BY JEFF ANGUS
The American Hockey League is a fantastic developmental league. It is very rare that a top young prospect will play in the NHL without getting his feet wet professionally in the AHL (notable exceptions include Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos). Most young hockey players spend some time on an AHL team as a right of passage to the NHL.
And with the lockout of 2012, the AHL has been home to some fantastic hockey this season. Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, and the rest of the young Oilers were dominant when playing for Oklahoma City (Eberle and Schultz still rank third and sixth in league scoring, respectively). Several other top young NHLers suited up for their team’s AHL affiliates, including Cody Hodgson, Zack Kassian, Nazem Kadri, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
All of those top young prospects are now playing full-time in the NHL, but there are still some impressive young players competing for a regular spot on an NHL roster. Here are five young guys who’s names you will be hearing more and more.
TYLER TOFFOLI – MANCHESTER MONARCHS (LA KINGS)
Detroit Red Wings at Los Angeles Kings (-175, 5)
Drafted – 2nd round (47th overall) in 2010
Notable Number – 26 goals in 51 games
Toffoli is a natural goal scorer. He scored 109 goals during his final two OHL seasons, and he is currently second in goal scoring in the AHL. And with the Simon Gagne trade, he is likely next in line for a shot at a top nine wing spot with the Kings.
For now, the Kings are going to go with eight defensemen, as they have several young guys adjusting to life in the NHL. However, don’t be surprised to see Toffoli get the call up at some point over the next few weeks. His quick adjustment to the AHL (this is his first season of pro hockey) has been very impressive, and he is ready to prove himself against the best in the world. Not many reigning Stanley Cup champs have the luxury of being able to call up a sniper like Toffoli from the farm.
JASON ZUCKER – HOUSTON AEROS (MINNESOTA WILD)
Minnesota Wild at Phoenix Coyotes (-150, 5)
Drafted – 2nd round (59th overall) in 2010
Notable Number – 41 points in 47 games
Throughout Zucker’s college career at Denver, he was compared to current Minnesota teammate Zach Parise. Like Parise, Zucker isn’t very big (5-11 and 185 pounds). However, he competes hard and plays a tenacious and complete game, also like Parise. And now that the two players are in the same organization, look for Parise to take on a leadership/mentor role with Zucker and the other young Minnesota players.
Zucker was having a very strong rookie pro season down in Houston (19 goals so far in 2012-13) before the Wild called him up a few weeks ago. He is going to be a very good NHL player for a very long time – his versatility will enable him to play a variety of roles. Zucker is one of the better prospects in the Wild organization, and they have arguably the best collection of prospects in hockey (Florida is in the discussion too).
His first NHL goal was a thing of beauty:
NINO NIEDERREITER – BRIDGEPORT SOUND TIGERS (NY ISLANDERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs at NY Islanders (-150, 5.5)
Drafted – 1st round (5th overall) in 2010
Notable Number – 22 goals in 51 games
After a very disappointing rookie season on Long Island in 2011-12 (seriously – one goal and no assists in 55 games, to go along with a minus-29 rating), Niederreiter needed some time to find his game and get some confidence back. Mission accomplished. He should be in the NHL right now, but the Islanders are reluctant to have to pay him his rookie salary (he wasn’t even invited to training camp). Things became a bit uncomfortable in January when Niederreiter apparently asked the Islanders for a trade, but that issue appears to have died down – for now.
In the long run, spending the entire season in the AHL will benefit Niederreiter tremendously. He is very strong and powerful (think Marian Hossa) with the puck on his stick, and he makes it tough on opposing defensemen because of his size (6-2, 210 pounds) and puck protection abilities.
The Islanders have deservedly received some criticism for their handling of the former fifth overall draft pick. Many speculate they kept him around last year as a struggling rookie to use his inflated rookie salary (high first round picks have a lot of bonuses that count against the cap) to stay above the salary cap floor. And this season, now that they are above the floor (thanks Tim Thomas!), they have no need for Niederreiter (except, you know… to score goals and win games).
RYAN SPOONER – PROVIDENCE BRUINS (BOSTON BRUINS)
Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins (-225, 5)
Drafted – 2nd round (45th overall) in 2010
Notable Number – Only eight PIM in 43 games
The rich get richer – Boston has a few talented young forwards in the system, but none are closer to making the NHL than Spooner. The former OHL star isn’t very big, but he is a really smart player. As a rookie pro this season, he has been Providence’s most dangerous forward on many nights. And his lack of size won’t be a huge issue on Boston, as the team has enough size to open up lots of ice for the smaller skilled guys (like Spooner).
The Bruins have most of their offensive forwards locked up for a few years. Nathan Horton is set to become a free agent this summer, but Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Brad Marchand are all signed through at least 2014. Spooner will have to fight hard to earn a full-time spot on such a deep and talented team.
MATT FRASER – TEXAS STARS (DALLAS STARS)
Drafted – signed as a free agent out of the WHL
Notable Number: 24 goals in 51 games
The fact that Fraser was never drafted is pretty astounding. Sure, he wasn’t the best defensive forward during his WHL career, and he wasn’t the fastest skater, but he put the puck in the net better than most of his peers.
The 22-year-old winger has been a phenomenal scorer in pro hockey, too. Fraser had 37 goals last year in the AHL with Texas, and he had 24 goals in 51 games in 2012-13 before getting the call up to Dallas. He has looked good in the NHL, finding open ice to use his shot, and playing a big game and helping Dallas to establish the cycle game (their best weapon with so many big forwards).
Players like Fraser are great examples of how far hard work can carry a player. Getting passed over at multiple NHL drafts has to be a tough pill to swallow, especially for a player who had such a solid WHL career (Fraser’s best play came during Kootenay’s Memorial Cup run back in 2011 – he scored 17 goals in only 19 postseason games).
The first of many NHL goals – Fraser shows off his heavy shot: