Future Watch 2021: The NHL's Top 10 Falling Prospects

Which NHL-affiliated prospects took the biggest tumbles in our scouting panel's rankings? The unorthodox hockey calendar had a major influence on the list this year, and that's why you shouldn't panic.
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The fun part came first. Earlier this week, we unveiled The Hockey News’ top 10 rising prospects in Future Watch 2021, our special magazine that you can get free if you purchase a subscription here. Now, hat in hand, we break the news about which 10 prospects fell the furthest between Future Watch 2020 and 2021.

The full breakdown of how our panel of NHL scouts and executives creates our Future Watch rankings appears in the top 10 risers story, which you can find here. But to quickly summarize Future Watch: it’s an annual special edition of The Hockey News in which we (a) grade every NHL franchise’s pool of 21-and-younger talent, from players in the system to youngsters on the NHL rosters and (b) rank the top 100 NHL-affiliated individual prospects.

As I say every year, the fallers list is much more complicated than the risers list. It’s not a matter of facepalming as soon as you see someone from your favorite team land on the fallers list, as not all fallers are players who struggled on the ice and regressed significantly. Some are, sure, but some fall because they sustained major injuries that kept them from playing. Others fall because their teams have implemented an additional draft class since the previous Future Watch edition, meaning every prospect pool swells, and any players who haven’t been promoted have more organizational competition. The past year has presented even more hurdles than normal because of COVID-19, as playing situations vary wildly from one prospect to the next. Most players in European pro leagues, for instance, have gotten their full seasons in, whereas OHLers got no season, WHLers got no playoffs and AHLers started their season in the winter.

Keeping the unprecedented circumstances in mind, let’s dive into the Fallers list. One more disclaimer to remember: players drafted in 2020 aren’t eligible. The draft came long after Future Watch 2020 published, meaning the 2020 draftees weren’t ranked last year, meaning they can’t be fallers since they have no rankings from which to fall.

1. HENRIK BORGSTROM, C, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (-65)

Last year: 33rd
This year: 98th

Probably not what you want to see if you’re a Blackhawks fan given the team just acquired Borgstrom as part of a Brett Connolly salary-dump trade. But the our scouting panel voted before the deal, and there’s a reason why the Blackhawks got Borgstrom for a song. He’s a reclamation project, only a couple years removed from being a standout college player and NCAA champion with the University of Denver. His size and puckhandling ability have looked good enough for the NHL a lot of the time, but he struggled to maintain his confidence in his first few pro seasons with the Panthers repeatedly shuffling him back and forth between the AHL and NHL.

This season, he’s stayed home in Finland, rallied from an injury layoff and played all over the lineup with HIFK. With his hands, smarts and ability to play multiple forward positions, he still has a chance to make an impact in the NHL, and he should have less competition for a job in the Chicago system. A sense of consistency in his new organization should help him feel more confident in his role, too.

2. LASSI THOMSON, D, OTTAWA SENATORS (-51)

Last year: 46th
This year: 97th

The Senators’ farm system finished first in the Future Watch 2021 overall rankings and, after they added 2020 draftees Jake Sanderson and Ridly Greig to their list of prospects not yet in the NHL, some existing Ottawa prospects were bound to get pushed down the organizational rankings. So that’s one reason why Thomson tumbled. It’s not the only reason, however. Thomson turned pro in 2019-20 with Ilves Tampere, his hometown team, in the SM-Liiga, but he didn’t get the reps he needed because of injury woes, a lack of ice time when healthy and the season getting cut short due to COVID-19. This season, his role shrunk, and he struggled in the Liiga. He’d played major junior before turning pro, but perhaps going back to Europe and a larger ice surface messed up his reaction time. Upon returning to North America this winter to play with AHL Belleville, he’s been criticized for seeming rattled in his decision making, almost as if the game looks too fast for him now that he’s playing in more confined quarters. That said, he’s only 20, and the Senators like his physicality in trench warfare. He has plenty of time to mature into a mobile two-way blueliner who skates well.

3. ERIK BRANNSTROM, D, OTTAWA SENATORS (-49)

Last year: 12th
This year: 61st

A drop from the 12th overall prospect to 61st is significant. Brannstrom had large expectations heaped on him as the centerpiece of the trade sending Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights. As a dynamic puck-mover, he racked up points last season in the AHL but looked physically overmatched in the NHL and had his conditioning called into question. This season, his handling has been curious, as he spent a lot of time stashed on the taxi squad, not playing for the Sens but also not getting additional AHL experience ­– which was especially head-scratching when GM Pierre Dorion publicly opined that Brannstrom had to improve his defensive play. The Mike Reilly trade to Boston has finally opened up more playing time, however, and Brannstrom has slotted into Reilly’s spot on the second pair with Artem Zub. It appears Brannstrom is starting to find his confidence and showcase his tremendous raw skill as puck-rusher. It’s important to remember that the scouting panel voted before the start of the NHL and AHL seasons because of the wonky COVID-19 calendar. If we held the vote again today, he’d probably rise back up a bit.

4. ALEXANDER ALEXEYEV, D, WASHINGTON CAPITALS (-44)

Last year: 55th
This year: 99th

Alexeyev’s ranking drop is more a reflection of his body of work entering this season that what’s transpired this season. With multiple campaigns shortened by injuries, he simply slipped down the Future Watch rankings as additional draft classes arrived. His potential didn’t go anywhere, though. He played a big minute-munching defensive role in the KHL with Salavat Yulaev Ufa this season and is now back with AHL Hershey, where he’s also showcased some offensive chops. Here’s a case of a “falling” prospect who shouldn’t worry anyone. Alexeyev has been quite good this season, and his long-term ceiling as a two-way contributor remains interesting.

5. RYAN POEHLING, C, MONTREAL CANADIENS (-44)

Last year: 44th
This year: 88th

I said it the night it happened, and I’ll say it again: the hat trick in Poehling’s first NHL game back in 2019 was a curse. It created hype that didn’t match his skill set. His projection was always to be a two-way pivot topping out in the middle six, not a big-time scorer. Jake Evans leapfrogged him to seize the Canadiens’ fourth-line center job this season, however. It’s no longer a given that Poehling breaks into the NHL as a center, and his long-term forecast trends more toward bottom-sixer at the moment. The good news is he still has potential to be effective in that defense-first, penalty-killer role once he sticks. He's also found his scoring touch in the AHL, putting up close to a point per game this season.

6. KRISTIAN VESALAINEN, LW, WINNIPEG JETS (-43)

Last year: 58th
This year: not ranked in top 100

The Jets are trying to reshape Vesalainen’s game. There’s no doubting his natural tools as a goal-scorer but, because Winnipeg’s forward group is perpetually loaded in the top six, any forward who wants to crack the NHL lineup needs to develop “bottom-six” abilities as well. The Jets are thus working on developing Vesalainen’s defensive skills more and even having him kill penalties in the AHL. He’s one of many prospects suffering from the taxi-squad problem right now, though, as it’s keeping him from getting into many games. He’s played just 16 between the Manitoba Moose and the Jets. Most recently, he's seen NHL action this week on Winnipeg's third line.

7. NOLAN FOOTE, LW, NEW JERSEY DEVILS (-42)

Last year: 28th
This year: 70th

A lower-body injury held Foote to just 27 games with WHL Kelowna last season, costing him crucial time to improve his skating, and his drop in the rankings is reflected in that. The news isn’t all bad, though. The budding power forward looked pretty comfortable his first AHL season, earned an NHL call-up this month and scored in his second game. He still needs to improve as a skater, but his size, strength and shot are exciting. His drop from 28th to 70th is another reminder of how abnormal the Future Watch rankings are this season, as so many of the North American prospects were still idle, waiting for their seasons to start, when the ballots were turned in.

8. KEVIN BAHL, D, NEW JERSEY DEVILS (-41)

Last year: 60th
This year: not ranked in top 100

At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, Bahl is almost always the biggest player on the ice, and he brings something fresh to a Devils pipeline that has plenty of smaller, swifter offensive defensemen. The key for any throwback behemoth blueliner today: he must be mobile. He can’t be the equivalent of early-2000s Hal Gill competing in 2021. The good news is that Bahl moves extremely well for a man his size, meaning he should have the modernized-big-man skill set to stick in the NHL, albeit likely as a bottom-pair bruiser. He made his NHL debut Thursday night, held a 60-percent shot attempt share and drew positive reviews. Why the drop in the rankings, then? It’s likely because Bahl’s game isn’t flashy, so his slide was likely due to other prospects catching our scouts’ attention more.

9. KLIM KOSTIN, RW, ST. LOUIS BLUES (-38)

Last year: 63rd
This year: not ranked in top 100

Kostin’s drop reflects his early struggles to find the confidence and commitment to match his size and skill in the AHL. Letting him stay for the a full season in the KHL this season reportedly worked wonders, however. Playing under seasoned coach Bob Hartley with Avangard Omsk, Kostin found his competitive fire, used his big, strong body effectively, and won a Gagarin Cup, contributing five goals in 24 playoff games. He’s expected to join the Blues after a quarantine period and, playing with increased confidence and engagement, could get a look anywhere in the lineup.

10. TIMOTHY LILJEGREN, D, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (-37)

Last year: 64th
This year: not ranked in top 100

Because Liljegren is now appearing in Future Watch for a fourth year, it seems our panel voters have a case of ‘Liljegren fatigue,’ but his drop is deceiving. The Leafs organization feels he’s legitimately improved his two-way play to complement his excellent puck-moving skill. The next step his for him to become more of a shooting threat to keep teams off balance when he carries the puck. In an odd coincidence: Liljegren, like Bahl, also made his season debut Thursday night, also played 15 minutes and also held a 60-percent share of the shot attempts.

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