One of the ongoing projects I worked on at The Copper and Blue was the Top 25 Under 25. The series began with Ben Massey asking a very important point about the evaluation of young players: “determining when one has gone from prospect to player is more a matter of half-baked opinion and guesswork than rigorous statistical analysis.” The result was a look at the best young players in the organization under 25 years old no matter how many NHL games those players might have played. It’s a practice that gives us a much better look at what the future holds because we’re no longer omitting a team’s very best young players.
Of course, at the Copper and Blue, I was focused on the Oilers. That gave our readers an idea about the quality of players in Edmonton, but didn’t offer much as far as comparison with other teams. Today, I’m beginning a series that will look at the top five players under 25, first comparing teams with the others in their division, and then comparing the best teams in each division with one another. After the jump, we begin with the Atlantic working our way fifth to the team with the best young players in the division.
5 – Pittsburgh Penguins
Over the (never-ending) summer, the Penguins traded Jordan Staal, by far their best player under 25, and accumulated several assets of lesser quality. Of course, lesser quality doesn’t mean low quality. Brandon Sutter is already a competent forward in tough minutes situations: in 2011-12 Sutter had just 34.8% of his end-zone starts in the offensive zone, one of the twenty most difficult forward ratios in the NHL, and he did it playing against top competition. His possession results don’t look fantastic (his Corsi rate is -8.9 per 60 minutes), but compared to others is a similar situation, that’s pretty darn good. After Sutter, things get significantly weaker. The Penguins have a group of young defensemen that includes Simon Despres, Derrick Pouliot, and Olli Maatta, all of whom have tremendous ability, but none of whom have proven their talents at the NHL level. Despres is the closest to doing that, and doesn’t have the size (Pouliot) or injury (Maatta) concerns of the other two. Still, it would be a surprise to see all three turn out, which is pretty damning when we’re talking about the very best young players in the organization. I have Beau Bennett rounding out the top five. He’s a quality prospect, and is currently leading the Wilkes-Barre Penguins in scoring, but with 13 points in 18 games, he’s not exactly blowing the doors off offensively, and like Maatta, he has already had to deal with serious injury.
4 – New Jersey Devils
I have the Devils edging out the Penguins, but it isn’t by much. Most of the advantage comes in the form of Adam Larsson, who I regard very highly. The former top five selection had a strong rookie year, and is following that with a solid season in the AHL so far in 2012-13. One of the big questions about Larsson before the draft was his offensive ability, so his 9 points in 16 games is very encouraging. If Larsson can develop the offensive side of the game, he has the potential to be one of the game’s top all-around defenders. After Larsson, New Jersey has last year’s Calder Finalist, Adam Henrique, who was thrust into a top-six role as a rookie. Henrique responded well, finishing fifth on the team in even strength scoring with 36 points, and keeping his possession numbers in the black, which is quite rare for rookie forwards. After these two, the Devils have some question marks. Jacob Josefson is leading the Albany Devils in scoring, but he still isn’t cracking a point per game at that level and this is his third pro season in North America. Will he have enough offense to contribute at a high level? Jon Merrill is a very highly-regarded defenseman, but he’s currently out of the lineup with a cracked vertebrae, and has yet to play for Michigan this season. How will he respond to the lost development time, not to mention a pretty serious injury? Finally, the Devils have Mattias Tedenby, an offensive forward who hasn’t brought enough offense, much like Josefson. But with Tedenby, the offensive problem is more pronounced (he has 31 points in 60 career AHL games), and unlike Josefson, size is a drawback rather than a plus.
3 – New York Rangers
The jump in quality from fourth to third is substantial. That this is still the case even after the Rangers sent both Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Rick Nash is probably one of the reasons that trade was able to happen. The Rangers are quite interesting because, unlike most teams on their list, the top five players would all likely be playing NHL hockey tomorrow if such a thing were possible. I’ve got Ryan McDonagh in top spot because of his ability to handle tough minutes and still bring some offense from the back end, but McDonagh doens’t have much clearnace on the pack. Carl Hagelin is doing for the forwards what McDonagh is doing on defense, and probably deserved more votes for the Calder Trophy than he received. Compared to his peers, Hagelin looks downright dominant in terms of possession. Derek Stepan has a very different role from Hagelin at even strength, but he has also been very effective. In his first two NHL seasons, Stepan has been deployed mostly in the offensive zone, and he has come out with a very respectable 35 even strength points in both seasons. Another offensive specialist, Michael Del Zotto, finds himself in fourth place for now, but with plenty of room to move up this list. Del Zotto was very impressive on the power play and was serviceable in terms of driving possession at even strength playing second pairing minutes. If he can improve to the point that he’s winning the battle consistently at evens, he’ll be tremendously valuable. The last player on New York’s list is Chris Kreider, who might have been higher if he’d had a better start in the AHL this season: 10 points in 16 games isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either, and his shot rate (2.2 per game) falls into that same good-but-not-great range. That said, Kreider is an impressive physical player with enough skill to play well with other top nine forwards. That’s a package of skills every team dreams of having in one player.
2 – New York Islanders
It’s probably something of a surprise to see the Islanders in second place when their group is led by John Tavares, one of the NHL’s best young talents. Tavares received a zone-start push with the Islanders in 2011-12, getting 58.7% of his end-zone starts in the offensive zone, but he also made the most of it. Tavares was one of just two Islander forwards with a positive Corsi number at five-on-five, and he put the puck in the net too, finishing seventh in the NHL in even strength scoring with 56 points. If we were just looking for the most desirable player in the division under 25, I think Tavares would probably take the cake. And it’s not like the rest of the list is poor! Travis Hamonic already has two seasons of tough minutes under his belt, both of which were quite successful (he finished first among Islander defenders in Corsi ratio in 2010-11 and second in 2011-12). So far in 2012-13, he has been able to add some offense to his game as well, scoring 8 points in 16 AHL games. I’ve got prospects Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart in third and fourth respectively on this list, both of whom are having fantastic seasons in the CHL. After taking a disappointing season in 2011-12, Strome has scored 1.86 points per game so far in 2012-13, and is likely to get some shelter from Tavares when he arrives in the NHL. Reinhart, meanwhile, is anchoring one of the best defenses in junior hockey. His offense hasn’t been as strong as the Islanders might have hoped, but the physical defenseman has shown great discipline so far this season with just 5 minor penalties in 26 games. If we were looking at a top ten, the Islanders would probably be higher on this list because there are a few excellent candidates: Nino Neiderreiter is leading the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in scoring with 18 points in 17 games, and Brock Nelson isn’t far behind, but I decided to go with Kyle Okposo, a more established talent, in the number five spot. Okposo had his first 20-goal season in 2011-12, but if his injuries are behind him, that should be the first of many.
1 – Philadelphia Flyers
If Tavares is the most desirable player under 25 to have going forward in this division, Claude Giroux isn’t far behind. Giroux takes the tough assignments and comes out ahead at evens, is a major contributor on the PK, and led the entire NHL in scoring on the PP. Pretty good player! And if you think forwards drive results, the group Phildelphia has assembled looks pretty special. Sean Couturier was one of the league’s best defensive forwards as a raw rookie, a role (and result) that’s pretty rare for players of his age. This season, he’s adding the offense that people expected from his coming out of junior, scoring 15 points in 16 AHL games. His partner in crime with the Phantoms, Brayden Schenn, is currently third in AHL scoring with 22 points in his 18 games, and seems ready for a top-six role in the NHL when the players and owners are ready to return. One of the players he might slot in beside is Jakub Voracek who just posted his third consecutive season with 45 to 50 points. And if not Voracek, Wayne Simmonds could be a likely partner for Schenn. Simmonds posted career highs in goals (28) and points (49) in 2011-12, and while that comes with the expected spike in shooting percentage (14.2%, also a career-high), Simmonds is the kind of player who is extremely effective even if he isn’t scoring. That’s five forwards, which doesn’t exactly scream balance, which was likely one of the reasons that Philadelphia moved James Van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn, who just missed the top five.