We’re 68 days into the NHL season. The Stanley Cup playoffs bracket will be set in 117 days. The entry draft is another 76 days after that, but my absolute favorite part of the entire season kicks off 15 days from now at the New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. About that time I’ll be on a southbound flight to my honeymoon, but you can be sure I’ll be tuning in to the 2018 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships from a remote volcanic area of Costa Rica.
Several prospects playing in the AHL will likely be featured in the 2018 edition of the tournament, including Filip Chytil, Klim Kostin, and Timothy Liljegren. I’ve already touched on the great start in the AHL that Chytil has been off to, back in November. In all likelihood, Chytil will join the Czech Republic in group B where he’ll face off against both Liljegren (Sweden) and Kostin (Russia) in round-robin play.
Jesse Puljujarvi remains eligible for the tournament, however, with Finland being relegated in the 2017 edition, largely due to his absence, he will obviously not attend. Puljujarvi has had a relatively inconsistent adjustment to the North American style, and any chance to realize his previous dominance would have certainly been beneficial to his confidence. The Oilers seem to be intent on finding a place for Puljujarvi to flourish in their lineup rather than Bakersfield’s these days anyways.
Also a 1998 birthday, Alex Nylander remains eligible for the tournament as well. Alex has spent time in both the NHL and AHL early on this season much the same way that Puljujarvi has. The chance to represent Sweden at one final U20 could also provide a confidence boost for the younger Nylander who was Sweden’s top player at the tournament a year ago. In any case, Sweden will be a top team at the tournament with several top prospects donning the blue crowns. The Leaf’s have made it clear that Timothy Liljegren will be released from the 9-game stretch with the Marlies’ who have a healthy pool of depth to cover his absence. He has been contributing on the Marlies power play consistently since returning from an injury that held him out at the beginning of the season. The Swede’s will also likely include 2017 draftee’s Elias Pettersson [VAN], Erik Brannstrom [VGK] and Lias Andersson [NYR].
The final selection in the first round of the 2017 entry draft, Klim Kostin has always put his offensive touch on display while representing the Kremlin. In his draft year, Kostin was shuffled through three Russian leagues, and seemingly struggled to get comfortable, posting a combined two assists in 18 games throughout the three leagues. Prior to his draft year, however, he was highly successful in the MHL, as well as both the U17’s and U18’s. Despite being previously drafted first overall by the Kootenay Ice in the CHL import draft, and never coming to North America, Kostin made it known that he would like to come to North America to play after being drafted to the NHL. Coincidentally, he was drafted by the Blues’ who, about a month prior, had lost their sole partnership with AHL affiliate, Chicago Wolves. While some Blues’ prospects remained in Chicago, others, including Kostin have been assigned to the San Antonio Rampage. Kostin should be keen to join the defending bronze medalists as he’s been off to a fairly productive rookie season in the AHL, and has likely regained the confidence that had been fleeting him in his draft year.
Each year in the NHL prospect world we see the development of one or two Cinderella stories. Players who fight their way out of the woodwork - that is their late round (or undrafted) pedigree and into the forefront of the prospect world. The AHL is a great place for lesser known prospects to make that statement, and it has been proven over and over again in years past. Major examples from the last few seasons include Vincent Trochek (64th overall – 2011), Mark Stone (178th overall, 2010). Even this year we’re seeing the emergence of players in the NHL who’ve previously broke away from their draft label in the AHL such as Danton Heinen, BOS (114th overall, 2014), Yanni Gourde (undrafted), and Christian Djoos (185th overall, 2012) – Typically these guys receive praise from much of the Dobber crew all over the site leading up to their breakout, however still go unappreciated. Of course there are more well-known prospects who are fortunate enough to bypass this step, but often times, finding and drafting these diamonds in the rough can be enormously beneficial when stocking your cupboards in a keeper league. Here are some of those players in the AHL that are looking like they could be the ones to break their mold in the coming years.
Lucas Wallmark, 97th overall, 2014 by Carolina Hurricanes [7th on DobberProspects CAR Page]
Possible Arrival: 2019-2020, The Hurricanes have a steady farm system
Selected with the second of two consecutive picks in the early third round of the 2014 entry draft, the overaged draft pick, Wallmark has developed nicely in the Hurricanes farm system. As a 21-year-old, Wallmark concluded his rookie campaign in the AHL fourth among rookies, and has since surged to be one of the Checkers top offensive forwards. The acquisition of Justin Williams this summer was likely a major factor in Wallmark being returned to Charlotte from Raleigh. Although his ceiling is lower than a few of Carolina’s other prospects, he’s one of the closest to getting the opportunity to prove his place in the NHL.
Daniel O’Regan, 138th overall, 2012, San Jose Sharks [4th on DobberProspets SJS Page]
Possible Arrival: 2018-19, already getting cups of coffee.
The changing of the guard in San Jose is around the corner and O’Regan has been waiting patiently for a few years now. After the Sharks shipped out Nikolai Goldobin to the Canucks, the smaller O’Regan stepped in, to fill the void with the Barracuda, and move up a spot in the Sharks prospect pool. The younger and slightly taller Kevin Labanc has been a bit more impressive from an offensive output perspective than O’Regan, but the latter’s ability to play center makes him nearly as valuable.
Oskar Lindblom, 138th overall, 2014 by Philadelphia Flyers [6th on DobberProspects PHI Page]
Possible Arrival: 2019-20, possibly earlier.
A sizeable and dynamic winger who made relatively fair contributions in the SHL leading up to the 2014 entry draft, Lindblom was passed over by the entire league through four entire rounds until he was selected by the Flyers at 138 overall. Although he was once expected to be selected as high as the second round, deficiencies in his puck handling saw the Swede fall further than anticipated. The knock on Lindblom ahead of his draft was that the winger’s offensive contributions stemmed from more of a power, brute force angle than a repeatable skill. Despite the skepticism from scouts throughout the league, Lindblom has proven his methods to be as effective in North America as they were overseas. He’s currently battling with a savvy group of AHL veterans in Lehigh Valley for ice time, but simultaneously making his mark in his first full season in the league. In the 2017 DobberHockey Fantasy Prospects report, Lindblom’s upside was listed as “Filip Forsberg-lite” with a 40% chance at achieving his 60+ point ceiling. There’s not a lot of room for Lindblom to break into the Flyers top-6 right away, but the underachieving Taylor Leier could open up a crack in the bottom of the lineup if the Flyers chose not to qualify him next spring.
Sebasitan Aho, 139th overall, 2017 by New York Islanders [6th on DobberProspects ISL Page]
Possible Arrival: 2019-20, possibly earlier.
The other Sebastian Aho was selected as an over-ager in the most recent NHL draft by the New York Islanders. Despite his 5’10”, 176lb (or 165lb depending who you talk to) frame he’s been exceptional offensively to open the season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Regardless of his size, Aho is quickly proving that his puck-moving and anticipation ability could be enough to carry him to the NHL. The Islanders are an interesting file, especially so on the back end where Johnny Boychuk is tied up for another four seasons at $6-million per. Of the defenders remaining in the minors, Aho is looking like one of the best candidates to take the next step along with Devon Toews. That being said, Ryan Pulock is technically in the NHL and has a few notches on them both for now.
Mason Appleton, 168th overall, 2015 by Winnipeg Jets [N/R on DobberProspects, WPG Page]
Possible Arrival: 2019-20, the Jets have a lot of internal competition, Jack Roslovic & Nic Petan are next in line, but if Appleton’s breakout season continues he won’t be far behind.
Yet another prime example of why there has been such a peak of college-bound players selected in the mid-late rounds of the NHL entry draft recently, Appleton’s 6th round draft label is fading quickly. Selected after a sub-point-per-game season in the USHL, Appleton played two seasons at Michigan State before signing with the Jets and joining their affiliate, Moose in Winnipeg. While it was somewhat of a surprise to see Appleton turn pro after just two seasons at Michigan State, especially with no guarantee of an NHL job in the near future, the Wisconsin native has done everything to prove the doubters wrong. While he’s already had a superb start in breaking down the figurative barriers of his draft label, he’ll have to continue this level of play in order to pass Nic Petan on the depth chart.
Vinni Lettieri, undrafted; New York Rangers [N/R on DobberProspects NYR page]
Possible Arrival: 2019-20
The former Golden Gopher slipped by every single NHL team through seven rounds in each of his years of eligibility, however it was his senior season at the University of Minnesota that put him on the map as a free-agent. After signing with the Rangers he was eventually assigned to Hartford where he’s been the Wolfpack’s top goal scorer thus far. Recently the Rangers appear to be more open to cycling youth through their lineup, but with a strong youth infusion already taking place, Lettieri’s arrival might be further down the timeline. After his less than stellar AHL debut at the end of last season, Dobber labeled Lettieri with an ominous “Do not draft” in the 2017 Fantasy Prospects report – nonetheless, his current scoring pace has him back on the edge of the prospect map and worthy of a minor upgrade. Lettieri’s offensive ceiling remains on the lower side (30-40pts), but his NHL aspirations have certainly become more of a reality after a strong start in the AHL.
Ondrej Kase, 205th overall, 2014 by Anaheim Ducks [5th on DobberProspects, ANA Page]
Possible Arrival: Now
Ranked 8th amongst European skaters heading into the 2014 entry draft, Kase dropped all the way to 205th overall for the Anaheim Ducks – 5 selections away from missing the draft entirely. The Ducks have happily been patting themselves on the back ever since, as the skilled winger continues to develop between the NHL and AHL. The forward has spent some time on the IR, early this season, but with the Duck’s newly acquired Adam Henrique adding to their depth down the middle, Kase can certainly expect to be lining up with a more dangerous pivot than Derek Grant. Prior to his injury, Kase had been shooting at an unsustainable combined rate of 20%, while getting looks on the Ducks’ first and second power play units. That power play time may fade in the short term with the acquisition of the more proven Henrique, but Kase has shown in his points/60 that he is capable of providing offense when he is given the opportunity.