Welcome to the April 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 the final edition for the 2009-10, we discuss several prospects who raised their stock this year, a pair of college prospects who squared off in the national championship game, and a number of first-round picks who had disappointing seasons.
Leading the Rush
While the lack of first-round picks in 2010 as well as 2011 still stings for the Leafs, the emergence of young undrafted center Tyler Bozak softens the pain. Since the Leafs made a multi-player trade that saw top center Matt Stajan go to Calgary, Bozak was anointed the Leafs No. 1 center and has remained there.
An offensively-gifted forward, it is Bozak’s two-way ability that has been the most impressive. He has a 55.2 faceoff percentage which is tops among rookies, routinely blocks shots, and plays a physically dynamic game along the boards. He is also a smooth skater, smart puck distributor, and has the playmaking ability to compliment Leafs star forward Phil Kessel. Through 37 games in 2009-10, Bozak posted eight goals and 17 assists while averaging 19:14 in ice time.
The only real concern about the forward is durability. Bozak started the season with the H1N1 virus and later in November went down for awhile with an ankle injury. Since then, however, Bozak was healthy and productive. If he can build upon the final four months of his 2009-10 season, Bozak could be a breakout player next season.
Ryan Wilson, D – Colorado Avalanche
Acquired via trade with Calgary March 2009
The Avalanche relied heavily on rookie skaters throughout their 2009-10 season with five rookies averaging over 14 minutes per night. Forwards Matt Duchene, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan O’Reilly, and Brandon Yip garnered plenty of attention for their respective roles in Colorado’s resurgence as well as their current playoff run. Defenseman Ryan Wilson has not received the same level of attention as the others but has played an equally valuable role for the Avs.
The 23-year-old scored three goals and 18 assists in 61 regular-season games. His 21 points tied for fourth in the league among rookie blueliners while his plus-13 rating is tied for second alongside Calder hopeful Tyler Myers. His physical play was important to Colorado as well and his 86 hits ranked third among the team’s defensemen. Playing in the Avs third defensive pairing alongside veterans Adam Foote or John-Michael Liles, Wilson drew regular shifts on the penalty kill and occasionally on power play while logging over 16 minutes a game.
There are few prospects in the AHL who have had a bigger rookie season than 20-year-old P.K. Subban. After being assigned to the Canadiens AHL affiliate out of training camp, Subban initially struggled to find his offensive footing, posting only three assists in his first 10 games. Something clicked, however, and he took off from there, posting 10 goals and 26 assists in his next 42 games before getting called up to the NHL for two games in mid-February. While not looking out of place in the NHL, Subban was returned to the AHL where he finished the season with 18 goals, 35 assists in 77 games. He also posted an impressive plus-46, second among all players in the league.
In the Calder Cup playoffs, Subban continues to dazzle as he leads the Bulldogs with four points and 12 shots in three games.
With little left to prove at the AHL level, expect Subban to compete for a spot on the Canadiens roster next season. With six defensemen with NHL contracts for 2010-11, however, it would be more likely for Subban to make the team in 2011-12.
Starting the season at 18 and easily the youngest player in the AHL, few prospects have raised their stock as much as forward Tomas Tatar. The junior route was an option for the Slovakian winger, who spent the previous season in the Slovak Extraliga playing against mostly grown men. The organization ultimately decided Grand Rapids would be the best place for him to adjust to the North American style while continuing to develop his game.
He did not disappoint with 16 goals and 16 assists in 58 games during the regular season. His disciplined approach led to only 12 penalty minutes and a plus-eight rating that ranked third on the team. A forward with a great shot and outstanding hockey sense, the 19-year-old Tatar is one step closer to an opportunity with the big club following his surprisingly good rookie year.
One of the top goaltenders in the QMJHL for much of 2009-10, not only has he shown without a doubt that he has the endurance to play the bulk of his team’s games, but has shown that he excels under the pressure of being his team’s uncontested starter. In 54 regular-season starts, Poulin lead the league with 35 wins and seven shutouts, has the third-best goals-against average with 2.63, and the second-best save percentage with .915.
In the first two rounds of the QMJHL playoffs, Poulin has been stellar, allowing three goals or more only twice and posting an 8-2 record. The young goaltender has struggled against an offensively potent Saint John team, however, allowing 12 goals in his past three games.
Poulin is old enough to play in the AHL next season and barring any setbacks, expect to see him signed to an entry-level deal and join the Islanders minor-league system for 2010-11.
Another mid-round pick who has increased his stock this season, McMillan let his speed and toughness shine on the World Junior stage, helping Canada capture the silver medal. McMillan skated on a WHL superstar line alongside Regina’s Jordan Eberle (EDM) and Brandon’s Brayden Schenn (LAK), finishing the tournament with four goals and four assists in six games.
His offensive game also came together in Kelowna unlike any prior season as he helped lead the team back to the WHL playoffs despite losing stars like Jamie Benn (DAL), Tyler Myers (BUF), and Mikael Backlund (CGY) following their 2009 Memorial Cup run. McMillan finished third on the team in points with 67 in only 55 games. He scored 25 goals during the season, including seven on the power play and a team-leading three shorthanded goals. For the playoffs, McMillan once again turned it on under the bright lights, leading the team with 15 points and plus-five rating in 12 games before Kelowna was eliminated in the second round by Tri-City.
Known mostly for his speed and two-way play coming into the season, McMillan has proven he is a versatile forward who can excel on big stages. For 2010-11, the 20-year-old will make the jump to the professional ranks after four years in junior hockey.
After a senior season that saw Sneep post career highs in goals (11) and assists (17) as well as finish with a Frozen Four Championship, there was little else to do than sign an entry-level deal.
Although he joined the Penguins AHL affiliate upon signing, the 22-year-old has not seen any ice time. Instead, Sneep is spending the spring with the organization to become better assimilated to his future teammates as well as the professional lifestyle.
He has all of the tools to be a top-four defenseman but still will need some work before he plays in the NHL. Expect him to play the 2010-11 season in the AHL.
Wisconsin senior forward Blake Geoffrion is not flying under anyone’s radar after winning the Hobey Baker award as this year’s top college hockey player. The power forward displayed strong play in all three zones as well as the ability to score goals, tying for second in the nation with 28 tallies. He finished his senior season fourth on the team with 50 points.
The 23-year-old Geoffrion wore the C in Wisconsin for the second consecutive year as one of three Badger captains and propelled the team all the way to the national championship game, where they fell to Boston College. Still, it was a great performance for Geoffrion as he was given the West Regional MVP honors after five points in the first two Badger victories of the tournament.
Though he projects as a two-way forward and will likely flourish in a checking line or energy role, his leadership, hockey sense, and touch around the net make him a prototypical Predators forward. A native of the Nashville suburb Brentwood, Tennessee, Geoffrion will begin his pro career with the organization next season.
Trailing the Play
Playing for the most offensively anemic team in the Eastern Conference, Brad Marchand was not expected to replace the scoring lost from Phil Kessel. He was, however, expected to contribute offensively in some capacity. In 12 games this past fall, Marchand registered only one assist before being returned to Boston’s AHL affiliate in Providence. When Bruins top center Marc Savard went down with a concussion in mid-March, Marchand was re-inserted in the lineup and once again given an opportunity on a scoring line. In eight games, he failed to register a point. In 20 total NHL games, Marchand registered a single assist, and a minus-3 while averaging 11:58 in ice time.
At 5’9, the 21-year-old Marchand needs to learn to contribute offensively at the NHL level as he is too small and lacks the strength to play a more physical, checking-line role.
Backlund’s 23-game NHL debut this season did not quite live up to expectations. He was called up to kick start the Calgary offense but while the effort was there, the results were not. The Flames managed to win 10 of their final 20 games post-Olympic break but scored only 2.4 goals per game in that span.
Backlund’s numbers were respectable, with 10 points in 23 games, and he was reliable in the faceoff circle, winning around 53 percent of his draws. However, his single goal was disappointing for a sniper and he failed to resuscitate the Flames’ dying power play. The team operated at a 13.79 percent success rate with the man advantage over their last 20 games. He was unable to find a lot of open space on offense and was physically overmatched at times. He wasn’t overly physical himself with only 12 hits and had more giveaways (13) than takeaways (11).
At the very least, the 21-year-old got his feet wet at the NHL level and gained experience playing alongside captain Jarome Iginla. The talented pivot will likely see an increased role next season and will be in the mix to center Calgary’s top line.
Although he started his rookie season strong with five goals and eight assists in his first 15 games, Grachev faded fast, posting only seven goals and eight assists over his next 65. Much of the inconsistent production can be attributed to the typical types of growing pains players go through in turning pro. As a 6’4 220-pound goal-scoring forward, Grachev was used to being able to dictate the play with his size and skill. Against bigger, stronger, and more experienced competition, the winger failed to adapt.
Grachev is expected to compete for a spot on the Rangers NHL roster next season but it may be more realistic to expect him just to get called up for a few games. Still, with an organization that has a need for goal-scoring forwards, the 20-year-old Russian could be in demand.
McCollum’s late birthday allowed him to join the pro ranks just one year after being drafted. He left the OHL after three stellar seasons but has not yet been able to translate that success to the pro game.
The 6’2 goalie struggled throughout the season, eventually handing full starting duties for the Griffins to Daniel Larsson. In 30 AHL appearances, he had a 10-16-2 record with 3.48 goals against average and .881 save percentage. He spent some time in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye but didn’t fare much better with a 2-1-0 record, 4.48 goals against, and .864 save percentage in six games.
Though it was not a season to remember for the 20-year-old, it is still much too early to write him off. With Jimmy Howard firmly entrenched in the starting spot in Detroit, the Wings can afford to take a similarly patient approach to McCollum’s development. He will be able to continue sharpening his teeth with an opportunity to take the reins in Grand Rapids next season.
It was an unforgiving season for the Oshawa Generals and goaltender Michael Zador’s numbers are reflective of that. Playing behind a team plagued by injuries, a porous defense, and an anemic offense, Zador posted a gaudy 4.15 goals-against average, an .884 save percentage, and 14-28-2-1 record.
The 2009-10 season was Zador’s first as a starter and while he started the season out the gates, posting a 6-3-1 record in his first 10 games, the season would quickly spin out of control. Zador would register only one win in his last 15 starts.
The good news is Zador is still 18 years old and has plenty of time to develop. He obviously looked sharp in the beginning of the season but quickly wore down as the season went on and Oshawa sustained several key injuries.
Tyler Cuma, D – Ottawa 67′s (OHL)
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild
1st round, 23rd overall, 2008
After a knee injury prematurely ended his 2008-09 season, Cuma was again hampered by injuries as well as a suspension in 2009-10 and appeared in only 52 games. His tough and physical defensive style was still an indispensible aspect on the 67′s blue line, but his offensive game did not develop as expected.
The blueliner scored five goals along with 17 assists and 73 penalty minutes in his 52 games. He had an up and down playoffs, first posting four assists in the final three games of Ottawa’s first-round series against Niagara, then just one assist during the squad’s seven-game series loss to Mississauga. His physical presence was apparent, with 10 minor penalties including a majority of roughing and interference calls.
Still just 20 years old, Cuma has time to fully develop his game. Though he may physically be ready to step up to the AHL, he is not yet ready to contribute at the level expected of a first-round pick and may take time to develop in the minors.
Along with the entire University of Minnesota program, the 2009-10 season was a giant disappointment for defenseman David Fischer. Having fully recovered from an injury-abbreviated 2008-09 season, the former first-round pick was expected to have a breakout season in his senior year. The opposite held true as through 39 games, Fischer posted two goals and four assists, the lowest since his freshman season. His defensive game was no better either as he was frequently caught flat footed or out of position. His game also lacked the appropriate physical edge.
The Habs will likely still sign him to an entry-level deal, as a two-way defenseman with good size is always valuable. However, expectations for what Fischer can bring to the Canadiens organization have been tempered.
Jordan Schroeder, C – University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks
1st round, 22nd overall, 2009
After a stellar 45-point freshman campaign, Jordan Schroeder suffered a bit of a sophomore slump in his second year at Minnesota. The team struggled mightily out of the gate and Schroeder’s play seemed disinterested for stretches. Reports that he was considering the jump to the pros during the season did not make matters any better.
In 37 games, he finished the year with just nine goals and 28 points, which tied for the team lead. The Gophers finished the season with seven games against top WCHA teams Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, but Schroeder was limited to one goal and one assist.
His numbers improved when he joined the Manitoba Moose in the AHL, scoring nine points over the final 11 regular-season games. After going scoreless in his first two playoff games with Manitoba, the 5’8 forward exploded with a hat trick plus an assist in the team’s first victory in their series against Hamilton. Schroeder’s talent is irrefutable, but the 19-year-old will need a strong year to answer questions about his commitment and bounce back from a disappointing college season.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.