Welcome to PHR’s Big Hype Prospects series. Like the MLB Trade Rumors series of the same name, we’re taking a look at the performances of top prospects from across the hockey world. We’ll look at drafted prospects who are rising, others who are struggling, and prospects for the upcoming draft who are notable.
Five Big Hype Prospects
Adam Sykora, LW, New York Rangers (HK Nitra, Tipos Extraliga)
37 GP 8G 12A 20pts
Despite not having a first-round pick at the 2022 NHL draft thanks to their in-season acquisition of Andrew Copp from the Winnipeg Jets, it seems as though the Rangers still managed to nab a quality prospect with their highest pick in the draft, all the way down at 63rd overall.
While fast-rising Montreal Canadiens prospect Lane Hutson has attracted most of the attention for the way he’s laid waste to college hockey in his first season since being drafted, Sykora, the player selected immediately after Huston has had among the most impressive and attention-worthy seasons of the 2022 second-round as well.
With 20 points in 37 games played, Sykora has upped his point-per-game scoring rate from .37 to .54.
That scoring rate puts him third in U21 scoring in Slovakia’s top professional league, and the two players in front of him are aged 21 and 20, respectively. Sykora, on the other hand, is just 18 years old and will have to wait until September to turn 19.
In other words, Sykora is just over a month older than top 2023 draft prospect Adam Fantilli, and is already reaching triple-digit career games played in a solid professional league.
And beyond just his scoring rate, Sykora is one of Nitra’s most relied-upon players, often skating in more than 20 minutes a night and regularly contributing on both special teams units.
Sykora’s best asset is his motor, which is always running to the max on every shift. He’s extremely hard-working and has more skill than one might expect. While he may not end up an overwhelming points producer, it’s easy to see his game being quickly transferrable to North American ice. He was even drafted number-one overall at the 2022 CHL Import Draft, suggesting Canadian junior teams were similarly optimistic about his game’s translatability to the other side of the Atlantic, and he’s already signed to an entry-level deal with the Rangers.
While Nitra hasn’t been a great team as a whole this year, they play HK Poprad in a playoff series later this week and Sykora’s performance there will definitely be something for the Rangers and their fans to pay attention to.
Matvei Michkov, LW, 2023 Draft Prospect (HK Sochi, KHL)
27 GP 9G 11A 2opts (for Sochi)
With Connor Bedard routinely torching competition in the WHL and Fantilli piling up impressive scoring numbers in college hockey, it’s easy to see why they’re regularly viewed as the two main can’t-miss prospects eligible to be selected at the draft in Nashville. But tucked away in the KHL (and under contract there through 2025-26) is Matvei Michkov, who has all the talent to be in the conversation with those other two prospects but is highly unlikely to be a consideration for the top-two picks in the draft.
Michkov’s season began somewhat unevenly. He was playing well, especially at the second-tier VHL level where he scored 14 points in 12 games, but opportunities in the KHL were scarce. His club, SKA St. Petersburg, is regularly among the KHL’s juggernaut teams and could not afford him any sort of regular role. In fact, when he managed to get into the ice for two KHL games, he finished with less than eight total minutes played across both games.
A December loan to HK Sochi, a team that would be able to give him ample ice time, ignited Michkov’s game and gave him a chance to show what he could do in one of the most talent-rich leagues outside the NHL. Michkov ended up playing 27 games for Sochi, and he finished with 20 points in 27 games. While one might note that eight of those points game in two games against the Kunlun Red Star, the KHL’s Chinese club and one of the worst teams in their league, it’s also worth noting that Kunlun won 10 more games this season than Sochi did.
Michkov is a fantastically skilled offensive player and his scoring numbers in the KHL are extremely rare for someone his age to accomplish. Kirill Kaprizov managed just eight points in 31 games in his own draft year, while Alex Ovechkin scored 23 points (more than Michkov) but in 53 games, not the 27 Michkov played for Sochi.
That’s not to say that Michkov is going to have the type of NHL success either of those two players have had — one is an all-time great and the other is looking increasingly like a franchise-defining star — but it does indicate the type of rare talent we’re dealing with here.
While the uncertain timeline of when Michkov would be available to NHL teams will likely hurt him on draft day, as NHL GMs weigh the risks and rewards of investing such high picks in different players, Michkov’s form in Sochi has underscored just how much he belongs in the conversation for the most talented player available at the 2023 draft not named Bedard.
Niko Huuhtanen, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jukurit, Liiga)
45 GP 16G 13A 29pts
While Huuhtanen, 19, was the 2021 NHL draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant” as the last player selected, to borrow from an NFL tradition, he’s quickly reached a point of relevance in the two seasons since earning the moniker. The Lightning saw something in Huuhtanen, a six-foot-two 210-pound winger, and used their last pick on him after he scored 20 goals and 34 points at the Finnish junior level.
He was selected second overall at the 2021 CHL Import Draft, and headed to the WHL to play for the Everett Silvertips the following year. As a later birthdate for the 2021 draft, suspicions that Huuhtanen might be a late-bloomer seemed to be confirmed after his WHL performance, as he became an instant-impact contributor for the Silvertips, and finished with 37 goals and 77 points in 65 games.
This season, Huuhtanen has taken his game even further and is now one of the top scorers for Jukurit, a team in one of the best professional leagues in the world. At just 19 years old, Huuhtanen manged to score 16 goals and 29 points for Jukurit, a total that led all teenage players in Liiga. Huuhtanen plays the type of game that is highly coveted among NHL teams, combining the prototypical power forward’s physical game with goal-scoring ability and some sneaky skill.
According to CapFriendly, the Lightning have all the way until June 1st, 2025 to give Huuhtanen his entry-level deal before losing his exclusive rights. But given the way he’s played the past two years and how pro-ready his game looks, it’s likely that he’ll enter their organization well before that runway ends.
Jeremie Poirier, LHD, Calgary Flames (Calgary, AHL)
53 GP 7G 29A 36pts
Oftentimes it can be a bit of a challenge for skaters (and especially defensemen) who score at the junior level to translate their impressive numbers to the professional level. There’s often the pressure for defensemen to become deferential in their game, to play with a lot more safety and lose the type of risk-taking offensive flair that made them successful at those lower levels. Those challenges can be even more greatly magnified by higher competition level, as the time and space with the puck players are often more easily able to generate at the junior level can quickly evaporate against pros.
For Poirier, a Flames 2020 third-round pick, those challenges have been more than capably met. Fresh off of a Memorial Cup victory with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL, Poirier has stepped into the lineup with the Calgary Wranglers and become their most productive defenseman in his rookie professional season. With 36 points in 53 games, Poirier is not only Calgary’s most productive defenseman, he’s also the most productive defenseman aged 20 or under in the American League.
While the Flames have seemingly deemed him best served playing a full first pro season in the AHL without the potential interruption an NHL call-up would bring, Poirier has quickly played his way into the Flames’ medium-to-long-term blueline plans.
Flames head coach Darryl Sutter is notoriously demanding of his players, and it’s likely that Poirier will need to further refine his defensive game to have success under Sutter. But as far as adjustments from the CHL to NHL go, Poirier’s has been as smooth as one could reasonably have hoped it would be.
Leevi Merilainen, G, Ottawa Senators (Karpat, Liiga)
39 GP 1.94 GAA .920 SV%
While the Ottawa Senators got strong goaltending from Anton Forsberg last season and gave him a $2.75MM AAV contract extension through 2025, the team’s “goalie of the future” remains relatively unclear. Big 2019 second-round pick Mads Sogaard has done quite well in six NHL games, with a 4-0-1 record, 2.33 GAA, and .922 save percentage, but he has just an .898 save percentage in 21 AHL games this season. 22-year-old Kevin Mandolese is a big netminder, but his AHL numbers have been similarly shaky.
While 2020 third-round pick Leevi Merilainen’s uneven play last season in the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs was far from the resounding step towards “goalie of the future” status many were hoping he’d take, his form this season in the Finnish Liiga has been exactly that.
Merilainen has played in 39 games for Karpat this season and currently ranks third among all league netminders with a .920 save percentage. He’s helped Karpat rise to the upper end of Liiga’s standings and has handily outperformed 2020 Pittsburgh Penguins second-rounder Joel Blomqvist. At six-foot-two, 180 pounds Merilainen doesn’t have the imposing size many NHL teams covet in their goalies, but he’s also big enough where size isn’t the sort of underlying concern it is for other prospect goalies.
The Senators signed Merilainen to an entry-level deal in 2021, and could be looking to have him cross the Atlantic and continue his development in their organization next season.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images