The ongoing NHL lockout gives the league’s followers a daily increase in time to scan all of hockey’s lower levels and assess the future of every team. In turn, it is becoming exponentially easier to make concrete cases for who is the best member of each franchise’s prospect system.
But the more critical question could be “Who has the qualities that their respective team will need the most?”
In some cases, the answer may match that of the question of who is the most inherently celestial player in the wings.
Not always, though. Just remember what Herb Brooks tells his assistant, Craig Patrick, in Miracle.
“I’m not looking for the best players…I’m looking for the right ones.”
When it comes to an NHL team’s stable of prospects, it is most often possible to lock away both the most talented specimens and the critical long-term puzzle pieces, even when those are different people. But when, and if, given only one choice, the latter is a wiser point of emphasis.
So who, based on everyone’s present organizational landscape, is the right player to retain for the long run? One analyst’s answers for each team are presented as follows.
It would be easy enough to press the panic button in light of Etem’s slow start to his first full professional season, especially when his output is contrasted with that of his fellow Norfolk Admirals.
The good news is that the Ducks’ first-round choice from 2010 has tallied three goals over his last three games, implicitly thawing out after a pointless six-game run in October. Everybody is going to hit a six-game slump like that at some point, but it usually appears more magnified when few games have been played.
The point is that Etem’s acetylene scoring touch has not gone anywhere and should still combine with his big-game seasoning from the junior level to springboard him into an integral role with Anaheim. He and the organization might even benefit from his getting one of those cold spells out of the way while he has been playing one level below during the lockout.
While it would be hyperbolic to anoint Hamilton the single-handed solution to Boston’s notoriously mediocre power play, his potential in that department is too precious to bobble.
As the lockout prolongs the wait for his NHL debut, Hamilton is doing little to neutralize his soon-to-be fanbase’s excitement. He has tallied a six-18-24 log through 19 games in the OHL this season, including eight helpers on the power play.
The captain and top gun might be traded, or he might retire a career-long Calgarian after another five years, give or take.
Come what may, the Flames need more firepower, both for now and for later. So far, Baertschi has promised to deliver that with his performances at every level he has played, including a three-goal, five-game cameo with the big club last year.
With Murphy continuing to sharpen up in the OHL, the Hurricanes can take comfort in knowing that they are fostering another promising two-way defenseman in their system.
As the Chicago Sun-Times put it over the summer, "The Hawks’ hopes for having another top-six wing with speed, skill and some grit now rest with Saad."
If Saad can plug that hole relatively quickly and the returnees can stay healthy and consistent, the Blackhawks will have a seamless top half of an offense, which might make a difference in their position in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
The Stars have traded away Steve Ott and all of the physicality and general bona fide third-line qualities that come with him. They have overwhelmingly revamped their offense, but cannot count on having the services of the 40-something Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney for many years.
Smith could be a full-timer in the NHL as early as the next season, whether that is 2012-13 or 2013-14. That especially depends on how the Red Wings are holding up on the back end in the post-Nicklas Lidstrom, post-Brad Stuart era.
So far, anyway, Schultz is validating the hype that was spawned by his late spring signing with the Oilers out of the University of Wisconsin. Through his first 10 AHL games in Oklahoma City, the rookie defenseman is tied for the team lead with a plus-six rating and has tallied an otherworldly six-nine-15 scoring log.
Nail Yakupov, the latest first-rounder in a string of three straight for the Oilers, is naturally a radiant forward. He, along with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle could constitute an electrifying and effective strike force for years to come.
With that being said, there may soon prove to be too little space to accommodate all of those top-echelon forwards. Look no further than Pittsburgh’s export of Jordan Staal for evidence.
Edmonton’s more pressing need is on the blue line, whether it is in the form of a strictly defensive defender or a competent two-way adventurer, which Schultz appears to be.
Like the team in general, he may need to brook indefinite growing pains, but he might also be the long-term answer to replacing the likes of Stephen Weiss by the time the 29-year-old begins to decline sometime within the next decade. By then, Huberdeau should be the nucleus of Florida's pursuit of a consistently deep, threatening strike force.
Granlund’s value is such that his “prospect” status is all but bound to be obliterated the moment the NHL returns to regular operation.
Beaulieu is nine years younger than the unofficial incumbent anchor of the Canadiens’ blue line, Josh Gorges. Neither will likely be going anywhere for a while, but Beaulieu will certainly be active at least a handful of years after Gorges is finished.
But even earlier than that, it is easy to envision a defense with Beaulieu, Gorges and PK Subban trading or sharing shifts in protection of Carey Price. If all goes according to plan, Beaulieu’s presence will smoothly fill an all-but-inevitable void left by Francis Bouillon and Andrei Markov, two veterans who are accruing a recent history of injuries.
Watson is a proven winner produced by some of the best teams in one of the sport’s best amateur circuits. He partook in an OHL and Memorial Cup championship with the Windsor Spitfires in 2009 and then pitched in substantially on the London Knights’ title run after a late-season trade in 2011-12.
The timing of his arrival and impact on the Predators is hardly concrete. But with his amateur resume and the professional seasoning he is currently taking on in the AHL, Watson is one budding offensive spark plug that this particular franchise needs more of.
Assuming Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg remain the Devils’ NHL tandem through 2013-14 in accordance with their contracts, the first-year professional Wedgewood ought to be ready after logging ECHL and AHL seasoning.
There is always the chance he might sputter in The Show, in which New Jersey would just as soon spring for an external acquisition to succeed Brodeur. But they may not have to do that, so why relinquish the potential of promising homegrown talent?
John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson should have the forefront and the nucleus of the Islanders offense covered indefinitely. The likes of Reinhart, in alliance with the likes of Travis Hamonic, will be needed in the back to clear space, clear the puck and send those strikers on a journey the other way.
Try as they might, the Rangers will most likely not be able to keep their entire defensive corps intact for very many years. At some point, one or two blue liners may be prone to free agency beyond the front office's control, and there is always the chance of a void being opened by the injury bug.
The towering, hulking McIlrath can be a comfortable, homegrown backup plan in any of those events. By the time he has logged a couple of years of professional seasoning between regular employment in the AHL and maybe periodic pop-ins with the parent club, he can be ready to make a literal impact.
Whether their time noticeably overlaps or not, Zibanejad should be banked on to replenish much of what Alfredsson's eventual retirement takes away.
Laughton's resume and scouting reports speak to blue-collar productivity and noticeable leadership experience. He should fit right in with a team like the Flyers and may not be exactly desirable to play against.
While the Coyotes already have the well-rounded Keith Yandle, it would be wise to foster another reliable, multifaceted defenseman to assume the point position on a power-play unit.
Gormley's major junior transcript, with nine extra-man goals in each of the last two seasons, speaks to nothing short of an ability to play that part.
He might or might not be an immediate component in the solution to Pittsburgh’s collectively shoddy blue-line corps. But assuming Pouliot burgeons on schedule, he can one day team up with the likes of Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang to spread a wealth of defensive depth and help the Penguins complement their enviable offensive brigade.
The Sharks front office emphasized Hertl’s positional versatility as one of the main reasons why they took him in the first round of last summer’s draft.
However, he is built, in every sense of the word, to assume the same sort of upfront identity that the Sharks have had with such offensive pilots as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Ryane Clowe.
In addition, he can join the likes of Logan Couture in emboldening the next long-term wave of San Jose stars.
Another London Knights product fresh off an OHL championship, Namestnikov might not quite be Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis or Vincent Lecavalier at the peak of their respective games, but he should be an established, impact top-sixer by the time the latter two are retired or have simply lost too much of their touch.
The Maple Leafs already have Dion Phaneuf at their service and presumably will for a lengthy period yet to come. But much like Montreal with Gorges and Subban and Pittsburgh with Orpik and Letang, Toronto could stand to shore up its defensive depth.
Enter the hulking, 205-pound Rielly, who is easily Toronto’s most promising defensive player yet to see action in an NHL contest.
Lack’s numbers through his first two-plus seasons in the Canucks’ farm system are hard not to salivate over.
His lack of a single NHL regular-season game played might be a tad off-putting, but Vancouver still has Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider. If Luongo is traded, Lack will be yielding the majority of the workload to Schneider or filling in if the new starter is struck by the injury bug.
In that undesirable event, would the Canucks rather be forced to dig into their pockets and possibly relinquish other pieces for a rental replacement or take a relatively comfortable chance on a piece of homegrown talent?
They will be assured of avoiding the former as long as Lack is on their side.
While it not something to overly fret about right now, the fact that Evgeny Kuznetsov has elected to extend his stay closer to home in the KHL suggests that his eventual NHL arrival may not be a sure thing.
In turn, the Capitals need insurance for the future of their elite offense, and they will have it in Forsberg—as long as he is one of their prospects/players.