WHL well represented at the top of HF’s ranking of the Top 50 NHL prospects

By HF Staff

Photo: Los Angeles Kings prospect Brayden Schenn tops the Hockey’s Future ranking of the Top 50 NHL prospects (courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

We’ve taken a look at 40 of the top prospects in our rankings, so it is time to unveil the top 10 prospects in the Hockey’s Future ranking of the Top 50 NHL prospects.

At #10 we find the Minnesota Wild‘s lone prospect in these rankings, forward Mikael Granlund. The Oulu, Finland native plays for HIFK Helsinki in Finland‘s top league. The diminutive Granlund has scored at a nearly point-per-game clip the past two seasons while playing against older competition, so he’ll likely be ready for the NHL in the near future. The play-making forward has been compared to fellow countryman Saku Koivu in terms of the type of game that he plays, so Wild fans have an exciting player to look forward to once Granlund arrives on the scene.

The Washington Capitals lineup already sports a couple of talented Russians, but that club might add another in the form of #9 in this ranking, Evgeny Kuznetsov. The skilled forward was chosen in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft by the Capitals, but Kuznetsov truly made a name for himself with a strong offensive performance for the gold medal-winning Russian team at the 2011 World Junior Championship. Kuznetsov’s game has taken off from there as he has been a scoring star for Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL following the completion of the WJC. The Capitals already have an elite offense, but it could become scarier with the addition of Kuznetsov.

The scorers parade continues with #8, right wing Brett Connolly. The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect plays in the WHL for his hometown team, the Prince George Cougars. Connolly had question marks surrounding his game heading into the 2010 NHL Draft, but the Lightning felt comfortable in using a top 10 selection on Connolly. Connolly has rewarded the Lightning’s faith in his abilities by taking his goal-scoring to new heights this season. He potted 46 goals for the Cougars in just 59 games, which placed Connolly among the leaders in that category in the WHL. The Lightning already have the centerpiece for their future in Steven Stamkos, but it looks as though they’ve added another offensive gem in Connolly.

Staying in the WHL, at #7 is left winger Nino Niederreiter. The Swiss scoring star has turned in another good season for the Portland Winterhawks, notching more points in fewer games this season than in 2009-10. Niederreiter made a name for himself last year at the 2010 WJC, and followed that up with a more workmanlike performance for Switzerland at the 2011 event. The New York Islanders made Niederreiter their first pick at the 2010 NHL Draft and gave their young, scoring prospect a taste of the NHL before sending him back to juniors for more development. Niederreiter hasn’t had a spectacular season but he has done little to suggest that he won’t achieve the heights that are expected of him in the future.

The St. Louis Blues have an offensive spark plug in Jaden Schwartz, but they also sport a more all-purpose forward in the #6 prospect in our rankings, right winger Vladimir Tarasenko. The 19-year-old Tarasenko has played in the KHL the past three seasons, fitting right in with players several years older than the budding forward. Tarasenko served as captain of the Russian squad at the 2011 WJC where he was a driving force in his team’s surprising drive to a gold medal. Some have described the stocky forward as a tank on skates, but Tarasenko also possesses some offensive chops to go along with his tenacity.

One of two Swedish defensemen to land in the top 10 is our #5 prospect, David Rundblad. The Ottawa Senators prospect flew under the radar prior to this season, but his game has improved dramatically in 2010-11. Rundblad plays for Skelleftea in Sweden‘s top league where he has been an offensive dynamo this season. The slick rearguard nearly quadrupled his point total of the previous season, showing signs that he is ready to live up to the promise that some saw in his game leading up to his draft year. The Senators acquired Rundblad from the St. Louis Blues at the 2010 NHL Draft, a move that appears to have been a wise one given Rundblad’s rapid development this season.

The other defenseman in this group, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, holds the same #4 slot that he did in the previous rankings. The gifted defender is a prospect of the Phoenix Coyotes, their top pick in 2009. Ekman-Larsson received his first extended duty in the NHL this season, appearing in 48 games for the Coyotes. He is currently tuning his game with the Coyotes AHL farm team, the San Antonio Rampage. With as much hoopla as has been bandied about over Ekman-Larsson’s abilities, it is easy to forget that he is just 19 years of age. The smooth and savvy Swede hasn’t broken through yet, but there seems to be little doubt that he will do so in the near future.

The goaltenders’ union is represented at #3 with the choice of Los Angeles Kings prospect, Jonathan Bernier. The Laval, Quebec native moved up two positions from the previous rankings, based primarily on his good showing in his first extended tour of duty with the Kings. Bernier has been a highly-regarded prospect since the Kings chose him back in 2006, but he is just now starting to put his game together and rounding into form. For now, Jonathan Quick is the Kings #1 goaltender, but it seems likely that Bernier could make a push to be the starter for the 2011-12 season.

WHL players hold down the top two positions in this Top 50 ranking, including our #2 choice, center Ryan Johansen. Johansen was somewhat of surprise selection by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2010 NHL Draft due to the position (4th overall) at which they selected him. But the Port Moody, British Columbia native has more than justified that lofty selection with an offensive performance that was only hinted at in his draft year. Johansen posted 23 more points in fewer games than he played the previous season, including 40 goals as he led the Portland Winterhawks to the top of the WHL‘s Western Conference. The big pivot was also a top performer for Canada at the 2011 WJC, helping to raise his profile to new heights.

For this edition of the Hockey’s Future Top 50 NHL prospects, our #1 prospect is Los Angeles Kings property, Brayden Schenn. Schenn is currently playing for his hometown team, the Saskatoon Blades, who acquired the talented center to solidify their chances at a run to the WHL championship. Schenn hasn’t disappointed, as he has led that club to the top of the WHL. He has scored at a clip that would have added up to a 148-point season had he played in all 70 games, rather than the 29 in which he actually competed. In addition, he was the standout performer at the 2011 WJC where he was named the Top Forward and Most Valuable Player while playing for Canada’s silver medal squad. Schenn has spent short stretches in the NHL and AHL already, but his performance this season may put him on the fast track to the NHL in 2011-12.

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