Welcome back to my weekly Prospect Ramblings column! After last week’s examination of the Atlantic and Central Divisions, this week I will look at prospects in the AHL’s North and Pacific Divisions who may be in the NHL next season.
The Vancouver Canucks are likely to introduce Brendan Gaunce (VAN) to their lineup next season, as the bullish winger has proven his ability at the minor-league level with the Utica Comets. Producing 38 points in 46 games this season, Gaunce is a versatile forward who can handle a role at centre or the wing. His physical style may be exactly what the Canucks are looking to add to their lineup as they continue to retool. In doing so, the Markham, ON native would join prospects Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann as part of the new generation.
The New Jersey Devils took a chance in 2015 when they drafted hulking centre-man Pavel Zacha (NJD) to their club, hoping his upside as a topline pivot would emerge. It appears that this may take place sooner rather than later, as the towering forward accounted well for himself over just a few games this season. Posting a goal and two assists over three games with the big club in April, coupled by notching an assist in the Albany Devils first round contest against the Utica Comets. While he may be raw, and time continuing to develop would be beneficial at the minor-league level, the talent is there. As a result, it certainly is not outside the realm of possibility that this young man could find his way into the Devils lineup out of training camp.
On the side of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, many Islanders fans are likely wondering about former fifth overall selection Michael Dal Colle (NYI). This is not surprising, given his high draft status and strong performance with both the Oshawa Generals and Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. Given his size and potentially NHL-ready shot, it may be tempting to see him as a candidate for the big club next season. This may not be a good thing, however. Dal Colle has not been a factor at the AHL level over his six game audition, and would be far better served to learn the speed of the pro game in Bridgeport. This should be treated as a welcome idea for Isles fans, as Dal Colle could turn into a potential 30-goal scorer.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have taken the proper steps to refill their prospect pool, and the league-best Toronto Marlies are evidence of that. After posting six goals and 13 points with a late-season stint on the Leafs roster, William Nylander (TOR) is virtually certain to break camp as a top-six NHL forward in 2016-17. Combining excellent edgework in his skating, to say nothing of his elite offensive talent, Nylander may even emerge as a potential Calder trophy candidate next season. All this is to say nothing of free-agent signee Nikita Soshnikov (TOR), whose NHL-level shot and penchant for playing a gritty game earned him high praise. Zach Hyman (TOR), acquired from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Greg McKegg, has also shown himself as ready for the NHL. This was shown over his four goals and six points in 16 games with the Leafs late in the season. While these three names may be the most well known, defender Rinat Valiev (TOR) may be a dark-horse out of camp. In 10 games, Valiev posted up a zero stat line, but was quietly effective and earned the praise of Mike Babcock. While he would likely be better served playing a key role with the Marlies instead of a depth role on the Leafs, never say never with this roster.
While the LA Kings have been eliminated from their Stanley Cup drive, they can look to a few bright spots in the future. Former first-rounder Adrian Kempe (LA) has had a respectable first pro campaign in North America, posting 11 goals and 28 points over 55 games with the Ontario Reign. With solid size and displaying responsibility in both ends of the ice, Kempe looks like a perfect candidate in a second or third-line role. That may not be best for his development next season, though, as his transition to a smaller ice surface must continue. Another season in the AHL should make him ready to seize a role for the 2017-18 campaign though.
In attending the 2012 Draft in Pittsburgh, perhaps the most precipitous fall in recent history was that of Nick Ebert (LA). Projected by some to be a top-ten pick in the draft, Ebert managed to find his way to being drafted dead last… specifically, 211th overall. This may have been just the push Ebert needed, as he’s been a solid professional at the AHL level. Showing obvious talent, his ability to bring his best has long been the hindrance in his game. If the young defender can find a way to tie it all together, he could find himself in a bottom-pairing role with the Kings next season. Here, he can learn from the likes of Drew Doughty to iron out the brain cramps he experiences in his own zone.
In the spirit of defensemen, Mirco Mueller (SJ) of the San Jose Barracuda has continued his growth as a player in the Sharks system. In his third professional season, Mueller assumed a more pronounced role on the club and posted decent numbers with 11 points and a plus-7 rating over 58 contests. This didn’t translate with the big club, though, as he spent little time playing and even found himself in the press box a few times. Boasting an NHL-style frame of 6-3 and around 210 pounds, Mueller is likely served better as a stalwart on the Barracuda blue line for another season. That said, a shrinking cap may have the Swiss native suiting up in the NHL as soon as 2016-17 – an ill-advised notion given his up and down season.
On the offensive side of the Barracuda lineup, Nikolay Goldobin (SJ) has had a strong season. In just his first professional season, the talented winger posted highly respectable numbers with 21 goals and 44 points in 60 games. Though he has unquestioned offensive ability, he requires work on his defensive coverage as most young forwards do. Though he is likely to come back for another AHL season, it certainly isn’t impossible to see Goldobin as a candidate to sneak his way onto the main roster out of camp if he can translate those offensive talents to the highest level.
After failing to make a significant impact with the Anaheim Ducks, Nick Ritchie (ANA) found himself spending half the season with the San Diego Gulls as well as the main Ducks roster. This should not be a cause of concern though – Ritchie’s transition to the pro game has been solid on the AHL roster. Posting up 16 goals and 30 points over 38 games, the potential for production is most definitely there. This offensive talent goes in concert with the hulking 6-2, 230 pound frame he carries around. Though another season may be in his future with the Gulls, the Ducks first-round exit from the NHL playoffs may expedite the young forwards route to the big club.
After productive years in the AHL and a failed first attempt to crack the Dallas main roster, this may be the time for Brett Ritchie (DAL) to make his move. With a large frame and willingness to throw it around, the large winger may lock down a roster spot for good in 2016-17. Battling through some injury concerns late this season, Ritchie may be in a place where he can prove himself at the NHL level. This is by no means certain – however, at 23 years of age, the time may be running short at.
A virtual certainty to find himself on the Dallas blue line next season is young Finnish defender Julius Honka (DAL). In his second professional season, Honka posted up excellent offensive statistics of 11 goals and 44 points over 73 games. It should be noted that, while he is excellent pushing the attack, his responsibilities in his own end leave something to be desired. While it is a possibility that the young Finn stays with Texas next season, a bottom-pairing role with a defense-first partner is where it may end up. One thing is for certain with this young man, though – with his skill-set, he is as close to certain to be an NHL player as any.
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