As someone who has scouted, worked with and helped develop NHL prospects the past 13 years, I can tell you that the only certainty when it comes to projecting future success is this: There is no certainty.
That's why I felt pretty good that seven of my Top 10 Prospects from 2011 not only graduated to the "bigs" but had solid debut seasons in the NHL. At least two of the three who didn't reach the league last season -- Mikael Granlund and Vladimir Tarasenko -- almost certainly will do so when the NHL resumes play.
But there are no guarantees. In compiling this ranking, I'm making my best guess as to which prospects have the highest ceiling in terms of NHL success and the best chance of reaching that ceiling based on what I've seen from them before and after their selection in the draft. To be clear, that's a different methodology from the one I used when I recently assessed prospects' likelihood to crack Neil Greenberg's Top 25 Under 25 rankings. For the purposes of this list, we also define a prospect as a player who has yet to start the clock on his entry-level contract. So if you're clamoring for New York Rangers rookie Chris Kreider, you won't find him here -- although colleague Craig Custance discusses him in detail in his blog.
I'm sure opinions will vary when it comes to prospects' position on this list. Heck, even within an organization, opinions on a prospect can differ greatly. Add in the entirety of the Internet and I'm quite confident there will be some disagreements. As always, please feel free to respond in the comments and I'll do my best to reply. (I'll also note that civility often encourages a response. Just something to keep in mind before you vent.)
The hardest part in sorting through these players is also the most exciting part for fans -- there is so, so much young talent en route to the NHL. In fact, there's a great chance we'll see a significant portion of this list in action quite soon. However, it will be a little while longer before we see my No. 1 prospect in an NHL sweater, which should keep Washington Capitals fans waiting with bated breath.
Note: Player ages as of Oct. 17, 2012.
1. C/RW Evgeny Kuznetsov
Washington Capitals (Traktor Chelyabinsk, KHL), 20 years old
Drafted: No. 26, 2010
NHL success appears imminent for Kuznetsov; it's just a matter of getting him over to North America. Although making the transition from the KHL to the NHL should not be taken lightly, I believe this world-class, skilled forward will have a major impact upon arrival. His dimensional skating is just one of many assets that make him a dangerous offensive threat. In the past 12 months, he posted 41 points in 49 games for Traktor Chelyabinsk, then tacked on nine more in 12 playoff games. On the international stage, he led the Russians to a silver medal at the 2012 world junior championship (13 points in 7 games), then helped his older countrymen -- including future Washington teammate Alex Ovechkin -- to a gold at the world championship, chipping in six points over 10 games.