Hockey’s Future Top 50 Prospects: 26-50

By HF Staff

Hockey’s Future’s long-awaited updated Top 50 NHL prospects list for Fall 2004 is complete.

The top-ranked organization, the Washington Capitals, placed the most prospects on our Top 50 list. At the other end of the spectrum, there are several NHL teams with no players on the list.

All players were chosen by the committee from among those drafted prospects meeting Hockey’s Future’s prospect criteria, as of the beginning of the 2004-05 season.

50. Antero Niittymaki, Goaltender, Philadelphia Flyers

Niittymaki is one of few goalies who have a current unbeaten streak in the NHL. After a subpar rookie season in the AHL during the 2002-03 season, the Turku, Finland native took over for veteran Neil Little as AHL affiliate Philadelphia Phantoms’ undisputed starter in 2003-04 and emerged as one of the top goaltenders in the American Hockey League, finishing fifth in the league in wins (24), tied for fifth with a club-record seven and ninth in GAA (2.02). He than got recalled by the Flyers where he dressed for three games, winning all three of them and posting an impressive .961 save percentage. Niittymaki has great reflexes and is very agile. He is the clear cut No.1 goaltending prospect in the Flyers system and will be pushing for a spot on the roster sooner rather than later.

49. Christopher Higgins, Center, Montreal Canadiens

The former 2002 first round pick, taken 14th overall, decided to leave Yale after his sophomore season, where he was a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker award. Entering his first pro season, the 5’11, 188-pound center had to switch positions. When asked by Hockey’s Future this October if it affected his game Higgins said, “No, not really. I feel pretty comfortable playing both positions.” He finished his rookie season in 2003-04 with 21 goals and 48 points in 67 games in the AHL. Higgins is a smart two-way forward with a good set of hands and is dangerous offensively. He is also a true leader who works hard and leads by example. He will be a member of the Montreal Canadiens in the not too distant future.

48. Steve Bernier, Right Wing, San Jose Sharks

The first overall pick in the 2001 QMJHL Midget Draft, Steve Bernier has been a key to the Moncton offense for the last few years. Last season his 36 goals in 66 games placed him 10th in the QMJHL, while his 82 points placed him 13th. Known as a power forward, the 6’2 228-pound sniper finished 11th in the QMJHL with 169 hits. Now playing in his fourth season in the QMJHL, nothing has changed. The San Jose pick is leading his team offensively and is a candidate to make the Canadian WJC team. Bernier is a big guy who knows how to use his size. He is a very deceptive puckhandler who creates space for himself and his teammates. He also has a good shoot and is dangerous around the net. Bernier projects as a strong second line power forward at the NHL level, but still has some polishing to do.

47. Derek Roy, Center, Buffalo Sabres

This 21-year-old center has been an offensive force his entire career. He was one of the most dominating players in the OHL while playing with the Kitchener Rangers for four seasons. In 272 regular and postseason games, Roy amassed 161 goals and a total of 375 points. In his first pro season Roy tallied 26 points in 26 regular season games for the Rochester Americans prior to his call-up to the Sabres, then continued his dominating play at the AHL level by scoring 14 points in 16 postseason games. While in playing in the NHL, Roy made a name for himself and was selected for the NHL Young Stars game held in Minneapolis during All-Star weekend. Roy is a small, diminutive forward who has great speed and determination. He’s also a strong puckhandler who sees the ice very well and is smart. He is projected to be a top-9 forward for the Buffalo Sabres.

46. Marek Schwarz, Goaltender, St. Louis Blues

Selected with the 17th pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by the St. Louis Blues, Schwarz was projected to be a top-10 pick. After a very good season that saw him dress up for three different teams in the Czech Republic, as well as two national junior teams, his draft stock soared. He played in 23 games in the Czech Extraliga as a 17-year-old and posting an 8-13-2 record with a 3.20 GAA and a .910 save percentage while splitting time between Sparta Praha, Trinec and Plzen. Schwarz is a resilient goalie with exceptional quickness and reflexes. He also likes to challenge the shooter and plays the angles with remarkable poise. Schwarz is now a member of the Vancouver Giants of the WHL and is expected to become a goaltending leader for the Blues in a couple of years time.

45. Ryan Whitney, Defenseman, Pittsburgh Penguins

This Scituate, Massachusetts native has been a highly touted prospect for many years. Taken fifth overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Whitney has had a very successful career at Boston University where he has spent the last three years. In his junior season he led the team in scoring with 25 points in 38 games. After the seasons end with BU, Whitney decided to turn pro and joined Pittsburgh AHL affiliate, Wilkes–Barre/Scranton. He didn’t just settle down with a spot on the roster, Whitney was among the key contributors with 10 points in 20 playoff games. Whitney is a big defenseman who is a very good skater and also has good hockey sense. He is strong defensively and has an admirable work ethic. Now in his first full season in the AHL, Whitney will be one of the defensive anchors for Wilkes–Barre/Scranton. He’ll be one of the defensive leaders in Pittsburgh for many years to come.

44. Denis Grebeshkov, Defenseman, Los Angeles Kings

After a very successful career in the Russian Superleague, Grebeskhov moved over the pond prior to the 2003-04 season. Finding a place with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, Grebeskhov quickly adapted to the North American style and was among the better defensemen on the team. His mature play earned him a late season recall to the Los Angeles King where he spent four games and registered his first NHL point. A very mobile defenseman who has great speed and acceleration, Grebeskhov is also very mature and plays a smart two-way game. This season he’s back with the Monarchs in the AHL where he’s playing a more offensive-minded role. He should be ready for the NHL in a year or two and is projected as a top-2 pairing defenseman.

43. Eric Fehr, Right Wing, Washington Capitals

Drafted 18th overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals, Fehr broke out last year offensively and was a force in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Scoring 50 goals for the first time in his junior career, Fehr also picked up 34 assists in 71 games for a total of 84 points. Fehr is a prototypical goal scorer — big, strong, big shot and a nose for the net – who has very good upside. He is also unafraid of getting in the dirty areas and is physically mature. So far this season he has continued on his torrid pace from last year and is among the top scorers in the WHL. He will most likely turn pro after this season and compete for a spot with the Washington Capitals.

42. Rostislav Olesz, Center, Florida Panthers

This 2004 draftee is coming from one of the emerging leagues in terms of developing NHL caliber players. A native of Ostrava of the Czech Republic, Olesz plays a strong all-around game – perfect for the physical, defensive mindset of the NHL. His time in the Czech Extraleague this season will greatly help his development as he learns to play the NHL style against the stars moving into the league as a result of the work stoppage. Olesz is young and strong with plenty of time to refine his game. He doesn’t have as high of an offensive ceiling as other prospects on the list, but he makes up for that with his size and two-way game.

41. Ryan Miller, Goaltender, Buffalo Sabres

The sense of inevitability that buoyed this Buffalo prospect at the top of the list in past years is no longer there. Just as one would not want to propel a player to the top based upon the strength of a single tremendous season, one would not want to drop a player on the basis of a bad stretch of games. However, at some point one must begin to question whether a prospect will fully reach the level that was projected of him. After resembling a brick wall in net for Michigan State, Miller continued to impress with Rochester and Buffalo during the 2002-03 season. With the future starting position all but bestowed upon him, Miller greatly stumbled in three games for Buffalo in 2003-04 and never saw an NHL rink again. Now, at the age of 24, Miller is at a point in his career where he must either sink or swim.

40. Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, Goaltender, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers elite goaltender from the QMJHL, Drouin-Deslauriers enters his first full season with the Roadrunners of the AHL. Drouin-Deslauriers faced a ton of shots in the offensive-minded Q, but used his large frame and athletic body to turn most away. His numbers in 2001-02 and 2002-03 would have been much better had his Chicoutimi teammates been able to prevent the onslaught of scoring opportunities he was facing on a nightly basis. His career path has been a model of steady development, even though often in the shadows of phenom Marc-Andre Fleury, losing out to Fleury twice for the WJC. Drouin-Deslauriers will have his day in Edmonton as the organization will soon rely on this young netminder for stability between the pipes.

39. Michael Richards, Center, Philadelphia Flyers

Richards was one of the primary cogs to Kitchener’s Memorial Cup team in 2003. Despite his lack of ideal size for the physical NHL style, he makes up for it with determination and work ethic. Fearless in the corners and around the net, Richards has proven himself as one of the top players in the OHL. But he has not had the chance to prove it at higher levels as doubters have pointed to his lack of size or top offensive potential to question his role in the NHL. Irrespective of where his contributions will lie, Richards’ intangibles of hard work and competitiveness will carry him throughout his professional career.

38. Antoine Vermette, Center, Ottawa Senators

Vermette’s career thus far has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride, with a misdiagnosed injury once thought to be career-threatening being the low point thus far. He had a strong rookie season in the AHL in 2002-03, with 34 goals and a spot on the All-Rookie team. The speedster then surprisingly stuck with the Ottawa Senators, one of the deepest teams up front in the NHL. His energy, penalty-killing ability and versatility made him a fixture on the fourth line all season. Perhaps the high point of his career thus far was in the playoffs when he was inserted into the line-up in favor of phenom Jason Spezza, and set up Mike Fisher for a heroic overtime playoff goal last year against Toronto. Capable of making moves at top speed, Vermette should slowly develop his offensive game in Ottawa.

37. Carlo Colaiacovo, Defenseman, Toronto Maple Leafs

The native of Toronto, Ontario had the good fortune to be drafted by his hometown team. Colaiacovo has solid all-around skills, and gets extensive use in every situation while carrying the bulk of the minutes for the defensive corps for St. John’s. Colaiacovo is one of the more experienced prospects on the Top 50, having spent parts of two seasons in the NHL, one complete season in the AHL and starring in several international tournaments, including being named a First Team All-Star during the 2003 WJC. Right now for Colaiacovo, it’s all about continuing to do the little things that have made him so successful to this point as he vies for a full-time roster spot in Toronto.

36. Corey Perry, Right Wing, Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Perry climbs the Hockey’s Future chart still on his torrid scoring streak. The London Knights of the OHL have big things on their minds this season, due in no small part to the contributions of Perry. In recognition of his offensive dominance, Anaheim gave Perry a try-out in Cincinnati at the end of last season where he scored two points in three playoff games. A top-6 forward prospect with a high offensive ceiling, Perry is working on back-to-back 100-point seasons with London and a possible berth on Canada’s WJC team.

35. Keith Ballard, Defenseman, Phoenix Coyotes

Ballard made the jump from college to the AHL this offseason after scoring 33 goals and 67 assists in three seasons for the University of Minnesota. He would have likely been playing in the NHL this season if not for the current work stoppage. Ballard’s solid two-way game makes him a likely top-4 defenseman for Phoenix in the next couple of years. For now, he will have to settle for the competition in Utah where the AHL has become loaded with top prospects and might prove in the long run to be a better training ground than sporadic ice time in the NHL.

34. Alexander Steen, Center, Toronto Maple Leafs

The son of former Winnipeg Jets star Thomas Steen, Alexander has progressed nicely since being drafted in first round by the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 2002. Although the Swedish developmental system is struggling at the moment, Steen has done very well to establish himself as a productive player in the Swedish Elite League. A talented, often flashy player, Steen is also a strong defensive player who has been praised for his leadership. He may be ready to come over to North America when the lockout is over, but for now, he’ll continue to play a significant role for MoDo.

33. AJ Thelen, Defenseman, Minnesota Wild

Thelen is one player who saw his stock rise consistently throughout his draft year, because his freshman year was nothing short of exceptional. He was named to the All-CCHA Rookie Team, All-CCHA First Team and was the lone freshman named to the All American Team as a second team honoree, all while being the second youngest player in Division 1 college hockey. A big and mobile blueliner who moves the puck extremely well and knows how to run the power play, the Michigan State star needs to refine his defensive game, but he has the makings of a very solid power play quarterback.

32. Robert Schremp, Center, Edmonton Oilers

Among players drafted in 2004, only Ovechkin may be more talented than the oft-maligned Schremp. In the months leading up to the draft, Schremp’s stock dropped consistently, although it was still a shock to many that he slid all the way to the Oilers second pick of the first round, 25th overall. His attitude was questioned many times, and his candid, unconventional personality, was likely the reason he fell in the draft. “He’s very cocky and he sure doesn’t lack for confidence,” admitted Kevin Prendergast, Oilers VP of Hockey Operations. “His abrasive attitude rubs you the wrong way if that’s not the way you want to be rubbed.” Schremp has the potential to do everything for Edmonton that Doug Weight did before his departure, but he needs to mature on and off the ice in order to fulfill his vast potential.

31. Andrew Ladd, Left Wing, Carolina Hurricanes

Coming in one spot behind his center with the Calgary Hitmen, Ladd virtually came out of nowhere to have a strong season in the WHL last year. A native of Maple Ridge British Columbia, Ladd played a single game with the Vancouver Giants back in 2001-02, and did not suit up for a WHL team until his draft year, in 2003-04. Very mature physically, Ladd projects as a power winger with a nasty streak. Although he did go fourth overall last year, there are some that remain skeptical of his offensive ability, and a second strong year in the WHL would go along way in cementing his status as a top prospect.

30. Ryan Getzlaf, Center, Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Getzlaf is a classic WHL power forward. A big and strong center with a great shot and a nose for the net, the Calgary Hitmen star dropped on draft day back in 2003, but has not let it affect his performance since. For all intents and purposes, Getzlaf is ready for NHL action, but the NHL lockout will put his debut on hold for a while. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks see him as a mainstay at center for years to come and a potential captain as well. His hands are not overly impressive, which will likely make him a second line center in the NHL, but a great well-rounded one at that.

29. Ray Emery, Goaltender, Ottawa Senators

Emery’s stock has skyrocketed since being selected in the fourth round of the 2001 draft. In his three years since the draft, his list of achievements is impressive: CHL Goaltender of the Year, a place on the AHL All-Rookie Team, and two AHL All-Star Game appearances to his credit. In many ways still very raw, Emery is both big and athletic, and has the ability to dominate when he’s on. Sugar Ray Emery has also gained a well-deserved reputation for being unable to control his temper. The Ottawa Senators have long been questioned in the grit department, but they are counting on Emery as their goaltender of the future, not their future goon.

28. Lauri Tukonen, Right Wing, Los Angeles Kings

Considered by most to be a virtual lock to go in the top 10 in the 2004 Entry Draft, and often suggested as the likely fourth overall pick, Tukonen slid all the way to 11th. A big right winger who has plenty of offensive upside and a willingness to go to the net and muck it up, the Finn will take some time to put it all together. It is unlikely he will take off quite like Tuomo Ruutu did after being drafted, and could take his time developing, similar to Mikko Koivu. The finished product could be quite impressive though.

27. Steve Eminger, Defenseman, Washington Capitals

Eminger is solid in just about every way. The Woodbridge, Ontario native was the 12th overall pick in the 2002 draft, and made the Capitals out of the camp the next fall. In his two years since being drafted, he has played a total of 58 games with the Capitals, as well as some time back in junior with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, and with Washington’s farm team in Portland. He is coming off a rough year, where he not only struggled in the NHL, but also in the AHL. A poised blueliner, Eminger is capable of logging big minutes for his team, and is a potential power play quarterback, but he needs to come back strong in 2004-05.

26. Igor Grigorenko, Right Wing, Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings prospect Igor Grigorenko saw little action due to injury last season, but should be thankful just to be alive and back playing hockey. The speedy winger suffered what were reported to be life-threatening injuries in a car accident following the 2002-03 season, a season in which Grigorenko made a name for himself. The Togliatti, Russia native recovered from his injuries in time to play a three playoff games for Lada Togliatti in 2004. Grigorenko relies on his speed to create scoring chances for himself, and to keep some distance between him and the mostly larger defensemen he faces. He won’t have as much room to operate in the NHL, but Grigorenko certainly has the tools to be a star in spite of his smaller stature. He will need to regain is old self first, but hasn’t scored in 11 games with Togliatti this season.

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