There are prospects every year that seem to have fermented long enough in junior or overseas and we just want to see them either make the team or settle into their role as an AHL regular.
Every team seems to have a player in their system that should have been with the big club by now but for whatever reason, they’ve been slow in their development. They have dealt with injuries or inconsistencies. They may have just been drafted too high, setting expectations they just could not reach.
This season is no different in that regard. From slow burns developmentally to injury-plagued post-draft years, the NHL has been waiting on the arrival of many of these players for a few years. While it’s certainly not like these players can’t continue to develop and break into the league at 25 years old – or even later – it’s time for them to realize their potential or settle into being a prospect with middling aspirations on an NHL roster.
Barrett Hayton, C, Arizona Coyotes – Drafted 5th Overall in 2018
When he was selected fifth overall, there were questions about Hayton’s ability to live up to the draft slot. When he captained Canada to a gold medal at the World Juniors in 2020, his stock rose and the hopes were high thanks to a gutsy performance as he led the squad in scoring despite an injury. Where Hayton ultimately ends up as a pro player is the real question. Is he a third-line player who can make a difference in a clutch moment or is he a top-six center who can help lead a team at the NHL level?
Hayton is dealing with a lower-body injury at the moment but has looked good at times throughout the preseason. The Coyotes coaching staff has deemed him day-to-day and the outlook looks good for a quick return but does that return happen with the Coyotes or the Tuscan Roadrunners? After an up-and-down season last year – which included playing for Ilves (Liiga), Tuscan (AHL) and the Coyotes – the Canadian World Junior hero is looking to find some stability.
Whatever the Coyotes decide to do with Hayton, it’s evident that he is at risk of becoming a slow burn and forgotten prospect to a degree. Many of Hayton’s tools are NHL ready but he has yet to be able to put everything together and when he seemingly does, an injury pops up. Can he stay healthy and get himself ready for a full slate of NHL games?
Timothy Liljegren, D, Toronto Maple Leafs – Drafted 17th Overall in 2017
At one point, Liljegren was projected to go in the top-three of the 2017 draft but a bout with mononucleosis derailed his draft year for more than two months. When the draft rolled around, he slipped down the board all the way to the Maple Leafs who felt like they were getting a talent that wouldn’t generally be available after they made a surprise playoff run as the beginning of the Auston Matthews era began.
The development of Liljegren has gone slow and steady to this point. Many fans and analysts expected the young Swede to come in and perform offensively at the AHL level almost immediately. What has happened since his arrival has been impressive to a degree as Liljegren has become a solid defensive presence with excellent puck-moving ability. His offensive game hasn’t quite translated as expected but 41 points in 61 games is certainly nothing to shy away from.
Liljegren faces a bit of an uphill battle to make the opening night roster with the Maple Leafs but he should be among the first call-ups should an injury arise. If he does make the opening night roster after the solid camp he’s had, he likely starts out as a seventh defenseman filling in on nights here and there as he earns playing time. Ideally, Liljegren will have forced his way onto the roster by playoff time but that likely requires him supplanting Travis Dermott, who is likely to start the year on his off side on Toronto’s third pairing.
Vitali Kravtsov, RW, New York Rangers – Drafted 9th Overall in 2018
A divisive prospect among analysts and Rangers fans, Kravstov has had an odd development path. At one point, the relationship between Kravtsov and the Rangers seemed as if it were headed towards disaster after an unhappy AHL stint and his journey back to his native Russia to play in the KHL and VHL 2019-2020 before playing in the KHL again last season prior to the NHL’s startup due to COVID-19. Now back in the fold, Kravtsov is looking to secure a gig with the Rangers.
Training camp and the preseason have gone well for Kravtsov. He has even taken advantage of having Ryan Reaves in town, getting some fighting lessons from one of the league’s premier enforcers. Kravtsov’s game has speed and skill which is only more intriguing given his pro-ready frame. His offensive game has never been the problem. Kravtsov’s defensive commitment was his biggest issue, but with a seemingly newfound commitment to his own end, he should be able to find his NHL roster spot.
Currently injured with a minor lower-body injury, the young Russian has been deemed day-to-day by coach Gerard Gallant. This shouldn’t affect his position on the NHL roster but a swift return to action will be favorable for Kravtsov. Allowing another player to take him middle-six role may force Kravstov to play lower in the lineup, a fate that the 2018 top-ten pick will be disappointed in, to say the least.
Olli Juolevi, D, Vancouver Cancuks – Drafted 5th Overall in 2016
Canucks faithful have all but written off Juolevi and at 23 years of age, that doesn’t seem too outlandish. While never truly projected as a number one defender, Juolevi was said to have the physical tools that you look for in a two-way blueliner and his understanding of how to defend and move the puck quickly was heralded. The former London Knight had a good draft year and then stagnated with the Knights putting up a nearly identical stat line in his draft+1 season. Juolevi’s journey into pro hockey started the following year and he has dealt with injuries, inconsistency, and underwhelming results since.
This year’s training camp has done Juolevi no favors as he has seemingly lagged behind the Canucks shiny new toy, Jack Rathbone, and even veteran journeyman Brad Hunt in a battle for a spot on the third pairing in Vancouver. Juolevi remains an option for a roster spot, almost seemingly out of management just wanting to give the kid a shot.
Juolevi has seemed a step slow at times and his decision-making has yet to mature from his time with the Knights. If the Finn is forced to play another season in the AHL and again puts up mediocre numbers for a formerly highly-touted prospect, his time in the Canucks organization may be coming to an end. It truly is put up or shut up time for Juolevi.
Erik Brännström, D, Ottawa Senators – Drafted 15th Overall in 2017
The key piece of the Mark Stone trade, Brännström has been teasing Senators fans with good performances at the AHL level but then seeming not quite ready for the NHL. The flashes that he has shown at various times keep the hockey world tied in but the frustration has begun to show amongst fans and analysts.
Brännström has a high-level of skill and some tantalizing mobility. He has some impressive offensive IQ and he is a silky smooth passer throughout the ice. The biggest issue is that he has a difficult time defending the cycle and coach DJ Smith was not able to trust him in his own zone again NHLers. When the coach doesn’t trust you and has publicly criticized your play, it can be difficult to find consistent playing time.
The Ottawa depth chart isn’t loaded on defense. If Brännström can figure out a way to supplant one of the replacement-level defenders, he should be able to get an extended look. If the Senators want to take advantage of their growing stable of young, fun, and exciting forwards, Brännström may be the puck-mover that can help. It will just take some trust.
Logan Brown, C, St. Louis Blues – Drafted 11th Overall in 2016
After being traded from the Senators to his hometown Blues, Logan Brown is hoping a fresh start is just what he needs to get his NHL career really started. Brown has played a couple of games in the preseason so far and has looked like a player adjusting to new surroundings. The issue that plagued him in Ottawa – his pace of play – still seems like a bit of an issue but the Blues are hoping to get Brown into the lineup and playing at an NHL pace.
There were high hopes in Ottawa, but the clock was ticking and with management and the coaching staff becoming impatient and a relationship that seemed strained behind the scenes, Brown and the Senators were destined for a breakup. His AHL point totals were impressive throughout his time in the Senators organization but the NHL level has been more difficult for him to adjust to.
With a massive frame, NHL passing ability, and powerplay prowess, Brown should be able to provide value to the Blues at the NHL level. It will be on the Blues to put Brown in a position to succeed because at 23, the time for Brown to turn into a true top-six forward is running out. It’s time for the 2016 first-rounder to get his game in gear.