Rating Every NHL Team's Best Prospect

Adam Herman@@AdamZHermanContributor IAugust 19, 2021

Rating Every NHL Team's Best Prospect

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    Prospect acquisition and development are integral to the success of any NHL organization. Bad teams rely on top young players to build new foundations. Good teams are constantly losing good players either due to aging or cap concerns and rely on infusions of young players to keep the engine running.

    What is a prospect? There's no perfect definition that will account for every young player. For the sake of this article, the criteria will be the same as that for the Calder Trophy: they cannot have played 25 NHL games in any preceding season, six games in two or more seasons and be older than 26 by Sept. 15.

    Now that it's the quiet part of the offseason, it's a good time to look toward the future and analyze each team's best prospect.

Atlantic Division

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    Florida Panthers: Spencer Knight

    Finnish center Anton Lundell, fresh off 25 points in 26 Liiga games as a 19-year-old, would be the top prospect in many NHL organizations. In Florida, he's usurped by goaltender Spencer Knight. The 20-year-old goaltender plays beyond his years and, after dominating the junior and college circuits, didn't flinch during his brief NHL cameo, including two elimination playoff games against Tampa Bay in which he saved 56 of 60 shots on goal. Knight is the best goaltending prospect in the world.


    Boston Bruins: Fabian Lysell

    The Bruins have been in win-now mode for the past half-decade, and their prospect pool reflects that, but they have one potential impact prospect in Fabian Lysell. Drafted 21st overall this summer, Lysell is a zone-entry machine and has the talent to make defenders look silly. If he can sufficiently answer questions about his maturity, he should become a top-six winger in Boston.


    Toronto Maple Leafs: Nick Robertson

    Despite the high number of draft picks the Maple Leafs have traded away in recent years, they have a surprisingly talented prospect pool thanks to efficient drafting. Nick Robertson, the team's best prospect, is as good of an example as any.

    The 19-year-old winger inexplicably fell to the end of the 2019 second round. He made his NHL debut for the Leafs in the 2020 playoffs after dominating in the OHL and looked the part in the AHL this past season. Despite his 5'9" height, Robertson plays an impassioned game and has the offensive talent to complement it. An easy bet to become a middle-six NHL forward.


    Tampa Bay Lightning: Hugo Alnefelt

    The past few years of success plus suboptimal drafting have emptied Tampa Bay's prospect pool. As Tampa tends to do, it will develop a few players to fill in the cracks, but it's a thin group.

    One beacon of hope is Hugo Alnefelt. Drafted in the 2019 third round, the 6'3" goaltender held his own as a teenager against men in the Swedish Hockey League. This past season, he posted a .904 save percentage on a terrible HV71 team. Although he had a mediocre World Juniors showing in 2021, he shone in 2020. Alnefelt will likely start in the AHL next season and, within a few years, should work his way into the backup role behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.


    Ottawa Senators: Jake Sanderson

    The Senators left a lot of talent on the board when they drafted defenseman Jake Sanderson fifth overall in 2020. While he hasn't necessarily proved that decision correct, he has at least established himself as a high-end NHL prospect.

    Sanderson is 6'2" and skates like the wind, and with 15 points in 22 games as a freshman at North Dakota he quelled some of the concerns about his offensive upside. Sanderson will spend one more season with the Fighting Hawks before moving immediately into the Ottawa lineup, where he should become a top-four defenseman who shuts down and transitions the puck up the ice. 


    Montreal Canadiens: Cole Caufield

    Caufield has already played 30 NHL games, but since 20 were during the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, he's still eligible for the Calder Trophy. Caufield has always had high-end scoring ability, but his rising stock is due to his answering of questions about whether he was a one-trick pony.

    Since being drafted 15th overall in 2019, Caufield has significantly improved his skating and passing abilities. He proved as much during the playoffs, where he produced eight assists to complement his four goals. If the Canadiens have another good season despite losing some key players, he will be a big reason why.


    Detroit Red Wings: Moritz Seider

    Out of the 32 NHL teams, Detroit's top prospect was probably the hardest call. Lucas Raymond, drafted fourth overall in 2020, was a top player for Frolunda in the SHL last season. He has All-Star upside and could become one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL.

    But the pick here, just barely, is defenseman Moritz Seider. He was a controversial selection at sixth overall in 2019, but he's proved the Red Wings right. He was named the best defenseman in the SHL last season after posting 28 points in 41 games on top of elite possession numbers. 


    Buffalo Sabres: Owen Power

    It's debatable whether Power was the best player available in the 2021 NHL draft. Regardless, he is Buffalo's top prospect. The first overall pick stands 6'6" and skates like the wind. Will he develop the ability to make the final play in the offensive zone to directly create goals? That's the million-dollar question, but he has safe upside as a top-four defenseman. He's wisely going to spend another season in the NCAA at Michigan, where he will have a chance to develop those skills out of the limelight.

Metropolitan Division

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    Columbus Blue Jackets: Kent Johnson

    The Blue Jackets added a number of quality prospects at the 2021 draft, and none were better than Kent Johnson. The 18-year-old center was taken fifth overall and has elite skill on the puck. He can create offense by himself with top-notch stick handling, clever passing and a quick release on his wrist shot.

    He needs to work on diversifying his game and becoming more effective without the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, but he was better than a point-per-game player at Michigan last season and has the tools to become an All-Star forward who thrives on the power play.


    Carolina Hurricanes: Seth Jarvis

    The Hurricanes' prospect pool may lack blue-chip prospects, but they have one of the deepest groups in the league. Topping their list is winger Seth Jarvis, drafted in the first round in 2020. Despite being just 5'10", Jarvis is tremendous in tight areas, battling for and holding pucks before working possession into the interior. Offensively, he's a dual threat as a passer and finisher. He thrives around the net, finding scoring positions and getting to pucks first in the slot. In a few years he will be a second-line forward in Carolina who plays the exact kind of well-rounded game that head coach Rod Brind'Amour advocates.


    Washington Capitals: Connor McMichael

    There's a lot of banter about him being a knockoff-version of namesake superstar McDavid, but Connor McMichael deserves a lot of credit for developing into a quality prospect. The forward exploded during the 2019-20 season, registering 102 points in 52 OHL games. And he proved last season that he wasn't a one-hit-wonder when he tallied 27 points in 33 AHL games.

    McMichael has no standout qualities and is more of a jack-of-all-trades offensive presence who finds ways to develop chemistry with his linemates and find scoring positions. The Capitals are an aging team facing a serious salary-cap crunch. McMichael's development will be pivotal in deciding whether the Capitals can continue to contend the next few seasons.


    Pittsburgh Penguins: Samuel Poulin

    The Penguins have one of the weakest prospect pools in the league, both in terms of quantity and quality. Samuel Poulin, however, is one prospect with the upside to become a true difference-maker. There's not one skill he has that rates particularly well, but he layers lower-body strength and good offensive instincts to at times become a dominating presence.

    In the QMJHL the past two seasons he frequently went off for three- or four-point games. His development has plateaued, which is fine since he was already operating at a high level. He will battle for a spot on the Pittsburgh roster in training camp and has upside as a middle-six winger who players in all situations.


    Philadelphia Flyers: Cam York

    The Flyers had a few quality options here but defenseman Cam York is the pick. The 2019 first-round pick is a steady presence on the puck whom any team would be comfortable to have starting breakouts, as well as quarterbacking play from the point in the offensive zone. He lacks a high-end physical asset—skating, physicality, shooting, etc.—and as such lacks the upside to become a top-pairing NHL defenseman. But after a strong World Juniors performance and a solid AHL cameo, York is close to NHL-ready.


    New York Rangers: Nils Lundkvist

    At a different time, this might have been a heated debate, but with fellow 2018 first-round pick K'Andre Miller graduating to NHL status last season, Lundkvist swats away Vitali Kravtsov and takes the crown for the Rangers.

    The defenseman had a breakout 2019-20 season, and he matched that in 2020-21, tallying 14 goals (tied for the team lead) and 18 assists in 52 SHL games. Although he's undersized (5'10"), he generates an enormous amount of power on his shots from distance and was the triggerman on Lulea's power play. He's a B-rated skater who has the vision to carry the puck up the ice and make plays. Defensively, he needs to develop some more muscle but plays with the right intentions.

    Lundkvist is a surefire NHLer. Despite his overwhelming success in a top league, he doesn't get the credit he deserves, often being overlooked on lists profiling the top defensemen for the future. Lundkvist shows almost every sign of becoming a top-pairing or at least a great No. 3 defenseman who scores on the power play. 


    New York Islanders: Aatu Raty

    The Islanders fall victim to the cycle development, as former top prospects Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson graduated to the NHL last season. So while they do have some quality young players in the organization, the prospect pool is lacking.

    The Isles may have stolen a top prospect at the 2021 NHL draft, however. Center Aatu Raty entered the season as the favorite to go first overall. He struggled immensely in the Finnish top flight, however, possibly in part because of the spotlight on him. After the Islanders took him 52nd overall, he started anew and set July's World Junior Summer Showcase ablaze with six goals and eight assists in six games.

    When he's on his game, Raty excels in creating offensive from the middle lane of the ice, using his strength and quick shooting release. If he is rebounding and becoming the prospect many expected him to be, then the Islanders may have a future top-six center on their hands.


    New Jersey Devils: Alexander Holtz

    The Devils, finally admitting the need for a full-blown rebuild a few years ago, have a ton of young talent on the NHL roster. There's more on the way, with recently drafted Luke Hughes and 2020 first-round pick Dawson Mercer among them.

    But their top prospect is winger Alexander Holtz. To be honest, he hasn't played his best hockey since the Devils draft him seventh overall in 2020. He was streaky in the SHL and had a difficult time adjusting during his AHL cameo at the end of last season, producing just three points in 10 games. Still, Holtz is only 19, and the growing pains are understandable.

    His shot is impressive, and he's shown the ability to create offense with other talented linemates. Holtz's development might be a slower burn than New Jersey initially anticipate, but with physical maturity, he still has the talent to become a top-six scoring winger.

Central Division

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    Minnesota Wild: Marco Rossi

    That Minnesota managed to grab Marco Rossi at ninth overall in the 2020 NHL draft was a steal. He scored 39 goals and 81 assists in 56 OHL games the season prior. He's also a hard worker off the puck who can forecheck, cycle, create turnovers and defend in his own end. Even at 5'9", Rossi has so many green flags which suggest he could become a cornerstone first-line center.

    Unfortunately, Rossi had serious complications while recovering from COVID-19 that meant he missed virtually the entire 2020-21 season. The uncertainty of his health might be cause for instead giving this title to winger Matt Boldy, who registered 18 points in 14 AHL games last season and will likely turn into a top-six winger. The good news on Rossi is that he managed to get healthy in time to represent Austria at the World Junior Championship, and it wouldn't be wise to bet against him returning to form. If he does, he won't just be the Wild's best prospect but one of the best in the world. 


    Chicago Blackhawks: Lukas Reichel

    The Blackhawks pump-faked on a rebuild before selling the farm to acquire Seth Jones ahead of this year's entry draft. There is some young talent on the NHL roster such as Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach, but their prospect pool is in flux.

    One prospect of note is Lukas Reichel. The Blackhawks took the German in the first round in 2020. Reichel skates well and is otherwise well-rounded, playing with a lot of energy and tenacity. He gets into the slot and finds ways to score. He performed well at the World Championship, with six points in nine games. Hewon't be a game-changer for Chicago, but his diversified skill set offers plenty of optimism that he can turn into an impact third-line forward.


    Winnipeg Jets: Cole Perfetti

    That Cole Perfetti was drafted 10th overall in 2020 is not an accurate reflection of his talent. In any other draft with a talent pool not as loaded, Perfetti would be a shoo-in to go top five at the worst. He's an average skater and not much of a defensive presence, but when it comes to creating in the offensive zone, few can match him. He'll make plays from anywhere. He can stick-handle as well as anybody, find passes through tight seams and score with a quick, subtle release. He can navigate even when being defended tightly.

    His 26 points in 32 AHL games last season make for an impressive record considering he would have been playing in the OHL in non-pandemic circumstances. It's to be determined whether his future is at center or at wing, but Perfetti has all the talent in the world and has first-line upside. 


    Nashville Predators: Philip Tomasino

    Philip Tomasino has been a favorite of some scouts for some time, and his 32 points in 29 AHL games as a 19-year-old this past season raised the stakes. Tomasino, a center, creates offense through his skating ability. He's a major transition threat who is a playmaker first but has enough shooting ability to keep the opposition honest. He also has the skill set to become a capable defensive presence as he matures in pro hockey.

    Tomasino likely doesn't become a star in the NHL, but what he lacks in upside, he makes up for in certainty. He will almost certainly make the Predators roster out of training camp this year and is already pretty close to becoming an impact middle-six NHLer.


    Arizona Coyotes: Dylan Guenther

    The Coyotes are at the beginning of a full-blown rebuild, with a weak NHL roster and not too much young talent to speak of waiting in the wings. Dylan Guenther, drafted ninth overall in July, is not the franchise player the Coyotes need, but he is a good player with whom to start the rebuild.

    Guenther isn't a diverse presence, but he's extremely effective at what he does. He's a north-south skater with a heavy wrist shot. He will carry the puck through the neutral zone before unleashing a lethal wrister from the circles. He also has a quick release from pass receptions. He works hard and gets behind defenders when pursuing pucks on the forecheck. Guenther will need linemates who play more intuitive games, but there is upside as a first-line winger who scores 25-plus goals.


    St. Louis Blues: Scott Perunovich

    St. Louis' prospect pool is, to be kind, shallow. The team has not drafted so well in recent years. The silver lining is that outside of true blue-chip prospects, defenseman Scott Perunovich is able as safe of a prospect as there can be. After going undrafted in 2017, Perunovich shone in the NCAA for Minnesota-Duluth, and the Blues took him in the second round the following year. Perunovich then won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA's best player in 2020 after leading his team with 40 points in 34 games.

    The one cause for concern is that Perunovich missed the entire 2020-21 season following shoulder surgery. Still, he is an incredible playmaker from the point who has all the makings of a top-four defenseman who quarterbacks the power play. He could do that as soon as next season in St. Louis.


    Colorado Avalanche: Alex Newhook

    A contender like Colorado would typically have a lean prospect pool, but general manager Joe Sakic has built up an embarrassment of riches. Defenseman Bowen Byram, taken fourth overall in 2019, could credibly be deemed their top prospect.

    Instead, the pick is Alex Newhook, whom the Avalanche drafted in the first round in 2020. Newhook is a creative, playmaking center who loves to hold the puck. He's quick from a standstill position and can exploit any windows of space he creates. He played briefly for Colorado last season, including during the playoffs, and did not look out of place. He will enter the season as an option to win the Calder, and he may be the difference-maker Colorado needs to make a deep run.


    Dallas Stars: Mavrik Bourque

    The consensus pick for Dallas' top prospect is Thomas Harley, an offensive defenseman who is a threat to score as well as an inventive passer. However, center Mavrik Bourque edges him out. His profile is pretty faultless. He consistently put up points in the QMJHL, last season potting 19 goals as well as 24 assists in 28 games. He is both a threatening shooter and someone with the vision to set up teammates. He's responsible defensively, makes smart plays and engages physically.

    Maybe Bourque doesn't exactly play like his hair is on fire, but he's not a liability on the ice, and the stat sheet speaks for itself. He has the talent to become a top-six NHL center, but he also has the kind of game that will translate in a bottom-six role even if he doesn't realize his potential.

Pacific Division

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    Seattle Kraken: Matthew Beniers

    Probably the easiest decision to make among the 32 teams simply because of the circumstances. The Kraken are a brand-new franchise, so it would be stunning for anyone besides the 2021 second overall pick to be their top prospect.

    Matthew Beniers, as argued on B/R ahead of June's draft lottery, was the top prospect available in the 2021 NHL draft. He's a B-level skater who can create zone entries out of thin air, can carry the puck around the offensive zone for hours and has the vision to find teammates with passes in tough positions. He works hard on the defensive side, pursuing the puck and making life difficult for puck-carriers. A lack of proficiency as a goal scorer is the one major knock, but Beniers is otherwise a complete, two-way center who will be in the NHL before long and safely projects as a top-six center who plays in all situations.


    Edmonton Oilers: Evan Bouchard

    Edmonton offers another close call. Center Dylan Holloway had the season many thought he was capable of, totaling 35 points in 23 games for Wisconsin in the NCAA. He's a greater skater, particularly for a center, who plays with urgency. He'll be an NHLer, but maybe not a top player on any team.

    That is why the choice here is defenseman Evan Bouchard. Bouchard has one of the best statistical profiles in recent memory for a predraft defenseman when he scored 25 goals and added 62 assists in 67 OHL games back in 2017-18. His production hasn't been at that level since, but it's still been more than solid. He played very well in the AHL as a teenager in 2019-20 and looked sharp in a brief NHL stint this past season.

    Bouchard is phenomenal at creating offense from the point, equal parts a distributor as well as a shooter. His feet are just OK and he's not an overwhelming defensive presence, which may hold him back from becoming a top-pairing defenseman, but he still has a high ceiling as a difference-maker who plays a lot of minutes and quarterbacks the power play.


    Calgary Flames: Connor Zary

    The Flames had a few contenders, such as recent first-round pick Matthew Coronato and Jakob Pelletier, but this spot goes to Connor Zary. Pelletier is perhaps the sexier pick after he thrived at the World Junior Championship, but tournaments can be misleading.

    Zary is a well-rounded center. There aren't any questions about his ability to pass in the offensive zone, make plays in the middle of the ice and forecheck. His goal-scoring dip in the WHL last season (just six in 15 games) is a moderate concern, and he may not have major upside. Zary is nonetheless a polished 19-year-old who will surely factor at the NHL in some level, with the second line being his best-case scenario.


    Vegas Golden Knights: Peyton Krebs

    Peyton Krebs was a top prospect entering the 2019 NHL draft. A serious Achilles injury weeks before the draft was a major cause for concern, as there were no guarantees regarding his recovery. He fell to 17th overall, which was Vegas' gain. Krebs returned to the ice during the 2019-20 season and looked like himself.

    Krebs won't blow away anyone physically. He has average size and is a pretty good skater. Where he excels is in how he thinks about the game. Krebs has a lot of puck poise, scanning the ice to make the right plays at the right times. He has secondary scoring ability and is responsible in his defensive assignments. Krebs was one of the top players in junior hockey last season and made his NHL debut. He will get more time with Vegas this upcoming season and isn't far off from reaching his potential as a middle-six forward who can make an impact with a number of player types at his side.


    Anaheim Ducks: Trevor Zegras

    The Ducks have quite a few top prospects. Defenseman Jamie Drysdale has already proved his offensive gumption at the pro level as a teenager. Mason McTavish was just drafted third overall.

    It's hard to beat Trevor Zegras, though, who played 24 NHL games last season, thereby just barely qualifying for this list. Zegras put up video game numbers at the 2021 World Junior Championship for the USA, with seven goals and 11 assists in seven games. He was also a top player in the AHL and looked good in the NHL, with 13 points for a poor Ducks team. Zegras is an elite playmaking center who also has a scoring touch. He's a player the Ducks will build their franchise around for years.


    Vancouver Canucks: Vasili Podkolzin

    Vasili Podkolzin is a divisive prospect for a number of reasons. His resume is a mixed bag. The winger at times is an unstoppable force on the ice, and at other moments he struggles to find ways to influence proceedings. When he's on his game, he plays with a lot of power. He's intimidating when he's skating up the ice, and when he's carrying the puck toward the net and lowers his shoulders he's tough to move off his path. He also has the ability to create offensive out of nothing and beat defenders one-on-one.

    Can Pokolzin produce his best on a more consistent basis? If so, he's a first-line winger other teams hate to face. Otherwise, he's someone who might bounce between the second and third lines depending on his recent run of play.


    San Jose Sharks: William Eklund

    One of the weakest prospect pools in the league got a desperately needed infusion of talent at the 2021 NHL draft in William Eklund. The Swedish forward is one of the most impressive prospects in the world when it comes to making plays spontaneously. His skating ability in small spaces allows him to dart out of trouble. He has a knack for understanding what the right play is at any given moment and is also one of the most impressive players around when it comes to creating offense in seemingly innocuous situations. He's a legitimate dual threat in the offensive zone who is a threat to shoot or pass equally.

    Will he win any awards for his defensive prowess or physicality? No. But who cares? There are 11 other forwards in the lineup who can bring that for San Jose. Eklund has superstar upside and, at worst, comfortably projects as a top-six offensive winger.


    Los Angeles Kings: Quinton Byfield

    The Kings have the best prospect pool in the league, and there are a number of prospects in their organization who could top many teams' lists.

    This is still an easy choice, though, as center Quinton Byfield is the best prospect in hockey. Taken second overall in 2020, Byfield has all the tools to become a top NHL center. He's 6'4" and 220 pounds, but his skating is as good as anyone's. He's a gifted passer who finds teammates as if he has eyes in the back of his head. He's a good shooter who can beat goaltenders from distance but also has the strength to simply bully his way to the slot and find shooting opportunities.

    Last season, he scored eight goals and added 12 assists in 32 AHL games, which is impressive for an 18-year-old. Having only turned 19 on Thursday, Byfield is still raw, meaning that the best is yet to come. He will be in the NHL next season, and as his game matures, there's no reason to believe he will be anything less than an All-Star NHL center and the face of the Kings franchise for the next decade-plus.