By Jon Littering
RotoWire Hockey Prospects Analyst
With the 2017-18 collegiate and junior regular seasons finished, it’s time to look at the prospects who saw their stocks rise and fall over the last several months.
Ty Ronning, F, NYR (Vancouver-WHL): Ronning’s stock is rising all right. It’s rising to the tune of 61 goals in 70 games for the Giants this season. The 201st overall pick in the 2016 draft, Ronning had never scored more than 31 goals in any WHL season prior to this campaign and he had a grand total of 56 markers in the previous two seasons combined. While the production is undeniable, it must be mentioned that Ronning is playing this season for Vancouver as an overage player. He is also smaller than the 5-foot-9, 165 pounds at which he is listed. If Ronning can pack another 12-15 pounds of muscle on his frame, he stands a good chance of developing into an NHL regular. A top-six role might be a stretch, but he works his tail off every shift, displays great leadership abilities, and obviously, as his numbers indicate, can put the puck in the net. That Ronning has come this far is a testament to his work ethic given the fact he was a seventh-round pick less than two years ago. Ronning signed his entry level deal with the Rangers in early March.
Nicolas Hague, D, VGK (Mississauga-OHL): In late February, Hague became the first OHL defenseman in 18 years to score 30 goals in a season. His 78 points in 67 games was above and beyond anything anyone could have reasonably predicted. The crazy part is that Hague was drafted 34th overall by Vegas last June on the strength of his size (6-6, 215 pounds) and steadiness as opposed to his offensive production. There is no chance that Hague produces at this rate as a pro, but he does a bunch of other things well and posting even 25-30 points per season should allow him to develop into a solid second-pairing defender at the NHL level.
Dylan Sikura, F, CHI, Adam Gaudette, F, VAN (Northeastern University-NCAA): Sikura (6th round 2014) and Gaudette (5th round 2015) are listed together because they play on the same team and often the same line. There hasn’t been a team in college hockey this year that has been able to slow the duo. The status of Sikura (who should have been on the Canadian Olympic Team) is a bigger concern considering he can become an unrestricted free agent in August if he doesn’t sign with Chicago. Gaudette (a junior) is more than a year away from that dilemma. The Blackhawks won’t be in the playoffs this season or Sikura might have been a candidate to join their club immediately after the Huskies campaign ended. Sikura has the higher offensive ceiling, but Gaudette may end up being a more thorough pro. Given their production this year (53 points in 34 games for Sikura, 60 points in 37 games for Gaudette), they both need to be owned in all dynasty leagues.
Otto Somppi, F, TB (Halifax-QMJHL): Drafted five picks after Ronning (206th overall in 2016), Somppi has come out of nowhere to quickly develop into one of the QMJHL’s most dynamic offensive players. Sure, having Filip Zadina (an expected top-three pick in the upcoming draft) on your team helps, but this is a kid who averaged well less than a point-per-game (41 points in 60 games) a year ago. He has blown past that mark (83 points in 59 games) in 2017-18. I always thought Somppi was a bit underrated as a prospect, but even I didn’t see this sudden jump in production forthcoming. The 20-year-old Finn is a very good passer and the other aspects of his game are slowly improving. Much like Ronning, Somppi is far from a sure thing but he has turned himself into a legitimate NHL prospect.
Jakub Zboril, D, BOS (Providence-AHL): The fact Zboril is listed in the “falling” section is in relation to the high hopes for him when Boston made him the 13th overall pick in 2015. I saw a defender with no apparent weaknesses whose offensive game had room for growth. Now, almost three years later, the 21-year-old Czech looks more like a depth or third-pairing type player as opposed to an impact defenseman. His numbers this year in his first full AHL campaign (12 points in 56 games) aren’t much to write home about and it would be surprising if Zboril ever topped 30 points in his NHL career. He is shaping up to be the type of steady, unheralded defenseman that a bunch of NHL clubs are looking for at the trade deadline every year. That’s not good enough for a player that was taken as high as Zboril was.
Nikita Popugaev, F, NJ (CSKA Moscow-KHL): The Devils rolled the dice on Popugaev in the fourth round of the 2017 draft and less than 12 months later they have seemingly crapped out. It’s not a surprise given the concerns surrounding Popugaev leading up to the draft. But 6-6 tanks who have big shots and can put the puck in the net don’t grow on trees and it’s easy to see why the Devils were interested in the big Russian. That’s the good news. The bad news were concerns surrounding Popugaev’s work ethic and his ability to play within the structure of a team. He spent the last three seasons (and began this year) in the WHL before bolting back to the homeland in late October. As is the case for many young Russians, Popugaev had problems earning consistent minutes for CSKA (no goals, one assist in 11 games) and has since spent time bouncing around its farm clubs. Credit New Jersey for trying for the home run, but it sure looks like it came up empty. I would be surprised to see Popugaev return to North America.
Pascal Laberge, F, PHI (Quebec-QMJHL): Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall has done an excellent job of drafting in the last three or four years, but the selection of Laberge at No. 36 overall in 2016 is probably one that he would like back. I didn’t like the pick at the time and I like it even less now. Laberge has decent hockey sense and he tends to battle hard, but his overall lack of skill is apparent. He has nothing more than average size (6-1, 180) and he looks out of place if he is being relied upon to put up points. At the moment, I project Laberge as an up-and-down player who will have difficulty establishing himself as an NHL regular.
Ivan Lodnia, F, MIN (Erie-OHL): That Lodnia finds himself on this portion of the list is through no fault of his own. Skating for an Erie team that was among the best in junior hockey the last several years, Lodnia received little to no power play time and his point production suffered as a result. This appeared to be the year he would be given a big role. That turned out to be the case, but Erie traded most of its top players and left Lodnia by himself. He produced at almost an identical rate (22 goals, 59 points in 62 games) to last year and those numbers are far below what I expected when the season began. I still like him as a player, but Lodnia hasn’t been put in a position to succeed, and thus we really don’t have much more information on his pro potential than we did a year ago at this time.