We’re at the point of the year where teams have already begun putting together their rosters for next season, with GMs well aware of how their young prospects fared in the AHL. With just two teams remaining — Calder Cup finalists Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves — most prospects have already taken an early vacation before preparing for 2019-20.
That, of course, doesn’t include Martin Necas, one of the top prospects in the AHL. The skilled playmaker is coming off a regular season that saw him post 52 points in 64 games, the most by a teenaged player in the league and fifth among all rookies. Necas is expected to join the Carolina Hurricanes full-time next season after posting two points in a seven-game stint this year and is seen as a key member of the Canes’ youth resurgence that saw them become a Stanley Cup contender this season.
A few of the AHL’s top stars already have shown what they can do in the NHL. Forwards Sam Steel and Troy Terry both earned extensive stays in Anaheim and should claw their way into the Ducks’ top-six full-time next season, while center Lias Andersson should do the same with the New York Rangers. But what about the rest of the crop? Let’s take a look at 10 NHL prospects who will fight for roster spots next season:
Filip Zadina, RW (Detroit Red Wings)
To the uninitiated, Zadina offered much to be concerned about earlier this year. After falling to Detroit at No. 6 at the draft last June, Zadina, 19, had a rough training camp and was sent to Grand Rapids. But in the AHL, Zadina showed great promise, and while he didn’t light up the league and was essentially invisible at the world juniors, Zadina still looks ready for the NHL next year. With 35 points in 59 games, Zadina was the second-highest scoring teenaged player in the AHL and he looked good with three points in nine games with the Red Wings, one of the first teams eliminated from playoff contention. He has the skill, now he needs a consistent pace.
Thatcher Demko, G (Vancouver Canucks)
Fresh off of a run in Slovakia as Team USA’s backup goaltender, Demko is ready to join Jacob Markstrom in Vancouver next year on a full-time basis. The Canucks dressed five goalies this year, with Demko’s .913 save percentage leading all after nine games with the club. If all goes well, Demko, 23, will take over from Markstrom as the club’s starting goalie in 2020-21, but will likely fight for 20-25 starts as the second in command next season. Rebound control has been an issue for Demko in his career, but after kicking off the campaign with a concussion, Demko looked good with the Utica Comets this season and is ready for his next challenge.
Erik Brannstrom, D (Ottawa Senators)
Could Brannstrom become Ottawa’s next superstar? Absolutely, especially after the Senators made him a major part of the Mark Stone deal with Vegas at the trade deadline. Brannstrom had 28 points in 41 contests with the Chicago Wolves and another four assists in nine games with the Belleville Senators, but it was his four goals with Sweden at the world juniors that really made people take notice. Brannstrom is an incredible puck-mover and will be a key member of Ottawa’s promising blueline, especially after how well he played in two games for the Sens.
Eeli Tolvanen, RW (Nashville Predators)
After taking the world by storm in 2017-18, Tolvanen’s return to North America was uninspiring, to say the least. Tolvanen recorded just 35 points in 58 AHL games and had two points in a four-game call-up with the Preds. Given how well Tolvanen was internationally last year, it was surprising to see him finish with no goals and four assists at the world juniors in the winter. But think about it: if you count international tournaments, junior and pro hockey, Tolvanen has played on nearly 20 different teams since 2015, so maybe a bit of extra stability could help. Tolvanen is projected to be a big-time star for the Preds and when the time is right, he’ll get his shot.
Jordan Kyrou, RW (St. Louis Blues)
With three points in 16 games in a limited role with the Blues this year, Kyrou didn’t have much to show for offensively. But after recording nearly a point per game in 47 AHL games with San Antonio, it’s time for Kyrou to get his promotion. He had over 60 assists twice in the AHL and was a crucial member of Canada’s gold-medal squad at the 2018 world juniors, and his potential as a speedy top-six winger is evident.
Klim Kostin, RW (St. Louis Blues)
With two years of AHL hockey on his resume at the age of 20, Kostin has shown signs that he’ll become a solid NHLer. While his two WJC tournaments suggest he has the makings of a goal-scorer, the big, bruising winger looks more like a bottom-six power forward capable of 15 goals a year, and that’s OK. Full of raw skills that make him entertaining to watch, Kostin regressed offensively with San Antonio this year, but, again, offense isn’t the name of his game. If Patrick Maroon or Chris Thorburn leave, the Blues may have an immediate opening for a guy like Kostin next year.
Nic Hague, D (Vegas Golden Knights)
Has Hague done enough to crack Vegas’ roster next season? His playoff run has been fantastic, with nine points in 17 games heading into the Calder Cup final with Chicago. The physical, two-way defenseman is the Golden Knights’ first top defensive prospect in franchise history and really refined his game as the season went on. Even if he doesn’t play full-time, it seems fair to expect he’ll get NHL opportunities next season.
Pavel Francouz, G (Colorado Avalanche)
With Semyon Varlamov expected to hit the open market this summer, it opens up a spot for Francouz to get a shot as Philipp Grubauer’s backup. Signed to a one-year extension during the World Championship, Francouz was the KHL’s top goaltender in 2017-18, and finished this season with a solid .918 SP in his first year with the Colorado Eagles. Francouz proved he could get the job done in Europe and his recent World Championship appearance saw him finish with a 0.77 GAA and .957 SP in three games. In 61 minutes of relief action over two games with the Avs this year, Francouz, 28, looked solid, allowing two goals and holding a .943 SP.
Cal Foote, D (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Tampa Bay is in a bit of a pickle for next season, with just $8.5 million in cap space, and they still have to deal with Brayden Point. But upgrades on defense will also be a focus in the summer, with veterans Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman on the market. This is Foote’s chance to show what he can do: with 31 points in 76 games with Syracuse, Foote, 20, finished sixth among under-21 defensemen in AHL scoring this year. Foote is a big, 6-foot-4 behemoth capable of playing heavy minutes, but he doesn’t need to do that in Tampa Bay next year.
Kailer Yamamoto, RW (Edmonton Oilers)
Yamamoto started the past two seasons with the Oilers, but it’s clear it was too early for the team’s 2017 first-round pick (22nd overall). Whether that hurt his development or not is yet to be seen, but he showed he could at least generate offense in the AHL with 10 goals and 18 points in 27 contests with Bakersfield. With a handful of depth players not returning up front, the small yet speedy Yamamoto has a chance to crack the team full-time after getting extra development under his belt.
Other notables: Logan Brown (C, Ottawa Senators), Drake Batherson (RW, Ottawa Senators), Jake Bean (D, Carolina Hurricanes), Urho Vaakanainen (D, Boston Bruins), Rasmus Sandin (D, Toronto Maple Leafs).
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