Every NHL Team's Most Promising Prospect
The NHL playoffs are in full swing, but behind the scenes, all 30 clubs are projecting the future and making decisions based on their NHL-ready youth. We are seeing some cracks among the NHL's elite this spring, and those teams will be looking for their prospects to replace faltering veterans.
Teams on the fringe of the playoffs or outside the postseason rely even more heavily on their youth in order to improve. These teams are given the highest draft picks, and therefore most often boast the best young prospects heading into the NHL for each season.
Here are the top prospects, by team, as NHL management prepares for the business of projecting their 2016-17 rosters.
Note: Prospects are defined as players with 30 or fewer NHL games for the purposes of this list. The teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Anaheim Ducks: Shea Theodore
What he's done: After being drafted in 2013 by the Anaheim Ducks , Shea Theodore posted two dominant seasons for the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds. He turned pro in the fall of 2015 and delivered an outstanding AHL season—he also found his way to the NHL for 19 regular-season games. He played in a few playoff games this spring.
Where he's headed: Theodore should be an NHL regular in 2016-17, although the Ducks will probably be forced to move a defender to make room for him. His speed, skill and overall hockey acumen make him a can't-miss prospect. The Ducks slow-playing his rookie pro season also bodes well for his future, as there will be fewer questions about his ability to play in the NHL this fall.
Arizona Coyotes: Dylan Strome
What he's done: Dylan Strome was drafted No. 3 by the Arizona Coyotes in 2015 on the strength of a fabulous season in the OHL. He won the scoring championship—an impressive feat for a draft-eligible player. In 2015-16, he once again posted an outstanding offensive season, finishing No. 4 in league scoring.
Where he's headed: The Coyotes are in a period of transition. General manager Don Maloney is out, and there is increased power for head coach Dave Tippett—NHL.com correspondent Jerry Brown covered the story. There is a chance Arizona leaves Strome in junior for his final season, preferring instead to run a more veteran NHL squad. Based on his offensive ability, it will be difficult to keep him out of the NHL in the fall.
Boston Bruins: Zachary Senyshyn
What he's done: The Boston Bruins chose Zachary Senyshyn No. 15 overall in the 2015 NHL entry draft. Although he was a reach selection—Bob McKenzie of TSN ranked him No. 40 on his consensus list—Senyshyn had the kind of offensive potential teams value. This year Senyshyn spiked as a goal scorer—improving from 26 to 45 goals—and finished tied for the No. 5 position in OHL scoring.
Where he's headed: The Bruins missed the playoffs this season and may be tempted to put their young sniper in the NHL for 2016-17. He could get a long look in training camp, but the smart money has him returning to the OHL and giving opposition goalies fits with his scoring ability.
Buffalo Sabres: Hudson Fasching
What he's done: The Los Angeles Kings drafted Hudson Fasching in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. Less than a year later, the Kings dealt his rights to the Buffalo Sabres in a major package deal that included Brayden McNabb heading to California. On the ice, Fasching posted impressive seasons with the University of Minnesota, scoring 94 points in 115 games over three years.
Where he's headed: The Sabres immediately inserted Fasching into their lineup when he turned pro, and the young man posted a goal and two points in his first seven NHL games. He has a power-forward's skills and delivered terrific offense in college, and he adjusted rather quickly to NHL action. The Sabres have a good young player to add to their already fantastic cluster of talent.
Calgary Flames: Jon Gillies
What he's done: The Calgary Flames drafted goalie Jon Gillies in the third round of the 2012 entry draft. Since the moment he was drafted, Gillies has been stopping pucks at an outstanding rate. He has posted a .930 save percentage or better during his college career. His pro career was off to a similar impressive start, but he was felled by injury—the story was covered by Scott Cruickshank of the Calgary Herald—and missed the rest of the season.
Where he's headed: The Flames had a mess in net all year, and Gillies might have been in the NHL by January if he had been healthy. The injury to Gillies may delay the start of his NHL career, as the team will probably want to see him excel in the minors for an extended period while remaining healthy. After that, there should be an enormous opportunity for Gillies to grab an NHL job on a team badly looking for solutions at the position.
Carolina Hurricanes: Sebastian Aho
What he's done: The Carolina Hurricanes chose Sebastian Aho No. 35 overall in the 2015 entry draft. It was a reach pick in a deep draft, as Bob McKenzie of TSN had him listed as an honorable mention for his final list. That pick looks like an absolute steal one year later, as Aho emerged as an impact player in Finland's top pro league, the Sm-Liiga.
Where he's headed: Aho doesn't turn 20 until the summer of 2017, so chances are he plays another season for Karpat before coming to North America. For the Hurricanes, the risk appears to have been worthwhile and a redraft of the 2015 selection would probably see Aho go in the first round.
Chicago Blackhawks: Nick Schmaltz
What he's done: Nick Schmaltz was drafted in the first round in 2014 by the Chicago Blackhawks. At that time, he was a member of the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, but he graduated to NCAA hockey and North Dakota in 2014. This season, everything went right for Schmaltz and UND, as the team made it all the way to the Frozen Four. As Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reported, it was Schmaltz's goal with less than one minute remaining that won the championship.
Where he's headed: Schmaltz can choose to return to UND for another season—he was dominant and this was his sophomore year—or he could turn pro with Chicago and begin his pro career. The Blackhawks have a lot of talent up front but will be facing another cap crunch this summer, so the graduating college player may have a good chance to make the roster.
Colorado Avalanche: Mikko Rantanen
What he's done: Mikko Rantanen was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2015 entry draft. In his draft year, Rantanen had a strong year in the Sm-Liiga, and this season he was splendid in the AHL—even seeing nine NHL games.
Where he's headed: Young forwards usually have trouble with North American pro leagues, but Rantanen is a power forward with man strength who doesn't back down. There is a good chance that he makes the opening night lineup for Colorado this fall. He should be considered an early strong contender for the 2016-17 Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Zach Werenski
What he's done: Zach Werenski was selected No. 8 overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2015 draft. His resume for draft day was built around a strong offensive season for Michigan in his freshman year, and in 2015-16, he built on it and improved across the board. He is a top-flight prospect.
Where he's headed: Werenski signed with the Blue Jackets at the end of March—Emily Sadler of Sportsnet had the story—and he played in seven games for Columbus' AHL affiliate this spring. He should be in the NHL this fall and is the latest addition to an ever-improving defense for the Blue Jackets.
Dallas Stars: Esa Lindell
What he's done: Esa Lindell was drafted No. 74 overall by the Dallas Stars in the 2012 entry draft. A rangy defender—he is 6'3'', 210 pounds—Lindell took some time to corral all his skills, but he has emerged in the last two years as a complete prospect.
Where he's headed: Along with Julius Honka and already established John Klingberg, Lindell represents the future of the Stars' defense. His range of skills means he can be used in all areas of the game and could eventually become a top-pairing defender. His AHL audition this season—along with four NHL games—suggests he is NHL ready and could be a regular opening night 2016-17.
Detroit Red Wings: Anthony Mantha
What he's done: Anthony Mantha was selected in the first round of the 2013 entry draft by the Detroit Red Wings. He posted a 57-goal season in his final year of junior and then turned pro in 2014-15—where he proved he could post offense at the AHL level. He improved in year two in the minors, scoring 21 goals with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Where he's headed: The Detroit Red Wings slow-play their prospects like no other team in the NHL, so Mantha's estimated time of arrival is a more difficult target. He appears to be NHL-ready, but he has one more year of his entry-level deal, and Detroit does not have to worry waivers this fall in order to send him back to the AHL. He played 10 NHL games this year—scoring twice—and should seize a job in Detroit whenever the opportunity is given to him.
Edmonton Oilers: Ziyat Paigin
What he's done: The Edmonton Oilers chose Ziyat Paigin in the seventh round of the 2015 entry draft. The giant defenseman—he is listed at 6' 6'', 209 pounds—had a somewhat pedestrian draft year with 33 games and two points in the KHL: Russia's top league. He blossomed this year after being dealt to Sochi, and he finished with nine goals and 27 points in a breakout season.
Where he's headed: The KHL site quotes Paigin's contract as running out in April of 2017, meaning he is likely to play one more year. Sochi recently sent him to Kazan Ak-Bars in a cash deal, according to the team website (via The Hockey Writers' Alessandro Seren Rosso). Edmonton should be aggressive in their pursuit of Paigin when his contract expires next summer. Paigin appears to be a bona fide NHL prospect.
Florida Panthers: Lawson Crouse
What he's done: Lawson Crouse was chosen in the first round of the 2015 entry draft by the Florida Panthers. He earned the selection on the strength of a solid offensive season that—combined with his rugged style—made him difficult for opponents to control. He improved across the board this season and is a valuable young asset for the Florida Panthers.
Where he's headed: The Panthers have a fine group of young forwards already doing well in the NHL, so there should be no need to hurry Crouse this fall. He will turn 20 in the summer of 2017 and turn pro that fall—an NHL job should be waiting for him when he is ready. That could mean he wins a roster spot outright, but there may be some AHL time for the emerging power forward.
Los Angeles Kings: Adrian Kempe
What he's done: Adrian Kempe was chosen No. 29 overall in the 2014 entry draft by the Los Angeles Kings. In his first season after the draft, he played in the Swedish Elite League and performed well as a role player. In 2015-16, Kempe—at 19—played a regular shift in the AHL and posted 11 goals and 28 points. He has NHL size and a range of skills, making himself useful in all areas of the game.
Where he's headed: The Kings are a veteran team built to win the Stanley Cup every year, but they also hold many expensive contracts. Kempe has pro experience in Europe and now in North America, and his cap hit is less than $1 million. If he can continue to develop as a two-way forward, then Los Angeles may be able to use him before the end of the 2016-17 season.
Minnesota Wild: Mike Reilly
What he's done: Mike Reilly was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the fourth round of the 2011 entry draft. As this Emily Polglaze article from Minnesota Daily reports, Reilly informed the Blue Jackets he would pursue free-agent options. The Wild signed him a few weeks later.
Where he's headed: The Wild sent Reilly to the AHL where he performed well, and they eventually called him up to the NHL. With his offensive potential—over a point-per-game in his final college season—Minnesota scored a major victory in acquiring him via free agency. He may spend some more time in the AHL next season, but Reilly is a bona fide top prospect.
Montreal Canadiens: Michael McCarron
What he's done: Michael McCarron was chosen by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2013 entry draft. He jumped from the USHL to the OHL after the draft and had two productive junior seasons with the London Knights—scoring more than a point-per-game in his final year. At the AHL level in 2015-16, McCarron posted 38 points in 58 games, and he also received some NHL time with the Canadiens.
Where he's headed: McCarron is a big forward—6' 6'', 231 pounds—and Montreal is a mostly undersized group at the NHL level. His scoring in the AHL this year was solid but not spectacular, and the Canadiens may want to give him another season to have success at that level before taking on NHL competition for real.
Nashville Predators: Kevin Fiala
What he's done: Kevin Fiala was drafted in the first round by the Nashville Predators in 2014. He played in the Swedish Hockey League, AHL and NHL in the following season, and he has been a solid point producer in every league below the NHL. All of this before he turns 20—something he will do in July of this year.
Where he's headed: Fiala is a quality offensive prospect and his most recent time in the AHL suggests he is probably NHL ready. He led Nashville's AHL team in points this year and appears poised to get the call to the Predators for good. Fans should expect some growing pains defensively and a difference-maker on offense.
New Jersey Devils: Pavel Zacha
What he's done: Pavel Zacha was selected No. 6 overall in the 2015 entry draft. He was outstanding in 2015-16, scoring well in junior and setting the tone physically. He moved up to the AHL and scored a point-per-game in three games and then scored two points in his NHL debut.
Where he's headed: He is a big part of the future in New Jersey and is probably NHL-ready. One of the key building blocks for a successful organization is a quality two-way forward, and Zacha has all the tools to fulfill that role. Since draft day in 2015, his offensive spike has been especially rewarding for the Devils, and Zacha has a good chance of being in the opening-night lineup in 2016-17.
New York Islanders: Michael Dal Colle
What he's done: Michael Dal Colle was chosen No. 5 overall by the New York Islanders in the 2015 entry draft. He has been a scoring machine in junior hockey since that day, scoring 204 points in his last 137 games—including playoffs.
Where he's headed: The Islanders are an unusual organization, players often get fast tracked and then stall as pro players. Ryan Strome is a recent example; he scored 50 points in the NHL two years ago but spent time in the AHL this year. New York badly needs effective offensive forwards—Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen are both free agents this summer—but it might be best for Dal Colle to spend at least some of his first pro season in the AHL.
New York Rangers: Pavel Buchnevich
What he's done: Pavel Buchnevich was selected No. 75 overall in the 2013 entry draft by the New York Rangers. He is a fast player and has offensive ability, and his production increased each season after he was drafted. The KHL is a man's league and often, teenagers don't play much, but Buchnevich has been a productive player since his draft day.
Where he's headed: The future should be now for Buchnevich; he is a mature prospect and probably NHL-ready. As Larry Brooks reports in the New York Post, there may be some convincing to do for this player, who was concerned about being sent to the AHL had he signed last summer. The Rangers need new talent and Buchnevich appears ready. Getting him signed for next year is a natural progression for the organization.
Ottawa Senators: Colin White
What he's done: Colin White was chosen No. 21 overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 2015 entry draft. The pick used on White was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in the Robin Lehner trade. In the season since his draft, White blossomed with Boston College, emerging as a complete center with substantial offensive ability.
Where he's headed: Ottawa is very successful at drafting and development, and one of their calling cards is patience. White is probably ready to turn pro and have some impact, but at 19—he will turn 20 in January—there is no hurry. Another NCAA season is probably the wise route to take, especially with White tracking as a potential draft steal if he continues on this course.
Philadelphia Flyers: Ivan Provorov
What he's done: Ivan Provorov was selected No. 7 overall in the 2015 entry draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. His potent offense from the blue line meant he received some pre-season consideration last fall, but he was sent back to junior. With the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, he laid waste to opposition and led league defensemen in points. Brandon is now in the WHL final.
Where he's headed: Philadelphia recovered a lot in terms of fixing their defense during the 2015-16 season, but Provorov may be a special player. It is a good bet he will make the roster and get an opportunity to find his way in the NHL in the fall at age 19. That is rare for a defenseman, but he is an outstanding prospect.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Murray
What he's done: Matt Murray was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round of the 2012 entry draft. He took a big step forward in his final season of junior and was terrific in the AHL. Murray is playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL playoffs this spring due to injuries, and he is playing very well.
Where he's headed: Pittsburgh has Marc-Andre Fleury under contract through the summer of 2019, so Murray projects as an overqualified backup if he continues to play at this level. NHL teams often trade off prospects in a case like this, but Murray's first two pro seasons suggest he could be a top flight No. 1 goalie. They may keep him and eventually trade the veteran, but we are not close to that day, and Murray will likely continue his development in a backup role next year.
San Jose Sharks: Nikolay Goldobin
What he's done: Nikolay Goldobin was drafted in the first round in 2014 by the San Jose Sharks. He spent a productive season in the Sm-Liiga—Finland's pro league—before coming to North America last fall. This year, he posted over 20 goals and 40 points in the AHL and spent a little time in the NHL, scoring his first big league goal.
Where he's headed: Goldobin has proved to be a quality scorer at every level and projects as a successful NHL player. The Sharks may want to ease him into the lineup—perhaps another 40 AHL games to dominate at that level—but he looks close to NHL-ready and could make the big club this fall.
St. Louis Blues: Jordan Schmaltz
What he's done: Jordan Schmaltz was selected in the first round of the 2012 entry draft by the St. Louis Blues. After his draft, Schmaltz delivered three quality seasons for the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the NCAA and then turned pro in the fall of 2015.
Where he's headed: Schmaltz has the complete range of skills, so he can be projected into the NHL in multiple roles. He led his AHL team in points by a defenseman this past season, so he may be able to help offensively, and his speed and intelligence will help him at the other end of the ice. He is likely NHL-ready, but St. Louis has enough quality and depth to keep him down on the farm for the entire 2016-17 season, which could happen.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Anthony DeAngelo
What he's done: Anthony DeAngelo was drafted in the first round of the 2014 entry draft. The Tampa Bay Lightning selected the puck-moving defender for his offense, and he delivered an incredible 89-point season in his final junior year. DeAngelo turned pro in 2015-16, posting impressive scoring totals in the AHL. He was No. 7 in rookie scoring and No. 2 among rookie defenders in offense this season.
Where he's headed: DeAngelo spent the entire year in the minors and appears to be NHL-ready. The Lightning are a veteran group on defense and have most of their players under contract for 2016-17. We could see a trade to make room for DeAngelo over this summer, or he could be back in the AHL this fall for more seasoning.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner
What he's done: Mitch Marner was drafted No. 4 overall in the rich 2015 entry draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was a dominant offensive player in junior in his draft year and built on it in 2015-16. He is part of the most dominant line in junior hockey this year, along with Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk.
Where he's headed: He is eligible for one more junior season, but he might force his way onto the Maple Leafs roster. His scoring rates suggest he could be a successful offensive winger as early as this fall. Toronto has a substantial prospect in Marner.
Vancouver Canucks: Thatcher Demko
What he's done: Thatcher Demko was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2014 entry draft. He was the No. 36 choice in the draft—the second goalie taken that year. Since draft day, Demko has delivered outstanding goaltending for the Boston College Eagles, and he recently signed a pro deal with the team.
Where he's headed: The Canucks have Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom under contract for next season, allowing Demko to ease his way into pro hockey. His college numbers suggest he may not need a lot of audition time in the AHL, and Vancouver may have the luxury of shopping Miller at the trade deadline if Demko adjusts quickly to the pro game.
Washington Capitals: Jakub Vrana
What he's done: Jakub Vrana was drafted in the first round of the 2014 draft. He was effective in Sweden's top league in year one after the draft, and he scored almost a point-per-game in the AHL this year. He just turned 20, and so far, he has flourished in every league made available to him.
Where he's headed: Vrana may see the AHL again this coming season—the Capitals are very deep at forward—but his 34 points in 36 AHL games shows he has the skill to play at the highest levels. Washington fans will love his range of skills—he is more of a shooter than playmaker but is an expert passer—and he could surprise offensively if he receives time with gifted linemates. He looks like an NHL player based on his resume.
Winnipeg Jets: Kyle Connor
What he's done: Kyle Connor was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the 2015 entry draft. In the season since, he exploded offensively for the Michigan Wolverines of the NCAA, scoring 71 points in 38 games.
Where he's headed: Ideally, Connor stays in college for one more season. He won't turn 20 until December of this year, and the Jets are about to get a massive prospect at the 2016 draft after being one of the lottery winners—they draft second overall at the draft this summer. Connor appears to have a tremendous future, but his pro career is best put off for one more season so that he can step into the lineup and transition smoothly.