Nikolaj Ehlers (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
A steady pipeline of young players is the lifeblood of the league, so which kids impressed the most this season? Our prospect expert chooses one prospect from each NHL franchise as his winner for 2014-15.
Prospects are the lifeblood of the NHL, especially in an era where free agency is dying thanks to talent retention of top stars. But who really stood out this season? Welcome to the first-ever Prospect of the Year awards.
To qualify, a player must still have Calder Trophy eligibility for next season, so excellent youngsters like Detroit's Teemu Pulkkinen or Boston's David Pastrnak don't count. The winners below have impressed me with what they accomplished at their particular level of development – otherwise, it would just be a list of older prospects from the AHL who are on the cusp of NHL jobs.
Let's do this:
Anaheim: Shea Theodore – The talented two-way defenseman was excellent at the world juniors for Canada, a staple for WHL Seattle and huge in his limited AHL stints.
Arizona: Max Domi – Another world junior hero, Domi also put up nearly two points per game with the OHL's London Knights and did so as an award-winning captain.
Boston: Zane McIntyre – Edges out fellow goalie Malcolm Subban on the strength of McIntyre's Mike Richter Award as the best netminder in NCAA hockey.
Buffalo: Sam Reinhart – His faceoff prowess locked up Canada's WJC gold medal and he averaged about an assist per game in the WHL with Kootenay.
Calgary: Jon Gillies – The big netminder helped Providence College to a national title by fending off Jack Eichel's Terriers, plus he led the conference in GAA and save percentage.
Carolina: Lucas Wallmark – The Canes just signed this playmaking Swede to his rookie contract. Wallmark helped Lulea win Europe's Champions League title.
Chicago: Nick Schmaltz – Edging out Ville Pokka for the Hawks award, Schmaltz was one of North Dakota's top scorers as a college freshman – not easy on that squad.
Colorado: Kyle Wood – The towering defenseman continued his great work for OHL North Bay and once again upped his production in the playoffs.
Columbus: Oliver Bjorkstrand – Not only was he lightning for Denmark at the world juniors, but he once again put up a ton of points for WHL Portland.
Dallas: Esa Lindell – Tough category with Cole Ully having a great run, but Lindell was named best defenseman in Finland's Liiga, the nation's top circuit.
Detroit: Axel Holmstrom – Another squeaker thanks to Dylan Larkin, but Holmstrom led Skelleftea to the Swedish League final and no one had more points in the post-season.
Edmonton: Darnell Nurse – He was a monster at the world juniors on a pairing with Theodore and nearly a point-per-gamer with OHL Sault Ste. Marie.
Florida: Evan Cowley – His net work with Denver helped the Pios land an NCAA tournament berth after knocking off two higher seeds in the conference playdown
Los Angeles: Alec Dillon – He'll be with WHL Edmonton next season after wrecking the USHL with Tri-City. His 2.27 GAA was the best on the circuit.
Minnesota: Alex Tuch – The Boston College freshman led the Eagles in scoring thanks to his power forward frame and heavy shot.
Montreal: Martin Reway – Nikita Scherbak was another option here, but Reway gets the edge thanks to his WJC bronze performance for underdog Slovakia.
Nashville: Jimmy Vesey – The Harvard sniper scored nearly a goal-per-game and was advanced enough to join Team USA's bronze-winning World Championship squad.
New Jersey: John Quenneville – Playing for high-octane Brandon in the WHL, Joel's second cousin put up a point-per-game in the playoffs, going all the way to the final.
New York Islanders: Michael Dal Colle – His Oshawa squad went all the way, hoisting the Memorial Cup. Dal Colle put up huge numbers throughout the season.
New York Rangers: Adam Tambellini – Steve's kid was almost unstoppable for WHL Calgary in the post-season with 26 points in 16 contests.
Ottawa: Tobias Lindberg – Another OHL Oshawa kid, the Swedish import had a breakthrough offensive season as a North American rookie.
Philadelphia: Travis Sanheim – He'll be key to Canada's WJC team in 2016. Big, puck-moving D-man rang up numbers for WHL Calgary.
Pittsburgh: Matt Murray – The AHL rookie netminder consistenly baffled the competition, setting a league shutout streak record and being named goalie of the year.
St. Louis: Ivan Barbashev – He was a workhorse for silver-medal Russia at the world juniors and huge in the playoffs for QMJHL Moncton.
San Jose: Kevin Labanc – Tripled his offensive output year-over-year with OHL Barrie, ringing up an outstanding 107 points as a premier playmaker.
Tampa Bay: Anthony DeAngelo – A mid-season trade from Sarnia to the Soo didn't hurt the offensive D-man, who was named OHL and CHL defenseman of the year.
Toronto: William Nylander – Once he got adjusted to the AHL, he was fire. Slightly better points-per-game rate than AHL rookie leader Connor Brown, another candidate.
Vancouver: Cole Cassels – His post-season shutdown work against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl was excellent, plus he still scored a bunch for OHL Oshawa.
Washington: Madison Bowey – A do-it-all defenseman for WHL Kelowna, Bowey captained the Rockets to a WHL title and Memorial Cup final appearance.
Winnipeg: Nikolaj Ehlers – Several worthy candidates for Jets, but Ehlers was sublime for Denmark at world juniors and deadly for QMJHL Halifax.