It's interesting to wonder about what the NHL All-Star team will look like in 2015. It won't be a whole new cast of stars, that's for sure. Remember, Sidney Crosby will only be 27 years old that year, and he still should be in his prime if he's able to stay healthy. Guys such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will have even fresher legs and you have to figure will be even more accomplished and polished players than they are right now. Still, there will be young guns in that All-Star game, some barely out of their teens, others still in them.
It is with this thought in mind that we offer up this utterly unscientific and completely subjective attempt to project which of today's prospects and young talents will achieve All-Star status four years from now. We've listed prospects below in three categories: first All-stars, second All-Stars and honorable mention.
A fair number of these players are older than Jeff Skinner, the youngest of All-Stars in this weekend's game in Carolina, but we won't bother listing Skinner or other players who are already clearly on the radar. Some players on the list are in their rookie seasons in the NHL, and some are in their second years, but we are still going to include them because they are emerging talents and haven't yet become household names.
Before we get into the list, here are a few observations that resulted from leafing through draft lists, minor league stats and organization depth charts, and sounding out scouts and contacts around various leagues:
1. If the NHL goes to Sochi for the 2014 Olympics, the home side could feature three right wingers who are 24 years old or younger.
2. Five-star special right-wing prospects out number their equally qualified counterparts by about 2-to-1.
3. Goaltending is a crap-shoot and it seems possible, maybe even likely, that there won't be a goaltender under 25 in the 2015 all-star game. An aside: We had John Gibson of the USDT at No. 10 in the last top 50 last week, but that ranking is based more on a projection that a team will reach based on need, much in the same way that the Phoenix Coyotes did in selecting Niagara's Mark Visentin last June. It could just as easily turn out that no goaltender goes in the top 30 this year.
And now, without any further ado, here's my (hypothetical) 2015 All-Star team:
Seguin made a huge step up from his rookie year with Plymouth in the OHL to the next, his draft season. He went from a possible top-10 pick to an entry with Taylor Hall for the top slot. He truly re-invented himself over the course of 12 months. There was almost no way he was going to knock Boston vets out of their slots on the depth chart, not from the get-go, but I'll bet the second half of his 2011-12 season will be better than his first 40 games. And it's not a reach to project that his play will chart the same course in his second NHL season.
Evgeni Kuznetsov, RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
An absolute breakout performance at the World Junior Championships makes the 18-year-old Kuznetsov arguably the easiest choice on the board. He took shifts at center in that tournament, and it's a testament to his talent that he made it look like he had played there all his life. The Washington Capitals did their homework before they spent their pick late in the first round last year on Kuznetsov. If they manage to get him in the fold after next season, they'll deserve an A grade for their foresight.
Taylor Hall, LW, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
Hall is still figuring out the NHL game on a very weak Oilers squad, but anyone who thought he'd carry the team to a .500 record and possible playoff contention probably thought Steven Stamkos was a flop in his rookie year. It will be interesting to see how he does if, like Stamkos in 2009, he goes to the world championships. There aren't five players of any age who match him for speed in a straight line. He'll have someone who can work as a suitable complement on the Canadian WC team and eventually he'll have a center (Sean Couturier? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?) in Edmonton who can deliver the puck to him in flight.
Adam Larsson, D, Skelleftea (SEL)
I could have put Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning as an entry with Larsson, but Hedman's off the list. (You're officially on the radar when you deliver the hit that knocks out the NHL's best player for weeks.) Larsson is ahead of Hedman at this stage, but size might give Hedman an edge in upside. Both will be in the 2015 All-Star game and the foundation of the Swedish team (maybe the best blue-line) at the 2016 Olympics (if the NHL goes to Sochi).
Ryan Murray, D, Everett (WHL)
Gabriel Landeskog's Kitchener teammate Ryan Murphy is the most highly skilled D in this year's draft, but the 2012-eligible Murray bumped him from the Canadian under-18 team last summer. He's almost a lock to be the first D to go in next year's draft. But as one scout notes: "By this time next year the scouts will be picking him apart looking for holes in his game ... and forget how much game he has." Well, maybe, but it might be that they haven't forgotten the talk about Jared Cowen at 16 (an Ottawa first-rounder in 2009 who was ahead of Hedman on some scouts' lists before he suffered a significant knee injury and a major drop in stock).
Jack Campbell, G, Windsor (OHL)
Going through the draft lists and sounding out scouts, Campbell was the name with the fewest question marks attached. It will be an interesting call next year: Will the NHL or AHL be a destination for him at 19, or will he be back in Windsor for a program on the rebound? Windsor looks like the answer here, given a save percentage that has hovered below .890 in his first OHL season after exceptional seasons in the USA Hockey program and a gold-medal winning performance at the 2010 WJC and U-18s. It's probably unfair to expect him to be an All-Star four years down the line but reasonable to project him as a No. 1 in Dallas, as the Stars were very happy with his performance at his first NHL camp last fall. He has huge upside.
Nick Bjugstad, C, Minnesota (NCAA)
A Florida Panthers first-rounder last June, Bjugstad had a bout with mono that hurt his WJC performance, and as a freshman with the Gophers he has seen limited ice time. Still, he's a physical beast who showed best in the USA under-20 camp in the summer.
Nail Yakupov, RW, Sarnia Sting (Ontario Hockey League)
The 17-year-old Russian is on pace for 50 goals and 100 points in the OHL with another season to wait before draft year. I have to believe that he'd be a top-10 pick if he were eligible for the 2011 draft. He brings sensational skating mechanics and speed to the game, and his churn on the ice is like a chainsaw's. He compares very favorably to Sarnia alum Stamkos at 17.
Gabriel Landeskog, LW, Kitchener (OHL)
A contrast to Hall, Landeskog is more bull than cheetah. As stated on this blog in earlier entries, the comparison scouts made at first was to Johan Franzen. That's being reconsidered, with NHL Central Scouting naming him as the top-ranked North American skater in its midterm rankings. He's currently out with a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for the WJC earlier this month. No matter because it's hard to see how he could have further raised his stock in Buffalo.
Erik Gudbranson, D, Kingston (OHL)
The third overall pick by Florida in 2010, Gudbranson had his struggles at the WJC. Now he's under early under suspension. No matte because, as the most physical of the defensemen on this list, Gudbranson was a coin flip to stick with the Panthers coming out of training camp last fall. If all things were equal -- if all dollar and contract concerns were set aside -- he'd be in the NHL right now. Often, players who come very close to sticking during their first trip to NHL training camp struggle (mostly psychologically) when returning to the junior level. It looks like that might be the case here.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Phoenix Coyotes (NHL)
Ekman-Larsson would have been the best defenseman at the WJC if the Coyotes had released him to the Swedish team. It's debatable whether his development is best advanced by being in the third pair in the desert, rather than a top-two D in the SEL. By 2015, everything will have come out in the wash, and he'll be in the top pairing in Phoenix. The notion that Hedman would be a XXXL version of Nicklas Lidstrom seems somewhat misplaced. Hedman might be a first All-Star but he is a different package than the best defensemen of his generation. Ekman-Larsson is the more reasonable Lidstrom facsimile.
Jacob Markstrom, G, Rochester (AHL)
Another Panther, Markstrom is physically the most impressive player on this list. He had a save percentage of over .900 in his first season in North America, carrying the load with Florida's affiliate at age 20. Again, as with Campbell, it's not fair of us to expect him to be in the All-Star Game in 2015, but the way the universe has unfolded at this point indicates he'll be a No. 1 by then.
Ryan Johansen, C, Portland (WHL)
The Columbus Blue Jackets' first-rounder (fourth overall) had just one major junior season before last year's draft, but he showed all kinds of upside with the Canadian team at the WJC. Nobody's stock shot up as sharply as Johansen's did last year.
Alexander Burmistrov, C, Atlanta Thrashers (NHL)
His favorite player is Pavel Datsyuk, but Burmistrov is arguably ahead of him at the same stage. Burmistrov at 19, with just one year of Canadian major junior behind him, has five goals in 52 NHL games. Datsyuk at age 19 had five goals in 42 KHL games.
Jordan Eberle, RW, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
Eberle is a clutch performer who combines a high hockey IQ with a flair for the dramatic, even though he's not the most dynamic physical package and doesn't have a skill set and pure-skating ability that will blow you away.
Nino Niederreiter, RW, Portland (WHL)
Let's set aside a disappointing 2011 WJC for the Islanders' first-rounder last June. He tore up the 2010 tournament as a draft-eligible player, and he only missed falling into the 2011 draft by a few days.
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, HC Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
Tarasenko is only a shade less impressive than Kuznetsov at the WJC. That he wore the K (translates to C, for "Captain") suggests he can be a leader and not a follower for the St Louis Blues, if and when they get him on the NHL side of the Atlantic.
OK, Benn is well into his second NHL season and scored 22 goals as a rookie. He's roughly on that pace again this year (might be down for a bit with a shoulder injury). His reason for being on this list: Benn is older than some but he was drafted out of the BCHL, a level lower than major junior, and moved up to the NHL after two WHL seasons in Kelowna. In other words, he's still an evolving player.
Sven Baertschi, LW, Portland (WHL)
Not as physically dynamic as teammate and Swiss countryman Niederreiter, some scouts believe he'll be the better NHLer because of his high hockey IQ. He's probably one of the three smartest prospects in this year's draft.
Jeremy Morin, LW, Rockford-Chicago (AHL-NHL)
Great hands and scoring instinct. Morin gets knocked by some for being one-dimensional, but if you're going to have one dimension, finishing is the best one to have.
Matt Dumba, D, Red Deer (WHL)
Draft-eligible in 2012, he should arrive no later than 2014. Dumba recently led the World U-17 Challenge in scoring, averaging two points per game. He wasn't just the leading scorer on the blue line, he tallied the most at any position.
Tim Erixon, D, Skelleftea (SEL)
The most impressive defenseman at the WJC, Erixon is getting more shifts than Larsson on Skelleftea's first power play.
Dmitri Kulikov, D, Florida (NHL)
Making the jump from the Q to the NHL at 18 last season, he brings an impressive skill set and intuitive feel for the game. He'll be a nice complement to Gudbranson down the line.
Robin Lehner, G, Binghamton-Ottawa (AHL-NHL)
Another massive Swede, Lehner is a year younger than Markstrom but even bigger and on an accelerated learning curve. Crying need has rushed him to the Ottawa Senators, hopefully not too soon for his own good.
Matt Hackett, G, Houston (AHL)
The nephew of former NHLer Jeff Hackett, this 20-year-old owns a 2.47 goals-against and .913 save percentage in his rookie season in the AHL. He didn't develop conventionally, as he was given up on by Windsor in his second season with the Spitfires and unloaded to Plymouth, then went undrafted in his first year of eligibility and followed that up by playing lights-out. Conventionally, no goaltender on this list should be in the All-Star Game in 2015, so it might be Hackett, the guy with the record of explosive progress, who ends up passing the rest.