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Future Watch 2016: the NHL's top 10 rising prospects

Matt Larkin
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Jimmy Vesey (Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

News

Future Watch 2016: the NHL's top 10 rising prospects

Matt Larkin
By:

Which NHL-affiliated prospects have made the biggest jump in The Hockey News' annual Future Watch rankings? The No. 1 guy is Harvard educated.

Feels like Christmas in the THN office. Future Watch, my personal favorite yearly edition of our magazine, hits newsstands any day now. I like to think of it as our prospect bible.

So how does it work? We start by consulting scouts from all 30 NHL franchises, who rank their organizations' top 10 prospects who are not yet full-time NHLers, creating a pool of 300 players. We turn that list over to our scouting panel, which typically consists of 15 executives, head scouts and GMs, with the number fluctuating slightly year to year. Each member ranks the top 50 players from the group of 300. We then assemble the votes to create an aggregate top 50, which expands to the top 75 players who received top-50 votes.

From 2014 to 2015, Anthony Duclair and Shea Theodore were the big movers, and the newfound love from scouts has proven warranted given both players' ascensions in the past year. Which players made the biggest jump in overall rank between Future Watch 2015 and 2016?

Here are the top 10 rising prospects. Keep in mind that players drafted in 2015 and debuting in the ranks this year don't count, nor do players who have graduated to full-time NHL duty.

1. Jimmy Vesey, LW, Nashville Predators (+62)
Last year: not ranked
This year: 14th overall

The Preds and our scouting panel are so on high on Vesey that they believe he's more or less ready to play in the NHL right now. He was a Hobey Baker finalist with Harvard in his junior year, 2015, after igniting for 32 goals and 58 points in 37 games. He returned for his senior season rather than turning pro, and he famously explained why in this outstanding Players' Tribune story. He's been just as good this year despite the fact the secret is very much out on him. He has 21 goals and 41 points in 28 games. Nashville has gotten Vesey to focus more on his diet and conditioning, better fuelling his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame. He's a deadly scorer with a strong hockey IQ, and he's a good passer.

We might get to know Vesey, 22, on a much bigger stage very soon. Nashville GM David Poile stated this week he had Vesey in mind at the trade deadline and didn't want to fill up a spot on the roster Vesey might occupy in the stretch run and playoffs after the NCAA season ends. Think Chris Kreider in 2012, when he joined the New York Rangers for the playoffs.

2. Nick Schmaltz, C, Chicago Blackhawks (+50)
Last year: Not ranked
This year: 26th

Centers drafted in the first round who play at the University of North Dakota tend to pan out well for the Chicago Blackhawks. Cough, Jonathan Toews, cough. Schmaltz, 19, is a super playmaker and averages close to an assist per game at UND. He's been dynamite centering Drake Caggiula and Brock Boeser, another Future Watch darling, on the Fighting Hawks' top line. With the Blackhawks still a dominant team in win-now mode, there's no massive rush to make Schmaltz leave school yet. He might spend another year in the NCAA, though his older brother Jordan has decided to turn pro.

3. Jake Walman, D, St. Louis Blues (+41)
Last year: Not ranked
This year: 35th

Poor Walman has made more headlines for quirky off-ice exploits than for his achievements on it of late, as he was famously cursed leading up to the 2016 World Junior Championship. As a dual citizen, he opted to play for USA, but the IIHF ruled him ineligible. Canada then accepted him, but he hurt his shoulder and missed the tournament. Time to put that snafu aside and focus on the good. Walman, 20, is an outstandingly poised and slick puck-moving defenseman. He's also proven he can put the puck in the net. He had one goal in 41 games all last season and tripled that this season in one October game with a hat trick. Walman has 13 goals in 27 games with Providence College.

4. Jon Gillies, G, Calgary Flames (+39)
Last year: Not ranked
This year: 37th

Gillies started his first season as a pro goaltender strongly, posting a .920 save percentage in seven games with AHL Stockton, before he was shut down for the year, requiring hip surgery. He's expected to recover in time for Calgary's 2016-17 training camp. It's tempting to wonder if Gillies, 22, will push for an NHL roster spot, especially since the Flames have zero goalies signed yet for next season, but the injury should prevent that from happening. Gillies will likely get at least another half season to develop and shoulder a starter's workload. He's 6-foot-6 but blessed with the athleticism of a smaller man.

5. Christian Dvorak, C, Arizona Coyotes (+38)
Last year: 48th
This year: 10th

Dvorak has successfully shed any notion that he's simply benefited from great linemates in OHL London, from Max Domi to Mitch Marner. Dvorak, 20, has developed into an excellent player in his own right with a different set of skills. He can generate eye-popping offensive totals but is also a highly respected two-way pivot. That latter tool in his belt could earn Dvorak a long look with the Coyotes next fall. General manager Don Maloney calls Dvorak a "front runner for a spot next year" in Future Watch 2016.

6. Matt Murray, G, Pittsburgh Penguins (+37)
Last year: Not ranked
This year: 39th

Murray has made a mockery of the AHL. In his first full pro season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he posted a 1.58 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in 40 games and also set the 80-year-old league's record for the longest shutout streak of all-time. He's been almost as good this season and has little left to prove at the AHL level, as evidenced by his five-game taste of the NHL in 2015-16. I spoke at length with GM Jim Rutherford about Murray's development a few weeks ago, and Rutherford couldn't say enough good things about him. He truly believes Murray, 21, is good enough to be a full-time big-leaguer now but would rather see the prized prospect get far more reps in the AHL. Murray needs to fill out his wiry 6-foot-4, 178-pound frame but remains a promising player. It was no surprise to see him named to Team North America for the World Cup.

7. Vladislav Kamenev, C, Nashville Predators (+31)
Last year: 52
This year: 21

Think Artem Anisimov. Kamenev, 19, is a rangy two-way center who can do a little bit of everything and has toiled on the Milwaukee Admirals' third line for much of this season. He also captained Team Russia at the 2016 world juniors. The Preds organization wants more consistency out of him, but his 200-foot game gives him a better chance at a call-up sooner rather than later.

8. Michael McCarron, C, Montreal Canadiens (+29)
Last year: Not ranked
This year: 47th

McCarron, 20, epitomizes the adage that big guys take longer to grow into their bodies. He had trouble finding the net once he was traded to OHL Oshawa last season but showed signs of life in the playoffs and won a Memorial Cup. He flashed plenty of ability in his first pro season with AHL St. John's and will finish 2015-16 with the Habs. He's already shown enough, especially in the toughness department, to earn a second-line assignment from coach Michel Therrien.

9. Brayden Point, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (+28)
Last year: Not ranked
This year: 48th

He's a heart-and-soul player, undersized but tenacious, and the points have really started piling up in major junior for him. The Lightning are convinced they stole Point, 19, with a "small guy discount" 79th overall at the 2014 draft.

10. Adrian Kempe, LW, Los Angeles Kings (+26)
Last year: 45th
This year: 19th

Doesn't it just feel like Kempe, 19, is a shoo-in to succeed in the Kings' winning organization? He's mature for his age, he's strong, he's tough to knock off the puck and he's not afraid to play a gritty game. Sure sounds like Kings material to me.

Stay tuned next week for a follow-up blog detailing, gulp, the biggest Future Watch fallers in 2016.

Future Watch 2016, the world’s most authoritative hockey prospect guide, is available for purchase here.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

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Future Watch 2016: the NHL's top 10 rising prospects