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Future Watch 2021: The NHL's Top 10 Rising Prospects

It's been a strange and difficult year for player development, but some youngsters have improved significantly year over year regardless. Which NHL-affiliated prospects caught our scouts' eyes the most?

Future Watch 2021 is now available on newsstands and for digital purchase (and free if you subscribe now), and it might end up being a fascinating keepsake. There’s a chance it’ll go down as the strangest edition of our annual ranking of NHL farm systems and individual prospects.

The kids simply aren’t on equal footing this season thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some waited deep into the winter to play AHL games. Those in Eastern and Western Canada saw major-junior action, while OHL prospects didn't, with some seeking action overseas or as underagers in the AHL. It’s much tougher than normal to evaluate prospects’ futures because so many are playing far fewer games than normal and/or not playing where they’d normally play at their given ages, and it’s possible the perceptions of their talent will change drastically from this year to next as a result.

For now, though: we’re here to help. Before diving into our top 10 rising prospects of the year, here’s a refresher on how Future Watch gets made:

Future Watch is an annual special edition of The Hockey News in which we (a) grade every NHL franchise’s pool of 21-and-younger talent, from players in the system to youngsters on the NHL rosters and (b) rank the top 100 NHL-affiliated individual prospects, with “NHL-affiliated” referring to all drafted or signed players in a team’s system. A 2021 draft hopeful such as Owen Power doesn’t qualify as he doesn’t have an NHL team yet.

How do we build these rankings? First, we work with NHL team personnel 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. We deliver that group of 310 to a panel of scouts and/or high-ranking team executives from around the NHL. They rank all 310 players, and we blend the results to create 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.

Why do the 21-and-younger NHLers count as part of a team’s “farm”? Well, if a team’s youth development is so effective that its young guns are jumping right to the NHL while another franchise’s prospects marinate in the minors, the team whose prospects are ahead of the curve should not be “punished” in the rankings, should it? An NHL team wants to have elite players aged 21 or younger if they’re ready. Game-breaking kids like Brady Tkachuk and Jason Robertson should count toward their team’s youth-crop rankings given they are younger than many prospects.

So which Future Watch prospects have managed to impress our scouts the most and climb in the rankings over the past year? A few disclaimers to better understand the risers list:

(a) A player who fully graduated to the NHL since Future Watch 2020 isn’t eligible for this list, as he’s not even ranked in Future Watch 2021. Kirill Kaprizov, last year’s No. 4 overall prospect, is a prime example.

(b) Just because your favorite team’s prospect had a great year doesn’t mean he’s an automatic riser. Take Trevor Zegras, whom I’ve profiled in the Future Watch 2021 magazine. He’s our No. 1 overall prospect this year, but he was No. 2 last year, meaning he only climbed one spot year over year. This list is about players who made significant developmental leaps.

(c) A player drafted in 2020 can’t qualify as a riser. So don’t panic over not seeing Lucas Raymond or Cole Perfetti in these rankings, for instance. They weren’t ranked at all in 2020, as they weren’t drafted yet, so they have no number to rise from.

(d) The January start to the NHL season had a strange effect on what defines a prospect. Our scouts turn their final ballots in after the World Junior Championship each year, and the NHL season is normally almost half finished by then. The 2020-21 campaign hadn’t even started by the time ballots were submitted this year, meaning some youngsters with yet-to-be-defined roles at the NHL level appeared as “prospects,” most notably Robertson and Jake Oettinger in Dallas. I’ve omitted them from the risers list for that reason.

On to the list!


Last year: not ranked in top 100
This year: 69th

Last season’s Jason Zucker trade was Bill Guerin’s first as Wild GM, and it’s aged well. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Minnesota a first-round pick, deferred to this season’s draft, plus Addison, a player with whom Guerin was familiar because he was the Penguins’ assistant GM until 2019. Addison brings dynamic puck-moving talent to the table while not being a liability in the defensive zone. He keeps being promoted, and he keeps scoring – in major junior, the 2020 Canadian world junior squad and, this season, the AHL’s Iowa Wild, where he picked up six goals and 18 points in 24 games. He ‘s even jumped up for three games of NHL duty. The Wild feel his smarts and competitiveness more than trump his below-average size at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds.


Last year: 74th
This year: 43rd

The Flames have too often been called out for listless play this season. Pelletier, then, will soon provide a helpful tonic in the form of tremendous character, competitiveness and natural leadership skills. He can do a little bit of everything. With shifty puck skills, a good shot and strong playmaking ability, he’s a balanced offensive weapon worthy of his first-round draft status in 2019, but he handles any assignment thrown at him, including shutdown duty for Canada at the 2021 WJC. Because he’s so versatile, he doesn’t have to immediately play on a scoring line to make the Flames. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him break camp with them in 2021-22.


Last year: 47th
This year: 21st 

The 2020 WJC snub from Team USA might be the best thing that ever happened to Boldy. He heated up down the stretch in his freshman year at Boston College, and he’s lit it up in 2020-21 wherever he plays. He averaged well north of a point per game in his sophomore campaign at BC. He was a crucial contributor on Team USA’s 2021 gold-medal squad at the WJC with five goals in seven games. He’s transitioned smoothly to the AHL, continuing to score at a premium rate. He’s just a pure scorer wherever he plays, and it appears the Wild got a steal when they picked him 12th overall in 2019.


Last year: 98th
This year: 74th

A fully healthy season has let Berggren spread his, er, wings and show his true potential. He played more games in the Swedish League this season than he had in the previous two seasons combined, and he showed off some extremely slick playmaking skills with Skelleftea, finishing second in the league in assists. He’s a second-rounder from the 2018 draft shaping up to deliver first-round value.


Last year: 90th
This year: 68th 

Perunovich will go the entire 2020-21 season without playing, as he was on the Blues’ taxi squad and had season-ending shoulder surgery in February. So how did he rise year over year? Well, he won a little award called the Hobey Baker between Future Watch 2020 and Future Watch 2021, adding to a loaded NCAA trophy case that includes two national championships with Minnesota-Duluth. The Blues have a template for him to follow in Torey Krug. That’s whom they want and expect Perunovich to be: a gifted puck-mover who plays with a snarl that belies his small build.


Last year: not ranked in top 100
This year: 81st

Predators fans already know what it’s like to see Roman Josi take over games as puck-moving “rover” defenseman, and Farrance has a similarly exciting skill set. He piled up 59 points in 45 games over his final two seasons at Boston College and turned pro last month. He’s already gotten one game of NHL experience. The long-term question is whether he’ll be more of a one-way threat than a responsible two-way defenseman, but his talent is undeniable.


Last year: not ranked in top 100
This year: 83rd

It’s strange to see a jump for a player projected to be a checker and one who has spent time as a fourth-liner even in the AHL, but Rees likely got a bump from our scouts because his odds of making the NHL are so high. He plays an intense, team-first game that makes him a perfect fit for Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour’s mentality. Rees has been playing the wing and should become an effective bottom-sixer in the NHL within the next couple years.


Last year: not ranked in top 100
This year: 84th

Even though he’s in the process of stealing the 1B goaltending job from Jaroslav Halak in Boston as we speak, Swayman still makes the list because he’s only seven games into his NHL career. Igor Shesterkin made the list last year under similar conditions. Swayman was technically a fourth-stringer when the 2020-21 campaign started, but Tuukka Rask hurt his back, Halak got COVID-19 and No. 3 Dan Vladar was inconsistent. Swayman, who won the Mike Richter Award in the NCAA and immediately looked dominant in the AHL to start this season, kept the momentum going. He’s been a revelation on a surging Bruins team and, with Rask and Halak both UFAs this off-season, Swayman’s play will force GM Don Sweeney to make some difficult decisions. Swayman's work ethic, quiet technique and calm body language inspire confidence in his teammates.


Last year: 49th
This year: 32nd

Projecting out the Flyers’ long-term core on defense: Ivan Provorov leads the way, and it’s easy to picture Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers for years to come, but Shayne Gostisbehere no longer feels locked into that future. York, who captained Team USA to gold at the 2021 WJC, will eventually become a crucial player in Philadelphia. Growing up in Anaheim, he played youth hockey with Scott Niedermayer as a coach, and the Flyers hope York matures into similar player: slick with the puck but also tidy and cerebral, limiting mistakes will still driving the play.


Last year: 67th
This year: 51st

The world juniors’ influence on our scouting panels is always present, but it was even more significant this year with the hockey calendar not really launching until after the tourney. So Kaliyev is the third member of the 2021 USA gold squad to make the risers list. Goals are the name of his game thanks to excellent shot. With Anze Kopitar locked up long-term, Gabe Vilardi entrenched as an NHLer and elite-level prospects Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte in L.A.’s long-term plans, Kaliyev won’t have trouble finding someone to pass him the puck. He needs to improve his play without the puck, but he possesses a tantalizing ceiling.


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