Welcome to the March 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.
In this edition, we highlight a wealth of forwards who have taken their respective leagues by storm in the late stages of the 2013-14 season.
With the final games of the various amateur, junior, and European seasons underway, some players have stepped up as valuable assets for their playoff bound and playoff performing teams. However, there were others who struggled in situations where their team was simply playing for pride. Be it good or bad, these final games can set the tone for the entire 2014 offseason and beyond.
Leading the Rush
Lessio has been in fine form for the Phoenix Coyote affiliate Portland Pirates this season. In the last month though he has kicked his play up a notch. Despite the Pirates struggling to finish out the AHL regular season on a positive note, the former second-round selection has had 15 points in his last 14 games, including eight goals. He has been doing his best to keep the slow paced offense of Portland rolling, putting up almost three shots a night on average playing on the Pirates' top line. Lessio has received one brief sniff at the NHL back in October, but has not been back since. His mixture of a power and finesse game slots well into the Phoenix scheme and it would not be surprising to maybe see him get one more call up before the year is out. Look for the 21-year-old to continue to make the best of a tough situation in Portland and close his season out strong.
Chicago knew Pirri was going to become an NHL player one day. That made the trade that sent him to Florida even tougher for general manager Stan Bowman. Last month, he scored two goals and an assist during the AHL All-Star Game and was named the MVP for his performance. However, he was never called back up to the Windy City. Instead, he was dealt at the NHL trade deadline to Florida in exchange for two draft picks. In his 10 games with Florida, he has three goals and four assists. As a Panther, he will be given the chance to fully develop into a top-nine forward with plenty of ice time on a young, budding team.
There were a few junior players this month who finished out the season strong, but none drove the play quite like Canuck prospect Cole Cassels. The former third-round selection had a strong finish to the year, which included a 10-game point streak which stretched from February 16th to March 7th. In that period of games, he netted six goals along with nine assists. The centerman was an important cog this year on a well-oiled Oshawa machine. While some believe he was overachieving with his huge increase of points from last year, he stood out as an all-situations forward for the Generals all year. He figures to be a big piece for Oshawa moving forward into the playoffs as he looks to continue his dynamite February and March run of form. Trying to stand out playing second line center behind highly rated prospect Scott Laughton (PHI) is not easy, but Cassels has done it quite convincingly recently.
The final weeks of winter has shown only success for the Winterhawks and Leier. From January 11th until March 1st, Portland won 21 straight games to propel up the standings. Leier played a big part, tallying eight goals, seven assists for 15 points in February and has well surpassed his previous career highs with 37 goals and 79 points.
Leier is a skilled and aggressive player that will bring the body on the attack. He possesses an intriguing level of offensive talent, but he must add more strength and his defensive play is still a work in progress. Despite a breakout season, he needs to show that his skills can transition to the next level.
The Duck prospect finished the year absolutely on fire. He has posted 18 points in his last 10 games and has been a go-to-guy for head coach Mike Eaves in all situations. The sophomore has four game winning goals, two powerplay goals, and two shorthanded goals on the season. Wisconsin made a hard charge for the Big Ten title late in the season but were narrowly edged out by Minnesota. Kerdiles's impressive 37 point season has surpassed his previous totals from last year and is currently tied for second overall on the team. In fact, having missed a few games earlier in the season, he had the best point per game pace amongst any Wisconsin player. With a glut of graduating forwards coming up next year including two of the team's leading scorers Mark Zengerle and Michael Mersch (LAK), the offensive responsibility is going to fall on Kerdiles, and he looks more than up to the challenge.
While Johnny Gaudreau (CAL) is the favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award, Archibald emerged as a challenger after an outstanding end to the season. Where he lacks in shear talent with his counterpart, Archibald more than makes up with his leadership, determination, speed, strong work ethic, and willingness to compete all over the ice. The Minnesota native tore through February at a 2.00 points per game pace, leading the NCAA with 10 goals and 16 points throughout the month. He was named the Hockey Commissioners Association National Player of the Month for February and also set a school record for goals in a season with 29. With the Mavericks falling to Denver in the postseason, Archibald finished the season with 43 points.
Åberg moved from the relegated Djurgården to the top flight Färjestad this season and many were not sure how it would affect the young forwards playing time. However, the Swede has been as effective as ever. He has been averaging near 17 minutes a night in ice time and was a major contributor in Farjestad going 5-1-0 upon coming back from the Olympics. He had two goals and three assists in the final six games of the season. He has also been a major contributor overall, finishing the regular season second on the team in both points (31) and goals (15) as a 20-year old. Farjestad are currently entangled with Brynas in the quarterfinals of the SHL playoffs and with help from Åberg the team could meet up with the winner of Linkopings and heavyweight favorites Frolunda in the semis. The winger has one more season under contract in the SHL. Given his strong run in the top level of Sweden, he may want to test his strengths in North America soon.
Janmark was skipped over in the 2012 NHL Draft due to his lack of lower body conditioning. Because of a knee injury he sustained at a younger age, doctors told him to avoid training. It is a testament to the 21-year old's natural talent that he has elevated his game in the SHL. He followed up a stellar rookie season by posting his second consecutive 30-point season in the SHL. Defense is still a work in progress, but the Swede now plays a similar puck-hounding style to current Red Wing Gustav Nyquist. A switch to the left wing has allowed him to utilize his speed in the neutral and offensive zones. As a skilled forechecker, he can create chances, set up linemates and score himself. However, physicality is something Janmark will have to get used to when he comes to North America. Fortunately, since last summer, he was given the green light from doctors to participate in full fitness regimens in the offseason.
Trailing the Play
Heard had the mixture of high energy agitation and goal-scoring in juniors that made him an interesting prospect in 2012. That being said, he was an extreme off the board pick by Greg Sherman and company. Heard did not even fall into the Final CSS top 200 of North American skaters in 2012. His offense subsequently fell off a cliff, and Heard has four goals total in his 77 game AHL career. In his first full season with Lake Erie, Heard has been little more than a bottom line grinder and defensive specialist with little to no offensive upside.
The 22-year-old is not a disappointment when you look at the intangibles he brings, be it penalty killing or dropping the gloves (which he has done eight times this season. However, when you factor in the point-per-game pace he carried throughout juniors with Plymouth, it is hard to fathom that his offense has dipped this much.
What was supposed to be a bounce back season for Knight turned nightmarish over the winter. The fearless winger has avoided injury until recently, but has failed to contribute much despite receiving plenty of ice time. Through 53 games, he only has 14 assists and 18 points. The fact that he went 35 straight games without a goal (scored on March 9th vs Providence) and only contributed five points since December is quite concerning. He was injured on January 24th and returned on February 22nd to finish the remaining three games in the month pointless. Fortunately, the Bruins plan to be patient with the forward, who not too long ago was close to cracking the Boston lineup.
Kubalik made a swap from Sudbury to Kitchener at the trade deadline in the OHL. Sudbury and Kubalik were together enjoying a solid season, but since the move, Kubalik has gone in the opposite direction. The winger was a minus-13 over the last two months of the regular season, with four goals and one assist after compiling 23 points in 36 games with his previous team. It was a difficult situation for him, considering he went form a playoff team in Sudbury to one that was out of contention in the Rangers. His response was underwhelming, and the Rangers will definitely be hoping for more from the 18-year old moving forward.
It seems unfair to list Koekkoek a trailer for this month after what he has accomplished this season with Windsor. His past two years have been cut short by shoulder injuries and raised questions about his health going forward. 2013-14 was shaping up to dispel those theories as Koekkoek showed his top-four potential. He led the team in ice time and defense in offense (he had 53 points and a plus-44 rating in 62 games) from the blue line.
Unfortunately in early March, he suffered another shoulder injury and has been ruled out for the rest of the season. This should not take away from what he displayed this year, that, when healthy, he can be an offensive force. Nevertheless, Koekkoek's durability will be a concern for Tampa Bay's management going forward. The real issue now is whether he can survive the physicality of the pro level and still be effective.
One point. That is the point total that Max Gardiner has had for Penn State this season. In his junior year of collegiate hockey, the centerman has put up a goose egg in the goal column over 22 games for the Nittany Lions. In their first season in the new Big Ten conference, the squad was looking at Gardiner to be a key player after a decent year in the Division I independent conference last year. Unfortunately the team, and Gardiner, were shelled this year against the bigger and more mature programs in the Big Ten. With a young squad on the books, Penn State and the Blues forward can put 2013-14 behind them and move on to bigger and better things.
While Notre Dame has struggled throughout the year, February saw them do a complete 180 heading into the postseason. However, forward Thomas Di Pauli seemed to have succumb to the sophomore slump. Unlike his freshman season where he played all year, Di Pauli has struggled to stay in the lineup. Where he had 12 points in 41 games last year, this season he only has four points in 25.
DiPauli will have a chance to redeem himself in the postseason. His stocky frame and high energy give him an edge battling for the puck along the boards. The potential bottom-six forward is good on faceoffs and creates offense with his hard work.
Galimov was a strong performer in 2012-13 for Lokomotiv, with 20 points in 33 games. However, the learning curve hit a bit of a bump this year as the forward failed to match last year's output. He has failed to get on the score sheet since the KHL resumed after the Olympics. This includes four regular season games and 10 games in the KHL playoffs. While still being held in good regard as a decent late round pick by the Sharks, the progression is concerning. Hopefully Galimov can get himself going in the later rounds of the playoffs and finish the season strong. Otherwise 2012-13 may just look like an anomalous upturn in his development.
At 18-years old, Lindberg is beginning to recognize his potential. One of the areas he has to focus on is consistency. The Swedish native did match his output from last season, but was not as smooth in his second full season with Djurgården's junior team. The 6'2 forward played in 38 games and had seven goals and 15 points. Part of his inconsistent play was due to spending more time in the penalty box. He more than tripled his first season minutes with 93 overall in 2013-14. It is encouraging to see him playing with an edge, but he needs to know when it is best to be physical. He also needs to add more strength, which is typical for a young prospect.
Article written by John Iadevaia (Eastern Conference) and Jason Lewis (Western Conference)