In recent years, the most successful teams share a common theme; the best players on their roster are often drafted and developed by the team, starting off as heralded prospects and developing into contributing NHL players. While there are a few teams that are consistently successful and don’t end up in the draft lottery very often (the Detroit Red Wings come to mind), every team needs to develop their own prospects in order to become successful.
With the NHL Draft rapidly approaching, a fresh crop of NHL hopefuls will be pulling on a team’s jersey before the end of June. While all the buzz lately has been surrounding super-prospects like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, and deservedly so, there are many prospects who are older and could have an equal, if not bigger, impact on the NHL than the prospects who will hear their name called on June 26th. To be eligible for this list, a player must meet NHL rookie requirements.
With exciting young forward David Pastrnak playing in 46 games last season, Malcolm Subban tops the Bruins’ prospect list. A first-round pick of the Bruins in 2012, Subban has spent the last two seasons playing for the Providence Bruins of the AHL after a decorated OHL career that included a World Juniors appearance in 2013. While he had a tumultuous first NHL game, allowing 3 goals on 6 shots to the powerhouse St. Louis Blues, Subban still has a bright future ahead of him after back-to-back AHL seasons with a save percentage north of .920.
Subban may not get his chance to be an NHL starter in Boston, as the Bruins have incumbent starter Tuukka Rask under control for 6 more seasons, but there is a good chance Malcolm Subban becomes a great NHL goaltender somewhere in the NHL.
The Sabres have endured a tough couple of seasons, finishing last in the NHL in both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. However, there is a silver lining to such futility, as Buffalo has now secured the 2nd overall pick in back-to-back seasons and look poised to add NCAA star Jack Eichel to what many consider the best prospect pool in hockey. However, since Eichel has not yet pulled a blue and gold jersey over his head, Buffalo’s best prospect looks to be WHL star Sam Reinhart.
The assistant captain and leading scorer for the gold medal-winning Canadian World Junior Championship team, Reinhart was also the captain of his WHL team, the Kootenay Ice, for the past two seasons. On top of his prolific scoring ability, Reinhart is also regarded as one of the best passers among all NHL prospects and, as evidenced by his past two seasons, has shown an extraordinary leadership ability. Look for Reinhart to be a huge part of Buffalo’s resurgence in the coming years.
Detroit Red Wings
The 15th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, perhaps no other prospect boosted their stock this past season as much as the University of Michigan star. After averaging less than a point per game with the US National Development team in 2013-2014, Larkin took his talents to Ann Arbor and promptly put up 47 points in 35 games, leading his team in scoring and adding a tidy +18 plus/minus rating to his ledger. He also starred for Team USA at the World Juniors, scoring 5 goals in 5 games and almost leading a young American team to a medal. While Detroit also boasts exciting wing prospects like Anthony Mantha and Teemu Pulkkinen, Larkin’s two-way ability and scoring progression over the last year make him Detroit’s best prospect.
With much of the Panthers’ high picks in recent seasons already contributing at the NHL level, the Panthers lack an elite prospect that you’d expect from a team that has made three top-3 selections since 2011. But because Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau have already passed the rookie eligibility needed for this list, Mike Matheson is the choice as Florida’s top prospect.
The team’s first-round pick in 2012, Matheson has spent the last three seasons patrolling the blueline for the NCAA’s Boston College Eagles. While he hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers, he has put up 20+ points in 3 consecutive seasons, making an All-NCAA All-Star team in 2014 and serving as the Eagles’ captain this past season and setting a personal best with 22 assists in 38 games for a disappointing Eagles squad. While Matheson might not be a top-flight prospect like others on this list, he looks like he could be an important part of the Panthers’ blueline for years to come.
Michael McCarron is by far the most physically imposing prospect that Montreal possesses, as his 6’6″, 225 pound frame allows him to bully his way around the ice and create open space for his teammates. He’s not just a big body, however, as he put up 68 points in just 56 games this season and then added 7 goals and 13 points in 16 playoff games. In addition, he possesses an element of grit that was sorely lacking on the Canadiens and looks to be a bit of a weakness in their prospect pool; McCarron put up 128 penalty minutes last season and showed he can hold his own with a fight in the Memorial Cup against another giant, Rimouski’s Samuel Morin.
While Zach Fucale has developed into a solid goaltending prospect, leading his Quebec Remparts to a Memorial Cup berth, he might never get his shot with the Canadiens, who have Vezina favourite and Hart Trophy nominee Carey Price under contract until 2018. McCarron’s enticing package of size, physicality, and offensive ability make him Montreal’s top prospect.
The Senators have a good young team, as young NHL players like Curtis Lazar, Mark Stone, and Mika Zibanejad look to be the future of the Ottawa team. For the purposes of this article, however, none of the aforementioned players are considered “prospects” anymore. Ottawa’s top prospect at the moment is 6’3″ centre Nick Paul, who put up 66 points in 58 games this season with the OHL’s North Bay Battalion.
Paul is an excellent two-way forward who isn’t overly physical, but uses his long reach and size well to protect the puck and to create space for his teammates. He scored 3 goals for Canada’s gold medal-winning World Juniors squad, with Paul playing an important energy role alongside 2014 first-round pick Jake Virtanen. Recently, Paul was also announced as the Dan Snyder award winner as the OHL’s Humanitarian of the Year. While he might not be a prolific scorer at the NHL level, his excellent two-way ability, leadership acumen, and size suggests he can certainly be a key member of the Senators at some point in the future.
Tampa Bay Lightning
With uber-prospect Jonathan Drouin playing in 70 NHL games last season, he is ineligible for this list. Tampa Bay, however, boasts arguably the top goaltending prospect in the NHL, 20-year old Russian Andrei Vasilevskiy. Currently playing an important role in the Lightning’s quest for the Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy combines great size (6’3″, 201 pounds) with elite athletic ability that allows him to make jaw-dropping saves on a regular basis.
With Ben Bishop only under contract until 2016, the Tampa Bay Lightning can rest easy knowing they have a fantastic young goaltender to take Bishop’s place if he does indeed decide to leave the team in free agency.
Toronto Maple Leafs
With Toronto about to enter a lengthy rebuild, they are lacking in top-end, blue chip prospects. They have a nice mix of role players and players with nice upside, but no prospect worth getting excited about except for one – right wing William Nylander. The team’s 8th overall pick from 2014, Nylander had a fantastic season split between the SHL’s Modo and the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, as he tallied a combined 52 points in 58 games in two of the hardest professional leagues in the world.
Nylander brings people to their feet with explosive offensive ability, as he combines fantastic hands and a great shot with elite skating ability that he put on full display as one of the youngest players in both the SHL and AHL last season. He didn’t look out of place, as he led his Modo team in scoring before moving to Toronto, where he helped lead a Marlies team from dead last in the standings in December to a playoff berth by April. As the Maple Leafs embark on what could be a painful rebuild, Nylander is a prospect that they can build around, as his great start to his professional career indicates star potential.
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11