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Prospects joining playoff chase in NHL, AHL

by Corey Masisak

The veterans who changed teams before the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline consumed much of the attention in the past week, but there is another group of talented players making moves at this time of year.

As the season winds down for the NCAA, Canadian juniors and European leagues, top prospects are free to join the NHL organizations that have drafted them, or in the case of undrafted NCAA players, sign free-agent contracts.

Many of these players will end up in the American Hockey League and earn valuable professional experience to help them be better prepared for NHL training camp in September. Others will see NHL action, and, as Chris Kreider proved with the New York Rangers a year ago, can have a tangible impact.

As the season winds down for the NCAA, Canadian juniors and European leagues, top prospects are free to join the NHL organizations that have drafted them, or in the case of undrafted NCAA players, sign free-agent contracts. (Photo: Scott Audette / Dave Reginek / Mike Stobe - NHLI)

So who might be the 2013 version of Kreider at the NHL level, or impact the Calder Cup Playoffs the way Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Alex Killorn did with the Norfolk Admirals (12 points in 17 postseason games after four years at Harvard)?

Here's a look at some of the top prospects who have either signed a professional contract or joined AHL/NHL teams from the Canadian junior or European ranks (listed alphabetically by team):

Calle Jarnkrok, Detroit Red Wings

Jarnkrok was a second-round pick by Detroit in the 2010 NHL Draft. With his season in the Swedish Elitserien over, the forward has joined Grand Rapids in the AHL and has two points in five games. The Griffins are leading the Midwest Division, and he could help them in the playoffs before potentially making a push for a roster spot in Detroit next season.

Danny DeKeyser, Detroit Red Wings

DeKeyser was the jewel of this college free-agent class, and the Red Wings beat out many NHL teams for the defenseman's signature. After three NCAA seasons at Western Michigan, he signed with Detroit and made his NHL debut Friday night against the Colorado Avalanche. He could be a regular for the Red Wings in the final month of the season, and possibly a significant addition for the Griffins if their season lasts longer than the parent club's.

Nick Bjugstad, Florida Panthers

One of two University of Minnesota products on this list, the Panthers signed their 2010 first-round pick earlier this week after the Golden Gophers' shocking exit in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Instead of sending him to the AHL, general manager Dale Tallon said he is willing to burn a year of Bjugstad's entry-level contract to get him some NHL seasoning. Expect him to be a key figure for the Panthers next season, and this could be invaluable experience for the massive center (6-foot-6, 220 pounds).

Danny Kristo, Montreal Canadiens

Kristo has been a star in NCAA hockey for four seasons with North Dakota, and the forward was a member of the U.S. team that won gold at the 2010 World Junior Championship. A second-round pick by Montreal in 2008, Kristo signed and was assigned to Hamilton, but the Bulldogs are out of the AHL playoff race. It's not out of the question that Kristo could see an NHL call-up (like Kreider) at some point this season.

Zach Budish, Nashville Predators

Budish was a second-round pick by Nashville in 2009, and after four years at the University of Minnesota, the forward signed and joined Milwaukee in the AHL. The Admirals are in a fight to reach the postseason, and Budish could help. He was a top prospect in high school but has had two major knee injuries in the past five years.

Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

David Poile changed the complexion of the Predators long-term outlook by adding an elite forward prospect in Filip Forsberg. (Photo: Getty Images)

Forsberg was one of the two best prospects traded before the deadline, along with Dallas Stars defenseman Joe Morrow. The Washington Capitals sent the 2012 first-round pick to Nashville for a package that included forward Martin Erat. Forsberg has not joined the Predators, but GM David Poile said he expects the skilled Swedish forward to do so soon. It might just be for practice, but he could see action either with the parent club or with the Admirals this season.

Jon Merrill, New Jersey Devils

Merrill spent three seasons at the University of Michigan but really played the equivalent of two because he missed half of 2011-12 with a suspension and half of this season because of a cracked vertebrae. When healthy, the defenseman was one of the top prospects at his position playing NCAA hockey. He's likely to spend the rest of this season with Albany in the AHL but could challenge for a spot in New Jersey's top six in 2013-14.

Reid Boucher, New Jersey Devils

Boucher was a fourth-round pick by the Devils in 2009 but his stock as a prospect rose considerably this season. Scoring 64 goals in 72 regular- and postseason games for the Sarnia Sting in the OHL will do that. The forward has two goals and four points in three games for Albany and is slated to spend the rest of this season there. That said, it wouldn't be a shock if the Devils are trying to claim a Stanley Cup Playoff spot to see him with the big club at some point, especially considering their offensive struggles.

Anders Lee, New York Islanders

Lee racked up 61 goals over three seasons at Notre Dame before signing with the Islanders. The forward also scored in his NHL debut on his first shot, but was a healthy scratch in a loss to the Capitals on Thursday night. The Islanders could certainly use some offensive punch from beyond their top forwards, so expect Lee to get his chance to contribute in the final weeks of the season.

Andrey Pedan, New York Islanders

Pedan had 14 goals and 44 points in the regular season for Guelph in the OHL before adding three goals in a first-round playoff defeat. The defenseman has been assigned to Bridgeport of the AHL, where he will join an enticing collection of prospects, but the club is unlikely to reach the postseason. At 6-foot-4 and with his offensive acumen, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that he pushes for a spot on New York's opening-night roster in 2013-14, though the organization has clearly been cautious with its top young talents.

Ryan Strome, New York Islanders

The fifth pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Strome lit up the OHL this season with Niagara, but when his club was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, the forward was sent to Bridgeport. He has four points in two games there after collecting 97 in 58 games with the IceDogs. He's the only player in the top 10 of his draft class to not have played an NHL game, but the Islanders would probably like to wait until next season for that to happen to not burn a year on his entry-level contract or start his arbitration clock.

Jesper Fast, New York Rangers

Jacob Trouba, the ninth pick in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, signed after a productive freshman season at the University of Michigan. (Photo: NHLI via Getty Images)

Fast, who dropped the "h" in his last name (or let it be known that it shouldn't have been there in the first place), completed his season with HV71 Johnkoping in Sweden and the sixth-round pick in 2010 by the Rangers made the move to North America. The forward scored a goal in his AHL debut and could help Connecticut, seventh in the Eastern Conference, seal a position in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Dmitrij Jaskin, St. Louis Blues

Jaskin finished this season fourth in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 46 goals, but his team was knocked out of the first round in the playoffs. He is set to join Peoria in the AHL, but the Rivermen are unlikely to reach the postseason. The 6-foot-3 Russian wing was a second-round pick in 2011 and could be one to watch in training camp next season.

Andrej Sustr, Tampa Bay Lightning

Sustr was the consensus No. 2 player available among undrafted college free agents this season. A towering defenseman at 6-foot-8, he signed with Tampa Bay after three seasons at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and played two games for the Lightning before being sent to the AHL. Tampa Bay changed affiliates after Norfolk won the Calder Cup last season, but Sustr joins a Syracuse club filled with players who won in 2011-12, and the Crunch are one of the top teams in the AHL this season.

Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets

Trouba was the ninth pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, and the defenseman signed after a productive freshman season at the University of Michigan. It will be interesting to see if the Jets are tempted to bring Trouba to Winnipeg to try to help secure a playoff berth, or if they will be patient and let him finish the campaign with St. John's in the AHL.

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