Resuming our countdown of the NHL’s Top 50 prospects, we come to the 21-30 grouping. Included in this group are two 2011 draft choices who made a good impression during training camp and the preseason games. Also included are a couple of players that have been featured more highly in our previous Top 50 lists, so their star may be falling a bit.
21. Nazem Kadri – C/W – Toronto Maple Leafs
Height: 6-0 Weight: 188
Entering his second pro season, Nazem Kadri was looking to impress the coaching staff enough to secure a spot in the Maple Leafs top-nine. The 21-year-old Kadri was in a heated battle with rookie Matt Frattin for the clubs vacant left-wing spot before an ill-timed MCL injury sidelined him for several months. Kadri’s injury may result in his season starting with the Marlies to get him up to game speed before he can push for a spot with the Maple Leafs again. He has shown his ability to lead a team offensively after finishing second on the Marlies in points having only played 44 games, but he still needs to fine tune his overall game. Kadri may never be a complete forward, but he’ll need to prove he’s able to score at the NHL level to offset his defensive weaknesses.
Blessed with a highly octane skill-set, Strome joins fellow Islanders top prospect Nino Niederreiter, giving the club two elite-level players up front. The 18-year-old burst on to the scene in his second season in the OHL demonstrating his abilities as both a playmaker and a goal scorer. With an offensive repertoire similar to that of star center John Tavares, Strome has all of the tools to become a big time point-producer in the NHL. His puck-handling, passing, and hockey IQ are already pro caliber and will only improve as he continues to grow as a player.
Few prospects saw such a meteoric rise over the last few months. After managing 22 goals and 53 assists with the Barrie Colts last year, Mark Scheifele was drafted seventh overall by the newly reformed Winnipeg Jets. The skilled forward continued to impress in training camp and the preseason for Winnipeg, forcing them to sign him to a three-year entry-level deal and putting him in the running for a spot on the NHL opening day roster. Regardless of where he spends the 2011-12 season, Scheifele should eventually join talented young players Alexander Burmistrov, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian to form a very promising core in Winnipeg.
Steve Yzerman’s decision to draft Brett Connolly following a season in which he played in just 16 games was seen as quite a gamble. Yzerman’s intuition paid off in 2010-11 as Connolly’s skill was on full display; the 6’2 center registered 73 points in 59 games for the Prince George Cougars. Not a typical playmaking center, Connolly has a great shot and ability to put the puck in the back of the net. He has added size since being drafted and weighs in at 203 lbs. The forward developed into a more complete player, but still needs to make some adjustments in the defensive zone before becoming a high-end forward. Even with his production last season, he was dogged by hip problems, so injuries will remain a concern until he can put together a complete and healthy season.
After being selected by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2010 Entry Draft, and having an excellent season as a freshman at Boston University, the Sharks traded Coyle to the Minnesota Wild as part of the Brent Burns trade this past June. The 2010-11 Hockey East Rookie of the Year, who has the body of a power forward, but excellent passing skill, has returned to Boston University for his sophomore season. He is expected to spend at least one more season of NCAA hockey.
Once viewed as a top talent with first line upside, Cody Hodgson now projects more as a responsible, two-way, second line center. After a lost year due to injuries in the OHL 2009-10 season, he had a solid but unspectacular AHL rookie season. This past summer was the first time in three years that Hodgson was healthy and able to train full time. He has all the offensive skills and the hockey smarts to play at the NHL level, it is just a matter of him staying healthy.
Hodgson has showed increased speed and a strong desire to make the Canucks starting roster as a possible second line center out of training camp. Vancouver’s injuries at the center position give Hodgson his best opportunity to make the NHL on a full-time basis but he will have to make the most of his chances.
Now in his third season as a member of the Boston College Eagles, Kreider is a power forward, with excellent speed and good hands. Kreider was drafted out of high school by the New York Rangers, and since that time has played in the World Junior Championships for the United States, as in well as the Men’s World Championships. This is expected to be Kreider’s final season with the Eagles, after which he will compete for an NHL roster spot next fall.
Holtby seemingly came out of nowhere last season, emerging as a strong candidate as the goaltender of the future for the Washington Capitals. He posted a 10-2-2 record with the Capitals, registering a 1.79 goals against average and a .934 save percentage. Holtby was equally impressive in the AHL, managing over 30 starts a 17-10-2 record, a 2.29 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. He has become a technically sound goaltender combining a nice mix of size and athleticism. Though he’ll begin the year with Hershey of the AHL, if he continues progressing at the rate he has been for the past year he’ll be a full time NHLer sooner rather than later.
Gormley ranks right at the top with Ekman-Larsson as the top two prospects in the Phoenix Coyotes organization giving the club what should be a dynamic one-two punch on the blue line for years to come. The 19-year-old is a solid two-way defenseman who possesses excellent offensive instincts on top of his slick puck-moving and strong in-zone defensive play. A very mobile skater, Gormley is also a powerplay weapon as he moves the puck quickly and has a hard, accurate point shot.
The 2010-11 captain of the Spokane Chiefs, Jared Cowen followed a strong WHL campaign with two strong playoff performances, first in the WHL where he managed 14 points in 17 games, then in the AHL with the Binghamton Senators, where he managed four assists in 10 games en route to the Calder Cup. Cowen has solid positioning in all zones of the ice, has improved his decision-making with the puck, and has solid hockey knowledge. He can play the shutdown role while playing both the power play and penalty killing units. The large defenseman has good skating speed for his size and a strong point shot, but he must continue to improve his mobility without the puck and develop the physical side to his game.