Two childhood friends continue their friendly rivalry on the big stage, and in the WHL an accomplished defenseman goes one-on-one against one of the league’s best rookies. In the OHL, it’s a meeting of two Vancouver Canucks prospects, while former Russian teammates collide in an important QMJHL matchup. Finally, two prospects at opposite ends of the same draft see each other again in the SHL.
Brendan Collier (Northeastern) vs. Matt Grzelcyk (Boston Univ.) – NCAA
Less than a week will have passed since a dramatic ending to the 2015 Beanpot Tournament, and the two teams in the finals will face off once again. Charlestown natives and childhood friends used to play street hockey against each other growing up in Boston, and now they are doing it consistently on the city’s biggest college hockey stage.
One third of a life-long friendship with Matt Grzelcyk and Nolan Vesey (TOR), Brendan Collier is attempting to carve out his own career with the Northeastern Huskies. Collier, a seventh round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2012, transferred to crosstown rival Northeastern for more playing time after being cut by Boston University at the conclusion of last season. The lunch-pail winger has scored two goals and six assists in 30 games for the Huskies this season. Collier, an undersized forward who is adjusting to life in the rough and tumble Hockey East conference, will need to regain the offensive form he displayed in the EJHL before looking ahead.
Boston University captain Matt Grzelcyk missed an opportunity to play in the Beanpot Tournament last season after a freak shoulder injury forced him out. This year, he played the role of hero by scoring the game-winning goal 51 seconds into overtime to land their Terriers first Beanpot title since 2009. Grzelcyk now has seven goals and 18 assists in 31 games this season, surpassing his career high in points. A draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2012, he has helped the Terriers regain their claim as one of the NCAA’s best after a forgettable 2013-14 season.
Tommy Vannelli (Medicine Hat) vs. Sam Steel (Regina) – WHL
The Medicine Hat Tigers travel to Regina in an effort to maintain their lead at the top of their division. One Tigers’ defenseman has been a big part of their success this season, and he will face-off against a talented rookie playing for the Pats.
The Medicine Hat Tigers received a boost to begin their season as St. Louis Blues‘ 2013 draft pick Tommy Vannelli was returned to the WHL despite being eligible to play in the AHL. Formerly committed to the University of Minnesota, Vannelli rose to relevance playing with the U.S. National U18 team. Vannelli was a huge addition to Medicine Hat last year, scoring 14 goals and 27 assists in 60 games. Through 43 games this season, Vannelli has already potted 12 goals and 23 assists for the Central Division-leading Tigers.
The Regina Pats made Sam Steel the second overall selection in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. In his first season of WHL competition, Steel has already proven himself worthy of that draft position as the Pats are firmly entrenched in a playoff position. Steel leads Regina in scoring to this point in the season with 15 goals and 33 assists in 53 games. Those totals have him tied for second in rookie scoring, just two points behind 2015 draft-eligible Ivan Provorov. Steel will be eligible for the NHL Draft in 2016.
Cole Cassels (Oshawa) vs. Jordan Subban (Belleville) – OHL
The Vancouver Canucks will want to pay close attention to one OHL game this weekend. Two of their prospects from the 2013 draft have put together impressive seasons for their respective clubs, but one of them already has an NHL contract, while the other is hoping to earn one.
Playing for the perennial OHL contender Oshawa Generals has its benefits. For Cole Cassels, early dependence on being a role-player behind Scott Laughton (PHI) and Boone Jenner (CBJ) resulted in a focus on penalty killing and the finer points of the game. Now in his fourth season in Oshawa, the son of former NHL forward Andrew Cassels is now displaying his offensive talents. Cassels has 23 goals and 44 assists on the season, just one goal and five assists short of career highs in both categories. The gritty forward was suspended for 10 games at the end of November, but has otherwise been an ironman for the Generals, never missing more than a handful of games at a time. Among the final cuts from the United States’ U20 team, Cassels is hoping to redirect the snub into a long playoff run before moving into Vancouver’s professional ranks.
The Subban family has been in the news lately, with P.K. a contender for the Norris Trophy again, and Malcolm recently making his NHL debut. In Belleville, Jordan Subban is making sure that he is not forgotten. In his fourth season of OHL competition, Subban has continued where he left off after posting 20, 51, and 42-point seasons consecutively. This season, Subban’s 22 goals surpassed a Belleville Bulls record by a defenseman, while his 21 assists have him leading the team in scoring. Known as a proficient skater and effective manager of the puck, Subban is playing for an NHL contract on a rebuilding Belleville squad.
Valentin Zykov (Gatineau) vs. Ivan Barbashev (Moncton) – QMJHL
Former U20 teammates for Russia will go one-on-one this weekend as the two are trending in opposite directions. One player is attempting to shake off injury and trade concerns, while another continues to light the lamp on the QMJHL’s highest scoring team.
After being named the 2012-13 CHL Rookie of the Year, the Los Angeles Kings traded three draft picks to move up that summer to select Valentin Zykov in the second round. He went on to have a successful sophomore campaign before the wheels fell off this season. Zykov missed two months due to a hernia, and was subsequently traded to the Gatineau Olympiques in exchange for Buffalo Sabres prospect, Vaclav Karabacek. Since then, he has posted four goals and seven assists in 14 games with his new team, far below his career average. Zykov is a supremely talented offensive winger with the ability to turn a game upside-down in one shift, and the Olympiques will need every bit of that just to make it into the QMJHL playoffs.
While Zykov has been struggling lately, fellow Russian Ivan Barbashev can’t get enough of QMJHL competition. Barbashev recently was credited with his 200th point in the QMJHL in just his third season in the league. This year, he currently has 36 goals and 41 assists through 47 games and has starred alongside undrafted phenom Conor Garland. February has been especially good to him – his 12 goals and six assists in just nine games should position him for Player of the Month honors. The Maritimes Division-leading Gatineau rides a five-game winning streak heading into this game, in part thanks to Barbashev’s contributions.
Axel Holmstrom (Skelleftea) vs. Jakub Vrana (Linkoping) – SHL
The NHL Draft often signals the beginning of a journey to the professional ranks. Players are immediately judged and scrutinized by their draft position, but it doesn’t always tell the whole story. This weekend, two talented prospects with far different stories from the same draft go head-to-head in SHL play.
The Detroit Red Wings have a penchant for finding late-round success at the NHL Draft. They may have struck gold yet again, this time with 2014 seventh round selection Axel Holmstrom. Currently in his first full season in the SHL, Holmstrom is third in SHL U20 scoring with 10 goals and nine assists in 39 games. Those totals place him behind U20 WJC linemate William Nylander (TOR) and his opponent this weekend, Jakub Vrana. Holmstrom has found success with Sweden in international junior competition, consistently performing at a point-per-game pace. He posted one goal, a memorable game-winner over Russia, along with six assists in seven games during this year’s World Junior Championship.
At the opposite end of the 2014 NHL Draft, the Washington Capitals selected Czech forward Jakub Vrana 13th overall. A veteran of over 100 international junior games, Vrana is already making waves playing against professionals in the SHL. Last year, Vrana only managed three points in 24 games. He has vastly improved this season, totaling 12 goals and 11 assists in 39 games. Vrana participated in his third WJC this year, highlighted by scoring two goals against Sweden in a 5-2 loss to go along with one assist in five games.
Matej Tomek (Topeka) vs. Sebastian Vidmar (Lone Star) – NAHL
Topeka and Lone Star split a pair of games this weekend, despite the unfortunate late scratch of Matej Tomek. After nursing and playing through a suspected injury, Tomek was not dressed this weekend. Topeka’s Tyler Irvine stepped up in his place and scored both goals in a 2-1 win on Friday night. Sebastian Vidmar picked up an assist on the only Lone Star goal on Friday, but responded on Saturday by scoring twice in a 6-2 win to overtake the league lead in points with 66.
Jake Paterson (Kitchener) vs. Justin Bailey (Sault Ste. Marie) – OHL
A matchup of former teammates saw the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds pick up their first win this season over the Kitchener Rangers by a final score of 6-3. Jake Paterson was not able to shock the Greyhounds this time, as their offense was way too much to handle. The Kitchener goaltender stopped 35 of 40 shots in the loss. For the Greyhounds, the line of Michael Bunting (ARZ), Sergei Tolchinsky (CAR), and Jared McCann (VAN) were involved in five of the six goals. Justin Bailey (BUF) was held scoreless with a -1 rating.
Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) vs. Sean Kuraly (Miami) – NCAA
Two of the NCAA’s top 10 teams split a pair of weekend games that saw underrated players shine on the big stage. Dominic Toninato made the trip with the team but did not play this weekend after being expected to return from injury. But fellow Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Tony Cameranesi picked up a point in each game, including the game-winning goal in Minnesota-Duluth’s 3-1 win on Friday. After falling behind 3-1 on Saturday, Miami rallied thanks to Sean Kuraly’s dramatic goal in the third period, his 15th of the season. In overtime, senior Blake Coleman (NJD) played hero to earn a weekend split for the Redhawks.
John Quenneville (Brandon) vs. Brendan Guhle (Prince Albert) – WHL
Depth was on display for the Prince Albert Raiders as 10 different players registered points in a 6-4 win over the Brandon Wheat Kings. Brendan Guhle’s three-assist effort resulted in him being named the first star of the game. Fellow Raiders teammates Austin Glover and Reid Gardiner also notched three points on the night. Florida Panthers prospect Jayce Hawryluk’s hat trick wasn’t enough for the Wheat Kings. John Quenneville was held without a point, but finished with a +2 rating in the loss.
Samuel Montembeault (Blainville-Boisbriand) vs. Nicolas Aube-Kubel (Val d’Or) – QMJHL
Nicolas Aube-Kubel waited just five minutes into the game to open the scoring in a tightly contested game. Samuel Montembeault received a rare night off, but on this night the opposing goaltender Etienne Montpetit stopped 26 of 28 in regulation, and five of six in the shootout to earn a hard-fought, 3-2 win for Val d’Or. Aube-Kubel bookended the contest by scoring in the shootout as well.
Follow Dave Hahn on Twitter via @DHahnHockey