dozen assists to go with seven markers. No one else on Syracuse has more than 10 points. Namestnikov comes with serious pedigree, as his father Evgeny played in the NHL, as did his uncle, Slava Kozlov. Though Kucherov has no such pedigree, his scoring in the AHL and juniors speaks for itself. With Stamkos hurt, it wouldn’t be surprising if these two get the call as soon as the Bolts’ offense goes into a slump.
After a surprisingly positive start, the Flames have (unsurprisingly) declined sharply, and the long story short is that they’ve only won six of 18 games this year. Fortunately, they have a shot in the arm waiting at AHL Abbotsford in the person Corban Knight, the Panthers’ fifth-round pick in 2009 whose rights the Flames acquired in the offseason.
Knight, who starred at the University of North Dakota for the last three years – averaging a point per game or better each year in that span –has carried his productivity forward into professional hockey. He’s tied for Abbotsford’s team lead in points with 16 in 17 games, and his plus-8 rating is the best mark on the squad. At 6-2, 200, Knight’s got the size and the mindset to make his combination of skill and grit work at the NHL level.
The Rangers made a slick move of their own in the offseason when they acquired Danny Kristo from Montreal for Christian Thomas – their 2010 second-round pick, but an undersized winger who probably doesn’t have the kind of skill that a Martin St. Louis brings to the table. Though I have a fondness for smaller skaters, it does, I’ll admit, take a certain kind of player to make things work at the NHL level without good size. In any case, Kristo has perfectly reasonable size, and his first full AHL season is going quite well so far, as he’s scored eight goals and added six assists for a point-per-game pace through 14 games. While his desire and consistency have been questioned at times, the 2008 second-rounder is developing admirably and has all the skills you look for in a scoring winger. While the Rangers want him to spend this year developing, they've had injury problems on the wing already, and Kristo's going go force his way up if he keeps going like this.
Let’s get into some NHL action.
Martin Jones, G, LA – The most notable call-up of the week, Jones has a chance to see some real playing time with Jonathan Quick out a month or so. Though Ben Scrivens has been good in the early going this year, he’s not a flag-carrying netminder. It’s hard to imagine Jones doesn’t get a chance to impress at the NHL level after putting up great stats in the AHL for the last four seasons – none better than this year, in which he’s got a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage in 13 games for Manchester.
Travis Morin, C, DAL – Morin was pacing the AHL in scoring at the time of his recall – a ridiculous 24 points in 14 games. But at age 29, he’s no spring chicken, and certainly no prospect. He’s only played in four NHL games despite his advanced age, and though he’s had a couple good AHL seasons, it’s been a long road for the 2004 ninth-round pick. It’s been questioned whether Morin has the speed or the muscle to succeed at the highest level, and it’s questionable whether the Stars will give him more than fourth-line ice time to work with. He skated just 6:01 in his season debut Wednesday, going plus-1 with no other stats to speak of.
Tanner Pearson, LW, LA – The Kings’ top pick in 2012 has already made it to the big leagues. Though he wasn’t going nuts in Manchester this year, with 11 points on his line to accompany a plus-8 rating over 15 games – a scoring rate that’s right in line with last season’s 47-point output in 64 contests – Pearson made an immediate impact in his NHL debut. Despite skating only 9:33, he scored his first NHL goal on a power play. The former Barrie Colts star is going to be a quality NHLer, but the Kings have a lot of bodies up front right now, so his opportunities are going to be limited in the short term.
Chris Terry, LW, CAR – Just one of a host of young, high-upside forwards who can somehow never see quality ice time in the NHL despite the Hurricanes being just awful nearly every year, Terry is now six years removed from being drafted (2007, fifth round) and has played all of six NHL games. He’s got a 34-goal AHL season on his record and has tallied 64, 59 and 60 points in the minors the last three seasons, yet seems to never get a legitimate shot with a Carolina team that could use his skill. Still only 24, Terry’s off to another fine start in the minors this year, with 10 points in as many games, but as usual, he’s seen fairly minimal time since his recall, skating third-line minutes (12:05 on average) while luminaries like Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer are playing career-high minutes on the second line. Can we just fire the entire Hurricanes front office and coaching staff yet?
Prospect of the Week
Shea Theodore, D, ANA – The Ducks had to wait until the 26th pick to make their first-round selection this year, but they made it count by drafting the slick-skating, high-scoring Theodore, who’s looking like the best defenseman Anaheim’s drafted since Cam Fowler. The 18-year-old BC native looked promising for WHL Seattle last year, scoring 19 goals and finishing third on the team in points (50), but his minus-24 rating as well as concerns about his physicality and defensive responsibility had some questioning his potential.
Well, this year, playing for a Seattle team that still doesn’t have much in the way of goaltending, Theodore’s carrying a team-leading plus-4 to go with 11 goals and 13 assists in just 19 contests. In short, he’s making major strides forward. Though he may have another year of junior hockey left after this season, Theodore should be universally owned in keeper and dynasty formats, as he’s going to be an impact fantasy performer in a couple years’ time. He may be the highest-upside defenseman to come out of junior since Mike Green – another late-first-round pick, back in 2004.
2014 Draft Prospect of the Week
Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie Colts (OHL) – Yep, we’re doubling down on defensemen this week. The 17-year-old Ekblad, considered to be one of the top prospects for the 2014 draft, is having an interesting mixed bag of a season so far with Barrie. While he’s raised his scoring – with seven goals, he’s already tied last year’s total, and his 19 points in 20 games is easily the highest rate he’s managed – Ekblad’s carrying a minus-5 rating, a far cry from last year’s plus-29 mark.
Nonetheless, he's widely considered a workhorse defenseman who can play offense, defense and special teams equally effectively, and with his size and skill, he’s eerily reminiscent of Shea Weber. While this is commonly regarded as a weaker draft class, it wouldn’t be surprising if Ekblad changed people’s minds on that in time. He’s already got the size to play in the NHL – or the NBA, for that matter – and he’s only going to get bigger and better. That’s a scary thought for the opposition.
Also, someone made this pretty excellent highlight video. Check out the bullets he’s ripping from the point. Yikes.