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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  • 24% body fat

    Buttons list is ranked not by potential but who is best now.

    Schultz is leading the AHL on steroids in scoring for cripes sake.He deserves to be number one.

    The last defenceman to win the accuracy shooting at the all star game was Bourque.Schultz for my money will be the next.

  • Oh, and you have to rank Nail ahead of J Schu. J Schu is three years older and has taken his sweet time to develop. Two years ago no one heard or care much about J Schu but everyone knew Nail would be the sh!t. Now think where Nail will be in three years.

    • RomZ

      Look at the last dozen Norris trophy winners, outside of Pronger, Niedermeyer, and most recently Karlsson the winners have been late round draft picks ala Chara, Keith, and best of all Lidstorm whos had a stanglehold on the award in this era. Defencemen typically take the longer development route on their way to the show, and most of the ‘Studs’ have all seen time in the AHL to hone their skills. Comparing a 1st overall pick forward to a 2nd round defencemen in terms of their developmental curve is like comparing apples to oranges.

    • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

      DSF is retarded.

      NHL is arguing that if the union decertifies or disclaims interest, the contracts should be void. However, because that isn’t specifically stated in the contracts, it would be a tough thing to prove in court, according to TSN’s legal analyst Eric Macramalla.

      So basically, it’s either (1) not likely the court will rule in favour of NHL’s argument (and the “poor” Oilers will be stuck with Hallsy, Nuge, Ebs, Schultz, and Yak) or (2) if it does, the NHL and the PA will likely not want to deal with the consequences and settle prior, like the NBA did.

      Link: http://www.startribune.com/sports/blogs/183635241.html

          • 24% body fat

            ya he is probably not happy about the granlund and brodin ranking. I wonder how the SB nation wild site is taking it. The seem to think granlund is going to be the best player in the nhl.

          • DSF

            Not at all.

            Granlund and Brodin are right about where I would peg them.

            Thing is, the Wild prospect depth doesn’t stop there.

            With Granlund, Brodin, Coyle, Zucker, Phillips, Larsson, Graovac, Genoway and Dumba, the Wild prospect cupboard is bulging while the Oilers have just the high end kids and a lot of meh.

            You’ll notice the Houston Aeros are ahead of the Barons in the AHL standings.

            There’s a reason for that.

          • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

            What would your prospect ranking be, DSF? It seems to me not too long ago someone asked you that in the comments section and you listed Yakupov as #5, Huberdeau #1 and Granlund somewhere in between there. Care to elaborate?

            A list of 1-10 would be awesome, if you were generous enough to bless us with your wisdom.

          • DSF

            Tough to do since I haven’t seen some of them play but I’ll give it a go with that proviso.

            These things evolve as a season progresses and injuries always have an effect.

            1) Schultz (exceeding everyones expecations)

            2) Galchenyuk (almost 2PPG in the OHL)

            3) Tarasenko (killing the K)

            4) Rielly (turning into a dominant defensemen and much younger than Schultz)

            5) Yakupov (obvious skill but very inconsitent in the KHL)

            6) Baertschi (putting up good numbers on a VERY defensive team

            7) Huberdeau (not having a great season but apparently quite a leader)

            8) Ryan Strome (killing the OHL – 62 points in 32 GP)

            9) Granlund (would be much higher without the injury)

            10) Brett Ritchie (27 goals in 32GP)

            I can’t rank Kuznetsov since I’ve never seen him play and he apparently doesn’t want to play in the NHL in any case.

            Honourable mentions to Dougie Hamilton, Mark Schiefle and Jonas Brodin who could also have cracked the top ten if not injured.

          • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

            Significantly different than the original list…

            On another note I’m surprised button didn’t include Dumba, since he had such a rager for him all year last year.

          • Oilertown

            Wow and you don’t think Yak would be putting up almost 2 PPG in the OHL if he was still there Galchenyuk would have no where near the numbers Yakupov has in the KHL this year. Your reaching again as per usual. So that would put Yakupov second on your list.

          • DSF

            You have no idea what Galchenyuk would be doing the KHL.

            Thing is, he IS doing it in the OHL.

            I’ve always thought Galchenyuk would have been a better pick.

            We’ll see when they go head to head, if that ever happens.

            Given how the CBA talks are going, Yakupov may never play in the NHL.

          • This is true, What DSF day’s here is correct. Galley is ripping it up.

            I personally still would have picked Yakupov over Galchenyuk but I think it’s bloody close.

            Being an Oiler fan I have an obvious biases towards The team , however the Oilers could use Galchenyuk more then Yakupov as much as it hurts to admit it.

          • DSF

            This.

            Since the Oilers passed on Seguin, they should have opted for the centre instead of another scoring winger.

            I expect their stats will be close but the Oilers need a second line centre in the worst way.

          • OilersBrass

            My thoughts exactly. The Oilers have 2 old centres who don’t have much time left in their careers, Galchenyuk is a big kid with a ton of skill and would have been a perfect fit for the team.

          • DSF

            Yep.

            “In their last game before heading to the World Junior Championships, Alex Galchenyuk and Connor Murphy gave Sting fans something to remember them by.

            Galchenyuk had a hat trick en route to a five-point night, and Murphy’s eighth of the season earned a free burger for the fans as the Sarnia Sting trounced the Kingston Frontenacs 7-4 Saturday in front of 3,197 at the RBC Centre.”

            http://www.theobserver.ca/2012/12/15/galchenyuk-shines-in-parting-game

          • Oilertown

            I think Galchenyuk will most likely be a 60-70 point player in the NHL. Yakupov is going to be a monster I see 80-100 with a great physical side to his game. Think Ovechkin.

          • 24% body fat

            Pretty good list DSF

            Mine would be

            1) Schultz

            2) Taresenko (because he is older)

            3) Yakupov

            4) Strome (too much offense)

            5) Huberdeau

            6) Hamilton

            7) Murray

            8) Granlund

            9) Galchenyuk (lower because his offense is not where stromes was even pre-draft, still good with out yak)

            10) Reilly

            Dishonorable mention… Schiefilie, so over rated because he is a jet.

    • The Oilers Shot Clock

      I dont know? I havent seen too many teams win games without a goalie in net. Franchises, build their teams from the goalie out in many cases.
      They are one of the most vital positions for a teams success. They should be part of the list, even, if teams don’t like drafting them in the top 30.

    • DSF

      I dont know? I havent seen too many teams win games without a goalie in net. Franchises, build their teams from the goalie out in many cases.
      They are one of the most vital positions for a teams success. They should be part of the list, even, if teams don’t like drafting them in the top 30.

  • The Oilers Shot Clock

    Grigorenko behind Forsberg is odd considering Forsberg shouldn’t even be on the list. Reilly at 5 is a bit wishfull too but I’m biased. This list will get a serious shuffle when the WJC are over anyways.

  • Agreed completely, JW. I happened to read Button’s list just before seeing your article and was left wondering the same things.

    Seems political almost, his ranking. Or populist maybe.

    Another standout for me: I couldn’t rank Grigorenko that low. Certainly not behind Brett Ritchie.

  • Lowetide

    Button is a former NHL GM and his entire family (Dad, brother) are scouting men. His Dad started the Central Scouting Bureau mid-70s. I think his lists are interesting in that they inform us about why scouting lists can be so different.

    For me, Yakupov is clearly #1 based on his performance in the KHL at a young age. Schultz is an outstanding talent, but is also an older player. Can you imagine what Yakupov might do in the KHL at age 22?

    • Age makes it difficult to evaluate Schultz fairly. I had Yakupov ahead of him without question prior to this season, but Schultz’s work in the AHL is so unbelievable that I think it’s fair to rank him ahead of Yakupov. I can see the case in either direction.

      Age is why Yakupov deserves to be ahead of Kuznetsov/Tarasenko, IMO.