Ray Emery returns to the NHL as a Philadelphia Flyer after spending a season in the Kontinental League. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The real deal begins Thursday, but the pre-season has offered some intriguing plot lines – and we’re not talking about NHL teams losing to European club squads. In this day and age, where cap space is king and the best players in the world are younger than ever, the pre-season has become a battleground.
Players no longer use September to get in shape, but they do use it to win (and lose) jobs or solidify their spots and send messages around the league. And in an Olympic year, national team hopefuls must start strong or risk taking an unwanted two-week vacation this February.
With those in mind, we present the Top 10 pre-season performances of 2009.
10. Theo Fleury, RW, Calgary
His attempted comeback was heartwarming and, from afar, looked to be on track; Fleury finished third in Flames pre-season scoring, averaging a point per game. However, his legs just weren’t there and, in the end, the Brothers Sutter decided it wasn’t going to work; but that shootout-winner against the Islanders was magic.
9. Roberto Luongo, G, Vancouver
There will be no slow start to the season for Luongo; he’s played a lot (for a sure-fire No. 1) and well in September. In just about four full games of work, Luongo has seen just five pucks get past him, good for a 1.30 GAA and .947 SP. This being an Olympic season, it’s no surprise Luongo has started hot. Canucks and Vancouver fans both should be ecstatic.
8. Artem Anisimov, C, NY Rangers
After a sophomore American League season that ended in style with 37 goals and 81 points, Anisimov was ready to push for a job with the big club – and it appears he’s made an impression. A strong finish to the pre-season left him as the Blueshirts’ leading scorer, landing him a likely job as the third-line center with a shot at the money spot, playing with Marian Gaborik, if anyone falters.
7. Danny Syvret, D, Philadelphia
Syvret finally looks to be coming into his own. The 24-year-old netted 12 goals and 57 AHL points with the Philly Phantoms last season and looks to have sewn up the No. 6 spot with the big club this year. Syvret’s play leapfrogged him ahead of O-K Tollefsen and Randy Jones, who was subsequently waived, saving the Flyers nearly $3 million in cap space.
6. John Moore, D, Columbus
Not yet 19, the 21st pick in this past June’s draft nearly made the Blue Jackets. He was poised and confident, something not every young defenseman is. Moore finished plus-2 with four points in five games and got better as the pre-season wore on. The United States League’s 2008-09 defenseman of the year will play for the Ontario League’s Kitchener Rangers this season, but will be in the NHL before long.
5. Sergei Shirokov, RW, Vancouver
The 163rd pick of the 2006 draft has been surprisingly impressive, leading the Canucks in scoring with two goals and seven points in four pre-season contests. Shirokov has jumped ahead of Michael Grabner and Cody Hodgson (sent back to the OHL Tuesday) on the depth chart and will begin the year where many thought he wouldn’t, with the big club. The shifty Russian rookie fought hard to get to North America and it’s paid off.
4. Chris Mason, G, St. Louis
Thought Mason’s strong finish to the 2008-09 campaign was a mirage? Think again. He’s continued his hot run into 2009-10 with some gaudy pre-season numbers: a league-leading 1.00 goals-against average, .961 save percentage and a shutout in 180 minutes of work. If he keeps it up and the kids progress, the Blues are scary.
3. Viktor Stalberg, LW, Toronto
The latest and greatest in Leaf Nation is the University of Vermont product, who left school a year early to turn pro. The 23-year-old Swede was chosen 161st in 2006 (ironically – and completely unplanned – two picks before Shirokov, just where he is here) and led the Buds in scoring with six goals (most in the league) and nine points in eight games. Stalberg went from “Who?” to “Whoa!” in just a few weeks. Looks like the rookie speedster will begin the year on the second line.
2. Mike Comrie, C, Edmonton
Back in his hometown for a second go-around with the Oilers, Comrie showed flashes of the scoring star many thought he’d be when he entered the NHL. He’s the league’s leading scorer, averaging two points per game on the back of three goals and 10 points, which is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Oil. If Comrie can continue something resembling a point-per-game pace when the real games begin, it’ll take a lot of the pressure off newly minted fourth-liner Sam Gagner and the team’s not-so-prime-time No. 1 pivot, Shawn Horcoff.
1. Ray Emery, G, Philadelphia
One of the busiest netminders of the pre-season was also the one with the most to prove. He’s not done proving himself yet – far from it – but is off to a great start. The biggest question mark on the team THN has picked to win the Cup, Emery posted a 1.78 pre-season GAA and .944 SP in four-and-half games’ worth of work.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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