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Ranking the Golden Knights’ top prospects

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Vegas’ organizational pipeline continues to grow. Here’s how the prospects stack up.

NHL: NHL Draft David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Knights continue to add to an already-impressive group of prospects, and the amount of untapped potential in the organization is exciting. With two drafts in the books and a full year’s worth of development, we’ve had a chance to evaluate Vegas’ prospect pool, and there’s a lot of talent in the well.

For the purposes of this article, the term “prospect” refers to any player in the pipeline who has not yet played the 18 NHL games required to validate a rookie season. That means AHL players, players in the juniors, players in Europe and even players with NHL experience all qualify, as long as they have played fewer than 18 games at the NHL level.

The following rankings are based on potential and where these players are right now in their development, at least in this writer’s eyes.

Skaters

1. Erik Brannstrom, D

Brannstrom was the only prospect among Vegas’ 2017 draft picks who played against grown men last season. As a member of HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League, Brannstrom posted two goals, 13 assists and 15 points in 44 games. This was good for 33rd overall among defensemen in the SHL, and he trailed only Rasmus Dahlin (selected first overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft) among teenage defensemen.

Brannstrom also posted three goals and five points in five playoff games in the J20 SuperElit, and he won the SuperElit playoff MVP award. That’s pretty damn good for pick number 16 in the 2017 draft. It’s also a sign of solid progress in his development, and it could serve as an omen for future success for the 18-year-old.

2. Nick Suzuki, C

Suzuki had almost as many points and more goals in a better junior league than Cody Glass, whom many consider to be Vegas’ top overall offensive prospect. Yes, Suzuki is a scorer while Glass is more of a two-way center, but Suzuki is excellent at what he does, and he is one of the best in his draft class.

Suzuki finished fourth in scoring and tied for third in goals in the OHL last season, posting 42 goals and 100 points in 64 games. He managed a 1.09 points-per-game average in the playoffs, good for 32nd overall, with 12 points in 11 contests. Suzuki was effective on the power play (seven goals, 21 assists) and on the penalty kill (five goals, two assists). He won 52.6 percent of his faceoffs and generated 282 shots in 64 games, showing great metrics for a young center. Suzuki also took home the William Hanley Memorial Trophy as Most Sportsmanlike Player, winning the award for the second straight year.

3. Cody Glass, C

Glass had two more points than Suzuki in the same number of games, but he did it in the less competitive WHL as a member of the Portland Winterhawks. Not surprisingly, the majority of his points were assists, as Glass is a two-way playmaker at center compared to the more offensively-inclined Suzuki.

With 37 goals and 102 points, Glass finished tied for sixth in scoring in the WHL, fifth in assists (65) and eighth in points per game (1.59). He fell off mightily in the playoffs, however, tying for 38th in points per game (1.08) with 13 points in 12 games, and 28th in assists (9). A major factor in that was Glass’ drop-off in production off the scoreboard; he went from 263 shots in 64 games (4.11 shots per game) to 40 in 13 (3.08). Glass also faced a drop-off in power-play production, going from 37 points in 64 games (a 0.58 points-per-game rate) to five in 13 (0.38).

4. Nicolas Hague, D

Hague is a classic stay-at-home defenseman, a huge, lurking defensive presence who can shut down the opponent, excel on the penalty kill and find ways to set up plays. He’s also got a booming slap shot, though he’ll need more practice refining that at the professional level. He was named the CHL’s Superstore Defenceman of the Year this past season, scoring 35 goals and 78 points in 67 games.

Hague also won the Max Kominsky Trophy as the OHL’s Defenceman of the Year, scored the most goals by a defenseman (35) and was part of the OHL’s First All-Star Team. All of that from the fourth member of the Knights’ blue chippers and a second-round pick. Not bad.

5. Ben Jones, C

Jones was a steal from the get-go as a seventh-round pick. He posted 50 points in 63 games in his draft year and then followed that up with 79 points in 68 games with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL this past season. He’s a solid two-way forward, and he could be considered a cleaner, more talented version of someone like Andrew Shaw — he brings energy to every game and can be an excellent forward in both zones.

Jones is also the net-front presence the Knights need for the future. He skates fairly well and can win battles along the boards, go to the dirty areas and capitalize on rebounds. He won a hearty chunk of his faceoffs (55 percent in the regular season, 51.4 percent in the playoffs) and can capitalize on chances generated off faceoff wins as well.

6. Lucas Elvenes, C

Elvenes, a 2017 fifth-round pick, played for Rogle BK of the SHL last year but also played 22 games with IK Oskarshamn of the HockeyAllsvenskan, the second-best league in Sweden. It’s Elvenes’ vision and creativity as a passer that stand out in his game, and he used that ability to tally the most assists by a teenager in the HockeyAllsvenskan with 17 assists in 22 games. He also recorded 11 assists in 28 SHL games.

That being said, Elvenes struggles to score goals. He managed just nine total in 50 combined games between the two leagues last year. However, as a natural passer, it’s possible his instinct is simply not to shoot. It might be better to bring him to the AHL and see how he does against American competition, especially if Brannstrom comes over (since the two competed in the World Juniors together).

7. Jake Bischoff, D

Bischoff is an excellent rearguard who, by the end of last season, had become the Chicago Wolves’ best defenseman. When Deryk Engelland’s time with the Golden Knights is over, Bischoff is the most likely internal candidate to take over his top-five role as an extremely versatile and adept defenseman in both ends.

While Bischoff didn’t score a goal until Jan. 21 last season, he went on to score seven in his next 27 games, which is quite good for a stingy defenseman who is better in his own end. Bischoff excelled at cutting off plays rather than setting them up but still finished with 23 points.

8. Ivan Morozov, C

Morozov was drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft, Vegas’ first selection in the draft. He has a ton of natural talent as a passer and two-way center, and he impressed in the MHL (Russia’s development league) with 11 goals and 23 points in 30 games. But he likely needs time to shine on a bigger platform before getting better stats behind him. As such, he’s got a long way to go to become a pro player in North America, starting with making the transition to North American ice. That doesn’t seem likely in the next year or two, and he’s more likely to play games in the KHL than the AHL this season. Still, he could be playing with Nikita Gusev, which would be excellent for his development (and a potential factor in getting Gusev to the Golden Knights).

9. Keegan Kolesar, RW

The 2017-18 season was a tough one for Kolesar. After starting out the season without a goal until the middle of January (he scored just one point, a shorthanded assist, in that time), Kolesar returned from a stint in the ECHL with a vengeance, scoring five goals and 12 points in 25 games, a 0.48 points-per-game pace, which would rank in the top-100 among AHL rookies. It’s still not great production, but it’s a much better sample for the young winger, especially in a depth role.

Kolesar also showed up in the playoffs and was one of the few Wolves to do so. He made a statement with his goal in a wild Game 3 against the Rockford IceHogs, which reached triple overtime. He was one of the most competitive players on the Wolves roster throughout that run, and he never let the difficult situation get the best of him.

10. Jack Dugan, LW

Dugan is the prospect on this list I am least confident about. A big reason for that is his age; Dugan is now 20 after getting drafted at age 19, and he’s just going to the NCAA now. He’s older than a good chunk of his competition, like he was in the USHL, which might skew his numbers again next season.

Still, what Dugan did last season in the USHL was impressive. He was a First Team All-Star and finished third in scoring with 66 points (31 goals, 35 assists) and ninth in points per game (1.22). Dugan showed why, even as an overager, he was worth a look in Vegas’ first draft. Even if his competition is younger than he is, going to the NCAA will let him face tougher opponents and help showcase how truly talented he is.

Goaltenders

1. Oscar Dansk

Dansk stepped up when the Golden Knights needed him to in the regular season, posting a 1.78 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in four games and three starts. Those were terrific numbers and were the best among Golden Knights goaltenders (though the sample size was obviously tiny). But Dansk was also the best AHL goaltender in the Knights’ system (at least in the regular season). He was named the AHL’s goaltender of the month in March after posting a 6-1-2 record with a 1.75 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.

Dansk went 13-3-4 in the AHL last season; setting aside the one start he made before heading to the NHL (and then getting injured), Dansk was 13-3-3. That’s a terrific record, especially for a rookie netminder. Assuming everyone stays healthy, this season will determine whether Dansk is the real deal or the beneficiary of limited sample sizes.

2. Dylan Ferguson

Ferguson played in an NHL game at 18, which is very rare for goaltenders. Was it under extenuating circumstances? Yes. But the fact remains that he has played in the NHL, which is something the other Golden Knights prospective goaltenders cannot say; NHL experience is NHL experience.

The young goaltender started 59 games for the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL and posted a 2.95 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. For his first full season as a starter, those numbers aren’t bad. They’re not as strong as his 2016-17 numbers (2.74 goals-against average, .922 save percentage in 31 games), but the massive adjustment of going from a backup to a starter with a heavy workload could cause some tremors as he continues to build.

3. Maxim Zhukov

Zhukov became the first-ever goaltender to be drafted by the Golden Knights when Vegas selected him in the fourth round (96th overall) of the 2017 draft. Zhukov had a good draft season, posting a 2.25 goals-against average and .913 save percentage as a backup in the USHL. Unfortunately, his numbers dipped when he took over the starter’s role (2.45 goals-against average, .909 save percentage in 22 games).

Still, as we’ve seen with Ferguson, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and Zhukov clearly has the potential to recover. Besides, those numbers were still good for ninth overall in goals-against average and 10th in save percentage in the USHL. Zhukov also got his first taste of the playoffs, where he managed a 3.60 goals-against average and .882 save percentage in two games (good for ninth overall in goals-against average and 12th in save percentage among USHL goalies).