Ranking the Top 10 NHL Prospects Among AHL Rookies

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistNovember 9, 2013

Ranking the Top 10 NHL Prospects Among AHL Rookies

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    Future greats—award winners, Stanley Cup winners—have made their pro debuts this fall in the AHL.

    Every year, the American Hockey League receives a couple hundred new pro hockey players (or more), and each year, these young men work their way up to the best hockey league in the world (the NHL) by honing their skills in the AHL. It can sometimes take two or even three years, and for some, this will be the highest level reached in North American pro hockey.

    This year, with injuries at the big league level so common, the chances of more (and earlier) recalls has increased.

    Here are the top 10 NHL prospects among AHL rookies. The rankings are based on a combination of early-season performance and long-range potential, with special consideration given for youngsters with possible "impact" offensive potential.

10. Ryan Sproul, D, Detroit Red Wings

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    Key Statistics: Twenty-eight shots in 13 games is an impressive beginning for a mobile defender. Sproul's offense (13 G, 4 G, 7 A, 11 PTS) and draft pedigree (second-round pick, 2011) has put him on the radar, and his performance is one of the most impressive in the AHL so far this season. At 6'4", 205 pounds, he certainly has the size to play the position in the NHL.


    Top-End Potential: Solid top-four-defenseman potential. Sproul's booming shot and offensive potential mean he's an excellent candidate for power-play time when he arrives in the NHL. Questions include foot speed and physical play, and as is the case with all young players, he'll need to improve strength and conditioning. He was considered a somewhat risky pick on draft day, but two strong seasons at the junior level after he was drafted have improved his reputation.


    NHL ETA: 2015-16. The Wings wait on their prospects, but a "cup of coffee" stint of a couple of games is possible this season.

9. Jon Merrill, D, New Jersey Devils

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    Key Statistics: A 6'4" defender with puck-moving skills and a physical side is going to get the attention of NHL teams every time. Merrill was taken in the 2010 entry draft (second round) and played three seasons with Michigan (NCAA) before turning pro. His stats this season in the AHL (11 G, 2 G, 5 A, 7 PTS) are very strong. 


    Top-End Potential: In his best seasons, Merrill should receive some All-Star consideration. He has a wide range of skills, and those include things that make him attractive offensively and defensively. A "complete" defenseman is a rare item, and if Merrill can bring all of his talent with him to the NHL, the Devils will have stolen a lottery talent in the second round. The only things that can hold him back—discipline on and off the ice—should improve with maturity. 


    NHL ETA: 2013-14. Merrill made his NHL debut this past weekend, and despite being injured just five minutes into the game, he appears ready. 

8. John Gibson, G, Anaheim Ducks

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    Key Statistics: John Gibson's save percentage in the AHL (.949) is breathtaking. Although unsustainable (last year's leader posted a .938 save percentage), Gibson's junior numbers (.928 save percentage both seasons in Kitchener, OHL) tell us he's a quality, consistent goaltender. 


    Top-End Potential: Future No. 1 goalie with the potential to be a perennial top-10 player. According to Central Scouting goalie guru Al Jensen: "John has great net coverage and size and is very strong. He's sound technically, moves very well laterally and is controlled. He's calm, not busy."


    NHL ETA: 2013-14. He's nine games into his pro career and is stopping everything in sight. You never want to project a goaltender beyond the next step, but John Gibson is showing all the signs of being an impact goalie. 

7. Cody Ceci, D, Ottawa Senators

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    Key Statistics: Cedi's an offensive defenseman who dominated the OHL last year (81 G, 20 G, 54 A, 74 PTS) and began his first pro season by suiting up for 11 games, chipping in two goals and seven assists for nine points with Binghamton (AHL). The Senators drafted a hometown talent in the first round of the 2012 entry draft. Although still only 19 (he turns 20 around Christmas), Ceci has adjusted well to the American League and is one of the most impressive rookie pros in the league. 


    Top-End Potential: Base on his resume, he could be an All-Star. Ceci is a big defenseman (6'3", 215 pounds) and owns a hammer shot from the point. He's done an outstanding job of quarterbacking power plays in junior and his early games in the AHL suggest he is getting every chance to prove himself with the man advantage (three assists already). Ceci doesn't use his size as effectively as he should, and that will keep him in the minors this season (barring injury).


    NHL ETA: 2014-15. Ottawa doesn't hurry its prospects; Ceci will have plenty of opportunity to mature before getting the call. 

6. Nick Cousins, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Key Statistics: Cousins, a 2011 third-round selection by the Flyers, turned pro this fall and has shown well (12 G, 3 G, 5 A, 8 PTS) early on. Highly regarded during his junior career with Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he finished third (103 points) in OHL scoring one year ago. Cousins is an agitator—he received 95 penalty minutes in his final season of junior. 


    Top-End Potential: Ideally, he'll settle in as a two-line winger who can impact the game offensively and drive opponents crazy. Cousins has a nice range of skills, with only size (5'11", 177 pounds) and foot speed (average) being issues. The positives include soft hands, wonderful passing ability and (something Flyer fans will love) an ability to irritate opponents consistently. Cousins was also a terrific power-play contributor in junior, delivering 26 assists with the man advantage in his final junior season. 


    NHL ETA: 2013-14. Cousins could get the call at any time. Early signs have him adjusting well to the higher level, and he should get at least a look-see this season. 


5. Brett Ritchie, RW, Dallas Stars

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    Key Statistics: Big power winger (6'4", 215 pounds) Brett Ritchie got his feet wet last spring with a nice late-season/playoff run with the Texas Stars. This year, he's back for more and playing well (13 G, 3 G, 7 A, 10 PTS). Ritchie's 40 shots on goal is third among AHL newcomers. Effective on the power play, he's a natural in the slot. 


    Top-End Potential: An All-Star if he delivers on potential. Ritchie's offense at the junior level (41 goals in his final 53 regular-season games) was just short of astonishing. He played with elite junior Ryan Strome in his final season (2012-13) of junior hockey, and that may skew the numbers—Ritchie's draft pedigree (second-round pick in 2011) doesn't suggest impact scorer. However, he should be a goal scorer of some note in the NHL if things continue, and may be even more.


    NHL ETA: 2014-15. Ritchie's skills are obvious; he'll need a little time to learn consistency. 

4. Mark McNeill, C, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Key Statistics: A big, strong center, McNeill has hit the ground running as a rookie pro. With a 6-5-11 scoring line in 15 games at the start of his AHL career, the 2011 first-rounder (Chicago) is on track as a top-flight NHL prospect. McNeill's biggest asset is his ability to play in all disciplines (power play, penalty kill, even strength) effectively and to post offense no matter the situation. 


    Top-End Potential: Future Selke Trophy candidate based on his impressive resume. McNeill's range of skills (offensive potential is strong, and he has an exceptional reputation for his two-way ability—a rare item in such a young player) bode well for him. "Complete" talents are extremely valuable, as they can fit roles as needed and adapt to multiple situations. McNeill will do a lot of "heavy lifting" against the other team's best if he reaches his full potential.


    NHL ETA: 2014-15. McNeill's quick adjustment is no surprise, but because of the degree of difficulty in his ultimate job description, a year of AHL apprenticeship is likely. 

3. Vincent Trocheck, C, Florida Panthers

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    Key Statistics: In his final 78 games in junior (OHL), Trocheck scored 60 goals. The Florida Panthers' third-round selection (2011) has put up five goals and 11 points in 11 games for San Antonio, and the Pittsburgh native is on the fast track to the NHL. The undersized (5'10", 182 pounds) center is a brilliant passer and playmaker. He was also a standout at last winter's World Junior Championships.


    Top-End Potential: At the top end, he could be a solid No. 2 center with impressive offense, lacking only the size to be a traditional No. 1 center. A cerebral player whose anticipation was useful on the power play and penalty kill in junior, Trocheck could eventually fill a number of roles in the NHL. If his offense doesn't translate completely, his secondary defensive skills should be strong enough for him to excel in a supporting  role.


    NHL ETA: 2014-15. Strength is going to be an issue (he's a slight player for NHL center work), so a year in the AHL is likely.

2. Ryan Strome, C, New York Islanders

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    Key Statistics: In his final 78 junior games, Strome scored 120 points (including playoffs). The highest draft pick in the group (fifth overall in 2011 to the Islanders), the big club has been extremely patient with his development. Early-season numbers (9 G, 3, G, 11 A, 14PTS) suggest its patience will pay off when he arrives on the Island.


    Top-End Potential: Future No. 1 center if he continues at this rate. At 6'0", 179 pounds, Strome is slightly below average for the NHL game. Offsetting the size issue, he's an outstanding talent with stunning offensive potential and very good foot speed. Highly creative and an impact player at even strength (offensive ability at even strength is a rare item), Strome's NHL arrival is much anticipated.


    NHL ETA: 2013-14. Strome is NHL-ready based on his early-season statistics.


1. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Key Statistics: The 58th player overall in the 2011 entry draft, Kucherov is on fire in the AHL. After 12 games, he's put up 12 goals and 10 assists for 22 points, and his 41 shots rank in the league's top 10 in that category. Kucherov is the AHL leader in total points, and he has enjoyed the strongest debut of any AHL rookie this season.


    Top End Potential: A possible offensive impact player despite his size (5'11", 171 pounds) issue, Kucherov is a fleet skill winger who delivers high-octane offensive opportunities and is a chance machine. He does not possess a wide range of skills (all offense), but he's such a good prospect that he grades out as the most likely player to deliver a strong career. In his final 33 games of junior, Kucherov had 126 shots, or almost four per game.


    NHL ETA: 2013-14. He'll have to deal with size and strength issues, but Kucherov is very close to being ready.