Neutral Zone Wrap: Catching a shooting star

by | Rotowire.com
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The lockout continues.

A prolonged period of inactivity will catch up to anyone, especially if the anticipation for a resolution exists at any moment. Unfortunately, that silver lining of hope is fading as the weeks pass and yet another tease of negotiations concludes with no known progress. There's no business like no business where there's no business at all. But who really needs the NHL when there are other hockey-related endeavors to follow?

Last time, this column discussed those to watch in the AHL and Europe. This installment will cover a related topic with players involved in the former organization. You want to know who the next big star coming up from the AHL (or other lower leagues). Over the years, we've seen many NHL stars start their quest to professional glory in The A. More recently, examples like Ryan Miller, Claude Giroux and P.A. Parenteau have translated farm-team prowess into big-league success (and eventually, major bankroll).

At the same time, you will also find those like Darren Haydar and Jason Krog who post gaudy numbers but never get a real taste of the high life. These guys either didn't fit the physical profile of an NHLer or lost what little opportunity was provided. Nothing against them, as they're obviously competent players. But there was just something missing.

So if we could predict the next wave of superstars emerging from the AHL, then it would look similar to the following. We'll also check who probably won't make it among the current producers and those who have a chance but the data is still too early to analyze. Anyone who was discussed a couple weeks ago (Justin Schultz, Sven Baertschi, Robin Lehner, Marc-Andre Gragnani) will be omitted so as to avoid redundancy. And we've set a limit of one prospect per NHL system, so keep that in mind:

Next-in-Line

Marcus Foligno, F, Rochester (Buffalo): Foligno made the most of his late-season call-up (13 points in 14 games) and received some power-play duty (three PPPs). He has continued that trend in Rochester (11 in 10). In junior, he was known for being a big, bruising winger who wasn't afraid to use his size. As his career has progressed, so has Foligno's offensive production. While he may never be an NHL star, you can pencil him in as a future consistent 60-point forward.

Mikael Granlund, F, Houston (Minnesota): Granlund stayed in Finland for two more years after his draft selection (9th overall in 2010) and looks to be well worth the wait. A hot start with Houston (an amazing 12 in eight) was cut short by a leg injury, but he should be back with the likes of Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker in no time. Granlund led his Finnish Elite squad in scoring last season as a 19-year-old and has already represented his country twice at the senior level, so there's no telling how high his ceiling can be.

Gustav Nyquist, F, Grand Rapids (Detroit): Unlike the previous two entries, Nyquist wasn't selected until the 121st pick of the 2008 draft. But we all know the Red Wings' luck with later selections (current members Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Holmstrom included), so it's no surprise the University of Maine prodigy (144 in 113!) is being touted as the next piece in the legacy. With Detroit's forward core aging, Nyquist can jump into a top-six role as long as long as he continues to work hard.

Tyler Toffoli, F, Manchester (Los Angeles); One of hockey's purest scoring machines (topped 100 points the last two junior stints) will fit in nicely with the defending Cup champs. Toffoli may not be getting the minutes yet but the stats don't lie (six in nine isn't shabby) and he has the ability to singlehandedly destroy an opponent. And to think he fell to #47 in 2010.

Road to Nowhere in Particular

Jordan Caron, F, Providence (Boston): Caron owns enough NHL experience (71 games) to dominate in the AHL but doesn't quite have the skills to do so (save for a hat-trick versus Manchester). At best, Caron is a third-line forward and/or a role player. But that shouldn't be taken negatively; he should still enjoy a decent career. It just won't be a great one.

Cory Conacher, F, Syracuse (Tampa Bay): Conacher was never drafted and only inked his first professional contract in 2011. The reigning AHL MVP and Rookie of the Year (80 points, 114 PIM) is once again killing it (12 in nine) but raw scoring alone will not ensure glory. While his height (5'8") may be obvious, it isn't his only diminished quality. Although inexperience and bad habits can be corrected over time. Still, it's asking for a lot for Conacher to excel -- let alone survive -- in the NHL.

Nazem Kadri, F, Toronto (Toronto): Ever since Kadri was anointed in Toronto as the can't-miss messiah back in 2009, the expectations have declined as a result of his multiple failed attempts at staying with the Leafs. While no one is complaining about his Marlies record (84 in 100), some have noticed a lack of motivation when pushed. Maybe a permanent move to the wing will relieve the pressure. Or perhaps a further regression awaits.

Magnus Paajarvi, F, Oklahoma City (Edmonton): As was the case with Kadri, Paajarvi hasn't necessarily justified his first-round selection. But unlike the lazy Leaf, the slick Swede has given significant effort while possessing quick hands and tireless legs. The problem with Paajarvi lies with the depth ahead of him at forward in Oil City. Even at OKC, his steady stats (six in 10) are lost amongst Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and even Teemu Hartikainen.

Fence Sitters

Cam Atkinson, F, Springfield (Columbus): Received attention during his abbreviated shift in Columbus (14 in 27, which included five goals in his final two) and a superb overall 2011-12 (58 combined points). A little short (5-foot-7), but that didn't stop him from his initial run. Whether Atkinson can carry this to an 82-game schedule is another question altogether.

Jonathon Blum, D, Milwaukee (Nashville): Going into last season, Blum was touted as a rising star who would continue Nashville's storied lineage of young blueliners. But then reality hit and it was clear the American had a lot to learn. A return trip to Milwaukee obviously helped him focus on his offensive game (four goals, 22 assists in 48). And although Shea Weber is along for the really long ride, the vacancy left by Ryan Suter is there for the taking.

Roman Horak, F, Abbotsford (Calgary): Horak surprised many by making the Flames roster to begin last season. While the speedy Czech didn't excite on the scoresheet (11 in 61), he impressed many by showing a maturity well beyond his age. Centering Jarome Iginla may exist only as a pipe dream for Horak, but it may serve as incentive to improve. And wouldn't you know it, the kid is currently leading the league with 10 goals.

Kyle Palmieri, F, Norfolk (Anaheim): You've probably heard the name. U.S. development/national team legend. World Juniors All-Star. After two legit years at Syracuse (109 in 113), the younger Palmieri seems to be ready to make the leap. Scouts have tabbed him for success, claiming the 21-year old is the complete package: skill, speed, grit, and brains. However, it's not clear whether Ducks management feel the same way.

OK, you may have noticed that of the 12 players mentioned, all but one (Blum) is a forward. That either says the other positions are light on talent or the AHL is not the true barometer for eventual NHL stardom. (I'm going to go with a little bit of both statements. Other rationales are welcome.)

Now that another non-NHL section has been covered, we can only hope the real game starts soon. Stay tuned for more Fantasy analysis and updates, provided we don't run out of material. Help us, Donald Fehr, you're our only hope.

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