The prospects of eight NHL teams arrived in Traverse City, MI late last week for five days of intense competition and to showcase their skills at the 2014 Traverse City Prospects Tournament. Futures from the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues took to the ice starting Friday and will continue to battle until the championship game on Tuesday evening.
The eight teams are divided into two divisions–the Ted Lindsay Division, consisting of the Sabres, Hurricanes, Stars and Rangers; and the Gordie Howe Division, containing the tournament host Red Wings, Blue Jackets, Wild, and Blues. In total, each team plays four games over the five days, including three games against their divisional rivals, and then on the final day, a game to determine their final place in the tournament.
With half of the games already played in the tournament, several prospects have made very good impressions and a couple of teams have started to pull away from the others.
Ted Lindsay Division
Dallas has won both of the games it has played thus far, against the Rangers and Carolina. As it is the only team in the division to win both of its games, Dallas will win the Ted Lindsay Division unless the Stars lose to Buffalo and the Rangers beat Carolina tomorrow. This is somewhat of a surprise, as going into the tournament, Buffalo, who has not won either of their games, was a heavy favorite to win the division.
Dallas Stars (2-0-0)
Several skaters have stood out thus far in the tournament, with the most notable being Brett Ritchie (2nd round, 44th overall in 2011) and Gemel Smith (4th round, 104th overall in 2012). Ritchie was dominant in the game against New York, where he potted both the game-tying and game-winning goals. His strength on the puck and ability to drive to the net with ease were extremely impressive. Smith, meanwhile, had the primary assist on the first goal (a power play tally) early in the first period in the second game and then potted what turned out to be the winning goal later in the period. Not as imposing as Ritchie had been in the first game, Smith quietly played well in both games. Two other prospects should be mentioned as playing very well thus far, including center Jason Dickinson (1st round, 29th overall in 2013) and defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka (7th round, 195th overall in 2011).
The bad news for the Dallas is that Ritchie will not play in the remaining tournament games due to a finger injury sustained in the second game of the tournament.
Carolina Hurricanes (1-1-0)
The best player of the tournament thus far for Carolina has been its goaltender, recent draftee Alex Nedeljkovic (2nd round, 37th overall in 2014). He had a tremendous game against Buffalo and then, in the second game vs. Dallas, after giving up three early goals, he settled down and played an excellent second and third period. In addition, both Victor Rask (2nd round, 42nd overall, 2011) and the diminutive Sergey Tolchinsky (free agent signed August 2013) played very well together in both games.
New York Rangers (1-0-1)
The Rangers used two goaltenders in their games and, while Brandon Halverson (2nd round, 59th overall in 2014), the franchise’s top netminding prospect, had a very good game, it was Mackenzie Skapski (6th round, 170th overall in 2013) who stole the show vs. Buffalo. He allowed only one goal on 36 shots, and kept the Rangers in the game throughout the first period. In addition, he made a highlight reel save that almost defied gravity. Other standouts were Anthony Duclair (3rd round, 80th overall in 2013), who has no points but showed incredible speed and puck sense over the two games, and defensive defenseman Samuel Noreau (5th round, 16th overall in 2011), who has been very steady and has put points on the board.
Buffalo Sabres (0-1-1)
On paper, the Sabres are one of the favorites to win this tournament, but the team got off to a bad start (a 6-1 loss to Carolina) and then lost in overtime to New York. The Sabres have three of the NHL’s top prospects playing for this squad (Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Nikita Zadorov), but not a one has posted one point in Traverse City. Ristolainen and Zadorov have boomed a couple of shots, and Zadorov particularly has thrown some big hits, but several were ill-timed. The Sabres have the talent to get it done offensively, but thus far, the offense has been anemic.
Gordie Howe Division
Columbus Blue Jackets (2-0-0)
The Blue Jackets were one of the favorites to win this tournament and they have not disappointed. Offensively, the team is a powerhouse, scoring 11 goals in their two games. In the first game, two 2013 first rounders Marko Dano (1st round, 27th overall in 2013) and Kerby Rychel (1st round, 19th overall in 2013) stole the show. With six points between them and very obvious high-end offensive skill, the two put on a show. In the second contest, it was Josh Anderson (4th round, 95th overall in 2012) who was able to finish twice.
What is somewhat surprising with Columbus in this tournament, however, is how many goals have been scored against the team. Although partly the result of less than stellar goaltending, it has been more an issue of defense, which has suffered many breakdowns. Thus far, the team has not lost a game, however, it may not continue if the team meets Dallas in the final game on Tuesday evening. It also should be noted that one of the Blue Jackets’ top prospects, Sonny Milano, was lost to injury in the first game. Sporting a black eye and in street clothes during game two, he wil not return to action due to a cracked orbital bone.
Detroit Red Wings (1-1-0)
The defending champions and hosts of this tournament have played better than their record indicates. In both games, the Red Wings jumped out to early leads. An offensive powerhouse, Anthony Mantha (1st round, 20th overall in 2013) and Martin Frk (2nd round 49th overall in 2012) have set themselves apart from their teammates. Wingers on the same line, they seemed to have an excellent chemistry so far in the tournament. Defenseman Ryan Sproul (2nd round, 55th overall in 2011) had an excellent first game, but had several defensive lapses in the second contest.
Minnesota Wild (1-1-0)
Minnesota has one of the best defensive pairings at this tournament in Gustav Olofsson (2nd round, 46th overall in 2013) and Matt Dumba (1st round, 7th overall in 2013). Both players have displayed their talents well and led their team, but it was not enough to defeat powerhouse Columbus. Of additional note is free agent invitee Ryan Walters, who is the tournament scoring leader with five points (three goals, two assists). An offensive wizard in his four years at University of Nebraska-Omaha, Walters had signed an ATO with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (11 GP, 1 G, 2A) after the 2013-14 season.
St. Louis Blues (0-0-2)
With two overtime losses, St. Louis is not nearly as bad a team as their standing in this tournament indicates. Ty Rattie (2nd round, 32nd overall in 2011), Robby Fabbri (1st round, 21st overall in 2014) and Thomas Vannelli (2nd round, 47th overall in 2013) have all shown offensive skill. Vannelli, who is a defenseman, is still learning his position, however, his vision and offensive instincts are very good. Rattie looks like he may be ready for NHL duty this year, while Fabbri continues to show that he has high-end potential.
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