Future Watch 2020: The NHL’s top 10 rising prospects

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We’ll soon be two weeks into the NHL shutdown, with no end in sight and no guarantee we’ll see the resumption of the 2019-20 season. For our sanity, it’s best not to dream about it. What we can do to whet our hockey appetites, however, is think about the future. It just so happens The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2020 is available on newsstands now or, should you rather stay cozy and safe at home, for digital purchase.

So what is Future Watch? It’s an annual special edition in which we (a) grade every NHL franchise’s collection of 21-and-younger talent, from players in the system to young guns on the NHL rosters and (b) rank the top 100 NHL-affiliated individual prospects, with “NHL-affiliated” referring to all drafted or signed players in a team’s system. A 2020 draft hopeful such as Alexis Lafreniere isn’t eligible as he doesn’t have an NHL team yet.

How do we come up with these rankings? First, we work with NHL team personnel representing almost every franchise and come up with an updated list of each team’s top 10 prospects not yet in full-time NHL roles. That gives us 310 players total. We then turn that group of 310 over to a panel of scouts from around the NHL. They rank all the players, creating an individual list of our top 100 prospects. The same scouting panel also looks at each franchise’s top 10, plus the franchise’s current NHLers aged 21 and younger, and grades each franchise, helping us determine top-31 rankings of the best development systems.

Why do the 21-and-younger NHLers count as part of a team’s “farm”? Well, if a team’s youth development is going so swimmingly that its peach-fuzzers are jumping right to the NHL while another franchise’s youngest prospects are still in the minors, the team whose prospects are ahead of the curve should not be “punished” in the rankings, should it? An NHL team wants to have elite players aged 21 or younger if they’re ready. Phenoms like Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar should count toward their team’s youth-crop rankings given they are younger than many prospects.

So which Future Watch prospects have made the biggest leaps in the individual rankings over the past year? A few disclaimers before you criticize, I mean read, the list:

(a) A player who fully graduated to the NHL since Future Watch 2019 isn’t eligible for this list, as he’s not even ranked in Future Watch 2020. Makar, last year’s No. 1 overall prospect, is a prime example.

(b) Just because your favorite team’s prospect had a monster year doesn’t mean he’s an automatic riser. Take Kirill Kaprizov, whom I’ve profiled in the Future Watch 2020 magazine. He’s our No. 4 overall prospect this year, but he was No. 8 last year, meaning he only rose four spots year over year. This list is about guys who made monstrous developmental leaps.

(c) A player drafted in 2019 can’t qualify as a riser. So don’t squawk about Dylan Cozens not appearing in these rankings, for instance. He wasn’t ranked at all in 2019, as he wasn’t drafted yet, so he has no number to rise from. Not a riser.

With that, let’s begin.

1. JAN JENIK, C, ARIZONA COYOTES (+65)
Last year: Not ranked in top 100
This year: 36th

It seems crazy to feel disappointed that Jenik “only” jumps 65 spots year over year, but he actually could’ve climbed higher had he not sustained a major knee injury at the 2020 world juniors. He was tearing up the OHL, averaging better than two points per game. One reason for the huge jump in productivity: he was the 2018 draft class’ youngest player, so perhaps he’s catching up physically. Jenik has dynamic hands but has also been singled out for his smarts and ability to play with an edge. That bodes well for his chances of impressing coaches and rising quickly once he goes pro with AHL Tucson.

2. NILS LUNDKVIST, D, NEW YORK RANGERS (+49)
Last year: Not ranked in top 100
This year: 52nd

Like so many young blueline prospects emerging these days, Lundqvist has a build that would’ve gotten him overlooked or been labelled a hindrance in the early 2000s. Today, a mobile 5-foot-11, 174-pound defenseman can get picked in the first round of a draft. Lundkvist has a skill set every team covets. He can play big minutes and moves the puck quickly and decisively. His offense took a massive leap forward with Lulea in the SHL this season. He’s expected to sign an entry-level deal with the Rangers at some point during the extended COVID-19 layoff. New York won’t have to rush him, even if he impresses at camp, but he’s a key member of an exciting youth movement on ‘D’ that includes Adam Fox, Tony DeAngelo and, eventually, K’Andre Miller.

3. KEVIN BAHL, D, NEW JERSEY DEVILS (+41)
Last year: Not ranked in top 100
This year: 60th

Bahl is the opposite of Lundkvist. If Bahl were drafted in 2003, he might have been a first-rounder given he stands a hulking 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds. Instead, Bahl went in the second round of the 2018 draft, 27 picks after Lundkvist. It’s pretty clear what Bahl will bring: a heavy shutdown game which, if he can reach his ceiling, could turn him into a Brandon Carlo type, as Devils assistant GM Dan MacKinnon tells our correspondent Justin Birnbaum in Future Watch 2020. As you can expect, Bahl has to work on getting that big body movin’ and improving his skating if he’s going to make it at the NHL level. The Devils acquired Bahl as part of the Taylor Hall trade with the Arizona Coyotes in December.

4. JAKE OETTINGER, G, DALLAS STARS (+35)
Last year: 91st
This year: 56th

Dallas’ goaltending is in a good place. It has Ben Bishop still playing at a high level in the NHL and under contract three more seasons – while Oettinger, 21, can develop on a track that could have him peak just when the Stars are ready to hand over the starter’s reins. The .917 save percentage in his first full season as an AHL pro is impressive, and he’s agile for a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder. His puckhandling remains a work in progress, and he likely needs another year as a true unquestioned No. 1 who starts 50-plus games with AHL Texas before he starts breathing down Bishop’s neck. That’s fine. No big rush. It’ll be a shame if Oettinger doesn’t get to play out the rest of this season, which looks increasingly likely, as he could’ve used some stretch-run reps. The AHL has suspended play but could eventually opt for a full cancellation.

5. ALEXANDER ROMANOV, D, MONTREAL CANADIENS (+35)
Last year: 45th
This year: 10th

Even a year ago, Romanov looked like a steal for the Habs as a second-rounder in 2018. He was named best defenseman at the 2019 WJC, after all. Now Romanov looks like more than a steal. He looks like a future top-pair defenseman. He emerged as a real leader on the 2020 Russian WJC squad and played for a Gagarin-Cup winning CSKA Moscow team last year. He didn’t play much but still absorbed valuable experience. He projects to be a well-rounded minute-muncher with great speed who doesn’t provide all-star offense but brings some physicality. His KHL contract was set to expire in May, and the Habs were keen on bringing him to North America. Assuming he comes and we have a season that starts on time in 2020-21, Romanov could make the Canadiens and contend for the Calder Trophy. Given how sparingly he was being used in the KHL playoffs for a second straight season – common practice for youngsters in that league – it would probably be better for his development to cross the pond anyway.

6. IGOR SHESTERKIN, G, NEW YORK RANGERS (+34)
Last year: 37th
This year: 3rd

Shesterkin? How does he qualify? We complete most of our scouting-panel polling in January, and Shesterkin didn’t debut as an NHLer until then, so he was still ranked as a prospect at that point. It feels like that was an eternity ago given Shesterkin was an instant NHL star and will never play another AHL game. By the time he went down with a fractured rib sustained in a February car accident, he’d already been declared the Blueshirts’ No. 1 netminder, winning a three-way battle with legend Henrik Lundqvist and underrated Alexandar Georgiev. Even as an NHLer, Shesterkin continued his trend of tossing up video-game stats everywhere he goes. He went 6-0 with a .948 SP in February. Shesterkin isn’t a net-filling behemoth in the mold of Robin Lehner or Pekka Rinne but brings tremendous confidence, anticipation and reflexes to the crease. Shesterkin should emerge as a Vezina-Trophy contender for years to come.

7. KIRILL MARCHENKO, RW, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (+32)
Last year: not ranked in top 100
This year: 69th

Marchenko’s path is one we’ve seen among many Russian prospects: a potential high-impact player who falls in the draft because of uncertainty over when he might come to North America, a la Kaprizov. Marchenko, 19, is under contract through 2021-22 in the KHL, meaning he can’t debut in the NHL until 2022-23 at the earliest. He’s a big, rangy goal-scorer with an accurate shot who projects to ascend to a top-six role at the NHL level someday.

8. URHO VAAKANAINEN, D, BOSTON BRUINS (+30)
Last year: not ranked in top 100
This year: 71st

The offensive numbers haven’t shown up yet for Vaakanainen, but most scouting reports suggest they could come someday, as the tools are there. He’s a smart puck-mover who looks comfortable skating the puck out of trouble, plays a dependable two-way game and can kill penalties. The ceiling isn’t yet clear, but the floor seems pretty high, and Vaakanainen got a five-game look with the Bruins this year.

9. JUSTUS ANNUNEN, G, COLORADO AVALANCHE (+29)
Last year: not ranked in top 100
This year: 72nd

As if the loaded Avs needed any additional top-end prospects. They just have the magic touch right now, and not just with their first- and second-rounders. They nabbed Annunen early in 2018’s third round, and he was an absolute monster in the Liiga this season, breaking its record for the longest shutout streak. That he was competing as a teenager and dominating one of the world’s best leagues as a goalie suggests he has true NHL star potential. He’s a big, stays deep in his net and waits for opponents to make their moves first.

10. JACK STUDNICKA, C, BOSTON BRUINS (+28)
Last year: 76th
This year: 48th

Looks like you’ve found another, gem, Bruins. It’s never a given that a kid transitions easily from the junior ranks to the pros as an AHLer, but Studnicka has done exactly that. He scores, he plays high-responsibility minutes, he kills penalties and disrupts the play with shorthanded goals. He’s been one of the AHL’s better players this season and doesn’t have much more to prove there. He’ll be able to help the Bruins soon, especially because his game doesn’t limit him to having to make the team as a top-fix forward. His endless motor fits into the Bruins’ identity perfectly, too.

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