Which unsigned NHL prospects are worth keeping an eye on?

On June 1, certain draft prospects that remain unsigned by their NHL clubs will have their rights expire and pushed into the free-agent market. The list of available names – found at the bottom of this post – is mainly made up of CHL players two years removed from getting selected, but a host of older players over in Europe will have their rights expire, too. A good explanation of the whole situation can be found here.

In the past few months, Tyler Tucker (St. Louis), Cam Hillis (Montreal), Wyatte Wylie (Philadelphia) and Kevin Mandolese (Ottawa) turned hot seasons into NHL deals, proving that development cycles are fluent and not everyone hits their stride at the same time. So, in a time where not much else is going on, there’s something to look forward to.

Here’s a look at a few prospects that I believe will earn some significant NHL attention, whether it’s with the teams that still hold their rights or another franchise down the line (this does not mean others won’t be given a shot, but these are guys I like, in particular):

Declan Chisholm, D (Winnipeg – fifth-round pick in 2018)
Chisholm was an important figure on one of the OHL’s most dominant offensive forces, the Peterborough Petes, this past season, reaching the potential many hoped he’d be capable of in his OHL draft year. But in the four years since, there’s been a fair share of ups and downs for Chisholm, and some questioned how good Chisholm would have looked on a weaker roster this season. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Chisholm won’t get signed this off-season, whether it’s in Winnipeg or elsewhere. Chisholm’s offensive abilities aren’t questioned and his reliability in his own zone has been a keen piece of improvement in the eyes of scouts – at the very least, they like him as a project depth signing that can put points on the board and chip in on special teams.

Nico Gross, D (NY Rangers – fourth-round pick in 2018)
I have a soft spot for Swiss-born players – I became an HC Davos fan because of NHL 06 and that eventually led me to follow the NLA, and, eventually, European hockey as a whole. One guy I’ve enjoyed watching was Gross, and while he has spent the past few years in the OHL, it still counts. Gross’ play has been a topic of debate, largely because he has very little value offensively (he did record a career-high 33 points this season, but over half were on the man advantage and doesn’t do a lot to excite scouts in that regard). The issue is he wont get many opportunities with the man advantage at North American pro when he really needs an opportunity to get more used to the puck.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think a team will sign him this time around, but will instead re-evaluate what Gross is capable of after a trip back home. Gross doesn’t have a contract in place for 2020-21, but we’ve seen Swiss-born prospects head back home for a few years before embarking on an NHL career. The four-time Swiss World Junior Championship member has value as a shutdown defenseman in the right system, but he’ll need to show further improvement in his overall makeup.

Connor Corcoran, D (Vegas – fifth-round pick in 2018)
A product of Vegas’ second draft, Corcoran is a name that stood out early in terms of unsigned prospects. Corcoran produced 50 points for the first time after earning adding extra offense to his usual stay-at-home style. The Windsor Spitfires defender moves quite well and reads the play in a way where he doesn’t overcommit on a play if it could end up putting him in a bad situation on the transition. He was a slow riser, but there’s been enough improvement in his game each season to warrant an NHL deal and become an intriguing depth option. It would be surprising if Vegas does indeed pass on Corcoran, but he’ll land somewhere.

Alexis Gravel, G (Chicago – sixth-round pick in 2018)
I wrote about Gravel at the 2019 Traverse City Prospect Tournament, saying he needed a big season to cement himself as a threat for Canada’s World Junior Championship team. Instead, Gravel struggled to turn Halifax’s campaign around after making the Memorial Cup the previous year (an early injury didn’t help) and finished his four-year tenure with less-than-desirable numbers. It was a disappointing end for a kid that played 50 games as a QMJHL freshman in 2016-17 – a rare accomplishment for any rookie goaltender in major junior – and looked destined to become an NHL starter.

So, where does Gravel go from here? There are still scouts who believe Gravel has a future as an NHL goaltender, but with the Blackhawks electing to put the team’s future (at least for now) in the hands of Colin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Dominic Basse, it won’t be in the Windy City. A good projection would have Gravel going to the ECHL next year to continue playing heavy minutes like he was used to in Halifax and show that he’s still a threat. At the very least, he’s the most desirable goaltending prospect hitting the UFA market on June 1, and it’s never a bad idea to widen your options.

Alexis Gravel (Photo by Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Luke Henman, C (Carolina – fourth-round pick in 2018)
This is a kid many people seem split on: is there enough offense to warrant a contract for Henman, or is there still some untapped potential? The good thing is finding out won’t cost a team much. One Quebec-area scout said he fully believes Henman will fight his way into an NHL lineup once he adds a bit more to his frame – he specifically cited his decision-making with the puck and high top-speed as strengths that could make him a third-line forward someday in the NHL. I’d like to see Henman bring his A-game on a more consistent basis, but I can see him making an impact in the AHL for a couple of years before transitioning into a full-time bottom-six role in the NHL.

Eric Florchuk, C (Washington – seventh-round pick in 2018)
Could Florchuk be a nice dark horse for some team? Florchuk wasn’t finding much success in Saskatoon this season with 24 points in his first 33 games, but a trade to Vancouver at the deadline saw him explode for 33 points in 25 games. While Florchuk could still add a bit of meat to his frame, he can play just about any role asked of him and doesn’t have any major flaws when dealing with the puck. He still needs to work on his consistency, but there’s been a steady improvement in his game and his confidence level has skyrocketed. He’s a longshot to make the NHL, but he’s still a good value seventh-round pick.

Mitchell Hoelscher, C (New Jersey – sixth-round pick in 2018)
Is Hoeslcher’s emergence as a solid prospect the result of having scoring star Jack Quinn on his side, or is there something more to Hoeslcher’s game that makes him with pursuing this summer? That’s the less-than-a-million dollar question right now. The third-year center had great numbers as Quinn’s wingman and developed into a capable goal-scorer himself, potting 34 goals after recording just 20 over the two previous seasons. An aggressive forward that is always on the move, Hoelscher’s improvement on the production side of things should be enough for a team, if not the Devils, to give him a shot and hope he finds some traction in the OHL. The issue? The Devils have a steady backlog of centers that could get even more complicated this year thanks to a strong draft down the middle. If New Jersey lets him go, don’t expect Hoelscher to go unsigned – and perhaps land with whichever team snags Quinn.

Curtis Douglas, C (Dallas – fourth-round pick in 2018)
Why do I have a distinct memory of watching Douglas skate in Oakville in the summer of 2014? Because he stands out like a sore thumb. Currently listed at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds (adding nearly 50 pounds since his NHL draft season), Douglas has the potential of becoming the second player of that height to play an NHL game – John Scott was the first. Douglas is a high-volume shooter that uses his strength to out-muscle his competition and despite the size, he doesn’t spend his time being a goon and crushing players to the ice. In terms of playmaking, Douglas does a splendid job of finding his teammates at a high speed. But there are some concerns: unsurprisingly, he’s not the quickest skater and there was hope he’d crack the 70-point mark this season, instead following short by 10 points. At the Traverse City tournament, Douglas sat out two of Dallas’ games and was invisible in the other two, which is hard to accomplish for a guy his size. Still, his size alone might be enough for a team to warrant a shot, and there are far worse players available on the market right now.

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