Young Stars Preview: 10 Sleeper Prospects to Watch

All eyes will be on Connor McDavid at this weekend’s Young Stars tournament in Penticton.

Fans and media will be flocking from far and wide to get a glimpse of this generational talent expected to restore the Edmonton Oilers to respectability. Nobody is going to steal the spotlight from McDavid — this is his show — but several other prospects are worth highlighting in the lead-up to Friday’s puck-drop.

I’ve already previewed the 10 Top Prospects to Watch — a list of household names — but there are also some very intriguing under-the-radar prospects attending this tournament. I’ve been covering the Young Stars since its inaugural edition in 2010 and every year there are lesser-knowns who end up garnering their share of attention.

Last year it was Vladimir Tkachev, an undrafted pint-sized winger on a tryout with the Oilers who looked out of place when he first took the ice in Penticton — almost like somebody’s little brother, or the minor hockey player of the game. But it became a classic case of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ because Tkachev emerged as one of the more dominating, or at least fascinating, players in the tournament. His performance was right up there with Johnny Gaudreau and Nikolaj Ehlers among my three stars.

Tkachev and Bogdan Yakimov — the big brother of sorts — worked their Russian magic for a few highlight-reel goals, and Tkachev continued to impress in pre-season action to the point the Oilers attempted to sign him — to no avail, with the NHL ruling Tkachev was still draft-eligible. For those wondering, Tkachev ended up playing for the Memorial Cup host Quebec Remparts this past season, but he was passed over in the draft for a second time and hasn’t resurfaced on a training-camp invite as of yet.

So who will be this year’s Tkachev? There are a few possibilities, albeit mostly drafted players this time around.

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

1) Cole Cassels, F Vancouver

A third-rounder in 2013, Cassels has been outplaying his draft position over the last couple seasons and will be turning pro this fall, likely with Vancouver’s AHL-finalist affiliate, the Utica Comets. Those who follow Canadian junior hockey may not consider Cassels a sleeper anymore because he made a name for himself this spring by shutting down McDavid in the OHL final en route to winning the Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals. That little rivalry could be rekindled in Friday’s tournament opener between the Canucks and Oilers.

Cassels is the son of former NHL player Andrew Cassels, who played over 1,000 games including a three-season stint with the Canucks at the turn of the century (1999-2002). Andrew was perhaps more gifted offensively, posting a career-high 85 points, but Cole is certainly trending toward following in his father’s footsteps with a lengthy NHL career. The second-coming of Cassels projects as Vancouver’s future third-line centre in a checking role, capable of killing penalties and winning key faceoffs but also chipping in offensively.

2) Andrew Copp, F Winnipeg

A fourth-rounder in 2013, Copp has never received much fanfare, coming out of the NCAA and overshadowed by the likes of Ehlers in Winnipeg’s impressive prospect pool. He’s not a real flashy type — more like Cassels in that regard — but Copp has quietly gone about his business in becoming a legitimate prospect for the Jets. He actually debuted upon turning pro at the end of last season and recorded an assist in his first NHL game.

Copp may never be a big point producer or bring fans out of their seats like Ehlers, but he could secure a role in Winnipeg’s bottom-six forwards sooner than later. Copp could be this year’s Adam Lowry, an unheralded guy who surprisingly makes the team out of training camp but becomes an everyday NHL player by season’s end. It’ll be interesting to see whether Copp can make an offensive impact at the Young Stars as a complement to Ehlers and high-scoring centreman Nic Petan.

3) Anton Slepyshev, F Edmonton

Another third-rounder from 2013, Slepyshev will be making his North American debut in Penticton after a handful of seasons in the KHL. Nobody really knows what to expect from Slepyshev — he’s a winger with good size and some scoring ability — so he’ll be under the microscope at the Young Stars. On one hand, he’s already been playing against men for several years and is coming off a pretty successful season back in Russia, so Slepyshev could come in like a wrecking ball and light it up, especially if he lands on McDavid’s line at this showcase. On the other hand, it is a different world over here — from the size of the ice to the language barriers — so Slepyshev could just as easily struggle out of the gate in making that sometimes difficult transition.

As much as casual fans are excited to see McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse in action, the hardcores are eagerly anticipating what Slepyshev has to offer. He’s in the same situation that Yakimov was in at last year’s Young Stars — and Yakimov had a stellar showing — but it’s probably best to temper expectations in hopes of being pleasantly surprised again.

4) Dmitry Zhukenov, F Vancouver

A fourth-rounder this June, Zhukenov might be the best bet to become this year’s Tkachev — and not just because he’s Russian. Zhukenov is already looking like a potential steal for the Canucks, having hit the ground running with the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Saguenéens.

Crossing the pond to play major junior was a big step in the right direction for Zhukenov and his pre-season performance has raised the bar on expectations for the campaign to come. But Zhukenov remains a foreign name to most, though that could change if his coming-out party continues at the Young Stars. This is certainly a chance for Zhukenov to open a lot more eyes.

5) Andrew Mangiapane, F Calgary

A sixth-rounder this year, Mangiapane is undersized but so is Tyler Johnson. Not to make a direct comparison, but Mangiapane could become that kind of player. He’ll be a boom-bust type, but the boom potential is significant considering he put up 104 points in his draft year with the OHL’s Barrie Colts. Normally those kind of numbers would get you picked in the first round, likely in the top 10, but Mangiapane has his share of shortcomings — even beyond his stature — so he’ll be a draft-and-develop project for Calgary over the next few seasons.

The Flames couldn’t resist picking Mangiapane that late in the draft, not after watching Gaudreau — another slight forward — dazzle in his NHL debut as a Calder Trophy finalist. Could Mangiapane be a Young Stars sensation in similar fashion to Gaudreau last year? That might be too optimistic, considering Gaudreau was older and a Hobey Baker winner who had already played an NHL game and scored his first career goal to end the previous season. Mangiapane might play more like Johnson or a young Marc Savard, but it could take him a few more years to make any kind of NHL impact.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum — and an honourable mention for this list — is Calgary’s Hunter Smith, a monster of a man at 6-foot-7 and a teammate of Cassels with the Memorial Cup champion Generals. Smith was next on my list among “sleeper” forward prospects, with the 2014 second-rounder’s skill-set reminiscent of Todd Bertuzzi in his prime. A bigger Bertuzzi, in a Flames jersey, that’s a scary thought. Smith threw his weight around at last year’s Young Stars and should be an even bigger force this time around.

6) Jan Kostalek, D Winnipeg

Switching to defencemen, this fourth-rounder from 2013 took a big step forward in his development last season and ended up signing an entry-level contract with the Jets in March. How big? Well, he was named the QMJHL’s defenceman of the year over the likes of Sam Morin, who was Philadelphia’s first-rounder (11th overall) in the same draft year and played for Canada at the world juniors. Jakub Zboril, Thomas Chabot and Jeremy Roy were three blue-liners from the QMJHL picked at the top of this year’s draft, but Kostalek out-produced them all over the course of the season, pulling away in the playoffs as a point-per-game guy for the QMJHL champion Rimouski Oceanic.

Yet, it seems not many people know about Kostalek. They know all about Josh Morrissey — Winnipeg’s first-rounder from 2013 (13th overall) — and rightfully so, he’s a special talent who will undoubtedly be a difference-maker at both ends during this year’s Young Stars. I’m not saying Kostalek is Morrissey’s equal, but they do have a lot in common from their size to their two-way capabilities. Like Morrissey, Kostalek is a really efficient player in all scenarios and I can see him replacing Tobias Enstrom’s presence in a couple years.

7) Joey LaLeggia, D Edmonton

A fifth-rounder in 2012, LaLeggia is one of the older prospects in this tournament at 23, so he should be impressive against primarily junior-aged players. Ditto for Calgary’s Kenney Morrison, also 23, and Vancouver’s Ben Hutton, 22, who would be honourable mentions as far as defenders go. Like them, LaLeggia is turning pro this fall after a successful NCAA career in which he was a Hobey Baker finalist this past season. Offence is the name of LaLeggia’s game, racking up 49 goals and 132 points in 156 games over four seasons at the University of Denver.

LaLeggia’s on the smallish side, but has a skill-set quite similar to Colorado’s Tyson Barrie. He’ll be way down the pecking order amongst Edmonton’s defence prospects heading into training camp — most the hype is surrounding top-10 picks Darnell Nurse and Griffin Reinhart, and to a lesser degree Brandon Davidson and Jordan Oesterle — but LaLeggia might not be far away from making his NHL debut. Especially if Justin Schultz continues to struggle, LaLeggia could get a look in that role sooner than later. He’s the next-best option in terms of pure offence. First things first, LaLeggia will need to build some momentum at the Young Stars to get the attention of Todd McLellan and his coaching staff. Working in LaLeggia’s favour is the fact he’ll be in familiar territory, having played two seasons for the BCHL’s Penticton Vees before moving on to college. That may give him added motivation to put on a show for his old fans, and he’s already got a big fan in Edmonton — his childhood best friend and former minor-hockey teammate, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. There’s something you maybe didn’t know.

8) Guillaume Brisebois, D Vancouver

Jim Benning is a scout first and foremost, and the Canucks’ GM is particularly proud of picking Brisebois in the third round of this year’s draft. It’s unlikely that the just turned 18-year-old will be anywhere near NHL-ready, but Brisebois could be on the verge of a breakout year in the QMJHL. Edmonton is bringing some of his draft peers to Penticton (spoiler alert), so it’ll be interesting to compare and contrast Brisebois to the next guy on this list in terms of initial viewings on an NHL stage.

Jordan Subban, a fourth-rounder from 2013 and P.K.’s younger-and-smaller brother, scored 25 goals as a defenceman in the OHL last season, so he also fits the bill as a sleeper prospect with significant upside. Chances are Subban will be more noticeable than Brisebois in this showcase based on his age and advanced development, but Vancouver is lacking in defence prospects, so they both stand a good chance of getting a long look in training camp. How long could depend on how they assert themselves at the Young Stars.

9) Ethan Bear, D Edmonton

A fifth-rounder this year, Bear has all the tools to become an NHL blue-liner — he skates well, has a heavy shot and is solid on his feet despite standing under six-feet tall. The question is, does he have the toolbox to transport those skills to the next level where everything happens so much faster. Consider Bear a work in progress but a worthwhile gamble at that draft position.

It’s funny, I want to compare Bear to Marc-Andre Bergeron — a better-skating version —but that comparison is better suited to an even bigger sleeper by the name of Loik Leveille, who will be attending the Young Stars on a tryout with the Oilers and attempting to earn a contract. Edmonton has room to sign him if Leveille looks to have NHL potential after going undrafted out of the QMJHL.

I’d be remiss not to also mention Caleb Jones — Seth’s younger-and-smaller brother, a fourth-rounder this year, who has gotten off to a strong start in pre-season play with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. If LaLeggia and Bear don’t emerge as standouts during the Young Stars, then Jones and Leveille could certainly take their place among the top-performing blue-liners. No shortage of honourable mentions.

10) Eetu Laurikainen, G Edmonton

When it comes to goaltenders at this year’s Young Stars, Laurikainen is the real sleeper. I know what you’re thinking, another Oiler? I realize that brings the total to four Oilers on this list — nearly half, for those doing the math — but I couldn’t leave out Laurikainen even at risk of coming across as a homer. I’ll admit to following the Oilers closer than most teams, including their competition at this tournament, but all four are legitimate sleepers from Slepyshev to LaLeggia and Bear to Laurikainen. The latter is an undrafted 22-year-old Finnish netminder signed as organizational depth this off-season, right around the time Edmonton dropped out (or fell out) of the Matt O’Connor sweepstakes. Read into that what you will, but Peter Chiarelli insists Laurikainen was a target all along.

Laurikainen has had some prior success in North America, playing junior for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos before going home and putting up gaudy numbers in Finland’s pro league last season. But Laurikainen isn’t getting the love he deserves at this point, with most pundits presuming he’ll be ECHL-or-Europe bound as the fifth goalie on Edmonton’s depth chart behind new starter Cam Talbot, incumbent-turned-backup Ben Scrivens, fellow free-agent signing Anders Nilsson and former sleeper prospect Laurent Brossoit, also 22 and a sixth-rounder from 2011. It’s difficult to dispute that ranking, but Laurikainen is the kind of prospect who could make those decisions more difficult. He’ll be providing healthy competition for Brossoit throughout training camp, starting with the Young Stars. For the first time in a long time, Edmonton has a serious battle shaping up between the pipes from top to bottom and I’m not about to count out Laurikainen.

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.