Young Stars Preview: 10 Top Prospects to Watch

The Connor McDavid show is coming to Penticton this weekend.

In related news, the Young Stars tournament is also taking place at the South Okanagan Events Centre from Friday to Monday.

I’ve been covering this prospect showcase since the inaugural event in 2010, when Edmonton was the team to beat with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle dazzling in their debuts. Flash forward five years and McDavid is now the main attraction, with the Oilers finally looking like a team on the rise — for real this time.

The host Canucks, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets are also sending their top prospects to what promises to be the most talent-laden tournament to date. McDavid is the obvious headliner — it should be a media circus surrounding him, especially Friday night for his first game in an Oilers jersey — but there will be more than a dozen other prospects in attendance with bright NHL futures.

Here are the top 10 prospects to watch, in my opinion (order by position):

1) Connor McDavid, F Edmonton

The hype for this kid is off the charts and justifiably so, according to anybody you talk to in the hockey world. McDavid is a legitimate generational talent, the best prospect to come along since Sidney Crosby a decade ago. Crosby debuted in 2005-06 with 102 points, then followed it up with 120 as a still-teenage sophomore and has hit triple-digits five times in 10 seasons — it would be more if not for some injury-plagued campaigns. So the bar is set awfully high for McDavid, given that comparison, but more and more people seem convinced that he’s the next big thing in this sport. From Wayne Gretzky to Eric Lindros to Steven Stamkos.

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It sure sounds like we’ll be in for a treat in Penticton. McDavid’s spot on Edmonton’s roster is secure, so he could easily go through the motions and save “it” for the regular season. Even at half-speed — or say 80 per cent output — his performance here should be a sight to behold. If and when he turns it up, McDavid should be untouchable amongst his peers. He was certainly on another level at Edmonton’s development camp scrimmage in July, scoring five goals with relative ease in the Billy Moores Cup, which his team won 8-6.

Stamkos and a collection of current NHL stars — a who’s who, really — got their first on-ice glimpse of McDavid at the BioSteel camp in Toronto last month. There, McDavid teamed with Hall — his soon-to-be Edmonton roommate — to put on quite a show in winning that tournament.

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The highlight-reel could go on and on for McDavid, but it’s only a matter of hours now before he blows up the Internet again. Yes, he’s going to light it up in Penticton and launch his NHL career from there.

2) Sam Bennett, F Calgary

Bennett is a good buddy of McDavid’s — they go way back to their days as minor-hockey teammates with the Toronto Marlboros — but that friendship may go cold now that they are on opposite sides in the Battle of Alberta. Projected as the faces of their respective franchises for the foreseeable future, Bennett will face-off against McDavid for the first time as part of the Flames-Oilers rivalry on Saturday night in Penticton. That clash, as friendly as it might be on this stage, should serve as an intriguing preview for what’s to come over the next decade — they are sure to face-off many a times on Hockey Night In Canada, with much more at stake.

Bennett was baptized by fire towards the end of last season, making his NHL debut in Calgary’s regular-season finale after recovering from a shoulder surgery that sidelined him for most of the campaign. He was called up to the big league after a brief but dominant junior stint, and Bennett didn’t disappoint. He recorded an assist in that debut and became a permanent fixture in the playoffs, impressing so much that the Flames felt the need to burn a year of his entry-level contract to keep him in the lineup. That post-season experience — he was arguably Calgary’s best player in a few games — will prove invaluable for Bennett heading into what is technically his sophomore season despite only dressing for 12 combined games. Contract status aside, Bennett is still Calder-eligible and could give McDavid and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres a run for their money if he centres one of Calgary’s top two lines as expected.

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This will also be Bennett’s second Young Stars experience and we can expect him to be more of a standout this time around. He got better as the tournament went along last year and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Bennett will be surrounded by a strong supporting cast in Penticton, with Calgary’s roster featuring three first-round picks and five second-rounders. The Flames could load up an all-first-round first line with Bennett between 2013 selections Emile Poirier (22nd) and Morgan Klimchuk (28th). Now that would be fun to watch.

3) Nikolaj Ehlers, F Winnipeg

Speaking of fun to watch, this guy has the potential to steal the show in Penticton. Ehlers has an electrifying skill-set, which he showed off at last year’s Young Stars, throughout his second straight 100-plus-point QMJHL season and at the world juniors with unheralded-but-dangerous Denmark.

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There is a very real chance that Ehlers — the ninth overall pick in 2014 — will crack Winnipeg’s roster out of training camp and be a go-to source of offence for the Jets by Christmas. He really reminds me of Marian Gaborik when he first broke into the league, boasting that same combination of speed and sniping ability. Gaborik has scored 40-plus goals three times and 30-plus seven times, topping out at 86 points. He seems to have lost a step lately, but Ehlers is just getting started and is about to take Winnipeg by storm. First things first, Ehlers will look to leave his mark on Penticton.

4) Leon Draisaitl, F Edmonton

It is almost a crime to rank Draisaitl this low, but it speaks to the type of elite talents on display at this year’s Young Stars. A few years from now, a lot of the paying public are going to be telling “remember-when” stories about this tournament and how they were lucky enough to see these future stars in person. Draisaitl was drafted one spot ahead of Bennett — going third overall in 2014 — and is the only prospect in this tournament to have already scored a regular-season NHL goal.

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The Oilers aren’t very deep up front at this tournament, but it’ll be interesting to see if they experiment with Draisaitl on the wing at all — perhaps even flanking McDavid. A natural centreman, Draisaitl is “stuck” behind McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, an already established top-six staple, so new Oilers coach Todd McLellan is expected to audition the big German on left wing during training camp. That might be Draisaitl’s best chance at a roster spot and he’s expressed an openness to switching positions if it gets him on the team sooner.

Draisaitl was dominant in spurts during last year’s Young Stars, but he should be even more comfortable in Penticton this time around. He’ll be in familiar territory too, having finished off last season just up the road with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. Draisaitl took the mid-season junior demotion in stride and made the most of that opportunity to play for a winning team, leading the Rockets to a WHL championship as playoff MVP before also earning MVP honours in a losing effort at the Memorial Cup. Draisaitl really rose to the occasion and was a beast throughout Kelowna’s post-season run — a true man among boys — which was especially impressive considering that was his first real taste of success at any level. He’ll take that confidence and momentum into the Young Stars in hopes of finding another gear for training camp back in Edmonton.

5) Jake Virtanen, F Vancouver

The Canucks have been pumping Virtanen’s tires all summer, suggesting he’s got a shot at making the team this season. It’s also been suggested that Virtanen has put in the necessary off-season work, slimming down and becoming more explosive, which should make him a constant threat in Penticton. He’s from the same draft class as Bennett, Ehlers and Draisaitl, with Virtanen selected sixth in 2014. So we’ll see how he matches up in those head-to-heads and whether he can hang with them. That should be a good indicator of whether Virtanen is really ready to challenge for a roster spot.

Vancouver’s farm team, the Utica Comets, went all the way to the AHL final, but if I had to handicap this Young Stars field, I’d rank the Canucks a distant fourth. Their roster lacks firepower, at least on paper, so Vancouver will need a monster performance from Virtanen as well as fellow first-round forwards Brendan Gaunce (26th, 2012), Hunter Shinkaruk (24th, 2013) and Jared McCann (24th, 2014). Shinkaruk has already shone at past Young Stars tournaments, but Virtanen strikes me as a guy who might be more effective against men in an actual NHL setting — sort of like Bo Horvat, his potential long-term linemate in Vancouver.

6) Darnell Nurse, D Edmonton

Switching gears to defencemen, Nurse is the biggest name of the bunch and should stand out as the best. He’s got a bit of Chris Pronger in him, a better-skating version albeit not quite as physical and not possessing the same calibre of a point shot. I wouldn’t call him a poor man’s Pronger because Nurse’s ceiling could be comparable as a future top-pairing guy in Edmonton. The only question is whether that future is now? Nurse’s play throughout the pre-season — starting with the Young Stars — will determine that answer. He’ll have his work cut out for him, needing to drastically outperform several veterans on one-way contracts, but Nurse is capable of forcing his way onto the Oilers. He almost did it last year.

Nurse was a force at the world juniors too, named one of the tournament’s three stars and player of the game in Canada’s gold-medal win over Russia. Nurse has been able to impose his will on junior opponents, but the pro game tends to be a big adjustment for defencemen. We’ll see how quickly the seventh overall pick from 2013 adapts this season, but Nurse appears to be just what the doctor ordered for Edmonton’s future.

7) Josh Morrissey, D Winnipeg

In a similar situation to Nurse, Morrissey might be a long-shot to make the Jets, but he could make it difficult for Winnipeg to send him down to the minors — or, rather, across the hall to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. The 13th overall pick in 2013 is turning pro and will be calling Winnipeg home this winter, that much is for certain.

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Morrissey is a smooth skater and terrific puck-mover with excellent vision and awareness. He’s on the small side for NHL defencemen, but he makes up for it with solid positioning. Morrissey also joined the Rockets from Prince Albert in a separate blockbuster and surprised many in Kelowna with his defensive ability. We all knew he’d be an offensive catalyst from the back end and another weapon for the power play, but Morrissey proved very capable in a shutdown role as well. When the Rockets were protecting leads late in games, he was poised and reliable, making the right decisions every time he touched the puck. That was also evident at the world juniors, where Morrissey made the all-star team. Pair him with Jacob Trouba or Tyler Myers this season and Morrissey wouldn’t skip a beat, but some seasoning in the AHL wouldn’t hurt his development either.

8) Oliver Kylington, D Calgary

Here’s the wild-card on this list, a guy with sky-is-the-limit upside but somebody who will definitely need some seasoning in North America — his likeliest destination being the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings. Unless, of course, Kylington can make enough of an impression at the Young Stars to skip the junior ranks in his draft-plus-one season. Because Kylington — pronounced Shillington — played in Sweden last season, and is now signed by Calgary, he is also eligible to suit up for the AHL’s Stockton Heat. He won’t be making the Flames, who currently have one of the NHL’s deeper defence corps.

Kylington was once touted as a top-five talent for the 2015 draft, but his stock plummeted and the Flames stopped his free-fall at the bottom of the second round, selecting him 60th. The fact that many teams passed him over — most of them multiple times — is telling that Kylington is an enigma. The Josh Ho-Sang of defencemen, if you will. Kylington still might have been the second-best skater in the draft — behind only McDavid — and his offensive instincts got him noticed at a young age, even drawing favourable comparisons to Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson. But red flags started popping up this past season, mostly over Kylington’s commitment (or lack thereof) to playing his actual position and his hockey sense in general. Scouts soured on him, but Calgary could still have a steal on its hands if Kylington is handled correctly going forward.

9) Connor Hellebuyck, G Winnipeg

Had I not saved the goalies for last, Hellebuyck likely would have been in my top five. If anybody stands a chance at stopping McDavid, this is the guy. Hellebuyck burst onto the scene as a rookie pro last season, shining at the Young Stars and in the AHL before really making a name for himself at the men’s world championship by backstopping the United States to bronze in May. He stoned Jaromir Jagr — the NHL’s fourth all-time leading scorer — several times in posting a shutout win over the host Czechs in that third-place game.

Hellebuyck’s performance throughout that tournament was a coming-out party on an international stage. If the NHL attends the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, the Americans will be giving Hellebuyck serious consideration for a roster spot. That’s still a few years away and he should be a household name in Winnipeg by then. The Jets are returning the tandem of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson — and they also have Eric Comrie as a prospect turning pro this fall — but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hellebuyck make his NHL debut at some point this season.

10) Jon Gillies, G Calgary

Gillies is another big, talented American netminder. Essentially he is this year’s Hellebuyck. Gillies will make his pro debut with the Flames at the Young Stars, fresh off winning an NCAA national championship — beating Jack Eichel’s team in the final and getting named most outstanding player at the Frozen Four tournament in April.

Unfortunately for Gillies, the crease is already overcrowded in Calgary. Jonas Hiller, entering the final season of a two-year contract, and Karri Ramo, brought back as a free agent on a one-year deal this summer, are the veterans. But, realistically, they are the placeholders. Problem is, Joni Ortio, another top prospect who was stellar at past Young Stars, has graduated to the big club and is no longer waiver exempt this season. Calgary won’t likely risk sending Ortio back to the minors — he would almost certainly be claimed — so expect the Flames to be aggressively shopping Hiller and/or Ramo during the pre-season before rosters are finalized. Calgary could carry three goaltenders, but that also seems unlikely. Chances are Hiller or Ramo end up on waivers if neither is traded.

Gillies will get his share of starts in Stockton and could be the No. 1 there in short order if he plays up to his potential. The future battle between the pipes in Calgary will feature Ortio, Gillies and 2014 second-rounder Mason McDonald, who is also on Calgary’s roster for the Young Stars. Question is, who gets the start for Saturday’s Battle of Alberta against McDavid? My money would be on Gillies, a great first test as a pro.


Young Stars Rosters


Young Stars Schedule

(All times Pacific)

  • Game 1 — Calgary vs. Winnipeg, Friday at 4 p.m.
  • Game 2 — Vancouver vs. Edmonton, Friday at 7:30 p.m.
  • Game 3 — Calgary vs. Edmonton, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
  • Game 4 — Vancouver vs. Winnipeg, Sunday at 2 p.m.
  • Game 5 — Edmonton vs. Winnipeg, Monday at 11:30 a.m.
  • Game 6 — Vancouver vs. Calgary, Monday at 3:30 p.m. 

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.