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Impact rookie forwards for 2013-14

8/14/2013

With training camps set to open in about a month, talented young prospects are using whatever time left of their summer holiday to best prepare physically and mentally for the tough task ahead. Some will do enough to earn an opening-night roster spot. Most won't. And only a few will keep a grip on their regular NHL role for the duration of the season. In no particular order, here's a gaggle of rookie forwards worth watching next month, and beyond.

Nathan MacKinnon, (Colorado Avalanche). After foregoing the top-ranked defenseman, and local sentimental favorite, Seth Jones at this year's draft, those running the show in Colorado made it evident MacKinnon would start the season in the bigs. Specifically, the soon-to-be 18-year-old is pegged to center the third line, flanked by wingers Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie. If the teen adjusts well, the Avs may be even more inspired to trade veteran centerman Paul Stastny during the season (assuming the 27-year-old isn't dealt, or extended, before then). In which case, MacKinnon could finish the 2013-14 campaign in a top-six role.

Ryan Strome, (New York Islanders). Not only is Strome expected to nail down a roster spot, but the 20-year-old centerman is already pegged to fill a top-six role with the Islanders -- either as a second-line center, or top-line winger alongside John Tavares. Lofty expectations for a lad who has yet to play a single NHL game. However, anyone who watched the 2011 fifth-overall draft pick light it up (94 points in 53 games) with the OHL Niagara IceDogs, and then more than hold his own with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers this spring, won't be all that surprised. It also doesn't hurt that Strome has been working out with Tavares this summer either.

Jonathan Drouin, (Tampa Bay Lightning). The words "... Tampa selects from Halifax Jonathan Drouin" were barely out of GM Steve Yzerman's mouth, and NHL pundits were already salivating at the prospect of the play-making forward skating with sniper Steven Stamkos. Revered for his on-ice smarts and superior puck-handling ability, Drouin averaged over two points per game in the QMJHL through 2012-13. The only perceived factor preventing the 18-year-old from being a slam-dunk to make the Lightning roster out of camp is his smaller size.

Filip Forsberg, (Nashville Predators). After playing two-plus seasons with men in a Swedish professional league (Allsvenskan), and five NHL games with the Predators last spring, Forsberg is better equipped to compete for a full-time roster spot this fall. However, the 19-year-old center may have to steal a spot from Richard Clune or fellow prospect Taylor Beck to make that happen. Still we like the young Swede's chances.

Valeri Nichushkin, (Dallas Stars). While not as outwardly modest and humble as some league traditionalists prefer their 18-year-old prospects to behave, Nichushkin has too much upside in terms of size and skill to marginalize. And GM Jim Nill suggests the former KHL winger stands a solid chance of earning a roster spot -- as a third-line forward, most likely -- with the Stars out of camp.

"We're excited. We think he's very close, but I don't want to put expectations on him either. I want to be careful," Nill told NHL.com earlier this summer. "He's going to get every opportunity in the world to be on the team. We want to keep him around for a while."

It's also well-worth mentioning that Sergei Gonchar -- from the same Russian hometown as Nichushkin -- will be called upon to mentor the teen forward. Much like the veteran defenseman helped Evgeni Malkin get comfortable with the Pittsburgh Penguins, back in the day. A temporary stint with Dynamo Moscow of the KHL is in the cards for Nichushkin should he fail to earn a regular NHL role in 2013-14.

Tanner Pearson, (Los Angeles Kings). After enjoying a successful season (47 points in 64 games) with the Manchester Monarchs, Pearson was this close to taking part in a postseason game for the Kings. So the 21-year-old winger should get a nice, long look at camp this September. Even once they move some blue-line salary, as anticipated, the Kings will remain jammed up near the cap ceiling. Pearson's modest $925,000 dent could add further to the prospect's appeal.

Elias Lindholm, (Carolina Hurricanes). The 18-year-old versatile forward couldn't ask for a greater endorsement than this, really. GM Jim Rutherford himself said he will be "shocked" if Lindholm doesn't start the season with the Hurricanes. Not that bold a statement, perhaps, considering the 2013 fifth-overall selection spent all of last season (and part of 2011-12) playing with Brynas of the top Swedish pro league. There's no doubt, he can manage himself on the ice in the company of men. Plus, beyond their top-six forwards, the Hurricanes' roster looks weak and incomplete. Feel free to pencil in Lindholm as a third-line center at this stage.

Mikhail Grigorenko, (Buffalo Sabres). Maintaining his rookie status by a hair after playing the maximum 25 NHL games in 2012-13, Grigorenko is expected to be a full-time centerman for the Sabres this coming season. Those who consider big-league experience a significant plus for developing players might consider Grigorenko one of several early favorites for the Calder Trophy.

Sean Monahan and Corban Knight, (Calgary Flames). The fact that both Monahan and Knight could make the Flames' roster speaks volumes as to the current re-building state of the club. But you can argue that Monahan would benefit more from playing with an NHL team starting a-fresh than an OHL squad under renovation (Ottawa 67s). And, after four solid seasons at the University of North Dakota, Knight is more than ready to make a successful leap to the pros. The 18-year-old sixth-overall selection (2013) and 22-year-old Florida Panthers' pick (2009) are worth monitoring closely at camp. While the Flames assemble a club for the future, these two young centermen will be allowed ample freedom to make mistakes.

Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk, (Vancouver Canucks). After dealing netminder Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for the opportunity to draft Horvat ninth overall, the Canucks made their high expectations of the London Knights center universally known. But whether Horvat is big-league-ready is another story. Although we're not ruling him out to make the NHL roster, a third season in the OHL may best serve the 18-year-old forward in the long run. We'll see. On the other hand, Shinkaruk of the WHL Medicine Hat Tigers (drafted 24th overall this year and with three full Major Junior seasons under his belt as opposed to Horvat's two) could fit in nicely as a bottom-six center with the Vancouver squad. A lot will depend on how Jordan Schroeder recovers from off-season shoulder surgery.

Aleksander Barkov, (Florida Panthers). Barring a setback in his recovery from a shoulder injury (he should be fine), Barkov is a shoo-in to make the Panthers' roster this season. From draft day onward, GM Dale Tallon has been candid about his intentions to use the soon-to-be 18-year-old in a high-profile role -- perhaps even as a top-line centerman. Like Lindholm, Barkov benefits handsomely from having played two pro seasons overseas. Unlike Lindholm, the second-overall draft pick (2013) is coming off an SM-liiga campaign in which he averaged nearly a point per game. Thought of as physically (6-foot-3, 210 lbs.) and emotionally/mentally mature, Barkov is expected to adjust to the North American game relatively quickly. Prospect forwards Quinton Howden and Nick Bjugstad are worth keeping on your radar season as well.

Other rookie forwards to keep an eye on this September, and through 2013-14, include Tom Wilson (Washington Capitals), Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks), Scott Laughton (Philadelphia Flyers), Stefan Matteau (New Jersey Devils), and Tyler Biggs (Toronto Maple Leafs).