NHL Farm System Rankings: Which Team Has the Best Group of Prospects?

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2020

NHL Farm System Rankings: Which Team Has the Best Group of Prospects?

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Somewhere, even as you read this, an NHL general manager is fidgeting.

    Whether he's anxious about a mock draft board, sweating the progress of a would-be superstar or pondering swapping for an established player at the expense of his future, it's a challenging occupation.

    And unless you're sitting in Julien BriseBois' seat at Tampa Bay Lightning headquarters and planning out your day with the Stanley Cup, you're not where you want—or, depending on the owner, need—to be.

    As alluded to, a significant part of the job entails overseeing the farm system of an organization, which in this context is defined as the organizational talent playing with affiliated minor league teams or the young players who have been drafted but are still either in college or suiting up with a junior-level franchise.

    How well a general manager does in finding those players and how quickly he gets the elite ones to a point at which they are contributing in the NHL is a gigantic part of his job security.

    The B/R ice hockey team got together in the aftermath of the Lightning's championship to take a look at where all 31 teams stand in terms of their farm systems, just days before the 2020 NHL draft.

    We ranked them from bottom to top while considering the presence of elite individuals along with depth of talent and what those players can be expected to do at the top level when they arrive.

    Read through to see where your team ranks, and let us know with a comment or two where you agree or disagree with our suggestions.

Nos. 31-25: A Long Way to Go

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    Susan Walsh/Associated Press

    31. Pittsburgh Penguins

    Not having a first-round pick for four years doesn't do much for an organization's pipeline, so it's no surprise the Penguins are in a difficult place. That said, winger Samuel Poulin was picked 21st overall in 2019 and is a good all-around player with no glaring weaknesses. He's an individual gem but doesn't provide overall depth to a team that'll be needing it once the high-profile NHLers are gone.


    30. Washington Capitals

    When it comes to the future, it's the Connor McMichael era. He scored 47 goals and 102 points for the OHL's London Knights in 2019-20 and was on Washington's return-to-play roster but didn't appear in any games. He'll probably be wearing red, white and blue in 2021-22. Outside of him, goalie Ilya Samsonov was the blue-chipper in the wings, but he made a dent in the NHL in 2019-20 and isn't going anywhere. 


    29. Boston Bruins

    The Bruins, like the Capitals, recently saw their top farm talent—defenseman Charlie McAvoy—graduate to the NHL. He's followed by another potentially special talent on the blue line in Finnish export Urho Vaakanainen, who has a high hockey IQ and makes good decisions. Elsewhere, it's a pair of goalies on the rise: University of Maine standout Jeremy Swayman and Kyle Keyser, who spent his 2019-20 in the AHL and ECHL.


    28. Columbus Blue Jackets

    The Blue Jackets traded away a pair of their future pieces to the Ottawa Senators when they acquired Matt Duchene in Feb. 2019, and then they saw a handful of other rising players at the top of the pipeline make the transition to the parent club. But there are reinforcements on the way in forwards Liam Foudy and Kirill Marchenko, both of whom have top-six talent and blend skating with high-level skill sets.


    27. Calgary Flames

    The Flames would have been higher on the list were it not for the NHL arrivals of several long-term prospects, so they're in rebuilding mode when it comes to the pipeline. A pair of potential top-six forwards, Ilya Nikolayev and Jakob Pelletier, and a goaltender, Dustin Wolf, were plucked in the 2019 draft. A handful of others fill the depth chart up front too, which means defense is probably a 2020 priority.


    26. San Jose Sharks

    Where other teams are rich and getting richer at forward, the Sharks seem content to build from back to front. Goaltenders Josef Korenar and Zachary Emond are on their way to the NHL, with the former having played in the 2019 AHL All-Star Game and the latter posting save percentages of .932 and .908 in his past two seasons in the QMJHL. On the blue line, 2018 first-round pick Ryan Merkley is an offensive standout.


    25. St. Louis Blues

    Just a season removed from a Stanley Cup, it's probably OK with the Blues and their fans that there's some rebuilding to be done on this level. Several recent prospects, most notably goaltender Jordan Binnington, are wearing championship rings, which leaves 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich as the top jewel. He scored 40 points in 34 games as an NCAA junior and isn't far away.

Nos. 24-18: Climbing Toward the Middle

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    24. Nashville Predators

    Where you rank the Predators can come down to how you feel about Finnish winger Eeli Tolvanen, who was picked 30th overall in 2017. He's had a seven-game stint across two seasons in the NHL and has combined for 71 points in 121 games in the AHL. He's followed at the top of the list by 2019 first-rounder Philip Tomasino, who had 40 goals and 100 points in 62 games with two OHL teams in 2019-20.


    23. Winnipeg Jets

    The Jets appear deep on the blue line and more sparse when it comes to prospects at forward, though the ones who are there appear promising. Finnish teenager Ville Heinola has all the makings of a top-pairing defenseman thanks to his demeanor and intelligence, and he's joined at the position by Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm, among others. On the wing, Kristian Vesalainen is the real deal too.


    22. Dallas Stars

    Losing a Stanley Cup Final hurts, but the Stars and their supporters can smile knowing they hit a home run in defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who was among the league leaders in playoff scoring. He may be followed into the big time by 2019 draft pick Thomas Harley, who's durable and a superior skater. Another first-rounder, 2018's Ty Dellandrea, has top-line center potential, and goalie Jake Oettinger is also rising.


    21. New York Islanders

    The Islanders are still waiting on a payoff from 2014 draft pick Ilya Sorokin in goal, but his would-be NHL debut this season was scuttled by the pandemic. Meanwhile, defenseman Noah Dobson, a 2018 draftee, did arrive on Long Island and appeared in 34 games. Behind them, 20-year-old winger Oliver Wahlstrom had 10 goals in 45 AHL games in 2019-20 and has a high-octane style of play.


    20. Tampa Bay Lightning

    Don't expect the league to pity the Lightning for a dearth of prospects considering the team is overloaded at the NHL level and in the midst of revelry from its second Stanley Cup. As for the future, defenseman Callan Foote, 21, is tough, consistent and solid on both offense and defense. Undrafted center Alex Barre-Boulet has lit up the AHL with 61 goals and 124 points in two seasons after five years in the QMJHL.


    19. Toronto Maple Leafs

    The summertime trade that sent Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins provided a reward to the Toronto farm system in 2018 draft pick Filip Hallander, 20, who remains on loan to a team in the Swedish Hockey League. The 6'1" center plays a sound two-way game. Meanwhile, with the NHL team's goaltending situation uncertain, prospects Ian Scott and Joseph Woll could be long-term solutions.


    18. Arizona Coyotes

    Trades on the NHL level haven't helped the long-range pipeline scenario for the Coyotes. That said, 20-year-old Barrett Hayton is a piece to build a future around. The center made the Arizona roster out of training camp and played 20 games, scoring a goal and assisting on three others. In goal, Adin Hill has split time between the NHL and AHL the past three seasons, including an NHL shutout in 2018-19.

Nos. 17-11: Reason for Optimism

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    17. Buffalo Sabres

    The presence of Jack Eichel on the NHL level for the Sabres could soon be augmented by the arrival of Dylan Cozens, a 19-year-old center who's produced 169 points over 119 games in his past two WHL seasons. He'll be a top-line NHL player when he peaks. Elsewhere, goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen spent 2019-20 in the ECHL and AHL and had three shutouts in 15 wins with a 2.53 goals-against average.


    16. Minnesota Wild

    Future talk regarding the Wild can begin with the long-awaited arrival of Kirill Kaprizov, but it doesn't have to end there. The prolific Russian has signed a contract and will presumably play in Minnesota in 2020-21, leaving the pipeline to be championed by winger Matthew Boldy. Boldy was a first-round pick in 2019 and projects as a top-six forward in the NHL with legitimate two-way skills.


    15. Chicago Blackhawks

    The Blackhawks are another team with a number of recent prospects in the NHL, including Dominik Kubalik, who scored 30 goals in the regular season and four more in a surprising postseason. Still, a handful of young defensemen could ultimately provide Chicago's backbone on the blue line, namely collegiate standout Ian Mitchell and 6'4", 208-pound behemoth Alec Regula.


    14. Edmonton Oilers

    There's both quantity and quality in the mix for the Oilers, who may have a future defensive pairing in consecutive first-round picks Evan Bouchard (2018) and Philip Broberg (2019). Left wing Tyler Benson played seven games at the NHL level in 2019-20 and is a good puck-handler, while lanky 6'4" center Raphael Lavoie has high-end skill and a quick-release shot that make him dangerous.


    13. Florida Panthers

    A couple of skilled forwards, Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko are close to making impacts with the Panthers. A big man at 6'1", 207 pounds, Tippett played seven games and scored an NHL goal in 2019-20, while Denisenko is an elite skater and puck-handler. Back in the net, Spencer Knight was the best goalie in college hockey as a first-year player at Boston College and could be a future Florida mainstay.


    12. Detroit Red Wings

    The Red Wings suffered through an awful season at the NHL level, but it might not be long before the roster is overhauled. Center Joseph Veleno made the jump from juniors to the AHL in 2019-20 and scored 11 goals in 54 games. He's a centerpiece along with defenseman Moritz Seider, who was picked sixth overall in 2019 and spent 49 games in the AHL, posting 22 points. Go ahead and get their lockers ready.


    11. Vegas Golden Knights

    There's a lot to like for the Golden Knights, who reached the Stanley Cup Final in their first season and were among the final four as the No. 1 Western Conference seed in 2019-20. The franchise's first draft pick, 2017's Cody Glass, reached the NHL in 2019-20 and scored five goals and 12 points, and he will soon be joined by fellow center Peyton Krebs, a 2019 first-rounder. Also, Pavel Dorofeyev is a solid bet on the wing.

Nos. 10-4: The Rest of the Best

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    10. New Jersey Devils  

    The Devils did not reach the NHL's pandemic-prompted postseason. But being out of contention yielded trades that brought in high-end youngsters. Among them is 6'3" left winger Nolan Foote, who came from Tampa Bay for Blake Coleman. Also there's forward Janne Kuokkanen, who arrived from Carolina for Sami Vatanen. They're in addition to 2018 first-rounder Ty Smith, who's a future power-play point man.


    9. Anaheim Ducks  

    The Ducks' profile is driven by the presence of one high-end talent in Trevor Zegras, who was picked ninth overall in 2019 and topped B/R's recent list of the league's best prospects. He'll be a No. 1 center in Anaheim and one of the league's best players before too long. Behind him, defenseman Josh Mahura is a potential top-pair talent who's split two seasons between the NHL and AHL.


    8. Vancouver Canucks  

    The system that produced Quinn Hughes and Thatcher Demko in 2019-20 doesn't figure to be slowing down. Right winger Vasili Podkolzin is 19 and a powerful, two-way forward who'll reach the NHL sometime in 2020-21. On the blue line, Jett Woo has 112 points in his past two junior seasons and has a physical edge too. And if Demko doesn't pan out, Michael DiPietro is a solid goalie prospect.


    7. Philadelphia Flyers  

    There's lots to like across the board for the Flyers, who were the Eastern Conference's No. 1 playoff seed thanks to youngsters already contributing. On the way, playmaker Morgan Frost is an undersized center but has a deft scoring touch, while left winger Isaac Ratcliffe is a 6'6" physical presence and has gotten his feet wet with 55 games in the AHL. On defense, first-rounder Cam York (2019) has skill and hockey sense to spare.


    6. Ottawa Senators  

    Curious about the Senators' future? Look at the uptick in their AHL fortunes. Right winger Drake Batherson is a 2017 draft pick who was an AHL All-Star in 2019-20 and averaged better than a point per game. Winger Logan Brown was a 2016 pick, but has also thrived in the AHL with 70 points. Josh Norris came in a trade for Erik Karlsson and is a fast center with offensive punch and scored 31 goals in the AHL.     


    5. Carolina Hurricanes  

    Carolina already isn't far from elite status in the NHL, and it's only getting better with what's coming. A first-round pick in 2019, center Ryan Suzuki is an excellent passer and a good skater with a knack for finding the right positions on the ice. On the blue line, Jake Bean is a premier puck-mover in the AHL and has posted back-to-back 40-plus-point seasons on that level. Down the road, watch for winger Dominik Bokk.


    4. Colorado Avalanche  

    Three of the past nine Rookie of the Year winners have been Avalanche players. There might be more coming. The No. 4 pick in 2019, defenseman Bowen Byram, is 6'1" and 190 pounds and scored 52 points in 50 games in his third full season in the WHL. Not far behind is center Alex Newhook, who is a blur on skates, had 42 points in 34 games as a college freshman and was named the NCAA's top freshman for 2019-20. Yikes.

3. Montreal Canadiens

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Crown Jewel

    RW Cole Caufield, No. 15 overall pick (2019)


    Why They're Here

    First things first: Caufield is a player everyone in Quebec will adore and everyone elsewhere in the NHL will fear. He's a high-energy goal scorer with an explosive first step, good puck-handling skills and a lethal wrist shot. Not to mention he has a high-revving motor in a tough-to-contain 5'7", 162-pound frame.

    But he's not alone.

    Defenseman Josh Brook is a capable puck-mover who plays well under duress, and he scored 89 points in 59 games in his final junior season before spending 2019-20 in the AHL. He's complemented by fellow blueliner Alexander Romanov, who's 5'11" and 185 pounds and likes to play physically.

    And in the net, you ask? How about Cayden Primeau, son of former league mainstay Keith Primeau, who won the NCAA's Mike Richter Award as the nation's best goaltender in 2019.

2. New York Rangers

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    The Crown Jewel

    LW Alexis Lafreniere, No. 1 overall pick (2020)


    Why They're Here

    OK, we know. It's not official yet. But as soon as Rangers brass pulls the draft-day trigger on the Quebec-born teenager—he'll turn 19 on Oct. 11—an already deep and talented pool of prospects will be filled to overflowing.

    Lest anyone forget, Lafreniere completed his third season with Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in March with 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games. The 2.15 point-per-game average was the highest in Canadian junior hockey since Connor McDavid's 2.55 in 2014-15 and the best for the Rimouski Oceanic franchise since Sidney Crosby's 2.71 clip in 2004-05.

    Hyperventilating yet, New York?

    As if more were needed, defensemen K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist were drafted 22nd and 28th, respectively, in 2018 and are highly regarded offensive talents from the back end. And there's also 6'3" left winger Vitali Kravtsov, who's an inventive playmaker with the puck and gained 39 games' worth of experience in the AHL in 2019-20 with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Start spreadin' the news.

1. Los Angeles Kings

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    The Crown Jewel

    C Alex Turcotte, No. 5 overall (2019)


    Why They're Here

    Others may have higher-profile individuals, but it is our estimation no one has more quality young talent across the up-and-coming board than the Kings, who won Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014 but have fallen on mediocre times since, winning exactly one playoff game in six years.

    So if you're buying NHL prospect stock, here's the place to dump your cash.

    The above-listed Turcotte is the best of the bunch, but not by a lot. He signed a professional contract on the day the Kings' season was shut down because of the pandemic and has since been loaned to a team in Germany. An exceptional playmaker who can score as well thanks to his good vision and hands, he's shown advanced awareness and can be trusted in all three zones on the ice.

    Not far behind is another center, Rasmus Kupari, who tore his left ACL at the World Junior Championship in December. He had spent 27 games with the Kings' affiliate in the AHL and amassed six goals and eight assists, adjusting well to the North American game thanks to his speed and grit. He'll likely arrive around the same time as Turcotte, and they'll form a pretty daunting pairing for foes to deal with.

    Need more? Arthur Kaliyev is a 19-year-old winger who put up 44 goals and 98 points in the OHL in 2019-20 and will make a big push for a roster spot with a team lacking firepower. He uses his 6'2", 190-pound frame to protect the puck, finds advantageous spots on the ice and has a good wrist shot with a quick release.

    There are plenty of others too, but we don't want to scare you. Suffice to say that if you're a fan of hockey in Southern California and your tastes lean more toward L.A. than Anaheim, there's a lot to look forward to.


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