With every regular season in hockey finished, it is once again time to select the Hockey's Future Prospect of the Year. Though there were many fantastic performances outside of the NHL, none were quite as good as Yevgeni Kuznetsov (WAS), who this season further cemented himself as the best hockey player not currently in North America.
Playing 51 regular season games with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL, Kuznetsov managed 19 goals and 25 assists, which was substantially more than anyone else on his team and sixth in the entire KHL. His 44 points were also the most of any player in the KHL aged 21 years or younger. It was also the third year in a row the forward made the KHL All-Star roster.
Conventional wisdom suggests Kuznetsov has nothing left to prove in the KHL, and while he would likely benefit from coming to North America sooner than later, if only to acclimate himself to the lifestyle and culture, he is in a good situation developmentally in the KHL. He sees huge minutes and is the star for his team, something he would not be for a Washington Capitals team that already boasts the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Considering the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in his native Russia, expect Kuznetsov to spend at least the majority of the 2013-14 season in the KHL, where he can represent his country on the world stage. One thing is certain, when he does eventually get to North America, he should be an immediate impact player.
Most players, let alone former first round picks, are expected to be individually dominant in their fourth year of Canadian major junior hockey and Ryan Strome was no exception. This season, Strome managed 34 goals, 60 assists, and a plus-43 rating in 53 regular season games with the IceDogs. His 1.77 points per game was second in the OHL behind only Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), who played 20 fewer games, and his +43 was also second in the league, behind only Vince Trocheck (FLA). Strome also elevated the play of those around him, helping frequent linemates Brett Ritchie (DAL) and Steven Shipley both to career years. After Niagara's playoff run was over, Strome joined the New York Islanders AHL affiliate in Bridgeport and managed seven points in their final 10 games.
Jacob Trouba, D, Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)
Though Trouba was a known commodity heading into his freshman year at Michigan, it was hard to tell what kind of contribution he would make in his first year. It is particularly hard for freshman defenseman to make an impact in college, as they not only have to adjust to a higher level of play and a shorter weekend schedule, but typically have to learn more systems and watch more video than forwards. None of that was apparently much of an issue for Trouba, as he managed a goal and an assist in his first game with the Wolverines, and continued to be one of their more consistently productive players all season, finishing with 12 goals and 17 assists through 37 games. He was particularly effective on the power-play, managing seven goals and seven assists, but by the end of the season was also a regular contributor on the penalty kill.
In addition to his impressive freshman season with Michigan, Trouba helped lead Team USA to a gold medal at the 2013 U20 World Junior Championship. An alternate captain for his team, Trouba led all defenseman in goals and points with four goals and nine points and was universally considered one of, if not the top defenseman at the tournament.
Following the conclusion of his season with Michigan, Trouba signed an entry-level deal with the Winnipeg Jets. Regardless if he plays in the AHL or NHL next year, his dramatic progress this season bodes well for the future of the Jets.
When Jaskin announced he would play for the Moncton Wildcats last summer, it piqued the curiosity of many in the hockey community. A big, mean forward who spent the prior two seasons in the Slavia Praha system, Jaskin was too talented to play in the Czech developmental or minor leagues, but also lacked the experience to see enough time at the Extraliga level to properly aid his development.
But few could have anticipated that Jaskin would make the degree of impact in the QMJHL that he did. Known as a skilled player who was prone to bouts of inconsistency, Jaskin was among the most consistent offensive producers in the QMJHL, finishing with 99 points through 51 regular season games, going two games without a point on only one occasion. His 1.94 points-per-game production was second in the QMJHL to only Jonathan Drouin (2013).
Following the end of his season in Moncton, Jaskin joined the St. Louis Blues and made his NHL debut. What kind of player Jaskin ultimately develops into remains to be seen, but given his size, skill, and demeanor, he fits in with a Blues team that prides itself on being tough to play against.
Morgan Rielly finally realized the immense potential he had this season, managing 12 goals and 42 assists in 60 WHL games. He finished fifth in the league in points by a defenseman and was relied on heavily by Moose Jaw in all situations. Following a 2011-12 season that was abbreviated by a severe knee injury, it was unknown how well Rielly would handle the rigors of a full season. As it turned out, the 19-year-old Rielly was at times dominant, and once Moose Jaw's season ended, he joined Toronto's AHL affiliate. Whether he joins the Maple Leafs NHL roster next fall or not, Rielly will be a key contributor to the organization for years to come.
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