NHL prospects

The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part II)

(Continuation of Part I)

  1. Russia

Medallists in each of the preceding seven tournaments and 14 of the previous 16 editions, the Russians always seem to find a way to crash the podium at the WJC. However, national coach Valeri Bragin started the 2018 event complaining about the lack of international experience on its roster, which, keep in mind, contained only three players yet to complete their 19th birthday, and then things went south for them in a hurry, with a defeat in the tournament opener against the Czech (4-5) leading to a curbed campaign.

Unable to beat the Swedes in the final group game, the Russians were left to slow down the Americans in the QF and succumbed to the task, flying home empty-handed after capturing their last gold medal in the same arena back in 2011.

Russia players and staff look on after a 4-2 quarterfinal round loss to the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Usually a critical part of their most successful teams, goaltending was not a force for the Red Army this time, with Vladislav Sukhachyov, who replaced Alexei Melnichuk in the first game, notching a 2.74 GAA and 0.904 Sv%. Additionally, neither was their defensive unit which, orphan of a stud rear-guard in the same level of Mikhail Sergachev (2017) or Ivan Provorov (2016), had to hack it by commitment. Captain Yegor Zaitsev (NJ) and undrafted Vladislav Syomin, the point man on the man-advantage, shouldered the biggest load, but the true standouts of Team Russia laboured further up the ice, particularly the mightily impressive Klim Kostin (STL).

After a 2016-17 season derailed by injury, the 31st pick of the 2017 draft took advantage of the big stage by posting a team-leading 5 goals and 3 assists in just 5 games, his hands and powerful stride highlights in a forgettable competition for his team. Kostin was one of two under aged forwards on the Russian roster, the other being 2018 top-prospect Andrei Svechnikov (5A), and the pair was followed, in terms of performance, by a duo of Chicago Blackhawks’ picks, Artur Kayumov ( 2nd round, 2016) and Andrei Altybarmakyan (3rd, 2017).

Russia’s Klim Kostin #24 plays the puck while Sweden’s Jacob Moverare #27 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

On the negative side, reference for top center German Rubtsov (PHI), whose 4 pts exceeded his overall contributions on both sides of the puck, and Vitali Abramov (CBJ), who couldn’t replicate his lofty QMJHL point totals (150 in 96 games over the last two seasons) also due to the team’s anemic powerplay, last in the tournament (1/20, 5%) and severely hampered by the lack of right-handed options (17 of 20 skaters shot left).

  1. Czech Republic

It had become routine to see the Czech Republic ranked fifth or sixth and sent packing in the quarter-finals, when their lack of depth gets exposed by one of the big-five of international hockey, but the band sang a different tune in 2018. For just the second time in the last 11 encounters, the Czechs overcame Russia to begin their campaign in style, and after they defeated Belarus and Switzerland, second place and a winnable quarter-final against Finland loomed.

Battling back twice before prevailing in the SO (4-3), the Czechs best classification since 2005 was secured, however they couldn’t repeat the bronze of Grand Forks, ND, because Canada (7-2) and the USA (9-3) obliterated them in the medal round. Nothing that would obscure a stepping-stone event for a country in the upswing, dreaming of even bigger things in 2019 with their 11 possible returnees – including Filip Zadina, Martin Nečas and Filip Chytil – and poised to host the event in 2020.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18, Albert Michnac #29, Martin Necas #8, Martin Kaut #16 and Libor Hajek #3 celebrate at the bench after a second period goal against Sweden during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Until then, the goal has to be the return to the times when significantly more Czech teenagers were selected by NHL teams, since only six of the 23 men that competed in Buffalo have been drafted and two more signed NHL deals after being overlooked. One of latter cases, goaltender Josef Kořenář, is a San Jose Sharks prospect whose numbers (4.49 GAA, 0.879 Sv%) in Buffalo skewed significantly as a result of the two final poundings, which followed a stellar 51-save performance against the Finns.

With 34 goals allowed in seven games, defence was far from the Czechs strong suit outside of a few bright individual exceptions – beyond Hájek, we could name Vojtěch Budik (BUF) and Jakub Galvas (CHI) – but, fortunately, they could light some fireworks up front.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Chytil #21 looks for a scoring chance against Russia’s Alexei Melnichuk #1 while Nikita Makeyev #2 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

As referenced before, the duo Martin Nečas (CAR) and Filip Zadina led the way, but Filip Chytil (2+2), the Rangers first round pick, also had his moments, especially in the opener against Russia. Difficult to push off the puck, capable of executing in tight and with an edge to his game, Chytil vanished in the later rounds and took linemate Martin Kaut (2+5), a potential top-50 pick in 2018, with him, eventually leading to the rise of a few unsung heroes, including the undrafted Kristian Reichel (3+1), a heart-and-soul third line center that loves to do the grunt work, LW Daniel Kurovský (2+1), whose hard-nosed game was difficult to ignore, and right-winger Radovan Pavlík (3+3).

Bronze Medal Winners: United States of America

Afforded a golden opportunity to capture back-to-back titles for a first time, the 2018 tournament can’t be considered a success for the Americans because they failed to fulfil the objective on home ice, yet there are still a lot of positives to take from their performance. For instance, their response to the unexpected defeat against Slovakia, regrouping quickly to overcome a two-goal deficit in the outdoor game, or the dominant performance in the bronze medal game less than 24 hours after the disappointing SF loss to the Swedes.

USA players celebrating after a 4-3 shoot-out win over Canada during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

There’s a case to be made that the Americans, who scored 20 goals in the group stage (the same number as Sweden) and 35 in total (one less than Canada), were in equal footing with the two finalists, and ended up in third-place victims of the circumstances and the below-average performance of Joseph Woll (TOR), who guarded the net in every indoor game and was severely outmatched by his counterparts. While Filip Gustavsson and Carter Hart soared, Woll’s ultimate body of work fails the sniff test (0.886, 2.71 GAA) and that proved decisive.

Moreover, on paper, the American defence palled in comparison with their rivals’, but this unheralded group held his ground, with Adam Fox and the steady Dylan Samberg (WIN, 1+3, +10) anchoring the first pair, and U. Minnesota’s mainstay Ryan Lindgren (BOS) doing the heavy lifting in the second unit as 18-year-old Quinn Hughes and his refined offensive skills were increasingly phased out of the rotation as the importance of the games increased.

USA’s Riley Tufte #27 attempts a shot against Denmark’s Kasper Krog #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Still, where the Americans were truly likely to create separation, according to pre-tournament predictions, was on the quality of their offensive group and ability to rotate four lines sprinkled with first round picks. Despite the tall goal totals, that didn’t exactly turned out as expected, since at the same time Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt (BUF) thrived on the top-line alongside captain Joey Anderson (NJ, 4+3), and Kieffer Bellows’ (NYI) erupted on Ryan Poehling’s (MTR) right flank, the likes of Riley Tufte (DAL), Max Jones (ANA), Joshua Norris (SJ) and even NHL-tested Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) struggled to put points on the board in critical situations. That would be the major difference for the Swedish and Canadian forward units.

Silver Medal Winners: Sweden

44. That’s the number of consecutive wins the Swedes have amassed in group play since 2007… or 43 more than the amount of World titles they’ve secured in the same period.

Cruising through the group stage as usual (20-7 in goal differential), the Tre Kronor’s pallid exhibition against Slovakia (3-2) in the QF awoke the alarm sirens and elicited thoughts of a fourth consecutive medal-less appearance, however Sweden managed to oust the USA (4-2) for the first time in ten Final Four battles, and then came pretty close to stamp a first gold medal since 2012. Despite being assessed six minor penalties to Canada’s one, the Swedes had the better of play in the Final, and even ringed one off the post minutes before Tyler Steenbergen potted the game-winning-goal with 100 seconds to go in regulation.

Truly a shame for a team brimming with talent way beyond the likes of Rasmus Dahlin or their trio of top-ten picks at the forward ranks: sniper Elias Pettersson (VAN, 5+2), charismatic captain Lias Andersson (NYR, 6+1), whose level of play dropped after dislocating his shoulder against Russia, and the cerebral (and inconsistent) Alexander Nylander (BUF, 1+6), competing at his third WJC.

High-choices at the 2017 draft, defensemen Erik Brännström (LV) and Timothy Liljegren (TOR) are two such cases of blue-chip prospects that enjoyed great tournaments, with the former spending most of the time besides Dahlin and regularly displaying exceptional quickness and agility to skate the puck up the ice, and the latter coupling the willingness to engage opponents physically with slick skating skills and the ability to fire long, on-the tape, stretch passes to feed Sweden’s speedy forward group.

Conversely, despite being passed twice at the draft, rearguard Jesper Sellgreen stood out for combining puck-moving ability and feistiness in a modest frame, earning comparisons with Tobias Ernstrom, while the members of the lower attacking lines proved essential to, repeatedly, tip the balance in favour of Sweden with their mix of speed, forecheking expertise and grit. It was no coincidence that in Sweden’s difficult quarter-final match (3-2), the unit of Isac Lundeström (draft-eligible, 2 G), Oskar Steen (BOS, 2+2) and Tim Söderlund (CHI, 2+3) manufactured all three goals with their boundless energy, and neither was that, alongside fourth-liner Axel Jonsson Fjällby (WSH, 2+2), who dashed around the ice with long locks of air flowing out of his helmet, they proved extremely dangerous shorthanded, a situation that earned Sweden four goals during the tournament.

Sweden’s Axel Jonsson Fjallby #22 skates with the puck as Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 of Team Belarus gives chase during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

World Junior Champions: Canada

Three years without conquering gold at the WJC is too much for an hockey-mad nation like Canada, and to erase the taste of last year’s heartbreaking loss to the USA in Montreal, they could have hardly asked for better than their close to perfect tournament south of the border: best attack (39 goals) and best defense (11), the top powerplay (13 of 29) and penalty kill (22 of 25) and a 6-0-1 record only spoiled by the two-goal lead relinquished against the USA (3-4, SO).

With a roster that contained a single top-ten pick (D Cale Makar) and many feared would struggle in the absence of high-end, game-breaking talents, Team Canada’s preference for a versatile, balanced attack was right on the money, as the team rolled four lines, every forward scored, and the rest went according to expectations, with their mobile, skilled backend pushing the pace to generate scoring chances, and goaltender Carter Hart playing up to his abilities throughout the tournament.

Canadian players and staff celebrate after a 3-1 gold medal game win over Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

With such an homogeneous roster, Canada didn’t even have to rely too much on their three returning blueliners, Dante Fabbro (NSH), Jake Bean (CAR) and Kale Clague (LA), all-around rearguards that move the puck, as the trio was eventually eclipsed by the sparkling offensive instincts of Cale Makar (COL) and the superb Victor Mete (MTR) / Conor Timmins (COL) pairing, whose combined +- rating was a whopping +26 in 7 games.

As a matter of fact, when Mete was on the ice, the opposition did not score at all, his stick work and ability to drive play suffocating rivals, while Timmins emerged as the revelation of the roster, an unassuming two-way defenseman that could play shutdown hockey, make a crisp first pass, and deliver a sweet feed like the pass-shot Tyler Steenbergen (ARI) tipped to sink Sweden’s hopes in the Final.

Canada’s Tyler Steenbergen #17 scores the championship winning goal against Sweden’s Filip Gustavsson #30 during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Moreover, in attack, the conversation was much of the same, with veterans Taylor Raddysh (TBL, 2+3), Dillon Dubé (CGY, 3+2) and top-center Sam Steel (ANA, 4+5) meshing with newcomers like Jordan Kyrou (STL) and Boris Katchouk (TBL, 3+3) to form two solid, if unspectacular, scoring units and the trios of low-pedigree, mid-round wildcards that followed them out overwhelming the opposition’s depth players with tons of speed and skill. Not incidentally, it was from this bottom-six that arose the inspirational tale of the tournament, 7-goal scorer Drake Batherson (OTT), a player passed once before the Sens snapped him up on the 2017 4th round and someone that would catch fire in the three consecutive blowout victories  (DEN, SWI, CZE) that preceded the final game.

The WJC implications on the 2018 NHL Draft

It’s usually said that a good showing at the WJC can significantly boost the draft value of a prospect and examples lie everywhere – Nico Hischier, just last year, is one – however, in recent seasons, it’s been quite rare to encounter these many U-18 players leaving their mark internationally against players with an extra 2 years of development time. As much as six potential top-10 selections – and, possibly, the entire top-five – competed at the tournament held in Buffalo, many acing the audition, and that has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the wake of the event, with pre-draft rankings revised to account for the latest developments.

Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18 lets a shot go while Finland’s Otto Koivula #12 looks on during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Below, I’ll expose how the race for the top-five positions is shaping up, ranking the players in contention based on their most recent accomplishments, but always keeping in mind that a guy like Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist, who couldn’t infiltrate his country’s loaded roster, is still in the running for an early callup come late June in Dallas.

  1. Rasmus Dahlin (D)
  2. Andrei Svechnikov (RW)
  3. Brady Tkachuk (LW)
  4. Filip Zadina (LW)
  5. Quinn Hughes (D)

Since Sidney Crosby back in 2005, we haven’t seen a contest decided as early as this one. Rasmus Dahlin will be No.1 in 2018, having cemented his status as the unquestionable best player available with the performance in Buffalo, and he will also become the second ever Swede to go first overall, succeeding C Mats Sundin in 1989.

On the contrary, the guy that was touted as the main competition to Dahlin over the last while, Russian Andrei Svechnikov, is now worried about the rustle of the footsteps of two of the WJC’s brightest stars, wingers Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina.

Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was among the top draft-eligible prospects at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship (Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Svechnikov, a burgeoning power forward, had already endured wrist injury this season, and then had to battle the Russian prejudice against younger players, resulting in limited action early in the tournament. With 5 assists in 5 games, he ended up doing just fine, flashing his rare combination of skill, size and puck protection, but his impact fell way short of Zadina’s, a tournament All-Star for his electrifying offensive skills, and Tkachuk’s, whose all-around influence – on top of the physical attributes – took many observers aback. The final hierarchy of these three will very much depend on the teams holding the picks, but, for now, Svechnikov’s pedigree is still prevailing.

To round out the top-five, Quinn Hughes, a fantastic skater that turns on a dime and flies up the ice in transition, is certainly a possibility, even if the young defenseman was benched for much of the medal round games, barely seeing the ice except for the moments when the USA trailed and needed to amp the offensive pressure. Still, for the record, let’s just add that Rasmus Dahlin filled much of the same role for the Swedes in 2017…

American defenseman Quinn Hughes carries the puck in the bronze medal game against the Czech Republic (Kevin Hoffman /Getty Images)

Ranked outside of the very top of the rankings, but still worthy of attention, we encounter three European prospects that played in Buffalo. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari, a skilled center that was unfortunately casted as the 13th forward on his team and thus failed to stick his claim for a top-ten selection, Sweden’s Isac Lundeström, a lanky, speedy forward that was an integral part of his nation’s most reliable line and may go a few spots above his expected late-first round rank, and Czech Republic’s Martin Kaut, whose point-per-game pace might convince someone to take a flier within the top-30 or right after it.

The NHL pipeline update

As a prime meeting of the brightest youth prospects from around the world, the World Junior Championships are a first peek into what the future might bring for the kids at the professional levels. Therefore, it stands to reason that the tournament is also viewed on a scale that extends beyond national-team concerns and tries to predict the potential ramifications for the teams that hold their NHL rights. Fans and management alike discuss in which line that prospect might be plugged, implications on the organizational depth chart of someone’s emergence, or the best way to maximize the value of an asset, hence it’s just natural that positive exploits on the international arena also serve as a sign of the draft acumen of one’s organization and barometer of the health of its prospect base.

Sweden’s Alexander Nylander #19 fires a shot at USA’s Joseph Woll #31 during the semi-final round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In this sense, the sheer amount of drafted players competing at the tournament is important, but far from the only indicator to take into account. From the entire batch of players that exhibited their qualities in Buffalo, the biggest share belonged to the New Jersey Devils, with 7 players, whereas Arizona, Pittsburgh, Florida and Minnesota loaned a single element, yet the NHL teams that left Buffalo feeling ecstatic about their assembly of talent lie in between the two poles. We’ve identified five NHL organizations that, based on qualitative and quantitative parameters, must be marveling at their craftiness in player evaluation and development.

Buffalo Sabres (5): Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (FIN), Vojtěch Budik (CZE), Casey Mittelstadt (USA), Alexander Nylander and Marcus Davidsson (both SWE)

The Sabres are toiling in the bottom of the NHL standings, but there’s reason for hope in Buffalo based on the group that took part in this “home” tournament. Possessing the rights for Casey Mittelstadt, the tournament MVP, is the chief justification for their nomination in this space, yet the rest of the Sabres prospects also filled significant roles for their respective nations. Particularly Alex Nylander, another former 8th overall pick whose elite creativity and puck skills sooner or later will surface at the professional level, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen,  the uncontested starter for Finland.

Furthermore, despite being longer shots, Budik played some critical minutes for the Czech on their top defensive pair, while Marcus Davidsson thrived on a fourth-line that received limited minutes at five-on-five but contributed greatly for Sweden’s success on the PK.

Tampa Bay Lightning (5): Libor Hájek (CZE), Cal Foote, Brett Howden, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh (all CAN)

One of the savviest organizations breeding NHL-calibre players, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly pleased with the progress achieved by Libor Hájek over the last 18 months, the 2016 second rounder maturing into an all-situations blueliner that might slot on their lineup in a couple of seasons.

Drafted last June, Cal Foote played primarily on the third pairing for Canada and stayed out of trouble, while the three forwards proved important components of their well-oiled machine, with Brett Howden centering the productive checking line, and Katchouk and Raddysh flanking Robert Thomas on the team’s second unit.

Canada’s Callan Foote #6 get tangled up with an unknown Switzerland player during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Chicago Blackhawks (5): Henri Jokiharju (FIN), Jakub Galvas (CZE), Artur Kayumov and Andrei Altibarmakyan (both RUS), Tim Söderlund (SWE)

The only first rounder of the Hawks faction, defenseman Henri Jokiharju, didn’t perform badly but he takes a step back here since each of his lesser-known colleagues improved his inherent value for the organization. Galvas, a diminutive blueliner, battled hard in every shift and showed poise with the puck, Kayumov scored at a point-per-game clip and was always around the net, Altibarmakyan’s constant activity and skill created problems for the opposition, and Söderlund’s jet-like acceleration, high-energy level and PK prowess were second to none.

St. Louis Blues (4): Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas (both CAN), Klim Kostin (RUS), Nikolaj Kragh (DEN)

Portended as the No.1 Danish center, Krag’s tournament came to a premature end due to injury, but the other three Blues’ prospects proved extremely useful for their teams. Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin garnered accolades and were in the running for a place on the All-Star team as two of the most exciting wingers in the competition, while Thomas, an intelligent two-way pivot, kept the puck going in the right direction at all times.

Calgary Flames (6): Adam Fox (USA), Juuso Välimäki and Eeti Tuulola (FIN), Dillon Dubé (CAN), Adam Růžička (SVK), Linus Lindström (SWE)

Forwards Tuulola, Růžička and Lindström failed to hit the twine during the tournament however the other Calgary prospects make up for their futility. Adam Fox led the American blueline, Juuso Välimäki carried the “C” and emerged as a real force for the Finns from the backend, and Dillon Dubé, another player who captained his team, did the dirty work on Canada’s top-line and powerplay.

Canada’s captain Dillon Dube #9 waves the flag following his team’s victory against Sweden during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Honourable mention: Colorado Avalanche (2): Cale Makar and Conor Timmins (both CAN)

Although the Avs only sent two prospects to Buffalo, the duo reached high-levels of performance, with the roving Makar voted for the tournament’s All-Star team and Timmins’ smart, simple game shining on Canada’s shutdown pair.

The tournament’s Best Goals

A total of 216 goals were scored during the 30 games of the 2018 WJC and I’ll bring this report to its conclusion by presenting the top-three in chronological order.

First, American Casey Mittelstadt making Slovakia’s defence look silly with a neutral-zone takeaway and a finish that evokes memories of Bobby Orr’s airborne 1970 Stanley Cup clincher.

Then, just seconds later, Slovakia’s Samuel Buček returning the favour on the other end, staying with the puck after his audacious wrap-around attempt was denied to claim a famous victory for his country.

Finally, a great individual effort by Sweden’s Elias Pettersson, who deked a poor Swiss defenseman before finishing around the goaltender.

 

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Top NHL prospects to watch – Western Conference

Darnell Nurse has already debuted on the NHL for the Edmonton Oilers

(Introduction and top prospects in the East here)

The Western Conference top 5 prospects to watch are:

Josh Morrisey, D, Winnipeg Jets

Three years after leaving Atlanta, the Jets roster still contains the same core players that played for the Thrashers. Selling the rough weather of Winnipeg to high-profile free agents is a tough task, so, in order to improve the quality of the team, the Jets have to rely on selecting well on the draft. Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, the first round picks in 2011 and 2012, are already playing for the team, with Josh Morrisey, the 13th pick in the 2013 draft, and Nikolaj Ehlers, the team’s first selection this year, being the next in line.

Josh Morrisey in action for the Jets’ afiliate on the AHL

Contrary to Jacob Trouba, who figures to become a complete, workhorse defender, Morrisey is the typical offensive blue-liner who can skate, create offense in transition either carrying the puck with confidence or distributing it, and with good instincts to surprise opposing defences. His hockey IQ, ability to read the play on both sides of the puck and push the pace can earn comparisons to fellow Jets defenseman Tobias Enstrom, even if Morrisey is a bit taller (6’0’’) and heavier (186 lbs), which helps in mixing it up with big, physical forwards, something he’s show the willingness to do.

The native of Calgary was one of the last cuts on this season’s Jets training camp and returned for a fourth and final run with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raider. After scoring 15 points and 47 points on his draft year, the defenseman raised his level last season, scoring an impressive total of 28 goals and 73 points in just 59 regular season games, leading the league in goals by a rearguard. The Raiders were eliminated on the first round of the playoffs but Morrisey proceeded to represent Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate, the St. John Ice Dogs, earning valuable professional experience during the team’s deep playoff campaign (9 pts in 20 games), stopped in the final by the Texas Stars. Earlier in the year, Morrisey was also part of Canada’s U20 World Juniors team, tallying 3 points in 7 games, and he is in line for another appearance on the 2015 tournament.The 19-year-old is currently rounding up his game and gaining strength in Prince Albert while his time in Manitoba doesn’t come, totalling 21 points in 25 games. He’s projected to turn into a powerplay quarterback and a top pair defenseman for the Jets.

Darnell Nurse, D, Edmonton Oilers

Four top three picks in the last five NHL drafts landed the Oilers a staple of dynamic scorers, but resulted also on the lack of sure-fire NHL prospects on the blueline. In 2013, with the 7th pick, the Edmonton-outfit decided to choose a hulking rearguard from the OHL’s Sault St. Marie Greyounds, and they hope he can solve some of the problems that have plagued the team in the last few years.

Darnell Nurse is a 6’4’’, 205 lbs, two-way defenseman with a nasty side that can slot as a shutdown presence. Despite the huge frame that he is still filling up, the Hamilton native is mobile and skates well, possessing the skill to play on the powerplay and put points on the board while delivering punishing hits on opponents and engaging physically often, something expressed on the 116 PIM amassed in 2012-2013. On his draft year he managed to get 41 points in 68 games while last season, as team captain, his offensive production jumped a bit, to 50 points and 13 goals in 65 games, but more important were the steps he took on his development, playing on both first special team units, logging 25-30 minutes of ice time per game, and leading the team to the second round of the playoffs. Nurse was surprisingly left out of the Canadian roster for the 2014 U20 World Junior Championships in Malmo, but at the end of the year had his first taste of professional hockey, suiting up for the Oklahoma City Barons, Edmonton’s AHL affiliate, in 7 games.

The defenseman is currently on his fourth OHL season, after being demoted by the Oilers following a two-game appearance at the NHL level, performing at a point per game pace (19 in 19 games) and hoping to further refine his skill set, work on the offensive game, and improve on some defensive zone details. The 19-year-old will also have the chance to finally appear on the U20 World tournament, suiting up for the 2015 edition held in Canada, and is projected to become a top pair blueliner with an imposing presence, sound positioning and some offensive upside.

Ty Rattie, RW, St. Louis Blues

On the last few years, the St. Louis Blues attack has always been capable of playing a heavy, responsible, gritty style of hockey, but the game-breaking skills were something they lacked when the games counted the most, the playoffs. Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz were the first wave of highly-skilled talented forwards to emerge on the team, and Ty Rattie is looking to follow shortly on their footsteps.

Ty Rattie warms up before his 2nd NHL game, in April 2014

The 21-year-old, born in Airdrie, Alberta, enjoyed his first professional season last year, scoring 31 goals for the Chicago Wolves, the fourth best total in the AHL, and adding 17 assists to finish in the top 10 in points among rookies. He followed that by adding a goal and two assists in nine playoff games, and having his first two appearances in the NHL. His goal-scoring prowess was already evident at the junior level, when, as part of a skilled Portland Winterhawks team, he improved his goal and point totals in each of the first three WHL seasons. The right-winger went from 37 to 79 to 121 points, and from 17 to 28 to 57 goals, displaying offensive skills that convinced the Blues to select him with the 32th pick in 2011. In 2012-13, as he returned to Portland for a fourth and final WHL season, his numbers dipped a bit, to 48 goals and 110 points, but he rebounded on the playoffs, scoring 20 goals in 21 games and earning MVP honours in the team’s triumphant march. Rattie is not the most skilled or talented player, but can find the open spots, control the puck and put it on the back of the net, having proved his versatility to play in every situation over the years.

Due to the Blues stacked lineup, the Canadian is still stuck on the AHL, where he can continue to get stronger (6’0”, 178lbs), improve on his average skating, build consistency and refine defensive aspects. He has 13 goals and 15 points in 25 games this season and should be able to crack a spot on St. Louis’ roster on the short term, with his offensive talent projecting a solid career as a consistent scorer at the NHL level.

Max Domi, C, Arizona Coyotes

Two consecutive seasons without playoff hockey and a veteran roster, especially at the forward position, leave Dave Maloney and the Coyotes organization with no solution but to take a chance on their youth. Arizona’s last three first round picks were spent on forwards and the son of Tie Domi seems to be the most ready to make an impact.

Max Domi in an Arizona Coyotes sweater.

The Winnipeg native is a small, compact forward (5’10, 198 lbs) with good strength and a powerful skating stride that helps in getting away from defenders with top-notch speed and acceleration. He likes to skate low, use his marvellous stickhandling and playmaking skills to create offense, either from the center or left wing positions and, at his best, is a tenacious, gritty presence on the forecheck. However, Domi still needs to find the balance between hanging on to the puck in order to make a play and trying to go through all the opponents’ defence by himself, which is something he has the hands to do on occasion at youth levels but won’t result against experienced teams. Like his father, he also takes pride in playing an aggressive game, which gets him in trouble from time to time as teams try to expose his temperament.

The 12th pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft scored 39 goals (87 points) in 2012-13, delivering also 32 points on the London Knight’s OHL title campaign, but only managed 34 apples last year (93 points), failing to improve significantly his offensive production because he sulked after being sent back to junior, something that surely contributed in the lack of an invitation to be a member of the Canadian World Junior team. In 2014-15, the 19-year-old was once again cut at the end of the Coyotes camp but reacted much better, exploding to post 58 points in the first 27 games of the new season while playing on the wing. He’s working to round out his game and behaving as a captain by cutting on the bad penalties that, in the past, have crippled the team’s effort.

Lack of discipline and deficiencies on the defensive side of the puck have slowed his progress and delayed Domi’s debut at the professional level, but shouldn’t be long until he cracks the Coyotes top forward lines and starts showcasing his offensive talent at the NHL level.

Teuvo Teravainen, C/W, Chicago Blackhawks

The Finnish forward will add to Chicago’s offensive firepower

It’s almost unfair that a Blackhawks team with so much high-end forward talent has this Finnish wizard almost ready to explode at the NHL level. Teravainen is a product of Jokerit Helsinki’s youth system, having debuted on the first team at the age of 17, in 2011-12, to produce 11 goals and 18 points in 40 games. The following season he jumped to 31 points, while taking part for the first time on the World U20 Junior Championships, notching 11 points on the competition. Last season was destined to be his last one in Europe and the versatile forward made an effort to leave a mark, reaching 44 points in 49 games, which earned him a nomination for the SM- Liiga All-Star team, and dazzling on his 2nd appearance on the World’s Under-20 competition, serving as captain and leading Finland to the title while posting a tournament-leading 15 points (2 goals) in seven games. After the end of Jokerit’s season, the 20-year old made the trip over the Atlantic, playing three regular season games for the Blackhawks.

Selected with the 18th pick of the 2012 NHL draft, the 5’11’’ forward can play at the center or wing positions, displaying superior on-ice vision and playmaking skills, which he uses to create offense every time he hits the ice. Teravainen has great hands but still needs to build strength and improve his defensive acumen in order to make an impact at the NHL level.

He has started 2014-15 on the AHL’s Rockford Ice Dogs, tallying 16 points on 23 games while still adjusting to the speedier and tighter North-American game. Teravainen’s skill, hockey sense and passing ability seem poised to translate into a fruitful NHL career, with the expectations being that he fills up the somewhat problematic 2nd line Center position, producing offense alongside the similarly-built Patrick Kane for a long time.

(All data updated until December, 9th)

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)