We're well into the second half of the hockey season. The world juniors are behind us (congratulations on building a powerhouse development program, Finland) and NHL Central Scouting released its midterm rankings with Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko topping the North American and European rankings, respectively.
Some highlights: the WHL is having a strong year with three players listed among the top five North American skaters, and the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) U-18 team has six players in the top 15.
February's spotlight is split between two players because the pair has us torn on who should rank third overall on our next NHL Prospect Big Board. They are, of course, WHL standout centers Dylan Cozens and Kirby Dach.
Cozens, who plays for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, boasts some of the best skating skills in the draft despite standing 6-foot-3. Opponents don't like him much, not only because he can get down the ice at top speeds, but because he's an intelligent and consistent player. He's got 27 goals and 62 points in 53 games this season. Cozens probably won't be the guy you look to for the flashy, creative play, but that doesn't matter. He scores anyway and he's effective in any situation.
Dach plays for the Saskatoon Blades and there's a lot to like about him as well. He's already got NHL size at 6-foot-4 and 198 lbs and brings elite hockey smarts and an offensive ceiling that draws the eyes of many scouts. Dach's 57 points in 50 games aren't as flashy as Cozens' totals, but his puck skills and ability to read and project the play around him are impressive.
The Pittsburgh Penguins recently called up prospect Teddy Blueger, who has 21 goals in the AHL this season, and so far so good. The forward has two goals and an assist in six NHL games, so don't expect him back any time soon, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The Chicago Blackhawks sent defenseman Henri Jokiharju down to the Rockford IceHogs, citing a need for him to play more minutes. Jokiharju is only 19 and the fact he made the Blackhawks out of training camp was no small feat. His assignment to the AHL will allow him to play regularly against top competition and on the power play. If the Blackhawks trade Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook ahead of the trade deadline, though, don't be surprised to see Jokiharju back in Chicago to close out the season.
Washington Capitals forward prospect Riley Barber was named AHL Player of the Month in January, amassing seven goals and 14 points in 10 games for the Hershey Bears. Barber, a member of the 2013 U.S. team that won world junior gold, already has more points this season (41 in 43 games) than he finished with last year (38 points in 60 games).
Meanwhile, Carolina Hurricanes goaltending prospect Alex Nedeljkovic was named AHL Goaltender of the Month. Nedeljkovic went 6-0-0 in January, posting a .938 save percentage and two shutouts for the Charlotte Checkers. He also made his first NHL start with the Hurricanes in a 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks.
Jack Hughes missed the 2019 Under-18 Five Nations Tournament in Sochi, Russia earlier this month, but not before moving into second place in USNTDP career assists in January. He's currently at 119 helpers - three behind all-time leader Jeremy Bracco - with the potential to tie or pass Bracco when he returns from injury.
Forward Bobby Brink of the Sioux City Musketeers is back from the ankle injury he sustained and played through at the World Junior A Challenge. Brink had eight points for the U.S. in that tournament en route to a gold medal. The Denver commit, who some feel is a potential first-round prospect, has 17 goals and 39 points in 23 games with the Musketeers.
Vancouver Giants defenseman and 2019 top prospect Bowen Byram was named WHL Player of the Month for January after recording 19 points in 13 games. He's been solid in February so far, too, with two goals and six points in six games.
Forward Arthur Kaliyev of the OHL's Hamilton Bulldogs is one of the best - if not the best - pure goal-scorers in this year's draft. He has 42 goals and 83 points in 53 games. While some forwards who score a lot in junior aren't able to do the same in the NHL, Kaliyev's shot arsenal sure makes it seem like he won't have much trouble.
New York Islanders defensive prospect Bode Wilde is having himself a season with the OHL's Saginaw Spirit. With 13 goals and 54 points in 46 games, Wilde's proving that choosing major-junior hockey over college hockey was the right move for him. It's not necessarily that he's facing easier competition than he would have in college, or that he wouldn't be able to hack it in college hockey. Rather, it's about finding the environment best suited to improving the small things in his game. He still has a tendency to take risks he probably shouldn't, but his playmaking has improved; he's learning to use his high-end hockey smarts effectively at game speed.
Dallas Stars prospect Ty Dellandrea, captain and center for the OHL's Flint Firebirds, is another player having an impressive Draft+1 year. Selected 13th overall by the Stars last June, Dellandrea was one of Canada's first cuts ahead of the 2019 world juniors. He seems to be using that as motivation in the second half of his season and has 17 goals and 53 points in 47 games thanks to his high-end skating and puck-handling skills. He could stand to develop more patience instead of continually forcing the play to the middle when he's battling along the boards, but Dallas should feel encouraged. Dellandrea's trending in the right direction, and he's doing it on a team that doesn't exactly provide the best developmental setting.
Quinn Hughes is essentially the best prospect outside the NHL right now. He's got 29 points in 26 games with the University of Michigan, but even those numbers don't fully showcase how efficiently he drives play. Hughes may join the Vancouver Canucks to close out the NHL season depending on when his NCAA campaign ends, but there are still several options at play. He could potentially sign an entry-level contract beginning next season and play out the remainder of this year on an amateur tryout with the AHL's Utica Comets.
Keep an eye on your favorite team. We're swiftly approaching the point in the season where front offices start considering signing NCAA free agents - college players who went undrafted - as well as their own NCAA prospects. Sometimes those signings are a good idea. Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins and Zach Aston-Reese, for example. Sometimes the players merely turn into depth AHL players. Half the fun is waiting to see which way your team's coin-flip lands.
Hannah Stuart keeps a close eye on both drafted and draft-eligible prospects and can usually be found trying to learn more about hockey analytics. She has previously written for FanRag Sports, The Hockey Writers, and Hooked On Hockey Magazine, and can also be found at High Heels and High Sticks. Find her on Twitter at @HockeyWthHannah.