The weather cools down, the days get shorter and it seems hockey fans across the nation are salivating as the season of puck approaches. While fans are trading in their flip-flops for closed toe shoes as they enter the arena for the first time in months, many NHL prospects are eagerly awaiting their chance to prove that their hard work all summer has will pay off. For most NHL hopefuls, the prospect tournament is the first chance that these young kids get to prove to their organizations that they made the correct choice in selecting them in the NHL draft. Today, we take a quick rundown at some of the more notable 2011 draftees who performed well at the prospect tournaments over the past week.
Traverse City Prospects Tournament
The Traverse City Prospect tournament in Michigan was highlighted last season by standout rookie Jeff Skinner who went from being a “long shot” of make the Canes to forcing his way onto the opening day roster with his stellar play. Skinner did not only force the hands of the Canes’ coaching staff into playing him regularly with his strong play but also impressed the NHL Award vote holders enough for them to honour Skinner as the 2011 Calder Trophy recipient. Last week, top prospects from eight NHL franchises attended the tournament organized by Red Wings’ General Manager Ken Holland.
Young Stars Tournament
Across the continent, the Vancouver Canucks were holding their annual Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, British Columbia featuring prospects from the Canucks, Jets, Flames, Sharks and Oilers including first overall selection Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The veterans of the tournament included Anton Lander (Edmonton, 3 points), Calgary’s Max Reinhart (3 assists), Michael Sgarbossa (2 points), and Vancouver’s Darren Archibald (2 goals, 1 assist). Winnipeg Jet’s fans should be pleased with the performance of their top pick of the 2011 draft as Mark Scheifele displayed the skill and size that lead GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to select the talented Barrie Colt. Scheifele showed flashes of brilliance as Winnipeg’s best player on his way to notching two goals and an assist. Other notable 2011 draftee’s included first round picks Sven Baertschi (Calgary’s 13th overall pick, 2 goals), Nicklas Jensen (Vancouver’s 29thpick, 1 assist) and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2 assists).
The stat sheet does not do justice for the play of Scheifele, Baertschi, Jensen or Nugent-Hopkins as all three of these first round picks had their moments creating crowd pleasing plays. Specifically, Nugent-Hopkins was a one-man highlight show as he dominated the rink and exhibited his elite vision and playmaking skills that Oiler fans will soon come to appreciate first hand. Scheifele was no stranger to some highlight reel plays either and his strong play from start to finish will quickly put any doubters to rest that the Winnipeg Jets made the right decision with their first round pick.
Oshawa Prospects Tournament
In the Greater Toronto Area, fans scattered to the General Motors Centre in Oshawa, Ontario to catch a first-hand glimpse of their teams’ future hopefuls. Prospects from Toronto, Ottawa, Chicago and Pittsburgh brought some extremely entertaining and competitive hockey over the weekend tournament. Entering the tournament, Ottawa had the favourable odds with such a talented and deep team. It was a tournament where both veterans and first time prospect participants exceled. Ottawa’s Robin Lehner, Andre Petersson, Stephane Da Costa, Mark Stone, David Runblad and Jared Cowen were among the veteran leadership and all three of them proved to be a stabilizing presence among first year rookies en route to winning the tournament.
With three first round picks in the 2011 NHL Draft, Ottawa was flush with enviable talent which included Mika Zibanejad (6th overall), Stefan Noesen (21st), Matt Puempel (25th) and second round pick Shane Prince (61st). The intensity and skillset that top draft pick Mika Zibanejad displayed each game was a sight to behold. Simply put, Mika Zibanejad dominated the Oshawa Prospects Tournament. The big strong center is a swift skater with soft hands and demonstrated that he has game-changing skills. Senator fans should be excited about their group of prospects lead by forward Mika Zibanejad upfront, defensemen David Rundblad and Jared Cowen on the backend and AHL All-Star Robin Lehner between the pipes.
On the other side of the battle of Ontario, the Toronto Maple Leafs introduced their fans to its future by icing a competitive team that eventually fell to the Ottawa Senators. Defensemen Jesse Blacker and Jake Gardiner showed flashes of potential throughout the tournament while forwards Gregg McKegg, Jamie Devane, Matt Frattin and Josh Nicholls appeared to get stronger as the games unfolded. The biggest surprise for Leaf nation was the strong play of recently signed Swedish netminder Mark Owuya as he continually kept the Maple Leafs in close games with key saves. Unfortunately, the Leafs were unable to showcase their 2011 top draft pick Tyler Biggs (22nd overall) as USHL and NCAA players did not participate in the prospect tournament. Moreover, Stuart Percy (25th) was injured in the early contests of the tournament preventing him from participating for the remainder of the tournament.
Chicago Blackhawks’ prospects Phillip Danault (26th) and Brandon Saad (43rd) were extremely impressive as they combined for some nice passing goals. Mark McNeil (18thoverall) was not as consistent as scouts wanted but the first round skillset was present in short bursts.
From a prospects standpoint, the Pittsburgh Penguins struggled to find any sort of groove and there were not many prospects that rose to the top. Joe Morrow (23rd) was far and away the best Penguin prospect and he has the potential to become one of the 2011 draft day steals. Morrow is a fluid skater with soft hands capable of feeding his teammates extremely difficult passes. The poise and calmness Morrow exudes on the ice is a trait that is usually difficult to find even among veteran NHLers. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had great success at drafting defenseman but the search for a top forward (specifically a winger) drafted outside of a lottery pick continues.
The annual prospect tournaments provide the future stars of the NHL the chance at elite competition among peers the same age. Year after year, the NHL comes across one or two skilled prospects that carry their success from the prospect tournaments into the NHL main training camp hoping to eventually secure a roster spot. Last year, defenseman TJ Brodie (Calgary), center Derek Stepan (New York Rangers) and winger Jeff Skinner (Carolina) impressed their clubs enough to earn a nine game NHL trial. Stepan and Skinner proved ready enough to not only survive the nine-game stint but to remain on their NHL clubs’ main rosters the entire season. The 2011 draft class has a few potential candidates to crack NHL rosters this season but whether or not they can earn a full season pass will ultimately be decided over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.