The Fall edition of the Hockey’s Future ranking of the Top 50 NHL prospects concludes with the top 10 prospects, led by Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk. The top spots were tightly contested with many of the prospects already having made their mark in the NHL.
The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season led to a bevy of talented players maintaining prospect eligibility. With an unprecedented amount of experienced NHL players in the mix, the top of the ranking was especially difficult. All of these players have promising NHL careers, and with no clear-cut favorite, it came down to a matter of Galchenyuk having the better overall game. Galchenyuk, while maybe not quite the natural goal-scorer as Nail Yakupov or as creative a playmaker as Jonathan Huberdeau, possesses a unique combination of size, skating, high-end skill, and leadership that makes him the type of player every NHL team covets at center.
Which prospect ultimately becomes the top NHL player of the group remains to be seen, but all of the players in the top 10 have the potential to be future stars in the NHL for many years to come.
1. Alex Galchenyuk, C – Montreal Canadiens
Height: 6-1, Weight: 203, Spring ranking – 2
Galchenyuk is a high-end offensive talent with excellent vision, hockey sense, and playmaking abilities. The 19-year-old is mature beyond his age, but it is his work ethic and drive to be the best that will push him to exceed expectations. In his rookie season, the big center was a Calder Trophy candidate and should improve his offensive production in 2013-14. He needs to improve his first step acceleration, physicality, and defensive zone positioning to be an absolutely dominant type of player. It will take time and experience for him to become an elite NHL center, but he projects as a franchise player and future star in the NHL.
2. Jonathan Huberdeau, C/LW – Florida Panthers
Height: 6-1, Weight: 171, Spring ranking – 3
With Florida’s lineup depleted due to injury in 2012-13, Huberdeau became the Panthers primary scorer. A three-point opening night game set the tone for the 2013 season. By year’s end, he led all rookies in scoring with 14 goals and 17 assists. His offensive consistency was impressive, as was his wizardry with the puck. A creative playmaker, he got his teammates involved thanks to his astounding passing skills and on-ice awareness. For his efforts, the 2011 third overall pick became the franchise’s first Calder Trophy recipient. Already a rising star in the NHL, it should be only a matter of time before he is among the elite players in hockey.
3. Nail Yakupov, RW – Edmonton Oilers
Height: 5-11, Weight: 184, Spring ranking – 5
When watching the first overall selection from the 2012 NHL Draft, the most noticeable thing is how he skates with a swagger. Nail Yakupov has world-class speed, a penchant for finding spaces, and an unrelenting love for the game as portrayed by the smile he shines when he is on. The trouble is, Yakupov is not always on. He is a stereotypical Russian player who is brilliantly skilled but struggles with consistency, especially in his own end. In limited opportunities last season, Yakupov showcased his world-class shot and had one of the best shooting percentages in the entire league. With some of the Oilers’ best players banged up to start the season, he is going to be given plenty of opportunity to show his value. Combine that with the new goalie equipment changes brought on by the NHL rules committee and the perfect storm begins to form for what could be the Russian sniper's coming out party in 2013-14.
MacKinnon is an excellent offensive talent who competes hard and thrives in pressure situations. His explosive acceleration and solid skating base allows him to cut through the opposition defenders with ease. He possesses quick hands, playmaking skills, and a hard accurate release on his shot. MacKinnon plays a bullish, physical style of game on the forecheck, but will need to keep getting stronger to hold up in the NHL. He is close to being a complete player and versatile enough to play any position in the top-nine for Colorado. The 18-year-old will make the jump full-time to the NHL this upcoming season, but he will not be under pressure to produce on the top line with the Avalanche and can grow at his own pace. Although he lacks the experience of the players ranked ahead of him, MacKinnon has all of the tools and the drive to become a future star in the NHL.
Calling a fourth-overall pick a steal can seem like hyperbole, but the future may prove that Seth Jones was the best overall player in the 2013 draft. Jones skates with simple ease and agility for a player of his size. He changes direction without losing speed, has tremendous first-step acceleration, and seamlessly transitions to backward skating strides. He has exceptional hockey sense in all three zones, and blends superior stick skills and a deadly shot repertoire to generate and capitalize on scoring chances. He has received criticism in the past for failing to play a dominant physical game, but he is defensively sound in his own zone and uses his long reach and hockey sense to disrupt opposing forwards. With the puck, he makes panic-free, crisp outlet passes, and has the skating ability to move the puck up ice. In short, Jones is a true multi-tool defenseman who should be one of the NHL’s top blueliners for the next decade and beyond.
Vladimir Tarasenko is a highly-skilled scorer with the physicality to play through the middle of the ice. His speed and size along with a quick release helped him produce good offensive results in his NHL rookie season, although his first year was limited by injury. Not overly tall, he is thickly built and extremely powerful. He can be an electrifying player with the puck on his stick and thrives in the dirty areas around the net. His work ethic and powerful skating stride along with excellent acceleration makes it difficult for opposing defensemen to handle him. As long as he remains healthy, Tarasenko projects as an elite power forward in the NHL.
Hamilton is a gifted defenseman whose skating is not hampered by his massive size. His ability to skate with the puck out of the Bruins zone is a good addition for a team built for a more rugged, slower style of game. His early season success had some proclaiming him a Calder Trophy favorite before his play dipped a little towards the end of the year. His lack of experience also showed in the postseason, limiting him to only seven games. Still, he is very young and is expected to become a top-pairing defenseman capable of logging a lot of minutes in all situations. The Bruins have the luxury of developing Hamilton at a slow pace, but expect him to see more responsibilities as the 2013-14 season goes on.
8. Aleksander Barkov, C – Florida Panthers
Height: 6-3, Weight: 209, Not ranked
More than just a two-way center with NHL size, Barkov is the kind of player that takes over games. He plays a deceptively quiet game, finding space and time on the ice by stickhandling into openings or using his size to shield the puck from his opponents. He has a laser wrist shot and excellent vision, and although he does not have blazing speed, Barkov is quick enough to get where he needs to be. He creates havoc in the offensive zone and his size and balance allow him to ward off defenders without compromising his ability to make plays. Barkov also finds himself in a fantastic situation in Florida, where he will be given plenty of opportunities to contribute and become a leader for a rebuilding team with a lot of young talent.
Drouin was possibly the purest offensive talent in the 2013 NHL Draft. Playing last season for the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads alongside Nathan MacKinnon, the two acted as a two-headed dragon for the Mooseheads' offense. Drouin utilized his slick offensive ability and top level skating to score an astounding 105 points in 45 games. Put Drouin with the right linemates at any level and he could flourish with his dazzling puck skills and his exceptional on-ice vision. He has everything you want from an offensive standpoint except for size. At 5'10, he is definitely considered undersized for the NHL game, but as he matures he will learn that his skating and stick-handling will not be enough to get him by. Although Drouin was assigned to Halifax for the 2013-14 season, he can look forward to a great, undersized mentor to learn from with Tampa Bay in Martin St. Louis. Drouin is not going to give you much in the way of defensive prowess or physicality, but those shortcomings are forgivable considering his high-end offensive skill set.
Washington Capitals fans have been licking their chops when it comes to Kuznetsov for some time, and the general consensus is that the young Russian will be in North America after the Sochi Olympic Games. He would almost immediately be a top-six player with the Caps given his track record and scoring prowess against full grown men in the KHL. He also plays a physical game that is not typical of many Russian forwards, which lends to his NHL readiness. For now, though, it will be another year of waiting and watching for Capitals fans and management, as he will likely be hovering around the 50-point mark with Traktor yet again. All signs seem to be pointing to him wanting to play NHL hockey, but the young forward is insistent on doing it when he is ready.
Follow Hockey's Future on Twitter: @HockeysFuture