The Fall edition of the Hockey’s Future ranking of the Top 50 NHL prospects concludes with the top 10 prospects. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jonathan Drouin narrowly beat out Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov to take top honors in this edition of the rankings.
Of the players ranked in the top 10, most if not all will see at least some time in the NHL during the 2014-15 season, and some, including Barkov and Tomas Hertl, (SJS), will be relied on heavily by their teams to produce offense.
1. Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Height: 5-11, Weight: 176, Spring Ranking – 2
The tidal wave of expectations will finally hit the Tampa Bay shores as Drouin begins his NHL rookie season. Head Coach Jon Cooper has preached caution bringing in the shifty winger, but admits he has improved in many areas, especially his on-ice maturity. His dominating season in juniors and off-season work has led to Drouin starting the season in the NHL. At a recent rookie tournament in Nashville, he was easily one of the best players as he looked quite explosive. Drouin is destined for a top-six role because of his wizardry with the puck. He also has good hockey sense and high-end playmaking that makes everyone on the ice better. It will be interesting to see where he fits in the Lightning line-up, but expect Drouin to be in the discussion for the Calder Trophy come season’s end.
2. Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers
Height: 6-2, Weight: 205, Spring Ranking – 1
Last season, Aleksander Barkov proved capable of playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old. He impressed on the world stage skating in two games at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi before suffering a season-ending knee injury. An all-around center possessing an elite skill level and a propensity for strong defensive zone play, Barkov so far has met the expectations that came with being the second overall pick at the 2013 NHL Draft. Already possessing NHL size with a 6’2″, 205-pound frame, Barkov had success killing penalties with Tappara while playing in Finland‘s Liiga and should be used in all situations by the Panthers in the future. Along with Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, Barkov is part of a talented group of forward prospects that give the Panthers hope for the future.
Much heralded since being taken in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft and generally viewed as one of the top prospects in Europe the past few seasons, Kuznetzov made his NHL debut with the Capitals in March after a rocky, injury-plagued season with Chelyabinsk Traktor. Seeing limited ice time during Washington’s unsuccessful push for a playoff spot, he scored three goals with six assists in 17 games. Expected to challenge for the second-line center spot with the Capitals in 2013-14, Kuznetsov is a gifted player with impressive puck skills and great skating ability. Still a bit light to compete at the NHL level on a nightly basis, he is creative with the puck, and with time and experience should fit in well with the other skilled forwards on the Capitals’ roster.
4. Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers
Height: 6-4, Weight: 216, Not Ranked
Ekblad has all the tools to become an effective two-way NHL defenseman. He is big, but mobile for a guy his size. He also approaches the game with the maturity of a seasoned veteran, despite being only 18 years old. He will get a chance with the Florida Panthers right away, so it will be interesting to see the learning curve at the pro level for the 2014 first overall pick. He has been paired with Willie Mitchell during most of training camp and preseason and will look to the veteran to learn the pro game and develop into the all-situation, two-way defender the Panthers hope he will become.
Strome was arguably the top AHL player at the time of his final recall to the Islanders last winter. He was only the third AHL player in the last 20 years to win back-to-back player of the week awards, and was noticeably better than his competition during his time in Bridgeport. Strome should be a regular contributor to the Islanders forward core this season. He will not be expected to take on a top-six role right away, but he has the skating, hands, and hockey sense to be a very productive forward in the NHL for years to come.
6. Tomas Hertl, C, San Jose Sharks
Height: 6-2, Weight: 198, Spring Ranking – 5
The only reason Hertl is still considered a prospect is because of the major knee injury he suffered 35 games into the 2013-14 regular season. He will need to pick up right where he left off with San Jose, as the forward displayed extremely high levels of skill and offensive prowess. He is the complete package for the Sharks. He has size, skill, speed, and the aggression to go along with it. He was able to return from his knee surgery at the end of last year and had five points in seven playoff games for the Sharks. He now appears completely recovered from his knee injury, which should be a big boon to the San Jose offense.
Mantha has a great athletic frame and overall skills that border on elite. Outside of his hulking size, his shot is the first thing observers notice. He has a superb release that allowed him to tally 129 goals in 189 games in the QMJHL. Although he was the primary shooter for Val d’Or last season, he picked up his share of assists as well. Mantha is also an excellent skater. His junior teams did not end up having to play that much defensive hockey when he was on the ice, and though defending might not be a strength, Mantha certainly has the size and intelligence to play a complete game. As for his effort level, he played the last game of the Traverse City Tournament on a broken tibia that will keep him out of action to start the season. Detroit would have likely kept him in the AHL for a chunk of the 2014-15 season at least, but Mantha promises to become one of the better offensive options the Red Wings have had in years.
Reinhart was often discussed as a likely number one overall pick in 2014, but going second should not affect one’s view of his talent. In Reinhart, the Sabres chose a player who projects to be a number one center at the NHL level. The question with Reinhart’s game, however, will be whether he will be elite at that position or merely very good. Reinhart was a top-five scorer in the WHL in his draft season and would seem to have little more to prove as a junior. He possesses a near-elite ability to process the game. Add to that an excellent overall skill level and you have a player who is ahead of the curve in terms of maturity and understanding. Where he is held back a bit is in an average frame and physical game. Reinhart is more of a distributor than a goal-scoring threat, so the Sabres still need to find a scorer or two. Nonetheless, he should prove an apt pupil more than capable of adjusting to the expectations and intensity of the NHL.
Bennett was one of the best players in the OHL last year with Kingston and displayed a game that covers all the bases of a developing NHL player. He is skilled, intelligent, good on his feet, has great hands, and a high level of competitiveness that has been heralded by scouts. There is leadership off the ice and a nastiness on the ice. Bennett is an all-out, all the time, player and that is going to be very popular on a young and exciting rebuilding club in Calgary. Unfortunatelyfor Bennett and the Flames, he was recently scheduled to have shoulder surgery to correct a nagging injury and will miss between four and six months of hockey.
Teräväinen absolutely destroyed in the Finland‘s Liiga with Jokerit last season, as well as on the international stage with the Finnish U20 team. He seemed to be a men amongst boys at the U20 World Junior Championship, and his much anticipated arrival in North American hockey finally happened once the Finnish season completed. Now the question remains if the high octane offensive force can cut it at the NHL level, where an extra emphasis will be put on defense and speed. The Finn is arguably one of the best offensive talents of the Top 50 group, with tremendous playmaking, hockey IQ, and stick skills, but he will have to make some adjustments in his 200-foot game if he wants to be considered for the NHL full-time. Even with the lack of a perceived defensive game, Teräväinen has everything a player needs to be an offensive threat in the NHL.
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