Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Future Watch

With FIVE weeks to go before we (already!) reach the end of the 2013 season, managers are either working the phones to try and make a final push, or exploring what they can do to improve in the future. At the moment, nine teams are seriously competing for prize money. YUKON, PINT, and MTL have occupied the top three spots for most (if not all) of the season, while WPB, SPTA, BOS, AAB, WTF, and SS round out a very interesting and crowded top half of the standings. The bottom half has some nice buns in the oven as well. So, while it's only natural to focus on the home stretch this time of the year, I thought it would be a fun change of pace to take a closer look at future WHL talent being groomed in or "recently" called up from the Junior World Hockey League.

* Known for his competitive and sometimes fiery disposition, [b]Robin Lehner[/b](MTL) has also been a very patient man in the Ottawa system. After three impressive stints with the Sens since 2010, the 21-year-old Swede is doing everything he can to show that he's ready for the bigs (.946 SvP% this year in limited NHL action, .938 in the AHL--best in the league). Craig Anderson is under contract for two more seasons, while Ben Bishop is an RFA, perhaps opening the door for Lehner to take on a full-time 1B role next year.

* Pegged to spend at least part of the season in the JWHL, [b]Jakob Silfverberg[/b] has been fixture on Mount Vernon's roster since being recalled on January 12th. The slick Swede has taken full advantage of increased ice time due to Ottawa's injury woes, and currently leads all NHL rookies in shots on goal. [b]Brandon Saad[/b] began the year in the JWHL for MVB, but was traded to the NJ Wall Flowers in late January. Saad (20) has looked increasingly comfortable skating with Toews and Kane over the past month--picking up all 11 of his assists this season since Feb. 28th.

* AAB: After battling back from a nasty concussion and delivering 31 points in 43 games for the Toronto Marlies this season, [b]Jake Gardiner[/b] is back with the big club. The University of Wisconsin product has drawn comparisons to Scott Niedermeyer for his smooth stride and nose for the net. [b]David Ullstrom[/b] has showcased his versatile game at the AHL level, registering goal-heavy and assist-heavy seasons over the past two years. HF projects Ullstrom as a solid two-way threat with more NHL upside than fellow Islanders RW prospects, Kirill Kabanov and Kirill Petrov, which is very high praise.

* BOS: Will the B's get [b]Carl Soderberg[/b] or won't they? Reports have been floating around for weeks now about the Eliteserien's scoring champion possibly crossing the pond once his team's season is finished and lacing up for his first NHL game since being drafted in 2004. Soderberg's club Linkopings HC recently advanced to the semifinals, meaning that the B's might have to wait at least one more week. Beantown's second JWHLer is another 27-year-old Bruins prospect, and son of the legendary Raymond Bourque--[b]Chris Bourque[/b]. The diminutive winger has been a prolific scorer in the AHL, but has thus far been unable to translate that success to the NHL. Hey, there's always hope for a Matt Moulson-like renaissance.

* NUTS: [b]Jack Campbell[/b] is currently backing up Kari Lehtonen after neither Richard Bachman nor Cris Nilstorp were able to get the job done. "Soupy" made his name with USA Hockey, winning WJC gold medals in 2009 and 2010 before being drafted by the Stars, 11th overall. Campbell initially struggled with his transition to the OHL, but it appears that facing some of the best Junior shooters on a regular basis has paid dividends for his overall development. A 1st round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2010, 20-year-old [b]Evgeny Kuznetsov[/b](NUTS) is already playing in his 4th season for Chelyabinsk Traktor of the KHL. The lanky and talkative forward has steadily increased his output each year, making the Caps hope that next year is finally the year that Kuznetsov brings his wizardry stateside.

* BK: [b]Anton Khudobin[/b] isn't the biggest (5.11) or youngest (26) prospect in the world, but he is battle tested at the ECHL, AHL and KHL levels, and currently has 13 NHL starts under his belt. More importantly, in those games Khudobin is rocking a 1.81 GAA and a .941 SP%. He is a superb backup behind Tuukka Rask with the ability for more, making one wonder if Khudobin will re-sign with Boston, or head elsewhere in search of more playing time.

* CK: Second only to Brandon Saad in the Chicago Blackhawk's pipeline, [b]Teuvo Teravainen[/b] is currently honing his craft with Jokerit Helsinki of the SM-liiga. The blue chip pedigree is clearly there (31 points in 44 GP), it's just a matter of how long Chicago wants the explosive skating 18-year-old to play overseas before crossing the pond. There isn't much to say right now about [b]Jake Allen[/b], except that he has more points than Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott combined. Small sample size aside, this is damn impressive stuff from a prospect that not too long ago was thought to be sliding down the St. Louis goalie depth chart.
* MTL: After scoring 22-62-64-and 56 points in four seasons with the QMJHL's Shawinigan Cataractes, [b]Michael Bournival[/b](MTL) ranks second in total points for the Hamilton Bulldogs in his first pro season. His final season of Junior points is deceiving, because Bournival played in 15 fewer games that year than in the previous year, and actually scored more goals (30 vs. 28).

* CSKA: The Wild's top prospect has All-Star potential, but hasn't been able to dive right into the NHL as so many had predicted. Still, anyone who has seen [b]Mikael Granlund[/b] play isn't worried about his future. The kid has racked up 26 points in 25 AHL games since being sent down to find his pro touch, so yeah, he'll be back. Not surprisingly, Nate Fournier (resident WHL prospect guru) has a second former WJC star in his other J slot. [b]John Gibson[/b] led Team USA to Gold in the most recent tournament, also reeling in best goaltender and overall tournament MVP honors. Gibson will report to the AHL next season following two stellar years with the Kitchener Rangers, and looks on track to compete for an NHL gig sooner rather than later (especially if the Ducks opt not to re-sign Jonas Hiller).

* YUKON: After piling up 241 points in 282 games for the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades, [b]Stefan Elliott[/b] hasn't quite panned out for the Colorado Avs. Labeling Elliott a bust at this point would be premature, but 9 points in 39 AHL games this year isn't what anyone had in mind for the offensively-gifted defenseman. [b]Kevin Poulin[/b] is another promising prospect battling through a lull this season, at least by his standards. After going 26-18-4 with a .912 SP% in 2011-12, Poulin is playing .500 hockey with a SVP% that currently ranks 41st in the AHL (.904). Still, DiPietro's days in the NYI system are numbered, and Nabokov isn't getting any younger. Poulin's time as a full-fledged #1 will come, and he is currently enjoying a cup of NHL coffee.

* Sticking with goalies, the future looks bright between the pipes for the Porter Pirates. [b]Malcolm Subban[/b] (19) is a future stud with undeniable skill, but he's also a long-term project. With relatively young goalies Tuukka Rask and Niklas Svedberg ahead of him in the queue, it's not a guarantee at this point that Boston will end up being Subban's ultimate NHL destination, but the kid will be a gamer wherever he may roam. [b]Jhonas Enroth[/b] is slight of build, but as quick and agile as they come.  One point of concern is Enroth's deteriorating ice time and the effect it might be having on his development. After pumping out 58, 48, and 41-game seasons at the AHL level, Enroth has started just 41 NHL games since 2010. Nothing left to prove in the minors--ready for more.

* The fact that 18-year-old [b]Mikhail Grigorenko[/b](PINT) wasn't able to stick in the NHL for a full (half) season says a lot more about how difficult the transition from Juniors to the NHL can be than it does about this future star's potential. Despite earning just one goal and four assists through 22 NHL games, the experience that Grigorenko gained on the defensive side of things is only going to elevate his performance now and in the future.

* I'm reluctant to say the the NHL's 6th overall pick in 2010 has been flying under the radar, but he kind of has, thanks in part to his boring name. After posting 15 points in 68 NHL games last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, [b]Brett Connolly[/b] (PINT) currently sits 5th in AHL scoring. We might actually have a competition for the most colorless name among JWHL prospects! As fate would have it, [b]Tyler Johnson[/b](SS) has been Brett Connolly's teammate in Syracuse for most of this season. And like his fellow Crunch, Johnson has scored at nearly a point-per-game clip down on the farm. Points are points, as they say, and both of these kids are legit, yo.

* Unfortunately, things aren't so rosy at the moment for Saginaw's other prospect, [b]Nino Niederreiter[/b]. It's hard to say what's going wrong in Nassau county when it comes to grooming prospects. It's one of those situations that can't possibly be as bad as it's generally portrayed, but it doesn't exactly help NYI's reputation when Nino has reportedly asked for a trade. The big guy absolutely tore it up in Juniors, scoring 77 goals in 120 games for the Portland Winterhawks before managing just ONE goal in 55 games for the Islanders in 2011-12. Niederreiter is sort of doing things in reverse, first by sticking around with the big club for way longer than was appropriate for his development, and now scoring with relative ease in the AHL, which is where he should have started his pro career.

* SCOR: Projected by many to light it up alongside Pavel Datsyuk for most of 2013, the Detroit Red Wings instead decided to give [b]Gustav Nyquist[/b](SCOR) a second season to strut his stuff in Grand Rapids. After accumulating 58 points in 56 AHL games last year, Nyquist currently leads the AHL in scoring. Even though the former UMaine Black Bear could hold his own in Detroit right now, it has long been the Red Wing philosophy to not rush prospects. [b]Morgan Rielly[/b] has the look of a future power-play QB for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but like most young offensively-minded defensmen, Rielly's top priority needs to be improving his defensive game. With Phaneuf, Gardiner, and the reemergence of Cody Franson in Toronto, there should be an intense battle for ice time (especially PP time) in September.

* TTR: Judged to be the best defenseman of the 2013 World Junior Tournament, [b]Jacob Trouba[/b] is a big, two-way technician with a smooth stride and a heavy shot. Trouba's 27 points in 35 GP for the University of Michigan is good for 5th on the team and a clear 1st among Wolverine defenders. Not bad for the freshman who was drafted 9th overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2012. [b]Stefan Matteau[/b], 19, surprised a lot of people by logging 17 games with the New Jersey Devils this season after completing two years with the U.S. National Development Team. Hockey's Future projects Matteau (who was recently assigned to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL) as a complementary second liner with the tenacity to log checking line minutes when called upon.

* WLF: The first-year Vipers are overflowing with young players, all vying to stick with the team for next season. At the heart of Wolfsburg's budding crop (not counting established NHL rooks Nazem Kadri and Nail Yakupov) is arguably the top prospect in U.S. College Hockey, [b]Nick Bjugstad[/b]. The Minnesota native is currently in his Junior season with the Golden Gophers, leading the team with 21 goals. To give you an indea of how much the Florida Panthers value their 6'6'', 220 pound centerman, Dave Tallon was reportedly unwilling to trade Bjugstad for Roberto Luongo last summer. Joining the giant gopher in the JWHL is [b]Matthew Hackett[/b] of the Minnesota Wild. Matt is the nephew of long-time NHL goalie Jeff Hackett, and is currently getting his reps with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. With Niklas Backstrom's (35, UFA) time in Minnesota perhaps nearing an end and Josh Harding's battle with MS clouding his future as a professional athlete, Hackett's chance to fulfill his potential as a starting NHL goalie (or at least a 1B) could be drawing near.