The Western Conference has its share of young talent. Not quite as much as the East, which boasts some teams in some state of a Shana-plan style rebuild but the prospects ready to make the jump to the NHL are numerous. Adding to this some teams are simply forced to add a kid to the roster. Arizona recently let Antoine Vermette walk, San Jose uncomfortably close to the salary cap and Edmonton is well, Edmonton.
An important item to consider this preseason: many of the NHL’s biggest stars will head to the World Cup of Hockey. This tidbit is important for two reasons: First, the extra space in NHL training camps will give younger players knocking on the door of making the team more time to impress coaches, learn systems, and create chemistry with teammates. Second: injuries happen at any level of hockey. From a pick-up game to the NHL’s Frankenstein of a “world” competition.
Based on all of this we’ve compiled our list of top prospects ready to make an impact this year. The following ranking is not a best of or where their careers will end up. Simply, for a single season, who could help their NHL team and thus your fantasy squad.
Below are the top 10 young players that are ready and could make an impact on the Western Conference this year.
1- Patrik Laine – Winnipeg Jets
Easiest choice, biggest impact, massive player. As the most dynamic player in the 2016 draft, Laine is an absolute lock for the Jets roster. He turned 18 only a few months ago, but the weight that his shoulders have carried during his draft year player have been impressive. Laine was instrumental in bringing Tappara an SM-Liiga championship. His much older teammates would feed him the puck during crunch time, knowing he was their best option for a goal. Along with #2 on this list, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Sebastian Aho formed a steamrolling line at the WJC.
Back home, Laine finished with 17 goal and 16 assists in 46 games. The right-handed left winger then went on a tear in the playoffs with 15 points in 18 games, 10 of those goals. But why stop there? In the Wold Championship, again against much older and (allegedly) better competition, Laine posted seven goals and five assists in 12 games as Finland took the silver medal. A floor of 40 points next year for Laine is conservative. Below is a video of all but one of his Liiga playoff goals.
2- Jesse Puljujarvi – Edmonton Oilers
The absolute shock of the Oilers that one of the Big Finns fell to them is likely still in the recovery phases. Puljujarvi was part of a Karpat squad that made a deep playoff run. His game has taken a step forward until Jesse & Co. ran into Patrik Laine’s Tappara team. Puljujarvi is pro-ready in every sense of the word. He’s won a pair of gold medals at WJC and the U18s and now finds himself with an upgrade at center over the skilled Sebastian Aho. What a year it has been for Puljujarvi.
Edmonton’s controversial trade of Taylor Hall to the New Jersey opened the door for a line of McDavid at the pivot, flanked by Milan Lucic and Jesse Puljujarvi. No one is sure if Edmonton can consistently field an NHL caliber defense that is six skaters deep, but Puljujarvi is going factor in heavily on the score sheet.
3- Dylan Strome – Arizona Coyotes
He’s not just ready for the NHL. Stome has a very vacant spot on the Coyotes depth chart to fill at center. Martin Hanzel, Brad Richardson, and Laurent Dauphin are the only three on the club’s line charts and unless Henrik Samuelsson eclipsed Stome somehow this summer (spoiler: he hasn’t) Strome’s seemingly bold statement that he was done with juniors could look prophetic. It’s highly unlikely Arizona buys our a serviceable Antoine Vermette if Chayka does not think Strome is ready.
Team Canada’s best player at the recent National Junior Evaluation Camp was Strome, who centered wingers, Tyson Jost and Mitch Marner. The trio struggled to find the back of the net, but Strome was impressive as anyone could for a 0-3 Canada side. He could still be loaded out to help Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, helping the Coyotes draft odds no doubt so that he could be a top center for two teams this year.
4- Mikko Rantanen – Colorado Avalanche
Being the best player on a putrid San Antonio Rampage team, Rantanen was the best 18-year-old in the AHL last year. The 6’3 native of Nousiainen, Finland got a nine-game look at the NHL and sent down to the heart of Texas where he posted 24 goals and 36 assists with very little help. The hulking left winger is dependable, experienced, won a WJC gold medal last year and the Avalanche are not going far this year. Rantanen has the skill set, and Colorado needs to know exactly what they have with the tenth overall selection in the 2015 draft.
5- Esa Lindell – Dallas Stars
Lindell is not the new defenseman on a one-way contract for Dallas: that would be Stephen Johns. But the limited upside of Johns coupled with Lindell’s true two-way ability should see Lindell get his chance this year. The skilled Finn has the pro size at 6’3 and over 200 pounds and a deft touch with the puck. He can run a power play and play a sound defensive game. His defense isn’t as good as Johns, and his offensive ceiling is not quite as high as Texas teammate Julius Honka. However, he is the best mixture of the Stars blueline prospects and a perfect replacement for Alex Goligoski if given the chance.
Johns two-year, one-way contract will put him in the lead of that pack for now. The former Blackhawk draft pick is a favorite of the organization and will get every chance to win steady employment patrolling the blueline. But Lindell is better and should get an opportunity to take over a regular job for the Stars. He is slated to be part of Team Finland, and if he’s top 10 for the Scandinavian goalie and defenseman factory, he should be ready for Dallas.
6- Marcus Sorensen – San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks have brought a previously drafted UFA over from Scandinavia each of the last three seasons. Melker Karlsson headed across the pond in 2014-15 and scored 13 goals and 11 assists in 53 games. Joonas Donskoi was the 2015-16 offering. He has 36 points in 76 games. Marcus Sorensen is the latest model from Europe the Sharks added ahead of the 2016-17 campaign. All three of these players walked in and made an immediate impact, are a similar size, and there is no reason to suddenly doubt the Sharks track record from Europe.
Sorensen is an excellent skater, very shifty with and without the puck and his triple-digit experience in the Swedish Hockey League is evident. On a team that pointed to the lack of speed as a flaw the Pittsburg Penguins exposed in the Stanley Cup Final, Sorensen helps address that need with a solid mixture of skill as well.
7- Hunter Shinkaruk – Calgary Flames
A faller in the 2013 draft, the Vancouver Canucks gave up on the skilled forward far too early. The Canuck's mistake is now the Flames gain. Right after the trade, Shinkaruk reported to the Stockton Heat, Calgary’s AHL affiliate and his still was immediately noticeable to everyone in attendance. He often centered a line of Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk forming an AHL kid line that had good chemistry and a solid mixture of styles. Shinkaruk scored 51 points in 62 games and made a good accounting of himself and his skills in a seven-game call-up to the Flames registering two goals and an assist.
Adding to the opportunity for Shinkaruk is the Flames dragging on of contract negotiations with two pieces of their top line: Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Both remain without a contract as of this writing, and the pair is headed to the World Cup of Hockey as members of Team North America. Should a holdout and/or injury happen to the two most important players on the Flames roster, the opportunity could force not only Shinkaruk but other Flames prospects into the line-up.
8- Timo Meier – San Jose Sharks
Meier was one of the last cuts from camp later year from the San Jose Sharks. All he did was go back and light up the QMJHL like a string of Boxing Day lights and come into development camp looking like he lived in a gym. Even his answers during the development camp sounded like they came from an 11-year veteran.
The Sharks have a lot of excellent players but none with the skill mix Meier does. Able to go both through and around the opposition, Timo plays all three forward positions. He is a good skater that plays mostly a north/south game and outside of occasional defensive zone issues, is ready for the NHL. He will have some competition from another player in this list, but if he makes it, a steady climb up the line chart is very possible. Meier is likely to be the first call-up for the Sharks from the Barracuda. Young players need ice time and being the 13th forward with the big club probably falls to Tommy Wingels. Once he is in the line-up, there is little chance he will come out.
9- Kalle Kossila – Anaheim Ducks
He was higher up the list, but things happen quickly in the NHL. The signing of Antoine Vermette hurts what would have a been a solid chance at a roster spot to a sleeper with upside. Kossila was reliable and impactful in six games with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls with a pair of goals and assists. He quickly developed some chemistry with Ondrej Kase. Kossila plays all the forward positions, enjoyed success with St. Cloud State in a four-year career. His senior year topped out at 14 goals and 40 assists and was nearly a point-per-game player in the NCAA with 153 points in 157 games.
Vermette hurts his chances, he plays a fairly solid two-way game and would be an affordable and talent-laden upside forward with the Ducks. Kossila edges in front of Nick Ritchie, but Ritchie is certainly a power winger so that he will need a particular role. Kossila’s versatility is an edge.
10 – Ville Husso – St. Louis Blues
There is zero reason to have any confidence in Ken Hitchcock’s handling of the St. Louis Blues roster. He plays forwards out of position, his criteria for selecting a starting goaltender likely included in equal parts an Ouija board, Rorschach test and a toonie. Brian Elliott had enough of the fun and took a job with the Calgary Flames. Jake Allen, despite multiple times being given the starting job, never could fully seize the crease. Now with Elliott gone, he has to be the man, or else St. Louis will turn to Carter Hutton, a mediocre back-up who is below average in his age bracket.
When it comes to the dark arts of goaltending, it’s always a crapshoot, but Husso could have a puncher's chance. Husso guided HIFK to the Liiga finals and took Patrik Laine and Tappara to six games with a ridiculous 1.55 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 15 postseason starts. In the past three campaigns, Husso has played in 150+ Liiga contests, CHL games, and international matches. If he can quickly assimilate the North American game, he could see NHL action later this year.
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Vesey
The already much-traveled Vesey is on his third team in the last three months, could be on his fourth if he signs anywhere but Buffalo. He has been linked to every team across the globe, so if he signs in the Western Conference, he immediately jumps to the middle of this list. However, Vesey is seemingly just as likely to sign with the Melbourne Mustangs for their postseason push in the AIHL, so an honorable mention slot seems appropriate.
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