-- To kick off my coverage of the top prospects outside the NHL heading into the 2016-17 season, I begin with a ranking of each NHL team's organizational prospect depth, sometimes referred to as its farm system or pipeline.
Star power is what drives NHL teams, and thus, my farm system ranking reflects that. Elite prospects provide substantially more value than high-end prospects, who provide substantially more value than above-average prospects and so on. That said, I don't entirely discount depth. In fact, it comes into play in several spots. Boston is not a team full of top-30 prospects, but has incredible depth. Colorado has a couple of fantastic prospects, and a thin system after them. This is reflected in the rankings.
Important disclaimer: The team profiles in this column are not comprehensive evaluations of the farm systems. The story with full system overviews will follow later this week. Omission of a player here does not mean I forgot to take them into account in the farm system ranking. I ask that you please spare me the messages where you list the 20 prospects in your favorite team's farm system; trust me, I know who they are.
Defining a prospect is important when assessing a pool since many players live on the boundaries of being a prospect or not. For purposes of this ranking, a player is graduated if they have played 25 games or more in any NHL season, or 50 total in their career. Ultimately, the inclusion or exclusion of one player doesn't move a team up or down 12-15 spots, unless you're talking top-10 overall prospects.
In terms of tiers, the Maple Leafs are their own tier up top, then after jumping down about five stories we have the Coyotes, Jets and Blue Jackets in a tier, then I'd put everyone from the Hurricanes (No. 5) through the Flames (No. 9) in another tier, before a marginal decline begins from the Predators (No. 10) onwards. Each team's previous rank refers to the edition preceding the 2015-16 season.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
Previous rank: 2
Toronto has the best farm system in the NHL and it isn't close. Based on my prospect definitions, there are zero reasonable arguments for anyone to even be in the same conversation. Not only do they have a ton of elite talent in players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, but their depth is elite too. There are at least 20 prospects in this system that would fit in many other teams' top 10.
2. Arizona Coyotes
Previous rank: 4
The Coyotes' system is one of the very elite ones in the NHL, having a bundle of highly skilled players who can steal the show with their talents. The system was very good already, but adding two top prospects via selections ( Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun) and one by trade (Anthony DeAngelo) at the 2016 draft -- as well as getting Lawson Crouse in an August trade -- solidified a top grade.
3. Winnipeg Jets
Previous rank: 6
The depth in the Jets' system is a little thinner than in past years, in part due to a lot of recent graduations. The system remains elite however, primarily due to the selection of Patrik Laine, and the fantastic progression of Kyle Connor, their top pick from 2015. Top picks like Josh Morrissey and Jack Roslovic have developed fine but not perfectly. However, positive progression from Chase De Leo and Erik Foley counterbalances that somewhat.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets
Previous rank: 8
The Blue Jackets have been steadily building up top prospects during the last few years. They have the look of a system at the top echelon of the league, with a nice mixture of talent throughout. Their AHL affiliate won the Calder Cup on the backs of several quality prospects, and overall they are quite deep through their pro ranks. No. 3 overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois may push for an NHL job right away, while it would be an upset if last year's first-rounder, No. 8 overall pick Zach Werenski, isn't on the roster on opening night.
5. Carolina Hurricanes
Previous rank: 11
The Hurricanes graduated several quality defensemen like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and most notably Noah Hanifin, and still have a lot of good defenders left, particularly after drafting Jake Bean this summer. In general, their farm system is very strong, due to a mix of trades, high picks and solid late-round selections that have panned out.
6. Philadelphia Flyers
Previous rank: 10
It's hard to criticize the Flyers' system. Talented all-around centers? Check. Dynamic big defensemen? Check. Ridiculous goaltender depth? Check. Depth through their amateur and professional ranks? Check. Players with star upside? Check. They don't have an Auston Matthews-caliber player in the pipeline, but that player doesn't stay in your system longer than three months anyhow. Ron Hextall emphasizes patience in developing players, so I do expect this system to remain at a high level for another two seasons as the build continues.
7. New York Islanders
Previous rank: 5
The Isles have been somewhat patient with their young players in recent seasons, exemplified by the fact that none of their top 10 prospects from last summer graduated. The group is led by skilled forwards Mathew Barzal, the No. 16 overall pick from 2015, Anthony Beauvillier (No. 28, 2015) and Kieffer Bellows (No. 19, 2016).
8. Edmonton Oilers
Previous rank: 1
A common theme in the Oilers' system the last few years has been a big name or two at the top and a barren wasteland afterwards. Their depth still isn't great, but it looks a lot better than it has the past few seasons, and the anchor is still there after another high first-round pick in Jesse Puljujarvi. Also, while their defensive unit has been a point of criticism for years, they have a number of really good young defensemen in their system on top of young blueliners Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson at the NHL level.
9. Calgary Flames
Previous rank: 9
Calgary's system is anchored heavily by 2016 first-rounder Matthew Tkachuk at the top, and while it falls off sharply after him, it is a fairly deep system with talent at every position.
10. Nashville Predators
Previous rank: 12
Some may argue that I always seem to rank the Predators pretty well in terms of prospects. But they almost always seem to go after players I like, and they did so again in 2016 in what I thought was one of the best bang-for-the-buck approaches at the draft, including No. 17 pick Dante Fabbro and No. 47 pick Samuel Girard. The result is a system with a lot of high-end talent.
11. Buffalo Sabres
Previous rank: 3
Buffalo went into May with a thin farm system. While a couple of their guys impressed this season, such as Brendan Guhle and Justin Bailey, you would've really struggled to identify 10 decent NHL prospects prior to the draft, where I thought they did very well. That said, there is still some depth issues here. The system falls off hard towards the tail end of the top 10, but the upper half is solid.
12. Boston Bruins
Previous rank: 18
You won't see a ton of Boston names in my top 100, but there is talent in this system for sure. The Bruins' system was one of the hardest to rank because there are a lot of quality names here, but they are all bunched up together in talent level, without a few clear elite prospects. You could reasonably argue a bunch of guys up or down my top 10. They also have three players in their top 10 who are former Boston University players. Backyard scouting!
13. Vancouver Canucks
Previous rank: 15
The top of the Vancouver system is quite strong. Olli Juolevi, Brock Boeser and Thatcher Demko give them top-flight talent at different positions. However, after that the system falls off with a range of depth that is below average.
14. Tampa Bay Lightning
Previous rank: 14
Tampa's system is anchored by a top-end forward prospect in Brayden Point?and an elite goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy (a likely graduate this upcoming season). The rest of the system is very deep, but lacking in the same caliber of star talent. There are a lot of guys in this system that you could tag as having NHL talent, whether they are scorers or two-way players.
15. Montreal Canadiens
Previous rank: 17
Montreal has a fascinating farm system, with numerous first-round picks, and a bunch of highly skilled players who have either significantly fallen or risen the last few seasons. They also have numerous players on the verge of making the NHL team at the outset -- or at least threaten to throughout the season.
16. Ottawa Senators
Previous rank: 23
Ottawa's system has steadily returned to form after two solid draft classes in 2015 and 2016. Some of the depth has thinned out as their lower-tier prospects haven't elevated themselves to get into depth-prospect conversations, but the top of their system is very strong. The top three prospects -- Thomas Chabot, Colin White and Logan Brown -- all have top-tier upside.
17. Minnesota Wild
Previous rank: 28
After graduating plenty of young players to the NHL, the Wild have steadily been building up their farm system during the last three drafts to the point that the pipeline is back to respectability. What you see now is a system anchored by their top-round picks, as well as a fifth-round pick in 2015 Kirill Kaprizov, who was a huge riser this past season.
18. Detroit Red Wings
Previous rank: 7
The Wings' farm team has quite a few guys who are on the bubble of being NHL players; Detroit will have to make decisions on them soon, otherwise they risk losing them on waivers. The top part of their system is pretty good, with several players who have a chance to be quality NHL players, even if there's no "star" prospect in this system. The big slide in the rankings is two-fold: Dylan Larkin graduated, and players like Evgeni Svechnikov and Axel Holmstrom didn't have quite the seasons I expected from them in 2015-16.
19. New Jersey Devils
Previous rank: 26
The Devils' system is in much stronger shape from where it has been the last couple of years. The depth isn't incredible, but it's as deep a system as I've seen from the org in a number of years, with quality talent at every position, led by recent first-rounders Pavel Zacha and Michael McLeod.
20. Chicago Blackhawks
Previous rank: 16
The last few years, I've made mention of the Chicago system lacking a ton of high-end talent but being quite deep in solid talent. I look at the Chicago system and ponder who is trending up, and the answer is there hasn't been a ton of guys who really shot up last season. The situation looks a lot different here than a few years ago, with a clear top echelon that includes the top four prospects in the system (Alex DeBrincat, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka and Nick Schmaltz), some decent depth in their AHL ranks and then question marks after that.
21. Colorado Avalanche
Previous rank: 25
Colorado isn't devoid of talent. I love Tyson Jost and Mikko Rantanen. J.T. Compher had a great junior season at Michigan and Calvin Pickard has been impressive. But after their top group, it tumbles off really quickly, with the depth looking quite bad.
22. Anaheim Ducks
Previous rank: 20
The Ducks' system was up and down this season, particularly at the pro level. On the plus side, top picks Shea Theodore and Nick Ritchie (who graduated) were very good, and Brandon Montour continues his upward trend toward top prospect range. On the downside, former first-round pick Stefan Noesen and second-round pick Nic Kerdiles continue to stagnate. Drafting Max Jones and Sam Steel this summer brought some needed skill up front into a defense-heavy pipeline.
23. St. Louis Blues
Previous rank: 13
The Blues' system is a little light, but that is what happens when you finish towards the top of the league for a long stretch of time and have had recent significant graduations. They've made some solid picks outside the first round, though such as Jake Walman, Ivan Barbshev and Ville Husso, keeping their system from bottoming out.
24. San Jose Sharks
Previous rank: 19
There are some things to like in the Sharks' system. Their top-10 pick Timo Meier looks great, while Jeremy Roy and Nikolay Goldobin are solid, foundational pieces. However, it falls off quickly thereafter. The depth in this system is subpar, which is less than ideal for a team that's getting older. Mind you, San Jose has found ways to fill the gaps over the years: Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi come to mind. And Meier might do the same, but at some point, they're going to need to do a bunch more restocking if one of their top youngsters misses.
25. Dallas Stars
Previous rank: 24
The top of the Dallas system looks solid. For the most part, their first-rounders are tracking well, and Esa Lindell continues to impress. However, it falls off pretty quick in the bottom of their system, and if I had to go past 10, I'd struggle to come up with players that look like real NHL prospects at the moment.
26. Washington Capitals
Previous rank: 21
Before the Capitals fans come at me with their pitchforks, here is my reasoning for the low system ranking. I wasn't a fan of the Lucas Johansen pick this year, and while I think Ilya Samsonov is a fantastic goalie prospect, the likelihood of a good return on their first-round pick of him is low, as goalie prospects are not very valuable outside of the "special" caliber of players. Madison Bowey and Riley Barber have been good but not great in the AHL, and that leaves Jakub Vrana, who has been fantastic, as the one guy left for whom I have buckets of optimism. The system still has talent, but to me, lacks in top-flight talent and significant positional value.
27. Pittsburgh Penguins
Previous rank: 30
I'm not going to sit here and pretend the Penguins' system is sunshine and roses in the bottom half of their top 10 prospects. It's a problem. However, despite trading so many high picks in recent years, a second-round pick ( Daniel Sprong) and a third-round pick ( Matt Murray) have given the top of their system equal weight with many other NHL organizations.
28. New York Rangers
Previous rank: 29
There are positives and negatives to the Rangers' system. On the negative side, there is a lack of high-end talent in this pipeline after Pavel Buchnevich. That said, the depth isn't that bad, particularly when considering how few high picks the Rangers have had in recent years (including their top pick this year being No. 81 overall). I guess what I'm saying is: It's bad, but it could be a lot worse.
29. Los Angeles Kings
Previous rank: 27
When you make one first-round pick in four years, and make five second-round picks but subsequently trade two of those players away, this is the end result. It's not horrific, but it's bad.
30. Florida Panthers
Previous rank: 22
Florida's system has been hampered by a lack of quality prospects picked after the lottery, with zero NHL regulars acquired via the draft since 2012 outside of Aaron Ekblad (No. 1 overall in 2014) and Aleksander Barkov (No. 2 overall in 2013). Couple that with the trading of Lawson Crouse, their 11th overall pick from 2015, which leaves very little in the system. Their top prospect remaining, Mike Matheson, is quite solid, and their depth is above average, but there is a lack of high-caliber talent here.