Each offseason there are veterans who fade away, only to be replaced by up-and-coming prospects the following October. Call it the NHL’s version of the Circle of Life—only with ice and without Elton John. Neate Sager broke down the five most likely prospects from the CHL that are most likely ready to make the jump to the NHL. The prospects he lists include Brett Connolly (Lightning), Nino Niederreiter (Islanders), Erik Gudbranson (Panthers), Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets), and Gabriel Landeskog (Avalanche). In all, there are four players from the 2010 Draft and another from the recent 2011 Draft that was held in Minneapolis.
But there are more prospects chomping at the bit to make the NHL than just those who play in the Ontario, Western, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues. Here we’ll list the five players who are most ready to make the jump to full-time NHL hockey next season.
5. Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings (Slovakia)
The 19-year-old Slovakian would already be an NHL regular if it weren’t for the organization that has been developing him over the last few years. It’s hard to believe the talented left winger has already spent two seasons in the AHL with the Red Wings affiliate in Grand Rapids. Last year, he impressed management enough to for a 9-game call-up to fill-in while the Wings dealt with injury problems. The talented winger has put in a lot of work to become more responsible on the defensive side of the puck—it should pay off with a full season with the NHL club this season.
4. David Rundblad, Ottawa Senators (Sweden)
Rundblad is talented enough to make the jump to the NHL and the Ottawa Senators have a spot for him. Their blueline isn’t exactly the deepest in the league and with low expectations for the season, the team can afford to deal with the unavoidable growing pains of a rookie defenseman. At this point in his development, he’ll be able to score points from the backend, but he’s going to give up his fair share of chances against as well. The bottom line is that he’s a productive player who’s ready to show what he can do in the best league in the world. He had 50 points in 55 games in the Swedish Elite League last season against grown men. Not bad for a 20-year-old. Not bad at all.
3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes (Sweden)
Last season was Ekman-Larsson’s first year in North America—and honestly the Coyotes seemed like they didn’t know what to do with him. The former 6th overall pick played in 48 games in the NHL and could have hung in there for the rest of the season if the Coyotes were desperate. But if Phoenix wanted to develop him properly, he should have spent the majority of the season with San Antonio. Instead, he played half the season with Phoenix, spent 15 games with San Antonio in the AHL, and spent the rest of the time in Jobing.com Arena’s press box. He had flashes of brilliance and he had flashes of “rookie defensemanitis.” With another year under his belt, time to put on added muscle, and a summer to learn from his 2010-11 season, he should be ready to stick with the big club for the entire 82 game season. He has all the makings of a very good defenseman—but just like almost every other blueliner, it’ll just take some time.
2. Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils (Sweden)
Yet another Swede, yet another defenseman. Larsson’s the newest of the blueliner wave from the Scandinavian country and is this year’s title holder of “the next Lidstrom.” Each year a great defensive prospect gets the unfair label and each year it’s passed onto someone else. Larsson has all the makings of a player who will be able to step into the New Jersey Devils lineup this season—but it’s probably a bit premature to start calling him the next Lidstrom when Nicklas has more Norris Trophies than Larsson has career games played.
Back home in Sweden, Larsson has played on the same Skelleftea team as Rundblad for the last two years. Obviously, he hasn’t had the same breakout offensive season that Rundblad had last year, but scouts say that his defensive play is already better than his highly-touted teammate. The Devils look like they’ll have a spot for him on their blueline and he’s already told people that he wants to play in the NHL.
1. Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild (Finland)
He might not be the best rookie next season, but he’ll certainly be the most exciting. He was almost a point-per-game player with HIFK Helsinki in highly competitive SM-liiga. What he lacks in stature (he’s 5’10”), he makes up for with unbelievable talent and on-ice awareness. His biggest obstacle will be trying to play center against the much bigger players of North America. But even if the Wild have to move him to wing, he’s the type of player who will be able to help the Wild immediately on the scoreboard. Considering they were 26th in the league in scoring, they could use all the help they can get.
Honorary Mention: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues (Russia)
Tarasenko didn’t officially make the list because he’s told Blues management that he’s staying in Russia for the 2011-12 season. Anyone who saw Tarasenko play in the World Junior Championships for Team Russia should be fully aware of just how good this winger can be. Even though he’s only 19-years-old, he already has three full seasons under his belt in the KHL. In 122 career games, he’s managed 29 goals and 24 assists for Novosibirsk Siber. Perhaps more impressively, he’s managed to be a plus player in each of his three seasons with his club. The 16th overall pick in the 2010 Draft is already a two-way player showed incredible toughness and leadership in the WJC when he returned from a rib injury in the 2nd period of the Gold Medal game to score the game-tying goal and set up the game-winning goal for Team Russia. He’s ready—and the Blues could use the additional fire power. If he changes his mind, he immediately jumps to #1 on this list.