Every year, teams go looking for that steal outside the first round. They want that guy who's not really on the radar because they know he's going to break out.
The Red Wings are famous for this. Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg didn't have first round draft pedigree, but they're the three players that have defined the franchise in the post-Yzerman era.
Some of these kids fall because of injuries. Others fall because of a lack of opportunity. Some play in obscure leagues, and others had an underwhelming season. There is no uniform pedigree for what makes a dark horse.
Here are ten to keep your eye on.
Central Scouting Rank: 34
Current Team: Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
NHL Comparable: Tuomo Ruutu
The Rundown: Rakell might not be a dark horse in the traditional sense, but he certainly has the pedigree of one. When he was selected in the CHL Import Draft, most people would have been forgiven for not knowing who he was. The 17-year-old from Sundbyberg, Sweden had spent the previous year toiling in Swedish Under-18 and Under-20 leagues.
Plymouth GM Mike Vellucci deserves full marks for pulling this diamond out of the rough and making him a player that some are giving first round consideration. When Rakell is playing his best, he's a two-way winger who plays a north-south game and is a disciplined physical presence. Rakell has a motor that runs non-stop and goes hard into traffic areas, allowing him to open up space for linemates.
Central Scouting Rank: 61
Current Team: Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
NHL Comparable: Ryan Suter
The Rundown: There was a time when many thought Adam Clendening would be the second best powerplay quarterback in this draft not named Ryan Murphy. Some even suggested that he might be the best player to play on a blue-line with a USNTDP last year that included Derek Forbort, Jarred Tinordi and Jon Merrill.
Clendening is a great heads-up offensive defenseman. He's got great hockey sense, and a crisp passing touch. He's not afraid to mix things up physically and is able to use his mobility as an offensive catalyst. Finally, he's in the same program that produced NHL rookie standout Kevin Shattenkirk, and is outperforming Shattenkirk at the same age.
Central Scouting Rank: 44
Current Team: Oshawa Generals
NHL Comparable: Nikolai Kulemin
The Rundown: What is Lucas Lessio? Trust me, that's more than some bad philosophical question. Is he a potential top six power forward? Is he someone who'll top out as a third line checker? Is he a sniper with a bull-like frame?
There are a lot of scouts searching for the answers to these questions. I'm sold on Lessio, and admittedly have been for a couple of years. When he's on his game, he can control a game. He'll use his size and physicality in the dirty areas, he'll score garbage goals. He'll use his powerful skating and good release to beat goaltenders. He'll look every bit the part of a second line power forward.
Central Scouting Rank: 93
Current Team: Val D'Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
NHL Comparable: Martin Hanzal
The Rundown: Teams go looking for big centres—it's the reality of the NHL Draft. Leblanc fits that bill. He doesn't project as a big time offensive player down the line, but with his size, reach and ability, he does fit the bill playing a kind of shutdown centre role.
Leblanc's offensive progression is one area of hope for the Foreurs going forward. If he goes from being a 60 point centre to being an 80 point centre in Val D'Or next year, he could be a centre who, like Hanzal, matches up against opponents' top lines on a nightly basis while almost contributing some secondary scoring.
Central Scouting Rank: 102
Current Team: Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
NHL Comparable: Jason Pominville
The Rundown: All you Hockey News subscribers will remember McColgan from the 2009 Future Watch issue. It featured an interview with him—then only a prospect of the Kelowna Rockets still playing with the LA Midget Kings in the MWEHL. The article itself was about McColgan and the explosion of Southern California hockey.
Since then, McColgan's stock has slowly fallen as concerns about his size and shot have risen in the minds of scouts. You can probably count the number of NHLers under 5'10", and any player who makes it under that is going to have to be something special.
In a way, McColgan is. He's a firebug with a very evasive skating stride, great hands and hockey sense. He's a playmaking winger, which is probably the biggest concern for scouts. They wonder how he'll fare against the power forwards and towering defensemen he'll be matched up again.
McColgan has tools, a lot of them, except size.
Central Scouting Rank: 88
Current Team: Belleville Bulls (OHL)
NHL Comparable: Ryane Clowe
The Rundown: Don't pay attention to Austen Brassard's numbers. If he were playing in Kitchener or Oshawa or London, they'd be much higher. You're getting pure power forward with this kid. Everyone's always amazed when Ryane Clowe puts up numbers in the playoffs, but that's because he plays the game in terms of inches.
So does Austen Brassard.
If you want a player that's going to battle for every puck, go fearlessly to the front of the net and into corners, and still have the skill to play with top offensive players, he's your man. There were those who saw Brassard as borderline first round material at the start of the year, and he could easily be the Kyle Clifford or Dalton Smith of this draft.
Central Scouting Rank: 57
Current Team: Sarnia Sting (OHL)
NHL Comparable: David Backes
The Rundown: Ritchie is another case of not being fooled by the numbers. This kid's been out for a couple weeks with a serious case of mononucleosis. Before being hit with the bug, Ritchie had finally settled into his groove. This is a kid with some serious offensive ability and a big frame. Like most teenage power forwards, he's still learning to be more physically assertive.
Ritchie's three career OHL fights don't put him on quite a Backes-ian level, but he gained twenty pounds of muscle which greatly improved his balance. So when he does drop them now, he's got a serious advantage.
Before his bout with the bug, Ritchie was on pace for 30-35 goals. With a complete season next year, it's not a stretch to see him hit 40. How many six-foot-three guys can score like that?
Central Scouting Rank: 38th
Current Team: Montreal Junior (QMJHL)
NHL Comparable: Kris Letang
The Rundown: Ouellet is probably one of the most hyped prospects whose hype never makes it beyond the Q. He's a supremely mobile powerplay quarterback whose offensive instincts are going to help him get drafted. Usually offensive numbers are disregarded in the Q, which is still seen as an offensive league. Ouellet's not just a numbers offensive defenseman.
The great thing about dark horses is that they're usually tools prospects. Ouellet is one of those—a great skater who can handle the puck with poise and dissect the play on the fly. That ability makes him a high calibre offensive player at this level. At the next level though, those assets will be used by some coach to make him a solid two-way presence.
Central Scouting Rank: 23rd
Current Team: Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
NHL Comparable: Ladislav Smid
The Rundown: Zaitsev is a very mercurial prospect. A lot of people were absolutely certain he'd be selected last year in the entry draft, but he wasn't.
The Russian can be a frustrating prospect. He's got a lot of offensive tools, but they never seem to come together in an offensive context. He's a highly intelligent passer who finds open men and lanes.
This makes him a valuable defensive player because he's a pressure valve. His poise under pressure with the puck makes him valuable as a penalty killer and five-on-five. He'll never be a big money, big points defenseman, but where he's likely to be selected—if at all—in the sixth or seventh round of the draft, getting an NHLer at all is an accomplishment.
Central Scouting Rank: 55
Current Team: Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
NHL Comparable: Andrew Brunette
The Rundown: A speedy winger with a high energy level, Nieto's stock has been a rollercoaster since the start of the season. He's primarily a playmaker with great hands.
A year ago, Nieto was considered a possible first round pick.
Nieto's year, like that of fellow BU Terrier, has definitely improved as the year's gone along. He doesn't have the best shot, and he's got to pack on a little muscle to compete, but it's easy to see him being the kind of player that teams consistently trade for in an attempt to bring in some secondary offensive touch.