If evaluating NHL talent is an art, judging the kids who may some day play in the League is a bit more like astrology: take the best information available (be it the result of personal observation, impressions relayed from others or lower-league statistics)... and guess. To further complicate matters, just how to order these youngsters is very much open to debate, as some folks look at a player's upside, while others place a heavy emphasis on the likelihood that the player reaches whatever his upside might be.
We've gone ahead and ranked the top prospects in the Southeast Division based on our projections of which players will have the most impact in the NHL. While concerns like "value" and early career production are important to teams and add a salary cap component, such considerations also create imbalances that put certain positions at an advantage relative to other positions; scoring forwards would dominate the entire list, while defensive defensemen and goalies would suffer, if not disappear. The result is a handful of talented teens (and early twenties) whose names will be popping up on our Top Wings, Centers, Defensemen and Goalies lists before long... and making us all feel really old. So let's jump right in...
Honorable mention: Zach Boychuk, Cody Eakin, Stanislav Galiev, Rocco Grimaldi, Nikita Kucherov, Dmitry Orlov, Vladislav Namestnikov
10. Mark Scheifele (C, Winnipeg Jets) (2011 Draft, 7th overall)
|2010-11 (Barrie Colts, OHL)||66||22||53||75||35|
Scheifele was an off-the-board pick, but he's a bit of a late bloomer and he has a lot of offensive upside, and that coveted size (6'3"). He may not qualify as "best player available," but he should still become a staple of the Jets offense... it just won't be while the Jets and Caps are division rivals.
9. Zac Dalpe (C, Carolina Hurricanes) (2008 Draft, 45th overall)
|2010-11 (Charlotte Checkers, AHL)||61||23||34||57||21|
Dalpe seems to be one of those guys that does a lot of things at an above-average level, but nothing in his skill set is truly elite. He's a solid skater, but not a guy that is going to be known for his speed. He's good puck-handler, but not a "dangler." He has a good shot, but he won't be a power play triggerman. He will need to keep refining his game, but should end up being a solid contributor on Carolina's second line in the near-future.
8. Justin Faulk (D, Carolina Hurricanes) (2010 Draft, 37th overall)
|2010-11 (U. Min. Duluth, NCAA)||39||8||25||33||47|
Faulk is a highly skilled offensive defenseman. His skating and puck skills are both exceptional and there's little doubt Caps fans will become accustomed to seeing Faulk (and the next player on the list) running the 'Canes power play from the blueline for years to come. Faulk also seems to have a golden horseshoe hidden in his pads - he was on the 2010 Gold medal winning Team USA in the U-18s, and last April he won the NCAA championships with UMD. However, without the help of John Carlson he was only a bronze medal winner in the 2011 World Junior Championships.
7. Ryan Murphy (D, Carolina Hurricanes) (2011 Draft, 12th overall)
|2010-11 (Kitchener, OHL)||63||26||53||79||36|
Murphy is an excellent skater and puck-handler, and Carolina may have gotten a steal picking him at 12th overall. His jump to the NHL likely won't be immediate, but his skating and puck skills will have him on the ice in Raleigh and on the power play before too long. He's only 5'10" and has suspect defensive skills, so he won't be terrorizing Southeast Division forwards, but he sure will make life hard for the goalies and defensemen.
6. Erik Gudbranson (D, Florida Panthers) (2010 Draft, 3rd overall)
|2010-11 (Kingston Frontenacs, OHL)||44||12||22||34||105|
Gudbranson has undeniable physical tools; tools that could make him the next of that long-sought-after breed, the BCCD (Big, Crease-Clearing Defenseman). However, a somewhat disappointing 2010-11 and a curious contract dispute with Florida (despite general manager Dale Tallon's willingness to throw money at anyone that can skate) have him slipping in the rankings. An underwhelming 2011 WJC (especially during Team Russia's comeback win for Gold) doesn't help, either. He could be the guy that finally makes life physically difficult for Alex Ovechkin, Eric Staal, and the other power forwards in the Division, but that's how Zach Bogosian was billed as well. Believe it when you see it.
5. Brett Connolly (C/LW, Tampa Bay Lightning) (2010 Draft, 6th overall)
|2010-11 (Prince George Cougars, WHL)||59||46||27||73||26|
Connolly has undeniable skill, and were it not for a serious hip injury in his draft year, he likely would have gone higher than he did (6th overall). With size (6'2"), speed, and hands he can do anything you'd want from a scoring-line forward. The hip injury seems to be a thing of the past, but it bears watching going forward. Connolly had a productive year for Prince George, but with only three assists to show in seven games during the WJC, he left Team Canada fans wanting more.
4. Braden Holtby (G, Washington Capitals) (2008 Draft, 93rd overall)
|2010-11 (Washington Capitals)||14||10||2||2||.934||1.79|
|2010-11 (Hershey Bears)||30||17||10||2||.920||2.29|
Holtby needs no introduction to Caps (or, for that matter, NHL) fans. He's an extremely athletic goaltender and a fierce competitor. His game still needs some polishing, but he's shown that he's got a future in the NHL. His NHL numbers hide the raw nature of his game, and rocky AHL playoff performances are something to keep an eye on, but with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth on the major league roster this season, there's no reason to rush Holtby. His day will come, and until then he'll be The Guy in Hershey as the Bears try not to miss the Calder Cup finals for back-to-back years for the first time since the NHL lockout. No, that's not a typo.
3. Jacob Markstrom (G, Florida Panthers) (2008 Draft, 31st overall)
|2010-11 (Rochester Americans, AHL)||37||16||20||1||.907||2.98|
Markstrom is big, athletic, and very polished for his age. He's been a professional goalie since he was 17-years-old, and he finally made the jump to North American hockey last season. Florida looks to have their goaltending ranks set for this season, but any injury (which may happen sooner rather than later) will result in Markstrom being called up. Expect to see Markstrom hold down the fort in Rochester this season, and then take Scott Clemmensen's spot next year and likely take the starting job when Jose Theodore's contract expires. Goalies are notoriously difficult to project, but Markstrom seems to be the real deal.
2. Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals) (2010 Draft, 26th overall)
|2010-11 (Traktor Chelyabinsk, KHL)||44||17||15||32||30|
Kuznetsov has world-class skill, and, if the WJC taught us anything, a flair for the dramatic. Kuznetsov was instrumental in Russia's come from behind wins against Finland and Canada, playing his best hockey of the tournament during the elimination games. He became a key member of his KHL team when he returned from the WJC, no small feat for a teenager in that league. Kuznetsov can skate, dangle, pass, and shoot, but his consistency has been suspect at times. It remains to be seen whether that's the kind of consistency issue that plagues most teenagers, or the kind of inconsistency that keeps Caps fans burning up message boards...
1. Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers) (2011 Draft, 3rd overall)
|2010-11 (St. John Sea Dogs, QMJHL)||67||43||62||105||88|
With eye-popping scoring numbers, it's no wonder Huberdeau tops this list, but that's not the end of the story. Huberdeau got better as the season went along last year, putting up some of his best numbers during the QMJHL playoffs and then the Memorial Cup. He was the best player on a stacked team, and he's not a one-trick pony. His two-way game and defensive commitment are always mentioned. That demonstrates impressive hockey maturity given that he probably could have gotten away without playing defense based on his scoring and the Q's defensive reputation. He may not be physically mature enough to make the NHL this year, but it won't be long before he's the most dynamic forward Florida fans have seen since... Pavel Bure? Even if he doesn't make the NHL this year, he'll be a leader on Team Canada in the WJC and try to lead St. John, and Stan Galiev, to another QMJHL and Memorial Cup title.