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Prospects Analysis: 2015-16 Rankings, 1-25

Jon Litterine

Jon Litterine is RotoWire's lead MMA Writer and MMA Editor. He has covered numerous MMA events live. He's also RW's NHL Prospect Analyst. Jon has been writing for RotoWire since 2005. He is a graduate of U Mass-Lowell.

This is the final piece of a four-part series covering our top-100 prospects for the 2015-16 season. We will have a second four-part feature that will cover the top-10 prospects of each individual team by division. Now, onto the rankings.

(Note: Only players with less than 25 games played are included.)

1. Connor McDavid (F, Edmonton Oilers):
There is no brighter hockey prospect in the world than McDavid. His hands, speed, smarts and his ability to make his teammates better make him the best prospect in recent memory. He truly is a generational talent. Everyone knows how dysfunctional the Oilers have been the last decade or so, but even their shenanigans won't be able to screw up McDavid. Edmonton has enough offensive talent on their team that McDavid is going to have immediate fantasy value. Expect something around 25 goals and 70-75 points in his rookie season, but don't be surprised if he surpasses those totals. It also wouldn't be surprising if McDavid is a top-10 player, both in real life and the fantasy world, within the next two years. He has the physical tools to be a future Hall of Famer. You don't want to hang expectations like that on any 18-year-old kid, but he can do things that other players his age (or any age, really) cannot.

2. Jack Eichel (F, Buffalo Sabres):
There is a clear gap between McDavid and Eichel, but Eichel is the No. 2 prospect on this list by a considerable margin. If McDavid weren't around, Eichel would certainly be worthy of being called the No. 1 prospect in hockey. They play a different style of game. Eichel is big and strong and plays more of a power game. His skating is underrated and he dominated college hockey to the tune of 71 points in 40 games in his first (and only) season at Boston University. Mostly due the fact that he has a weaker supporting cast around him, Eichel might take a bit longer than McDavid to become a force in the NHL. He looks like the next coming of Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry. A big, right-handed shooting forward who can dominate a game on his own. He's another potential franchise-altering prospect.

3. Nikolaj Ehlers (F, Winnipeg Jets):
Even with Jonathan Drouin spending the entire year in the NHL, Ehlers still put up 37 goals and 100 points in 51 games for Halifax (QMJHL). To say that Ehlers has nothing left to learn at the junior level would be a massive understatement. His blazing speed and elite hands give him the ability to take over a game offensively at any point. Ehlers could use another 10-15 pounds of muscle, but he's strong enough to play in the NHL now. He also is willing to go to the difficult areas of the ice to make plays. Ehlers' play in both training camp and preseason likely will force the Jets to carry him on their NHL roster this season. Winnipeg improved as a team last year, but it still lacks the high-end offensive skill that Ehlers will bring to the team.

4. Sam Bennett (F, Calgary Flames):
Bennett missed the vast majority of last season due to shoulder surgery, returning to play just 11 games for Kingston (OHL). He was called up by Calgary after his junior season ended and became a fixture in the Flames' lineup for their surprising playoff run. Bennett's willingness to work his tail off every shift combined with his above average-skill level make him a threat every time he's on the ice. You won't see Bennett making the highlight-reel plays that someone like McDavid makes on a regular basis, but when the game is over, there he is quietly putting up a couple of points. He is the type whose hard work makes his teammates better. Bennett's fantasy value this season hinges on how much ice time the Flames are willing to give him. It would be surprising if he did not make the team.

5. Andrei Vasilevskiy (G, Tampa Bay Lightning):
Vasilevskiy played just 16 regular season games for the Lightning last season, thus he is still eligible for this list. He was as advertised when he did get the call for coach Jon Cooper. He's big, athletic and rarely finds himself out of position. Vasilevskiy is still prone to giving up a weak goal now and then, but he is good at putting it behind him and staying focused. Ben Bishop has been terrific as Tampa's starting goalie, but he is injury prone and Vasilevskiy is far too talented to spend any length of time on the bench. Even if Bishop stays healthy all season, Vasilevskiy could play at least 25 games this coming year. If Bishop ever went down for an extended period, Vasilevskiy would become a must-start in all fantasy leagues.

6. Max Domi (F, Arizona Coyotes):
Domi had nothing left to learn or prove in junior hockey last season, thus I was not a fan of the Coyotes sending him back to London (OHL) for one final year. To his credit, Domi said all the right things and did what he was supposed to do -- that being putting up 102 points in 57 games. Domi is short (5-foot-10), but he's extremely strong and difficult to knock off the puck. He's a wizard with the puck on his stick and has the speed to turn defenders into pylons. Arizona GM Don Maloney already said this summer that Domi is all but assured a spot on this year's team (not like there was any doubt). The Coyotes absolutely stink. They do not have one guy on their roster you would consider a real offensive threat on a nightly basis. Almost by default, Domi is going to get a ton of ice time. Expect him to produce immediately.

7. Mitch Marner (F, Toronto Maple Leafs):
I have far more confidence that Marner will be handled properly now that Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock are running the Leafs. After putting up 13 goals in 64 games two seasons ago, Marner raised that total to 44 goals in 63 games this past year. He needs to get bigger and stronger, but he is right up there with the best prospects in the world in regard to pure offensive ability. It will be better for all parties involved if Toronto is patient with Marner. He will not make the team this year, and it would not be a disaster if his NHL debut doesn't come until 2017-18. He looks like a right-handed shooting Patrick Kane. The upside is that high. But patience is required.

8. William Nylander (F, Toronto Maple Leafs):
The Leafs have gone from having a barren prospect pool to having two guys in the top 10. Toronto announced this summer the plan was for Nylander to spend this season in the AHL learning to play center. He played almost exclusively as a winger after coming to North America midway through last season (where he played very well in the AHL). I admit I am not a fan of the move. Nylander is an offensive player. He has elite speed and terrific hands. He has never been known for his defensive game. Centers are more valuable than wingers in today's NHL, but moving one of the top prospects in the game seems like an unnecessary decision. The bright side is that Nylander is young enough that if the experiment fails, he can move back to wing and not lose too much development time. His offensive game is NHL-ready, but it appears the Leafs are committed to trying this.

9. Darnell Nurse (D, Edmonton Oilers):
Do not let the signing of Andrej Sekera or the acquisitions of Griffin Reinhart and Eric Gryba fool you; the Oilers need Nurse to play a huge role this year. There isn't a whole lot Nurse can't do on the ice. He moves well, he has good puck skills and he has done a better job of learning to use his 6-4, 200-pound frame to his advantage. He was dominant for Team Canada at the World Juniors and rarely makes mental errors. Even in his best seasons he should be more of an average fantasy asset as opposed to a stud, but he is the 25-minute per game defenseman that the Oilers do not have on their roster.

10. Michael Dal Colle (F, New York Islanders):
The Islanders are going to roll out virtually the same exact forward group as last season, which means Dal Colle is likely to spend one final, unnecessary season playing junior hockey. Dal Colle has 81 goals and 188 points the last two seasons, he has nothing left to learn playing against kids. I wish the Islanders would give consideration to putting him on their top line alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, but it would be shocking if they actually did it. Dal Colle is a sniper. He has a terrific shot and the ability to score in tight in front of the net. He isn't eligible to play in the AHL, so he either has to play for the Isles or head back to juniors. There is an outside shot he could get a nine-game trial in New York to see if he is truly ready, but expect him to spend the vast majority of the season in Oshawa (OHL).

11. Noah Hanifin (D, Carolina Hurricanes):
Hanifin was drafted fifth overall by Carolina this summer and decided to sign his entry-level contract, thus forgoing his final three years of eligibility at Boston College. Carolina will be one of the worst teams in the league again this season; there's no reason to rush Hanifin. They apparently disagree. Hanifin is physically mature, so that shouldn't be a huge issue for him in the NHL, but if your team is rebuilding and going nowhere, why force an 18-year-old kid to play major minutes unless it is absolutely necessary? As far as his development goes, Hanifin would be better off playing most of this season in the AHL. His skating and decision-making are elite, but he doesn't have high-end offensive ability. He's more of a guy who will get a ton of minutes in all situations. What the Hurricanes decide to do with Hanifin will be one of the more interesting story lines to follow this preseason.

12. Dylan Strome (F, Arizona Coyotes):
I preferred Marner to Strome in June's draft, but Strome is far more likely to stick at center and that is what the Coyotes were looking for. Dylan is bigger and stronger than his brother, though he doesn't skate as well. Strome scored 35 goals and 90 points more last season for Erie (OHL) than he did two years ago. Erie was one of the best teams in junior hockey, but Strome is a legitimate offensive stud. His dynasty league prospects are enhanced due to the fact that the Coyotes have several top-flight forward prospects in their system. Strome will get a long look in camp, but one more season in juniors is likely. He should be ready for NHL duty in 2016-17.

13. Sam Reinhart (F, Buffalo Sabres):
Reinhart likely will benefit more from the addition of Eichel than anyone else. Reinhart looked lost in his brief NHL duty last season, but he was terrific after he returned to Kootenay (WHL) and was arguably Team Canada's best player at the World Juniors. The addition of Eichel will allow Reinhart to focus on being more of a No. 2-type center as opposed to a No. 1 guy, which is always where where he can be at his best. Reinhart's vision and elite hockey IQ allow him to be far more productive offensively than his physical tools would suggest. He is always in the right place at the right time. Reinhart could eventually top out as a 65-70 point-per-season player. Not a stud, but an extremely useful player. It would be shocking if he didn't spend the entire season in Buffalo.

14. Anthony Mantha (F, Detroit Red Wings):
No one was higher on Mantha going into last season than this writer, but his rough season (much of it due to injuries) forces a reassessment of the situation. He still has a massive ceiling -- a first-line winger who can score 40-plus goals a season. Yet his floor has lowered and his bust potential has risen. Mantha is huge (6-4, 215), skates well and has terrific hands and a terrific shot (he played the point on the power play in juniors). But he got a late start last season due to injury and managed just 15 goals and 33 points in 62 games in his first AHL season. Certainly not a terrible year, but not the standout season many expected. I thought he would be ready for NHL duty by now, but the missed time and the struggles will result in him almost certainly starting this season in the AHL once again.

15. Dylan Larkin (F, Detroit Red Wings):
The strides Larkin has made in his offensive game since he was taken 15th overall in the 2014 entry draft are extremely surprising. Larkin was always a mature player and responsible defensively, but with 15 goals and 47 points in 35 games in his freshman season at the University of Michigan, he proved he is more than just a defensive specialist. Larkin was easily Team USA's best player at the World Juniors and played for Team USA at the World Championships at the end of the season. Larkin signed with the Wings after his season at Michigan was over and finished the season playing in the AHL. Larkin is ready to help Detroit now, but the Wings are notoriously slow in promoting their top prospects to full-time NHL duty. For that reason, and that reason only, expect Larkin to spend at least the first third of this season in the AHL.

16. Sonny Milano (F, Columbus Blue Jackets):
Milano played on a terrible team in Plymouth (OHL), but he put up 68 points in 50 games and got a ton of ice time, so his development trended in the right direction. He played a significant role for Team USA at the World Juniors and picked up five assists in 10 games for Springfield (AHL) late in the season. A case can certainly be made that Milano has better puck skills than just about any prospect in the world. The downside is that his defensive game needs work and he could stand to use his teammates a bit more. Expect Milano to get a lot of action in the preseason, and then be shipped back to the OHL. Milano is a first-line talent; the Jackets should be patient with him.

17. Josh Morrissey (D, Winnipeg Jets):
Injuries limited Morrissey to just 47 regular season games with Prince Albert and Kelowna (WHL) last season. The positive is that he also got seven games of action with Team Canada at the World Juniors and 13 games of playoff action with the Rockets. So, all in all, he played 67 games, roughly a full season. While not big (6-0, 185), Morrissey can control a game with his smarts, movement and offensive ability. He has the ability to impact a game in many different ways. When Morrissey eventually establishes himself as an NHL regular, he will get power play time and will be a fantasy option. Morrissey may begin this season in the AHL, but he should make his NHL debut at some point during the year.

18. Zach Werenski (D, Columbus Blue Jackets):
Werenski was one of my favorite players available in June's draft. His high offensive ceiling along with his terrific decision-making make him almost a lock to have a long NHL career. He put up nine goals and 25 points as a true freshman at the University of Michigan and got a ton of ice team at the World Juniors despite being one of the youngest players in the tournament. Werenski is big (6-2, 215), skates well and displays poise beyond his years. The skillset is there for Werenski to be an extremely productive offensive player at the NHL level. There was talk of Werenski signing with the Jackets this summer, attending training camp and then playing with London (OHL), who own his junior rights, but as it stands, he is heading back to Michigan for his sophomore season.

19. Kevin Fiala (F, Nashville Predators):
Fiala began last season playing in Sweden and finished it playing in the NHL. In between, he suited up for Switzerland at the World Juniors and put up 11 goals and 20 points in 33 AHL games. Fiala is an undersized, dynamic offensive player. His skillset is similar to Nik Ehlers. He has the ability to make defenders look foolish and rarely gets hit because he is so shifty. His upside is a first-line scoring winger who can dominate on the power play. He can certainly get stronger, but he's coachable and there's some flash to his game. If Nashville keeps him on their opening night roster, it is almost certainly to give him meaningful ice time. There is nothing to be gained by having a 19-year-old stud play eight minutes a night.

20. Robby Fabbri (F, St. Louis Blues):
Fabbri's season was derailed last year by a high ankle sprained suffered at the World Juniors. He missed a ton of time for Guelph (OHL) and finished the year playing for St. Louis' AHL affiliate in Chicago. Despite the missed time, the 19-year-old could very well make the Blues roster out of training camp. He was a stud scorer in juniors, but he's more of a second-liner who can put up 65 points a season and help you in all three zones. Fabbri is physically when necessary and a terrific skater. He might not ever be a superstar, but he should have an extremely productive NHL career.

21. Anthony Duclair (F, Arizona Coyotes):
The decision by the Rangers to trade Duclair to Arizona was more about the Rangers doing all they could to win a Stanley Cup as opposed to any dip in Duclair's value. However, after a great preseason, early start to the season in New York and performance at the World Juniors, Duclair's play slipped when he returned to Quebec (QMJHL). He was still productive (34 points in 26 games played), but he was nowhere near the dominant player he was the season before. Duclair's speed is elite, but he has consistency issues. There was a reason he fell to the third round in the 2013 draft. All of the tools are there for Duclair to be a 30-plus goal-per-season scorer at the NHL level, but there are red flags. Mainly the consistency issues and an improved commitment to playing defensive hockey. It's 50/50 as to whether Duclair cracks the Arizona roster out of camp or begin the season in the AHL.

22. Shea Theodore (D, Anaheim Ducks):
Theodore has improved massively since Anaheim made him the 26th pick in the 2013 draft. His offensive game improved, his mistakes in the defensive end lessened. Injuries limited Theodore to 43 games with Seattle (WHL), but he still managed 13 goals and 48 points. Anaheim has seven defensemen under NHL contract for this upcoming season, so even though Theodore is a better player than Korbinian Holzer, he is probably going to begin the season in the AHL. Expect him to make his NHL debut in the near future. His shot will make him a potential elite option on the power play.

23. Pavel Buchnevich (F, New York Rangers):
According to everyone (including himself), the plan was for Buchnevich to spend last year in the KHL and then sign with the Rangers this summer. He would then compete for a spot in camp and begin the season in the AHL if he failed to make the team. Instead, he said it would be too difficult to make a deep Rangers team this year, so he signed a one-year extension with his KHL club. The expectation is that we will go through all this again a year from now. There is no reason to think that Buchnevich doesn't plan to come over, but until he signs the contract, I have reservations. On the ice, Buchnevich got a ton of time for one of the worst teams in the KHL and showed off his playmaking and vision on a nightly basis. His defensive game needs work, and he is well aware that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault won't play guys he doesn't trust defensively (just ask J.T. Miller). Another season in the KHL is probably a good thing for Buchnevich, but the Rangers have to make sure they get him over next summer. He has the highest ceiling in their system by a mile.

24. Mathew Barzal (F, New York Islanders):
Anyone who reads my work on a regular basis knows I am not Garth Snow's biggest supporter, but he did a terrific job to snag Barzal. He saw Griffin Reinhart regressing and he turned him into an even better prospect. Barzal missed a lot of time this year due to a freak injury, but he is a terrific playmaker. His ability to set up his teammates is remarkable. He is another guy, like Sam Reinhart, who gets more out of his skills because he is such a smart player. He excels on the power play with the extra room and works hard defensively. All the Islanders should be hoping for from Barzal this season is that he remains healthy. He's a lock to produce for Seattle (WHL) as long as he remains on the ice.

25. Connor Hellebuyck (G, Winnipeg Jets):
I have been banging the Hellebuyck drum longer than anyone, and my former collegiate classmate continues to make me look good. After two dominant seasons at U-Mass Lowell, Hellebuyck showed far more good than bad in his first AHL season. The 2.58 GAA and .921 save percentage were more than respectable for a kid playing his first year of pro hockey. But Hellebuyck's real coming out party came after the season at the World Championships. He backstopped an undermanned Team USA squad to the bronze medal and he ended up with the best GAA and save percentage in the entire tournament. I said it before last season and I will say it again -- Hellebuyck is the best goaltender in the Winnipeg organization. He will begin this year in the AHL, but I would by no means be shocked if he was the Jets' No. 1 man when the season ends.