Thu Aug 11 01:25pm EDT
Opening puckdrop in the Canadian Hockey League is four weeks from today — thanks for starting when it's still officially summer, QMJHL. To help get in the hockey mood, each day BTN will be running a Fresh Five list.
When August rolls around, it's a nervous time for fans of any major junior team — not to mention, the coaches, the players, team staff — which harbours a high NHL draft pick. The big league is not shy about fast-tracking 18- and 19-year-old players. It makes for a fun annual guessing game and it's probably a good way to start off the countdown.
This season is unique in that aside from Colorado Avalanche No. 2 overall choice Gabriel Landeskog, several top draft choices seem likely to return to junior. The two dashing playmaking forwards with the most upside, Edmonton Oilers top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Florida Panthers hopeful Jonathan Huberdeau, might each need a bit of seasoning, although it wouldn't surprise if either made his NHL debut in October. Anyway, without further adieu, here's a countdown of who could stick. As a disclaimer, it needs to be said there are surprises each year; in August of last year, the consenus didn't have Jeff Skinner sticking with the Carolina Hurricanes. He only went on to score 31 goals in his yearling season.
5. Brett Connolly, Tampa Bay Lightning (Prince George Cougars, WHL)
It was a tough call which potential Team Canada cog with a first name beginning in Br to include — Connolly, the Cougars' captain, or Moncton Wildcats defenceman Brandon Gormley, a Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder. Each has the tough task of trying to make a NHL team coming off a playoff appearance, so the odds are fairly steep. Connolly had a very good if not dynamite campaign for Prince George with 46 goals and 73 points in 59 games; this might be a case where he needs the challenge. A good training camp could keep him in Tampa Bay's mix.
4. Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders (Portland Winterhawks, WHL)
Niederreiter, who turns 19 in a few weeks, played in nine games for the Islanders last season before it became evident he was perhaps out of his depth in the big league. He returned to Portland and turned in a solid season under one of the most respected coaches in the WHL, Mike Johnston, who has been sending a steady stream of players to NHL camps. Niederreiter is much farther along physically than the Islanders' No. 5 overall choice from this summer, Niagara IceDogs centre Ryan Strome. When it comes to a teen sticking with the big club, it's not always about upside.
3. Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers (Kingston Frontenacs, OHL)
In case it slipped anyone's mind, the big blueliner made the Panthers last year but was unable to agree to a contract by the appointed deadline. The Panthers have slots open on the back end for the first defenceman taken in the 2010 NHL entry draft, who rounded out his game well last season by showing he could contribute a bit offensively (12 goals, 34 points in 44 games with Kingston). The 6-foot-4 Gudbranson, aside from a second stint with Team Canada, has little to gain from returning to junior since the Frontenacs are beginning to rebuild.
2. Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets (Portland Winterhawks, WHL)
Johansen's status will likely be a major storyline in the Western Hockey League. It will be a major variable in the potential of not only the reigning Western Conference champion Winterhawks, but Team Canada as well, since he's pencilled in as the No. 1 centre for the world junior squad after playing on a scoring line as a right wing last winter in Buffalo. At a rangy 6-foot-4, Johansen's probably physically ready for the NHL, plus his Jackets are not overly deep up front even after this summer's trade for Jeff Carter. There were times last season when it seemed like Johansen could do whatever he pleased on the ice in Portland, as he posted 92 points in 63 regular-season games against a demanding U.S. Division schedule prior to adding 28 in 21 playoff tilts.
1. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche (Kitchener Rangers, OHL)
File this under, "Thanks, Tips." The Rangers saw the handwriting on the wall in July when they released Landeskog, whom the Avalanche took No. 2 overall in the NHL entry draft, allowing them to use their choice in the CHL import draft. Landeskog, as you heard ad nauseam last season while the Swede served as the first European captain of the storied Kitchener Rangers, was a man among boys in junior hockey. He's a lock to be a full-time NHLer this fall.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports . Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.