Welcome to the December edition of On the Rush, Hockey’s Future’s monthly look at NHL prospects who are either exceeding expectations or not quite living up to them.
This month we feature four NHL rookies who are among the top-10 in rookie scoring, a pair of Wisconsin Badger defensemen who seem to be headed in different directions, a collection of 2009 draft picks who are not yet living up to expectations, and several players who should be representing their countries in the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships.
Leading the Rush
Only 33 games into his rookie season, what is left to say about Tavares? Like first overall picks Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane before him, Tavares has made an almost seamless transition from junior to NHL hockey, leading all rookies in points with 15 goals, 12 assists. Having embraced the role as the face of the franchise, the 19-year-old wunderkind has helped usher in a new era for a moribund organization and re-energized a fan base. Aside from his all-world individual talents, Tavares possesses the uncanny ability to elevate the play of those around him. His linemates, Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo, are on pace for career years. Moulson, like Tavares, is on pace to score over 35 goals this season.
Matt Duchene, C – Colorado Avalanche
2009, 1st round, 3rd overall
Duchene has started to grab some of the spotlight after being overshadowed by teammate and fellow rookie Ryan O’Reilly through the first weeks of the season. The most noticeable improvement has been in Duchene’s confidence with the puck now that some of his shots are starting to find the back of the net. He has seven goals to go along with six assists in his last 16 games. Four of those goals came on the man advantage as he has averaged over three minutes per game, second most among rookie forwards. With 20 total points on the year, Duchene jumped into a tie for third in rookie scoring and is forcing his way into the Calder conversation. He has played in all 36 of Colorado’s contests. The 18-year-old’s faceoff percentage is hovering near 40 percent, so there are still areas in need of improvement. Still, his recent production is a great sign for one of the NHL’s young, emerging teams.
Luca Caputi, LW – Wilkes-Barr/Scranton Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins, 2007, 4th round, 111th overall
The expectations for Caputi have been high ever since he posted 51 goals in the OHL while playing for the Niagara IceDogs. Now in his second season of AHL play, Caputi looks well on his way to developing into the goal-scoring power forward he is envisioned to be. In 26 games, Caputi has posted 11 goals, 11 assists. Seven of those goals are on the man-advantage, good for the team lead and fourth in the AHL. The stats do not tell the whole story though. The 21-year-old is often dominant in games, and has become better as the season has gone along. In the past 15 games, he posted seven goals, eight assists. Caputi could very well be in the NHL if he was not part of a Penguins organization that is very deep at forward. There is a chance the young forward will still have an NHL cup of coffee this season, but he should not be expected to see full-time duties until at least 2010-11.
Logan Couture, C – Worcester Sharks
San Jose Sharks, 2007, 1st round, 9th overall
Couture has bounced between his NHL home in San Jose and AHL team in Worcester so far this year, earning five separate call-ups to the parent club. Like several other teams, the Sharks are using the taxi squad approach in order to save some money against the cap early in the season. Though keeping Couture in limbo has advantages from a cap perspective, it certainly has not made it easy on a player trying to establish himself in the NHL. The result has been solid, if unspectacular, play in the NHL. With the AHL affiliate, though, Couture has performed exceedingly well. Nine points in his last eight games, including four goals, have helped the 6’1 center sustain his team-leading 1.38 point-per-game mark. Despite being one of the youngest forwards on the team at 20, he has also kept up his play in the defensive zone. His plus-4 rating is tied for second on a Worcester team filled with minus players. Though he may be NHL-ready, the combination of cap restraints and forward depth in San Jose means Couture can expect plenty of ice time with the AHL affiliate.
Corey Tropp, RW – Michigan State (CCHA)
Buffalo Sabres, 2007, 3rd round, 89th overall
Always a physical style of player, Tropp embraced more of a power forward type of role with the MSU Spartans this season. The dividends are fairly apparent as he leads D-I hockey with 16 goals and 12 points. That is seven more goals and a point shy from his freshman and sophomore seasons combined. The 21-year-old is the Spartans assistant captain and has figured into 79 percent of the 34 goals the team has scored. He has just been getting better as the season has gone along too, scoring seven goals in his last six, including a hat trick in a Dec. 12 match against Bowling Green.
Brendan Smith, D – Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
Detroit Red Wings, 2007, 1st round, 27th overall
Smith is off to a fantastic start in his junior year at Wisconsin. The Toronto native is the unquestioned leader of one of the most talented defensive corps in the nation and is getting plenty of ice time in all situations for the Badgers. The offensively-minded defenseman leads the entire team in scoring with 26 points through 17 games, a sizable improvement from 23 points in 31 games all of last season. His eight goals are second only to senior captain Blake Geoffrion (NAS) while his 18 assists lead the team. Wisconsin has ridden Smith’s six goals with the man advantage into the top half of the WCHA power-play rankings. The 20-year-old has been at his best of late with 16 points in his last eight games. With his combination of a 6’2 190 lbs frame and smooth offensive abilities, the Wings have yet another promising blueliner in the pipeline.
Kevin Poulin, G – Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
New York Islanders, 2008, 5th round, 126th overall
In his fourth year in the QMJHL and with the Victoriaville Tigres, Poulin is in the middle of a big breakout season. Having made 26 starts for the fourth-place Tigres, the 19-year-old Poulin has posted a record of 17-7 with two indecisions. Even more telling is his 2.65 GAA, ranked third among players who have 15 or more starts. His equally impressive .909 save percentage ranks fourth among goaltenders who have started more than 20 games.
Poulin is on a tough depth chart with the New York Islanders. In front of him oare 2009 draft picks Mikko Koskinen and Anders Nilsson, and veteran Rick DiPietro, who is signed through 2021.
Jordan Eberle, LW – Regina Pats (WHL)
Edmonton Oilers, 2008, 1st round, 22nd overall
Currently enjoying another successful WHL season, Eberle leads the league in goals with 29 through 28 games and has been at or near the top of the league’s scoring ranks all season. The 5’10 sniper has been dangerous on special teams with six short-handed goals and 13 goals with the man advantage, pacing the league’s second best power-play unit. Since mid-November, though, the 19-year-old winger has taken it up another notch with 20 points over his last nine games. That stretch includes a pair of hat tricks and a trio of four-point games. Most importantly are the five wins that his team has earned in that span as Regina tries to keep pace in the competitive East Division. Still remembered for his WJC heroics a year ago, Eberle will represent Team Canada again at this year’s event. Because Tavares is lighting it up in the NHL and Cody Hodgson (VAN) unavailable due to a back injury, Eberle will return to team Canada as the top scoring presence.
Trailing the Play
Michael Del Zotto, D – New York Rangers
2008, 1st round, 20th overall
A fiery October has led way to a cool November and a cold December for 19-year-old Del Zotto. After posting four goals, 11 assists in his first 20 games, Del Zotto has potted a goal, four helpers, and a minus-10 over the past 12. Head coach John Tortorella’s confidence in the young blueliner has, at least publicly, not wavered as his ice time is 21:44 through the month of December, over two minutes more than his season average of 19:15. The problem for the offensively gifted defender is how opposing teams key in on him. The additional ice time and responsibility is starting to lead to defensive errors.
A solid start to his NHL career has given way to a slump for Benn. After posting three goals, eight assists in his first 20 games, the talented winger has just two goals and five total points in his last 12. While his ice time has been fairly consistent, the 20-year-old has registered three or more shots in only two contests since mid-November. The whole team has struggled to score, averaging just 2.5 goals per game since October after a 3.43 goals-per-game average in the first month of the season. Stars head coach Marc Crawford has kept the sniper on the second line, which means playing alongside a talented playmaker in Mike Ribeiro, in the hopes that he can work through the growing pains. Although Benn remains in the top-10 in rookie scoring, he has not played with the same early-season confidence.
Tyler Bozak, C – Toronto Marlies
Toronto Maple Leafs, signed as undrafted free agent in 2009
After being signed in April to much fanfare and a strong showing in training camp, much was expected of Bozak. However, the bad luck that saw Bozak miss over 20 games last season at University of Denver seems to have followed him into the AHL. First it was being diagnosed with the H1N1 virus early on in the season and missing two games between Oct. 25 and Nov. 6. Next he suffered an ankle injury on Nov. 25 and missed five games, finally returning on Dec. 11. Despite the injuries, Bozak has still managed three goals, 10 assists in 20 games. The 23-year-old needs to play some longer stretches of injury-free hockey though to show that he can be counted on as a consistent offensive threat.
Wilson opted to make the jump to the pros early from Boston University. He stuck with Nashville out of training camp but was unable to make his presence felt. His one goal and one assist through 10 NHL games are fairly indicative of just how physically overmatched he was. Although an abdominal injury hampered his play and resulted in missing a couple weeks, the 19-year-old returned to the Milwaukee Admirals on Nov. 22 and has continued to struggle. The highly-skilled center has two goals and just four points through 11 AHL games, managing just 12 shots in that span. The injury could explain some struggles, but it has been a largely lackluster start for the Preds’ top prospect.
Chris Kreider, LW – Boston College (Hockey East)
New York Rangers, 2009, 1st round, 19th overall
Some adjustments to the NCAA style of play were to be expected for this first-round pick. However, Kreider’s offensive production to date, two goals in 14 games, does not even meet modest expectations for a forward who is highly touted for his skill and conditioning. Still, he has managed to at times show good offensive instincts and puck-protection and has two goals and three assists to show for it. Currently mired in a four -game pointless streak, the 18-year-old has seen a decline in ice time recently. There is no reason to push the panic button though. Kreider is still young and raw. Also, as he is just a first-year player, and holdovers from the previous season such as Ben Smith (CHI) and Cam Atkinson (CLB), are given first crack at power-play duties.
Jake Gardiner, D – Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
Anaheim Ducks, 2008, 1st round, 17th overall
Gardiner has struggled through the first couple months of his sophomore season, which is made even more apparent by the success of teammate Brendan Smith (DET) and the rest of the Wisconsin blue line. With just one goal and two assists through 18 games, the offensively-gifted Gardiner ranks sixth in scoring among the team’s defensemen. These totals are disappointing for such a great skater and puck carrier. The Minnesota native is still fairly new to the position and he is prone to the same poor decisions and lapses in coverage as most young defensemen. The 19-year-old does play a more physical game than his 6’2, 184-pound frame would suggest. Considering how crowded the Badgers blue line is with talented players, Anaheim could bring Gardiner to the pros for a bigger role as soon as next year.
Jordan Caron, RW – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
Boston Bruins, 2009, 1st round, 25th overall
A collarbone injury during the Team Canada summer camp in August derailed the beginning of what was supposed to be a big season for Caron. The thick-framed forward has at times looked dominant, but has yet to learn to fully utilize his size and strength to dictate the flow of the game. He is also not the timeliest of goal scorers as three of his eight goals were scored when Rimouski already established a lead. His overall numbers, eight goals, 11 assists, in 20 games are not bad, but considering he scored 15 goals in his first 20 games last season, much more is to be expected.
It would be premature to suggest that Caron’s development has hit a wall though. He is currently healthy and will represent Canada in the 2010 World Junior Championships. Also, with continued development and improved conditioning, the 19-year-old power forward should one day nicely compliment the Bruins’ stable of big bodies at forward. That is assuming he can shake an injury bug that has plagued him much of his career.
Nick Oliver, LW – Fargo Force (USHL)
Nashville Predators, 2009, 4th round, 110th overall
After being limited by injury in his draft year, Oliver opted to play this season with the USHL Fargo Force. However, his performance for Fargo so far has been disappointing. The 6’3 power forward brings a very good shot along with the physical game but has been held to just three assists through 20 games. The bruiser’s hard work and aggressiveness have come through, though. He has accumulated 42 PIMs so far, including two fighting majors and a number of cross-checking penalties. Still, a stronger start offensively was expected of the 18-year-old after a 12-game debut in the US League last year. Oliver is committed to St. Cloud State in the WCHA next season.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.