Ranking the 20 Best Under-20 NHL Prospects

Al DanielCorrespondent IIDecember 7, 2012

Ranking the 20 Best Under-20 NHL Prospects

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    The IIHF World Junior Championships are less than three weeks away. Time to cue the commercials saturated with images of current NHL stars when they represented their country’s top teens and to look at those aspiring to join that pantheon.

    Several of the tournament’s participating countries have already released their training camp rosters, which will be whittled down to 23 in the days leading up to the traditional Boxing Day beginning of round robin action.

    Reserved strictly for players under the age of 20 at the time of the first faceoff, this year’s WJC may include the likes of the established, but locked-out Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The rest of the veterans, though, will come with the more conventional backstory of having been chosen two NHL drafts ago, but still having yet to see substantial NHL action.

    The better part of the pool will be comprised of 2011 and 2012 draft picks. A few of those eligible for 2013 will have one of their more radiant opportunities to amplify or cement their stock.

    For the sake of selectiveness, balance and numerical motif, here is a glance at the top 20 NHL aspirants from the 2011, 2012 and 2013 draft classes to watch in the World Juniors. Innumerable other notables, such as the recently injured Ryan Murray, were omitted, though they naturally still have plenty of promise themselves.

20. Jonathan Drouin

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    Click on the link to any individual box score on Drouin’s game log and it is hard to find a single scoring play that he has not shared with Nathan MacKinnon (more on him later).

    Even so, 15 goals and 43 points in 22 games have to count for something, regardless of who is helping. There is virtually no reason to think Drouin could not go high in the 2013 NHL draft in his own right, spend one MacKinnon-less year in Halifax and then step up as a gratifying impact player.

19. Valeri Nichushkin

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    Nichushkin is generally considered the best Russian in the mix for the 2013 draft and recently joined the KHL, which ought to only make him more battle-tested. Earlier this season, he had tallied 12 goals and 18 points over 24 games in two other leagues.

18. Sean Monahan

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    Currently the most touted OHL player eligible for the 2013 draft by Central Scouting, Monahan is currently in the midst of a 10-game suspension. In his absence, the Ottawa 67s have lost seven straight, albeit one in a shootout. The adversary owns a cumulative 37-12 scoring edge in that span.

    Granted, they have not been much better when he is available, going 7-14-2, but he remains their leading scorer by a six-point margin. In addition, he was the third-youngest invitee to Canada’s WJC selection camp, behind only MacKinnon and Hunter Shinkaruk (by one day).

17. Mika Zibanejad

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    A rare instance of an AHL player eligible for participation in the World Junior Championship, Zibanejad will reportedly not be loaned from the Ottawa Senators’ farm club in Binghamton, much to the chagrin of Team Sweden.

    Zibanejad, who scored the gold-medal clincher in last year’s tournament and later made two NHL playoff appearances, will instead continue to acclimate in the top development circuit. Unlike the aforementioned Murray, though, his reason for foregoing the WJC has no logical bearing on his short-term or long-term promise in The Show.

16. Aleksander Barkov

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    The 2013 draft-eligible Finn has been likened to Pavel Datsyuk by eliteprospects.com, was named the MVP of the recent Four Nations Cup and is in the midst of a breakout year in his native country’s pro league.

    Barkov is among the SM-Liiga’s top 10 goal-scorers and point-getters, which this season has featured the likes of Mikkel Boedker, Valtteri Filpulla, Erik Karlsson, Rich Peverley and Kyle Turris.

15. Olli Maatta

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    In his second season with the London Knights and first since going 22nd overall to Pittsburgh last June, Maatta is arguably the most prominent player other than Barkov, and possibly Teuvo Teravainen, vying for a spot on Finland’s WJC team.

    Maatta’s acclimation to the North American game has been self-evident through his performance in the Canadian major-junior ranks. He was easily London’s best all-around defenseman in last year’s OHL playoffs and has followed up with an accelerated production rate this season on a team that is running away with the league's best record.

14. Derrick Pouliot

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    The Penguins’ other 2012 first-rounder is the highest-scoring blueliner on a potent Portland Winterhawks team that features four of the Western League’s 14 best offensive defensemen.

13. Alex Galchenyuk

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    Especially given that they have at least 14 established NHL-caliber forwards already in their organization, the Montreal Canadiens need not rush their latest first-round pick.

    That being said, if Galchenyuk avoids any lengthy injuries and stays on the course he has been paving this season in the wake of an offseason spent replenishing his game, he certainly should crack the roster by 2013-14.

12. Morgan Rielly

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    Rielly is clearly the catalyst of a Moose Jaw Warriors team that is presently two games below .500 but still sitting in the Western League playoff bracket around the halfway mark of the season. He has emerged as a burly, point-based playmaker who has assisted on 20 of his club’s first 78 goals and is tied for first with a plus-three rating.

    All of this is after he had spent the better part of the 2011-12 season healing an injury.

    Once again, he can make a much yearned-for splash on a Canadian Original Six franchise assuming he retains this developmental pace.

11. Nathan MacKinnon

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    For the longest time, MacKinnon has been cast as the presumptive No. 1 forward in the 2013 draft class.

    He might not meet all of the Sidney Crosby comparisons, which have been inevitable given the many similarities in their backgrounds. He is hardly even guaranteed to go first overall next June.

    Even so, there is no disputing the notion that MacKinnon is one of the most celestial skaters among the younger half of the WJC pool and among the NHL’s most promising yet-to-be-drafted prospects.

    Just to name one testament to the impact he can make, the Halifax Mooseheads lead the Quebec League with 24 wins and MacKinnon can claim credit for the Halifax lead with five game-winning goals.

    Assuming he makes the Canadian World Junior team, his performance in that tournament and the second half of the QMJHL season could be key points in his development or the unveiling thereof.

10. Filip Forsberg

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    Nearly matching his single-season career high from last year in half the time, Forsberg has logged 16 points in 20 games while competing in a league featuring Patrik Berglund, Anze Kopitar, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Read.

    With the aforementioned Zibanejad off limits, Forsberg ought to be leaned on all the more by Team Sweden as they seek a second straight WJC gold medal. The Washington Capitals front office will surely be following that tournament with a keen interest in how their 2012 first-rounder fares.

9. Tomas Hertl

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    Like Forsberg, Hertl is spending his first post-draft year in his native professional league and sitting in respectable company on the scoring leaderboard.

    Hertl is No. 30 among Czech League point-getters, behind the likes of Jiri Tlusty, Ales Kotalik, David Krejci, Ales Hemsky, Tomas Plekanec and Jaromir Jagr. His output eclipses that of Milan Michalek and Martin Hanzal, among others.

8. Jonathan Huberdeau

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    The Saint John Sea Dogs can be grateful for the lockout as the gratifyingly seasoned Huberdeau has been the runaway leader with 43 points, including 28 assists, amidst the team’s 14-14-0 start. In all, he has set up 31.5 percent of Saint John’s goals and scored another 16.9 percent himself.

    With their .500 record, the Dogs are No. 12 on the QMJHL’s overall, 18-team leaderboard. One naturally has to imagine where they would be sitting without his input.

    That is precisely the type of impact the offensively limited Florida Panthers need to be banking on once the NHL resumes and Huberdeau is elevated to the active roster.

7. Mark Scheifele

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    Since returning to the Barrie Colts after a seven-game experiment with the Winnipeg Jets, Scheifele has tallied a 49-71-120 scoring transcript in 88 regular-season and playoff games.

    A candidate to participate in his second World Junior Championship, Scheifele had a point per night in six tournament games last year.

6. Mikhail Grigorenko

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    Grigorenko is among those tied with MacKinnon for the Quebec League lead with five game-winners on the year. More importantly, as he matures on a physical level and in all intangible areas, the Buffalo Sabres can bank on him burgeoning as, in essence, a more slightly skilled, productive version of Steve Ott.

5. Griffin Reinhart

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    While he is hardly the most prolific among amateur defensemen on deck for the NHL, Reinhart’s three goals with the Edmonton Oil Kings have come either on the power play or shorthanded. The rest of the time, he has been holding forth in his own zone as well as, if not better than any of his colleagues.

    It has all come through use of one of the best-available frames in Canada, or any international junior program, at 6’4, 202 pounds.

    With maybe a little more bulk, or at least a little more sheer strength, Reinhart ought to be ready to efficiently patrol the New York Islanders’ blue line by next autumn. Even as he is now, it would not be thoroughly irrational to envision him tackling a baptismal fire if such an opportunity arises in the form of a 2012-13 NHL season.

4. Dougie Hamilton

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    Hamilton just nabbed a monthly top defenseman accolade from the OHL, his fifth such accolade since the start of the 2011-12 season, when he was coming off a ninth overall selection by the Boston Bruins.

    Besides being an unmatched producer from the point in the major junior ranks, Hamilton is laden with big-game seasoning. He is most likely going to his second World Junior tournament and, in between those, has been to the final round of the OHL playoffs, the Canada-Russia Challenge and the Subway Super Series.

    Although offense, and especially playmaking, is his specialty, Hamilton does also have an inch and three pounds on the aforementioned Reinhart, at least according to Hockey Canada’s roster. He, too, can only get better with more bulk.

3. Seth Jones

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    The Western League rookie and touted 2013 draft candidate not only has a 7-16-23 scoring log through his first 27 games, but also a plus-23 rating to match his point total. Identical digits that swollen and in those specific categories signal nothing short of efficiency in a defenseman’s day job, for it shows there have not been many opposing goals to negate his credited and uncredited output in the attacking zone.

    The authoritative Craig Button of TSN recently called Jones “the most unique defenseman since Chris Pronger.” Reeling off of that assessment, it is worth noting that the fruitfully physical Pronger is the only defenseman in the post-Bobby Orr era to have won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.

    Jones is virtually a can’t-miss candidate to help replenish Team USA’s blue line at the WJC and all but a shoo-in for the top echelon of the 2013 draft board.

2. Ryan Strome

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    The OHL’s top scorer has gone only two games out of his first 31 without an assist, let alone a point, in 2012-13.

    The longer he sustains that consistent craftiness, the more his rights-holding Islanders should be eager to test it in tandem with John Tavares and/or Matt Moulson. If Strome blossoms in the top league with little or no delay, he will help his employers kick ice chips over the memory of free-agent departure P.A. Parenteau.

    First things first, like Hamilton, Huberdeau, Scheifele and two others, Strome is striving to form a nucleus of veterans for Canada’s WJC team.

1. Nail Yakupov

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    The reigning first overall pick by Edmonton is on a nearly perfect point-per-game pace this season in the KHL. He has retained that pace despite being on a Neftekhimik team that has no locked-out NHLers while competing against a dense multitude of established NHLers on opposing teams.

    As many as 36 NHL-caliber players other than the would-be Oilers rookie have seen action in the KHL this fall. That easily amounts to the most reliable indicator of how any of these prospects are going to fare, at least in the early phases of their career, in The Show.

    While it is still no substitute for an authentic campaign of NHL competition, Yakupov’s KHL performance is only emboldening his promising persona.