With NHL prospect camps opening, we've ranked the league's top five farm systems.
1. Buffalo Sabres
Strengths: Give former GM Darcy Regier some credit. He built up an enviable collection of young defensemen during the last few years. Both of his first-round selections last year, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, could spend next season with the Sabres. Mark Pysyk, who was taken in the first round in 2010, and ’12 second-round pick Jake McCabe both lack classic builds, but their mix of puck movement, positioning and leadership could make them a perfect second pair.
There's plenty of talent up front as well, where several big-bodied worker bee-types -- including Hudson Fasching, William Carrier and Brendan Lemieux (31st, 2014) -- have the potential to develop into physical and effective top-nine forwards. J.T. Compher and Johan Larsson are smaller, but play with plenty of jam. And then there are Conner Hurley and Justin Bailey, a playmaker and a finisher, respectively, who are just waiting to find each other. Nick Baptiste's breakthrough 45-goal season for Sudbury in 2013-14 earned him an invite to Team Canada's summer orientation camp ahead of the World Juniors. That's the kind of depth other teams can only dream of.
There's no obvious successor to goalie Ryan Miller, but one might not be too far off. Free agent Andrey Makarov was a pleasant surprise last year in Rochester. He could be joined down on the farm by recently signed 2012 sixth-rounder Linus Ullmark, who was named the Swedish Hockey League's top goalie (2.08 GAA, .931 save percentage) last season. And ’14 third rounder Jonas Johansson, at 6-feet-4 and 198 pounds, has ideal size and athleticism, but he needs a lot of technical work to realize his upside.
Question marks: Maybe someone special will arrive with another high pick next June, but for now the Sabres lack explosive offensive potential. Mikhail Grigorenko has the size (6-3, 209) and tools to be a first-line center, but can he put them all together with the work ethic that is needed to succeed in the NHL?
Top 10 prospects: 1. C Sam Reinhart; 2. D Rasmus Ristolainen; 3. D Nikita Zadorov; 4. D Mark Pysyk; 5. C Mikhail Grigorenko; 6. D Jake McCabe; 7. RW Joel Armia; 8. LW J.T. Compher; 9. LW Brendan Lemieux; 10. G Linus Ullmark
2. New York Islanders
Strengths: The Islanders haven't dressed an NHL-caliber blue line in years, but that's about to change. They've invested heavily in defensemen in recent drafts, mining high-end talent like Griffin Reinhart (4th, 2012) , Ville Pokka, (34th, ’12), Ryan Pulock (15th, ’13) and Scott Mayfield (34th, ’11). All four are likely to assume top-six roles in the next three years. As good as that group is, the real excitement is up front. Ryan Strome (5th, 2011) should step into a full-time role next season and could become an excellent second-line center. Michael Dal Colle (5th, ’14) and Josh Ho-Sang (28th, ’14) both could emerge as top-six forwards. Another center to keep an eye on: 2009 sixth-rounder Anders Lee has the bullish frame (6-3, 227) and soft hands (nine goals in 22 games) to hint at top-six potential.
Question marks: There's a total dearth of talent between the pipes. Neither Anders Nilsson or Mikko Koskinen (currently signed in the KHL) have progressed as hoped, and while GM Garth Snow used his third- and fourth-round picks this year on goalies (Ilya Sorokin and Linus Soderstrom, respectively), neither Euro is likely to be pushing for a job in the next five years.
Top 10 prospects: 1. C Ryan Strome; 2. D Griffin Reinhart; 3. C-RW Josh Ho-Sang; 4. C-LW Michael Dal Colle; 5. D Ryan Pulock; 6. C Anders Lee; 7. D Ville Pokka; 8. D Scott Mayfield; 9. D Adam Pelech; 10. F Sebastian Collberg
3. Anaheim Ducks
Strengths: What other team could jettison two of its opening-night starters, throw in a couple of kids and look even stronger between the pipes? The Ducks' stockpile of outstanding goalies allowed them to call on John Gibson and Frederik Andersen in the playoffs. Both will advance to full-time duty next season, but that still leaves Igor Bobkov, who also has the potential to be a solid (if not spectacular) No. 1 stopper in the NHL. Anaheim's minor-league forward depth has been diminished by several graduations to the big club, but the Ducks still boast several quality high-end prospects, including hulking winger Nick Ritchie (the 10th pick in last month's draft), big college winger Nic Kerdiles and dashing forward Rickard Rakell to go along with second-tier types like William Karlsson, Nick Sorensen, Stefan Noesen and late-round gem Kevin Roy.
Question marks: You have to have pretty high standards to find flaws in this system, but if there are any possible concerns it's the lack of blue-line talent since the graduation of Hampus Lindholm -- which might explain why Anaheim used three of its five picks on defensemen in this year's draft. But that's not a huge problem with 2013 first-rounder Shea Theodore and the small but swift Sami Vatanen close to joining Lindholm at the Pond. Markus Pettersson (38th, 2014) and Brandon Montour (55th, ’14) were swing-for-the-fences picks with terrific upside, but they're four to five years from getting a taste of the Show. Andy Welinski, a 2011 third-rounder, has an outside chance of making the club's blue line corps down the road.
Top 10 prospects: 1. G John Gibson; 2. LW Nick Ritchie; 3. C Rickard Rakell; 4. D Sami Vatanen; 5. G Frederik Andersen; 6. D Shea Theodore; 7. LW Nick Kerdiles; 8. C William Karlsson; 9. G Igor Bobkov; 10. RW Stefan Noesen
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Strengths: A system that just graduated two of the three Calder Trophy finalists shouldn't have this much left to offer, but the Bolts still have plenty in the tank. Their system is highlighted by arguably the most exciting prospect in the game -- 2013 CHL Player of the Year Jonathan Drouin. He projects as a first-line winger with game-breaking skill. There's also solid skill available to fill depth roles at forward, including Adam Erne, Henri Ikonen and Vladislav Namestnikov. Brayden Point is a speedy forward with some grit and offensive touch who could surprise as a mid-round pick (79th, 2014). Tampa Bay also boasts one of the top goaltending prospects in Andrey Vasilevskiy, and a very intriguing option in Latvian Olympian Kristers Gudlevskis. Neither is close to making the roster, but with Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop under contract, they can take their time percolating in the KHL/minors.
Question marks: Defense was an issue coming into this year's draft, and it may still be, but GM Steve Yzerman did grab the most skilled blueliner available in Anthony DeAngelo. His disciplinary issues make him a risky pick, but if the organization can get his head on straight, DeAngelo could be the first pair/first power play prospect that the Lightning's system has been missing. Slater Koekkoek (10th, ’12) has the potential to join him, but recurring shoulder problems are an issue. Dominik Masin (35th, ’14) is a solid defensive defenseman, but he's several years away.
Top 10 prospects: 1. LW Jonathan Drouin; 2. G Andrei Vasilevskiy; 3. C Vladislav Namestnikov; 4. D Anthony DeAngelo; 5. D Slater Koekkoek; 6. RW Adam Erne; 7. G Kristers Gudlevskis; 8. LW/C Henri Ikonen; 9. C Brayden Point; 10. D Dominik Masin
5. Florida Panthers
Strengths: An enviable defensive pool got even deeper with the selection of top pick Aaron Ekblad last month. Whether or not he matures into a true No. 1, he's regarded now as a lock to play 15 years of solid hockey in the NHL. He could be joined one day on the back end by Boston College teammates Mike Matheson (23rd, 2012) and Ian McCoshen (31st, ’13), along with big Alex Petrovic (36th, ’10). It's a group that promises a nice mix of size, nastiness, smarts and puck skills.
Question marks: While the immediate use of Aleksander Barkov leaves the Panthers without an elite offensive weapon in their system, there are some intriguing pieces up front, including 2013 OHL MVP Vince Trocheck (64th, 2011) and college stars Rocco Grimaldi (33rd, ’11) and Kyle Rau (91st, ’11). The problem is, for all their skill, these three are woefully undersized -- Grimaldi is listed at 5-6, and that may be a stretch. Can these guys exercise their breathtaking talent in top-six roles without getting pulverized?
And while Roberto Luongo won't be vacating the crease any time soon, there is a clear need for a successor to the goalie in the system. Former Denver Pioneers keeper Sam Brittain (2.22 GAA, .946 save percentage) signed his ELC recently and is tagged for San Antonio. If he's not the answer, 6-6 Swede Hugo Fagerblom (182nd, 2014) has plenty of time to hone his craft. That said, Florida may regret overlooking Thatcher Demko and Mason MacDonald in favor of offensive-minded center Jayce Hawryluk with their first pick in the second round last month.
Top 10 prospects: 1. D Aaron Ekblad; 2. D Mike Matheson; 3. C Vince Trocheck; 4. D Alex Petrovic; 5. C Jayce Hawryluk; 6. D Ian McCoshen; 7. C Rocco Grimaldi; 8. C Kyle Rau; 9. C Quinton Howden; 10. G Sam Brittain