Welcome to the March 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.
In this edition of On the Rush we discuss several prospects affected by NHL trade deadline movement, a pair of Olympians, and several playoff-bound college prospects.
Leading the Rush
With the Leafs trading away most of their veteran talent, Bozak was called up to the NHL on the full-time basis and has since played on the Leafs top line with Phil Kessel. The results speak for themselves as Bozak has three goals, four assists in those 10 games while averaging 18:25 on an offensively anemic Maple Leafs team. The 23-year-old has also been good in the faceoff circle, winning 55.3 percent, far and away the highest percentage among the 2009-10 rookie class. He has also registered 37 hits. For the season, Bozak has four goals, nine assists through 21 games.
In his first full season on North American ice, Backlund has already earned several call-ups to the NHL. Appearing in 11 games with the big club, he has only one goal and two assists but is averaging over two shots per game with the big club. The 21-year-old was on fire over the Olympic break while playing for Abbotsford, where he netted five goals and added five assists in seven games, bringing his AHL total to 32 points in 54 games. In his first game following the Olympic break, Backlund rejoined the Flames and registered five shots on goal against the Wild while playing over 15 minutes of ice time, including time with the second power-play unit.
He was called upon to help an offense that ranks 27th in the league with a 2.53 goals per game average. With his quick hands and laser wrist shot it seems only a matter of time until Backlund carves out a permanent role among Calgary’s forwards.
The mobile, puck-moving defenseman has posted impressive numbers over the 2009-10 season, sitting fourth among defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 32 assists in 62 games He is also second in the league with a +37 rating.
Part of Subban’s immediate success in the AHL is most certainly due to him being surrounded and insulated by a talented and well-coached team. After initially struggling to adapt to the professional game, Subban has been a model of consistency, never going more than three games without a point since late November. The 20-year-old also brings a great level of charisma to the ice and shows the type of on-ice leadership and poise that speak well of his character. The Habs rewarded Subban in February with a two-game call-up. He posted two assists while averaging 20:06 of ice time.
There are still many questions about Subban’s game, however. He does not always look interested in the defensive side of the game and his play away from the puck at times is lacking. His offensive abilities though are unquestionable.
Louie Caporusso, C – University of Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)
Drafted by the Ottawa Senators
3rd round, 90th overall, 2007
While his production has been down for most of his junior year, Caporusso seems to be doing his best to make up for it as the 2009-10 season winds down, scoring 10 goals and adding five assists in the past 10 games. The spike in production could not have been timelier either as the 20-year-old recorded five points, including a hat trick, in the Wolverines’ CCHA first-round games against Lake Superior.
With 16 goals and 19 assists through 39 games, Caporusso is not having as offensively productive a season as he did in his sophomore year. Nonetheless, he has become a more complete player, improving his abilities in the faceoff circle as well as on the defensive side of the puck.
Though it has been a largely disappointing year for the Golden Gophers, the team had a strong finish to their WCHA regular season by winning four of their last six games, all against teams ahead of them in the standings. At least some of the team’s recent improvement can be attributed to contributions from the blue line, especially junior Cade Fairchild (STL) and freshman Nick Leddy. Leddy’s recent surge is a good sign after struggling at times to adjust to the NCAA. The 19-year-old was hindered by a broken jaw earlier in the season but has appeared in 27 games with three goals and 11 points on the season.
Leddy has already climbed into the first pairing and earned quality ice time in all situations. Despite the team’s recent success, they will open on the road in the first round of the WCHA tourney at North Dakota.
With 37 goals and 39 assists through 63 games thus far, it is safe to say Champagne is amidst a breakout season. Much of this improvement is due to his increased time on the power play as he has potted 15 goals on the man-advantage this season, more than he had in his previous three seasons combined. The 20-year-old has posted seven goals and five assists in his past 10 games and has been a model of consistency throughout the season, never going more than three games without a point. He has also been among the best in the QMJHL in the faceoff circle, winning 58.3 of his 1535 faceoff attempts. One thing Champagne does need to do is to better utilize his 6’4, 214-pound frame, a common problem among big-bodied prospects.
Sbisa has the rare distinction of suiting up for five separate teams this season. After an eight-game stint in Anaheim, the 20-year-old defenseman appeared in Lethbridge before being traded to the Portland Winterhawks. He has played in a total of 10 games with the ‘Hawks, adding three goals and an assist to his season total of 17 points in 27 games. While part of the season has been spent on the shelf with an abdominal injury, Sbisa also missed significant time to international competition.
He suited up for Switzerland at the U-20 World Junior Championships and played three games before sustaining an injury. He did recover in time to play for his country again at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, playing a poised and well-rounded game despite not scoring any points. In addition to his international experience, Sbisa’s WHL playoff experience will be key for a Portland team making their first post-season appearance in four years.
Trailing the Play
After making the Panthers out of training camp, Dmitry Kulkov struggled out of the gates, failing to generate offense on a consistent basis and not scoring a goal until his 15th game. The 19-year-old however did appear to finally figure out the NHL style of game by mid-December and became an integral part of the Panthers power play.
In a game on December 18th, Kulikov injured his knee and missed the next 14 games, returning to action January 21st. Since his return, the puck-moving defenseman has two assists in 14 games. The Panthers recently traded away Jordan Leopold and Dennis Seidenberg, two of their top defensemen, leaving Kulikov with additional ice time and responsibilities. So far, the increase in quality minutes has not paid off.
Sulzer, now in his third season in North America, was scoring at a point-per-game pace in the AHL before being called up for his first taste of NHL action. In 20 games for the Predators, the balanced defenseman has registered a pair of assists along with a plus-four rating. The 25-year-old did not fare as well when he suited up for Germany at the Winter Olympics, where he had a team-worst -6 rating in six scoreless games.
The Predators acquired Mikhail Grebeshkov at the trade deadline and Sulzer was assigned, along with Cody Franson, to the AHL in Milwaukee. However, injuries to Grebeshkov and Shea Weber led to both prospects being back in the line-up this week.
After starting his rookie pro season strong, posting six goals, nine assists in his first 25 games, Grachev has struggled to find consistency. In his past 35 games, he has gone through six, eight, and seven-game cold streaks. He has posted only one goal and two assists in his last 15 games, going back through February. To date, Grachev has 12 goals and 14 assists through 64 games. Much of the difficulty can be attributed to typical problems for first-year pros. His play away from the puck, most notably on the defensive end, needs improvement. The 20-year-old also needs to learn to better utilize his hulking 6’4 220-pound frame. Regardless of how he finishes the 2009-10 season, Grachev has the size and skills to one day be a formidable power forward for the Rangers.
Aliu struggled adjusting to the speed of the pro game in his rookie season. Through 48 games with Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, the bruising winger showed flashes of offensive ability with 11 goals and six assists. However, he also looked completely lost on the ice at times. Despite showing some improvement in January, the 20-year-old failed to crack the IceHogs’ top six and was sent down to Chicago’s ECHL affiliate Toledo Walleye. In the two games since joining Toledo, Aliu has been able to get more ice time and has responded with two goals and an assist.
Fellow Blackhawks second-round pick Simon Danis-Pepin was also assigned to Toledo but it is far from the end of the road for either prospect. Both have had ups and downs in their rookie year, but could benefit from the expected turnover in the organization as Chicago tries to get under the cap for next season.
Drew Shore, C – Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted by the Florida Panthers
2nd round, 44th overall, 2009
Playing for a Denver team that is both deep at center and laden with veteran talent, freshman Drew Shore saw success early on with the Pioneers, posting four goals and 10 assists through his first 26 games while playing primarily on a third line. Since February however, the 19-year-old has hit a wall, registering only one point through his last 10 games and generally disappearing for stretches during games. Also, while he does not shy away from contact, Shore could stand to use his 6’3 190-pound frame more to his advantage.
The 2009-10 season is not over for Shore as he still has the opportunity to make an impact for the Pioneers during their playoff run.
Following a stellar freshman season, Schroeder’s sophomore campaign has been marred by inconsistency. As Minnesota’s top center, he struggled out of the gate with no goals through his first eight games. More recently, he had just four points in the Gophers’ last eight games of the regular season. In all, the talented centerman has eight goals, 19 assists through 34 games. The 19-year-old had a strong showing for the gold medal-winning US team at his third WJC with eight points in seven games, surpassing Jeremy Roenick as the United States’ all-time leading scorer at the tournament.
Part of Minnesota’s struggles over the course of the year could be attributed to special teams and Schroeder has not helped in that area, contributing just four power-play goals. The team will lean on their leading scorer and the top line for more offense as they face a difficult WCHA playoff match-up at North Dakota.
In his first season as a starter, Stajcer has shown both a tremendous level of hockey sense and the ability to take on bulk of the starts for his team. Since February however, the 18-year-old has started to show signs of fatigue, allowing four goals or more in seven of his past 10 starts. Over that span he has a 2-5-2 record and a 4.91 GAA. His last win was February 18th. Part of his struggles have to be attributed to facing over 35 shots on 25 different occasions and over 40 on 15 different occasions. Aside from facing an average of 32.8 shots a game, Stajcer does not get much goal support as the team has a -51 goal differential.
Steven Anthony, LW – St. John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
Drafted by Vancouver Canucks
7th round, 187th overall, 2009
Anthony emerged as one of the top forwards for St. John to start the season. The 19-year-old ranked second on the team through the first third of the season with 24 points in 24 games. Recently, the skilled winger hit a rough patch culminating in an 11-game scoreless drought in January and February with a -5 rating over that time. He may be bouncing back as he cracked the score sheet with two goals in his last three games, bringing his season total to 18 goals and 41 points in 58 games.
The talent-laden Sea Dogs line-up remains atop the league standings despite Anthony’s offensive struggles. They will have a target on their back as the top team and will need all hands on deck heading into the playoffs.
Brad Gardner and Ian Altenbaugh contributed to this article.