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Future Watch 2019: the NHL's top 10 falling prospects

Which NHL-affiliated prospects tumbled the furthest in the rankings this year? More importantly: why?

Earlier this week, I revealed The Hockey News’ top 10 falling prospects from Future Watch 2019. That was the fun part. You can read the list here. It’s always exciting for fans to see which kids have inched closer to breakout pro careers. Now comes the painful part: the fallers list.

First off: a refresher on how we compile the Future Watch list in case you’re a sadist who only likes bad news and didn’t bother reading the risers list.

First, we work with personnel and scouts from around the league, representing almost every franchise, and come up with an updated list of each team’s top 10 prospects not yet in full-time NHL roles. That gives us 310 players total. We then turn that group of 310 over to a hand-picked panel of scouts from around the NHL. They rank all the players, creating an individual list of our top 100 prospects. The same scouting panel also looks at each franchise’s top 10, plus the franchise’s current NHLers aged 21 and younger, and grades each franchise, helping us determine top-31 rankings of the best development systems.

The fallers list highlights members of the top 100 individual prospects who’ve taken the biggest tumbles in the rankings from 2018 to now. It’s important not to immediately panic upon seeing a given kid’s name appear. Sure, in certain cases, a depressed rank reflects a snag in a player’s development and reason for concern. Other times, however, prospects get pushed down the rankings simply because an entire draft class has arrived over the past calendar year, creating more competition. Of our top 25, for instance, 12 are 2018 draftees. Secondly, a crash in the rankings doesn’t always mean a prospect is playing poorly. An injury can be the culprit. Keep those factors in mind before perusing this list of top 2019 fallers. Two disclaimers to remember, as outlined on the risers list: (a) players drafted in 2018 don’t qualify for the fallers list, as they were unranked a year ago and have no comparison point; and (b) remember, if you disagree with the ranks, you are disagreeing with active NHL scouts and executives, as they are the ones voting on the list.

1. KIEFFER BELLOWS, LW, NEW YORK ISLANDERS (-68)
Last year: 25th
This year: 93rd

Bellows, like his NHL father, projected as a dynamic and clutch goal scorer when the Isles made him a top-20 draft pick in 2016. The pro game hasn’t been kind to Kieffer in Year 1, though. He’s managed just 11 goals in 65 games. Playing against men and having to make quicker decisions has proven difficult. He’s not particularly close to debuting in the NHL yet, as the Isles have a deep forward group and Bellows needs to play top-six minutes. Despite the lackluster scoring numbers with AHL Bridgeport, the coaching staff aren’t overly worried. The goals will come. He’s still just 20. What really needs work is his defensive play.

2. GERMAN RUBSTOV, C, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (-56)
Last year: 45th
This year: not ranked in top 100

Here’s a classic case of an injury determining a player’s rank. Rubtsov only played 14 games with AHL Lehigh Valley, notching six goals, before a shoulder injury ended his season. He’s expected back for training camp and could compete for an NHL roster spot because his sturdy two-way game makes him playable in a bottom-six role if necessary. Losing almost a full season to injury is a bummer, sure, but there’s no reason to panic yet about Rubtsov’s future.

3. JAKOB FORSBACKA KARLSSON, C, BOSTON BRUINS (-54)
Last year: 47th
This year: not ranked in top 100

It seemed like the promising two-way pivot had a real chance to break camp with Boston in the NHL, but he ended up cut and has bounced back and forth between Boston and AHL Providence. His defensive acumen remains appealing, but you’d like at least a bit of offense, and it’s been non-existent at either level. The Bruins coaching staff wants ‘JFK’ to be more assertive whether he’s chasing or rushing the puck.

4. NICK MERKLEY, RW, ARIZONA COYOTES (-52)
Last year: 49th
This year: not ranked in top 100

The injuries have been so frequent in Merkley’s short career that it’s difficult not to grow concerned about when the next one will strike. A knee injury cost him any hope of breaking camp with the Coyotes, and he didn’t debut with AHL Tucson until December. He started out hot but has struggled to score the past couple months, though he possesses some intriguing playmaking skill. The Coyotes still aren’t stocked with forward talent at the NHL level, so Merkley still has a chance to be an impact player if he can stay out of the infirmary.

5. LOGAN BROWN, C, OTTAWA SENATORS (-46)
Last year: 23rd
This year: 69th

Here’s the first genuinely surprising entry on the list. He’s big, rangy, with the ceiling to become one of the NHL’s league leaders in assists if things break right. He’s transitioned fairly smoothly in his first full season as a pro, with 40 points in 50 AHL games so far, even earning a two-game cup of coffee. He’s formed a great line with Nick Paul and Drake Batherson. So why the huge plunge in the ranks this year? Brown did miss 14 games early in the season with a knee injury, so it’s suppressed his numbers slightly. All those assists aren’t as sexy as goals, so it’s possible that’s why he slipped under the scouts’ radar. But I’d be lying if I said I understood what happened here. Brown didn’t deserve to drop this much.

6. OLLI JUOLEVI, D, VANCOUVER CANUCKS (-45)
Last year: 21st
This year: 66th

Given the pedigree he promised as the fifth overall pick in 2016, Juolevi obviously feels like a disappointment so far. He had off-season back surgery, and he lasted just 18 games in the AHL this season before season-ending knee surgery. It thus might feel like his development is stunted, but there’s actually been progress in his game. The Canucks are happy with his increased aggressiveness with the puck and smarter decision-making. His mobile, well-rounded game should make him a second-pair defenseman or better in the NHL – just not nearly as soon as the Canucks probably hoped.

7. TIMOTHY LILJEGREN, D, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (-41)
Last year: 33rd
This year: 74th

I see a few reasons for Liljegren falling year over year. Injuries have repeatedly cut into his development time. A high-ankle sprain got him this time around. When I spoke with Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe about Liljegren for Future Watch during the winter, Keefe highlighted a couple areas Liljegren must improve: learning how to use his speed and getting stronger so he can win more battles. Another factor I believe influenced the voting panel: it’s only natural to compare Liljegren with another mobile Swedish defender Toronto picked in the first round: Rasmus Sandin, grabbed 29th overall last spring. He’s surpassed Liljegren in the pecking order already, albeit they play different sides of the blueline, so maybe juxtaposing Liljegren with Sandin has negatively affected Liljegren's rank.

8. ALEX NYLANDER, RW, BUFFALO SABRES, (-41)
Last year: 13th
This year: 54th

The report on Nylander in Future Watch 2019 is pretty damning. One scout said his development has stalled or even declined and called Nylander out for poor play away from the puck. He went hot-cold-hot in the AHL before getting an oh-why-not call-up to the NHL, where he got a look on Jack Eichel’s right wing. A future Selke Trophy winner Nylander ain’t, but maybe a player this nifty is built to play better with high-skill teammates. Might he produce more at the NHL level than the AHL level?

9. MICHAEL MCLEOD, C, NEW JERSEY DEVILS (-39)
Last year: 48th
This year; 87th

The speedy McLeod looked like a promising pick in 2016, but he’s the type of player who’s only going to succeed at the NHL level if he makes it on a scoring line. His game doesn’t work if he’s forced to be a grinder. It’s not a surprise that he’s accomplished next to nothing shoehorned onto the Devils’ grinder lines for 16 games this season. The Devils want him to shoot the puck more and play a more matured, structured game at the pro level, but the talent hasn’t gone anywhere.

10. EVGENY SVECHNIKOV, RW, DETROIT RED WINGS (-36)
Last year: 65th
This year: not ranked in top 100

He’s 22 and was drafted four years ago but hasn’t yet become an impact NHLer, while his teenaged brother Andrei is already a 20-goal scorer. Evgeny showed some flashes in a late call-up last year, but a knee injury has wiped out his entire 2018-19. That’s the primary reason for his tumble out of the top 100. His confidence is an issue at times. In Future Watch 2019, Wings coach Jeff Blashill says Svechnikov can be too hard on himself.

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