NHL prospect rankings released

CHRIS NICHOLS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 10:37 PM ET

Ho, ho, ho!

On the verge of what could be some good news in the NHL CBA situation, Christmas has already come early for poolsters and hockey fans alike.

Even if the league gives the NHLPA a lump of coal in response to the latest proposal, fantasy leaguers can still get their fix with the much-anticipated NHL Prospect Rankings from McKeenshockey.com

Dig in fantasy freaks.

McKeen's broke down this year's rankings into two lists: the Top 100 Skaters and the Top 30 Goaltenders. A prospect, for the purpose of the list, is broken down as all NHL-affiliated players who are less than 25 years of age as of December 31st, 2004 and have played less than 50 NHL games (20 GP for goalies).

Washington's Alex Ovechkin took home top honors among the skaters, while Kari Lehtonen did Atlanta proud by defending his crown as the top goaltender. Dion Phaneuf was the top-ranked blueliner and his intense play will have fans lustily cheering in Calgary as soon as a new CBA is reached.

Quite simply, this information is gold for poolies. While you may recognize some or all of the bigger names on the list, it's the guys further down in the rankings that will be making or breaking your pools over the next few years if you grab them as your sleeper picks.

Reading their scouting reports and familiarizing yourself with their games and their names can be the difference-maker, so dive into these rankings head-first and it'll pay dividends down the line.

The simple fact is that too many fantasy owners do only the bare minimum of research going into each season, so they're completely unprepared when a youngster explodes on the scene and starts lighting the lamp or stoning NHL shooters cold.

Is he for real or is he a fluke? Only those who have done their homework have a good idea about the answer to that question when it pops up and are able to grab that player before someone else gets him.

In the spirit of the holidays, here are a few stocking stuffers to whet your appetite. Included are the top two at goaltender, defense and forward.

Kari Lehtonen (Atl), Chicago-AHL

Scout's take: "Preparation is a real key to his success. Besides being big, competitive and super-quick, Lehtonen rarely reads plays incorrectly and has a gift for sustaining ideal body form and positioning after making the initial save. Should be NHL elite for a decade or more".

Marc-Andre Fleury (Pit), Wilkes-Barre-AHL

Scout's take: "Intimidating and invincible most nights, though he doesn't always channel his enthusiasm properly. He's learning to be more patient and not to over-commit on the initial shot, but still relies heavily on his extraordinary body speed to cover up positional miscues.

Dion Phaneuf (Cgy), D, Red Deer-WHL

Scout's take: "He doesn't defend one-on-one as surgically as Scott Stevens yet, however both are vigilant, uncompromising leaders who look to impact the course of a game. His development over the past few seasons has been nothing short of astonishing".

Ryan Suter (Nsh), D, Milwaukee-AHL

Scout's take: "His inexperience shows, yet he rarely makes the same mistake twice. Does everything with same cool, business-like approach, and, though not the flashiest in any one area, has no weaknesses. Projects as an elite two-way defenseman once he learns pro ropes".

Alexander Ovechkin (Wsh), RW, Dynamo-Rus

Scout's take: "The archetype of the Russian hockey program - NHLers are also discovering how strong this kid is already. Dmitri Yushkevich tried to crush him during a recent Super League contest, but just bounced off. Ovechkin responded by flattening Oleg Kvasha. It's scary to think he's still learning and far from tapping his full potential".

Evgeny Malkin (Pit), C, Magnitogorsk-Rus

Scout's take: "A rare mix of size, skill and intellect. Malkin can control the pace of a game and shows unusual defensive maturity for his age. A top-line NHLer in the making - and potential superstar".

The rankings are also a good tool to see how stocked the cupboards are for any particular organization's prospects. San Jose fans, for example, will not be surprised to learn that their squad has eight prospects ranked among those 130 players. The Sharks youthful depth is clearly one of their strengths and gives ammunition to the argument that San Jose will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

Conversely, the defending Stanley Cup champs have but one prospect on the list. If Tampa can manage to keep their stars together though, their immediate future certainly still looks quite bright.

So whether you're a fantasy addict jonesing for a fix or just a die-hard hockey fan looking toward the future, you'll likely find these rankings to be an invaluable tool.

Chris can be reached at chris_nichols@canoemail.com

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