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For the fourth straight year Hockey's Future has named a Prospect of the Year. For the 2011-12 season the honors go to St. Louis Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko.
The second consecutive European to win the award (Swedish defensemen David Rundblad, then an Ottawa prospect, was selected last year), Tarasenko was scoring at a point-per-game pace for Sibir Novokosibirsk in Russia's KHL before a mid-season trade to SKA St. Petersburg and finished the year with a flourish in the playoffs. Tarasenko scored 10 goals with six assists in 15 games as SKA reached the West Conference finals.
The 20-year-old, who captained the gold-medal winning Russian U-20 team at the 2011 WJC tournament in Buffalo, will likely compete for Russia at the 2012 IIHF World Championships later this spring.
One of the most talented players in the 2010 NHL Draft, Tarasenko was drafted a bit later (16th) than his skill set suggests in large part because he remained in Russia rather than playing Canadian junior hockey and it was unknown how enthusiastic he was about playing in North America.
Tarasenko played with Sibir in the KHL since he was 16 (Tarasenko's father Andrei coached the club). He was an assistant captain this season and was traded after his father was relieved of his coaching duties.
Tarasenko is a dominant scorer with the requisite quick hands and release and plays with the proverbial "high compete level". His acceleration allows him to create space and support teammates with or without the puck.
The St. Louis Blues have had an influx of young talent, primarily on the defensive end, which has led to their rise in the Western Conference. Tarasenko would be a nice fit should he join the Blues next season.
The Niagara Ice Dogs are one of the more powerful teams in the OHL and feature several high-end prospects - including fellow first round pick Ryan Strome (NYI) and Dougie's older brother, Freddie Hamilton, a Sharks draft pick in 2010. While it would easy to be discount the younger Hamilton's role on such a powerhouse, the 18-year-old has been special. Hamilton has been a catalyst for the Ice Dogs offensive attack as Niagara rolled to first-place in the Central Division and has been an anchor during the playoffs as the team attempts to reach the Memorial Cup. Despite appearing in just 50 games during the regular season, he scored 17 goals with a team-leading 55 assists. Hamilton skated for Canada at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championship where he led all defensemen in the tournament with six points (two goals, four assists) for the bronze medal squad). Drafted by the Bruins in 2011 he has the size and strength necessary to compete for a spot next season and has little to prove in juniors.
Huberdeau missed most of the first two months with a broken foot but has been an offensive force since returning to the ice. Saint John, like Niagara, is loaded with prospects. The Sea Dogs ran roughshod over the competition in the QMJHL so it is tempting to minimize Huberdeau's accomplishments. But in 37 games he scored 30 goals with 42 assists during the season and in eight playoff games thus far - all wins - he has six goals with eight assists. Huberdeau was a teammate of Hamilton's on Canada's U-20 team and in six games scored one goal with eight assists. Possibly the top two-way forward in the CHL this season, Huberdeau was the third player taken in the 2011 Draft and signed an entry-level deal with the Panthers in October 2011 after an impressive camp. Though he doesn't turn 19 until June, it is hard to imagine him not being in the lineup for the Panthers next season.
The Washington Capitals are not unfamiliar with high skill level, high-risk/reward forwards from Russia and Kuznetsov fits right in the mix. The Caps had hopes of having Kuznetsov in Washington this year before the 19-year-old returned to Traktor Chelyabinsk for his third KHL season. Like Tarasenko he is an explosive offensive player with excellent hands who is a constant threat. At 6'3, 187 lbs there is some concern whether he has the mass to hold up to the physical play of the NHL but his talent level is considerable. Kuznetsov was the captain for Russia's silver medal squad at the 2012 U-20 World Junior Championships and in seven games scored six goals with seven assists. Kuznetsov was selected in the first round of the 2010 Draft by Washington but lasted until the 26th pick due to "signability concerns". While it was originally reported that he was definitely returning to the KHL in 2012-13, that seems to be less certain. Slated to become an unrestricted free agent in the KHL on May 1st, he may go back to Traktor but could sign with another Russian club or with Washington.
The 19-year-old was the team captain for Canada at the 2012 U-20 WJC and signed with the Blues in March following the conclusion of his sophomore season at Colorado College. After missing time his freshman year due to a broken ankle, Schwartz was the leading scorer for the Tigers, scoring 15 goals with 26 assists in 30 games playing alongside older brother Rylan. Schwartz had two goals and three assists in six games for third-place Canada at the WJC. A first-round pick of the Blues in 2010, Schwartz made his NHL debut on March 12th and scored a goal against Tampa Bay. He finished the season appearing in seven regular season games for St. Louis. A versatile forward, he's played both wing and center, and his vision and playmaking skills are his biggest attributes. Schwartz could challenge for a full-time role with the Blues in 2012-13 but might start the season with AHL Peoria.
Silfverberg was the top forward in Sweden's Elitserien, earning the Golden Helmet as the league's MVP. In his third full season with Brynas, Silfverberg was second in the league in scoring with 24 goals and 30 assists. In the Elitserien playoffs, he is second to only Skelleftea's Bud Holloway in scoring with 11 goals and 7 assists in 15 games. Brynas is one win away from the league championship, leading three games to one in the finals. Now 21, he signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Senators in May 2011 and should be in Ottawa's camp this summer. Silfverberg, who skated for Sweden in last year's World Championships, is also likely to play for Tre Kronor in the upcoming tournament.
A second round pick of the Predators in 2007 (54th overall), Smith was a workhorse for the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals. The Dearborn, MI native played over 3200 minutes for the Admirals and was 31-19-2 with a 2.17 goals against and .922 save percentage. Milwaukee will face Flames' affiliate Abbotsford in the first round of the AHL playoffs. Smith, who played his junior hockey in the OHL, has steadily worked his way up through the minors - beginning with ECHL Cincinnati in 2009-10. With Pekka Rinne and young prospect Anders Lindback also in the Nashville organization, the goaltending picture is a crowded one. Smith, a 23-year-old, has played over 120 pro games the past three seasons and his ability to handle a large work load and sterling numbers should attract attention this summer.
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