It's hard to recall a better time to be a young NHL prospect than right now. Young stars have spent much of the past year making their mark across the league, leaving a competitive Calder Trophy race in which any of Artemi Panarin, Connor McDavid or Shayne Gostisbehere could have reasonably earned the NHL's annual top rookie award (the nod ultimately went to the Blackhawks' Panarin). Notable omissions from the Calder race included Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Max Domi and Colton Parayko, all of whom have star potential. When the NHL playoffs started, it was young phenom goalies like Matt Murray, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Martin Jones who took center stage.
On top of that, the recent 2016 NHL Draft ushered in another wave of budding future talent, led by Auston Matthews, the second once-in-a-generation player to enter the league in as many years after McDavid, and Patrik Laine, a potential 60 goal scorer. The Draft also brought its share of risks, including the Columbus Blue Jackets passing on presumptive No. 3 pick Jesse Puljujarvi to select Pierre-Luc Dubois. As is the case every year, some of these selections will pan out and make team executives look smart, while some won't and might even get some decision-makers fired.
You will hear many interviews in the immediate aftermath of the Draft that feature plenty of back-patting on the part of general managers and much boasting on how teams were successful in getting the guy they wanted all along. Sure, everything seems rosy right now, but the true stories of success and failure won't be fully known for years to come. Still, we develop a pretty good idea over time on just which prospects are navigating their way along a road to stardom and which ones aren't quite emerging as advertised. Here are 10 players that appear poised to fit into each category!
20 Future Bust: Tanner Pearson
At the end of the 2013-14 season, Tanner Pearson was called up to the NHL to help with the Los Angeles Kings' playoff push and thrived, opening eyes with four goals and eight assists for the eventual Stanley Cup champions. It looked like a case of the rich getting richer as the No. 30 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft appeared bound for stardom. But the struggles of the club in the two years since have mirrored their prospect. Just as the Kings haven't won a playoff series since last hoisting the Cup, Pearson has failed to recapture the magic of that playoff run, failing to average so much as half a point per game.
He's only 23, so he has some time left, but we just don't see him becoming what people thought he might.
19 Future Star: Christian Dvorak
This past spring, many hockey observers watched in awe as the OHL's London Knights romped their way to a Memorial Cup title, the highest honor in junior hockey. The Knights were deep, as they always have been, but they also benefited from being anchored by a dynamic top line of potential future NHL stars. Many were already familiar with blue chip prospects Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk, but who was the play-making dynamo in the middle? That would be Christian Dvorak, a smart, creative center who tallied 121 points in just 59 regular season games in London. He also managed 35 points in 18 games during the playoffs. He only adds to the impressive prospect haul currently enjoyed by the Arizona Coyotes, who snapped Dvorak up with the 58th pick in the second round of the 2014 draft.
18 Future Bust: Samuel Morin
Drafted 11th overall in 2013, Samuel Morin stands out like a sore thumb amidst a first round class of which he is one of two players not to reach the NHL. The old "it's still early" refrain applies for a player who won't turn 21 for a few more weeks, but it seems clear that Morin is heading the wrong way on the depth chart of the Philadelphia Flyers. The club has drafted other defensemen in the first round of two of the past three drafts since selecting Morin, including a member of our "future star" team, suggesting that they are still seeking an answer on the blue line. After all, Morin isn't exactly lighting the world on fire after scoring just four goals and collecting 19 points in 76 games with the AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms this past season.
17 Future Star: Jimmy Vesey
The story of Hobey Baker winner and Harvard University standout Jimmy Vesey is an interesting one that has general managers all over the NHL taking notice. Vesey declined to sign with the Nashville Predators, the team that drafted him in 2012. Rules in the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement enable the 23-year-old to become an unrestricted free agent as of August 15th, which has prompted GMs to jockey for position in the Vesey Sweepstakes. To put it in perspective, after skilled veteran defenseman Keith Yandle had his rights traded to Florida for a sixth round draft pick, the trade of Vesey's negotiating rights to Buffalo netted Nashville a third rounder.
16 Future Bust: Michael McLeod
Among the many critiques you'll hear around draft time as scouts poke, prod and nitpick prospects, there are some that are easy to overcome and some that aren't. If you hear about an 18-year-old that is lacking good hockey sense or needs to bulk up, that probably means they are, well, 18 years old and not quite a finished product. Qualities like selfishness and attitude issues, meanwhile, can be resolved but bring about more red flags. While observing Mississauga center Michael McLeod, scouts brought up concerns about his puck handling abilities, a skill that you need to have down to earn gainful NHL employment as a center. The New Jersey Devils seemed non-plussed by the criticism in taking him 12th overall, but they haven't exactly had a great recent track record in drafting offensive talent.
15 Future Star: Esa Lindell
Could a Finnish invasion be upon us? The 2016 draft netted two top four picks who could anchor an impressive talent pool of young Finns that already rein as the defending World Junior champions. Another young Finnish talent who has put himself on the map is puck-moving defenseman Esa Lindell, a Dallas Stars prospect who turned heads after a standout AHL campaign this past season that saw him collect 42 points in 73 games with the Texas Stars. As a mobile 6'3" force, Lindell could be on his way to regular NHL duty sooner rather than later after a four-game cup of coffee last season and the Stars' decision to cut ties with Alex Goligoski this summer. Either way, Lindell looks like a steal as a third round pick (74th overall) in 2012.
14 Future Bust: Jake DeBrusk
It wasn't that long ago that the Boston Bruins had built up a young, deep and controllable roster of talent that looked as though it would keep them in Cup contention for years to come. However, a questionable series of moves undid much of what they had built, most notably the in-their-prime trades of Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. And even when they did stockpile enough draft assets to have a whopping three consecutive mid-first round picks in 2015, they opted to go slightly off the board with all three. It's possible that the selections of Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zachary Senyshyn may all pan out, but that seems unlikely at this point. DeBrusk, for example, barely finished in the top 50 of WHL scoring this past season after an up-and-down campaign.
13 Future Star: Mikko Rantanen
Whether fairly or not, European hockey players often carry a commonly held refrain that they made need time to acclimate to the more physical North American game. That didn't appear to be a problem for Finnish youngster Mikko Rantanen after being taken 10th overall by Colorado in the 2015 draft. After posting modest stats with TPS Turku of Finland's SM-liiga, Rantanen came into his own with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage last season. In just 52 games, the teenager led the team in both goals (24) and points (60). While many amateur prognosticators will surely tout the virtues of Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and other 2016 draftees in this season's Calder race, don't sleep on the Avalanche's skilled Finn.
12 Future Bust: Slater Koekkoek
For a while, it was easy to say that blueliner Slater Koekkoek was a victim of the team that drafted him. The Tampa Bay Lightning, after all, are a deep, talented, Cup-contending squad that, as of now anyway, doesn't have many holes to fill. But that was before injuries to the defensive unit earned Koekkoek a 12 game stint with the team over these past two seasons. In short, he didn't impress. The 10th overall pick in 2012 appeared slow and tentative, registering just one assist along the way. He's 22 now, which still offers plenty of time for a young defenseman to gain his footing in the NHL, but the developmental curve has been a slow one for a player who once scored 53 points in 62 while accumulating a +44 as a member of the Windsor Spitfires. Maybe a chance of scenery is in the cards.
11 Future Star: Dylan Strome
If the Arizona Coyotes prospect cupboard represents a diamond mine of future NHL talent, but Dylan Strome might just be the crown jewel. The dynamic center and No. 3 overall pick in 2015, Strome compiled 37 goals and 111 points over just 56 games with the OHL's Erie Otters this past season. As soon as next fall, he could be flanked by the likes of Max Domi and Anthony Duclair as a player clearly ready for hockey's highest level. He has certainly proven himself to have progressed beyond the OHL, which he turned into his own personal playground by recording 240 points over two seasons. At this stage of his development, Strome might already be superior to older brother Ryan, which is saying something considering Ryan has played 189 NHL games.
10 Future Bust: Nikita Zaitsev
There is no shortage of praise or optimism being shared across Leafs Nation right now in the midst of a promising rebuild that has already seen Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander enter the fold. Coveted KHL transfer Nikita Zaitsev apparently liked what he saw as well, agreeing to arrive in the NHL wearing the blue and white. While scouts and other observers have been quick to shower praise upon Toronto's successful effort to add another building block, questions about the 24-year-old's NHL readiness have been ignored in excitement for the future. There are, however, legitimate questions surrounding the defenseman, particularly how a finesse-oriented player without much of a physical edge will fare in the faster, more physical NHL.
9 Future Star: Ivan Provorov
Earlier in this list, we discussed how Samuel Morin has been surpassed on the Philadelphia Flyers' blue line depth chart by a number of other prospects in the system. First and foremost among those prospects in Russian defenseman Ivan Provorov, whose advanced two-way instincts could see him anchor Philly's back end for years to come. After an impressive 61-point campaign in his debut season with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings, Provorov followed that up with 73 points in 62 games in year two. In between those successful efforts, he helped Russia to back-to-back silver medals at the World Junior Championships, including eight assists in seven games last season.
8 Future Bust: Stefan Matteau
It's been a bumpy road through pro hockey for Stefan Matteau since he was drafted in the first round (29th overall) in 2012 by the New Jersey Devils. After flashing some scoring talents in the QMJHL, no such offensive skill has been on display during parts of three seasons of NHL duty that have produced just three goals. The Devils cut the bait on the son of Stephane Matteau last year, sending him to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Devante Smith-Pelley. Smith-Pelley promptly scored eight goals in 18 games with the Devils, making the trade an immediate win. As for Matteau, he didn't exactly play like a man with something to prove, recording just one assist in 12 games.
7 Future Star: Mitch Marner
How nicely is the Toronto Maple Leafs' rebuild progressing along right now? Even their problems seem to be rather nice ones for an NHL club to have. Take London Knights superstar Mitch Marner, for example. The Leafs' 2015 first round pick led his club to the Memorial Cup by averaging over two points a game in both the regular season and the playoffs en route to earning CHL Player of the Year honors. Essentially, he accomplished everything that he could in junior hockey. But because he remains just 19 years old and won't leave his teens until next May, the club will be forced to choose whether to keep him with the big club or send him back to London, rather than have him down the road from the ACC at the Ricoh Coliseum with the AHL's Toronto Marlies. In the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems for a team to have.
6 Future Bust: Jack Campbell
One of the foremost refrains heard in hockey developmental conversations is that goalies can take time to pan out. But even so, in a period that has seen the sudden emergence of netminders like Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray, there's only so much patience that can be afforded to Jack Campbell. Six years ago, Campbell became the highest goalie draft choice since 2006 when he was taken 11th overall by the Dallas Stars. Since then, he has toiled in the AHL and was even demoted for a couple of stints in the ECHL. His only NHL appearance to date saw him allow six goals on 41 shots in a losing effort he surely hopes to forget. He was recently traded to the Los Angeles Kings for what could be a sorely needed change of scenery.
5 Future Star: Matt Murray
It seems strange to consider the starting goaltender on the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins a prospect, but Matt Murray had played just 13 NHL games before backstopping the Pens to Cup glory this spring. It may be unrealistic to expect Murray to maintain the kind of pace that saw him earn 15 wins in 21 postseason games while sporting a 2.08 GAA and .923 save percentage. However, it seems equally unlikely that the playoff-tested 22-year-old is bound for an ordinary, run of the mill, mediocre NHL career. The former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound has already sparked speculation about Pittsburgh parting ways with former No. 1 overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury ahead of next summer's expansion draft, where it is believed that teams will only be able to protect one goalie.
4 Future Bust: Griffin Reinhart
In 2012, the New York Islanders' selection of Griffin Reinhart with the No. 4 pick of the Entry Draft set off a run of blueliners being snapped up through the rest of the top 10. Of those that came after him, only the aforementioned Slater Koekkoek has played fewer games at the NHL level than Reinhart's meager 37 to date. Indeed, it's been a head-scratcher to see a player who starred for the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings and even won a Memorial Cup struggle so mightily as a pro. Now on his second team after a 2015 Draft Day trade to Edmonton, Reinhart still has yet to pot his first career NHL goal.
3 Future star: Jesse Puljujarvi
Who knows, maybe one day Pierre-Luc Dubois will cement himself as a groundbreaking multi-position forward whose versatility and high end skill make him the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Until then, however, the Blue Jackets and GM Jarmo Kekalainen will have to explain their decision to pass on Jesse Puljujarvi, who scored 17 points in seven games while leading Finland to gold at the World Junior Championships. Though often lost in the Auston Matthews / Patrik Laine discussion, Puljujarvi boasts the size, talent and versatile skill set to be one of the true gems coming out of the 2016 Draft. The Edmonton Oilers may have been ridiculed by some for remaining bad enough to bring in yet another top-six forward prospect, but only Oilers fans will be laughing if the tandem of Puljujarvi and Connor McDavid can find chemistry.
2 Future bust: Patrik Laine
Okay, you might have to hear me out on this one. I've heard all the fawning adulation over Patrik Laine, a gifted sniper who some scouts believe might tally 60 goals in a season one day. The only thing that might stand in Laine's way is Laine, himself. The hyper-talented 18-year-old has already generated headlines for a brash, cocky persona that saw him claim to be the draft's best player and express annoyance over having to grant autograph requests. There was also an incident at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka tournament in which Laine was sent home for flipping his coach the bird and even making an alleged death threat against the coach. How will he fit in Winnipeg, a city some have come to view as something of an outpost? We shall see.
1 Future star: Auston Matthews
One guy you won't hear any such concerns about is the draft's No. 1 pick, Auston Matthews. As a pro in Switzerland last season, the Maple Leafs' long-awaited frontline center scored 46 points in 36 games for Zurich FC, which served as a prelude to an impressive performance for the United States at the World Championships. If it weren't for Connor McDavid coming along last season, the arrival of Matthews would have been seen as the coming of a once-in-a-generation talent. Now, McDavid and Matthews could be poised to engage in this generation's edition of Sidney Crosby vs Alex Ovechkin. Of course, given that they belong to historical sad sack franchises in Edmonton and Toronto, respectively, the chances are good that something might go awry along the way.