[Note: Rubric for this list available here].
Anaheim calling to the hockey world...
Not too long ago, Sleek e-mailed me about the prospect of ranking our prospects, an undertaking suggested by rob of Anaheim Ducks Universe. I was initially hesitant. Despite being an armchair scout, I'm a lifelong NCAA hockey fan and as biased as the day is long. Then I realized that shameless NCAA homer-ism is underrepresented in the scouting community, and I'd be doing college hockey a disservice not to overhype its players.
In all seriousness, I will occasionally give preference to players I have seen (I Slingbox FSN North and catch every college game on ESPNU) and followed for the entire year, I will watch at least one game for every Major Junior player (via streaming or television but NEVER through YouTube clips) and I will try to rank overseas players unsuccessfully (but to the best of my ability) through scouting reports and the limited available coverage. Oh, and I will not shamelessly repeat something that I read on the HF Boards as if it were cardinal fact (though I may cite it, skeptically).
I hope to make a list three times a year. Here's the first one:
Please compare this list to rob's list and the Hockey's Future list.
The prospects are ranked in order of their likelihood of reaching the NHL level (minus the bias of your average scout, who assumes that success in NCAA competition is not indicative of NHL talent). This means that, unless he's a 'sure thing,' I will occasionally place a skill player behind a role player or grinder who is further along in the development process or has a better chance of making the team when he fully develops.
Going into training camp, the following players have been omitted as NHL-level assets: Luca Sbisa, Brett Festerling and Brendan Mikkelson. Based on their number of games played last season, a full season in the minor leagues would be a step backwards in their development (though such a backward step is not out of the question). Thus, I categorize them as 'teammate or trade bait' for the upcoming year.
1. Jake Gardiner
Gardiner is a breathtaking skater with a great shot, a toolkit shared by two of his Badger teammates in 2008-09, the premier pairing of Jamie McBain and Ryan McDonagh. For now, Gardiner's game is closer to McDonagh's, a controlled style that emphasizes defense and offensive creativity, but only occasionally flashes the coast-to-coast brilliance of which he is capable.
This year, Gardiner will have the option (and the room) to transition into McBain's WCHA MVP award-winning role of the dominant freewheeling team leader. If Gardiner can make that move, he will remain the Ducks' undisputed top prospect. If he continues as a McDonagh-type, he may turn pro without a scoring touch that can translate to the NHL, despite having played at forward as recently as 30 months ago.
2. Mark Mitera
Like Gardiner, Mitera joined a corps of impressive D prospects (Matt Hunwick and Jack Johnson) when he first donned the maize and blue, but with the departure of Hunwick, the Michigan captain, Mitera took the reins of the blueliners. And in the 2007-08 season, the rearguard posted a plus-30 and 21 assists, earning him the INCH Defenseman of the Year honor. The performance also earned him the Wolverines captaincy last season, a post he served for all of 19 minutes before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
He returned in late February, finding the strong skating, positioning and physicality that define his game. It would have been nice to see him play some more, but he and his teammates could not close out Air Force in the opening game of the NCAA tournament. Mitera will make a hard push to get into the Ducks roster at camp after playing a handful of games with the CHOPS last season. Even with no offense to offer (his career high in shots is 61; career high in goals is 2), Mitera's smart and solid shutdown game may be enough to impress the coaches.
3. Nick Bonino
When the game, the season, the tournament or the pride of New England hockey was on the line, Nick Bonino came through for Boston University. Second in team scoring only to top-flight prospect Colin Wilson during the season, Bonino was named MVP of the Beanpot, he (along with a reinvigorated Brandon Yip) produced the offensive chances that carried the team through the NCAA tournament, he drew the penalty that sent the Terriers to the Frozen Four and in the miracle last minute comeback in the championship game, Bonino was good for an assist and the game-tying goal.
A breakout season and an '88 birth year made this a good time for him to go pro (and he would have with San Jose), but a full lineup and a questionable AHL situation will keep Bonino in Boston. The Terriers will ask for a consistent sequel to last year's performance, and Bonino will have the opportunity to prove he can be just as offensively tenacious without a player as hungry as Yip on his flank.
4. Matt Beleskey
Belleville coach George Burnett once described Beleskey as the sort of player that could deliver the fight, the block, the big hit or the goal whenever the team needed it. Beleskey followed up that versatile leadership with an impressive final year with the Bulls in 2007-08, leading the team in scoring during the regular season (41+49=90) and playoffs (12+21=33).
He was the CHOPS fifth highest producer last season, despite an injury-shortened year, but Beleskey projects as a Bottom Six forward who will likely be kept out of the Ducks lineup by the skating ability of Mike Brown and Evgeny Artyukhin and the NHL experience of Ryan Carter. His current contract expires in 2010-11, and barring a rash of re-signings, that will be his best opportunity to make the team.
5. Kyle Palmieri
I'm uneasy placing a 5'10" 1991 kid in my Top 5. And yet, three things force me to rank him ahead of players who are further along in the development process:
First, he will be the best player joining the CCHA this season i.e. he'll be challenged by rival players/coaches and covered by Notre Dame to the point that I'll have an idea of where he is by mid-season, which is much faster than I will figure out what happened to Mattias Modig.
Second, he has yet to do anything to contradict the gushing scouting reports. He was just as strong as they said and his offensive chops continue to impress.
Third, as a small but strong and surprisingly skilled player, it will be easier for him to outperform expectations than it will for a Logan MacMillan or Peter Holland.
6. Peter Holland
My opinion on Holland hasn't changed much since the profile I wrote after the draft. Having only seen a couple of full games, I cannot comment on his mental consistency, but from those two games and the plethora of highlights available on the Guelph Storm website, I have to note that he enjoys having room to operate. In the pros, and especially in the NHL's Western Conference, he won't have that kind of room, even on the power play. Thus, I am not as confident in the translation of Holland's offensive game as I am about the forwards I rank above him. However, I should note that I would rank him much higher if I expected him to be a Bottom Six center, as he is incredibly sound defensively.
7. Nicolas Deschamps
Deschamps has speed, hands and vision, which increase exponentially in the offensive zone. As the only speedster and pure scorer in the prospect pool, he will benefit most from the likely departure/retirement of the Wonder Finns next year. Those would be the ideal conditions for his graduation, as he doesn't project to impress in the Bottom Six.
The Ducks may ask him to work on his defensive game in the AHL, but even if that comes to nothing, Deschamps would be a great scorer and playmaker on the left wing, not to mention a faceoff option. He should get a legitimate shot in 2010-11 unless Anaheim restocks the Top Six through free agency.
8. Logan MacMillan
When Halfiax named MacMillan their best defensive forward in 2007, the same season his linemate Jakub Voracek won the QMJHL's Michel Bergeron award (Top Offensive Rookie), the club may have been sending the not-so-subtle message that MacMillan wasn't the productive dynamo his numbers might suggest. Two years later, he found himself on the checking line of Rimouski Oceanic.
Of all the Ducks prospects, the AHL situation will hurt MacMillan the most. After his pinballed development, peppered with injuries and mixed responsibilities, he should be spending his first season determining his position in the Ducks system i.e. Top or Bottom Six. But such information won't be forthcoming in San Antonio. With any luck, he'll be back on track in 2010-11, at least as a quality shutdown winger.
9. Justin Schultz
Willy Wonka is to candy as Mark Osiecki is to defensemen. The Badgers assistant coach is making a sunrise and sprinkling it with dew all over the Wisconsin blueline. And his latest confection will be lanky BCHL standout Justin Schultz. The Interior Conference's Top Defenceman for 2008-09 was hyped before the Ducks drafted him, and his 15G and 35A last season only confirmed the hopeful praise. As with other offensive defenseman (our own Jake Gardiner included), we can rely on Osiecki to improve what is already there without asking the player to take anything away.
10. MacGregor Sharp
No one finished their NCAA career as well as MacGregor Sharp last season (well, unless they were wearing a Terriers jersey). In two tournaments, he went from undrafted senior to sought-after free agent. And while I cannot be absolutely confident his all-situation play for Minnesota-Duluth will translate to the NHL, I am sure he can be the hungry puckhound sniffing around the net, scoring the occasional K unitz-ian goal, a contribution the Ducks have sorely missed.
11. Dan Sexton
David McNab is quite keen on Sexton, and really, so am I. But he's small. In all likelihood, he'll play out both years of his current pro contract in the AHL, building muscle commensurate with his courage and proving he has some special teams value at the professional level. A check mark next to both tasks and Sexton will be another fine NCAA free agent addition to the Ducks organization.
12. Timo Pielmeier
Early in the Q playoffs, Pielmeier led all goaltenders in GAA, but he finished with a 2.76 and a .898 save percentage. This was after a solid season for the Cataractes that saw Pielmeier post 30 wins in 43GPI with a 2.67 GAA, a .913 save percentage and 2 shutouts.
The Sharks signed him into 2010-11, and Pielmeier should get a shot at the pros before then. He is noted for quick reflexes, especially down low, and the ability to make the athletic save.
13. Mat Clark
He can play the body, and he could dominate if that translates to the NHL. Still, the best part about Clark is the speed with which he may transition to the pros. Already NHL size and 19 years old, he may find himself in the AHL in 2010-11.
14. Justin Pogge
I place Pogge ahead of Modig for two reasons: one, I know more about Pogge, and two, he is, like it or not, Anaheim's third goaltender. With three years of ultimately unsuccessful netminding for the Toronto Marlies, most of his remaining development should be mental, and if he makes the most of a fresh start, he will secure himself a position as Anaheim's next backup.
15. Mattias Modig
I really don't know what happened to Mattias Modig. I've never seen him play for Luleå. I DO know that he followed career lows in Eliterstein (13 GPI, 3.53 GAA, .873 Sv Pct, 281 of 322 shots saved ) in 2007-08 with career highs (2.25 GAA, .922 Sv Pct, 1011 of 1096 shots saved) last year. He had a bout of inconsistency much earlier in his development, but this valley and peak will surely affect his transition to North America.
16. Igor Bobkov
I wasn't sure about this pick after the Draft, especially with Roy and Hackett still on the board. Now, I'm more worried about Pete Peeters developing a netminder this raw, though the goaltending consultant was once a standup goalie himself and was developing two rather mammoth backstops in Edmonton when he left the organization. Bobkov remains a large question mark, but the size of that question mark is encouraging.
17. Brian Salcido
Despite spending three full and productive years (9th, 4th and 2nd in scoring respectively) in Anaheim's AHL system, Brian Salcido received a rather abbreviated shot at the Majors last season (2 games), especially when compared with Mikkelson (34 games) and Festerling (40 games).
The Ducks renewed Salcido for one-year at 550K (also renewing Festerling, but for two years), which seems to indicate that this is the year that they decide if there is more to Salcido than the novelty of being the first southern California born and bred NHL player.
18. Stu Bickel
Bickel is a smart and hard-nosed defender, who left after his Freshman season with the Golden Gophers. At the time, many (including your blogger) had him pegged as a future leader on the Minnesota squad, but the Ducks lured him away with a hefty contract. Maybe too hefty, it turns out. Bickel's 1.375M cap hit accounts for .125M less than Nick Boynton will take home this season. The prohibitive cap number and an injury riddled pro campaign make it tough for Bickel to compete for a blueline job this year, though he'll certainly try. His defensive punch (often literally) and expiring contract will get him a serious look in 2010-11.
Bickel didn't see much playing time last season before going down to injury in November. In his first game back in February, he recorded his first and only professional point and showed much of the grit that got him signed in the first place. He needs a strong season to leap over the Ducks developmental logjam at rearguard or to impress the other teams' pro scouts as the Ducks determine their ultimate course of action in a post-Scott-Niedermayer era.
19. Sami Vatanen
At the combine, Vatanen was the champion of the V02 Max Wingate and the Curlups, and but for his size (5'9" 160 lbs), he would have been a second round selection.
20. Justin Vaive
No, seriously, wait. Come back. Hear me out. The dude is 6'6". Does he have Penner's hands? No. Does he have Artyukhin's skating? No. But he's 6'6". Don't tell me you can't work with that.
Honestly, though, the Ducks prospect pool isn't really 20 players deep. The last slot is a bit of a toss up. And Vaive has found a comfy role in a great program in Miami. He plays physical, he can use the boards and he potted six goals on a .152 shooting percentage, the best on the team. They'll give him a once-over for the fourth line in a couple of years, just on principle.