Is Justin Schultz the best prospect in the NHL?

Jonathan Willis
December 15 2012 11:26AM

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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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.