All players were chosen by the committee from among those drafted prospects meeting Hockey’s Future’s prospect criteria.
1. Evgeni Malkin, C – Pittsburgh Penguins
The current bearer of the “best player not currently in the NHL” mantle, Russian phenom Evgeni Malkin has been a popular topic of discussion in a busy NHL offseason. Coming off of another impressive year on the international stage and in the Russian Super League, Malkin is now on target for an NHL debut this October with the Penguins. Expected to make the same type of dramatic impact that future teammate Sidney Crosby did in 2005-06, the eyes of the hockey community will remain fixed on freshman Malkin and sophomore Crosby in what many think will develop into the top east-west center-ice tandem since Sergei Fedorov pushed Steve Yzerman for the top spot in Detroit an NHL generation ago. Malkin is the clear favorite to win the 2007 Calder Trophy, assuming his preseason shoulder injury is not serious.
2. Kari Lehtonen, G – Atlanta Thrashers
Lehtonen was expected to take over the starting job in the Thrasher net last season, but instead experienced much of his freshman NHL campaign from the press box. As a result of an opening-night groin injury that effectively sidelined him into 2006, Lehtonen managed to backstop the Thrashers in only 38 games on the year. Though never fully reaching peak form, Lehtonen turned in a solid effort, posting a 20-15-0, 2.94 GAA, .906 save percentage season for the Thrashers. Lehtonen now enters 2006-07 as the undisputed No. 1 in Atlanta and should continue along his career arc towards the top of his profession.
3. Erik Johnson, D – St. Louis Blues
Advancing almost to the head of the class after his selection as the top prospect in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman Erik Johnson is a prototypical No. 1 NHL blueliner. Possessed of a fluid, assured hockey sense and great open-ice vision to go with his imposing frame, Johnson was widely considered as the best two-way defenseman at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Vancouver. Rarely has a defenseman of his size with his overall abilities failed to develop into a top NHL blueliner. Attending the University of Minnesota beginning this fall, Johnson should frequent the top of this list for many years to come.
4. Jack Johnson, D – Carolina Hurricanes
Losing the claim to the top US-born prospect spot on the top 50 list to fellow blueliner Erik Johnson (no relation), Carolina defenseman Jack Johnson remains in the top five thanks to an attractive combination of physicality and hockey sense. Gifted in both the offensive zone as well as on the backcheck, Johnson has already shown the capacity to fill the stat sheet at both ends of the ice; Johnson finished second in the CCHA in defensemen scoring this past year with the University of Michigan, and managed to post 45 penalty minutes to lead the 2006 World Juniors. Projected to eventually assume control of the Hurricane blueline, Johnson has all the intangibles to develop into a top-flight, physical, offensive defenseman in the NHL.
5. Ryan Getzlaf, C – Anaheim Ducks
A consistent two-way forward with a nose for the net in the WHL, center Ryan Getzlaf transitioned seamlessly to the NHL game in 2005-06, earning critical ice time on an improving Ducks squad. After averaging over a goal per two games as a junior, Getzlaf’s tremendous 14-goal, 25-assist rookie campaign with the Ducks was an impressive coming-out party for a player expected to eventually grow into his large frame. Projected to center a pair of NHL-caliber finishers in 2006-07, the opportunity is there for the elite young forward to establish himself as an integral element in a young Ducks attack that includes fellow Top 50 prospects Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry.
6. Gilbert Brule, C – Columbus Blue Jackets
A fiery competitor blessed with the full package of intangibles, Jacket center Gilbert Brule’s freshman campaign was cut short by not one, but two severe injuries that eventually prompted the Columbus front office to send the teen back to the WHL. Rather than sulk, however, Brule took the move as a chance to prove he belongs on the best ice rinks in the world, rolling off 39 goals in 45 regular and postseason games with the Vancouver Giants, and pulled in the MVP Award for the WHL playoffs. Ticketed by the Jackets for one of the top two pivot spots for the 2006-07 season, Brule will center a pair of veteran NHL forwards and is a legitimate candidate for the rookie scoring title this season.
7. Cam Ward, G – Carolina Hurricanes
Coming off of a Cinderella season that saw him wrest the top job in the Hurricane net away from European veteran Martin Gerber and win the Conn Smythe Award in Carolina’s first-ever Stanley Cup title, goaltender Cam Ward now has the unenviable task of proving that the accomplishments of 2005-06 were no fluke. After a surprisingly mediocre regular season debut with the Canes, nobody could have predicted what the playoffs would bring for Ward, who posted a 15-8 record with a 2.14 GAA and .920 save percentage. These accomplishments should not be incredibly surprising, especially given Ward’s impressive pedigree as a top junior goaltender in the CHL. Ward will be given every chance to establish himself as a top NHL-caliber netminder this season with Carolina.
8. Alexander Semin, LW – Washington Capitals
Due to a playing dispute resulting from military obligations to his home country and the NHL lockout, Alexander Semin spent the last two seasons playing in the Russian Super League after an impressive rookie season with the Washington Capitals in 2003-04. His pure offensive talents from the left wing position make him an extremely valuable commodity to any NHL organization. With Ovechkin already holding down the left side on the first line, the presence of Semin on the second line provides immediate scoring depth for the organization. Returning to North America from Russia may require a slight adjustment from Semin, but it is only a matter of time before he, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Eric Fehr anchor the offense for a new and young Capitals team.
9. Patrick O’Sullivan, LW – Los Angeles Kings
With an opening at left wing on the NHL roster and the Kings being set at center for prospects, Patrick O’Sullivan slides over to the left side in order to make immediate contributions to the NHL team. When a player is good enough, playing time is found for him irrespective the position he plays. O’Sullivan fits this bill. After dominating all AHL rookies in scoring last season, he is more than ready to make the jump to the NHL and will be playing in a top-six forward role with Los Angeles this season. As the centerpiece of the trade that sent Pavol Demitra to Minnesota, Los Angeles will look to O’Sullivan to pick up some of the scoring slack and he is more than capable of holding his own as a rookie.
10. Nicklas Backstrom, C – Washington Capitals
As one of the top players taken in the 2006 Entry Draft, Nicklas Backstrom adds another elite prospect to the Washington Capitals organization. Already stocked with the likes of Ovechkin and Semin, Backstrom is the anchor in the middle for the young wing prospects. Hailed as the most NHL-ready of all draftees in 2006, Backstrom opted to return to Sweden for this season. After scoring 10 goals in 46 games last season in the Swedish Elite League, in addition to leading his age group in overall scoring, Backstrom returns more with eye towards improving his game than establishing himself as a top player.
Best of the rest
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