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The Top NHL Prospects to Watch at the 2014 Winter Olympics

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2014

The Top NHL Prospects to Watch at the 2014 Winter Olympics

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    RICH SCHULTZ/Associated Press

    At the Winter Olympics, the men's hockey tournament is a place for both stars and newcomers to bring their very best.

    Going into the Games, much of the attention has been focused on established players. Veterans like Sidney Crosby and Teemu Selanne have already etched their places in history, while athletes like Alex Ovechkin are looking to grab a spot of their own.

    Once the event gets underway on Feb. 12, we'll also get a chance to watch and marvel at the talents of the very best members of the next generation.

    For the purposes of this article, my "top prospects" are in no more than their second full NHL season. Players like Matt Duchene, Cam Fowler and Gabriel Landeskog are certainly "young guns," but it's safe to say that they've moved well past "prospect" status.

    Here's a look at a dozen young Olympians in the early stages of their NHL careers, along with what we might expect to see from them in Sochi.

     

    Info and stats courtesy of NHL.com and TheHockeyNews.com.

Ondrej Palat: Czech Republic

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 22 years old, left wing
    • 6'0", 180 lbs.
    • Chosen 208th overall in the seventh round by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 entry draft
    • Ondrej Palat played 14 games last season with the Lightning and has become a regular in 2013-14, with 12-20-32 in 57 games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    Palat is coming into his own just in time for the Olympics. A late-round draft pick, he has blossomed into a full-time favorite of Lightning bench boss Jon Cooper, averaging 17 minutes of ice time a game and leading his team with an impressive plus-20. Palat was named NHL rookie of the month for January 2014.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    On a Czech team that's loaded with veterans, Palat will have a chance to inject some youthful enthusiasm. He's not the most dominant physical presence, but is showing that he can be effective on both sides of the puck.

Aleksander Barkov: Finland

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Prospect Profile:

    • 18 years old, center
    • 6'3", 209 lbs.
    • Chosen second overall in the first round by the Florida Panthers in the 2013 entry draft
    • After two years with Tampere of the Finnish men's league, Aleksander Barkov jumped directly to the NHL after being drafted. He has 8-16-24 in 53 games with the Panthers.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    Blessed with great size and tremendous skill, Barkov has comfortably stepped into a regular National Hockey League role at just 18 years old. He has extraordinary hockey sense for a player so young and is a Calder Trophy candidate for rookie of the year.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    Barkov has been playing with men since the age of 16, and doing it well. He'll be expected to carry some of the offensive workload for Finland at the Olympics.

Mikael Granlund: Finland

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    Barry Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 21 years old, center
    • 5'10", 186 lbs.
    • Chosen ninth overall in the first round by the Minnesota Wild in the 2010 entry draft
    • Mikael Granlund played 27 games last season with the Wild but has become a regular in 2013-14, with 5-23-28 in 46 games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    Granlund is an outstanding playmaker with great hands. He can play any position up front and has the creativity to dazzle with highlight-reel goals, like this lacrosse-style beauty from the 2011 World Championship.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    Granlund has plenty of international experience at the senior level. He has been part of three World Championship squads, including the group that won the gold medal for Finland in 2011. If Mikko Koivu's injury prevents him from assuming the first-line center role in Sochi, Granlund will have to help pick up the slack.

Olli Maatta: Finland

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 19 years old, defenseman
    • 6'2", 209 lbs.
    • Chosen 22nd overall in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 entry draft
    • In his rookie season, Olli Maatta is averaging 17:39 a game. He's 5-21-26 in 56 NHL games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    Maatta quickly impressed when early season injuries in Pittsburgh gave him an opportunity to show his stuff at the NHL level. Defying the wisdom that defensemen take longer to develop, he is already one of the most reliable defenders on a team that sometimes struggles to keep the puck out of its own net.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    The Sochi Olympics will be Maatta's first foray into senior-level international competition. It's nothing he can't handle. Expect to see him log key minutes, including special-teams play, as part of Finland's top four defenders.

Sami Vatanen: Finland

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 22 years old, defenseman
    • 5'10", 183 lbs.
    • Chosen 106th overall in the fourth round by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2009 entry draft
    • One of our older prospects at 22-years-old, Sami Vatanen played eight NHL games with the Ducks in 2012-13 and has spent time with the Ducks and their AHL affiliate in Norfolk this season. He's 6-8-14 in 41 games with Anaheim.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    A small defenseman who's a late bloomer physically, Vatanen moves the puck well and has a deadly accurate point shot in his arsenal. Though not the strongest defensively, he was an All-Star with Norfolk in his AHL rookie season in 2012-13.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    Vatanen's a great skater—a skill that will serve him well on the big ice in Sochi. He may not play in the top four, but should see action on the Finnish power play.

Zemgus Girgensons: Latvia

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 20 years old, center
    • 6'1", 190 lbs.
    • Chosen 14th overall in the first round by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2012 entry draft
    • Zemgus Girgensons is 5-12-17 in 56 games in his rookie NHL season.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    A product of the U.S. Hockey League, Girgensons opted to jump to the pro ranks after he was drafted instead of continuing his path to college. A solid two-way player, he's defensively tenacious and has an aggressive side to his game. 

    Role in Sochi:

    As his coach in Buffalo, Team Latvia bench boss Ted Nolan knows exactly what he'll be getting with Girgensons, the only current NHLer on the Latvian squad for Sochi. He had one goal—and a one-game suspension for spearing—while playing for his country at the 2013 World Championship.

Valeri Nichushkin: Russia

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 18 years old, right wing
    • 6'4", 205 lbs.
    • Chosen 10th overall in the first round by the Dallas Stars in the 2013 entry draft
    • In his rookie season, Valeri Nichushkin is 12-15-27 for the Stars.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    With his big body and soft hands, Nichushkin easily made the transition to the NHL just months after being drafted. He's a strong skater with a good shot, but he can be prone to occasional mental lapses.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    The Russian forward lines are stacked with talent, so a top-six role is not guaranteed for Nichushkin. Expect to see him get a chance to show what he can do during the preliminary-round games.

Vladimir Tarasenko: Russia

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    Bill Boyce/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 22 years old, right wing
    • 6'0", 219 lbs.
    • Chosen 16th overall in the first round by the St. Louis Blues in the 2010 entry draft
    • In his second season with the Blues, Vladimir Tarasenko is 18-15-33 in 53 games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    After an up-and-down rookie season with the Blues, Tarasenko has started to realize his potential in a more consistent role in 2013-14. He's a strong playmaker who's great one-on-one and has a nose for the net.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    Tarasenko's the son of a former Olympian and Russian-league scoring champion. He played in five KHL seasons before coming over to St. Louis. Like Nichushkin, Tarasenko will get a look but could have a tough time penetrating Russia's top six.

Tomas Jurco: Slovakia

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Prospect Profile:

    • 21 years old, right wing
    • 6'2",193 lbs.
    • Chosen 35th overall in the second round by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2011 entry draft
    • A raw NHL rookie, Tomas Jurco was a mid-season injury call-up from Grand Rapids. He's 2-4-6 in his first 16 NHL games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    At all hockey levels so far, Jurco is proving to be a winner. He was part of the Memorial Cup-winning Saint John Sea Dogs in 2011, then won the Calder Cup with the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins two years later. Sometimes compared to fellow Slovak Marian Hossa, Jurco has great wheels and a collection of dazzling shootout videos like this on YouTube.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    The Olympics will be Jurco's first appearance with his country's senior men's team. He'll get a look in the preliminary round, but the amount of ice time he receives will likely depend on his willingness to play hard in his own zone.

Tomas Tatar: Slovakia

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Prospect Profile:

    • 23 years old, left wing
    • 5'10", 186 lbs.
    • Chosen 60th overall in the second round by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 entry draft
    • Tomas Tatar made brief appearances with the Red Wings in 2009-10 and 2012-13 but has become a regular this season. He's 13-11-24 in 48 games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    Not the biggest player you'll see, Tatar spent four seasons with Grand Rapids in the AHL, eventually being named playoff MVP in their 2013 run to the Calder Cup. He's a slick puck-handler with great instincts who's now showing he can contribute just as well at the NHL level.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    Tatar's ahead of his Red Wings teammate Jurco on the Slovak depth chart. With sniper Marian Gaborik out of the lineup, he could be given a golden opportunity to contribute in Sochi.

Martin Marincin: Slovakia

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Prospect Profile:

    • 21 years old, defenseman
    • 6'4", 188 lbs.
    • Chosen 46th overall in the second round by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2010 entry draft
    • Called up from Oklahoma City by the Oilers in December, Martin Marincin's 0-2-2 and a plus-five in his first 21 NHL games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    Marincin's a great skater for his size, with good reach and solid defensive instincts. As a steady stay-at-home defenseman, he has been a welcome addition to the Oilers' blue line since his mid-season call-up.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    Now that veteran blueliner Lubomir Visnovsky won't be joining the Slovak team, each defenseman on the roster will move up a spot. Marincin will part of the top six, employed primarily in a defensive role and as a penalty-killer. He'll have a great opportunity to learn from the likes of captain Zdeno Chara.

Nino Niederreiter: Switzerland

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Prospect Profile:

    • 21 years old, right wing
    • 6'2", 209 lbs.
    • Chosen fifth overall in the first round by the New York Islanders in the 2010 entry draft
    • Nino Niederreiter spent parts of two NHL seasons with the New York Islanders before being demoted to the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the entire 2012-13 season. After being traded to Minnesota last summer, he's having a breakout year for the Wild with 11-18-29 in 59 games.

     

    What Makes Him Special: 

    A big body with great offensive instincts, Niederreiter has found his game after a troubled start to his NHL career. He was one of Switzerland's top contributors in its run to the silver medal at the 2013 World Championship and has become a key part of the offense for the Minnesota Wild.

     

    Role in Sochi:

    After his impressive World Championship performance, expect to see Niederreiter in a first-line role for the Swiss. He'll get plenty of offensive ice time as Switzerland aims to play spoiler once again in international competition.

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