Junior and European leagues are ripe with raw but inexperienced talent. It’s a tough task assessing the ability of prospects and how they might translate to the big leagues, but it’s one undertaken by multitudes of scouts employed by NHL clubs. When the annual NHL Entry Draft is held in June, a wealth of information is presented to the public for fans to debate what prospects best suit their team needs or long-term plan. As the draft floor opens and young men are imported to organizations with hopes of eventually donning the parent club’s jersey, the cold hard fact is that many of them never set foot on an NHL ice surface. Even top prospects are sometimes labelled busts when they struggle in the minor leagues and fail to realize their elite or mid-range potential.
Considering the bevy of prospects in minor leagues across the globe, it’s an overwhelming task trying to rank them all. To simplify the process, this list will focus on prospects already drafted and who have played under 10 games in the NHL—teams can play Junior-level players for a nine-game stint before deciding whether to send him back. Some of the players on this list will be promoted to the NHL next season as their skill is undeniable and some teams can’t afford prolonged patience. Other players will ply their trade in the AHL for a few years before being ready to make the jump, which is often the conservative approach.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 13 most explosive NHL prospects:
13. Max Domi, Arizona Coyotes
Max Domi is tearing the OHL to shreds. With 58 points in 27 games at the time of writing this feature, Domi is a premium offensive talent. In his previous three seasons he produced 49, 87, and 93 points while his goal totals were 21, 34, and 39 with the London Knights. The 12th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft can be a divisive prospect in some circles for his high-risk playing style but Domi should thrive in the NHL if he retains that high-octane skillset. The Arizona Coyotes could use the 19-year-old’s creativity and explosive speed upfront.
12. Julius Honka, Dallas Stars
Although he requires additional seasoning with the Texas Stars in the AHL, defenseman Julius Honka will provide the Dallas Stars a much-needed right handed shooter on the power play when he does make the jump. The 19-year-old Finnish product, drafted 14th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, might need a few years in the minors, as defensemen typically require a four to five-year span to develop naturally, so patience will breed results here. He may not help the Stars’ defensive woes but his offensive potency and puck-moving capabilities are conducive to the progressive and effective puck-possession game that successful teams deploy.
11. Joshua Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets
Joshua Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien should soon become a formidable and frankly terrifying pair on the powerplay. There’s no sense rushing the 19-year-old’s development as he will require some time to acclimate to the pro ranks. His offensive numbers have dipped somewhat in the WHL but there’s plenty of time to turn that around before transitioning full-time with the St. John’s IceCaps next season. His best campaign saw him register 28 goals and 73 points in 59 games. Morrissey’s offensive instincts, smooth skating, and puck-handling abilities will help him secure a spot as a top-four defenseman on the Jets in the near future.
10. Derrick Pouliot, Pittsburgh Penguins
Derrick Pouliot’s elite offensive potential coupled with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ high-octane offense is a match made in heaven. Pouliot has been a scoring machine wherever he plays, producing 17 goals and 70 points in his last season with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. As a rookie in the AHL this season, Pouliot has scored at a near point-per-game pace, an impressive feat for a soon-to-be 21-year-old. While his defensive play is by no means lauded, Pouliot should be coveted for his offensive instincts and penchant for possession play. He and Kris Letang may soon form a deadly pairing on the powerplay.
9. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets
The ninth overall pick in last year’s draft will be an integral part of the Winnipeg Jets’ top-six in no time. Ehlers produced a silly 49 goals and 104 points with the Halifax Mooseheads as a CHL rookie. He is on pace to eclipse that output this season, scoring nearly a goal every game. The 18-year-old has the speed, creativity, and lethal wrist shot to scorch his way to the Jets’ line-up within a couple years. As he matures and adds some bulk to his frame, his offensive output will only improve in the NHL. His potential is off the charts.
8. Anthony Mantha, Detroit Red Wings
Anthony Mantha may be a couple years away, but the 20th overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft has shown steady improvement as a power forward. He went from 51 to 89 to 120 points in his three seasons in the QMJHL with the Val d’Or Foreurs—his goal totals also climbed from 22 to 50 to 57. He’s produced at .50 points-per-game clip in the AHL this season but expect those numbers to improve as he acclimates to the professional ranks. His six-foot-five, 215-pound frame provides him a distinct advantage over the competition and his heavy shot makes him a constant threat in the offensive zone.
7. Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers are salivating at the thought of Darnell Nurse’s potential. At six-foot-four, the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft is physically imposing with two-way ability. The Oilers aren’t starving for offense but they could use a top-pair shutdown defenseman to absorb tougher minutes and relieve some pressure from their goaltenders. He’s currently producing at a point-per-game clip for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL, so his offensive game is right on track. Nurse’s speed is a vital part of his skillset, especially considering his size, which will make his transition to the NHL in a couple years much smoother.
6. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s first round draft selection in 2012 has registered incredible numbers between the pipes—it seems only a matter of time before he starts in front of the Amalie Arena faithful. He posted a career .923 save percentage in 36 games in the KHL for the Ufa Salavat Yulayev. He has since registered an identical save percentage for the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL this season. In his short four-game stint in the NHL, he has a remarkable .937 save percentage, but that is admittedly a small sample size. Vasilevskiy is a technically sound goaltender who’s hard to beat one-on-one. With a six-foot-three, 205-pound frame, there isn’t a weakness to exploit here.
5. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks
In the pre-season, Anaheim Ducks prospect John Gibson was slated to tandem as a starting goaltender for his parent club for the majority of the 2014-15 season. Things didn’t quite pan out for the 21-year-old. He played four games with the Ducks, posting a .927 save percentage, before sustaining a groin injury that led to the signing of back-up goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, to relieve Frederik Andersen. It has since been reported that Gibson will play the majority of the season in the AHL. But make no mistake, Gibson is their goaltender of the future. Besides a 16-game stint with the U.S.National Under-17 Team, he has never registered a save percentage below .919. He’s good. Really good.
4. Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames
Sam Bennett sustained a shoulder injury back in October that has sidelined him for months. He has yet to play a game this season, but the fourth overall pick in 2014 oozes offensive talent—he produced 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games for the Kingston Frontenacs last season. Bennett will almost certainly be evaluated by the Calgary Flames in a nine-game stint when he debuts, but it’s likely he closes out the campaign with the Frontenacs. Despite lacking finesse compared to other top prospects, Bennett has elite potential due to his explosive speed, keen hockey sense, and playmaking abilities.
3. Teuvo Teravainen, Chicago Blackhawks
It’s a tough task cracking the incredibly deep Chicago Blackhawks depth chart, but 20-year-old Teuvo Teravainen has earned himself a look in 2015. The 18th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft has produced 23 points in 33 AHL games for the Rockford IceHogs as a rookie. It’s likely he finds his way back in the minors before making the Blackhawks full-time, but Teravainen’s offensive upside is undeniable despite his small frame. The Blackhawks utilize a puck-possession system that minimizes hits and blocked shots, focusing on sustained pressure, which should mesh well with Teravainen’s skillset and size. The Finnish product will find his way into their top-six soon enough.
2. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander looks like he’ll be able to provide the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first line center they have sought since Mats Sundin departed the club. His offensive production as an 18-year-old in the SHL is on pace to match the league record, held by Markus Naslund and Tomas Sandstrom. He tied for second in the World Junior Championship with 10 points, continuing his development as an offensive center. Expect to see the Swede donning the Leafs sweater next season as their lack of depth down the middle will accelerate his promotion to the NHL. Nylander may be partnered with Phil Kessel sooner rather than later.
1. Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres
The second overall pick of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft barely qualified for this list thanks to the Buffalo Sabres making a shrewd move in sending him back to Junior after a nine-game stint in the NHL. He recently finished up with Team Canada after winning gold and tying for the lead in scoring with 11 points. Reinhart put up gaudy offensive numbers last season with the Kootenay Ice, producing 36 goals and 105 points at 18 years old. He also displays a sound defensive acumen that will quickly propel him up the Sabres’ depth charts, especially as a center.