Hockey’s Future Top 50 NHL Prospects, 1-10

By HF Staff

Below is the final installment of Hockey’s Future’s Top 50 NHL Prospects. The process of creating the list was explained in an introductory article. Readers may refer to the first four parts of the list, prospects ranked 41-50, those ranked 31-40, those ranked 21-30, and those
those ranked 11-20
posted earler. Below are prospects 10-1, in descending order, with a brief description of what they bring to the table. In parentheses are the NHL teams who currently hold their rights.

10. Braydon Coburn, Defenseman (ATL)
Height: 6-5, Weight: 210, Current Team: Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Blessed with great size at 6’5“, Atlanta Thrashers prospect Braydon Coburn also moves incredibly well. His lateral movement complements his hockey sense perfectly, and is the reason why he is a potential stalwart defender for the Thrashers. Offensively, Coburn leaves a fair bit to be desired, having not shown as much development as fellow 2003 defensive prospects Dion Phaneuf and Ryan Suter. Although the Shaunavon, Saskatchewan native was not a disappointment at this year’s World Juniors, he did not set the world on fire, either. It is hard to see Coburn not being a top four defenseman in the NHL, but whether or not he can come together as a No. 1 defenseman is still in question. There is a good chance he will make the Thrashers roster next season, but he might be better served by more development time.

9. Ryan Miller, Goaltender (BUF)
Height: 6-2, Weight: 166, Current Team: Rochester Americans (AHL)

There seems to be a sense of inevitability surrounding Buffalo Sabres prospect Ryan Miller. It is widely assumed that the former Michigan State star will assume the mantle of No. 1 goaltender with the Sabres in the near future, with Miller doing little this season to change minds. The East Lansing, Michigan native did display a slight chink in his armor early in the season with displays of immaturity related to some rough outings with the Sabres, but Miller appears to have put those episodes behind him. Miller has the dexterity and smarts to handle the workload of a top goaltender, with the time spent in the AHL the past two seasons helping the former Hobey Baker winner to handle the rigors of the longer pro seasons.

8. Milan Michalek, Right Wing (SJ)
Height: 6-2, Weight: 220, Current Team: San Jose Sharks (NHL)

What started out as a promising season for Milan Michalek has instead turned into a lost one. Michalek tore a ligament in his knee in the Sharks second game of the season, then tore the same ligament in February while preparing for a return to the Sharks lineup. The Jindrichuv Hradec, Czech Republic native had a strong camp for the Sharks after being tabbed as their top pick in the 2003 NHL Draft, but the team will have to wait until next season to see their prized rookie in action. Michalek has excellent size and skill, both attributes that he puts to good use. The big winger is probably more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, but there are some that feel that Michalek’s scoring ability is underrated.

7. Igor Grigorenko, Right Wing (DET)
Height: 5-10, Weight: 180, Current Team: Lada Togliatti (RSL)

Like Milan Michalek, Detroit Red Wings prospect Igor Grigorenko saw little action due to injury this season. While Michalek is disappointed with his turn of events, however, Grigorenko is probably thankful just to be alive. The speedy winger suffered what were reported to be life-threatening injuries in a car accident following the 2002-03 season, a season in which Grigorenko made a name for himself. The good news is that the Togliatti, Russia native has apparently recovered from his injuries, to the point where he has played a couple of playoff games for Lada Togliatti. Grigorenko relies on his speed to create scoring chances for himself, and to keep some distance between he and the mostly larger defensemen he faces. He won’t have as much room to operate in the NHL, but Grigorenko certainly has the tools to be a star in spite of his smaller stature.

6. Ryan Suter, Defenseman (NAS)
Height: 6-1, Weight: 188, Current Team: University of Wisconsin (WCHA)

The color gold is a popular one in the family of Nashville Predators prospect Ryan Suter. Suter’s father Bob played for the fabled 1980 United States Olympic squad that won the gold medal, and this year, Ryan was a vital part of the US team that won the country’s first gold medal at the World Junior Championships. Suter seemed to mature quickly this season, most of which was spent with the University of Wisconsin Badgers. The Madison, Wisconsin native displayed a competitive edge and leadership skills that might be expected from a player more experienced than the freshman rearguard. Suter is a smart and feisty defenseman who is difficult to beat in his own end. He may need to bulk up some more to handle full time duty in the NHL, but Suter appears to have enough skill to take the next step in his career.

5. Thomas Vanek, Left Wing (BUF)
Height: 6-2, Weight: 207, Current Team: University of Minnesota (WCHA)

With University of Minnesota scoring star Thomas Vanek, the glass is either half full or half empty. Vanek had what some may consider a disappointing year following the stellar season he had in 2002-03, yet he will finish amongst the top 10 scorers in the NCAA. The Graz, Austria native was still an offensive force for the Golden Gophers, but there were also reports that the Minnesota coaching staff was not completely happy with Vanek’s play away from the puck. There is no denying, however, that Vanek has the perhaps the most skill inside the opposition’s zone of any player on this list. The MVP of last year’s Frozen Four has proven that he is one of the top players at the college level, so it may now be time to move on to a career in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres.

4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Goaltender (PIT)
Height: 6-2, Weight: 172, Current Team: Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)

Yes, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Marc-Andre Fleury has played one NHL game beyond Hockey’s Future’s prospect criteria limit. But with one of Fleury’s 21 appearances being a relief stint, plus his return to the junior ranks, it was decided that he would be a part of this list. Fleury has been long been compared to all the great French-Canadian goaltenders past and present, and, after a hot start with the Penguins this season, the hype got bigger. A disastrous month of December meant that Fleury would eventually return to Cape Breton of the QMJHL around the season’s midpoint, but not before the young goaltender made his second appearance at the World Junior Championships. After dominating the tournament in 2003, he struggled in 2004, with his inability to handle the puck being highlighted in Canada’s heartbreaking gold medal loss. A potential franchise goalie, Fleury’s positioning is fantastic and his quickness and athleticism are incredible. He has been nearly flawless with Cape Breton since his return to that team, but he should be back in Pittsburgh next season.

3. Dion Phaneuf, Defenseman (CAL)
Height: 6-2, Weight: 205, Current Team: Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

With elite defensemen at a premium in the NHL, the Flames have one with that type of potential waiting in the wings in the form of Dion Phaneuf. The third defenseman taken at last year’s NHL Draft after Ryan Suter and Braydon Coburn, Phaneuf has outperformed the other two this season. The Edmonton, Alberta native will hit anything that moves and has a powerful shot from the point that he consistently puts on the net. Phaneuf’s shot, as well as his penchant for smartly forcing the play in the offensive zone, have led to his being a goal scoring threat from the blueline. With 19 goals this season for the Red Deer Rebels, he finished third in that category on the team, only five behind leader, Colin Fraser. Phaneuf’s first pass is not great, and his positioning is not flawless, but these are not major holes in his game. After a fantastic performance at the World Junior Championships this year, Phaneuf appears poised to make his debut for the Flames next season.

2. Nikolai Zherdev, Right Wing (CLM)
Height: 6-1, Weight: 186, Current Team: Columbus Blue Jackets (NHL)

Talent so big he couldn’t be left off of the list! Russian offensive whiz Nikolai Zherdev turned in a successful rookie season that almost wasn’t. The Columbus Blue Jackets were eager to bring their prized prospect to North America, but Zherdev’s club in Russia, CSKA Moscow, was not willing to part with the flashy winger. The standoff was settled in the Blue Jackets’ favor, though, but by that time Zherdev had become a full-fledged NHL rookie. The Kiev, Ukraine native finished tied for sixth in rookie scoring despite having played far fewer games than the other rookies have in the top 10. Zherdev can do great things in high gear, possessing the ability to turn defenders around with exhilarating rushes up ice. His defensive game needs work, but the Blue Jackets didn’t draft Zherdev to be a Selke Trophy winner.

1. Kari Lehtonen, Goaltender (ATL)
Height: 6-3, Weight: 200, Current Team: Atlanta Thrashers (NHL)

Four starts, four wins, one shutout. Those statistics are just the start of what should be a stellar NHL career for Atlanta Thrashers goaltending prospect Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen received his first call-up to the NHL in March after a strong season in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves. The Helsinki, Finland native has quickly met many of the expectations that came with his being selected second overall in the 2002 NHL Draft, with his strong debut leaving success-starved Thrashers fans wanting more. Lehtonen is as complete a package as you are likely to find in a goaltending prospect, as he possesses equal parts size, quickness, agility and confidence. Of all the players on this list, Lehtonen is probably the one that has “franchise player” written all over him, which is why he holds the top spot on the Hockey’s Future Top 50 list.