Picking Every NHL Team's Top Minor-League, College or Junior Prospect

Al DanielCorrespondent IIDecember 3, 2012

Picking Every NHL Team's Top Minor-League, College or Junior Prospect

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    With the lockout, there is presently no present for the NHL. There is only a past and a future to discuss.

    So there is no time like the present for fans in every hockey market to focus on the future by keeping closer tabs on their AHL affiliates and host of amateur prospects scattered across the NCAA and Canadian Hockey League.

    The top minor league is loaded with players who are just short of being an established NHLer and could attain that status once the next season is finally underway. Among the major juniors and collegians, the spotlight is broadening all the more with the absence of NHL news and the fast-approaching World Junior Championship tournament.

    Of those who are competing on this continent and have played in fewer than 15 NHL regular-season or playoff games, here are the farmhands giving the most promising vibe to their prospective fanbases this season.

Anaheim: Goalie John Gibson

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    In his second season with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers and second season since being chosen 39th overall by the Ducks, Gibson is continuing to give stingy performances. He is tied for second in the league in both goals-against average (2.20) and save percentage (.932) and boasts a 12-6-0 record.

Boston: Defenseman Dougie Hamilton

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    The lockout is forcing Hamilton to make repetitive statements from the point at the expense of his OHL adversaries. A man among boys at the major junior level, he holds nearly a double-digit advantage as the top point-getter and playmaker among defensemen.

    There is little reason to doubt he will be granted a greater challenge once the World Junior Championship rolls around and have a chance to crack the Bruins' roster once the NHL resumes play.

Buffalo: Center Mikhail Grigorenko

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    Grigorenko logged two points in as many appearances for his native Russia in the Subway Super Series and should be home for the holidays at the Russia-hosted WJC. Otherwise, he is simply putting forth another overwhelming season with the Quebec Remparts, falling only a few ice chips shy of an average of a goal and an assist per game.

Calgary: Left Winger Sven Baertschi

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    Delving deeper into his first full professional season with the Abbotsford Heat, Baertschi has tapered off in recent weeks, but not by much. He still has yet to go through consecutive games without a point and, even amidst a five-game goal drought, has had a hand in three of his team’s last 10 tallies.

    Give an honorable mention to Johnny Gaudreau, who is stirring up a sophomore surge at Boston College. Through 12 games, he has a team-leading 10 goals and 21 points, including a hand in eight game-winners.

Carolina: Defenseman Ryan Murphy

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    Cited as a go-to “puck-mover” for Team Canada, Murphy has been mentioned in multiple reports projecting those who will partake in the World Junior Championships.

    Some of those same reports, though, have wondered if there might be a conflict between his country and professional employers if the NHL is able to begin its season amidst the illustrious amateur tournament in Russia.

    That kind of speaks to Murphy’s stock with the Hurricanes as well as his coveted value at the major junior level, does it not?

Chicago: Defenseman Adam Clendening

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    The Boston University defector took a few weeks to acclimate to the pros, but he has since been burgeoning as a prolific point-based playmaker with the Rockford IceHogs.

Colorado: Defenseman Tyson Barrie

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    Coming off a year that saw him play in the AHL All-Star Game, the second-year professional blueliner has already matched his rookie goal total in less than half the time. In his day job, Barrie is among the more efficient defensemen on the Lake Erie Monsters, who have a winning record despite having one of the league’s higher goals-against totals.

Columbus: Center Jonathan Audy-Marchessault

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    With Ryan Murray reportedly finished for the year with a shoulder ailment, it might be best for Blue Jackets fans to look elsewhere in their system for immediate hope.

    The AHL’s Springfield Falcons, who like their parent club have endured roughly a decade-plus of irrelevance, are suddenly thriving under first-year head coach Brad Larsen.

    The advent of a new skipper has doubtlessly played a part in the team’s turnaround. But their top point-getter, Audy-Marchessault, likely has something to do with it as well.

    The second-year professional transferred from the New York Rangers organization after a 24-goal, 64-point campaign with the Connecticut Whale. A quarter of the way through the regular season, he is on pace to match or exceed those totals.

Dallas: Center Radek Faksa

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    Last year’s first-round pick by the Stars has a couple of momentary pointless skids, but never stays cold for long.

    With enough size and strength to create space, Faksa is creating plenty of threats and scoring plays for his Kitchener Rangers and is a sound WJC candidate for his native Czech Republic.

Detroit: Defenseman Brendan Smith

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    Odds are, for at least some Red Wings fans, the lockout is only prolonging the agony as they continue to await the official beginning of the post-Nicklas Lidstrom era.

    If that is the case, those fans should be following the Grand Rapids Griffins and hoping that Smith’s performance, complete with a steadily growing point-per-game average, is indicative of what he will bring to the NHL.

Edmonton: Defenseman Justin Schultz

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    His numbers may be a little inflated by the presence of the comparatively seasoned Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

    It doesn’t really matter. Anytime a first-year professional defenseman is leading the AHL in scoring, as Schultz is nearly two months into 2012-13 with an 11-20-31 scoring log, he is virtually impossible to top on a team’s prospect leaderboard.

Florida: Center Jonathan Huberdeau

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    In his fourth and final Quebec League campaign, Huberdeau has yet to be held scoreless in consecutive games, making a tangible contribution in 23-of-27 contests.

    He finished the month of November with five consecutive multi-point efforts, most recently three straight three-point outings. His power-play and overall playmaking is the best among all Quebec Leaguers, and his goal-scoring comes at a not-so-shabby pace of one every two games.

Los Angeles: Center Tyler Toffoli

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    Toffoli’s 10 goals with the Manchester Monarchs, a total that doubles any of his teammates' output, have him trailing only Schultz and Jason Zucker for the lead among AHL rookies.

Minnesota: Mikael Granlund

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    A lower-body injury halted an eight-game production streak and has confined Granlund to the sidelines for the last month. Time will tell whether the ailment and recovery set his game back. But the would-be Wild striker did not require much adjustment to North America, as evidenced by his start to the AHL season.

    It is worth mentioning that Granlund's Houston Aeros also feature Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, their top goal-getter to date.

Montreal: Center Alex Galchenyuk

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    Barring any future health setbacks, Galchenyuk will likely have little difficulty justifying the Habs’ decision to take him third overall last spring, even with a modicum of action in 2011-12.

    So far this season, he has done nothing but recompense that lost time and stepped up to fill Nail Yakupov’s skates as the scoring pilot of the Sarnia Sting.

    Having been at the program's summer camp, he ought to be among those listed this week when Team USA announces its World Junior training-camp roster.

Nashville: Center Austin Watson

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    The rookie center for the Milwaukee Admirals is emerging as one of the team’s better all-around players, hovering around the top of the scoring chart and boasting a team-best plus-eight rating.

New Jersey: Forward Stefan Matteau

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    Yet another candidate for the U.S. 20-and-under team later this month, Matteau has crashed into the Quebec League on the heels of being chosen late in the first round by the Devils last spring.

    While he is not the most prolific producer on the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, he is their penalty-minute leader. Both stats indicate he can refine his game well enough in due time.

    Once he does and is ready to take a crack at New Jersey’s roster, Matteau can be a forceful and fruitful power forward.

N.Y. Islanders: Forward Ryan Strome

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    Strome is comfortably leading all OHL point-getters and is also eclipsing all scorers in the Quebec and Western leagues.

N.Y. Rangers: Defenseman Brady Skjei

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    Barring a shocking training-camp implosion, Chris Kreider would have been a staple on the Rangers’ NHL depth chart seeking to follow up on his 18-game playoff run. Accordingly, let’s look a little deeper.

    Defenseman Dylan McIlrath has yet to suit up in his first full professional campaign, so he, too, while a tempting pick, shall not be evaluated at this time.

    That leaves another blueliner in Skjei, who has transitioned from the U.S. National Team Development Program to the University of Minnesota.

    The youngest rostered Gopher at the age of 18 years and eight months, Skjei may still need a little time to test the waters of the WCHA. But he should also be getting a look in the coming weeks as Team USA selects its World Junior roster.

Ottawa: Right Winger Jakob Silfverberg

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    The 22-year-old Swedish import made a cameo debut with the Senators in two games during the 2012 playoffs. He has since been a staple in Binghamton, where he leads the Baby Sens with seven assists and is tied with the seasoned Andre Benoit with 12 points.

Philadelphia: Center Scott Laughton

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    Although Laughton recently served a lengthy suspension for an illegal hit, a sentence that is not unusual in the Ontario League, he has time to learn how to keep his physicality within proper boundaries.

    All the while, he is continuing to develop as a scorer, one who is tinkering on a point-per-night this season.

Phoenix: Center Andy Miele

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    His twig has gone cold in recent weeks, but Miele is still a threat for the Portland Pirates, who have had his tangible input on 18 of their first 67 goals this season. To date, he has outshone even Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Brandon Gormley in terms of two-way performance.

Pittsburgh: Defensemen Olli Maatta or Derrick Pouliot

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    Maatta is the top two-way connoisseur on one of the OHL’s perennial powerhouses, the London Knights, who with his help have laid claim to a league-leading .800 winning percentage.

    Pouliot can claim to be filling a similar role on the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, who likewise own their league's best record with a .833 success rate.

St. Louis: Left Winger Jaden Schwartz

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    With Vladimir Tarasenko in the KHL, Schwartz is next in line among Blues prospects who have not already logged significant NHL game experience.

    The Peoria Rivermen rookie winger is having trouble with his defensive game, but is in a three-way tie for second on the team with five goals.

San Jose: Forward Matt Nieto

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    Like John McCarthy before him, Nieto is hoping to swim into the Sharks' system via Boston University.

    Roughly one-third finished with his junior season, Nieto’s scoring pace has mildly tapered off from his sophomore output. But he is stepping into a more elevated leadership role on a relatively young Terrier team.

    One small, but potentially important sign of Nieto’s aptitude is that he has pitched in three assists against archrival and national top dog Boston College this season. He closed out last season with a 4-5-9 log in seven games, including two goals in the Hockey East semifinals.

    If he can enter the professional ranks with enough strength and stamina, he will also have some certifiable big-game proficiency.

Tampa Bay: Center Cory Conacher

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    There's been no sophomore slide so far for the reigning AHL MVP.

    Hard to believe that, at this time two seasons ago, the undrafted Conacher still had another semester to go at Canisius College. Since graduation, he has tallied 52 goals and 52 assists over his first 100 career AHL games, retaining a point-per-game pace through the first quarter of this season.

Toronto: Defenseman Morgan Rielly

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    Like Galchenyuk, Rielly has wasted hardly a millisecond kicking ice chips over the memories of a season-chopping injury prior to his draft year.

    Now in his third major-junior campaign with the Moose Jaw Warriors, Rielly is only two points shy of his previous high of 28 set in 2010-11. He is presently boasting roughly twice the production rate of his Western League rookie campaign and doing his day job more efficiently.

Vancouver: Right Winger Jordan Schroeder

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    A third-year professional, Schroeder has yet to play a meaningful NHL game, but,with the lockout is now playing against a generous quantity of NHL-caliber talent.

    That, along with his production rate, which is exponentially increasing, ought to be an encouraging sign for the Canucks, who could use more reliable bottom-six scoring.

Washington: Forward Tom Wilson

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    While Filip Forsberg continues to sharpen up across the Atlantic and Evgeny Kuznetsov continues to groom his game across the Pacific, the Capitals have at least one North American-born prospect developing on his native continent.

    The most sizable skater on the Plymouth Whalers, defensemen included, Wilson is enticing with his prototypical power-forward potential.

    When Wilson signed his entry-level deal over the summer, in an interview with the Washington Post, Caps general manager George McPhee concluded his newest first-rounder would “ go back to junior this year, play a lot, kill penalties maybe, get on the power play, score 25 or 30 goals, develop.”

    Wilson is not quite on that goal-scoring pace. But, through 18 games, he has charged up 21 points and a team-best plus-10 rating.

Winnipeg: Center Mark Scheifele

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    A little more than 13 months removed from a grande-sized, seven-game cup of coffee with the big club, Scheifele need not accrue much more amateur seasoning before he gets another crack at the Jets’ roster.

    With the graduation of the Barrie Colts’ top three producers from last season, Scheifele has smoothly plugged in the gap with a 21-23-44 log through 27 games. His team lead will be relatively safe even if he misses several games to once again represent Canada at the World Junior Championship, which is all but guaranteed.