Even though the NHL is still in limbo, the CHL is now in full swing, with the NCAA and AHL set to follow them soon.
With that in mind, it's worth considering who might be the best prospect in the organization, or at least to start a nice little debate on that score, so you have some names to keep an eye on as you look for hockey tidbits.
Hockey's Future, one of the benchmark rating sites, uses the following criteria to define a prospect:
If a prospect is a skater (forward, defenseman) and has played in 65 NHL games or more before the completion of the season of his 24th birthday; or, if a goaltender has played in 45 NHL games before the completion of the season of his 24th birthday, that player will be considered graduated to the NHL.
With that in mind, Cam Atkinson, David Savard, and Tim Erixon all qualify, but John Moore and Ryan Johansen do not. Recent draft picks Ryan Murray, Boone Jenner, and free agent Jonathan Audy-Marchessault also qualify.
Up front, it's hard to say the club's current collection of prospects offers a lot of high end depth. At this point, I would suggest that Cam Atkinson is the top forward prospect based on his skills and what he displayed at the end of last season, but his size will continue to be a question mark until we see him deliver at least one full season at the same level of performance.
(Personally, I absolutely love him, but I can also understand why some people would point at Matt Calvert as a cautionary tale.)
Next down the chart in terms of pure scoring ability would have to be J.A.M., but the same questions about size surround the 5'9, 160 pound playmaker. He was absolutely electric for Connecticut last year in the AHL, but he has yet to prove himself at the highest level.
Third place is, appropriately, a three way battle. You have Michael Chaput, who dazzled in the Memorial cup with clutch scoring and solid two way play, NCAA standout T.J. Tynan, who looks to push Notre Dame into the postseason picture, and finally Boone Jenner, who returned to Oshawa to serve as the team's captain for what could be his final season before making the leap to the Pros.
Perhaps it's cheating, but I find it hard to consider anyone but Atkinson the top forward prospect, though I think he will need to prove himself coming out of training camp.
Despite the argument that NHL experience gave Cam Atkinson the edge over much of the club's forward prospects, the decision to draft Ryan Murray instantly made him the club's top defensive prospect. One of the first players to get the opportunity to represent Team Canada at the Worlds before being drafted into the NHL since Paul Kariya, he gave a solid accounting of himself in international play and is expected to be ready to step into the NHL this season.
Projected to be a top pairing d-man, he needs seasoning, but appears to have all the tools to meet that lofty expectation.
Tim Erixon had a cup of coffee with the Rangers, but spent most of last year getting used to the North American game in the AHL. That experience seems to have served him well, though, and all reports expect him to become an excellent NHL puck mover. Despite not being a hugely physical player, his 6'3", 200lb. size does offer him a natural advantage, particularly with reach.
Finaly, in third spot, David Savard. He proved he could play in the NHL last year after a promising pre-season, and was one of the few nice surprises. Often criticized for his skating, he's put some serious work into improving that aspect of his game, and I wouldn't be surprised if he sets up a strong competition with Murray and Erixon for the bottom pairing - so much so that I sincerely wonder if John Moore may find himself starting the year in Springfield this season.
It has to be Murray. He's the total package, where Erixon and Savard both have areas which need more development. The only thing he lacks is experience, and it's very likely that he'll skyrocket if given the opportunity.
Though Allen York came in and gave the club a chance to win each night he played, he still needs a chance to refine his game, and last year's roller coaster of assignments didn't help. To make matters worse, the club stacked the pool by drafting two highly regarded netminders this summer, raising questions about his long term future.
At this point, Oscar Dansk seems to be the netminder of the future, having been drafted at the top of the second round by Columbus and brought over as the top pick of the OHL import draft by the Erie Otters. He's had a bit of a rough start, giving up 11 goals in his first two games, but it's worth considering that he's making the change from European ice to the smaller North American rink, and the fact that Erie...well, they're pretty much crap. Any Columbus fan should appreciate that you don't get #1 draft picks by being world-beaters.
York seems to be the #2 guy in the pipeline, and likely to spend time this season getting mentored by Curtis McIlhenny in the AHL, likely taking over starting duties there sooner than later, and finally Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg round out the pool, though both prospect netminders made the decision to play in Europe this season rather than make the trip across the pond.
Analysis: York has more experience, but Dansk brings a higher pedigree. Until and unless proven otherwise, he's the guy to watch.
So, Who is the Top Dog?
If we're down to Cam, Murray, and Dansk, then who you consider the "top" prospect depends on what you're looking for.
If you want a guy who is likely to start in the NHL, or a guy who has the highest possible ceiling, I think this is a two horse race.
Cam Atkinson has pretty much cemented a place on the team this season, barring a shocking development or injury, and projects to be a top six forward, but may not be able to keep a place as the first line RW because of his size.
Ryan Murray is going to face a major battle for the chance to open the season in Columbus, but all indications are that he's going to become a fixture once he can carve out his niche, and he could find himself taking on more and more responsibilities as he gets comfortable with the NHL game. Everyone expects that he'll be a top pairing d-man sooner rather than later, especially if he can find chemistry with an established d-man like Fedor Tyutin or James Wisniewski.
As much as I love Cam, I think I have to give this to Murray, who could be one of the best players to pull on the Union Blue since Rick Nash was drafted back in 2002, and brings just as much potential to become a cornerstone of their future.