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Top prospects "available" -- don't count on it

by Corey Masisak
A quick straw poll on Twitter last night on who the best prospect in the world not in the NHL is right now revealed the two names I expected to see the most -- Los Angeles' Brayden Schenn and Evgeny Kuznetsov, property of the Washington Capitals. They were the two best players at the world junior championship (the one time besides the Entry Draft when the kids take center stage every year). Note: I used to cover the Capitals so I expected plenty of love for Kuznetsov from DC-based followers, but there was a lot of it from non-Caps fans as well.

Schenn and Kuznetsov are at or near the top of the discussion. Others who could make a case include forwards Ryan Johansen (Columbus) and Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis), defenseman Erik Gudbranson (Florida) and goaltenders Jacob Markstrom (Florida) and Jack Campbell (Dallas).

The point of this excercise was to identify those guys as the trade deadline nears. If Schenn (or Kuznetsov) is indeed the "best prospect" there is probably a good chance that neither of them will be on the move this weekend -- even if both of their clubs end up being among the teams trying to make a big splash.

Schenn is undoubtedly the top prospect in the Kings' system and could be the team's No. 2 center behind Anze Kopitar as soon as next season. He dominted the world junior championships and is averaging more than two points per game in the Western Hockey League.

"No, it would have to be really something significant," Kings GM Dean Lombardi told "The way his stock has risen here with the world juniors and what he's done.  It would have to be really special and quit frankly I don't think he's going anywhere."

Kuznetsov fell to No. 26 in the 2010 Entry Draft partly because of concerns about how quickly he'll want to come to North America. His star turn for Russia in Buffalo made him a big deal on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, but he has also had a fantastic season in the KHL. He has 17 goals and 32 points in 44 games.

To put that in perspective, Alex Ovechkin had 13 goals and 27 points in 37 games in his post-draft year playing in Russia's top league. Evgeni Malkin had 12 goals and 32 points in 52 games. Alexander Semin had 10 goals and 17 points in 47 games. Pavel Datsyuk was playing in the second division.

So yeah, Kuznetsov is a pretty enticing talent and despite what he's been telling Russian media outlets while living in, well, Russia, there's a pretty good chance that he could play for the Capitals next season. Capitals general manager George McPhee has earned a reputation for being pretty frugal with his top young assets, so Kuznetsov being moved would be an even greater shock than Schenn.

There is also historical precedent -- the last time a guy in the discussion for being the top prospect in the world was traded at the deadline was ... never? Joe Colborne is the best prospect to exchange hands in the month leading up to the deadline in a long time. The second-best prospect to move in the past 6 years? Probably Angelo Esposito (from Pittsburgh to Atlanta in the Marian Hossa deal), and even his stock had already begun to fade dramatically.

Normally when an elite prospect is moved, it is a) not at the trade deadline and b) because of extraordinary circumstances (think Eric Lindros). Often when a top prospect is moved, it comes with negative results (think Markus Naslund). If a guy like Schenn or Kuznetsov is that highly thought of around the League, said prospect's team probably sees the guy as a potential franchise player. It is one thing to give away a first-round pick or a young player the team has been able to see at the NHL level for a while, but the lure of drafting and developing your own franchise player makes it very hard to part with that type of asset.

So maybe Lombardi will find a return that he considers "really significant" (Brad Richards? Paul Stastny?) or McPhee change course from his philosophy, but it will come as a huge surprise -- and a truly rare occurance in NHL history.
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