The New York Rangers placed the most prospects on Hockey’s Future’s Top 50 NHL Prospects list for Spring 2006, with four. Five teams have three prospects on the list: Pittsburgh, Washington, Carolina, Nashville and Anaheim. Three teams have no prospects on the list: Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Phoenix.
1. Alexander Ovechkin, LW – Washington Capitals
All eyes have been on this 20-year-old Russian rookie since the start of the season. Intense and able to score in every kind of way, he’s shown that he’s the most complete young player in the NHL, even while making the often difficult transition from Europe. Currently leading his rookie class in goals, points, shots, power-play and shorthanded goals, he is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy in what is considered the best crop of rookies coming into the league in years. Ovechkin will be a key element for Team Russia in their quest for the gold medal this Olympics. You cannot get more natural abilities from a hockey player than Washington’s charismatic first rounder in 2004. His size, superior sniping skills, and demonstrated ability to put a team on his back give him the slight edge over Sidney Crosby, though there is very little separating the two in terms of potential.
2. Sidney Crosby, C – Pittsburgh Penguins
Hyped as the best player coming into the NHL since Eric Lindros, the 18-year-old center has not disappointed in his first pro season. Selected first overall in 2005, he currently leads the Penguins in scoring and is playing at more than a point-per-game pace. He has been surrounded with more talent than Ovechkin this year, but with the retirements of both Mario Lemieux and Zigmund Palffy, head coach Michel Therrien will rely heavily on his protégé to put more points on the board. Given an “A” as Therrien’s first move as a new coach, Crosby will be looked upon to lead, as he did with his Rimouski Oceanic to the Memorial Cup last season.
3. Dion Phaneuf, D – Calgary Flames
Already known as a solid game-breaker for his devastating hits, Phaneuf has also become an offensive force in a Calgary system that is centered on defensive awareness. The young native of Edmonton has already scored 14 goals in 57 games in his first pro season and is a key to the success of the Flames power play. His shot is as hard as they come and he is a solid +4. He should develop into a Norris contender for years to come and likely will eventually win the trophy.
4. Evgeni Malkin, C – Pittsburgh Penguins
This Penguins prospect decided to play another season with his Russian Super League team, Magnitogorsk Metallurg, and it proved to be a good decision. The 6’4, 190-pound center currently leads his team with 49 points in 43 games. He played in the last World Junior Championship in Vancouver, registering 10 points in six games while being named Best Forward of the tournament by the directorate. He is also representing his country in this year’s Olympics. Paired with Crosby, Pittsburgh should be set at center for some time.
5. Kari Lehtonen, G – Atlanta Thrashers
Lehtonen suffered a serious injury on opening night, which kept him out for more than three months. It was a setback after a dominant lockout season with Chicago in the AHL where he won 38 games, posted a .929 save percentage and earned himself five shutouts. He’s now back at the top of his game and will be a franchise goaltender for Atlanta. The Finn demonstrates few holes at 6’3, but his frame doesn’t make him a slow goaltender. His quickness and flexibility show quite the opposite. He will need to stay healthy if the Thrashers are to make the playoffs this year.
6. Henrik Lundqvist, G – New York Rangers
The 23-year-old netminder from Are, Sweden, has been exceptional through this first half of the season. The New York Rangers wouldn’t be at the top of the league without Lundqvist’s promising season. He leads the NHL in save percentage with .927 and is currently playing for Team Sweden in Torino, where he has been stellar. This seventh rounder from 2000 is proving why he was the best-kept secret in Sweden the past four years.
7. Thomas Vanek, LW – Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres have turned it around this season and it is in part because of the blossoming of their youngsters. In his first NHL season, Vanek is having success despite showing some signs of inconsistency. Vanek is a pure scorer, tallying 16 goals in 54 games under coach Lindy Ruff’s system. He might not enjoy as much success as Ovechkin and Crosby, but his potential is legitimate and should continue to develop at a good rate over the remainder of the season.
8. Jack Johnson, D – Carolina Hurricanes
Johnson is the highest ranked US born player on Hockey’s Future’s Top 50 prospect list. A freshman at the University of Michigan, Johnson is known for his stickhandling and physical play. An offensive defenseman who can also take care of his own end, he was drafted third overall in last summer’s NHL entry draft. In 26 games this season, Johnson has registered 26 points (6 goals, 20 assists) and has a plus/minus rating of +7. Johnson was part of the 2006 US team at the U20 World Junior Championships. During the tournament, Johnson registered six points in seven games, and, although his physical play caused quite a bit of controversy, as the result of his efforts, Johnson was named to the WJC media All-Star team.
9. Jeff Carter, C – Philadelphia Flyers
Carter, who moves up one spot since the last Top 50 list, is in his rookie year with the Philadelphia Flyers. Known to be a complete player, Carter has been producing offensively, garnering 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists) in 55 games, while achieving a plus/minus rating of +5. He is fifth on the team in scoring and since Peter Forsberg’s injury, has been centering the Flyers first line. Although somewhat overshadowed by top rookie phenoms this year, Carter is having a solid freshman season and is expected to be a mainstay on one of the Flyers top two lines for years to come.
10. Ryan Suter, D – Nashville Predators
Although he is a complete player with great talent, Suter’s adjustment to NHL play has not been as smooth as expected after a full year in the minors with Milwaukee. In 54 games with the Nashville Predators, Suter has registered 14 points (1 goal, 13 assists). He has had even more trouble lately, with no points since Jan. 23 and a –1 over that time period. But despite his current slowdown, he will likely develop into a solid player with a long career in the NHL.
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