While picking the top NHL prospect is never an easy task, it was particularly difficult in the Spring Top 50 rankings as there were several candidates worthy of consideration for top prospect. Many prospects performed at a high level this season, particularly in the NHL, where a truncated regular season has seen over 125 rookies lace up for at least one game.
The staff at Hockey's Future considered several different players, including NHL rookie standouts Alex Galchenyuk (MTL) and Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA), but it was St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko and his ability to single-handedly take over a game that ultimately won out.
1. Vladimir Tarasenko, RW – St. Louis Blues
Height: 5-11 Weight: 202, Fall Ranking – 2
Vladimir Tarasenko finally arrived in the NHL with a bang, jumping out of the gate offensively from the first game. He has shown explosive, high-end offensive skills and the ability to drive to the net with vigor. He pursues the puck with dogged determination and possesses a quick, powerful shot that he can release from anywhere in the offensive zone.
Tarasenko can be an electrifying player with the puck on his stick and thrives in the dirty areas around the net. His strong work ethic and powerful skating stride, along with his quick acceleration, will make the life of opposing defensemen miserable for years to come. He was the runaway leader in the Calder Trophy race before suffering a concussion in February. He has since returned to action and should remain in the mix for NHL Rookie of the Year honors.
2. Alex Galchenyuk, C – Montreal Canadiens
Height: 6-1 Weight: 198, Fall Ranking – 8
After dominating the OHL during the NHL lockout, Galchenyuk surprised many hockey people by making the Montreal Canadiens as an 18-year-old. His high-end offensive talent along with excellent vision, hockey sense, and playmaking abilities forced the team's management to keep him at the NHL level. The young prospect has impressed both the coaches and teammates with his outstanding work ethic as well as his winning attitude on and off the ice.
Galchenyuk has the potential to be a dominant, franchise player in the NHL. Despite playing around 12 minutes per game, the young forward continues to find ways to make things happen offensively every game. His two-way game has improved from the start of the season and he is starting to play with more grit as his confidence grows at the NHL level. Galchenyuk will be the big number one center that the Montreal Canadiens have needed for a very long time and is a superstar in the making.
3. Jonathan Huberdeau, LW – Florida Panthers
Height: 6-1 Weight: 177, Fall Ranking – 4
Whatever questions remained regarding Huberdeau's ability to generate the same offense in the NHL as he had in the QMJHL have been answered, and then some. Huberdeau scores with aplomb and consistency for an injury-depleted Florida team that struggles to generate offense. He kicked off his rookie campaign with a three-point game on opening night, and has continued to score at a rate that finds him among the league leaders in rookie scoring. He is a creative playmaker with sensational passing skills and on-ice awareness. Although he still needs to add strength and weight to his slight frame, he is a Calder Trophy front-runner and appears to be an NHL star on the rise.
There are few weaknesses in 19-year-old Dougie Hamilton's game. He has the size, the mobility, and the hockey sense to become a top defenseman in the NHL. Hamilton is currently with the Bruins where he is averaging about 17 minutes a game and seeing a fair amount of time on the power play. He is not an overly physical player, though he is not afraid to play the body or block shots. Hamilton is already a solid top four defenseman in the NHL and, with continued development, could become a player similar to Bruins teammate Zdeno Chara.
The first overall selection from the 2012 NHL Draft possesses break-neck speed, an incredible shot, and the ever-present ability to win NHL games with his stick. In his brief tenure with the Edmonton Oilers, Yakupov has not looked out of place on the offensive side of the ice. While he has not exploded onto the scene as some former first overall picks in recent years have, he has looked comfortable in a scoring role and appears poised to become an offensive star in the NHL. However, a lack of consistency on the backcheck and a frustrating ability to disappear on the ice at times keeps Yakupov from being the complete package and a generational talent.
The Capitals first round pick from 2010 continues to be one of the KHL's top players. His 2012-13 year nearly mimicked his previous season with Traktor as he repeated his 19-goal performance and increased his overall scoring performance from 41 to 44 points. It seems like Kuznetsov has been a top prospect for years, but he will just turn 21 years old this spring. The Capitals are still holding out hope that Kuznetsov comes to the NHL, where he would easily be a top-six forward and could immediately be on a scoring line. There has been speculation that he could come to North America after the 2014 Winter Olympics that will be held in Russia. Kuznetsov is still an elite prospect and could be a very special player in the NHL.
7. Justin Schultz, D – Edmonton Oilers
Height: 6-2 Weight: 185, Fall Ranking – 22
There have been few NHL defensive prospects in recent memory with as much offensive talent and the raw ability to change the fate of a game as Justin Schultz. He made a bang early in the season, when he suited up for the Oilers' AHL squad In Oklahoma City, and managed 18 goals and 30 assists in only 34 games. Once the NHL season finally was underway, Schultz joined the Oilers and has not looked back.
What is perhaps most surprising about his game, outside of his ability to move the puck from end to end with little turbulence, is the fact that his defensive game is not as deficient as it was initially thought to be. In fact, despite some holes in his game and the overall need to get stronger, he has looked good in his own end. The ceiling is very high for Schultz and, given the young talent surrounding him, he could become a very special offensive weapon in the NHL.
The first thing that jumps out about Mika Zibanejad is his unique, squat style of skating, which clearly works well for him. One of his greatest assets is his speed. He has fantastic top-end speed but is also quite agile, and can use his edges effectively to change directions quickly. He is a very creative player offensively, but also plays in high traffic areas and likes to drive to the net. His defensive game is great for a 19-year-old in the NHL, with his hustle on the backcheck being notable every shift.
Zibanejad is already playing with the Ottawa Senators and should only get better as he matures physically and grows more comfortable playing in North America. He projects as a first- or second-line center with game-breaking capabilities.
Rielly is an elite high-end prospect with a variety of offensive talents. He is an excellent skater, possesses great vision, and is quite creative with the puck. He finished the regular season among the top scoring defensemen in the WHL despite playing for a struggling Moose Jaw Warriors team. He was crucial to the Warriors' attack as they heavily relied on his quick strike passing and ability to rush the puck up the ice.
The Vancouver native has improved his two-way game and has become more reliable in his end of the rink. He still needs to bring more physicality and urgency down low in the defensive zone, however. Rielly was assigned to the AHL following the conclusion of the WHL regular season, and is likely to challenge for a spot on the Leafs roster next season.
After an emergency call-up last season that saw Sven Baertschi scoring three goals in five games, many believed it would be smooth sailing for the Swiss winger in his first full season with the Calgary Flames. An early season injury combined with offensive struggles brewed rough waters, however, and by March he was sent down to the AHL. Baertschi possesses a high level of skill, highlighted by his offensive prowess, grit, and intelligence, and while undersized he has shown the ability to rise up and play above his stature. Despite hiccupping in 2012-13 at the NHL level, he still projects to be an elite level forward, it might just take a bit longer than initially thought.
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