A lot of new faces on the list this year - a Jet at the top, a few Russians, a few Swedes, and likely a surprise or two as well.
I have a few general rules when it comes to building a team in a fantasy hockey keeper league. One of the more important ones is to not plan beyond a two or three year window. You are not building a real NHL club, and too often I see poolies place too much emphasis on youth and prospects instead of trying to add players who could help win now.
Using this rule, take a look at your team(s). Can you realistically say you will have a shot at winning the league at some point within the next two or three seasons? If not, time to scrap the rebuild and start adding proven NHL talent.
Keeping that window in mind, I have compiled a list of the top 10 keeper league forward prospects to own (assuming standard keeper league rules and scoring categories). Using the scope, the long-term upside of these players is balanced with their NHL readiness.
This list is in order, which means that I wouldn’t trade the fourth player straight across for the fifth player, and so on (although with prospects, player type and position matter more than they would with NHL players). I was asked to clarify by what “standard categories” means, so here is the league format that I am basing my selections on:
12 to 15 teams
Start 4 C, 4 LW, 4 RW, 6 D, 2 G (5 Bench)
G, A, +/-, PIM, PPP, GWG, HITS, SOG
I put an emphasis on offensive categories. They are harder to find in the draft – it is much easier to scoop up a PIM/HITS type of player on the waiver wire (Matt Martin, Derek Dorsett) than it is to get a player who fills the G/A/PPP categories nicely.
This was the first time in the four years that I have published these rankings that I can confidently say there are no surefire future superstars on this list. By that I mean there are no slam dunks to become great NHL players. In past years we have had prospects like Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, and Nail Yakupov. A number of the below prospects could one day develop into elite NHL players, but the risk factor is higher than it has been in previous years.
There are some great young hockey players on the 2013 list though, and I don’t want to take anything away from any of them.The first six spots were relatively easy for me to place, but the list was much more wide open after that. I had around 15 names for the final four spots.
Evgeni Kuznetsov would be the clear number one choice if he were playing in the AHL right now (or if we could confirm he would be coming to North America on a certain date). The KHL/Russian factor knocks him down four spots. I’m not as high on Mikhail Grigorenko as others are. For one, the age issue is a bit of a concern (although with Damian Cox as the source...). And for two, the Sabres are a bit of a mess right now. I don’t see much of a direction within that organization.
Cut-off for prospect consideration was 25 games of NHL experience (regular/playoff). I rounded up in one particular case.
1. Mark Scheifele - Winnipeg Jets
Scheifele has everything you would want in a top prospect - he’s big, skilled, and smart. The Jets made the right move sending him back to the OHL this season, and he is going to come into camp this fall ready for a full-time gig. Scheifele will be centering Evander Kane one day, and that day may come sooner rather than later. Olli Jokinen has one year left on his contract - his presence allows the Jets to be patient with Scheifele as he gets his feet wet at the NHL level.
Scheifele scored 39 goals in 45 OHL games with Barrie this season - yeah, he’s ready.
2. Ryan Strome - New York Islanders
Strome’s OHL production was really impressive in 2012-13 (94 points in 53 games), but what was more impressive was defensive play and overall ability to dominate with and without the puck. He isn’t just a highlight reel producing machine anymore. He will go down as arguably the greatest Niagara Ice Dog in organizational history, and is a wizard with the puck. He is going to wreak havoc on NHL defensemen and goaltenders for years to come.
The Islanders are going to have one of those “good problems” on their hands soon - centers John Tavares, Strome, Casey Cizikas, Brock Nelson, and Frans Nielsen all have top six upside/ability. And since joining the AHL after his OHL season concluded, Strome has four points in six games (as of April 15th).
3. Sven Baertschi - Calgary Flames
A head/neck injury was the only thing that could slow down Baertschi’s phenomenal AHL campaign in 2012-13. He’s a slick player with the puck on his stick, and he plays a fearless game (thanks in large part to a few years of WHL development and experience).
Baertschi finished with 10 goals and 26 points in only 32 games with Abbotsford, and he is going to play out the rest of the season in Calgary. The rebuild will ensure that he has every opportunity to play consistent top six minutes (and maybe more) in 2013-14.
It sounds like he has a pretty good head on his shoulders too.
4. Tyler Toffoli - Los Angeles Kings
Toffoli is a natural goal scorer, and he’s in a fantastic situation to be a productive NHL player right away. Often times stacked NHL squads will take their time developing prospects, but Toffoli’s development has been kicked into overdrive over the past year or two. And he is going to spend the offseason learning the left wing position, where the Kings are relatively thin (not literally, as Dustin Penner is still on the roster for a few more months).
Toffoli was named as AHL Rookie of the Year for 2012-13, as he was a very quick study in his first year of professional hockey. There is little to no chance he spends any time in the AHL in 2013-14. Back-to-back 50+ goal seasons in the OHL to close out his junior career provide a glimpse of what he can do with the puck on his stick (although it usually doesn’t stay there for too long).
The first of many:
5. Evgeni Kuznetsov - Washington Capitals
As mentioned above, Kuznetsov would be the easy top choice if he was a slam dunk to play in the NHL this fall (or any fall, for that matter). He’s the total package - a great skater, supremely skilled with the puck, and a side of grit that Russians are known for (Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Bure are both great examples of this).
Caps GM George McPhee on Kuznetsov’s future in the NHL (from March 30th):
“There have been some discussions there and he really wants to play in the NHL. That’s the next challenge for him,” McPhee said. “We know he wants to come when his obligations are fulfilled over there.”
It’s uncertain how the 2014 Sochi Olympics will push back the end of the KHL season, so McPhee wasn’t sure if Kuznetsov would be able to come to North America late in the spring of 2014. The earliest full season Kuznetsov would be eligible to play in Washington is 2014-15.
This season Kuznetsov has recorded 19 goals and 25 assists for Traktor Chelyabinsk. He’s playing on the wing in the KHL but he has some experience as a center and that’s where the Capitals would like to try him in the NHL.
NHL goalies are probably hoping he never comes over:
6. Nick Bjugstad - Florida Panthers
Bjugstad would still be considered a phenomenal prospect if he were 5-11 and 190 pounds. He’s a great skater, has a booming shot, and sees the ice very well. The fact that he is 6-5, 215 pounds, and still growing is why the Panthers are so bullish on him and his upside. Bjugstad has Mats Sundin’s size, and he shoots the puck like Jeff Carter. He and Jonathan Huberdeau are going to be a dynamic duo for a long, long time in South Florida.
Bjugstad recently turned pro after a very good NCAA career at Minnesota, and he should play regular minutes in the Florida top six starting this fall.
Look at how ridiculous his reach with the puck is:
7. Calle Jarnkrok - Detroit Red Wings
Jarnkrok plays a very “Red Wing” kind of game already, and because of that I don’t see him spending too much time at the AHL level. What I mean by that - he’s skilled with the puck, he holds on to it until he absolutely has to make a play, he’s sound positionally, and he plays well within a system. He’s the most skilled of the young forwards in the Red Wings system, and he is the best bet to take over from Datsyuk and Zetterberg as the offensive leader in a few years.
He recently got a taste of North American hockey before returning to Sweden, and that can only bode well for his chances at earning a roster spot in Detroit this fall.
Many have likened Jarnkrok's style to current Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg.
“You do see a lot of similarities to how Hank plays,'' Lidstrom said. “He's got that ability to hang onto the puck and not throw it away unless he has to. He can hold off guys and make that play when there's an opening and wait for that opening, too.
“I think he's ready for the next level and see how quick he can adapt to playing on smaller rinks with faster guys.''
8. Mikhail Grigorenko - Buffalo Sabres
Grigorenko was a lot higher on many of the lists from DobberHockey members. He slides on my list for a few reasons - the Sabres are currently a team without an identity, and I don’t really see where Grigorenko fits in right now. The team absolutely wasted a year of his rookie contract this season in a great example of awful asset management.
And two, the age thing. There are no verified sources, but I have heard from more than a few people that Grigorenko’s true age is up for debate. If he is actually a year or two older than his birth certificate says, that takes away from a lot of his junior hockey accomplishments (which would have come against younger competition). Is it fair to drop him based on an unverified rumour? Probably not, but I wouldn’t take him over any of the guys above him on this list nonetheless.
9. Filip Forsberg - Nashville Predators
Getting traded from Washington to Nashville shouldn’t increase a prospect’s value, should it? Forsberg wouldn’t have cracked the top 10 if he were still in the Capitals organization, and the move to the Predators increases his value. Why?
Firstly, the team doesn’t have anything in the way of elite talent (or future elite talent) on the roster or in the organization. Forsberg will be given every opportunity to be a top line scorer right away. The fact that the team traded away arguably its best forward (Martin Erat) to acquire him also means that they will want to show their fans that Forsberg is ready to contribute now.
Forsberg was noticeable in a good away in a recent Nashville game I caught - he was fine handling the size and speed of the NHL, and he showed great offensive instincts with some nice passes and one-on-one moves.
10. Brett Ritchie - Dallas Stars
Ritchie is a scoring machine, and the rest of his game is quickly catching up. He has benefitted tremendously from playing the bulk of his final junior season as Ryan Strome’s linemate in Niagara, but that shouldn’t take away from his accomplishments entirely.
Ritchie recently turned pro, joining the AHL’s Texas Stars. His impact has been immediate (three goals in five games as of April 15th). For a big guy, Ritchie doesn’t play with much snarl (he’s 6-4 and 220 pounds), but he uses his size to create separation and space for himself and his linemates in the offensive zone. He’s not afraid to drop the gloves if the situation calls for it, either.
Dallas has a number of talented young wingers - Alex Chiasson, Matej Stransky, and Matt Fraser, among others. Ritchie has the most upside of any of them. He won’t be in the NHL next season, but he will be well worth the wait, for both the Stars and for fantasy hockey poolies.
Beau Bennett (Penguins) - (22GP, I figure he will hit 25 soon) natural goal-scoring winger in a great situation. Not sure how much he will contribute in other statistical categories. If he starts to ride shotgun with Sidney Crosby soon, look out.
Mikael Granlund (Wild) - (25 GP)
Boone Jenner (Blue Jackets) - a do-it-all forward who will be a multi-category monster. How much offensive upside does he have, though?
Chris Kreider (Rangers) - (35 GP - combined postseason and regular season)
Tom Wilson (Capitals) - big, mean winger who plays a gritty game. A few years away.
Ty Rattie (Blues) - the Blues have so much depth up front, he’d be on the top 10 list if in another organization.
Vincent Trocheck (Panthers) - another dynamic offensive talent in the Florida organization.
Tomas Hertl (Sharks) - two-way power winger with 30-goal upside.
Matt Nieto (Sharks) - skilled left winger has top line upside. The Sharks do an unbelievable job of scouting the NCAA.
Alex Chiasson (Stars) - NHL ready, very solid winger with a nose for the net.
Nicklas Jensen (Canucks) - needs a bit more seasoning. A year in the SEL did him good - deadly wrist shot and solid overall game.
John Gaudreau (Flames) - on talent alone, he is easily a top 10 prospect. Still raw and very small.
Joel Armia (Sabres) - a big and stronger winger with dazzling hands - the Sabres can’t wait to get him into their lineup.
Ryan Spooner (Bruins) - smart and crafty center - I love how he plays the game. Depth is the issue in Boston. Tough for an offensive center to slide in.
Teuvu Teravainen (Blackhawks) - the Hawks will take their time with this skilled Finn.
Other Top 10 Lists from 2013: