For the final installment of the “Every NHL Team’s Top Prospect” series, this article will focus on every team in the NHL’s Pacific Division and their top prospects. Although there have been several bottom feeders playing in the Pacific Division such as the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes, the teams at the top like the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames have very well-regarded prospect pools, giving the Pacific Division arguably the best range of top-end prospects in the NHL.
To see the top prospects of other divisions, see Part 1 (Atlantic Division), Part 2 (Metropolitan Division), or Part 3 (Central Division). As with the previous articles, players must have rookie eligibility for the upcoming 2015-2016 season in order to be considered for this list.
Taken with a pick acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs (sorry, Leafs fans) in 2011, John Gibson has since outperformed his modest 2nd round draft selection by developing into one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL. Although he began last season as Anaheim’s starter, he was injured early in the year and ceded his position to Frederik Andersen.
Gibson is a big goaltender (6’3″, 220 pounds), who moves very well and has shown the ability to bring his “A” game under tough circumstances. While Andersen’s strong postseason performance likely earned him the starting nod entering next year, Gibson is still very young and looks to be the future in the blue paint for Anaheim. Look for the former World Junior gold medalist and tournament MVP to show his talent and claim the starting position in the not-too-distant future.
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel aside, there may not be a more talked about prospect entering the NHL next season than Max Domi, the son of longtime NHL enforcer Tie. Despite being small in stature at just 5’10” and 195 pounds, Domi is a tenacious and extremely skilled player who plays a well-rounded game. The Mickey Renaud award winner as the OHL’s best captain this year, Domi also leads by example, making him a perfect prospect for the lowly Coyotes to build around.
After scoring 102 points in 57 games for the powerhouse London Knights, Domi was a finalist for the OHL’s Player of the Year award, an honour he ultimately lost out on to McDavid. However, the nomination acknowledged the tremendous season he had in his own right. Domi also captured a gold medal with Canada at the World Junior Championships, scoring five goals and 10 points in seven games on a dominant top line with Buffalo Sabres prospect Sam Reinhart and fellow Coyotes prospect Anthony Duclair. Expect to see the younger Domi in a burgundy and white sweater as soon as this fall.
The Flames blew past everyone’s expectations last season and made it to the second round of the NHL playoffs on the backs of young stars such as Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and T.J. Brodie. The next young stud that looks to be close to making an impact in the NHL is 2014 4th overall pick Sam Bennett.
Initially thought to be a candidate to play the full 2014-2015 season with the Flames, Bennett suffered a separated shoulder in training camp and was returned to the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. Upon his return in March, Bennett tallied 11 goals and 24 points in just 11 games. After the Frontenacs’ season was over, Bennett was called up to the NHL squad and played a key checking role in the playoffs, scoring three goals in the Flames’ surprise postseason run. Possessing a rare combination of elite skill and tenacity, expect Bennett to combine with Sean Monahan to make one of the NHL’s deadliest center combos as soon as next season.
It’s no secret the Edmonton Oilers have been a mess defensively ever since trading superstar Chris Pronger in 2006. However, they have shown signs of improving, as young blueliners such as Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin have started to make their way into the Oilers’ lineup. The best young defenseman and prospect the Oilers have is 20-year old Darnell Nurse.
The team’s first round pick in 2013, Nurse captained the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds to the OHL’s best record this season and almost led them past highly touted prospect Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in the OHL playoffs. Nurse plays a lot like Pronger in some aspects, as he uses his huge 6’4″ frame to his advantage both offensively and defensively. He plays very physical, as evidenced by his 58 penalty minutes in just 36 games this year. He also put up 10 goals and 33 points in those 36 games, in addition to playing top-pairing minutes at the World Junior Championships for the gold medal-winning Canadian squad. Expect this two-way stud to make an impact on the NHL in the near future, possibly as soon as next year.
Los Angeles Kings
As was proven with the Kings missing the playoffs this season, Los Angeles is in desperate need of impact forwards, especially with the potential departures of Justin Williams and Jarrett Stoll this offseason. With their top young offensive players like Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson already entrenched as top-6 wingers on the team, the center position has been exposed with the rapid decline of former star Mike Richards.
Adrian Kempe, the 29th overall pick in 2014, could help alleviate some of the offensive slack that plagued the Kings throughout the 2014-2015 season. After impressing in the SHL with MODO last year and playing top-6 minutes, Kempe came over to North America and played a key role in the Manchester Monarch’s run to the AHL championship. With a strong frame (6’2″, 190 pounds) and a solid two-way game that would fit right in on the defense-oriented Kings team, expect Kempe to receive a shot to be an NHL player next year.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks missed the playoffs this year for the first time since 2004, and the future looks bleak. The Sharks are loaded with declining veterans and will feature a new face behind the bench for the first time since 2008 after Todd McLellan departed for the spotlight that Connor McDavid brings with him to Edmonton.
One prospect who could develop into a great player alongside Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture in short order is Nikolai Goldobin, the team’s first rounder from last season. After playing his draft season with a feeble Sarnia Sting team and posting solid numbers (94 points in 67 games), Goldobin was loaned to HIFK of the Liiga and showed his talent by playing top-six minutes and posting 21 points in 38 games. After making his way into nine AHL games to finish the season, expect Goldobin to gain more experience in the AHL before making the jump to the Sharks. He could, however, eventually become an offensive force for the Sharks.
Another team that looks to be in transition, the Canucks played youngsters such as Bo Horvat and Eddie Lack increasingly in favour of veterans towards the end of the year. With the Sedin twins reaching the twilight of their illustrious careers, the young talent GM Jim Benning has assembled since his tenure with the team started will soon begin to make their mark.
Leading this charge is winger Jake Virtanen of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. Virtanen offers a physical, power forward game that is a departure from the supposedly skill-focused team that the Sedin twins led for more than a decade. Virtanen posted 52 points and 82 penalty minutes in 50 games this year for the Hitmen, showcasing an offensive side with his great skating and shooting abilities. Another gold medal winner with Team Canada from the World Junior Championships, expect Virtanen to develop a bit more before bringing his rough and tumble ways to the Canucks lineup.
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