Continuing the series detailing every team’s top prospect, this article will profile every team in the NHL’s Central Division.With the NHL success experienced by members of the Central Division such as the Chicago Blackhawks or St. Louis Blues, it’s easy to forget about the high-end talent currently being developed by these teams. The Winnipeg Jets recently ranked first in The Hockey News’ Future Watch organizational rankings for the incredible strength of their prospect pool, and look to add more talent to their farm system with two first-round picks in the upcoming draft. In previous articles, I detailed the top prospects for every team in the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions.Check out Part 1 to see those teams detailed for the Atlantic Division and Part 2 to see the teams from the Metropolitan Division. As with the previous articles, players have to retain rookie eligibility for the upcoming 2015-2016 NHL season.
With future superstar Tuevo Teravainen playing in 34 NHL games this season, he just misses the cut for this list. Instead, the Blackhawks’ top prospect is Finnish blueliner Ville Pokka.
Pokka, acquired from the Islanders last offseason in return for Nick Leddy, has all the tools necessary to succeed as an NHL blueliner. Despite possessing average size at 6’0″, 200 pounds, Pokka plays a reliable defensive game that the Blackhawks have been missing from their defensive corps in the 2015 NHL playoffs, outside of their top 4 defensemen. Pokka also possesses good offensive ability, as he tallied 30 points in 68 AHL games, his first season in North America. With veteran defenseman such as Johnny Oduya looking like they might leave the organization after the season, Pokka has the tools and ability to step into the NHL next season and make a significant impact with the Blackhawks.
With the Avalanche possessing elite young forwards such as Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan Mackinnon, you’d think their regular season record would reflect such talent better than their 21st-place finish in the 2014-2015 season. In recent seasons, their defensive ability (or lack thereof) has been a major weak spot for the team, but there is help on the way.
Chris Bigras, the team’s top prospect, looks to be a future stud blueliner for the Avalanche. After regressing following his 2013 draft season, Bigras redeemed himself with a monstrous 2014-2015 campaign with the Owen Sound Attack. He posted 71 points in 62 games, and despite not making the Canadian World Junior squad, was among the best defensemen in the OHL. He placed among the top three defenders in the categories Best Offensive Defender, Best Defensive Defender, and Smartest Player. With the Avalanche struggling to produce offense and solid defensive play from their blueliners, Bigras’ strong skating and two-way ability could provide a huge boost to the Avs in coming seasons.
The Stars are another team that has had their fair share of problems keeping the puck out of their net in recent seasons, as they missed the playoffs this past year. With young defenders like Jamie Oleksiak and the impressive Esa Lindell on the way, the Stars have reinforcements coming.
The best prospect in the system, and best young defender the Stars possess, is young puck-mover Julius Honka. While slightly undersized at only 5’10”, 180 pounds, Honka’s high-end skating ability and impressive offensive ability make him a threat every time he’s on the ice. In his first North American season at the tender age of 19, Honka put up 31 points in 68 games playing against older players in the AHL. While he has to improve his defensive game (-10 plus/minus rating) and get stronger to withstand the physical NHL game, his elite puck skills could eventually replace Trevor Daley on the team’s lethal first powerplay unit.
The Wild are another team that has an impressive collection of young forward talent, with stalwarts like Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle already making up a core part of the NHL team. Minnesota’s first round pick from a year ago, Alex Tuch, looks to be the next young offensive star to make his way to the Hockey State.
Tuch, who played his first season with Boston College this year, is an imposing presence at 6’4″, 220 pounds who is not afraid to get his nose dirty and play physical. He also possesses a scoring touch, as he posted 14 goals and 28 points in his freshman season. His physical presence and offensive ability would make him a perfect complement to the sublimely skilled but undersized Granlund, and looks to be close to making his presence felt with the up-and-coming Wild.
The Predators had a banner year, making the playoffs after a two year absence. After experiencing scoring problems in back-to-back years that held them from making the playoffs, the Predators exploded for a team record-tying 104 regular season points on the backs of stellar offensive performances from Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro.
Kevin Fiala looks to be the next young offensive stud to crack the Predators’ roster. After making history as the first player to play in the World Junior Championships, World Under-18s, and World Championships in one season, Fiala impressed this season as one of the youngest players in the AHL. Blessed with great skating ability and a great shot, this sniper looks ready to crack an NHL roster as soon as this fall.
St. Louis Blues
A first-round talent who slipped to the 2nd last year, Ivan Barbashev is the St. Louis Blues’ top prospect. With core members of the team such as Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Vladimir Tarasenko still very young, Barbashev will make a nice addition to the skilled, tough, and defensively responsible team that St. Louis has become known for in the near future.
After proving his talent this season with 45 goals and 95 points in 57 QMJHL games with the Moncton Wildcats and 6 points in 7 games at the World Junior Championships with Russia, Barbashev will make his way to the AHL next year with the Chicago Wolves. Possessing a strong frame at 6’1″, 195 pounds and playing a physical style that should fit in seamlessly with the rest of the rough and tumble Blues, expect Barbashev to make his presence felt in the NHL with St. Louis sooner rather than later.
As mentioned before, the Winnipeg Jets have one of, if not the best, farm systems in the entire NHL. Possessing good prospects at every position, the young and improving Jets look to have a bright future ahead of them after making their first NHL playoff appearance as the Winnipeg Jets this season.
The jewel of Winnipeg’s farm system is Danish star Nikolaj Ehlers. Selected 9th overall in 2014, Ehlers has done his best to convince doubters the Jets got a draft day steal, posting and astounding 37 goals and 100 points in just 51 games with the Halifax Mooseheads in 2014-2015. He also helped lead Denmark back into the top competitive group at the World Junior Championships, posting 4 points in 5 games for a severely overmatched Danish squad. With nothing left to prove at the junior level, Ehlers could be ready to provide an elite offensive punch alongside star forwards such as Mark Scheifele and Andrew Ladd as soon as the 2015-2016 NHL season.
More from the series of Top Prospects: