While the NHL postseason is in high drive, most other leagues have wrapped up and plenty of top prospects have finished out their seasons. During the past nine months there have been notable prospects who have made significant strides forward in their development. So as teams prepare to add to their rosters with the upcoming NHL draft and free agency, some may already have prospects in their pipeline ready to make a jump next season.
Based on my observations and discussions with industry sources, here are some of the notable prospects who made some of the biggest improvements this season. As a note, this doesn't include players who got regular NHL playing time. That's why, for example, a player like Senators G Robin Lehner is featured but Avalanche D Tyson Barrie is not.
W Riley Barber, Washington Capitals (Miami University-NCAA): Barber was the Capitals' sixth-round pick in 2012 and elevated his prospect stock significantly this season. He was a CCHA First Team All-Star as a freshman and got the conference's final Rookie of the Year award. Barber did everything for Miami, logging tough minutes and generating a lot of offense. He also exhibited some of his offensive tools for Team USA in their gold-medal effort in the World Junior Championships. One season after being drafted, Barber looks like a top-45 selection, as opposed to a sixth-rounder.
W Martin Frk, Detroit Red Wings (Halifax-QMJHL): On a junior hockey team that features elite 2013 draft prospects Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, the resurgence of the vowel-less winger has also been a key part of Halifax's success. Frk was underwhelming in his draft season, notching less than a point per game, but this season he put up 84 points in 56 games and was at nearly two points per game in a lengthy playoff run. "He's back to being a top prospect," said one pro scout. Improvements in his skating, decision-making and work level have contributed to his success, to go along with the skill and elite shot that have always made him interesting.
D Oscar Klefbom, Edmonton Oilers (Farjestad-SWE): After Farjestad lost Jonas Brodin to Minnesota and the NHL, Klefbom needed to step up in his absence. Klefbom had yet to have a good season in the Swedish Elite League but showed good signs at the end of the 2011-12 campaign. He did injure his shoulder and miss a significant portion of this season, but when he played he was lights out. One Swedish scout said, "He was dominant with a simple game." Another source added he looked like a potential top-pairing NHL defenseman down the line. Klefbom's a top-end defender, with great mobility and physical attributes. With how much his all-around game has progressed, Edmonton seems to have another great, young piece to add to its elite core. Klefbom could challenge for an NHL spot next season with a player like Ryan Whitney -- who has struggled in Edmonton -- likely to depart.
G Robin Lehner, Ottawa Senators (Ottawa-NHL): For years Lehner has been touted as a gifted goaltender but had yet to put it all together in a full season in North America. It all came together during the 2012-13 campaign. Lehner has been a brick wall in the AHL and during brief appearances in the NHL. He's a big (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) goaltender with the athletic tools of an agile goalie half his size. He recovers quickly, generates a lot of power from his feet and shows good puck-tracking skills. Some small nitpicks with Lehner may be he's not perfectly refined yet and could learn to be a little more technical. But when you're stopping 93-94 percent of shots faced, it doesn't seem to be that much of an issue.
W Dmitrij Jaskin, St. Louis Blues (Moncton-QMJHL): Jaskin struggled in his first post-draft season in 2011-12 as his numbers and ice time dipped in the Czech pro league. That season scouts I talked to were very tepid about Jaskin's potential. This season, when he came to North America to play for Moncton, Jaskin looked fantastic in the QMJHL and at the World Juniors. He improved his conditioning and his hockey sense took a step forward, as Jaskin processed the game quicker and with more creativity. When you add that to a big frame and willingness to use it, Jaskin looks like a scoring power forward at the top level who may be a regular for St. Louis as soon as next season.
W Brett Ritchie, Dallas Stars (Niagara-OHL): Ritchie had a gigantic 19-year-old season in the OHL, where he took significant steps forward and arguably emerged as a top-50 drafted prospect. Ritchie's always been seen a toolsy forward because he's 6-3 with offensive talent, but he was seen as inconsistent. Scouts have noted this season that he's brought it every night, has been a physical force and has improved his skating. When you combine all of that you get what NHL teams dream of, a big, talented winger who plays hard.
W Jimmy Vesey, Nashville Predators (Harvard-NCAA): Vesey was a third-round pick by Nashville last season out of the EJHL (where he was the league MVP) after going undrafted the season before. Vesey not only made the USA World Junior team, but worked his way up into a top-six role in the tournament. One NHL source went as far as to call Vesey Nashville's best offensive prospect after the newly-acquired Filip Forsberg. He has a lot of tools between his high-end hockey sense, good skill level and the fact his skating has shown notable development. Vesey's 18 points in 27 games may not seem great, but keep in mind Harvard was bad this season, and 18 points was good for third on the team.
W Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild (Houston-AHL): Throughout Zucker's key prospect years there's been debate among scouts I've talked to as to whether he has the ability to be a scoring-line player or if he would be a third-line player in the NHL. He's always produced, but his skill set tends toward a great energy/checking type of forward. This season he left few doubts, with a brilliant rookie pro season and making a good case to be called a top-100 drafted prospect. Zucker notched nearly a point per game, averaging nearly four shots per game, and was one of the AHL's top scorers prior to an NHL call-up. He has high-end speed, grit and shooting skill to combine with his developing offensive ability.
Other prospects trending up
D Mattias Backman, Detroit
D Adam Clendening,Chicago
D Frank Corrado, Vancouver
D Christian Djoos, Washington
W Charles Hudon, Montreal
D Michael Matheson, Florida
D Mark Pysyk, Buffalo
D Damon Severson, New Jersey
C Vincent Trocheck, Florida
D Jamieson Oleksiak, Dallas
This column is not meant to encompass every prospect who had a good season, so if you have any questions about a player mentioned above or not profiled, feel free to leave a comment below.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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