The end is near. The playoffs are approaching. And the speculation for the next few months can finally begin.
First of all, a happy Mother’s Day to my mother, the mothers in the Sports Nerd Speaks community, and mothers all across the world. Your hard work and dedication will never go unnoticed.
The NHL picture is finally starting to come into focus. All but two Canadian teams as of this writing are left to be eliminated, and the seeding is being locked up with three of eight possible first-round matchups already decided. Divisions are being won, the Presidents Trophy race will come down to the wire, and the West Division focuses on a matchup between its top two teams that is, in my opinion, the most important regular season game of the year.
So where does that leave the rankings this week, with so little left at stake and teams settling in for the long haul of the playoffs? The answer is simple: look towards the future. The Expansion Draft and Entry Draft will each get their moments in due time, but what about the prospects that teams already have? I don’t need to regale you of how good the likes of Quinton Byfield and Trevor Zegras are (plenty of outlets do that already), but what about the prospects that go unnoticed? The ones that are just as impressive but slide under the radar, or the underrated prospect that is quietly producing big elsewhere? The NHL is always introducing new talent around this time, and this season has been no different, despite the pandemic.
So which prospect should your team be paying attention to? And how do the rankings look as the season finishes up? Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: These rankings are based on games played and statistics recorded as of May 8.
1. Vegas Golden Knights (Even): Plenty of prospects are cutting their teeth with the Knights or their AHL affiliate in Henderson, but the name Ivan Morozov won’t jump off the page immediately. It will soon, though, as his breakout season in the KHL (a league notorious for limiting the minutes of younger players) indicates the Knights made another good drafting decision in their young history.
2. Carolina Hurricanes (+1): Not willing to take a chance on losing a season of development, Jack Drury left Harvard in order to play professionally in Sweden’s top league. His gamble paid off nicely, as Drury didn’t look out of place playing against grown men.
3. Colorado Avalanche (-1): Finishing second in the NCAA goal-scoring race for the University of Minnesota, Sampo Ranta cashed in and signed his entry-level contract with the Avalanche after the Gophers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament. His professional career is off to a good start, providing some offense to an uneven Colorado Eagles team in the AHL.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (+1): Cup-winning teams require contributions from young players in order to stay dominant, and the Lightning have gotten that from an unexpected source in Alex Barre-Boulet. An undrafted player who has split time between Tampa Bay and Syracuse this season, the Expansion Draft and ABB’s own production could open the door for a full-time role with the Lightning next season.
5. Florida Panthers (-1): Talking about Spencer Knight may feel a little redundant, but it’s impossible to ignore his lightning-fast start to his NHL career. The top goaltending prospect in the NHL, Knight went from another great year at Boston College to beginning his NHL career with four consecutive victories.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs (+5): It feels like a matter of time before Timothy Liljegren gains a full-time NHL roster spot, but I’m not sure if he’ll get that in Toronto. Always thrown around in trade rumors, a team would jump at the chance to land a 22-year-old defenseman with first-round pedigree and showing nice adjustment to the North American game (an add-on for an Expansion Draft trade with Seattle, perhaps?)
7. Pittsburgh Penguins (+3): The Penguins’ farm system is considered barren compared to the rest of the league, but diamonds like Samuel Poulin still exist. Lighting it up in the QMJHL this season, the big winger will get another opportunity to crack the Penguins lineup next season (potentially playing alongside friend and current linemate Nathan Legare is an added bonus).
8. Minnesota Wild (-1): Another top prospect to make the jump from the NCAA, Matt Boldy has put together a point-per-game pace in the AHL since making his arrival. He likely won’t make the same impact Kirill Kaprizov did this season, but he’ll provide more youth and excitement to a team that was in desperate need of both.
9. Washington Capitals (-3): After dropping in the 2020 Draft due to serious concussion issues, Hendrix Lapierre entered this season with something to prove. He ran with the chance, staying healthy and producing at a nice pace for Chicoutimi in the QMJHL.
10. Boston Bruins (-2): With the Bruins facing heavy criticism for their 2020 class, seeing positive development from top pick Mason Lohrei has to feel good. Initially seen as a reach in the second round, Lohrei made strong strides this season and will continue his development at Ohio State next year.
11. Edmonton Oilers (+1): While big names like Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, and Dylan Holloway steal the spotlight, lesser-known prospects like Carter Savoie are silently having strong seasons. A local product for the Oilers, Savoie led the University of Denver in goals as a freshman this season.
12. New York Islanders (-3): The Islanders have prided themselves on their defensive corps in the Barry Trotz era, and Robin Salo is making a case of joining that group in the near future. A solid two-way defenseman, Salo has put together his best professional season so far in Sweden this year, and he will likely make his North American debut next season.
13. St. Louis Blues (+5): I was one of the minority that actually liked St. Louis drafting Jake Neighbours last year, believing he could be the David Backes/Patrick Maroon type of player that could guide the Blues to another Cup. His scoring touch is also of note, finishing fourth in point per game in the WHL (for context, the players ahead of him are future top-10 picks Dylan Guenther and Connor Bedard, as well as top Vegas prospect Peyton Krebs).
14. Nashville Predators (+1): After a surprise bout with inconsistency at last year’s World Junior Championship, Yaroslav Askarov needed a bounce-back season. Despite only playing 9 KHL games this season, he finished with a 1.21 GAA and .951 save percentage to cement himself as the best goaltending prospect outside of North America.
15. Dallas Stars (+1): Rookies like Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger are making Stars fans excited about the future, and Thomas Harley will hope to place himself as Dallas’ next big rookie sensation. He is still a work in progress in his own zone, but his offensive skills from the back end have not gone unnoticed.
16. Montreal Canadiens (+1): Cayden Primeau has been given time to marinate in the AHL for a while, but his time may be coming soon in Montreal. With Carey Price experiencing inconsistency, Jake Allen looking like a good bet to head to Seattle in a couple months, and Laval Rocket coach Joel Bouchard a strong candidate to be promoted, the Canadiens could be in position to lean on their goaltender of the future.
17. Winnipeg Jets (-4): The Jets still desperately need improved play in their own zone, making a stay-at-home defenseman like Dylan Samberg a perfect fit. His puck movement skills definitely need work, but he should project as next season’s version of Logan Stanley and make his NHL debut at some point.
18. New York Rangers (-4): The Rangers are becoming flush with young defenseman (Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller, Zac Jones, etc.), and the next one to make their appearance will likely be Nils Lundkvist. His season this year in the SHL might not have been as strong as last year, but it should be good enough to warrant signing his entry-level contract and some AHL time next season to adjust to the North American game.
19. Philadelphia Flyers (Even): If you’re going to make a list of potential breakout players for next season, you’d be remiss not to include Wade Allison in that conversation. A late debut for the Flyers, Allison has scored four goals in thirteen games and is looking like he’ll be a fixture in Philadelphia’s middle-six for the foreseeable future.
20. Chicago Blackhawks (+1): A former first-round pick of the Florida Panthers who fell out of favor in the organization, Henrik Borgstrom was handed to the Blackhawks in exchange for taking Brett Connolly’s contract. Regaining his confidence in Finland this season, the Hawks are hoping that a fresh start is what Borgstrom needs to succeed at the NHL level.
21. Arizona Coyotes (+1): After losing half of last season due to a knee injury, Jan Jenik had to reestablish himself as the top prospect in the organization with Victor Soderstrom’s graduation. There is still work needed to be done, but scoring two goals in as many NHL games in his brief call-up is a promising sign.
22. Los Angeles Kings (+3): I’ll spare you the Quinton Byfield/Alex Turcotte cop-outs and instead point to someone who may benefit from their presence: Arthur Kaliyev. A natural goal-scorer, Kaliyev got his first NHL goal in his first game and has produced well for their AHL affiliate in Ontario (California, not Canada).
23. Calgary Flames (Even): Put me on the list of Dustin Wolf truthers. Despite being undersized, he was the second-best goaltender in the NHL behind potential first-round pick Sebastian Cossa this season, along with landing an 18-3 record and four shutouts.
24. Ottawa Senators (+3): The Senators seem to have found a nice talent pipeline in the University of North Dakota, with players like Shane Pinto being part of the future in Canada’s capital city. After a breakout performance at the World Junior Championships, Pinto has carried that momentum through a strong sophomore season and a hot start to his NHL career (six points in his first 10 games).
25. Vancouver Canucks (-5): Jim Benning balances his poor free agency decisions with strong drafting, and it looks like Jack Rathbone will be yet another example. A former standout at Harvard, Rathbone used a strong stint for the Utica Comets to land a call-up with the Canucks, scoring his first NHL goal in the process.
26. San Jose Sharks (-2): It’s telling that, despite all the talented freshmen the University of Michigan boasted this season, Thomas Bordeleau managed to lead the Wolverines in points. He’s definitely on the smaller side, but there’s no denying his playmaking abilities.
27. Detroit Red Wings (-1): The NHL has seen an influx of talented Germans enter the league, and Moritz Seider will likely be joining their ranks next season. Impressing in both North America last season and Sweden this season, Seider will hopefully help the Wings forget about the failed development of Dennis Cholowski.
28. Columbus Blue Jackets (Even): If the Kirill Marchenko hype train starts getting out of control, you heard it here first. Breaking out in the KHL this season, Marchenko will spend one more year in Russia before bringing his talents over to North America, where he could potentially make it straight to the NHL.
29. New Jersey Devils (+2): The Devils seem to have fully embraced the youth movement, which is good news for prospects like Dawson Mercer to see NHL time sooner rather than later. Breaking out with a strong performance at the World Junior Championships this season, Mercer has shown consistency and versatility in a number of roles.
30. Anaheim Ducks (-1): Lukas Dostal might not get the same level of attention as Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, but he could reach that level. Taking over as the top goaltender for a quality AHL team in the San Diego Gulls, Dostal could compete for Ryan Miller’s soon-to-be vacated spot as John Gibson’s backup.
31. Buffalo Sabres (-1): John-Jason Peterka has had a wild season, appearing in Germany, Austria, and the World Junior Championships in the span of a year. He appears to have taken some positive strides in his development, however, and his remaining two seasons in Germany will hopefully be used to turn him into a more complete player.