Jam packed with intriguing NHL prospect matchups, this week’s Prospect Faceoff is one you don’t want to miss.
In the OHL, Oshawa and Kingston meet for the eighth time this season, where one of the league’s premier power forwards meets a top draft pick returning from injury. Also, read on as top teams in the QMJHL and WHL battle for playoff positioning with a handful of games left. In the SHL, the playoffs are already underway and two promising young players need to step it up to help their teams advance. Finally, the NCHC wraps up their playoff tournament this weekend, a tournament that features a rematch from last year’s championship game.
Mike McCarron (Oshawa) vs. Sam Bennett (Kingston) – OHL
The Kingston Frontenacs and Oshawa Generals will lock up for the eighth and final time in the regular season. Having split the first six games, Oshawa got the better of Kingston in a 9-1 final last weekend, a rare defensive lapse by the Frontenacs. Kingston has relied on their stingy defense to win games, but now that a late season addition is back in town, a new-found confidence has them positioned for a playoff upset. Meanwhile, Oshawa has a deep team, with one valuable power forward being a major contributor to their team’s success.
Heading into the 2013 NHL Draft, the Montreal Canadiens wanted to become tougher to play against. Enter 6’6”, 225-pound Mike McCarron, from the London Knights. Transitioning to the OHL from the United States development program, the power forward posted a respectable 34-point season in 2013-14. Through the first half of this season in London, McCarron became a reliable piece of the Knights offense, scoring 22 goals and 19 assists in just 25 games. McCarron scored a career-high six-point game against Sarnia in January, which ended up being his last as a Knight. McCarron was traded to the powerhouse Oshawa Generals squad, and he wasted no time in introducing himself to the Generals fans, scoring one goal and two assists in his first game. While McCarron was snubbed from the U.S. World Junior squad, he carried a seven-game point streak through February on a deep Oshawa team expected to compete for a Memorial Cup. Despite losing all three games in round robin play as host with London, McCarron hopes to bring that experience to Oshawa as they push into the playoffs.
After posting 91 points for the Kingston Frontenacs last season, Sam Bennett appeared poised to make the jump to the Calgary Flames. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury that ultimately resulted in October surgery shut Bennett down for months. Upon his return, Bennett wanted to join the Flames’ lineup. However, the organization returned Bennett to Kingston, a team that had scored six goals in a game twice this season. In his first game back, Bennett scored one goal and added two assists as part of a six-goal second period, perhaps offering a glimpse of what is ahead for a the previously floundering Frontenacs team. Bennett has logged nine games since returning to the OHL, scoring 11 goals and 10 assists in that time, injecting some much needed offense into a defense-first organization.
Frederik Gauthier (Rimouski) vs. Ryan Graves (Quebec) – QMJHL
As part of the QMJHL’s East Division, the Rimouski Oceanic and Quebec Remparts have been staples on top of the standings. With Rimouski recently clinching the division, Quebec will turn to a key contributor on their blueline to maintain their standing. In Rimouski, dreams of another Memorial Cup appearance appear tangible thanks in part to a defensively responsible center.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs first round pick in 2013, Frederik Gauthier has long carried heavy expectations. Now in his third season with Rimouski, Gauthier has been one of the most consistent forwards for the Oceanic. He has maintained a point-per-game pace over his QMJHL career, continuing just short of that mark this year by potting 14 goals and 15 assists in 34 games. Gauthier again was part of Canada’s bottom six group at the World Juniors, proving to be a key possession player in a checking role along with Lawson Crouse (2015) and Nick Ritchie (ANA). Strong on faceoffs and known as one of the top penalty killers on the offensively-charged Oceanic, Gauthier had a bit of a down February, scoring just one goal in eight games. He recently put concussion symptoms behind him and will look to round back into form heading into the playoffs.
If there was a program similar to frequent flyer miles for junior hockey players, Ryan Graves would have a lot of free bus rides. Graves is playing for his fourth organization in as many seasons, presumably his last before heading into the New York Rangers‘ system. The Quebec Remparts have leaned on Graves this season, especially with fellow defenseman Cody Donaghey (TOR) out with a significant knee injury. Known for his defensive game, Graves has been a major contributor offensively for the Remparts. With a handful of games left, Graves has already blown away previous career highs with 15 goals and 23 assists in just 48 games. Over his last seven games, Graves has registered at least one point in six of them.
Nelson Nogier (Red Deer) vs. Brett Pollock (Edmonton) – WHL
The Red Deer Rebels and Edmonton Oil Kings game this weekend will feature two unheralded players who have both been key members for their respective franchises. One steady defensive defenseman for Red Deer will attempt to contain Edmonton’s leading scorer, as these two Eastern Conference rivals continue to jockey for playoff positioning.
As a native of Saskatoon, Nelson Nogier was drafted and developed by the hometown Blades organization. After 128 games in Saskatoon, a surprising December trade sent Nogier away from home to Red Deer, where he has continued to be a steadying presence on defense for the Rebels. Nogier recently returned to Saskatoon and was honored with his own bobblehead, a testament to his popularity. As a shutdown defenseman, the Winnipeg Jets prospect is often asked to matchup against the opponent’s top line, and he therefore does not put up big offensive numbers. That said, Nogier’s two goals and 14 assists mark career high’s in both categories.
The defending WHL and Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings have to be pleased with what Brett Pollock has provided as the team’s leading scorer. Not only has Pollock filled the scoresheet with 31 goals and 30 assists, but his physical play has taken a step forward as well. The Dallas Stars prospect enjoyed a notable game in November, setting an Oil Kings franchise record by scoring a natural hat-trick in a span of 58 seconds. Pollock has been a consistent force for the Oil Kings, recently posting a nine-game point streak. Having recently clinched their playoff spot, Edmonton will need Pollock to continue scoring if they hope to defend their title.
Quentin Shore (Denver) vs. Louie Belpedio (Miami) – NCAA
The University of Denver and Miami University meet in the NCHC semifinal game this weekend, a rematch of last year’s championship game. Both teams feature unheralded players who have propelled them into the playoffs, thanks in part to special teams contributions.
Quentin Shore is part of a talented family that has produced four brothers who all have the talent to eventually play every day in the NHL. Drew recently played for Calgary at home in Denver against Colorado, Nick has logged 20 games with Los Angeles, and youngest brother Baker is reportedly heading to try-out for the U.S. National Team Development Program. That said, Quentin, a junior at Denver, is carving a niche for himself, proving to be a valuable special teams asset for the Pioneers. Shore has 23 points in 35 games, and leads Denver in power play assists and points, in addition to shorthanded goals. The Ottawa Senators prospect has a knack for scoring important goals, a trend that will need to continue if Denver is to advance to the finals on Saturday.
Often times, freshman defensemen simply don’t make that much of an impact in their first season. With respect to 2015 draft-eligible freshmen Noah Hanifin and Zach Werenski, Louie Belpedio is a name to keep an eye on. The Minnesota Wild prospect has quietly become the straw that stirs the Miami power play. Of Belpedio’s 16 points, 11 of them have come with the man advantage. He has been a catalyst for the RedHawks, often stuck in high gear, constantly moving and maintaining puck possession. Twice named the NCHC Rookie of the Week this season, Belpedio has become an important part of a strong RedHawks team.
Artturi Lehkonen (Frolunda) vs. Lucas Wallmark (Lulea) – SHL
Two of the top 10 Under-20 scorers in the SHL will face off this weekend as the SHL playoffs continue, with Lulea ahead of Frolunda two games to one. For Frolunda, a Finnish import in his first season in Sweden is making an impact. Meanwhile, one of Sweden’s brightest young talents has put together an impressive season of his own for Lulea.
Frolunda has been a force this season, and super-streaky Finnish import Artturi Lehkonen has been an interesting subject. He has been rewarded by spending time on the first line with journeymen Ryan Lasch and Joel Lundqvist at times this season. That said, he started off the season hot, posting nine points in his first 13 games. From there, he had an abysmal 19-game scoreless streak, which saw his ice time dip before leaving for the World Junior Championship. There, Lehkonen captained a disappointing Finnish squad, where he scored only one goal in five games, resulting in a seventh place finish. Back in the SHL, Lehkonen has again showed signs of life in the second half of the season, including his first hat-trick in a key game against Skelleftea. He added an assist in game three of the playoffs, and Frolunda needs the Montreal Canadiens prospect to hit the scoresheet to continue on in the playoffs.
Lucas Wallmark has played 50 games in the SHL this season, his second full season in the league. To date, he has scored five goals and 13 assists, which may not sound like much until you delve a little deeper. Those totals have him seventh in scoring among players under 20 of age, behind recognizable names like Jakub Vrana (WSH), William Nylander (TOR), and Adam Brodecki (2015). Looking back to 2013, he was one of the youngest players available for the draft, but was passed over due to his size and skating ability. One year later, the Carolina Hurricanes picked Wallmark and he has added an additional 10 pounds, and that extra muscle has helped to improve his skating stride. As an assistant captain with Sweden at this year’s WJC, Wallmark put up four goals and two assists in seven games, the second consecutive season where he has looked impressive at the tournament. Back in SHL action, he has five multi-point games and has registered an assist in each of Lulea’s three playoff games so far.
Leon Draisaitl (Kelowna) vs. Cole Ully (Kamloops) – WHL
The Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers played a low-scoring affair, with the Rockets coming out ahead 2-1. Madison Bowey (WSH) was named as the game’s first star following a one goal and one assist effort. Kelowna had Jackson Whistle in net, with Whistle stopping 29 of 30 shots for his 33rd win. Leon Draisaitl (EDM) was held completely off the scoresheet. For Kamloops, Cole Ully (DAL) picked up an assist on captain Matt Needham’s 24th goal of the season.
Julien Nantel (Rouyn-Noranda) vs. Daniel Audette (Sherbrooke) – QMJHL
The Sherbrooke Phoenix defended home ice successfully against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies by a final score of 5-1. Daniel Audette (MTL) picked up a pair of assists as Sherbrooke’s top line was firing on all cylinders. Tim Wieser added two goals and an assist while fellow linemate Kay Schweri also added a pair of helpers. The Huskies lone goal was scored by Francis Perron (OTT). Julien Nantel (COL) did not register a point in this matchup.
Dylan Sadowy (Saginaw) vs. Sonny Milano (Plymouth) – OHL
With only a handful of games remaining, the Saginaw Spirit needed only two points to qualify for the eighth and final playoff spot in the OHL’s Western Conference. The Spirit officially qualified after picking up a decisive 6-3 win over Plymouth. Jesse Barwell and Tye Felhaber added a pair of goals, and Dylan Sadowy (SJS) notched his 42nd goal of the season for the Spirit. It was a sad weekend in Plymouth, as the Whalers 23-year playoff streak came to a close with the loss. Sonny Milano (CBJ) has been one bright spot for the future Flint Firebirds, adding an assist in this game to his team-leading 67th point.
Andrew Copp (Michigan) vs. Mackenzie MacEachern (Michigan State) – NCAA
Heading into the weekend, first place in the Big Ten was on the line and both Michigan squads had a shot at the title. Unfortunately for both, the two teams split a pair of games on the weekend while Minnesota cruised over Penn State to repeat as Big Ten regular season champion. In the first game, the Michigan State forward Ryan Keller’s hat trick wasn’t enough in a 5-3 loss. Mackenzie MacEachern (STL) was in a difficult spot matchup-wise, finishing a disappointing -3 and without a point. Michigan answered with 5 different goal scorers. Andrew Copp (WPG) added an assist and finished even on the night. The next night, Michigan State rebounded to earn second place and a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament with a hard-fought 2-1 victory. Zach Werenski (2015) scored Michigan’s lone goal, while Copp finished without a point and -1. For the Spartans, MacEachern added an assist and finished with a +1 rating on a night where goaltender Jake Hildebrand played the hero, stopping 37 of 38 shots.
Stanislav Galiev (Hershey) vs. Matt Murray (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) – AHL
After posting the longest shutout streak in AHL history, Matt Murray (PIT) stayed hot for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, stopping 26 of 27 shots in a 3-1 win. Jayson Megna paced the Penguins with one goal and one assist. The Hershey Bears’ lethargic offense couldn’t get going, save for a freak Mike Moore goal. Stanislav Galiev (WSH) did not pick up a point and finished even on the night.
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