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Where are they now: Some names from top 25 lists of the past

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The Top 25 Under 25 has been going for a while now, and some of those lists are old enough to be as embarrassing as high school yearbook pictures. Those players are not NHL stars right now, so where are they?

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Luca Caputi

Caputi his the list in the winter of 2012 at spot 25. (The first list was in January that year, not the summer, which became the norm a few months later.) He was traded by the Leafs just before the article about him was posted.

He was described this way:

Caputi's scoring prowess exhibited in the OHL with the Niagara Ice Dogs and in Wilkes-Barre never seemed to translate to his NHL game. The scouting reports pegged as a "nose for the net" kind of guy, the sort of player who would take the punishment in front of the net necessary to pick up the garbage goals. But in his time with the Leafs it never seemed to materialize; not the strongest of skaters, Caputi always seemed to be unable to get to the dangerous areas in time to make good on his chances. In 26 games over parts of 2 seasons with the Leafs, Caputi registered just 1 goal and 6 points.

That's stirring, isn't it? There's no one approaching that sort of level of inability that would even be playing on the Leafs now.

Caputi was a good Toronto boy who played in the OHL and was drafted by the Penguins. Toronto got him in a trade, and then moved him on to the Ducks in exchange for another player who never caught on anywhere, Nicolas Deschamps, who nonetheless made the first summer list in 2012 at spot 19.

Caputi played two uneventful seasons in the AHL, then moved on to two different teams over two seasons in the Swedish Allsvenskan where he was closer to the right level of play for him.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he retired from hockey in 2015 at the age of 26 and became the assistant coach of the Guelph Storm of the OHL.

Keith Aulie

Aulie appeared on that winter 2012 list at number 10, and he's one of only three players ever ranked 10 or below on any list to play more than 100 NHL games. The other two are Joe Colborne and Martin Marincin.

Aulie is from Saskatchewan, and came out of the defenceman factory of the WHL. He was drafted by Calgary and then traded to Toronto as part of the Dion Phaneuf deal after one unimpressive year in the AHL. He is not a scorer; his highest point total in pro hockey was nine points on the Marlies in his first full year with the organization in 2010-2011.

The write up for him in January of 2012 was optimistic, but did contain this ominous paragraph:

Simple statistics like goals, assists and points don't tell the full story for defence-first guys like Aulie. Last year with the Leafs, Aulie was significantly outshot at even strength, with a CORSI ON rating of -21.52 (Mike Komisarek, another defence-first defenceman, was next worst among Leaf regulars* at -9.68). If you're not familiar with CORSI, it means that not only were the Leafs outshot when Aulie was on the ice, they were SIGNIFICANTLY outshot.

Aulie was traded to Tampa for Carter Ashton about a month after that was posted, and we all know how that worked out.

But what about Aulie?

Tampa tried him out, he rode the bus in the AHL a lot, they moved him to Edmonton where nothing changed. He did a few games on a PTO on another AHL team last year and then he played out the season for HIFK in Finland. Which means he got to watch Patrik Laine win the championships right there from ice level, just not in a good way.

His point production in the Liiga was not bad for a defence first guy, but at 27 he's without a contract for this year and his future is unknown.

Brandon Kozun

Kozun appeared on the list in 2014 in 24th after being traded to the Leafs after a successful career in the AHL in the Kings organization.

It's easy to lose sight of the fact that the AHL is still a quality hockey league, and Kozun, at age 24, is still at an age where future development isn't out of the question. Having said that, Kozun's a little on the smaller side, though, so trying to picture him in a bottom six role in the NHL is a bit tough, especially on a team coached by Randy Carlyle, and especially with the vast amount of bottom-six options brought in to the Maple Leafs this summer.

He played 20 games in the NHL in the year after that was written and didn't score much during the season of horrors that was 2014-2015. The Leafs did not renew his contract last summer, and not finding an NHL job, he played one year for Jokerit in the KHL where he absolutely killed it, finishing 13th in points in the league and tied with Ilya Kovalchuk.

Kozun was made for the KHL. I don't know if he likes there or wants desperately to leave, but he is perfect for the speed game of that league, where you don't just skate fast, you think fast. He was traded to Lokomotiv for this season where he plays with this year's number 25, Yegor Korshkov. He is the star of the team, rivalled by linemate Max Talbot, and they play a delightful high-energy, almost madcap, aggressive style that is so much fun to watch.

Sondre Olden

Olden showed up on the first list in 2012 at 19th. He was a late-round draft pick, a prospect the Red Wings were said to be after.

The problem is that to date, Olden's body of work is pretty limited and what's there hasn't blown me away. He's certainly been dealt an unlucky hand; he's played in three U20 Championships, twice in the second tier and once where his team got blown away, his only pro experience came for a last-place team in the SEL, and he jumped to the OHL only to land on the worst team in the league. And now his fellow Leaf prospect isn't even there anymore.

Still 19, Olden has time on his side and hopefully the Otters will improve enough that he can give a stronger showing in his overage year next season.

Olden never had that overage year in Erie, and he never played in North America again. He went right back to Norway for two years and then signed with Brynäs in the SHL. He played part of the year there, then a second full season with very unimpressive points. He's slated to play for Leksands in the SHL this year.

Whatever the scouts saw in him as a junior, it never materialized, and he seems much more suited to the Norwegian league than the SHL. Sweden pays a lot more, of course.

Teemu Hartikainen

Never really a Leaf prospect, just someone the Leafs had rights to for a second or two, Hartikainen nonetheless made the list in 2014.

So how do you try and place Hartikainen in the context of this list? Just on terms of talent, he probably falls in the "AAAA player" category; he’s done well in his time in the AHL, and hasn’t contributed or been given much opportunity in the NHL. He’s almost like a Finnish Carter Ashton that way. But without a contract, and 24 years old, is he truly even a prospect? Is he even a member of the Maple Leafs organization? At least part of the reason he was on the list of eligible players was simply because I couldn’t find anything that said his rights had expired or been renounced by the Leafs.

He only ever played in the NHL because Oilers. After he left to go to the KHL, he became a successful fixture for Salavat Yuleav kicking out 30 - 40 points per season. He's under contract through this year, and the occasional speculation about him aside, he's not anywhere near Kozun's level or a probable NHL player, but he seems to have found the right place for him.

Jesse Blacker

Blacker appeared on three prospect lists, beginning with both 2012 lists at number nine. In 2013, he dropped one spot to number 10. He is the highest-ranked prospect on the first two lists to never play more than nine NHL games so far. Matt Finn beats him for that honour in 2013, at number seven.

He was a Toronto draft pick at 58th overall in 2009. He is from Toronto and played junior in the OHL.

From the summer of 2012 list, he was described this way:

Yet another defenceman in the organization that is highly valued for his strong positional play, Blacker is also a very strong skater with a powerful stride, and loves to use it by rushing the puck up the ice to spearhead an attack. Blacker is fairly well-rounded as a defenceman, and fits in with the recent trend of D acquired under Brian Burke's development plan, along with Stuart PercyPetter Granberg, Matt Finn, and Jake Gardiner among others.

If anything that paragraph shows us how hard defence prospects are to figure out even if you have watched them play at lower levels.

Blacker was traded to the Ducks after playing only 5 games for the Marlies in 2013. What came back was Brad Staubitz, who played one year on the Marlies, one in Germany and is now about to become an OHL coach for the Sarnia Sting, and Peter Holland—a good deal, as it turns out.

Blacker played one NHL game for the Ducks, his only NHL game, and was traded shortly after the AHL season began to Florida, where he played one AHL year precisely as well as he'd played everywhere else.

He signed a deal with the Texas Stars the next summer, and again, was exactly who he is. He is slated to play in the DEL in the coming season just like Staubitz did. If all this holds to the narrative that keeps emerging, he'll be an OHL coach before he's 30.

Matt Frattin

Frattin appeared on both 2012 lists, first at nine and then at six in the summer. He was a Leaf draft pick, and played NCAA hockey for four years, although he is from Alberta. While in the middle of a season that saw a mix of NHL and AHL time in 2012, he was described this way:

Watching him, you get the sense that this is a player just trying to put all of his talents together. At the AHL level, the first thing you notice is his speed; in a league populated by guys who have all the tools to be an NHLer except for footspeed, his ability to accelerate away from the other players gives him a real chance to succeed. Right now he's a player who just needs the confidence to know that he can beat goalies at this level; he's a player who can generate scoring opportunities for himself and others, but just can't find the back of the net with consistency at the moment.

He played 56 NHL games that year, and 25 the next.

In the summer of 2013, before he could end up on the list again, and I'd love to know where he would have been, he was bundled off with Ben Scrivens for Jonathan Bernier.

The truth is Frattin was not scoring anywhere on any team up until then. Things got worse in LA. The Kings sent him and a pick to Columbus for Marian Gaborik at the deadline that year, and he appeared in only 4 games for the Blue Jackets.

Frattin returned to Toronto in exchange for Jerry D'Amigo in the summer of 2014 at the age of 26. The Leafs played him in 9 games, sent him to the Marlies, and...he was very good!

For two full Marlies seasons, he was a solid second or third line winger who put up points the like of which he hadn't seen since college. He wore the A for the Marlies last year and then in the weirdest twist of all, was traded to Ottawa in the Dion Phaneuf deal, but loaned back to the Marlies where he carried on, business as usual, playing well, but not quite as well as the previous year. He had no playing time in the playoffs, however.

And now at 28, he is in limbo. He has no contract. He never was a member of the Ottawa organization, so they wouldn't give him a thought, and the Marlies have moved on to youth in a big way.

I liked him a lot on the Marlies as a solid depth player you could count on to always play hard, but it's obvious he found his place too late to keep it. I can't help but wonder if he'd clicked in the AHL somewhere before, he might have had a long career there.

The Stockton Heat, affiliate of the Clagary Flames, who seem to be doing everything late this offseason, signed Frattin to an AHL deal on September 2, so he has another year to play, and I hope it's a good one.

Conclusion

Researching all these stories as a lover of all kinds of pro hockey leagues, I can't help but see the ones who found their fit—Brandon Kozun and Teemu Hartikainen are the lucky ones, even if someone like Frattin can claim more NHL time.

Very few drafted players ever make the NHL. A lot fewer have real careers there. A lot fewer have meaningful and memorable careers. It's a tough business, and I wonder how many of these guys, if they had it to do over again, would find a better fit sooner, by giving up the big dream for a lesser one before it's too late.

It also seems like, just like PPP prospect rankers, NHL general managers don't want to give up believing either. Lots of marginal players bounce around the league until they're 25 as one team after another tries them out. They rarely have a renaissance season like Frattin's, and it more rarely happens in the NHL. But faint hopes are why the draft is seven rounds and teams keep looking for the next one. He'll be the one, won't he? The next prospect your eye falls on. He'll be the star.