Welcome to the November 2013 edition of On the Rush, a monthly column featuring prospects at various competition levels who are either exceeding expectations or falling a little behind.
In the first edition of the 2013-14 season, we take a look at how some of the NHL's rookies are faring a quarter of the way through the season as well as at how the pressure of being a top pick in the 2013 NHL Draft has affected some prospects.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
With a draft class that was dominated with names like Nathan MacKinnon (COL), Seth Jones (NAS), and Jonathan Douin (TBL), former Ottawa 67's center Sean Monahan slid in at sixth overall and has arguably been the most impressive player of the bunch thus far. His first October in the NHL saw him net 10 points in 12 games, as well as being a key target on the team’s power play. His line with Sven Baertschi and Jiri Hudler was incredibly hot to start the season and a major reason why Calgary had a better start to the season than many expected.
While he has cooled off a touch in early November, the energy that Monahan brings to the Flames is the panacea they need to jumpstart their rebuild. He has put up offensive numbers on a rather thin offensive squad, and he has all the makings of a leader moving forward with the Flames.
Going back to his standout postseason performance, Torey Krug has made a huge impact on the Bruins roster. When he is on the ice, he can carry the puck up the ice with speed and will not hesitate to shoot if given the chance. His point presence as well as his booming slap shot on the power play (three goals and three assists) has allowed the Bruins to put Zdeno Chara in front of the net as a screen. Through his first 19 games, he has recorded six goals, six assists, a plus-four rating, and 22 blocked shots. He currently leads rookie defensemen in goals and points.
Despite the early accomplishments, Krug has areas of his game to work on. Sometimes he is over-anxious when moving the puck out of his own end and has been susceptible coughing the puck up (his 10 giveaways lead all Bruins defensemen). Nevertheless, the undersized blueliner plays with his heart on his sleeve and is committed to improving his style at both ends of the ice.
North American Junior
Nurse was a homerun selection for the Edmonton Oilers who have been void of a blue chip defensive prospect for what seems like a decade. The big 6'4 defenseman who is captaining the Greyhounds, had a tremendous start to the season. He has been Soo’s primary defender, playing huge minutes in all situations. He has also put up 23 points and held a plus-two rating through 21 games.
Possessing a combination of size, skill and toughness, Nurse plays a huge game and that has to excite the Oilers management and fans. At 18 years old and off to a blistering start in his third season of OHL competition, it seems like it is more a question of when he will have an NHL impact rather than if. As he rounds out the finer aspects of his game and continues to develop, the anticipation for his NHL career in Alberta will certainly grow.
Mantha is having a record-breaking season in the QMJHL. Only months after a career season when he finished with 89 points in 67 games, the Quebec native is currently on pace to shatter that mark. In 23 games played, he has 24 goals (eight power play and four shorthanded), 30 assists, along with an 18-percent shooting percentage. He currently leads the league in scoring and was named the TELUS first star of the month for October.
Detroit recently signed the right winger to an entry-level contract. Fans in the Motor City are excited for the day he joins the club, but will have to wait until at least this off-season. A pure goal-scorer, he simply knows where and when to be in the offensive zone. Thus far, his consistency has been great. It will be interesting to see how Mantha responds to a slump.
North American Amateur
Johnny Gaudreau, LW – Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted by the Calgary Flames
4th round, 104th overall in 2011
The man nicknamed “Johnny Hockey” is off to a great start after having one of the best collegiate performances of the entire NCAA last year. The winner of the Hockey East player of the year and a gold medal with Team USA has 10 goals and 10 assist in his first 11 games this year with Boston College. At 5’7, his size is a major concern, but with the all-around game Gaudreau is showcasing, it becomes hard to weigh that against him.
While a stick tap certainly goes out to Anaheim Ducks prospect Kevin Roy who is also off to a worthy start, Gaudreau has been playing in every situation for BC and to great success. He has put up points in both power play and shorthanded situations thus far. It will be interesting to see how the season wears on for the junior, but he is well on his way to having a third consecutive 20-plus goal NCAA season.
It is becoming more apparent that Barber is becoming one of the most exciting players at the college level. After a splendid freshman season that saw him win gold with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, followed by the distinction as CCHA Rookie of the Year and earning First Team honors, the Pittsburgh native is off to a great start in his sophomore year.
Through 12 games, he is Miami’s leading goal scorer with nine goals, including three power play and one shorthand, to go with eight assists. With his all-around play and tremendous skating, he could garner discussion for the Hobey Baker Award.
It remains to be seen if Barber will opt to leave school early, possibly during this off-season. He has grown from an unknown to a well-respected prospect. He also has grown much bigger from his small stature before he entered college. There might not be more for him to prove if he continues to dominate the NCAA.
While there might have been a little disappointment when Teräväinen returned to Jokerit in the Liiga of Finland after an impressive Hawks training camp, he is doing exactly what the team expected of him. As one of the younger players at 19 on Jokerit’s roster, the Finn has played steady and well-rounded hockey. While his two-way game was somewhat criticized leading up to the 2012 NHL Draft, he is showing a decent amount of growth in that area and improving day by day. With 13 points through his first 18 games, it looks like he is on his way to topping his point totals from last season. He is in the top-50 in scoring in Liiga while playing around five to six fewer games than those around him.
Whether or not the Blackhwaks follow through with their plan to bring him to North America in 2014-15 remains to be seen, but the skilled playmaker has a lot of promise. With an overall improvement in his defensive game and to his skating, he will be over with the Blackhawks sooner rather than later.
The Islanders have had a revolving door of goaltenders man their net for some time. With an aging, if unsteady, Evgeni Nabokov, this might be the best chance for their prospects to seize the reins. While Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson remain in North America, the team’s third pro goaltender is making a name for himself overseas. Mikko Koskinen was loaned to Europe due to the crowded crease in the minors in 2011-12. Since then, he has moved up to Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL and has become one of the league’s top netminders. In the first 18 games of the season, he leads the KHL with both his .952 save percentage and his 1.43 goals against average.
The lanky 6’7, 165-pound goaltender can fill most of the net, especially when he goes down into the butterfly. Tall goalies tend to be slower on their feet, but it seems Koskinen has learned how to move with speed throughout his crease. After the Islanders tendered him in 2012, he chose to remain in Europe playing for KalPa Kuopio in Finland’s Liiga at the time. It is uncertain what his future in the NHL bears, but it is apparent he is developing into a solid puck stopper.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
It is common for a player coming out of juniors to struggle in his first pro year and Duncan Siemens is no exception. The defense-first blueliner has particularly struggled to adapt to the speed of the pro game. While skating and physicality have always been two of Siemens better qualities, he is just a touch behind the speed of the game and does not seem consistently engaged physically.
While points are not really going to matter for the big defenseman, the minus-four rating is among the lower marks on the team. He will also need to get more engaged physically and start using that 6’4 frame to his advantage. He definitely has time to adjust, and the transition is frequently tough for junior defenseman.
As Buffalo’s season toils away, so too does Mikhail Grigorenko. Dating back to last season, the youngster has been in and out of the line-up. Sabres coaches have tried to place him in different roles in hopes to kick-start the centerman. Unfortunately for the Sabres brass, his lack of confidence is hindering his ability to adjust. Since the team burned a year of his entry-level contract last season, it is unlikely they will send him down to juniors.
The 19-year-old forward only has scored three points in 15 games played. There have been moments where he makes a brilliant pass or shows good effort in controlling the puck for stretches in a game. The issue is that it has come in spurts, but hope may be on the horizon. Enter Buffalo’s new management of Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan. Both have proven in the past they can work with young players. Hopefully they will help guide the talented Grigorenko as well.
North American Junior
While Domi had an offensively productive October with seven points in eight games, he was a minus-three and missed four games early in the month on a suspension for a thoughtless flying elbow at the head of Guelph’s Brock McGinn (CAR). In the modern NHL, people are definitely going to take notice of things like that and Domi may already have a black mark hanging over his head before he even steps foot in the NHL.
Domi and the Knights are loaded with offensive talent, but got off to a sluggish start before gaining some momentum in November. Overall Domi has to find that level of playing on the edge and not crossing it. He cannot be hurting his team with penalties and plays like that, especially when they need him so desperately up front.
The Montreal Canadiens have lacked a true power forward that can provide puck protection, player policing, and scoring. Their rivals, Boston, Toronto, even Buffalo, feature those types of characters that are not afraid to give, receive bruises and put the puck in the back of the net. Management decided to take McCarron with their first round pick in this year’s draft to address that need.
McCarron does exactly what the Canadians require of him. The 6’5, 237-pound winger is excellent at shielding the puck down low, going to the dirty areas with or without the puck, using his good hands to create space, and dropping the gloves when needed. His skating is fine for his size, although it is not one of his strengths.
The winger is undergoing a learning curve. For him, his biggest challenge is understanding how to use his size in a faster game. In 20 games played, he has three goals, five assists, 33 penalty minutes, and a plus-two rating. However, most of his numbers came in the first few games. Due to a lack of opportunities, his production has been very limited.
North American Amateur
Keaton Thompson, D – University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
3rd round, 87th overall in 2013
Anaheim Duck prospect and freshman at University of North Dakota, Keaton Thompson, has earned himself just one game so far. Freshman players frequently get scratched in their young career, but the concerning thing with Thompson is that he has been scratched in favor of three other Freshman defenseman. Thompson, a third round pick, was beat out entering the season by L.A. Kings prospect and 2012 sixth round pick Paul LaDue, San Jose Sharks 2013 fifth round pick Gage Ausmus, and undrafted 19-year old Troy Stecher.
While Thompson still has plenty of years ahead of him to develop and get playing time, this likely was not the start he had in mind.
After a shaky 1-3 start, including a stunning defeat at the hands of Sacred Heart on opening night, UMass-Lowell seems to be righting the ship after rattling off seven wins in their next eight games. They have been in better shape now that Scott Wilson has begun to add more production. He has been one of the premier scorers in the Hockey East (16 goals, 22 assists last year) and a clutch performer in the Riverhawks conference championship and Frozen Four run. Through 12 games in this season, he has only scored twice, but has added seven helpers. Not bad numbers but not good enough for a player of his potential. It should be noted that he did get off to a similarly slow start last season.
Wilson’s overall game can improve, especially on the defense. There is no disputing he is a talented offensive player with good distribution skills and superb hockey sense. In the future, the Ontario native may provide the scoring depth that the Penguins need in their middle lines.
Phil McRae was once a highly regarded prospect playing in the OHL and making waves with the USA Junior hockey program. However, after three years of playing in the AHL to mixed reviews and only one call up with the Blues in 2010-11, McRae headed off to Liiga in Finland for a more prominent role. McRae was often considered as an outside chance at the bottom line center position for St. Louis given his prowess in the circle and his solid two-way game, but with players in front of him on the depth chart, he split.
His plan has not worked out very well and the 23-year old is struggling. After heading over to Tappara of the Finnish league, he played a grand total of eight games, recording one point while being a minus-three before moving onto his second team. He was subsequently traded to the Espoo Blues where he has logged a little bit better numbers. Overall, you have to say McRae remains one of the biggest disappointments in recent draft memory for St. Louis. His future in the NHL has to be seriously put in question at this point.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, RW – Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Drafted by the Washington Capitals
1st Round, 26th overall in 2010
Widely regarded as one of the best rising players in the world, Kuznetsov has had a rough start in his contract year with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL. Before the season, Kuznetsov underwent surgery on his left shoulder. In the few games he has played, the youngster has looked sluggish. He appears to still be lingering from the injury as his overall game has not been up to par to his high level of play. By the time he scored his first goal of the year, he had a minus-nine rating.
Kuznetsov is slowly returning to his dangerous form. While he has had offensive outbursts in November, he is not at 100-percent. The shifty forward has tallied only five goals and five assists through 13 games played but remains a minus-five. Three of his goals have come on the power play and one shorthanded, so it is good to see the coaching staff use him on special teams while he works through his struggles.
During the summer, Washington head coach Adam Oates traveled to Russia to speak with Kuznetsov. Washington is hopeful that at the conclusion of 2013-14 season, when his contract expires with his Russian club, he will make his long awaited move to North America to join the Capitals.
John Iadevaia and Jason Lewis contributed to this article.