Now that the 2010-2011 regular season is over, 16 teams will continue their fight for the Stanley Cup, while 14 less fortunate teams are hitting the golf course and looking to the future.
Many of those teams have a long rebuilding process ahead of them before they will be able to make the playoffs, but the NHL talent pool is as deep as ever, and these 10 budding wunderkinds all have the potential to become their team’s cornerstone for the future.
With that, let’s take a look at the best hockey players in the world yet to break into the NHL.
Put simply, Zack Kassian is a boy in a man’s body. One of the most physically intimidating forwards in all of junior hockey, Kassian can really throw his weight around, but he is not a one-dimensional player. Kassian has erupted for 77 points (26 G, 51 A) this season for the Spitfire, proving once and for all that he can be a very productive offensive player, not just the big hitter that many thought he was (just ask Matt Kennedy). What is even more impressive is that Kassian has a +10 +/- rating this season, a big improvement over his miserable -17 from last season, which shows he has also dedicated himself to the defensive aspect of the game.
The Buffalo Sabres prospect will be given every chance to make the roster in 2011, and if he continues on the path of development that he is currently on, he should be a shoo-in. The Sabres are chock full of undersized, quick forwards and they need a big power forward to open space up for them. Kassian has the potential to be the best power forward the Sabres have seen since Dave Andreychuk.
Jacob Markstrom has seen his fare share of ups and downs since he has made the jump from Sweden to North America, but despite his poor numbers this season (16-20-1, 2.98 GAA) and his nagging injuries, he is undoubtedly one of the best goaltending prospects in the world. Markstrom has great size, but he also has the agility to cover any part of the net. His calm demeanor is another big asset for a goalie to have, especially for one who was relegated to Rochester, NY and is forced to play for a team that has little defense.
The top prospect in the Florida Panthers system is the only reason that fans in Sunrise are not crying themselves to sleep over their soon-to-be former netminder, UFA Tomas Vokoun. Markstrom will get his chance in the big leagues soon enough, and when he does he should be able to stand and deliver.
The first player on this list that has yet to be drafted, Adam Larsson has all the skill and potential you could hope for in a young defenseman. A top prospect for the 2011 NHL draft, Larsson has incredible maturity to go along with his great first pass, fluid skating, and his impressive defensive positioning. Larsson has been playing against grown men since he was 16 years old in the Swedish Elite League and he should be able to step into a significant NHL role immediately, just like his countrymen Nick Lidstrom and Victor Hedman.
Look for Larsson to be selected in the top 3 picks this June, and don’t be surprised if he is a serious contender for the 2011 Calder Trophy. Larsson is the only defenseman on my list and if he develops correctly he could have an impact similar to that of Drew Doughty for the L.A. Kings.
Very few people on this list are better pure offensive scorers than Nino Niederreiter. The Swiss winger has very good size and speed to boot, but his best asset is his scoring touch. Niederreiter has scored 77 goals in his last two seasons for the Winterhawks, great numbers on any level but especially in the talent-rich WHL.
After being drafted 5th overall in 2010 by the New York Islanders, Niederreiter should soon be part of their current youth movement. He will fit in great with budding stars John Tavares and Michael Grabner and should give the Islander faithful serious hope for the first time since the early 80’s.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have done a great job of finding talent at the top of the draft lately, with superstar Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, and it looks like they’ve hit another home run with Brett Connolly. The 6th overall pick in the 2010, Connolly has all the upside in the world, but like many prospects before him, it is unclear whether or not he will ever fulfill it. Injuries have hampered Connolly’s young career and the Lightning are certainly hoping that this will not be a cause for concern going forward.
It is likely that Connolly is still a year away from joining the NHL, but if he can stay healthy and improve upon his 2011 season, he should be ready to go by the 2012 season. His offensive skill set will be a great addition to the Lightning’s high-tempo scheme, and he could be able to replace the aging (and declining) Vincent Lecavalier sooner rather than later.
When thinking of Jack Campbell, one word in particular is always the first to come to mind: clutch. Just like Jacob Markstrom, Campbell’s regular season numbers, especially in 2010-2011, were shaky at best, but where they differ is that when the big game is on the line Campbell always makes the plays. His incredible play was the main reason that the U.S. junior team was able to medal at all in the 2011 World Junior Championship and his clutch saves late in the 2010 championship game helped U.S.A bring home the gold medal.
He has great size and intangibles, and his confidence cannot be beaten. The top prospect in the Dallas Stars’ organization has all the time in the world to work out the kinks in his game and develop while Kari Lehtonen holds down the fort in net for the foreseeable future.
“A couple of people high up in the Oilers' organization… said Hopkins has the best vision on the ice since No. 99 (Wayne Gretzky)," -Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan. This quote should tell you all you need to know about the likely No. 1 pick in the 2011 Draft. Whenever you are compared to the greatest hockey player of all time, especially by executives from his former team, it is a MAJOR complement.
Nugent-Hopkins has incredible playmaking abilities- his passing is top notch, his stick handling is great, and he can get also the puck in the net. His 106 points (31 G, 75 A) was good for 3rd in the WHL this season. He will have to bulk up a bit, somewhere between 180-190 would be ideal, but Nugent-Hopkins has the offensive skill and vision to become a superstar in the NHL.
A surprise top 5 pick in 2010, Ryan Johansen has quickly justified his lofty draft status by the Columbus Blue Jackets. After scoring a respectable 69 points during the 2009-2010 season, Johansen broke out this season, scoring 92 points (40 G, 52 A) to go along with an incredible +44 +/- rating. While it is unlikely that this was a one-year fluke, Johansen will still have to prove his doubters wrong, and will likely have to do so in Columbus next season.
Rick Nash is a superstar in the NHL, but he has never been paired with a top-tier center to make him reach his full potential- Ryan Johansen can be that center.
Brayden Schenn was a highly touted prospect going into the 2011 World Junior Championship, but after his performance there he solidified himself as arguably the premier prospect in all of hockey. He put the team on his back, scoring 18 points (8 G, 10 A) through just 7 games in the tournament, which tied the record for most points ever by a Canadian.
HockeysFuture.com’s current top overall prospect has a very promising future in the Los Angeles King’s organization and he should be able to crack their lineup in 2011. Schenn is a very balanced player who can score, pass, and even drop the gloves if he has to; he is solid in almost every area of his game and has no real weaknesses.
He is the top prospect in North America, but the best prospect in the world is…
Despite being ranked as the top European skater for the 2010 Draft, Tarasenko fell all the way to No. 16, where the St. Louis Blues were all too happy to snatch him up. Tarasenko’s fall had nothing to do with his skill level, rather, many NHL teams were scared that the super talented sniper would stay in Russia instead of coming to North America. However, since the draft Tarasenko has made it clear that he does intend on coming to St. Louis and will be in the NHL soon enough.
Tarasenko has all the offensive talent in the world, a pure scorer who is a threat to do so every time he touches the puck. Like Adam Larsson, Tarasenko has also played against grown competition as a teenager, which will only help his maturity. His numbers in Russia are comparable to Alex Ovechkin’s, and he has the ability to carry his team in desperate situations (Does a 3-0 deficit to Team Canada in the 2011 WJC Gold Medal game sound familiar?)
Tarasenko is smaller than other Russian superstars like Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, but he has the potential to be a perennial 40+ goal scorer, and if everything goes right, he could be an Ovechkin-like player for the Blues. Not bad for a guy that 15 teams passed on.