Hockey’s Future Top 50 Prospects: 1-10

By HF Staff

Below is the final installment of Hockey’s Future’s long-awaited updated Top 50 NHL prospects list for Fall 2004. Prospects ranked 11-25 and 26-50 were released earlier.

The top-ranked organization, the Washington Capitals, placed five prospects on our Top 50 list.

All players were chosen by the ranking committee from among those drafted prospects meeting Hockey’s Future’s prospect criteria, as of the beginning of the 2004-05 season.

10. Ryan Suter, Defenseman, Nashville Predators

Ryan Suter is a player with a fine pedigree. His uncle, Gary Suter, played 1145 NHL games and his father Bob Suter won a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics with the US “Miracle On Ice” National Team. But Ryan has done plenty to make his own mark on his young hockey career. He is an excellent skater who moves fluidly with long strides. He possesses excellent puck-handling skills and looks just as comfortable making the soft pass as he does firing a hard slapshot from the blueline. Although his physical skills make Suter a great hockey prospect, his cerebral skills are what sets him apart from lesser defensive prospects. His ability to read the play and make few mistakes will earn him an opportunity in the NHL in the near future. Suter decided to forego his remaining years in the NCAA to turn professional with the Milwaukee Admirals.

9. Milan Michalek, Right Wing, San Jose Sharks

Michalek is a two-way forward who has been compared to Selke Trophy winner Jere Lehtinen. Known for his excellent skating and speed, Michalek also adds hustle and determination and is a willing backchecker. The 6’2, 210 lb right-winger went directly from an 18-year-old in the Czech League to the NHL before injury slowed his progress. After rehabilitating the injury and being sent to Cleveland of the American Hockey League for conditioning, Michalek reinjured his knee. The sixth selection in the 2003 draft has all of the tools to be a solid player in the NHL. His hard working, creative style of play will be a benefit to the Sharks for years to come.

8. Thomas Vanek, Left Wing, Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres went through tremendous lengths to get Vanek to turn pro this offseason and forego his final two years of college eligibility at the University of Minnesota. The fifth selection in the 2003 draft was the WCHA Rookie of the Year in 2002-03 and this past season was a WCHA Second Team All-Star and NCAA Second Team All-American. Vanek is a player with great raw skills, deceptive speed, good size and superb stickhandling. The Graz, Austria native has some issues away from the puck, however, with reports that the Minnesota coaching staff was not completely happy with Vanek’s play here. There is no denying, however, that Vanek has the perhaps the most skill inside the opposition’s zone of any player on this list.

7. Dion Phaneuf, Defenseman, Calgary Flames

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 in the 2003 NHL Draft after Ryan Suter and Braydon Coburn, Phaneuf has outperformed the other two this past 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. Phaneuf was returned to the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League this season due to the NHL lockout.

6. Nathan Horton, Center, Florida Panthers

Since his drafting in 2003, Horton has done nothing to disappoint. He made the Florida Panthers NHL squad out of training camp in 2003 and was posting solid numbers (14 goals, 8 assists in 55 games) in his rookie campaign. He saw regular power play time, and with one of the better plus/minus ratings among Panther forwards, he showed that he was willing to pay attention to both ends of the ice. His season was cut short by a torn rotator cuff and a displaced bicep tendon in January. Horton is a smooth skater for a big man and possesses a strong shot. He plays hard game in and game out and his high-energy game will continue to evolve as the 19-year-old gets stronger.

5. Marc-Andre Fleury, Goaltender, Pittsburgh Penguins

The second ranked Pittsburgh Penguin prospect was the first overall pick of 2003. The young netminder made the Penguins roster out of training camp that fall, but the lack of defensive support caused far too much of an onslaught for the rookie. After the World Junior Championships, he was returned to junior where he again put up solid numbers. Fleury is a great blend of technical and athletic ability. He has solid footwork, very good reflexes and a glove hand that is very sharp. At the age of 19, there is no doubt that there will be bumps in the road for Fleury, but with all of the physical tools and great mental make up, he is only a few short stages of development from the NHL.

4. Evgeny Malkin, Center, Pittsburgh Penguins

In most other draft years, Evgeny Malkin would have been a No. 1 pick. Even as it was as time grew nearer to the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, there were some that would suggest that Malkin had closed the gap between himself and Alexander Ovechkin to the point where he would even have to be considered for the first selection. Malkin is a great package of size and skill. He is responsible defensively and has great awareness at both ends of the ice. He is a very good skater and has soft hands and is a very good stick handler with excellent control. He remains with Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the Russian league again this season.

3. Nikolai Zherdev, Right Wing, Columbus Blue Jackets

Russian offensive whiz Nikolai Zherdev turned in a successful rookie season in 2003-04 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 NHL rookie scoring in 2003-04, despite having played far fewer games than the other rookies. Zherdev has an excellent package of offensive skills. He has excellent on ice vision, puck handling ability and is a great skater, both in first step quickness and top speed.

2. Kari Lehtonen, Goaltender, Atlanta Thrashers

Kari Lehtonen was No. 1 in Hockey’s Future’s previous Top 50. The now 21-year-old native of Helsinki, Finland is bumped a spot not by his own play, but the high potential of Alexander Ovechkin. Lehtonen has gone from a top player in the Finnish Elite League to a top player in the American Hockey League and now has a 4-0-0 start to his NHL career. Lehtonen 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.

1. Alexander Ovechkin, Left Wing, Washington Capitals

Alexander Ovechkin was touted as the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft as early as 18 months before the occasion happened. He started playing with men in the Russian Super League as early as age 17. The scouting report on the young Russian doesn’t point to many holes in his game: smooth skater, great acceleration, great hands, and doesn’t shy away from physical play. Ovechkin also is no stranger to the defensive part of the game. He is often mentioned in the same breath with other dominating NHLers of the past and included with the caliber of No. 1 NHL draft picks of recent years such as Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk and Vincent Lecavalier.

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