Every year it seems like we hear about the next great hockey talent tearing it up in a rink somewhere around the world. Like clockwork, people start the hype machine rolling on some 13-year-old kid from B.C. or a 14-year-old mastering his craft in Michigan.
While some of these reports have their merit, and a gem—who ultimately goes on to become a future NHL superstar—is found, prospects often end up as just another good hockey player in a vast landscape of future NHL hopefuls.
As we reflect on the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, there looks to be no sure NHL superstar to speak of. Centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins does have the best chance out of the pack to become a perennial NHL All-Star and franchise cornerstone, but his potential falls a little short of becoming the next Stamkos, Crosby or Ovechkin.
In 2012 we see a few high-end prospects with the potential to become the next great NHL scorers. The top choice is ultra skilled forward Nail Yakupov, who came into the OHL as a rookie this past season and proceeded to put up 49 goals and over a hundred points on a bad Sarnia Sting team. Impressive numbers indeed for a kid not yet draft eligible.
Also, for those looking for something new and shiny in 2012 to patrol the back-end, you will be able to take your pick from a handful of superstars in the making. The year 2012 really has the potential to be the next great draft.
Looking forward towards the 2013 draft, there are two potential gems to keep a close eye on.
Often compared to Sidney Crosby, due to his home town and choice of hockey locals, forward Nathan MacKinnon is a prospect worth keeping an eye on. A Cole Harbour product, same as Sid the Kid, MacKinnon decided to take his game to Shattuck St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota after destroying his junior hockey leagues growing up: the same route that Crosby took. He looks to be drafted first overall by Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the QMJHL draft this year, just as Crosby was the unanimous first selection in his draft year. The comparisons are unavoidable no matter how unfair they might be.
This is not where the similarities end as MacKinnon shares the same strong work ethic, competitiveness and a similar frame to the Penguins star. One should not jump to conclusions even with all these similarities because while MacKinnon is a skilled prospect, he is still not the talent that Sidney Crosby was at the same age and will likely not attain the same type of stardom that Crosby has as the NHL’s marquee athlete.
What MacKinnon is, however, is strong for his size: a swift skating forward that can put the puck in the net with a shot that is better than most and with a slight nastiness to his game that Crosby does not possess. His natural instincts, hockey sense and vision are what really separate him from the pack.
“Nathan is a hard working, skillful player and he has chance to be a real good player [at the next level],” Shattuck St. Mary’s director of hockey Tom Ward said.
Also eligible for the 2013 draft is a defenceman who might be the best to come along since the 2008 draft when Drew Doughty went second overall to Los Angeles.
United States National Development Team Under-18 squad defenceman Seth Jones has the makings of a high-end two-way defender with a nice blend of skill, size and mobility all wrapped up in a package that includes some impressive bloodlines. His father Ronald “Popeye” Jones was a longtime NBA basketball player and has passed along those athletic genes to his son.
The six-foot-four—but skinny—Jones plays a calm, poised game that exudes maturity where he makes smart plays and does so with a Nicklas Lidstrom-like effortlessness. He skates well with a long and strong stride, sees the ice very well and moves the puck in transition very accurately and quickly.
Former NHL player Danton Cole, now Jones coach in Ann Arbor, also believes he has a special talent developing under his watch.
“Seth is an outstanding player with a tremendous maturity for the game for his age,” Cole said. “He is an excellent leader and a truly outstanding young man. I can see Seth anchoring a blue line in the NHL for many years.”
The Plato, TX. native was drafted by the Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League but decided to keep his NCAA eligibility open by playing with the US NDTP. He will be making a decision next year whether to commit to a Division I school or play with the Silvertips.
Even further in the future, eligible for the 2014 NHL draft, we find another prospect that has a chance to be something really special.
Already granted Exceptional Status to the Ontario Hockey League, a year before normal eligibility, and drafted by the Barrie Colts in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection, defenceman Aaron Ekblad has many talent evaluators in the industry sitting up to take notice.
Despite the baby face, Ekblad had the look of a man playing among boys this season with the Sun County AAA minor midgets Panthers. The six-foot-three and far from done growing defender plays the game with a higher hockey sense than most and vision far superior than anyone in his age group.
The Belle River, ON. native is a solid two-way defender who plays a strong offensive game without sacrificing anything defensively. His on ice maturity and hockey IQ are off the charts and Ekblad has shown that he knows how to use his large frame to his advantage.
His former coach Frank Evola thinks Ekblad is a special talent.
“Aaron has all the tools,” Evola said. “He’s mature, he’s poised and his hockey IQ is off the charts. There are not too many boys of his stature that skate like him. He does everything very, very well in every aspect of the game.”
Ekblad is the type of defender who comes along every once in a while that seems to do everything well and has no perceived weakness in his game. His shot is like a rocket and his hands are soft with the puck on his blade. He skates so well with outstanding mobility and recovery speed, especially with his age and impressive size.
Ekblad is definitely one to watch as his draft year is still a couple of years away. He has unbelievable potential especially if his development trajectory continues and his game, as well as his physical abilities, continue to develop between now and June 2014.
One thing is for sure, when you analyze the next few drafts, there are plenty of potential NHL superstars on the horizon.
Dan Stewart is the scouting director of Future Considerations and can be found on Twitter. For all the latest Future Considerations news and posts, follow FC’s Official Twitter Feed, on YouTube and on Facebook!