After the draft and free agency, fans of all 32 NHL teams settle in to discuss possible lines and pairings, moves that should have been made and (usually) how management failed again.
As we edge closer to September, fans turn their attention to players who weren’t mentioned frequently as roster options this summer but remain lurking on the NHL fringe or in AHL feature roles.
Here are the best under-the-radar options for every NHL team for 2023-24.
Nesterenko is a left-handed center with good size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) and a clear shot at an NHL job this season. There are a dozen or so forwards with similar pedigrees who sign NHL contracts every year, but Nesterenko has already played in the NHL. He’s going to get opportunities that players with similar talent will not, as the Ducks are building. He turns 22 in September, spiked as a sophomore with Boston College and is now on the other coast with a chance to carve out an NHL career. Eric Stephens’ interview with Nesterenko in the spring for The Athletic shines some light on an emerging player.
Right-handed defensemen remain unicorns on NHL rosters. A small trade with the Edmonton Oilers at this year’s deadline allowed Arizona to take young Kesselring for a brief test drive. The results were promising through nine NHL games, with an expected goal share at five-on-five over 50 percent (via Natural Stat Trick) and some flashes of offense. Kesseling is behind Matt Dumba and Sean Durzi on the Coyotes’ depth chart and will have to fight Troy Stecher and Joshua Brown for playing time. His age and skill set make him an interesting outlier on a roster that has plenty of room for improvement.
At some point, there’s just too much production from an AHL player and an NHL opportunity must be given. Merkulov is 21, not considered a lock for an NHL career (Corey Pronman mentioned him in his recent Bruins prospect update for The Athletic) and counts only a rocket shot as a strong asset. Over half of his points came on the power play, and his shooting percentage (19 percent last season with the Providence Bruins) will take a haircut when he arrives in the NHL. There’s too much offense for Merkulov to be ignored. He will get NHL chances despite being blocked currently by the likes of Brad Marchand, Trent Frederic, Milan Lucic and James van Riemsdyk.
Rousek is 24, shoots left and plays right wing. He has just one full North American season (76 games with 16 goals and 56 points with the Rochester Americans of the AHL) on his resume, but it was quality. He is blocked on the wing in Buffalo by several top-flight NHLers (Alex Tuch, Victor Olofsson, JJ Peterka and Kyle Okposo, as well as Jack Quinn when he’s healthy) but has NHL talent. His 40 assists as an AHL freshman were an exceptional number. Buffalo has so much quality and quantity in one of the deepest systems in the NHL that Rousek could slip through the cracks and land on another team by this time next season.
Pettersen is a skill center who posted good numbers (19 goals and 44 points in 61 games) in his third AHL season. He is undersized (5-10, 175 pounds) and is not regarded as a strong two-way player. The outscoring performance at even strength in 2022-23 (70 percent goal share according to pick224.com) suggests he was either lucky or there is a more complete player here. The Flames have some room for youth this fall, but there are more prominent prospects (Matthew Coronato, Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary) who will receive the push. Pettersen has earned a look.
Carolina Hurricanes: D Caleb Jones
He may seem like an unusual selection for “under-the-radar” inclusion, but Jones is on the list due to the quality and depth of the Hurricanes defense. Jones has 217 games in the NHL and hasn’t played in the minors since 2019-20. However, the left-handed side of the Hurricanes’ blue line boasts Dmitry Orlov, Brady Skjei and Jaccob Slavin. That’s a championship-quality depth chart. Jones is likely to be in the mix for the No. 7 spot opening night, but Jalen Chatfield is in the mix, as well, and there are several other interesting options bubbling up from the system. Jones will play in the NHL this coming season, but it may not be on opening night and there’s a chance he will be on another team when it happens.
Blackhawks fans are going to enjoy this coming season for many reasons. Aside from the obvious (Connor Bedard), the team has some genuinely intriguing prospects in the system. Crevier’s assets are his size (6-8, 228 pounds), handedness (right) and shutdown ability. His wingspan is so large that he can overcome other issues (speed, experience) and he posted a solid if unspectacular season for the Rockford IceHogs a year ago. He had an AHL goal share of 44 percent (the IceHogs were 49 percent with Crevier off the ice), so he isn’t close to being the first Rockford defender under consideration for the NHL team (Alex Vlasic). His size should get him a look in the preseason, and his career path (his second pro season is on the way) will be worth following.
Tufte is a fascinating prospect. Drafted in the first round by the Dallas Stars in 2016, he didn’t develop offensively, so his size (6-6, 220 pounds) and foot speed are not as useful as hoped on draft day. Tufte signed with the Avalanche this summer after posting his most promising AHL season (35 points in 63 games) in 2022-23. NHL organizations love the speed and size, but the numbers don’t reflect future success in the same way Patrick Maroon’s minor league numbers implied. He’ll get a look, and his offense is improving.
Fix-Wolansky is 5-7 and not a burner, but he exploded last season offensively in the AHL, with a point total (71) for the Cleveland Monsters that was a world away from the team’s second-leading scorer’s (Justin Richards, 39 points). The Blue Jackets have quality at the position, but Fix-Wolansky has earned a long look. At 24, his time is now as an NHL prospect.
Dallas Stars: C Scott Reedy
The Stars traded for Reedy at the deadline in the spring. He has NHL experience (35 games with seven goals in 2021-22) but spent all of last season with two AHL teams. He has a plus shot and good size (6-2, 205 pounds). A change of scenery can sometimes benefit a perennial prospect. He averages 25 goals per 82 AHL games. Reedy will need a break to play NHL games this coming season, but he’s a right shot with some versatility (he can play center) to his game.
A right-shot left winger, Mazur scored 36 goals in 81 games for the University of Denver over the past two seasons. He has a fairly complete game and his career spike since the 2021 draft has been impressive. Scott Wheeler went into great detail about Mazur in February for The Athletic, and his trajectory suggests NHL games this coming season. The Red Wings’ depth chart at left wing includes Alex DeBrincat, David Perron, Lucas Raymond and Klim Kostin, so Mazur may have to wait for an injury or slump. He’ll get a long look in preseason.
Edmonton Oilers: D Phil Kemp
The Oilers enter training camp with seven defensemen who are locks to make the opening night lineup. Kemp is on the outside but represents an early recall option. He is a right-handed shutdown blueliner whose positioning and reads have improved since turning pro. He’ll need an injury or prolonged slump to find the NHL opening night, but teams usually use nine or 10 defensemen during a long season. Kemp currently ranks well inside Edmonton’s top 10 and could make his NHL debut in 2023-24.
The Benning family name is famous over multiple generations in hockey. Mike Benning is Matthew Benning’s younger brother, and their father Brian also played in the NHL. Mike Benning is an undersized (5-9) puck-moving defenseman who uses skill and intelligence to create offensive chances. He was highly effective in the role over three seasons at the University of Denver and is poised to begin his pro career this fall. He is a right-handed shot, and the Panthers defense is a Leftorium, so he could advance quickly if he can handle the rigors of pro hockey.
Chromiak was a fifth-round selection in the 2020 draft and arrived in pro hockey last fall to little fanfare. He posted a solid rookie year with the Ontario Reign (15 goals and 28 points in 55 games) and should see NHL games during his entry deal. The Kings are loaded on right wing, boasting Adrian Kempe, Viktor Arvidsson and Arthur Kaliyev on the top three lines. That doesn’t leave much room for Chromiak, and it’s likely he gets sent out. But Chromiak has laid the foundation for a longer look in training camp and a possible NHL appearance later in the year.
Walker is a speedy winger with skill (27 goals and 48 points in 56 games as a rookie pro for the Iowa Wild) who is knocking on the door of the NHL age 24. He made his big-league debut a year ago, scoring once and assisting on another goal in nine games. He’s on the small side (5-10), but the offensive output (he ranked No. 3 in goals among AHL rookies) should force the Wild to give him an audition during training camp. Minnesota added several veteran wingers over the summer, but Walker is one of the better skill players entering camp without an NHL job.
Andersson was the No. 7 selection at the 2017 draft and is now on his third organization. At 24, and with just 110 NHL games to his credit, his signing with the Canadiens (a building team) has a “last chance” feel for the center. Andersson had his strongest AHL season (31 goals and 59 points in 67 games) for the Reign in 2022-23, and if he can bring that kind of skill to Habs training camp, he should hang around for some time. He is ideally suited to a bottom-six role.
Nashville Predators: D Roland McKeown
McKeown’s career has been a long and winding road, and at age 27 it’s now or never. He earns this spot because of an impressive AHL season with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2022-23. The Admirals had a 53 percent goal share with McKeown on the ice; when he was on the bench, it was 48 percent. He has a range of skills, but none are dominant. The asset he brings now that he didn’t have when making his NHL debut in November 2017 is experience.
A player getting traded twice in a calendar year sometimes signals the end of the NHL road. For Bowers, the Devils could be a good fit. His strengths include speed and forechecking, something New Jersey packs into its bottom-six forwards nightly. Bowers is not an offensive forward. If he makes the NHL as a regular (just one game so far), it will be as a depth contributor. The Devils’ fourth line houses players who are somewhat similar to Bowers’ style.
New York Islanders: C Ruslan Iskhakov
Iskhakov may be the least famous player on this list, and that’s saying something. He’s a small forward (5-9) who had a fine AHL debut this past season. The Russian pivot scored 17 goals and 51 points in 69 games while engineering a 51 percent even-strength goal share (46 percent when off-ice). His 15 even-strength goals ranked third on the team. The Islanders are loaded with veterans up the middle, but Iskhakov could get some preseason playing time and clearly has enough skill to get noticed.
Robertson is not thriving in the AHL and is being passed by other defensemen with less pedigree (Zac Jones the latest). The clock is ticking, and the AHL numbers (just 46 percent even-strength goal share in 2022-23, second worst on the team) don’t show him as an asset in any area. Offense is never going to be his game, but Robertson isn’t a shutdown type either. The Rangers have some decisions to make in the fall on defense, so he’ll get plenty of work in preseason to sink or swim.
Calling Boucher an “under-the-radar” prospect is rich since we’re two years into nonstop talk about his being drafted at No. 10 in 2021. He has been hurt much of that time but did score 10 goals in 21 games with the Ottawa 67’s (OHL) last season. He was drafted out of order, making him more infamous than famous, but there’s a good prospect here who might turn into an NHL player. Corey Pronman’s opinion on Boucher is part of his Senators prospect update this week for The Athletic.
Brink had a solid if unspectacular debut for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms a year ago. He scored 12 goals and 28 points in 41 games, posting a points-per-game total that ranked inside the top 20 among rookie AHL forwards. Despite being neither fast nor big, he has been a successful offensive player all down the line. It does happen (Sam Gagner), but it’s rare. The Flyers gave him a 10-game audition in 2021-22, but he didn’t play for coach John Tortorella last season in Philadelphia. There are some intriguing storylines with this unique player.
Puustinen is an undersized skill winger best known for his playmaking abilities. He’s 24, meaning time is of the essence for him to begin his NHL career. In his two AHL seasons, Puustinen has shown impressive ability to impact the offense, scoring over 20 goals in both campaigns and totaling 101 points in 145 games. The Penguins are a veteran team (and added more older forwards this summer) so Puustinen’s window of opportunity closing due to his age is less than ideal. Still, there’s talent here and he should get a chance to show what he can do in preseason.
Bitten arrived in pro hockey with good wheels and two-way acumen. He’s 25 and it’s taken over 300 AHL games (including playoffs) for him to develop enough offense to make the NHL. He played in four games last season, and more could be on the way in 2023-24. Bitten is an interesting prospect because his development is completely opposite most young players. He had the hard part (shot and goal suppression) down early but has had to learn where to go for offense. This fall will be another opportunity. He scored 22 goals and 45 points with the Springfield Thunderbirds a year ago.
Prevailing wisdom holds that if a scoring winger at the junior level has good speed and average size or better, he’ll eventually figure out how to put the puck in the net in pro hockey. The Sharks left Coe in junior for a fourth full season in 2021-22; he turned 20 in December. That extra year of junior can be advantageous, but his first AHL season was then a disappointment offensively (five goals and 16 points in 56 games). The scouting reports have his size, speed and skill at levels that should land him in the NHL, so a strong training camp is the expectation for Coe.
Lind was one of 10 players who scored 30-plus AHL goals in 2022-23. He didn’t receive an NHL recall but should get a look this season. The Kraken are an expansion team but also one of the best in NHL history and deep with skilled right wingers. It’s possible Lind slips through the cracks and enjoys success with another team. He turns 25 in October and still has time to carve out an NHL career.
Goncalves is not a heralded prospect but shows up in some good places for the Lightning. His even-strength goal share (55 percent) is just a little above the total when he’s off the ice (53 percent), and he is described as being responsible without the puck. His offense (13 goals and 54 points in 71 games) indicates NHL potential, and he’s just 22 years old — meaning he has a couple of years to develop before reaching the outer marker as a possible NHL solution. Skating wasn’t his strength on draft day, but the Lightning are a strong development team and Goncalves has a chance.
The Maple Leafs haven’t enjoyed an early pick in several years, but the scouting staff is uncovering gems later on. There’s not much buzz about Villeneuve, but there are reasons to believe he will emerge as an NHL player. He’s a right-handed defender, and his offense (three goals and 25 points in 54 AHL games last season) included 10 points on the power play as a flat-out rookie. He quietly posted one of the better rookie seasons in the league, helping his team to a 56 percent on-ice goal share at even strength (42 percent off-ice). If he does that again, there will be more buzz.
Hoglander has 141 games of NHL experience and is averaging 15 goals per 82 games. At five-on-five for his career, he is averaging 1.69 points per 60 minutes and owns a 49 percent goal share. With due respect to the rest of the Canucks roster, the team doesn’t have enough quality to keep him out of the NHL in 2023-24.
The Golden Knights treat NHL talent like it’s an endless resource. The team’s procurement department is elite, so one could argue the team does in fact have unlimited resources. The right-handed defenseman Pachal was signed in 2019 as an undrafted free agent out of the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL). He has 12 NHL games under his belt and has a positive goal share in the NHL and AHL. The Golden Knights are deep at right-handed defense, so Pachal could be sent away at any minute. He’s bona fide and a player to watch.
The ultimate example of an under-the-radar player entering camp is Häman Aktell. Originally drafted by the Sabres and signed by the Capitals earlier this offseason, he is one of the five best pro players who did not play in the NHL a year ago. The Capitals are coming out of a long run of success, having missed the playoffs just once since 2008 and winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. Häman Aktell is 25, physical and can suppress offense. He’ll get a long look in camp.
Winnipeg Jets: D Ville Heinola
There’s a problem in the Jets defensive pipeline. Some of the team’s early picks, like Heinola and Logan Stanley, are not progressing. It’s important because Winnipeg has some blueliners in their 30s (Dylan Demelo, Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt) and the recent higher picks are expected to step in over the next several years. Heinola’s minor league numbers are good, but his NHL numbers are not improving. It’s a small sample size and the Jets are traditionally strong in draft and development. Heinola needs to play, starting in preseason.
(Top photo of Nils Hoglander: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)