Rookies to watch at NHL training camp
Ryan Strome finished sixth in OHL scoring last season with 94 points in 53 games, his last year of junior eligibility. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Rookies to watch at NHL training camp
Taking a look at some rookies with varying degrees of potential to crack an NHL roster out of training camp. We elected to skip over the highest picks from the 2013 draft – Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Aleksander Barkov and Seth Jones – since they are expected to be there.
To qualify as an NHL rookie, you have to have played no more than 25 games the previous season, or no more than five games in consecutive seasons. Here we go, in no particular order.
Sami Vatanen - Anaheim
A fourth-rounder from 2009, Vatanen is pretty much a lock to make the Ducks out of camp - and he could have a noticeable impact throughout the season. He broke a Finnish League record for points by a rookie defenseman in 2009-10 with 30 in 55 games, scored 31 and 42 the following two seasons and finished fifth among AHL blueliners with 45 points last season. He's trending up and should get that one last promotion this season.
Frank Corrado, Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce - Vancouver
Vancouver’s top-heavy collection of forwards makes up for an average bottom-six that is relatively weak and inexperienced at the center position. Enter 2012 and 2013 first round picks Gaunce and Horvat. While the inside track for a pivot position on a depth line goes to the more experienced Jordan Schroeder, if one (or both) of these two rookies has a strong camp, the Canucks will consider them. They may not have to play center either, as we’ve seen top center prospects play on the wing in their early years (Tyler Seguin, Charlie Coyle).
On the back end there is Corrado, who got a sip of NHL action for three regular season and four playoff games. Capable at both ends of the ice, holstering a bruising slap shot, Corrado is in a dogfight with Yannick Weber for the No. 6 spot on the blueline. The contract situation may favor Weber – who has a one-way deal – but Corrado could make it impossible for Vancouver to say no with a strong camp.
Max Domi – Phoenix
First round picks don't make Dave Tippett’s teams right out of the draft very often – in fact, Domi is the first Coyote under the coach to even be considered to make the immediate jump. Being a projected scorer on a team that needs all the goals it can get, Domi’s natural abilities will be a big plus. Also, as Tippett told the Arizona Republic: “The position he plays, I think, is probably one of the easiest positions to break in. …Winger would be the one area where a guy could come in and possibly have an impact. So he’s got a couple of those things going for him.”
The last player to go No. 12 overall and earn a permanent NHL spot in his first year was Cam Fowler of Anaheim in 2010-11.
Zemgus Girgensons - Buffalo
The youngest player in the American League last season, the Latvian brings good size, grit and growing confidence. He played on the wing rather than his preferred center position last year and was eased into the pro game, so don’t let his 17 points fool you. Girgensons played three games in the Calder Cup playoffs, scoring three goals and looking like a more polished player. Since the Sabres are heading down the path of rebuild, Girgensons should get a look this season. A strong camp could earn him that look in October – if not, it should come at some point this season, at center or not.
Ryan Murphy, Brett Bellemore – Carolina
The Hurricanes blueline is its Achilles heel, which may open up an opportunity for someone in the system. Ryan Murphy isn’t the safest guy if you’re looking for someone who’s going to help Carolina cut down on its 26th-ranked shots-against average from last season, but he could be an offense-creating sparkplug. High risk, potentially high reward, he’s gotten a sniff before, nearly making the team out of the draft and earning four call-up games last season. If easing Cam Ward’s workload is the goal, perhaps Brett Bellemore will find a home. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder is more bruising and less of a skater, most likely a third-pair guy, but he won’t be confused with a productive player. It’s unlikely both players will make the roster – and it may end up that neither do.
Up front, fifth overall pick Elias Lindholm and fellow Swede Victor Rask are also intriguing possibilities to earn a spot in camp over yearly candidates such as Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who was waived at one point last season.
Kevin Connauton, Jamie Oleksiak, Alex Chiasson, Brett Ritchie – Dallas
The unimproved and mediocre Stars defense is the most troubling area on a non-playoff team that took a wrench to its center position over the summer. Sergei Gonchar is the only new face on a blueline that seems, most likely, set with the same core. But two rookies, Connauton and Oleksiak, could make their presence felt in camp. Connauton appears to be the low man on the depth chart (of those who will make a push for Dallas this season), but his offensive capabilities are exactly the kind of skill set the Stars will need in the future. Oleksiak, leading blueline scorer with the AHL Texas Stars last season, may have a more realistic shot at the NHL roster out of camp. A towering defender chosen 14th overall in 2011, Oleksiak would have to beat out Jordie Benn. Even then, if Oleksiak makes the team the Stars would have to play him, or else he may as well stay in the AHL, which means he’d also have to beat out Aaron Rome.
Up front, Stars fans will see more of Alex Chiasson this season after he set the bar incredibly high with six goals and seven points in seven NHL games last season. Just don’t count on him being that prolific of a producer over a full year. Ritchie appears destined to start the year in the AHL after concluding his junior career, but his size and early production in five games with Texas last season are certainly appealing.
Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak - Florida
Because of Florida’s island of misfit forwards (plus Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov), Harvey Fialkov of the Sun Sentinel suggests only one spot is available up front. That, too, may go to Ottawa castoffs Jesse Winchester or Bobby Butler, but one of three rookies could also snag the spot with a strong camp. Bjugstad, who played 11 games with the Panthers after finishing his University of Minnesota career last season, may have had his foot in the door, but he sustained a concussion at the end of rookie camp, which is always troubling. Still, he played 10 games for the Americans at the World Championship, was invited to the country’s Olympic orientation camp and brings a young, projectable and intriguing frame to the table. Dogged worker Howden could be next in line, though he went pointless in 18 games with Florida last season. Trocheck is a real wild card here. He scored 50 goals in 63 OHL games last season and was awarded the Red Tilson Trophy as the league’s most outstanding player. He could be worth a shot on a top-two line early in the season. Still, odds are all three will start in San Antonio.
Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic are the rookies with the best opportunity to crack the roster from the blueline. There aren’t as many spots consumed by veterans back there and with Ed Jovanovski out, either big-bodied rookie could make it. Inside track goes to Petrovic, the 2010 second-rounder.
Matt Dumba - Minnesota
When Dumba is on the ice your head better be up – if it isn’t, he has a propensity for sitting opponents down. He also has an ability to create offense, which the Wild could use from the blueline, but he’s an all-in player and brings an element of risk to his game. He’d have to beat out a veteran or two to earn a spot, but what Dumba has going for him is he shoots right and Minnesota’s blueline is full of lefties. He’s still junior eligible though and you never ruin players by slowly taking them along.
Ryan Murray, Boone Jenner - Columbus
Murray earned rave reviews at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, his first game action since injuring his shoulder with WHL Everett last November. The calm, two-way abilities of the 2012 second-overall pick could round out a quietly strong Columbus defense corps.
Boone Jenner is this team’s wild card. He could be a real, uh, boon to the team should he make it out of camp. There’s no doubting the 2011 second-rounder’s work ethic. A two-time participant for Canada at the WJC, Jenner was also voted the OHL’s hardest working player by the league’s coaches two years in a row. He has a powerful frame, is strong on the draw and scored nine points in 13 games (regular season and playoff) with AHL Springfield at the end of last season. There’s some unlocked potential here that Columbus could reap – and he may give them a taste this season.
Eric Gelinas, Alex Urbom, Jon Merrill, Reid Boucher – New Jersey
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told Tom Gulitti at NorthJersey.com: “If we’ve got a young player that’s better than a veteran, then it’s our job to make room for him.” So, that’ll make for an interesting camp for this team in transition. Certainly there are opportunities on the blueline, where Gelinas, Urbom and Merrill, who each play the game differently, will make a case for their presence on the opening night roster. Merrill gets the inside track here because he appears to be the most-rounded of the three and had a strong showing (eight points in 12 games) with AHL Albany at the end of last season, after moving on from the University of Michigan. Reid Boucher, a fourth-rounder from 2011, is also garnering lots of attention. He led the OHL with 62 goals last season, more than doubling his output from a year before. He may be better served with a season (or at least most of one) in the AHL, but as the Devils search to replace the hole on offense left by Ilya Kovalchuk’s departure, the 20-year-old, first-year pro could be a convenient fit.
Matt Donovan, Calvin De Haan, Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Pulock, Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson – NY Islanders
The departure of Mark Streit may open up a spot for a new face on New York’s blueline, with Matt Donovan the most likely beneficiary. A gold medalist with the 2010 American WJC squad, Donovan has developed into an excellent two-way threat, totaling 93 points in 147 AHL games over the past two seasons and leading the development league in blueliner scoring in 2012-13. At 6-foot, 205 pounds, he could be the exact fit the Islanders need. The other, younger options for the blueline are either coming back from an injury (De Haan) or are still eligible for junior (Reinhart, Pulock), so the Islanders will likely take the more cautious route with them, as long as Donovan stays healthy through camp.
And there are still more options for rookie infusion up front. Major junior scoring superstar Ryan Strome, the fifth overall pick from 2011, appears to have the inside track for an NHL roster spot. The two-time member of Canada’s WJC team, Strome has been (much) better than a point per game player in the OHL for the past three years. Depending on how smooth his transition is to the pro game, he could be a third or even second line center for the Isles this season and begin to shape the all-important secondary scoring line behind John Tavares. But if GM Garth Snow opts to send Strome to Bridgeport for his first pro season, Brock Nelson (30th overall in 2010) would stand to benefit. He scored 25 goals and 52 points in 66 AHL games as a rookie pro last season and even played a post-season NHL game, logging 7:44 of ice in overtime against the Penguins. Anders Lee looks like the long shot at this point. Even though he posted two points in two call-up games with the Islanders late last season, this will be his first pro year after finishing three years at Notre Dame.
Mark Barberio, Vlad Namestnikov, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, Tyler Johnson – Tampa Bay
GM Steve Yzerman added Ben Bishop at last year’s trade deadline to shore up a young goalie tandem to move forward with, but he did nothing to improve a subpar defense corps over the summer, mostly because he wants to give someone like Mark Barberio a chance. A year after leading all AHL blueliners in scoring, Barberio finished sixth with another very respectable season of 42 points. Since the lack of movement on the blueline over the summer was a vote of confidence, Barberio seems to be a safe bet to start the year with the Lightning.
Up front, Tampa Bay has some intriguing options, though not much room. Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik and Tyler Johnson were all leaders on offense for Calder Cup finalist Syracuse last season. The question is whether or not the Lighting would use a third or even fourth line spot for one of these scoring rookies, since that particular skill set is covered with the current lineup. Vlad Namestnikov could throw his hat into the ring with a strong camp, but he was limited to 44 AHL games last season, his first as a pro, so the team could elect to remain more cautious with him.
Oscar Lindberg, Chris Kreider – NY Rangers
With Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin expected to miss the start of the regular season with shoulder injuries, and since Derek Stepan is still unsigned, there are opportunities for a rookie or two to crack the opening night lineup. Chris Kreider certainly has the inside track, given his size, draft standing, experience at the pro (and NHL playoff) level, and potential as an NHL goal scorer. But don't count out Oscar Lindberg, a second round pick by Phoenix in 2010. He turned a lot of heads at the Traverse City Prospects tournament with seven points in four games and has been playing in Sweden’s top league the past four years. Jesper Fast and Marek Hrivik should also be paid attention to at camp, though should be considered long shots to make the team.
Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele – Winnipeg
If Jacob Trouba and his vast potential crack the opening night lineup for Winnipeg, an already tantalizing collection of blueliners would get even more rich with potential. A US Olympic orientation camp invitee, World Championship contributor and 2013 WJC top defenseman, Trouba has all-world potential and appears NHL ready. He brings a well-rounded game that can be brought along with gradual responsibility at the NHL level on a defense corps with all types of talent.
If Trouba isn't a lock, Scheifele sure is. The motor of the Barrie Colts’ run to the OHL final last season, Scheifele has developed into a man body that looks ready for the rigors of NHL action. The question is whether he’ll center the second line, or the third, which will have greater checking responsibilities. Some of that will depend on what Olli Jokinen has left in the tank – and some will depend on exactly how ready Scheifele is to contribute.
Tom Wilson – Washington
Even though he’s still eligible for junior, 6-foot-4, 210-pound Tom Wilson is ready to step into the man’s game. A beast of a player and a potential producer, Wilson is the kind of intimidating sandpaper player Washington has been adding around its collection of high-level superstars the past two or three years. At the very least, he’s outgrown junior hockey and should get a nine-game regular season trial in Washington, after which they may find it impossible to send him back down. Even though he was a surprise omission from Canada’s WJC squad last winter, make no mistake – this is not a player you want to go into a corner with at any level.
Morgan Rielly – Toronto
Since Cody Franson is still unsigned, there’s a lot of buzz that Rielly will at least get a nine-game regular season trial. A powerfully smooth skater and offensive wizard, Rielly is an exciting prospect picked fifth overall in 2012. The only thing is, even without Franson, Toronto has six or seven NHL-capable defenders. The team has had bad luck rushing prospects in from junior before, so Rielly may find his way back to WHL Moose Jaw in the end. If not, he’s done something special.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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