In the February edition of On the Rush we discuss a few players adjusting to a change of scenery, several members of the 2009 draft class who have excelled, and one player involved in a prominent NHL trade.
Leading the rush
With the trades and roster turnover taking place in Toronto, it is easy to overlook the recent play of 23-year-old Carl Gunnarsson. Averaging over 22 minutes a game for the past five games and 21:17 on the season, the defensive defenseman has been extremely steady in his own end. In 21 games, he has blocked 37 shots and dished out 22 hits. Although not considered an offensive defenseman, Gunnarsson has shown some skill with the puck, posting a goal and six assists and registering 24 shots on goal. He is also a +4 on a team that struggles to score and prevent goals.
Jason Demers, D – San Jose Sharks
2008, 7th round, 186th overall
Jason Demers has had an up-and-down year. Not only has he been part of the Sharks’ taxi squad shuttling cross-country to Worcester of the AHL, but he has also gone through both hot and cold streaks in terms of production. The 21-year-old had a recent flurry of five points in four games while playing over 20 minutes per night in place of the veteran Dan Boyle. That stretch included Demers’ first two-goal performance of his career, bringing his 2009-10 season totals to four goals, 16 assists, and a +12 in 43 games. The 6’1 195 lbs blueliner has also displayed a greater willingness play physically in his own zone. The recent acquisition of Niclas Wallin by the Sharks and return of Boyle from injury led to Demers’ most recent demotion, which was certainly not performance-based.
The Buffalo Sabres seem to always find undersized players who are not only offensively gifted, but who also display a great level of determination. Tyler Ennis, a former WHL standout who stands at 5’9 is the latest. In his first season of professional play, the 20-year-old has put to rest any questions about his ability to adapt to the professional game. In 50 games, he has 16 goals, 30 assists, and 129 shots. Ennis has been particularly effective on the power play where he has registered five goals and even more chances.
Kevin Lalande, G – Syracuse Crunch
Columbus Blue Jackets
2005, 5th round, 128th overall by Calgary
Acquired via trade with Calgary in March, 2009
Columbus added goalie prospect Kevin Lalande in a trade with the Flames during the 2008-09 season and the 23-year-old has played with the Crunch ever since, splitting starts with incumbent Dan LaCosta. While LaCosta has struggled for much of the season, Lalande has stepped up and taken hold of the reins. He has won six straight starts and nine of his last 12 since January 1st. The 6’0 netminder was stifling in that span and allowed one or fewer goals in seven of those 12 starts. He now has a 16-11-2 record, including five wins in the shootout, to go along with a 2.81 goals against average and .912 save percentage. His strong play of late has lifted the Crunch to fifth in the East Division.
The big and gritty young forward has 10 goals, nine assists, and 42 penalty minutes in 21 games. His impact has also been felt on the power play where he has three goals and three assists. Despite all of his success, the 19-year-old needs to refine and simplify his game. He often tries to do too much and will occasionally overplay the puck. Expect big things from Leblanc in the coming seasons.
Kieran Millan, G – Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Colorado Avalanche, 2009, 5th round, 124th overall
Coming off of last season’s national championship, the 2009-10 season was slow to start for the Terriers, not to mention their sophomore goalie Kieran Millan. Things have been looking up for the squad and their goalie since the turn of the calendar however. Millan has won six of his last eight starts, just twice allowing more than three goals. The 20-year-old also recorded two victories over cross-town rival Boston College in January, including a win in front of 38,000 fans at Fenway Park. However, those wins may be little consolation after suffering a 4-3 loss to the Eagles in the Beanpot Championship. Millan’s season totals of 9-11-0 record, 3.16 goals against, and .885 save percentage should keep improving with continued focus in problem areas like rebound control.
A talented goal scorer, Jeremy Morin slipped in the 2009 draft to the second round because of what some perceived as character issues. The 18-year-old Morin ranks fourth in the OHL in scoring with 35 goals in 44 games and leads the league with 17 power-play goals. The month of January has really seen the talented forward take off as he registered 14 goals and seven assists in only 12 games. Five of those 14 goals also came on the man-advantage. Morin has continued to become a more physical and agitating presence, dropping the gloves twice and recording numerous roughing calls over the same 12-game span. To date, Morin has 34 goals and 30 assists in only 44 games.
Erik Haula, LW – Omaha Lancers (USHL)
Minnesota Wild, 2009, 7th round, 182nd overall
Following his career at Shattuck St. Mary’s, Finnish-born forward Erik Haula opted to spend the 2009-10 season with the Omaha Lancers. The 5’11 170-pound winger made quite a splash, currently second on the team with 22 goals, 56 points, and a +24 rating through 40 games. He has played a pivotal role in special teams for Omaha as well, registering five of his goals with the man-advantage and three goals while shorthanded. The playmaker’s effort was acknowledged with an invitation to the USHL All-Star Game, where he turned in a solid performance but did not crack the scoresheet. The 18-year-old Haula is committed to the University of Minnesota next season.
Trailing the play
The key return in the trade that saw Ilya Kovalchuk go to New Jersey, it has been an up-and-down season for Bergfors. In his first 39 games, he posted 13 goals, 13 assists and was among the rookie leaders in goals and points. However, in his last 15 games, the 22-year-old Swede has been held to one goal and one assist. On February 6th, Bergfors broke his cold streak and potted a goal in his second game with the Thrashers. Whether this is a sign of him pulling out of his scoring funk remains to be seen.
Devan Dubnyk, G – Edmonton Oilers
2004, 1st round, 14th overall
A season-ending back injury to Nikolai Khabibulin opened the door for Dubnyk to step up to the big club. The 6’6 netminder has appeared in 9 games with a 0-6-1 record on the season, 4.17 goals against average, and .861 save percentage. Of course there is not much defensive help as the Oilers are giving up 3.36 goals per game on the season, the second-worst mark in the league. He has spent much of the season with Springfield in the AHL, where he has an 11-13-1 record, 3.10 goals against average, and .916 save percentage. Now in his third full season of professional hockey, the 23-year-old goaltender will need to play more consistently in order to take advantage of his most recent call-up on February 9th.
In his first season in the AHL, forward Justin DiBenedetto has struggled to create the type of offense he was drafted for, posting only six goals, seven assists in 52 games. The 21-year-old has registered a single assist in his past 10 games dating back to the middle of January. Considered a complimentary winger, DiBenedetto has also lacked a proper center to play alongside for most of the season. Despite his lack of recent production, the forward has not changed his game, continuing to pepper the net with shots and battle hard in the corners and along the boards.
Michael Grabner, RW – Manitoba Moose
Vancouver Canucks, 2006, 1st round, 14th overall
Grabner opened his third pro season with a splash, totaling six points in his first five AHL games. This was followed by a call-up to Vancouver where he added two goals and three assists in nine games. However, an ankle injury sustained during a pre-game warm-up knocked him out for a couple months and the 22-year-old has struggled to get back to his early-season form. He returned from injury in late December with the Moose and has just three goals and six assists in the 18 games since. He has a minus-10 rating over the last 10 games and just four assists in that stretch. The 6’0 170 lbs winger is well known for his speed and offensive abilities and could potentially still see time with the Canucks this season. Still, the lack of production is noticeable for a winger who is expected to produce.
Although he has passed his point totals from 2008-09, his freshman season, it would be a stretch to say Tremblay is having a breakout sophomore season. The offensive-minded forward, despite seeing time on the man-advantage, has a total of two goals, 11 assists in 28 games. The 21-year-old has been inconsistent and streaky too, failing to register a point through November and December as well as going on a six-game pointless streak from the middle to the end of January.
Kevin Shattenkirk, D – Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Colorado Avalanche, 2007, 1st round, 14th overall
Shattenkirk has played a pivotal role at even strength and special teams for BU this season. Lately though, the Terriers captain has hit a dry spell in terms of production. After opening the 2009-10 season at a point-per-game pace, the 5’11 193 lbs defender had only three assists in the eight previous games entering the Beanpot Championship. He now has four goals and 21 points in 26 games. The 21-year-old may have begun to climb out of the slump in the Beanpot game as he converted a Boston College turnover into the first goal of the game. Later in the game, however, his overly-aggressive play led directly to several quality scoring chances for the Eagles. Shattenkirk may be a defenseman who relies on production to overshadow defensive lapses, but will need to find more consistency in both areas to fulfill his great potential.
On January 6th, halfway through his third season of junior hockey, Eric Gelinas was traded from the Lewiston MAINEiacs to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and then to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. Since the change in surroundings, the offensively-gifted defenseman has been snake-bitten, being held pointless in 11 of his 13 games with Chicoutimi, and registering only four assists over that span. Part of his lack of production can be attributed to seeing less time on the man-advantage with the Sagueneens as well as playing on a more experienced blue line. To date, the 6’4 defender has three goals, 20 assists in 47 games.
Expect the Devils to allow the 18-year-old to develop at his own pace. They have shown on immense amount of patience with their defensive prospects in the past and it has always paid dividends.
Tyler Cuma, D – Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
Minnesota Wild, 2008, 1st round, 23rd overall
Following a strong training camp with the Wild, Tyler Cuma was reassigned for his fourth year with the Ottawa 67’s. In a season where he has missed some time due to injury and suspension, Cuma has two goals, 13 assists, and 53 PIMs through 39 games. The 6’2 180-pound defenseman has focused in the defensive zone this year, developing more of a shutdown style. He has played aggressively, highlighted recently when he jumped Nazem Kadri (TOR) after the London center ran over the 67’s goalie, Petr Mrazek. However, the offensive ability he displayed earlier in his career has tailed off. He ranks fourth in scoring among the team’s defensemen and has just one assist since mid-January. While the 20-year-old Cuma certainly appears to be on the right track towards an NHL career, it may be an uphill climb to live up to the lofty first-round expectations.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.