By Mo Cranker
With the end of the regular season, over half of the teams in the NHL are gearing up for what they hope will be an extended playoff run.
For the teams that miss, though, it’s more about reflecting on a failed season and looking forward to and preparing for the next season.
Whichever side your team falls on, there’s probably going to be an open roster spot, or two, ripe for the taking due to players retiring, free agency or trades.
Here’s a list of 10 prospects that are ready to earn a roster spot and make an impact on their big league club next season.
1) Dylan Strome, C, Coyotes, 3rd overall in 2015
Heading into this season, Strome had very little he needed to prove. He very likely could have made the Coyotes this year and fit in well to the NHL game. Arizona decided to give him one more year of seasoning, and it was probably the right call. The Coyotes are fairly deep at center with Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette eating a lot of minutes. The extra year in junior has allowed Strome to put up another dominant season in the OHL. This year in Erie, the spotlight was on him since Connor McDavid was in the NHL. After the OHL playoffs, and possibly the Memorial Cup, Strome will have his sights on playing significant minutes between the likes of Max Domi and Anthony Duclair.
2) Pavel Zacha, C, Devils, 6th overall in 2015
Although the Devils were in the NHL playoff picture for about two thirds of the season, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that they aren’t still in the midst of a rebuild. The Devils have very little depth upfront, especially at center. Zacha and the Sarnia Sting lost once again in the first round this season, but in seven playoff games, Zacha posted six goals and 13 points. Going forward, Zacha will be given every opportunity to play top-line minutes with the Devils and if he reaches his potential, New Jersey could win big after selecting as high as they did.
3) Mitch Marner, C, Maple Leafs, 4th overall in 2015
Yes, we’re all well aware that Marner is not 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. But we also know for the past two seasons in the OHL, and in the playoffs for that matter, Marner has scored at an incredible two-points per-game pace. Marner’s point totals are up there with John Tavares and Steven Stamkos during their time in the OHL. Making the Maple Leafs roster should not be a challenge for Marner, considering the lack of depth at center, skill and scoring right now. If Marner can find chemistry with the likes of William Nylander, Zach Hyman or Kasperi Kapanen, he could play his way into a spot on the Maple Leafs for more than just a nine game tryout.
4) Mikko Rantanen, RW, Avalanche, 10th overall in 2015
When it came time to make their selection at last year’s draft, the Avs were faced with a pretty nice win-win situation. Lawson Crouse or Mikko Rantanen? The Avs settled on Rantanen, and he has not disappointed. Although he didn’t register a point in nine NHL games this year, the Finn has scored over a point-per game in the AHL – this being his first taste year of North American pro hockey. Although the Avs top six is not full of vacancies, Rantanen’s big frame is something they are clearly missing right now, and if he can work on maturing his game this offseason, Rantanen will have an opportunity to play big minutes in Denver.
5) Kevin Fiala, LW, Predators, 11th overall in 2014
I would be letting myself down if I did not mention the fact that the Preds could have drafted Dylan Larkin in 2014 instead of Fiala. Now that it’s out of my system, if we look at the Preds top six, we can see a lack of scoring. As amazing as Filip Forsberg has been for Nashville, he, James Neal and Ryan Johansen could use one more scoring threat alongside them. If Fiala can step-up, the spot is his -- especially considering that Preds top prospect, Jimmy Vesey is heading to free agency. In his second year of North American pro hockey, Fiala got off to a very slow start, but heated up and decided to decline his invite to the World Junior Hockey Championship this season. It appeared to be the correct call as Fiala now has 50 points in 64 games for the Milwaukee Admirals.
6) Lawson Crouse, LW, Panthers, 11th overall in 2015
Once the Avs went with Rantanen, Panthers GM Dale Tallon had with a no-brainer. Crouse was ranked as high as 5th overall by some scouts because of his size, skating ability and overall game. Although the 6-foot-4 manchild did not make the Cats this year, he had a career year for Kingston in the OHL. With Crouse likely playing his last game in junior, could we see a similar situation to Sam Bennett last season, where Crouse gets called up for the Panthers’ playoff run? We’ll just have to wait and see, but next season Crouse will be on the Panthers. He will likely play a smaller role than most on this list in the 2016-17 season. Crouse will place in the Panthers’ bottom six, likely on the third line with 6-foot-6 center Nick Bjugstad. That would be a very big and fast line that would compliment the Panthers’ top six very well.
7) Michael Dal Colle LW, Islanders, 5th overall in 2014
The Islanders took Dal Colle ahead of some very skilled players in Nikolaj Ehlers and William Nylander, and it was beginning to look like a mistake this season while Dal Colle wasn’t even registering a point per game for Oshawa in the OHL. Dal Colle was then traded to Kingston, a team with a much deeper roster and his offensive numbers skyrocketed, thus easing the minds of Islanders’ fans. This year has proven that Dal Colle may not have the ability to carry an offense on his own, but if he has some talent surrounding him – he can be a very effective player. Luckily for New York and Dal Colle, the Islanders have John Tavares centering their top line, so Dal Colle will never be counted on to be “the guy.” With Kyle Okposo likely leaving New York for this year’s highest bidder in free agency, there will likely be a gaping, wide-open spot in the Islanders top-six, why not Dal Colle?
8) Derrick Pouliot, D, Penguins, 8th overall in 2012
Although Pouliot has played 56 games in the NHL, he has yet to make the impact that has been expected of him. In those games, Pouliot has put up two goals and 14 points, but hasn’t been able to stick around long term like the other D-man the Pens drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft, Olli Maatta. Pouliot has shown over and over that he can produce in the AHL. This year he has posted 23 points in 37 games, last year he put up 24 points in 31 games. The Pens salary cap situation next season is pretty tight, and it is likely that Ben Lovejoy will seek a raise as a free agent that Pittsburgh cannot afford. If Pouliot impresses at Pens training camp next season he should be able to play his way into the Pens not all that deep defense for good.
9) Ivan Provorov, D, Flyers, 7th overall in 2015
The Flyers drafted Provorov to add some speed and skill to their back end at last year’s draft. This year, rookie Shayne Gostisbehere exploded for 46 points in 64 games in his rookie season. If anything, this is a good thing for Provorov. After another year with Brandon, Provorov has once again put up stellar offensive numbers, with 73 points in 62 games. With nothing left to prove in junior, Provorov will likely make the jump to the NHL next year, and since Gostisbehere is the go-to offensive guy on Philly’s defense, Provorov will get to learn the defensive side of the game, playing easier minutes and not being relied on too heavily to put up points.
10) Kyle Connor, LW, Jets, 17th overall in 2015
Going into the 2015 draft no one was sure where Kyle Connor was going to be selected. Some thought he had top 10 talent, whereas others had him as a mid-low first rounder. When Boston passed on him with their three consecutive first-rounders, it really opened things up. Now, just one year after the draft, Connor looks to be the steal of the year at the 17th pick. In his first year of NCAA hockey, Connor posted ridiculous numbers. In 38 games, Connor scored 35 goals, and a total of 71 points. Connor actually scored at a higher points-per-game pace than Jack Eichel did during his first year of NCAA play. With the Jets being in rebuild mode, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for Connor to play his way into Winnipeg’s top six. Placing someone with Connor’s high-end puck skills on a line with the likes of Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers or Mark Scheifele is probably a pretty pleasant thought for Jets’ fans out there. With an ELC signed look for Connor to jump into Winnipeg’s lineup and stay there.