Welcome to the January 2014 edition of On the Rush, a monthly column featuring prospects at various levels of competition who are either exceeding expectations or falling a little behind.
This month, we saw a showcase of talent from around the world as the 2014 World Junior Championships took place from December 26th to January 5th in Malmö, Sweden.
In other leagues all across North America, the 2013-14 season has taken shape for most players. This month, we feature several players who have far exceeded expectations set from last season and have seemingly taken advantage of every opportunity presented. We also feature several players who are in dire need to turn things around and will be striving for a strong second half of the season.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
Mostly an under-the-radar player throughout his career, Gibbons future was uncertain entering this year. After signing on with the Penguins in 2011, he quietly scored 30 points in each of his two seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Since the drop of the puck in 2013-14, something has clicked for him as he has become one of Pittsburgh’s top prospects this year.
Part of Gibbons transformation is his growing confidence and focus on the ice. He plays bigger and harder than his 5’8, 170-pound stature by competing down low and cycling the puck. However, he also possesses the hands and passing skills to become a dynamic player. He remains the leading scorer of Baby Penguins with nine goals and 18 assists and has been named to the upcoming AHL All-Star Classic.
Gibbons scored his first NHL goal on November 18th but was otherwise mediocre in his first NHL call-up before returning to the AHL. He revved up his play, which earned him another call up following Pascal Dupuis’ injury. This time, he was more effective in the offensive end, driving the play, and creating and finishing chances. He even spent time on the Penguins first line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz and appeared to develop good chemistry. In 13 NHL games, he has two goals and four assists.
Unfortunately, the Penguins injury plague struck down Gibbons on January 11th when he suffered a lower-body injury against Calgary. He is considered week-to-week and was recently placed in injured reserve.
Corban Knight has had a rather unorthodox start to his NHL career. Drafted by the Florida Panthers back in the 2009 NHL Draft, he headed off to the University of North Dakota. After a stellar collegiate career, it came out in the 2012-13 offseason that Knight would not be signing with the Panthers. Florida subsequently traded his rights to the Calgary Flames for a 2013 fourth round selection (Michael Downing).
The big-bodied centerman has since joined the Abbotsford Heat and it looks like the extra years of maturation in the NCAA have paid off. Knight is currently third on Abbotsford in scoring with 28 points in 41 games and is tied for fifth in rookie scoring. He also has all the tools to be a pesky power forward.
Do not be surprised if Knight gets at least a cup of coffee with the big club in the coming months. He has leadership qualities as well, which will be important for the Flames in this time of transition for the organization.
North American Junior
A prototypical forward prospect for Montreal who is small but speedy, Reway’s second campaign with Gatineau is going splendidly. What separates him from some of the other Canadiens prospects is his high creativity and quick hands with the puck. He is capable of making difficult plays appear easy and can do things other players do not even try. However, his creativity is also a double-edged sword as he can lose control of the puck or look selfish when he forces the play instead of safely passing it. Through 28 games in the QMJHL, he is well over a point-per-game player with 16 goals, 29 assists, and a plus-12 rating.
During the World Junior Championship, Reway was arguably Slovakia’s best player in the tournament. He had a strong three-point game against Canada as Slovakia fell short of upsetting the hockey superpower in the preliminary round. Reway finished the tournament with four goals and six assists.
With Jim Nill hitting a home run with 2013 first round pick Valeri Nichushkin, some have seemingly forgotten about the other 2013 first round selection the Stars made in Jason Dickinson. The Georgetown, Ontario native has been tremendous for Guelph this season. His 51 points in 46 games have already surpassed his prior season total in 20 fewer games. He is on a loaded Guelph team however, which can sometimes make people question if it is a product of a good team or a good player. By all accounts, Dickinson is a full 200-foot player, which bodes well for his NHL future. While his red hot 15-point November has cooled heading into December and the New Year, he still has 17 points in his last 16 games.
It cannot be emphasized enough how important Dickinson has been as an all-situations player for Guelph. He has played both penalty kill and power play minutes for the Storm and has been a constant contributor five-on-five as well. While there are players on Guelph with higher point totals, Dickinson has remained a productive player offensively while also being one of the more solid defensive forwards on the team. To maintain that level of production while being responsible in your own end is a great quality to have, and one that is currently netting him recognition.
With Nichushkin currently in contention for the Calder Trophy at the NHL level and Dickinson playing at an extremely high level in the OHL, the 2013 first round is looking like a defining draft for the Dallas Stars.
North American Amateur
The fall was not a fun time for North Dakota following a 2-6-1 slump. However, fortune has turned around as the team has been hot during the winter. While the team overall has performed better, the strong play from Gothberg has provided a foundation for their turnaround. Since December, he has played the majority of minutes between the pipes. UND is currently on a nine game unbeaten streak, during which the Minnesota native has a 1.76 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.
Only a sophomore, Gothberg is living out his childhood dream playing in Grand Forks. The hybrid goaltender has good fundamentals as well as the reflexes to make athletic saves. Also, he is one of the better stickhandling goalies in the nation, making his defensemen's lives easier by corralling the puck in the slot or into the corners. With the second half underway, Gothberg seems to have locked up the crease and seems poised to return to the big dance.
Boston College his having a huge year and currently stands atop the Hockey East standings. While it has been an entire team effort that has put Boston College to the top of the table, leading the offensive charge have been NCAA leading scorer Johnny Gaudreau (CGY) and frequent linemate Kevin Hayes, who currently ranks second in the nation with 16 goals and 26 assists in 23 games. Hayes has arguably been the hottest player in all of college hockey the last two months and is currently amidst a 10-game, 24-point hot streak – including a stretch where he managed eight multi-point games in a row.
Hayes was on pace for an equally impressive junior season in 2012-13, but had his season cut short due to a thigh injury which required multiple surgeries to repair this offseason. The bounce back by the young forward has been nothing short of tremendous. With nice size, soft hands, and a good head on his shoulders, Hayes has a style that should easily transfer to the professional level. First, though, he has one last shot at an NCAA championship.
Sebastian Collberg, RW, Frölunda (SHL)
Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens
2nd round, 33rd overall in 2012
Despite signing his entry-level deal last spring, Collberg returned on loan back to Sweden to play with Frölunda. An injury early in the year slowed him down, but he has looked more comfortable in the winter. In 27 games, he only has two goals and three assists.
While his play has fluctuated on a club team, Collberg is quite the performer at the international level. He was one of Team Sweden’s key players at the 2014 World Junior Championships, where he stepped up to help his home country reach the finals before eventually losing in overtime to Finland. Overall, he finished with a goal, five assists, and a plus-four rating.
What makes Collberg the Canadiens’ best European prospect is his offensive flash. He can find the soft spots on defense and will not hesitate to drive into high-traffic areas. He possesses an NHL wrist shot with a quick release and accuracy. However, his size and play away from the puck are areas he has to improve as he prepares to transition to the smaller rinks in North America.
If you had to pick one standout player in the 2014 World Junior Championships this year, Juuse Saros would be a safe pick. The Finnish goaltender had been playing excellent hockey this year for HPK in Finland, but he made a name for himself internationally with a monstrous performance backstopping the Finns to the gold. It was the first medal for Team Finland since the 2006 World Juniors, where they earned Bronze, and the first gold medal since 1998.
Finland may have played a very smothering neutral-zone game at the tournament, but make no mistake, Saros was key in their success. He held a 1.57 goals against and a .943 save percentage throughout the tournament and was named to the tournament all-star team. The former fourth-round selection stood on his head at times in a closely contested gold medal match with rival Sweden and made some huge saves in the Finnish semi-final rout of Canada. Saros made waves in a tournament that had several other highly regarded goaltending prospects in Sweden’s Oscar Dansk (CBJ) and Russia’s Andrey Vasilevskiy (TBL). It was a tremendous tournament for a player who is already having a standout year at the European pro level.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
Acquired in a trade last year for Jason Pominville, Hackett finished strong last season in three appearances in Rochester. With the departure of David Leggio, it appeared the former-Wild goaltender was in a position to be the next goaltender behind Jhonas Enroth. Those odds took a hit due to his struggles with the Amerks this year. He only has 10 wins in 25 starts, with a 2.90 goals against average, and .904 save percentage. Part of the issue is that Hackett loses his focus from time to time. His unsteady play has allowed Nathan Lieuwen to take advantage of extra playing time by earning more starts.
Rundblad is currently dealing with a lot of adversity in Phoenix. Originally drafted by the St. Louis Blues, the puck-moving defenseman was dealt to Ottawa in 2010 and subsequently sent to Phoenix as the key return piece in the 2011 Kyle Turris deal. While playing well in the AHL, he has run into a problem of both style and system in the desert. He has played only 11 games on the year, and just two games in the month of December/January. In the few games that he has played, he has received sheltered minutes mostly in the neutral and offensive zones, while altogether avoiding time in his own zone. The Coyotes obviously feel a bit of risk when it comes to Runblad, as his puck-moving skills have yet to come to the forefront enough to warrant the risk he presents defensively.
The Swede is in a difficult situation sitting in the press box. Michael Stone, a better all-around option, is getting the majority of the starts in front of him at the NHL level while Brandon Gormley is developing well behind him in the AHL. Phoenix needs to make a decision on whether or not his sitting in the press box night after night is the best thing for his development.
North American Junior
The mature Gauthier is a near finished prospect that plays the game the right way. He is a possession player that uses his size (6’5, 215 pounds), skating, and hockey sense to win puck battles in all three zones. Those attributes also allow him to be one of the best young defensive-forwards in the CHL.
On a season where many expected him to build upon his offensive numbers, Gauthier remains on pace to match his output in 2012-13 (22 goals, 38 assists). It is not bad, but it remains the biggest part of his game he needs to build upon. His work at the faceoff circle could also be better. So far this season he has seven goals, 21 assists, and a plus-one rating through 33 games.
It was a similar tale for Gauthier at the 2014 World Junior Championships with Team Canada. While he provided his two-way play to the cause, he only added one assist through six games with a minus-two rating.
Sutter, a high second round pick in 2012, no doubt has the size and pedigree to be an NHL player. The question is how impactful of an NHL player can he be? When that question was asked at the 2012 NHL Draft, Sutter was coming off of a 59-point season with Saskatoon where he was involved all over the ice. However, his progression arc has slowly taken a downward turn. He was not nearly as productive in 2012-13 and he is again on pace for a down year as a 20-year-old. After the rough 2012-13, the former Blade was dealt to the Red Deer Rebels for 2013-14. The change of scenery has done little to improve his overall play. While his December/January totals are average, with eight points in 16 games, some are starting to wonder if he will ever turn into anything more than a fourth line grinder.
The work ethic is there with Sutter and he does have a projectable NHL skillset. However, it is possible that Winnipeg jumped the gun when drafting him in the high second round of a strong 2012 draft class. He is still a physically imposing player, but more is expected from a big-bodied 20-year-old who is playing against younger competition.
North American Amateur
Sean Maguire, G, Boston University (Hockey East)
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins
4th round, 113th overall in 2012
Boston University is in a tailspin, being outplayed in most of their winter games and remaining winless since November 30th. Having a defense that allows over 36 shots a game does not create a winning formula. It also makes the goaltenders job more difficult.
Expected to battle once again for starting time, sophomore Sean Maguire has looked shaky since his first win in October. As a freshman, he had a tendency to overplay the puck but could make up for it with his athleticism and talent. Due to the Terriers fleeting defense this season, he has been exposed while trying to do too much. Because of his lack of success, classmate Matt O’Connor has received more starts, but he too is struggling under the lack of support.
Through eight starts and 10 appearances, Maguire is 1-8 with a 2.91 goals against average, but an encouraging .918 save percentage.
Matt DeBlouw, C, Michigan State University (Big Ten)
Drafted by the Calgary Flames
7th round, 186th overall in 2012
Despite being a late round pick in 2012, DeBlouw had a very strong freshman outing with Michigan State in 2012-13 with 21 points in 42 games. However, a group of young freshman have all but taken away the playing time that DeBlouw had earned with his freshman performance. The sophomore slump seems real as can be for the young center and he has just two points in 14 games so far. He has been demoted to the bottom lines for Michigan State and head coach Tom Anastos has even tried him out at wing to get him back on track. With the Spartans being in a slugfest in the meaty part of the Big Ten, they could use a boost from their speedy forward.
Deblouw has plenty of collegiate hockey still in front of him, but he still needs to get his game back on track or risk becoming an afterthought in the lineup.
Drafted for his long-term potential, Detroit felt that Bodin could one day become a useful bottom-six forward for the organization. Surprisingly mobile for a 6’6, 231-pound power forward, his long reach and physicality may open the door to a bottom-six role if he makes it.
The youngster however has hit a roadblock at the next stage of his development following an impressive year with Östersunds IK J18. In his first season with HV71 J20, he only dressed in 18 games and tallied one point and had a minus-four rating. Despite joining a new team, Linköping J20, in his second season, there are little signs of improvement. Through 14 contests, he has only two assists and is a moment-three. If he cannot develop his offensive game, it might become the crux that keeps him from advancing up the depth chart.
Radek Faksa, LW/C, Sudbury Wolves/Team Czech Rep. (OHL/WJC)
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
1st round, 13th overall in 2012
Despite average play on the year with Kitchener in the OHL, former first-round selection Radek Faksa was expected to be a major player for the Czechs. However, he failed to live up to the hype. He scored just one goal in the tournament and the Czechs went crashing out of the tournament tied with Switzerland for sixth place out of 10 teams.
Struggling on the world stage has been a common trend for Faksa though. He has just five points in 17 combined U20 World Junior Championship games. As a whole, the Czech team struggled to find offense all tournament long, scoring only nine goals, which was the third lowest of the tournament. It was a disappointing performance overall considering the former first-round pick was entering the tournament as a veteran member of the team and has been a near point-per-game player in the OHL this season.
Article written by John Iadevaia (Eastern Conference) and Jason Lewis (Western Conference).