The end of the NCAA regular season has brought some of the NHL's top college prospects that much closer to the pro ranks. The NCAA free agent crop could be one of the best in several years, but there are plenty of notable already-drafted prospects as well. Now, much like Chris Kreider last season, there are several key names throughout the college ranks who are either close or potentially ready to make the jump to the NHL. It doesn't mean they'll turn pro and join the big club for this season, but based on my discussions with industry sources and my own observations, here is a look at some of the top NCAA prospects close to making an impact in the NHL.
Acquired: C/W Johan Larsson, G Matt Hackett, Minnesota's first round pick in 2013 and 2nd round pick in 2014; St Louis' 2nd round pick and conditional 5th round pick in 2013. Los Angeles' 2nd round picks in 2014 and 2015
Traded: W Jason Pominville, D Robyn Regehr, D Jordan Leopold
Larsson was Minnesota's second-round pick in 2010 and was the top scoring U20 player in the Swedish Elite League last season as well as that league's rookie of the year. He has been good in the AHL this season, with scouts saying he has displayed good play in both ends. He's a smart, hard-working player who may not be blessed with a ton of skill but his very good offensive instincts could potentially make him an above-average regular in the NHL. Hackett is a decent goalie prospect with good athletic skills who became more expendable for Minnesota with the great play of fellow young goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
Larsson joins a good emerging corps of young forwards in Buffalo. Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno, Mikhail Grigorenko, Brian Flynn and Luke Adam are among those who have played in the NHL this year, with other top prospects such as Zemgus Girgensons and Daniel Catenacci projected to be in Buffalo down the line.
Larsson is the best of the two prospects going to Buffalo, is close to NHL-ready and in terms of prospect value is close to a player like Girgensons, who was a first round pick for Buffalo last summer. Hackett still needs development time, plus he may have to battle for ice time even in Rochester -- Buffalo's AHL affiliate -- as their goaltender, David Leggio, is one of the A's top goalies.
The impact of these trades in terms of the prospects acquired is not too significant. Larsson is a good piece and could move the Sabres up in a farm system rankings a couple of places. Hackett is talented, but won't change the dynamics of the system really and is probably the second-best goalie in the system behind Andrey Makarov in the WHL, although Hackett's older (23) than Makarov (19). The picks help Buffalo and the total impact of this trade will be felt more in the next few seasons, but in the immediate term they got one good forward prospect and a decent goaltending prospect with some potential.
Acquired: W Ben Hanowski, W Kenneth Agostino, D Mark Cundari, G Reto Berra, Pittsburgh's 1st round pick in 2013, a conditional first round pick in 2013 from St. Louis and Columbus' 5th round pick in 2013
Traded: W Jarome Iginla, D Jay Bouwmeester, W Blake Comeau
The Flames entered the trade deadline period with a roughly average NHL farm system depending whether you still defined Sven Baertchi as a prospect
and if you didn't the system was clearly below average. They left the trade deadline period without much of a change. Most of the value they got in trades comes from acquiring the Blues' and Penguins' first-round picks.
The Iginla trade pulled the best return prospect-wise, as the two forwards Ben Hanowski and Kenneth Agostino project as average NHL forwards. Hanowski, who is about to finish his collegiate career this weekend, is a hard-working forward with good hockey sense and a plus shot but a little slow. Agostino is a quick, skilled, gritty player but is small and lacks standout skills for his size.
In the Bouwmeester deal, Calgary got AHL D Mark Cundari and goaltender Reto Berra from the Swiss pro league (called the NLA). Cundari has been an AHL All-Star, and even though he's small (5-9), he's a tough, physical player with some puck-moving ability. However several scouts I've talked to described him as a player who tops out as a third-pairing defenseman. Flames GM Jay Feaster has indicated some within their organization felt Berra was the best goaltender outside the NHL. That argument may have held more merit last season when he won the NLA's goalie of the year award, but Berra has been very average this season, ranking ninth in NLA save percentage among regular goaltenders in a 12-team league. He's a big goalie with good athletic tools, but in my opinion it's a stretch to think the 26-year-old could be a capable starting goaltender in the NHL.
Depending whom you talk to, Hanowski or Agostino is considered the best prospect coming back for Calgary in these trades, and it's debatable if any would be in the Flames' top-10 prospects. Although aside from Baertschi and Max Reinhart, who have played in the NHL this season, Calgary's top forward prospects are younger players such as Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Jankowski and Markus Granlund. Therefore acquiring older prospects could help them in the short term. Cundari is close to being ready, which helps the organization's depth as Calgary doesn't have much in terms of defense prospects who are close to NHL-ready. Patrick Sieloff and Tyler Wotherspoon are fine defense prospects but don't seem ready for that step yet. Where Berra fits into the picture depends if Miikka Kiprusoff retires -- as anticipated -- and whether Calgary can get top KHL goaltender Karri Ramo to cross the pond. Berra probably can't make the team if both of those players are in Calgary.
The impact on their pipeline from these deadline deals will be worth re-evaluating after the 2013 draft, seeing as that's where they got most of the value from these trades. Although the good news is the four prospects they got are all fairly old and could be close to contributing at the top level.
Acquired: D Joe Morrow, D Kevin Connauton, D Cameron Gaunce, W Cody Payne, W Lane MacDermid, Vancouver's 2nd round pick in 2013, a conditional 2nd round pick from Boston in 2013, and Pittsburgh's 5th round pick in 2013
Traded: C Derek Roy, W Jaromir Jagr, W Brenden Morrow, C Tomas Vincour and a conditional 3rd round pick in 2013
The Stars now have one of the better collections of young defensemen in the NHL. They acquired Morrow and Connauton, and along with Jamie Oleksiak and Ludvig Bystrom, all four project as above-average defensemen. That's not considering the fact 22-year-old Brenden Dillon has already reached that status and is having a marvelous rookie season with Dallas. The Stars' new youngsters will go along with Troy Vance, Patrik Nemeth and Esa Lindell, who could down the line be decent regulars as well. Payne projects as a bottom-six forward and MacDermid, despite his two goals with Dallas so far, is a fringe NHL talent.
These players all have varying levels of readiness of course. Both Connauton and Morrow are very talented offensive defensemen who have struggled with the defensive aspects of their games in the AHL, but both don't see too far away from getting to the top level. Bystrom was up and down this season and while he's very talented, he's a good number of seasons away. Oleksiak has seen time in Dallas this season but still needs some more development before locking down a spot.
Prior to the deals, Dallas had arguably a top 10-12 system in the NHL and one of the best in terms of depth. With the additions of talented players such as Morrow and Connauton, Dallas now is more in the 7-8 range.
Acquired: W Filip Forsberg
Traded: W Martin Erat and C Michael Latta
The Predators made only one move to acquire a prospect, but it was a big one, as the Predators obtained elite forward Forsberg from Washington. Forsberg, after sliding a bit at the 2012 draft and being selected 11th, has had a fantastic 2012-13 campaign. He was named to the tournament all-star team at the World Juniors, was named the top U20 player in the Swedish Elite League's 2nd division, and recently got invited to play in pre-tournament games for Sweden's national team.
After Shea Weber was given an offer sheet last summer, we told you about some of the great young defensemen in the Predators organization. The strength of their young players remains on defense. Although they have some good scoring forward prospects, such as Taylor Beck in the AHL, Pontus Aberg in Sweden and Jimmy Vesey in the NCAA, they lacked that dynamic young forward. Austin Watson is good too, and was recently called up to Nashville, but his value is more in the defensive end. The addition of Forsberg takes an average farm system and makes it a clear top-10 pipeline in the NHL.
Forsberg immediately becomes the Predators' top forward prospect, and arguably their top prospect period. He's a player with high-end puck skills and what one NHL scout calls a North American-style physical game to go along with that. He projects as a top-line forward for Nashville and could be with the team soon.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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