With the Top 10 Prospects series behind us, I thought it would be a fun endeavor to rank the Top 50 players Under 23 in the NHL. The criteria I used to define a player's eligibility are the inverse of the Top 10 Prospects series, where players with more than 25 GP this past season or 50 NHL games are deemed eligible. A player also had to be 22 or under as of September 15, 2012.
The ranking process is similar to how my usual methods are done in some aspects, but different in others. Seeing as I focus most of the year following non NHL players, I had to rely on more external sources for information than I would in normal prospect rankings. I also place a higher (but not absolute) emphasis on advanced statistics and a player's output than I would in non-NHL leagues. Finally, while I normally give defense prospects slightly less value due to development risk, if a defenseman has shown to be panning out in the NHL, I don't consider that element. No goalies were considered because none fit the age and games played criteria.
1. Steven Stamkos, Center, Tampa Bay Lightning
It's Stamkos and then the pack in this discussion. He is one of the league's elite players, and while his raw possession output hasn't been elite, his tools are certainly all there and he has proven himself to be a once in a generation level finisher.
2. John Tavares, Center, New York Islanders
These next three players were hard to order, and I could see a legitimate argument for any of them to be #2. I ended up siding with Tavares because on a scouting level, I've always been blown away by him and I can't begin a Tavares write-up without remembering discussions I had with scouts in 2008 and 2009 referring to him as a generational prospect. He is a special talent with the kind of offensive sense you don't find often and has improved his skating since turning pro. The only argument against him right now would be that it would be preferable to see him produce at a high level without the high offensive zone starts, but the quality of teammates argument somewhat counteracts that.
3. Tyler Seguin, Center, Boston Bruins
In the Taylor vs. Tyler debate back in 2010, I saw these two as a coin flip with a slight lean to Hall, and now I would just say the reverse. Seguin took a significant leap forward this year and with his combination of skating, hands, and hockey sense, he is tracking right now to be one of the league's best.
4. Taylor Hall, Left Wing, Edmonton Oilers
Hall hit the ground running in the NHL and has quickly emerged into a top-tier possession player. He has so many tools in the arsenal to threaten defenders with along with a top grade work ethic. Injuries have been a slight concern, especially giving his style of play, but I'm not overly concerned in that area yet.
5. Drew Doughty, Defense, Los Angeles Kings
Drew Doughty has been a top-end defenseman for a number of seasons after entering the league logging tough minutes from the get-go. He has a ton of offensive ability between his skating and hands on top of being able to be a very quality defender. His impressive track record at such a young age to go along with his immense talent level makes him the top defenseman under 23 in the NHL.
6. Alex Pietrangelo, Defense, St. Louis Blues
There is an argument for either of these next two players, and while I really like the dynamic qualities Karlsson brings, Pietrangelo is a high-end two-way blueliner who can effectively play a large amount of tough minutes and move the puck at a high level.
7. Erik Karlsson, Defense, Ottawa Senators
The reigning Norris Trophy winner is as elite a talent from the back end as they come and had an unusual offensive season for a U-22 defenseman. While I don't see him as a high-end defensive player, he isn't a slouch in that area either. With his mobility and hockey brain, he should be able to be a consistent above-average defensive player in his prime, and combining that with his offense makes for a scary player to deal with.
8. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Defense, Phoenix Coyotes
It is really hard to find any way to critique OEL's game without going into minor details such as the fact that he has only had one great season so far, or that he is left-handed. He is a fantastic player with plus tools across the board and this past season began his emergence as a legitimate #1 defenseman.
9. Victor Hedman, Defense, Tampa Bay Lightning
The second overall pick from 2009 can get lost in the shuffle at times in terms of the game's brightest young stars whether it's because he is playing in the Sunshine State or that his offensive numbers haven't been all that high. Do not be fooled, though, as Hedman is an elite young player, with extremely impressive gifts between his size, skating, and two-way sense. He is logging very tough minutes already and it shouldn't be long before he is firmly entrenched with the top tier of defensemen in the league.
10. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Center, Edmonton Oilers
The Nuge had a great rookie season from a counting numbers perspective, although his minutes were sheltered, which is to be expected from an 18-year-old in the NHL. I don't quite see him as a clear top line player as of today, although he could very well become that pretty soon. He has All-Star potential due to his elite puck skills and vision.
11. Cam Fowler, Defense, Anaheim Ducks
I've been a Cam Fowler fan for a number of years and he has done nothing since being drafted other than reaffirm his star-level abilities. Fowler has been an impact player from day one in the NHL, showing his high-end offensive skills, logging tough minutes, and pushing possession in the right direction.
12. Gabriel Landeskog, Left Wing, Colorado Avalanche
The reigning Calder Trophy winner really impressed, not only because of the scoring totals he put up, but because he is already a tough minutes NHLer who has significantly impacted the puck possession game right from the get-go. His skating, skill, physical game, and work ethic make him a heck of a player.
13. Adam Larsson, Defense, New Jersey Devils
Larsson was interesting to follow because for most of the year he got pretty significant minutes considering his age, even for a player of his talent level. Then at the end of the year that ice time got cut pretty quickly. Given that it was his rookie season, up-and-down periods are expected, and given his above-average to plus skills across the board, I see Larsson as a potential #1 defenseman.
14. Justin Faulk, Defense, Carolina Hurricanes
Faulk having a surprising 2011-12 season would be quite an understatement, as he looked as good as any 19-year-old defenseman could. His development has gone extraordinarily well, as when he was drafted he was seen as a great offensive player whose game needed to round out. Faulk has gotten quicker, stronger, and much better in his own end. He projects now as a premier two-way defenseman who NHL sources believe could be one of the league's top offensive defensemen.
15. Jeff Skinner, Right Wing, Carolina Hurricanes
It is really rare for a non-lottery pick forward to do what Jeff Skinner did in 2010-11 as an 18-year-old, and while his numbers dipped this year, it was mostly because of missed time due to a concussion and shooting percentage regression; the two concerns may have been related to some degree. His minutes are still somewhat soft, but it is to be expected from even great U-20 players in the NHL, and to be leaned on as a primary scoring option still says a lot about Skinner. He is a unique skater, with impressive possession abilities and top-end finishing skill.
16. Tyler Myers, Defense, Buffalo Sabres
Myers was hard to gauge because he had a bit of a rough season after starting off his career so well. His track record over the last three seasons is still very impressive considering his age and position, and I simply love his tools. Big, right-handed defensemen who can skate and move the puck like him are rare commodities.
17. Ryan O'Reilly, Center, Colorado Avalanche
As I wrote in Colorado's Top 10 column, I could see an argument for either of O'Reilly or Duchene, but I was really impressed with how O'Reilly became a significant two-way force this year while playing against top players and driving possession at a high level.
18. Matt Duchene, Center, Colorado Avalanche
On the other hand, while Duchene's production dipped this season, mostly due to injuries and some shooting percentage dip, I'm still a big believer and he could rebound well next season. Duchene has a really high level of offensive skill and should be a quality top line forward in his prime.
19. Adam Henrique, Center, New Jersey Devils
I remember talking to a scout who saw Henrique two seasons ago in the AHL who called him exceptional and a player with significant upside. I probably should have paid better attention to that conversation because Henrique turned heads quickly last season in the NHL, showing great ability as a scorer and a defensive forward. His ability to produce scoring chances despite being buried in the defensive zone usage-wise was pretty impressive for a rookie.
20. Travis Hamonic, Defense, New York Islanders
There are players like Justin Faulk who when drafted, you say, "If he improves in areas A and B a lot, I could see a top player" but I'd be lying if I would have made that argument for Hamonic. Even during his last season in major junior I thought he would top out as a quality second pairing player due to unimpressive offensive skill. Hamonic has been outstanding in his first two NHL seasons, and while he has not killed it offensively, he is still young and that could improve as he enters his prime. Hamonic's defensive game has looked high-end, though, and he should be a top pairing defenseman for many years.
21. Evander Kane, Left Wing, Winnipeg Jets
Kane was a tough rank, as I could see good arguments for him being much higher or a little lower. He has produced, but not at a very high level and the difficulty of his minutes have been average. That all said, he is very gifted and looks the part of a consistent 30-goal scorer.
22. Jordan Eberle, Right Wing, Edmonton Oilers
I talked about my stance on Eberle more here, but in a nutshell, he has had shooting luck and soft minutes, although he has also done pretty well considering his age. He should get tougher minutes soon, and his great hands, hockey sense, and shot quality point to a first line winger in his prime.
23. Zach Bogosian, Defense, Winnipeg Jets
Bogosian may not have reached the level of fellow 2008 draftees like Pietrangelo, Doughty, and Karlsson, but he is still a pretty good player. Big, mobile defensemen who can defend very well and move the puck at an above-average level don't grow on trees, and if they do, I know a few NHL teams who would like to know the location of one of those trees. He has been a consistent, quality player the last few seasons and still has another notch or so to his game.
24. Sean Couturier, Center, Philadelphia Flyers
Couturier was the first player for whom I had to balance potential vs. proven production. Couturier had an impressive first season, played very tough minutes for a U-20 player, and showed flashes of the player he could become. He could be a top line center, as he is very skilled, very smart, and has good size as well, but the limited amount he has shown in the NHL keeps him in this range.
25. John Carlson, Defense, Washington Capitals
Carlson had a rough second season in the NHL despite getting top-caliber minutes, but I'm still a big believer in his potential. Upside-wise, due to his offensive tools, I could arguably get him much higher, but his 2011-12 second season at least puts a slight cloud of doubt over him.
26. Brayden Schenn, Center, Philadelphia Flyers
Schenn was really hard to rank. I remember talking to NHL people who called him the best prospect in hockey this time last year. I really liked him (although not to that degree), so given he hasn't become a significant NHLer yet, it is really about how much I believe he could be a star versus otherwise proven commodities. I'm slightly less confident than I was last year, but he is so talented that there is still a pretty good shot.
27. Nick Leddy, Defense, Chicago Blackhawks
There is an argument to be made that Leddy was pushed along in his development a little too quickly, but you have to like what he has shown so far. He has displayed high-end puck moving abilities in the NHL and logged significant minutes for his age. His size and exactly how much defensive value he will bring are question marks, but I'm optimistic about Leddy's future.
28. Michael Del Zotto, Defense, New York Rangers
Del Zotto took a step forward this season, which is evident from his counting statistics, but he also logged moderately tough minutes as well. Scouts I've talked to rave about his ability to create offense off the rush and make plays with the puck. His defense still needs some work, but that area is steadily coming along, and given what he has done in the NHL so far, I have reason to be confident that he will be fine in that area at his peak while being a top of the line offensive producer.
29. Dmitry Kulikov, Defense, Florida Panthers
Kulikov has developed pretty well in Florida and looks like a player who can play in the upper half of a lineup, if not even in a top pairing for a while. His defensive game has shown notable value to go along with the skating and offensive skill he has to make plays.
30. Jake Gardiner, Defense, Toronto Maple Leafs
Gardiner may have been given more responsibility than he was ready for due to Toronto's need for quality puck-moving defenders, but the minutes he logged were impressive for a rookie, especially when keeping in mind how sheltered he was usage-wise. I have my doubts that Gardiner projects as an above-average defender, although he could be average, but his elite skating ability and his potential as a points producer could make him a good #3 D and a top PP unit player on a playoff team at his peak.
31. Ryan Johansen, Center, Columbus Blue Jackets
Johansen didn't do as well as I hoped in his first season, playing very sheltered minutes and producing only an average amount of offense. I still believe very much in his tools, and I think he could be an All-Star center, but as of now I'm going on a purely skills-based projection until he does more in the NHL, which is why he's not further up the list.
32. Ryan Ellis, Defense, Nashville Predators
I've talked to scouts who see Ellis as a top of the line prospect and a potential star. While I may not share that degree of optimism, due to his tremendous skill, shot, and hockey sense, I think he could be a top player despite is diminutive frame. The negatives for him are that he has not done much in the NHL as of yet, and of course, his size.
33. David Rundblad, Defense, Phoenix Coyotes
Rundblad had a soft landing in his first North American season which was to be expected as he needed to round out both his physical and defensive game. He played very well in the AHL after being dealt by Ottawa to Phoenix, and has all the offensive gifts in the world to be a very good player for the Coyotes in an organization that has become stocked at defense.
34. Derek Stepan, Center, New York Rangers
I've always liked Stepan's playmaking abilities and he has produced at a fairly impressive level for his age over the last few seasons. He has been a little sheltered in terms of receiving a high amount of offensive zone starts. I wouldn't classify his ceiling as world-class level or anything like that, but he could be an average starting line center in terms of production and difficulty of minutes logged in his prime.
35. Roman Josi, Defense, Nashville Predators
Josi is a player who I've heard some NHL sources describe as highly as the better defensemen on this list due to his tremendous speed and offensive abilities. With Ryan Suter gone, he may be looked to this year to take on a much larger responsibility and become that top pairing defender much quicker than anticipated.
36. Brett Connolly, Right Wing, Tampa Bay Lightning
Connolly was average in the NHL this year, which is fine for a U-20 player. I've liked him for a number of years and thought he did well at the World Juniors. He is a great skater who has good hands, vision, and can snipe at a high level. He hasn't proven much yet, but he is a player who can be a significant asset for Tampa Bay in the future.
37. Slava Voynov, Defense, Los Angeles Kings
Voynov had a good rookie season, and ended up being a top-four defenseman for the Kings during their Stanley Cup run. He is a good puck-mover and skater with a big shot. But while he still has room to improve, from talking to scouts and my own observations, I don't think his pure ceiling is that far off from what he has already shown. He could be a quality #3 defenseman for a while, though.
38. Chris Tanev, Defense, Vancouver Canucks
Tanev is an extremely smart defenseman with good mobility, and he looks the part of a blueliner with significant value despite not being your ideal power play quarterback. His ability to be a positive possession player while playing tough minutes at his age has certainly been impressive.
39. Marco Scandella, Defense, Minnesota Wild
Scandella isn't the kind of player who will wow you with a pretty deke or a fast-paced rush, but he does everything well. Despite being sent down for a small portion of the season to the AHL, Scandella ended up facing the toughest opponents for Minnesota and was second in ESTOI/60 behind Tom Gilbert. In the remaking of the Minnesota blue line that now includes Ryan Suter, Gilbert, and prospect Jonas Brodin, Scandella will play a key role for the Wild.
40. Alexander Burmistrov, Center, Winnipeg Jets
Burmistrov is a gifted player who can be a lot of fun to watch when he's on. He is very good with the puck, has high-end hockey sense, and skates well. Usually with players who have the tools, and are as young as Burmistrov, while the production has not yet come, it is a combination of their physical game/getting stronger and playing up to pace that are to blame. Those things tend to come with experience and gym work. Burmistrov has been solid at even-strength, and though he hasn't broken out yet, I see him as a pretty quality player in his prime.
41. Dmitry Orlov, Defense, Washington Capitals
Orlov's all-around game has taken significant strides for a player who scouts in Russia described to me as an all-offense type of player a few years ago. That aspect of his game certainly stands out between his skating, hands, and a booming shot, but he has shown that he can potentially take on more responsibility as a defender. His minutes were up and down to reflect a normal rookie season.
42. Magnus Paajarvi, Left Wing, Edmonton Oilers
Paajarvi has had a somewhat rough start to his NHL career, including limited minutes last year and a lengthy amount of AHL time to boot. Sure, he hasn't produced much, and his physical game isn't the best, but I still believe in his ridiculous speed, his high skill level, and that his tools still have a fair chance to translate into very significant production down the line.
43. Andrei Loktionov, Center, Los Angeles Kings
Copy and paste the Paajarvi capsule basically for Loktionov. He did not perform at the level I expected of him last year at the NHL or even the AHL level, but anytime I talk to a scout who has seen Loktionov play for a lengthy amount of time, the reports are always very glowing. I think he has top line tools. Whether or not everything will come together for him is another question, and if it doesn't work out in LA, he would be a player well worth the gamble for another club.
44. Marcus Johansson, Center, Washington Capitals
Johansson took on a bigger role last year than he was probably ready for with Backstrom being out for a long stretch. He is a great skater who has the talent to produce, but despite his impressive counting numbers in 2011-12, I certainly don't see him as a top regular now, although I think he is a player who could be well above average at his peak.
45. Tyler Ennis, Left Wing, Buffalo Sabres
Ennis is a very skilled little guy who has performed well from a counting numbers standpoint for a player his age, although it has usually been with sheltered minutes or with the aid of some shooting luck. I don't see Ennis as a world killer of any sort, but I see him tracking well as a quality top-six forward who could take a step or two forward soon.
46. Marcus Kruger, Center, Chicago Blackhawks
Kruger performed well in his rookie year, playing minutes of moderate difficulty while showcasing positive possession skills and being an effective piece of a good team. He is a player I've heard scouts tout in terms of his skill and two-way sense, so it's possible he could have another offensive level on top of his already good defense.
47. Nazem Kadri, Right Wing, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kadri has progressed at a fine level despite not fully establishing himself as an NHL regular. He is using his teammates more and has improved his defensive game to combine with his great skill level. His skating has shown some improvement as well.
48. Zack Kassian, Right Wing, Vancouver Canucks
I've been impressed with Kassian's development over the last year or so from a pure power forward into a player whose gotten quicker and has shown better offensive elements to his game. He was OK at best in the NHL, but if he comes together he could be a quality player.
49. Erik Gudbranson, Defense, Florida Panthers
Gudbranson held his own for a U-20 player in the NHL although he was used in a limited role. Gudbranson has an elite physical game to go along with high-end skating ability. I question whether his offensive ability will ever be more than average, but I'm more optimistic in his development path than I was a year ago.
50. Jared Cowen, Defense, Ottawa Senators
Cowen logged a large amount of minutes in his rookie season although he was still somewhat sheltered which isn't an issue considering his age. His combination of size to go along with a fine all-around skill set are indicators that he should be a tough minutes player pretty soon.
Mikkel Boedker, Left Wing, Phoenix Coyotes
T.J. Brodie, Defense, Calgary Flames
Cody Eakin, Center, Dallas Stars
Stefan Elliot, Defense, Colorado Avalanche
Cody Hodgson, Center, Buffalo Sabres
Nino Niederreiter, Left Wing, New York Islanders
Luke Schenn, Defense, Philadelphia Flyers
Colin Wilson, Center, Nashville Predators
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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