Young NHL Players With the Biggest Upsides
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As with the start of any sports season, anticipation has given way to enjoyment now that the NHL has kicked off its 2011-2012 schedule.
In addition to the predictions for Stanley Cup champions, postseason award winners and biggest disappointments of the year, it's always fun to throw out the names of NHL rookies and sophomores who are expected to (hopefully) blossom into league superstars.
After all, who doesn't love being able to tell his friends, "See? I always knew he'd end up in the Hall of Fame!"
So here's my take on this season's potential attention-grabbing youngsters. Because I'm always looking for a reason to brag about obscure predictions I may or may not have made.
In no particular order, these are the names of first- or second-year NHLers who have the best shot at fulfilling the almost always unreasonable expectations placed upon them by scouts and fans alike...
Adam Larsson [D, New Jersey Devils]
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At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Adam Larsson has the requisite size to play defense in the NHL. In fact, draft scouts noted that during games against other junior-aged players, Larsson "looked like an NHL veteran sneaking into a kids' game" (per ESPN's NHL DraftTracker).
For an 18-year-old, that's not a bad impression to make on prospective NHL clubs.
The New Jersey Devils made Larsson the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, with an eye on turning him into a franchise defenseman in the mold of former Devils great Scott Stevens.
If past performance is an indication of Larsson's potential, he should have a very successful career in the NHL. Larsson has spent the past two years playing in the Swedish Elite League, honing his defensive technique and his ability to run the point position on the power play.
Look for Larsson to make the highlight reels for his defensive play and goal-scoring from the blue line.
Taylor Hall [LW, Edmonton Oilers]
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The first overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft still has something to prove, despite his solid rookie campaign last season.
Taylor Hall only played in 65 games during the regular season, as he was sidelined by an ankle injury in early March. However, Hall tallied 42 points in limited action, which was good enough for eighth place among all rookies.
Hall's 22 goals led the Edmonton Oilers, which should give him the confidence that he can score with the big boys in the NHL. His offensive production will only increase this year, as he'll be healthy and ready to go from game one.
The on-ice skills that made Hall the top prospect prior to last season will be on full display for years to come. If he can develop his leadership skills and really take control of the young Oilers locker room, there's potential to end the rebuilding phase in Edmonton.
Nino Niederreiter [RW, New York Islanders]
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The calls for Nino Niederreiter to join the New York Islanders last year were long and loud. Unfortunately for the faithful in Uniondale, the Islanders' front office made the decision to send him down to juniors (in the Western Hockey League) to give him more time to develop his game.
This season, the fans and the media are even more vocal in their support of Niederreiter's case to make the big club's roster.
The 19-year-old rookie had 70 points in 55 WHL games last season, making a strong bid to get the call-up. It would seem that his prayers have been answered, as he's been made a part of the Islanders' lineup as of opening night.
With a core of young talent already in place on Long Island (John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner, et al), Niederreiter would be another building block for the team's future. Playing alongside Tavares on the first line would be the best case scenario for Niederreiter, and the opportunity to learn from from him off the ice would only help his growth in the NHL.
Strong play by Niederreiter during the preseason is a strong indication that his goal-scoring mentality is well suited to the offensive-minded type of game the Islanders are built to play.
Assuming Islanders management doesn't relegate him to the AHL for more development, look for Niederreiter to possibly score 20 goals this season.
Craig Smith [C, Nashville Predators]
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Through the Nashville Predators' first two games—the first two of his NHL career—Craig Smith has notched two goals to go with his two assists. Even though it's a small sample size, the 22-year-old rookie has certainly made his name known to the fans in Nashville.
If he keeps up this kind of production, his name will start commanding national attention.
Smith has the potential to be the the complementary scoring threat the Predators have been looking for. After Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist, the offensive firepower throughout the rest of the roster is somewhat lacking.
There's a reason Smith is the Predators' top-rated prospect; watch for him to continue his contributions to the big club as long as his defensive play is solid.
Gabriel Landeskog [LW, Colorado Avalanche]
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Gabriel Landeskog is the prototypical NHL forward. He has the size and ability to win battles along the boards and crash the front of the net. He was named captain of the Kitchener Rangers during his second year in the Ontario Hockey League. He's also ranked as the top North American junior prospect in terms of his skating ability.
Did I mention that he's only 18 years old?
The second overall pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 2011 draft, Landeskog has an understanding of his role on the ice that would make him an excellent complement to teammate Matt Duchene on the first line.
Avalanche management needs to decide if they want to keep Landeskog at the NHL level, or if they want to send him down to save a year on his contract.
Landeskog has lobbied for a season-long stint in the NHL with the quality of his play in juniors last year: 66 points in 53 regular season games and 10 points in seven additional postseason games.
If Landeskog exhibits any sort of production in his first nine NHL games this season, expect him to be around for a long time.
Alexander Burmistrov [C, Winnipeg Jets]
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The return of the NHL to the city of Winnipeg has the hockey world buzzing. And at 19 years old and entering his second season in the league, Alexander Burmistrov will only heighten the excitement surrounding the Winnipeg Jets.
Expectations for the Jets might not be high in terms of their projected finish, but Burmistrov has the skills around which the team can build for the future.
His smooth skating was one of the skills that made him the franchise's first selection in the 2010 draft. And now with a year of NHL experience under his belt, the coaching staff believes that he's poised to break out in 2011-2012.
This season, Burmistrov will be looking to back up the hype surrounding his selection as the eighth overall player taken in his draft class. As an NHL sophomore, he's better suited to handle the pressure that might come with the scrutiny of the media in hockey-crazed Winnipeg.
Jonathan Huberdeau [C, Florida Panthers]
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Jonathan Huberdeau has everything the Florida Panthers' front office could want in a potential franchise center, except for his size. The Panthers are hoping that will come with time.
At 6-foot-1 and 168 pounds, Huberdeau is a little undersized when it comes to his weight. However, his hockey sense, creativity with the puck and competitive instincts have outweighed the organization's fears about his slight frame for the time being.
Huberdeau's numbers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season were phenomenal: 43 goals and 62 assists in 67 total games. The Panthers will look to stash him in juniors again, hoping that he'll be able to add some muscle in order to better complement his game.
Once Huberdeau gains the requisite weight to allow him to take the punishment of an 82-game NHL season, look for the Panthers to call him up. And once he's part of the big club, opposing defensemen will be wondering why his weight was ever enough reason to keep him out of the NHL in the first place.
Tyler Seguin [C, Boston Bruins]
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A Boston Bruins fan favorite at only 19 years old, Tyler Seguin showed last season that he's every bit the electric force that the scouts had been touting. This year, he'll look to improve upon a solid rookie showing in which he recorded 22 points in 74 games.
The numbers from last season aren't the truest of indicators of Seguin's offensive potential, however. He spent the majority of his ice time on the third and fourth lines in Boston, which didn't allow him to utilize his full skill set as an offensive player.
Seguin was drafted second overall in 2010 behind the Oilers' young star Taylor Hall, and was nearly taken ahead of Hall because of his skating and stickhandling abilities.
This season, Seguin will have a clearly defined role with the Bruins; this should remove some of the uncertainty he had last season, when he'd often be a healthy scratch. The energy he'll bring to the third line on a regular basis this year will serve him well in his sophomore season.
Sven Baertschi [LW, Calgary Flames]
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As the NHL turns more and more toward a European style of play (e.g. rule changes to eliminate holding, tougher penalties for blindside hits, etc), a smaller, faster type of player is no longer a liability on draft day.
Enter the Calgary Flames' 5-foot-10, 180-pound Sven Baertschi. Like Islanders winger Nino Niederreiter, the Swiss national has made a successful transition to the North American style of hockey played in the Western Hockey League. And, as with Niederreiter, Baertschi is looking to bring his potential top-line talent to the NHL.
The Flames like his defensive awareness and movement without the puck; these abilities will allow him to enter the NHL as part of a third or fourth line while he adjusts to the speed of the league. His progression up the depth chart should be swift in Calgary.
With a year or two of junior play under his belt, Baertschi will certainly make his presence felt in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Jeff Skinner [C, Carolina Hurricanes]
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I realize that it's not much of a reach, but I'm pretty sure that the league's reigning Calder Trophy winner deserves a place on this list. Besides, I still have a soft spot for the Franchise Formerly Known As The Hartford Whalers.
Jeff Skinner is only 19 years old and has already added his name to the NHL record books. He's entering his second NHL season intent on building off of his early career success, and the hype he's receiving is well-deserved.
In the 2010-2011 season Skinner recorded 31 goals and 32 assists as a rookie for the Carolina Hurricanes, finishing second in both goals and total points for the team.
Although the organization's expectations are high for Skinner, look for him to continue filling up the stat sheet and develop into a young leader this season.