Top NHL prospects to watch – Eastern Conference

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning’s best goalie prospect (DIRK SHADD | Times)

Every year, dozens of excited young players enjoy their first taste of NHL hockey. Some stay for the whole year and become stars from the get go, while others are only temporary call ups, stopgaps for a pair of games before regulars came back. This exercise is about the ones that I believe will join the first group shortly, at the latest next year, and hopes to elucidate and inform about the characteristics and careers of this selected collection of prospects that aim to become mainstays in the NHL.

Since I wanted to compile the players that will make an impact in the NHL on the near future, an effort was made to select those that have yet to appear on a NHL game or have only experienced a couple of low-profile games, generally at the end of the regular season. I further limited my pool of candidates by skipping former top 5 picks, as the vast majority of these players are already in the NHL, and those who aren’t are already well-known by fans, and the members of the 2014-15 rookie class.

I ended up picking 5 prospects to watch from each Conference, with this post presenting the representatives of the East.

Anthony Mantha, RW, Detroit Red Wings

The inherent costs of keeping a sequence of twenty-three consecutive presences on the NHL playoffs meant that the Wings haven’t had the chance to select a lot of impact first round picks since the turn of the century. In fact, Jakub Kindl (19th, 2005) and Brendan Smith (27th, 2007) are only serviceable defenders and Riley Sheahan is still evolving as a two-way center at the NHL level. This leaves Nicklas Kronwall, the 29th pick of the 2000 NHL draft, as the last player selected by the team to have become an integral part of the franchise’s core group, and makes Anthony Mantha one of the most talked-about prospects seen recently by Wings fans.

Anthony Mantha on a pre-season game against the Pittsburgh Penguins

The 20-year-old Quebec native is, above all, a pure goal-scorer with a deadly wrist shot. Despite possessing a big frame, listed at 6’5’’ and 214 lbs, and being a great skater, he is not overly physical or aggressive pursuing the puck, using his size mainly to find loose pucks in traffic, keep possession, and open space to fire at the net. Two league-leading 50 goal-seasons at the junior level, playing for the Val D’Or Foreurs (QMJHL), including an MVP-worthy, goal-per-game performance last year (57 goals in 57 games (120 total points), give an idea of the right wing’s offensive ceiling. He was also part of Canada’s 2014 World Junior Championships team, gathering 5 goals and 11 points in 7 games.

His 2014-15 season, the first at the professional level, started with a fractured tibia that ruined his chances of fighting for a spot on the NHL roster, but he has already returned to action, adding 3 goals and 5 points in 11 AHL games. With the bevy of talented forwards on the Red Wings roster, Mantha’s affirmation at the NHL level could be delayed until next season, with the time being used to cement his adaptation to the professional game and to work on in-game consistency, defensive awareness and the lack of intensity that he, at times, still displays on the ice. The 20th pick of the 2013 NHL draft is projected to become an explosive top line goal-scorer at the NHL level, joining the likes of Tomas Tatar, Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist as main features of Detroit’s attack on the next decade.

William Nylander, C/RW, Toronto Maple Leafs

It’s been a really long time since the Toronto Maple Leafs had a forward prospect as exciting as the baby-faced 18-year-old Swedish/Canadian. Born in Calgary in 1996, William is the son of former NHLer Michael Nylander and played youth hockey in the United States until 2011, when his family moved back to Sweden after his father signed in Switzerland. He developed his skills on the youth Sodertalje teams, and 43 points in 27 games for the U20 team were enough to warrant a debut on the professional ranks in 2012-13, as a 16-year-old playing against men on the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second division. In the following season, the forward moved to the SHL, signing for Ornskoldsvik-based MODO, but after 7 points in 22 games on the top division, he was loaned to Rogle, his father’s team, and later he finished the season back at Sodertalje, averaging more than a point per game (19 in 17 games) for the club.

William Nylander impressed during Toronto’s training camp

The 18-year-old center was the 8th pick of this year’s draft and his skill package is a tantalizing one for the Leafs. He’s a brilliant skater that can execute at full speed and his puck-skills are tremendous, displaying a superb ability to keep the puck even under pressure from stronger players, dangle around people and sticks, change the pace of the game, and thread a pass to a teammate. Nylander can also score with his accurate wrist shot and is smart, dynamic and confident player that is not afraid to be the go-to guy (sometimes too much…) and show his skill and agility against more experienced opposition. At 5’11 and 174 pounds, he is considered a lightweight and needs to work on filling up and gaining strength, with this being exactly the reason why the Leafs sent him back to MODO for the 2014-15 season, in which he is already leaving his mark, clocking at a point per game (17 points in 17 games) and earning praise from the great Peter Forsberg, assistant GM of his current formation.

It is not a sure thing that Nylander will represent the Leafs next year, but there’s no doubt that the sky is the limit for him, with Toronto fans having another chance to evaluate their future 1st line Center when he represents Sweden at the 2015 World Junior Championships held in the City (and in Montreal).

Derrick Pouliot, D, Pittsburgh Penguins

Among the impressive group of defensive prospects left by Ray Shero on the Pittsburgh Penguins system, none has a bigger pedigree than Derrick Pouliot. Taken by the team with the 8th pick of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, acquired instants before on the Jordan Staal trade, the native of Estevan, Saskatchewan is an extremely mobile offensive defenseman with terrific vision and puck-moving skills. Despite being a bit undersized at 5’11, Pouliot is able to hold onto the puck and win battles in the corner due to his aggressiveness and core strength, expressed on his 208 lbs weight. He is also an explosive skater with a heavy shot that can create damage off the rush or quarterbacking the powerplay.

Derrick Pouliot, Penguins’ future on defense

The left-shot defenseman played his entire junior career for a powerhouse Portland Winterhawks team, winning the WHL title in 2012-13 and racking up points during 4 seasons (205 in 247 games), including last year’s performance of 70 points (17 goals) in 59 games, which earned him CHL Defenseman of the year honours and was followed by an impressive 32 points in 21 playoff games. The 20-year-old was also a member of the 2014 Canadian Under-20 WJC team, adding 5 points in 7 games.

After overcoming a shoulder injury that cost him the chance to fight for a roster spot on the Penguins coached by Mike Johnson, his former Portland trainer, Pouliot started this season in Wilkes-Barre, amassing 16 points on his first 19 games. When the time to shine in Pittsburgh arrives, he should be a fixture at the top of the team’s top powerplay unit, distributing the puck to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, unleashing bombs from the blue line, and logging tough minutes at even-strength on a top four role.

Shayne Gostisbehere, D, Philadelphia Flyers

The NHL expansion to the Southern states has in Shayne Gostisbehere another proud product. The 21-year-old prospect was born in Margate, Florida, and grew up on the state alongside ice hockey rinks because his mother was a figure skater. Later, the defenseman moved to Connecticut to study on prep school and he would commit to playing NCCA Hockey for the Union College. Selected in the third round (78th pick) of the 2012 NHL draft, Gostisbehere, or simply “Ghost”, is a dynamic offensive defenseman with outstanding skating ability and great puck-handling skills, that he uses to transition the play efficiently to the offense, navigate through the neutral zone and set up scoring chances. His offensive flair is also evident on the powerplay, with the American excelling as the man-advantage quarterback, possessing both the capacity to pass and the willingness to shoot the puck. Since he is also good at reading and executing on the defensive end, the biggest knock is his size, as the 5’11’’, 170 lbs frame seems pretty light to handle the rigors of a full NHL schedule, even though the league has seen an increase in small, quick, smart players that succeed at the top-level.

Shayne Gostisbehere

Beyond being a key player for the gold-medallist USA’s 2013 World U20 Championship team, on three years at Union the Flyers prospect evolved to become one of the best defenseman in college hockey, leading his team to the 2013-14 National Championship on a season where he was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, and was part of the Conference and Frozen Four All-Star teams. His performance on the NCAA final, precisely in Philly, is probably one of the most impressive of all-time, with the junior collecting three points, the MVP trophy, and finishing the game with a +7 (!!! ) rating on Union’s 7-4 win over Minnesota.

Gostisbehere turned pro this season, appearing in 5 games (5 points) for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and two for the Philadelphia Flyers, before suffering an ACL injury that required surgery and shelved him indefinitely. With the Flyers starving for a mobile, puck-moving, creative defenseman on the NHL roster, such setback on Gostisbehere evolution is disappointing for both the player and the organization. However, when he comes back, the path for an important role on Philadelphia’s blue line is clear and he should become a significant contributor on the team’s future, handling a top four load with responsibilities on both special teams.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning

With John Gibson securing a spot on the Anaheim Ducks roster, Andrei Vasilevskiy now holds the torch of most promising goalie on the brink of the NHL.

Born in Tyumen, the Russian goaltender was picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the 19th pick of the 2012 NHL draft just a few months after his first U20 World Championships appearance, where he led Russia to the final with a 4-1 record, 2 SO, 2.01 GAA and 0.953 SV% before being deprecated in favour of Andrei Makarov for the decisive game. One year later, Vasilevskiy was supposed to be the undisputable goaltender for the 2013 event, held precisely in his team’s town, but split the starts with Makarov once again, posting this time a 1.81 GAA and a 0.950 SV% in 4 games. After passing through all Salavat Yulaev Ufa youth teams, Vasilevskiy debuted on the KHL team in 2012-13, amassing a 2.22 GAA, 0.924 SV% in 8 games, and played even more in 2013-14, handling 28 regular-season games with almost identical stats (2.21 GAA, 0.923 SV%) and being named the KHL’s rookie of the year. He took over the starting spot on the playoffs, where he made 18 appearances with some great performances resulting on a 1.99 GAA and 0.934 SV%. The year of 2014 has definitely been an important one for the 20-year-old, since, in his last appearance on the U20 WJC, he posted a 1.83 GAA and a 0.933 SV% in 6 games as Russia took bronze for the second consecutive year, before securing a place on the main World Championships, backing up Sergei Bobrovsky and playing two games for the eventual winners.

In the summer of 2014 he decided to move to North America, signing a three year entry-level deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who decided to groom him on his AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, where he has already played 12 games, holding a 2.64 GAA and a 0.908 SV% while getting acclimated to the different ice dimensions and style of play. Standing at 6’3’’, Vasilevskiy is a big, athletic goalie capable of making spectacular saves due to his quickness and agility, but he needs to get better at battling through traffic, something that should be solved with some time on the AHL. Since the Lightning have 28-year-old Ben Bishop holding the starting spot for the foreseeable future, Steve Yzerman, the team’s GM, might someday need to make a decision on trading a Russian goaltender that looks poised to become an everyday NHL starting goalie.

(All data updated until December, 9th)

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