What happens when a high-end goal scorer matches up against one of the brightest young goaltenders in junior hockey? We’ll find out this weekend when Alex Nedeljkovic visits former international teammate Alex DeBrincat and the Erie Otters. Also in this week’s Prospect Faceoff, two seniors lead their college teams in scoring, while key matchups take place in the AHL, QMJHL, and WHL.
Alex Nedeljkovic (Niagara) vs. Alex DeBrincat (Erie) – OHL
In this week’s Feature Faceoff, former teammates who earned bronze medals together while playing for the United States in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship go head-to-head in the OHL. It is an intriguing matchup of one of the best young goaltenders in the game against one of the OHL’s scoring leaders.
At the beginning of December, Alex Nedeljkovic’s fortunes turned around after he was traded from the Flint Firebirds to the Niagara IceDogs. A tumultuous situation in Flint led to a change of scenery for Nedeljkovic, who spent just one week in Niagara before heading to the World Juniors. There, Nedeljkovic received the lion’s share of the goaltending duties, finishing with a 1.66 goals-against average and a .943 save-percentage while playing a major role in the United States’ bronze medal effort.
Back in Niagara, the Carolina Hurricanes prospect looks engaged once again and is motivated to help the IceDogs secure a playoff spot. To date, Nedeljkovic is 5-1-0-1 with Niagara, running up an impressive .949 save percentage, proving once again why the ultra-competitive netminder is a tough matchup on a nightly basis.
Erie counters with Alex DeBrincat, who is perhaps one of the most surprising stories in the OHL over the past calendar year. Bursting onto the scene as a free agent playing alongside of Connor McDavid, DeBrincat finished with 104 points last year, proving that he is a fine prospect in his own right and not just the product of his linemates. While he came away with a medal, DeBrincat’s WJC tournament was not what he hoped for as he only scored once, was handed a game-misconduct, and later missed time due to injury. Back in the OHL, DeBrincat only has three goals in his last 10 games, after scoring 32 times in his first 26 games. Eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, the Otters are counting on the feisty-yet-talented young forward to compete on a nightly basis.
Hunter Fejes (Colorado College) vs. Drake Caggiula (North Dakota) – NCAA
Entering this season, the biggest question mark for Colorado College was whether or not Hunter Fejes would finally be healthy and take the next step in his development. Playing in all 22 games so far this season, Fejes not only has been healthy, he currently leads the team in scoring and has been an important piece of the puzzle for the Eagles. On a team that only has 45 goals to their credit all year, Fejes has scored 20% (9) of them, already surpassing his previous career-high of eight. The former Shattuck St. Mary’s product appears to have finally shaken off the injury bug and is playing the best hockey of his career. Unsigned by the Arizona Coyotes, Fejes is playing for an NHL contract in his senior year.
It might be early to begin discussing the merits of who should win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player, but Drake Caggiula burst onto the scene this year in his final year of eligibility. Playing on a line with Brock Boeser (VAN) and Nick Schmaltz (CHI), Caggiula is the straw that stirs the drink for the University of North Dakota. Currently sitting ninth overall in NCAA scoring, Caggiula has been something of a human highlight reel this season, consistently creating plays and finishing around the net in flashy fashion. The Pickering, ON native is already six points shy of his career-high point total of 36, in just over half the games played. He has more than just the Hobey Baker at stake, as Caggiula has yet to be drafted by an NHL team and will certainly be one of the most sought after free agents this spring.
Ryan Gropp (Seattle) vs. Dominic Turgeon (Portland) – WHL
Taken just three picks after Portland’s Paul Bittner in the 2015 NHL Draft, Ryan Gropp guides his Seattle Thunderbirds into Portland in a matchup of high-level power forwards. Gropp, taken by the New York Rangers 41st overall, doesn’t quite have the offensive pedigree that Bittner has, but works as hard as anyone in the league. The former BCHL Rookie of the Year is starting to discover his offensive game this year, and is maintaining a point-per-game pace through 36 games as he approaches his previous career-high point total of 58. Forever linked with new Pittsburgh Penguin Carl Hagelin as the player selected with the draft pick acquired last summer from the Anaheim Ducks for Hagelin, Gropp is one player Rangers fans should keep an eye on.
With Bittner on the shelf due to hip surgery, the offensive load is being carried by Detroit Red Wings prospect, Dominic Turgeon. Portland’s captain has been able to lean on his famous father, Pierre Turgeon, for advice, and it is clear that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Displaying high-level leadership qualities, Turgeon has done his best work this season in tight games. With 22 goals and 24 assists this season, the Winterhawks have relied upon him to pick up the slack in the wake of the graduations of Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ) and Winnipeg Jets prospects Chase De Leo and Nic Petan.
Plenty of storylines could encapsulate Dmytro Timashov’s last month of hockey, but the Ukrainian-born winger is off to a hot start since joining the Shawinigan Cataractes lineup. Timashov, one of the standouts for Sweden on the international stage at the World Junior Championship, understands his new role back in the QMJHL and his performance has Shawinigan thinking a championship run could be in their immediate future. He dished out four assists in his debut, enjoyed a three-point night in his next game, and added an assist in his third game. Timashov is an electric skater who loves to produce offensively, and is currently ranked second only behind Moncton’s Conor Garland (ARI) in points-per-game.
Gatineau’s Vitalii Abramov might be running away with the QMJHL rookie scoring title, but Dmitry Zhukenov’s efforts in Chicoutimi haven’t gone unrecognized. His deliberate pace of play has often settled down the Sagueneens lineup as the creative Russian has had a big influence on the team in his first year in the QMJHL. The Vancouver Canucks prospect has 10 goals and 27 assists this season, good for fifth in both Chicoutimi scoring and QMJHL rookie scoring. Zhukenov has made Nicolas Roy (CAR) much more of a threat, as the duo has been a difficult pair to contain this season.
Dominik Simon (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) vs. Kyle Rau (Portland) – AHL
The Pittsburgh Penguins‘ constantly rotating bottom-six has taken hits due to injuries, suspensions, and simple poor play this season. The Penguins’ NHL problems have generously provided the opportunity to the team’s crop of rookies in the AHL led by Dominik Simon. Acquired in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft as a 20-year-old, Simon is an advanced-level center who joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after three years playing professionally in the Czech Republic’s top tier of hockey. His experience has shown so far, as Simon currently has 12 goals and 18 assists, totals that are good for second in the AHL in scoring by a rookie. Recently moved up to the AHL Penguins top line, it may only be a matter of time before Simon is the next in line for a call-up.
Portland also has an impressive rookie performing well in Kyle Rau, the former captain at the University of Minnesota. One of the most consistent NCAA scorers in recent memory, Rau finally joined the Florida Panthers organization after finishing his degree and completing his senior season. Their patience in allowing him to develop in college appears to be paying off as Rau is a step or two ahead of some of the Panthers younger rookies. With 15 goals this season, Rau is tied for first among AHL rookie goal-scorers with Nick Ritchie (ANA) and Devin Shore (DAL).
Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University) vs. Colin White (Boston College) – Hockey East
Junior defenseman Ian McCoshen (FLA) logged his first career four-point game to guide Boston College to a 5-3 victory in the away half of last weekend’s home-and-home series. McCoshen, who finished with two goals and two assists, setup BC’s Colin White (OTT) for his third power play goal and 12th overall. Matt Grzelcyk (BOS) responded with an assist on a Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson (BOS) goal, but finished with an otherwise quiet -1 rating. The next night, with BC head coach Jerry York one win away from his 1,000th career win, Matt Grzelcyk scored his seventh goal of the season to spoil the event as the teams drew to a 1-1 finish. Ryan Fitzgerald (BOS) responded for BC while Colin White was quiet, finishing without a point in the back-half of this weekend’s games.
Alex Nylander (Mississauga) vs. Olli Juolevi (London) – OHL
The London Knights flexed their offensive muscle, scoring five times while goaltender Tyler Parsons stopped all 25 shots to guide the team to a 5-0 victory. Alex Nylander and company were kept off the scoresheet with an impressive, physically dominating effort by the Knights. Nylander finished with a -2 rating, only the seventh time he has been held off the scoresheet this year. Olli Juolevi assisted on Christian Dvorak’s (ARI) first goal of two on the night, and later added his fifth goal on the power play, displaying his quarterbacking abilities from the blueline.
Luke Philp (Red Deer) vs. Ivan Provorov (Brandon) – WHL
Brandon Wheat Kings goaltender Jordan Papirny stole the show this weekend in Brandon’s 4-0 win over the Red Deer Rebels, stopping all 29 shots he faced to pick up his 17th win and third shutout of the season. The Wheat Kings spread the offense around, with nine players tallying at least one point. Ivan Provorov (PHI) was not one of them, but he finished with an even rating and played a significant amount of minutes on defense. Red Deer was simply unable to get anything going, and Luke Philp’s team debut would have to wait as the team continued to hold him out of game action.
Timo Meier (Rouyn-Noranda) vs. Simon Bourque (Rimouski) – QMJHL
The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and Rimouski Oceanic traded goals through the first 40 minutes, then a three-goal outburst in the third period put Rimouski ahead for good in a 4-1 victory. Oceanic captain Simon Bourque (MTL) assisted on the eventual game-winning goal by Samuel Laberge with the man-advantage, his 23rd assist this season. Laberge, Tyler Boland, and Dylan Montcalm each had a goal and an assist in the win. Timo Meier assisted on Julien Nantel’s (COL) 17th goal of the season, Meier’s seventh point since joining the Huskies.
Nathan Sucese (Dubuque) vs. Cameron Morrison (Youngstown) – USHL
Two of the USHL’s top-five scorers matched up for a pair of games this weekend, with the Youngstown Phantoms coming out ahead in both games. Youngstown won the first game, 4-1, thanks to Connor Moore’s four-assist game. Cameron Morrison picked up an assist of his own while Nathan Sucese was held off the scoresheet entirely. The next night, Dubuque responded with a much better effort, but still fell short by a final of 5-2. Sucese picked up his 21st assist of the season, but wasn’t able to keep pace with Morrison, who was the second star following his two-goal, one-assist game. With the four points this weekend, Morrison moved into first place in USHL scoring, now six points clear of Sucese.
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