Ranking the Top 50 NHL Prospects

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistJuly 17, 2016

Ranking the Top 50 NHL Prospects

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    With the 2016 NHL Draft and the busiest part of free agency now in the rearview mirror, this is a good time to take a moment and look at some of the best young players in the game of hockey. To do that, we’ve compiled a list of the top 50 prospects, including both recent draftees and players taken in previous years.

    We have opted to use the NHL’s Calder Trophy eligibility rules as our guide for determining who is and is not a prospect. For those who haven’t memorized the fine print of the league rulebook, that means a player must meet the following criteria to be considered:

    • he must be born after September 15, 1990
    • he must not have played 25 or more games in any single NHL season
    • he must not have played six or more games in any two NHL seasons

    We have strived to take a balanced approach in these rankings, one that takes into account NHL readiness and each player’s ability to contribute in multiple roles. However, we do place high value on elite ability, meaning that a boom-or-bust player with the potential to be a difference-maker will generally be ranked ahead of a safer player with a lesser ceiling.

    Read on to see where your team’s top prospects rank.  

    Statistics courtesy of Elite Prospects

Prospects 50-46

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    50. Anthony Mantha, RW, Detroit Red Wings. Mantha’s offensive game hasn’t come along as quickly as hoped, and he’s had some trouble with injury along the way. However, the 6’5” power winger is a virtual lock to play in the NHL and projects as a middle-six forward with the size every team loves.

    49. Thatcher Demko, G, Vancouver Canucks. Demko has done nothing but progress since being selected early in the second round of the 2014 draft. The 6’4” ‘stopper has posted gaudy numbers in college, so the only real question at this point is how well he’ll adjust to the professional game.

    48. Vladislav Kamenev, C, Nashville Predators. Kamenev had a decent rookie campaign in the AHL last year. He’s a reasonably safe player because he’s big and contributes on both sides of the puck, but the question is how high his ceiling is offensively. We’ll have a much better idea of where he projects by the end of next season.

    47. Julien Gauthier, RW, Carolina Hurricanes. Gauthier is a 6’4”, 225-pound winger with a knack for scoring goals. His assist totals fell off in the QMJHL last season, but as long as he keeps putting the puck in the net NHL teams will have time for him.

    46. Michael Dal Colle, LW, New York Islanders. Dal Colle had an awful start to the year. Prior to a midseason trade, he had just 25 points in 30 games; he would go on to score 27 goals alone in his next 30. The fifth-overall pick in the 2014 draft has obvious talent, but his stock definitely fell this past season.

Prospects 45-41

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    45. Kieffer Bellows, LW, New York Islanders. Brian Bellows’ son has top-flight offensive potential, good size (6'0", 197 pounds) and plays a power game. A late 1998 birthday, he’s likely still several years away from competing for an NHL job.

    44. Brock Boeser, RW, Vancouver Canucks. Boeser jumped from the USHL to the tougher college game and showed no signs whatsoever of slowing down. He led the University of North Dakota with 60 points in his debut with the team. He projects as a scoring line winger at the NHL level.

    43. Thomas Chabot, LD, Ottawa Senators. Chabot played 19 fewer games in the QMJHL last season than he did in his draft year, and yet recorded an additional four points. That put the puck-moving defenceman in the point-per-game range, a total which he then exceeded over a long postseason run.

    42. Kevin Fiala, LW, Nashville Predators. Fiala continues to develop at the AHL level. In his second season in the minors, the 2014 No. 11 pick led Milwaukee in scoring, posting 50 points in 66 games for one of the best clubs in that league.

    41. Pavel Buchnevich, LW, New York Rangers. Buchnevich has proven that he’s a force to be reckoned with offensively. He’s been a top scorer in the KHL for two seasons now and should be ready to make the jump to a middle-six role, and perhaps even a top-six role immediately.

Prospects 40-36

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    40. Travis Konecny, RW, Philadelphia Flyers. Philadelphia doesn’t only have defence prospects. In 2015, they took Konecny in the back half of the first round, and the industrious winger justified that selection this year with a breakout performance. He scored 23 times in 31 games after being traded to the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. 

    39. Dante Fabbro, RD, Nashville Predators. Fabbro is a right-shot defender with high-end offensive ability and the smarts to play in a shutdown role. Nashville has a long history of getting the most out of these kinds of players.

    38. Colin White, C, Ottawa Senators. When the Senators drafted White, it was due in large part because he was a 200-foot player. Combine that skill on the defensive side of the puck with a breakthrough offensive performance in his first year at Boston College (43 points in 37 games), and the future looks bright for the pivot.

    37. Nick Schmaltz, C, Chicago Blackhawks. Like White, the best thing about Schmaltz is that he isn’t a one-way talent. He has scoring skill, of course, but in addition he also makes sure to take care of business in the defensive zone. He just completed his second season at the University of North Dakota and should challenge for an NHL job quickly once he turns pro. 

    36. Sebastian Aho, LW, Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina took a flyer on the undersized Aho early in the second round of the 2015 draft, and at this point it looks like a brilliant selection. Aho exploded this year, leading his Finnish senior team in goals and points and finishing in the top-10 in scoring league-wide. 

Prospects 35-31

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    35. Jakob Chychrun, LD, Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes had to be pinching themselves when Chycrun fell to the middle of the 2016 draft. The well-rounded rearguard has been regarded as one of the top defencemen in his age group for years now and was pegged by many outlets as a top-10 talent.

    34. Luke Kunin, C, Minnesota Wild. Kunin was picked just one spot ahead of Chychrun this past summer, and like the defenceman has the ability to help his team in multiple ways. He’s a little lacking size but plays an energetic game and scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in college last season.

    33. Christian Dvorak, C, Arizona Coyotes. Dvorak’s scoring totals are ridiculous. He put up 52 goals and 121 points in 59 OHL games this year, playing with Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk on the ridiculously talented London Knights. He’ll turn pro next season and should compete for a job with the Coyotes immediately.

    32. Jimmy Vesey, LW, Buffalo Sabres. A late-blooming scorer who blew the doors off at the college level the last two seasons, Vesey could potentially become an unrestricted free agent this August. His overall ceiling likely isn’t as high as some of the players on this list, but he’s believed to be NHL-ready right now.

    31. Charles McAvoy, RD, Boston Bruins. The Bruins’ scouts didn’t have to drive for hours down lonely highway to get a look at McAvoy, who was a standout performer for Boston University last year. He plays a confident, high-risk game with the puck but has the skill to do it, and has decent size and toughness besides.

Prospects 30-26

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    30. Timo Meier, LW, San Jose Sharks. Meier is a big winger with the scoring ability to be a power forward at the NHL level. He improved year-over-year in the QMJHL, albeit not by a massive amount, and should at least challenge for an NHL job out of training camp.

    29. Lawson Crouse, LW, Florida Panthers. Crouse is best-known as a big, strong winger who plays a responsible defensive game, but he can score a bit, too. He added 11 points over what he’d managed in his draft year while playing seven fewer OHL games, and then followed that up with seven goals in nine playoff contests. He’s physically mature enough to play in the NHL right now.

    28. Jake Bean, LD, Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina has a lot of young defencemen on the roster and in the system already, but when Bean was available with this summer’s 13th overall pick they took him anyway. A fast, smart, puck-moving rearguard, Bean scored 24 goals in the WHL last season and came in just shy of the point-per-game mark.

    27. Michael McLeod, C, New Jersey Devils. McLeod’s scoring numbers weren’t great in his draft year. He finished just north of the point-per-game mark, which is respectable but normally doesn’t guarantee a spot in the first half of the first-round. However, he’s highly projectable, combining a 6’2” frame with excellent feet and the disposition to play a power game.

    26. Julius Honka, RD, Dallas Stars. An undersized, combative Finn, Honka has two years of AHL experience under his belt despite only turning 20 last season. The defenceman put up 44 points in 73 games last year and has serious offensive potential from the blue line.

25. Ilya Samsonov, G, Washington Capitals

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    Drafted: No. 22 overall in 2015

    When the Capitals drafted Samsonov, they were getting a goaltender who already had some impressive achievements under his belt. He’s been named the best goaltender at the World U-18 tournament and had a fine run in Russia’s MHL and as a result he was an uncontroversial selection.

    He’s built up his resume since. He helped Metallurg Magnitogorsk win the Gagarin Cup in the KHL, posting a very strong 0.925 save percentage over 19 regular season games. He was also part of Russia’s silver medal win at the World Juniors this past season, posting a 0.956 save percentage over two starts.

    NHL ETA: Samsonov will play in the KHL next year, and Washington has absolutely no incentive to rush him to the NHL. It will be at least one year and possibly longer before he’s playing major league games.

24. Jakub Vrana, LW, Washington Capitals

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    Drafted: No. 13 overall in 2014

    Vrana was selected by the Capitals after a season in which he had excelled internationally and at the junior level in Sweden, but had struggled to score in limited minutes in his country’s top league. In 2014-15, he took a big step forward with 12 goals in 44 games in the SHL. He improved on those numbers in his first season in North America, scoring at just under a point-per-game pace in the AHL in 2015-16.

    He’s an exceptional skater with a wicked shot, though he’s somewhat undersized at just 5’11” and 185 pounds.

    NHL ETA: Vrana played less than 40 games last year, and Washington has the luxury of starting him in the AHL again. Nevertheless, he should be pushing for regular NHL employment at some point next season. 

23. Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders

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    Drafted: No. 16 overall in 2015

    Barzal, an exceptional playmaking centre, has progressed as a scorer in each and every WHL season that he has played. Given the differing number of games he’s played each year, it’s perhaps easiest to express the situation in terms of points per game:

    • 16-year-old season: 59 games, 54 points (0.92 points per game)
    • 17-year-old season: 44 games, 57 points (1.30 points per game)
    • 18-year-old season: 58 games, 88 points (1.52 points per game)

    It’s a truism that prospects don’t develop in straight lines, but so far Barzal has been the exception to the rule, moving along an unvaryingly upward trajectory.

    NHL ETA: New York’s decision on Barzal this season will be interesting to watch, and will be influenced both by his play and by the fact that the team has a number of good offensive prospects in the system. Given that Barzal’s undersized (6’, 180 pounds), patience may be warranted.

22. Travis Sanheim, LD, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Drafted: No. 17 overall in 2014

    Sanheim was a tough player to peg back in 2014. He had size, he had skating ability and he’d improved markedly as the year went on, but the offensive numbers weren’t there and unlike a lot of his peers he didn’t have years of hype behind him. In its 2014 Draft Guide, Red Line Report projected him as a second-pair defenceman, but made a point of noting he had “home run upside.”

    It’s still a little early to say that Sanheim is a home run, but he’s trending in that direction. He scored 68 points in just 52 WHL games last year and also impressed in a brief AHL cameo. When that kind of offence comes in a 6’4”, 200-pound package and is coupled with defensive awareness, it gets pretty hard to find flaws in a player. 

    NHL ETA: Sanheim, like virtually every other young defenceman before him, would undoubtedly benefit from some time in the minors before being thrown into the NHL fire. Likely he won’t get more than a cameo prior to 2017-18.

21. Shea Theodore, LD, Anaheim Ducks

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    Drafted: No. 26 overall in 2013

    The Ducks have mostly tried to take their time with Theodore. He got two full seasons in junior after being drafted, and was assigned to the AHL for much of last year. He was so good, though, that the club couldn’t help itself from giving him a 19-game regular season cameo and then playing him in an additional half-dozen playoff games.

    Although mostly known as an offensive producer, Theodore has a 6’2” frame and plays a smart defensive game. At this point, the only question is whether Anaheim will have room for him on the roster.

    NHL ETA: He’s ready now.

20. Logan Brown, C, Ottawa Senators

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    Drafted: No. 11 overall in 2016

    There isn’t a single team in the league that wouldn’t be interested in a 6’6”, 222-pound centre who can legitimately rack up points. Good centres are rare and good centres that are also big are rarer still. Brown has the potential to be such a player.

    Brown was one of only two forwards on his OHL team to hit the 60 point mark (21 goals, 74 points in 59 games) and with 50-odd assists he’s an undeniably gifted playmaker. He also impressed in international play, putting up 12 points in seven games for Team USA at the World U-18 championship.

    NHL ETA: He’s big enough to make a person wonder, but it’s unlikely that Brown gets a serious look in training camp prior to 2017.

19. Tyson Jost, C, Colorado Avalanche

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    Drafted: No. 10 overall in 2016

    One of the questions about Jost this past season was the difficulty of the competition he faced. Yes. he scored 42 goals in 48 games, but he also played in the BCHL, which is a step down from the leagues that most NHL prospects play in.

    It’s likely his performance at the World U-18 tournament eased those concerns. He led the tourney in points and was named the best forward at the event, proving that he was capable of going head-to-head with his peers. He projects as a high-end offensive centre at the major-league level.

    NHL ETA: Jost is bound for the University of North Dakota next year, and while he may not stay there for a full four seasons it’s likely to be at least a couple of years before he enters the professional ranks.

18. Pavel Zacha, LW, New Jersey Devils

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    Drafted: No. 6 overall in 2015

    Zacha’s scoring numbers in junior aren’t bad, but they don’t scream “elite talent” either. The good news on that front is that he was exceptional in the OHL postseason this past year, and stood out in a positive way during brief AHL and NHL cameos.

    The tools are certainly there. He’s 6’3” and 210 pounds at the age of 19, he skates extremely well and he has a quality shot. He’s projected to be a scoring line forward in the majors, and while often listed as a centre is more likely to end up on the wing at hockey’s highest level.

    NHL ETA: Zacha should be in the mix for a job out of training camp in New Jersey.

17. Mikhail Sergachev, LD, Montreal Canadiens

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    Drafted: No. 9 overall, 2016

    A skilled offensive defenceman, Sergachev combines an NHL-calibre frame (6’2”, 205 pounds) with a big brain and good speed. He had 57 points in 67 games as a 17-year-old last season and should ultimately be able to help the Habs at both ends of the rink.

    “He’s been great,” one scout told The Hockey News. “The minutes he plays? People notice. Very good skater, great offensive instincts.

    Montreal has had a controversial summer so far, but the team’s use of its first-round pick looks solid.

    NHL ETA: Sergachev is likely bound for Windsor this coming season. Most defencemen need two years of junior and time in the AHL after being drafted, but it’s reasonable to expect Sergachev to compete for a roster spot before then.

16. Alexander Nylander, RW, Buffalo Sabres

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    Drafted: No. 8 overall in 2016.

    It’s often dangerous to compare a young player to his distinguished family members, but in Nylander’s case it’s a useful exercise. Father Michael was an undersized offensive forward who lasted nearly 1,000 games in the majors and put up just under 700 points. Brother William is cut from the same cloth and lit up the AHL last season at the age of 19. Two less famous uncles also had careers in Sweden.

    Alexander’s game has much in common with those of his father and brother. He’s undersized, extremely good on his feet and with the puck, and is likely to score a bunch of points in the NHL.

    NHL ETA: Nylander was loaned to the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads last season, meaning that rather than returning to junior he could play in the AHL next year. It would be a shock if he made the Sabres out of training camp, but making the jump to the NHL at midseason would not be.

15. Mikko Rantanen, LW, Colorado Avalanche

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    Drafted: No. 10 overall in 2015.

    It’s hard not to like what the Avalanche did with Rantanen last year. Outside of a brief nine-game NHL cameo, he spent most of the year in the AHL, where he was a dominant offensive player, posting 60 points in 52 games. He won the AHL’s rookie of the year award and was named to that league’s second All-Star team. He also got to take part in the World Juniors and World Championships for Finland, winning gold and silver respectively.

    At 6’4” and 210 pounds he has NHL size and he projects as a top-six winger at that level.

    NHL ETA: 2016-17.

14. Clayton Keller, C, Arizona Coyotes

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    Drafted: No. 7 overall in 2016.

    Keller’s scoring numbers last season were ridiculous. He scored two points per game at the U-18s for Team USA, being named MVP of the tournament. He also put up more than 100 points in 60-odd games with the U.S. national development program.

    He’s undersized, but he’s smart, creative and has been extremely successful against the best players in his peer group. He should certainly be a top-six forward at the NHL level.

    NHL ETA: Keller is bound for Boston University next season and won’t figure into the Coyotes’ NHL roster plans for several seasons to come.

13. Zach Werenski, LD, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Drafted: No. 8 overall in 2015

    Werenski is a complete defencemen. At 6’2” and 209 pounds, he has NHL size. After a point-per-game performance at the University of Michigan, there’s little doubt that he has the offensive instincts to play the game. He’s also a fast, intelligent, two-way rearguard who should help the Blue Jackets in multiple ways.

    He should be well-prepared for the major-league spotlight, too. He was named the best defenceman at the World Juniors this past year, and after his college season ended he scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in the playoffs as the Jackets’ farm team won an AHL championship.

    NHL ETA: 2016-17.

12. Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Drafted: No. 83 overall in 2012

    Yes, it’s a little odd that Murray is on this list. No matter how one sets up the criteria, it seems that either a legitimate prospect gets cut or a bona fide NHL’er finds his way on to the list. Murray has played only 13 regular season games in the majors, and despite appearing in 21 playoff contests and, uh, winning the Stanley Cup he’s still eligible to win the rookie of the year award next season.

    Murray doesn’t need a lot of introduction here. He’s an unflappable 6’4” goaltender who has two seasons of elite play in the AHL under his belt and a Cup ring as an NHL starter. He should be a No. 1 goaltender for a long time to come.

    NHL ETA: Yesterday.

11. William Nylander, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Drafted: No. 8 overall in 2014

    Nylander has passed every test that he’s faced on his way to the NHL so far.

    He turned himself into a dominant, point-per-game player in Sweden’s top league. Then he came over to the AHL, producing right away in the back half of 2014-15 and then topping himself with 45 points in just 38 games in 2015-16. He got an NHL cameo in Toronto, and put up 13 points in 22 games.

    After a while, it becomes rather difficult to argue against that kind of skill and drive. Nylander has always been projected as a scoring line forward in the majors, and he’s done a nice job of putting the work in to attain that objective.

    NHL ETA: 2016-17.

10. Matthew Tkachuk, LW, Calgary Flames

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    Drafted: No. 6 overall in 2016.

    There are two possible areas of concern with regard to Tkachuk. The first is his skating, which garners mixed reviews. The second is that he played on a dominant London Knights team, something which may have inflated his scoring totals.

    Those items get mentioned up front because in virtually every other respect Tkachuk looks like a special player. He plays a power game, somewhat like his father Keith, and can both score and setup goals. He’s an intelligent and well-trained two-way player. He projects as the kind of scoring forward who can win physical battles, provide a defensive presence, and still contribute offensively.

    NHL ETA: 2017-18.

9. Olli Juolevi, LD, Vancouver Canucks

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    Drafted: No. 5 in 2016.

    Scandinavian defencemen have a reputation for playing polished, efficient games and Juolevi would not seem to be an exception to the rule. He has a 6’3” frame but only weighs 180 pounds, so naturally an overtly physical approach isn’t a natural fit, but rather he plays a smart positional game. Poise with the puck is another strength

    Juolevi is one of several members of last year’s stacked London Knights team to find his way into the upper echelons of this list, and naturally he also played for Finland’s World Junior team, so he’s done a lot of winning this past season.

    NHL ETA: 2017-18.

8. Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Edmonton Oilers

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    Drafted: No. 4 overall in 2016.

    Edmonton lacked top scoring prospects, lacked size up front and lacked right shots throughout the lineup, so Puljujarvi falling to fourth overall was a nice fit for team need.

    Puljujarvi is big (6’3”, 200 pounds), plays a responsible two-way game and has the potential to be a top-six forward in the major leagues. He spent last year in Finland’s top league, playing against men, and acquitted himself well. The only caution here is that his 28 points in 50 games point to a player who may need some time to develop offensively.

    NHL ETA: Puljujarvi’s scoring numbers suggest that he should at least start next season at the AHL level. He should be in the majors by the start of 2017-18, if not earlier, though.

7. Ivan Provorov, LD, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Drafted: No. 7 overall in 2015.

    Billed in his draft year as a complete player capable of logging heavy minutes, Provorov has done nothing to discourage that belief. Although his primary strengths may be defensive, he increased his offensive output last year, scoring 73 points in 62 games for Brandon and also posting more than a point-per-game for Russia at the World Juniors.

    He was named the WHL’s top defenceman, the CHL’s top defenceman and also led the Wheat Kings to the WHL title. Internationally, he was recognized as one of the top three players on Russia’s silver medal-winning squad.

    NHL ETA: It’s going to be very difficult for the Flyers to keep him out of the league next year.  

6. Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Drafted: No. 3 in 2016.

    There was some surprise when the Blue Jackets went against the consensus with their third overall selection this summer. Winger Jesse Puljujarvi was the expected pick, but instead Columbus opted for another highly-touted prospect in Dubois.

    Dubois is a 6'3", 200-pound centre who plays a power game and who topped the 40-goal mark in the QMJHL last season. He plays a chippy style of hockey that should fit in well with coach John Tortorella's system.

    NHL ETA: There's a chance that he's ready immediately, but the prudent course of action would likely see Dubois returned to junior for one more season.

5. Mitch Marner, RW, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Drafted: No. 4 overall in 2015.

    The only knock on Marner of any real substance has been size, but it’s impossible to argue against what he’s done in major junior. Last season he was the OHL’s most outstanding player, the OHL playoff MVP, the CHL’s Player of the Year and the Memorial Cup MVP. There’s a phrase for that, and the phrase is “total domination.”

    Marner has few peers offensively and projects as a dynamic offensive generator at the NHL level.

    NHL ETA: Patience seems to be a watchword in Toronto right now, and not without good reason, but can the Leafs really return the young forward to junior for another year after the season he just had?

4. Kyle Connor, LW, Winnipeg Jets

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    Drafted: No. 17 overall in 2015.

    It’s hard to do justice to the year that Connor just had. Winnipeg obviously knew that he was a quality player when it made him a first-round selection, and he did put up big point totals in the USHL, but those accomplishments fall well short of what he did at the University of Michigan in 2015-16.

    Connor scored 35 goals and 71 points in just 38 games while playing almost exclusively against older, more mature skaters. His team won its conference and he was named both the player of the year and the rookie of the year in Big 10 hockey. He was also a Hobey Baker finalist as the outstanding player in the U.S. college ranks.

    NHL ETA: 2016-17.

3. Dylan Strome, C, Arizona Coyotes

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    Drafted: No. 3 overall in 2015

    A 6’3” centre coming off back-to-back 100-plus point seasons in junior, Strome is generally acknowledged to be one of, if not the, top prospect in hockey. Internationals Scouting Services described his puck skills as “elite” in his draft year and compared him stylistically to Anze Kopitar, describing him as an intelligent and well-rounded player.

    Strome was part of Canada’s disappointing entry at this past season’s World Juniors, but he scored four goals in five games and was named a top-three player on the team, so it’s hard to fault his performance.

    NHL ETA: Former Coyotes general manager Don Maloney told The Hockey News in the spring that Strome needed a good off-season and to add some strength, but that if he did those things he’d likely play in 2016-17.

2. Patrik Laine, RW, Winnipeg Jets

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    Drafted: No. 2 overall in 2016.

    Prospect profiles often necessarily get boiled down to just the key elements, and in Laine’s case those elements are easy to understand. The first is that he’s a 6’4”, 209-pound power winger who hits to hurt. The second is that he has the potential to be one of the best goal scorers in the entire NHL. It’s an easy combination to get excited about.

    Along with Kyle Connor, Laine gives the Jets two of the five best prospects in hockey.

    NHL ETA: 2016-17.

1. Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Drafted: No. 1 overall in 2016.

    It shouldn’t be at all surprising to see the only recent first-round pick still outside the NHL to be at the top of this list.

    Matthews has the potential to be Toronto’s franchise centre, and it’s difficult to find a flaw in his game. He’s already playing against men in Switzerland, and at 6’2” and 194 pounds he’s mature enough physically to play in the majors right away.

    He scored 24 goals in just 36 games in the Swiss-A league, so while he’s sometimes described as not being a flashy offensive player it’s already abundantly clear that he knows how to score. There’s al ot more to him than that, though, as onescout told The Hockey News for their 2016 draft edition.

    “I think he’s a Jonathan Toews-type player,” the scout said. “He’s the kind of guy you win with.”

    NHL ETA: 2016-17.