Is Justin Schultz the best prospect in the NHL?

According to former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button, the answer is “yes.”

On Friday, Button put out a list of the players he sees as the 30 best drafted prospects in the NHL. The Oilers had three players on the list – Schultz in the top spot, Nail Yakupov at number five, and Oscar Klefbom at number 18.

The fact is that there is a case for Schultz as the best prospect in the league. The 22-year old defenceman is leading the entire AHL in scoring – in a lockout year, no less – as a rookie professional. His 35 points this season are three more than second-place Jordan Eberle, and eight more than the next-nearest skater (diminutive Columbus prospect Cam Atkinson).

Schultz entered this season with high expectations after being the subject of an off-season recruiting war after he opted not to sign with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that drafted him. However high those expectations were, he’s blown them out of the water. Oklahoma coach Todd Nelson calls him the best player in the AHL – and Nelson has Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall skating for him.

Schultz is the only AHL’er in the top-five – likely in no small part because other top AHL’ers are already bona fide NHL players. The KHL, however has three prospects in Button’s upper echelon:

  • Second: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington. The 26th overall pick in 2010, Kuzentsov has evolved into a near point-per-game player in the KHL. Kuznetsov as brilliant for Russia at last year’s World Juniors, managing six goals and 13 points in seven games. He can do it all offensively.
  • Third: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis. Another 2010 first round pick (16th overall), Tarasenko just turned 21 and has eclipsed the point-per-game mark in the KHL through 23 contests so far. Unlike Kuznetsov, Tarasenko has made it clear he plans to make the jump to the NHL immediately.
  • Fifth: Nail Yakupov, Edmonton. It’s hard for me to look at Yakupov’s KHL performance – both in terms of numbers and from having watched a bunch of games – and see him ranked below Tarasenko and Kuznetsov. Yakupov’s commitment to North America – including the fact that he played two years in the OHL in the lead-up to getting drafted – is clear, and he’s putting in a highly comparable KHL performance to the other two despite having just turned 19.

Morgan Rielly, a near point-per-game defenceman with Moose Jaw and the fifth overall pick last year, rounds out the list.

For my money, the top spot on the list is a toss-up between Yakupov and Justin Schultz. Schultz is older, and his results almost defy belief in an extremely tough AHL. In terms of pure offence, Yakupov stacks up fairly against any of the Oilers young guns; he might already be the best shooter in the system (though Jordan Eberle will contest that).

Other Highlights

Brett Ritchie is an interesting choice for the 10th spot. A 2010 draft pick with a 6’4” frame, the winger’s numbers have never been terribly impressive until this year. In 32 OHL games he has scored 27 goals and 50 points.

Dougie Hamilton at 12 is a tough one to take. The OHL’s best defenceman last year, Hamilton isn’t particularly mean but he’s good at everything else; I’m guessing he suffers here because of comparisons to Jay Bouwmeester. He’s a brilliant prospect, and a guy I’d take earlier.

Malcolm Subban goes from being the 24th best prospect (according to NHL scouts) in the 2012 Draft to the 15th spot on Button’s list. I like Subban a lot, and clearly Button does too but I’m leery about putting that kind of value on any young goaltender.

Rielly and Yakupov both get spots in the top-five on Button’s list, and Alex Galchenyuk just falls shot, but the rest of 2012’s top-five is conspicuous by their lack of impact. Ryan Murray is ranked a lowly 26th (I’m assuming injury has something to do with this) and Griffin Reinhart is omitted entirely.

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  • Time Travelling Sean

    I just used those comparisons because they play on the same team, and on the same line. Noted lines change.

    New Jersey, although they didn’t win the cup, got there, and with Zajac, whose good but not great, as their number 1.

    Brown, a winger, was a second favourite, I think, to Quick for the Smythe.

    Centers are important, but they can’t win games by themselves, either can wingers, I don’t think one is more important than the other.

    Don’t mean to nitpick but Pittsburgh is still really good.

  • Time Travelling Sean

    Zetterberg is a winger, whenever I watch the Red Wings play, which was my point. They have Datsyuk and then Franzen/Helm.

    Centers are important, but would Chicago have won without Kane?

    Stanley Cup winning teams ALL have great depth all around.

    If Seguin scores 40 goals and gets 90 points is he better, or makes more of an impact, than if Hall does the exact same?

    Look at Patty Kane, or St.Louis. They hold onto, and move the puck, like a center.

    Centers are important, but how are they more important than wingers? All those teams that won the SC, maybe besides the Pens, had great wingers, and great defencemen to.

    Explain to me what a center can do that a winger can’t, or hasn’t done, besides win face-offs.

    L.A has great center depth, but if Quick didn’t win the Conn Smythe, Brown, who’s a winger, would have.

    New Jersey got to the Cup Finals on the back of Kovie and Parise, two wingers.

    Maybe if Kovie and Parise were centers they would have won the cup?

    • DSF

      Zetterburg plays second line centre most of the time.

      Of course you also need good wingers to win but you CAN’T win without great centres.

      Parise scored 15 points in the playoffs.

      Zajac scored 14 and Henrique scored 13.

      You could argue they Devils didn’t win the cup because their centres weren’t dominant.

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    Shouldnt we be talking about how good Schultz is and how lucky we are to have him, instead of how much of a mistake the Yakupov draft pick is going to be?

    Some people need to keep their negative thoughts to themselves, especially when its based on nothing but personal opinions.

    History shows you should not draft for position but draft the best player available – and going into the draft there was no debate between the two.

    • Oilertown

      Agreed, agreed, agreed, I really wish there was some way we could have DSF banned from these OILERS sites then we could talk about how great the Oil are going to be. Instead of endlessly arguing with him and his falseness. The only reason he comes here and to Lowetides site is to try and piss people off because he is jealous of what the team is building. It’s quite sad actually that he has nothing better to do with his life.

    • Nobody said Yakupov was a bad choice, nobody has said Yakupov is a mistake, nobody is questioning who the BPA was.

      We are simply saying that the Oilers need another quality center and Galchenyuk is an elite player and the Oilers could use him as much as much as Yakupov.

      You tell me were the negativity Is?

      That as a fan of the Oilers I can’t express that I appreciate the skills of both these players?

      Also, you just expressed a negative personal opinion, so maybe you should take your own advise!

      P.S maybe read what as been talked about before you decide to comment what you think has been debated,

      For the future this site is for people to write about there personnel opinions on matters relating to all things Oilers and hockey.

      • nuge2drai

        Oiler Domination To Follow

        Of course we can use Galchenyuk just as much as we can use Yakupov. We could also use Murray and Reily as much as we can Schultz. We could also use Patrik Roy in his prime, but sadly the NHL doesnt reward unlimited first round picks for finishing last, and time travel doesnt exist yet.

        Seems to me debating between Yakupov and Galch is pointless considering neither has played an NHL game yet.

        Talk about Schultz epic AHL start, how Nelson says hes the best player on his team(same team with Ebs, Halls and Nuge) and how amazing he is going to look in an Oilers Jersey for the next decade.