Welcome to first edition of On the Rush for the 2011-12 season. For those unfamiliar, On the Rush is a column which features hockey players at the North American professional, junior, and amateur levels as well as those playing in the European pro leagues.
Players fall into two different categories, Leading the Rush and Trailing the Play. In order to for them to be "Leading the Rush", a prospect has to be exceeding expectations or amidst a breakout season. If they are "Trailing the Play", they have not been meeting expectations, have suffered setbacks in their development, or hit a long rough patch during the season.
In this month’s edition, we look at two rookies for the Nashville Predators, two players on the struggling Oshawa Generals, an unexpected early candidate for the Calder Trophy, and much more.
Leading the Rush
While first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has deservedly gathered much of the praise among Western Conference rookies in the early stages of the 2011-12 season, it is a lesser known prospect from Madison, Wisconsin who is giving ‘the Nuge’ a run for his money in the rookie points race. Smith ranks fourth in goals among rookies with seven tallies and is tied for second with 16 points through his first 22 NHL games.
Their point totals may look similar, but the backgrounds of the two leading rookie scorers could not be any more different. While Nugent-Hopkins has been a star at the junior and midget levels before being made the first overall pick at last summer’s draft, Smith played three seasons in the USHL with Waterloo prior to his stellar two-year career at the University of Wisconsin. The 6’1 197-pound forward’s introduction to many hockey fans was his three goal, three assist performance for Team USA at last year’s World Junior Championships.
Smith has put up his surprising point total in a third line role with 2:45 of power play time per game. Despite the rather limited role, he is tied for the team lead in goals. His 16 points leads the team and 64 shots lead all Predator forwards. Having lined up at both wing and center in the early-going, he is not riding any coattails in Nashville. His hard-nosed, north-south style of game has been a perfect fit for the Preds’ system and has helped the 22-year-old rookie make the transition from college hockey to the pro ranks appear seamless.
Few rookies have been as integral to their team’s success early on as Adam Henrique. The team is 6-4 when he manages a point, and since he saw a dramatic increase in ice-time on November 3rd, the team record has been 8-4.
Through 19 games Henrique has managed five goals (two of which are game-winners) and nine assists, numbers all the more impressive when considering New Jersey has the seventh worst offense in the league. Henrique’s impact has been felt outside of the scoresheet as well. He leads all rookies in total faceoffs taken (241), faceoffs won (123), and his faceoff percentage (51) is second among rookies who’ve taken over 100 draws.
Henrique is currently on pace for 60 points, something he should easily accomplish if he continues to center the Devils top line of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.
North American Junior:
The Portland Winterhawks faced an uncertain future heading into the 2011-12 season with offensive leaders Ryan Johansen (CBJ) and Nino Niederreiter (NYI) expected to compete for NHL roster spots. Those holes at forward have been filled by the dynamic duo of Ty Rattie and Sven Baertschi (CGY) now manning the top line for the Winterhawks. Portland has remained one of the more potent offenses in the league thanks to their efforts and currently ranks second in the Western Conference despite their high-profile departures.
Rattie has reeled off 15 goals and 26 points in 11 November games for Portland. Nine of those games have been multi-point efforts and he has been held without a point just once this month. The winger’s torrid pace this month has lifted his goal total to 27, tying him for the top spot with Emerson Etem (ANH).
The winger’s one goal, one assist performance in the Subway Super Series helped Team WHL clinch the tournament for the CHL teams. The 18-year-old Rattie will also compete for a spot on Team Canada later this year.
Managing over a two-point-per-game pace for roughly a third of his regular season, it can be safe to say Mark Stone possesses a great hockey IQ. On most nights it is fairly easy to see as well. With 24 goals and 34 assists through 28 games, Stone leads the WHL in points and assists, and is also among the league leader in goals, plus/minus, and power play points. He has also put together two eight-game point streaks of 21 and 15 points respectively. He has been held off the scoresheet only twice the entire season.
Stone also had a strong Subway Super Series appearance. He only suited up for one game but managed a goal, an assist, a plus-three, and was the Team WHL star of the game.
So why was the 6’3 forward drafted in the sixth round? Much of it had to do with an injury riddled draft year that saw him miss both time to a broken thumb, then later a concussion. His improvement can also be credited to Senators power skating specialist Mark Power, who helped Stone improve his skating and develop into a powerful offensive force, able to dictate his will physically in the offensive zone.
North American Amateur:
The University of Minnesota’s resurgent season has seen the club maintain one of the nation’s leading offenses with 68 goals in 16 games for an average of 4.25 goals per game. The Gopher’s offense has been lead by a pair of sophomores in Nick Bjugstad (FLA) and Minnesota Wild draft pick Erik Haula, who both rank among the NCAA‘s scoring leaders.
Though recently surpassed by Bjugstad, Haula led the country in scoring for much of the early part of the college season. Following up a solid freshman season of six goals, 24 points in 34 games, the Finnish-born Haula has already surpassed last season’s goal total with eight tallies through 16 games as a sophomore.
Like Smith, Haula has kept up the pace offensively despite not playing top minutes for the Gophers. Bjugstad skates on the Gopher’s top line with freshman Kyle Rau (FLA) and a healthy Zach Budish (NSH) while Haula centers the second line. He does play with the team’s top power play unit, where he has registered half of his points, helping that unit to the most conversions in the country. Finding success on 20 of their 77 opportunities with the man advantage, Minnesota ranks fifth in the NCAA with a 26% success rate on the power play.
While Haula’s small frame may keep him from making a quick jump to the pro level, his speed and vision have made him one of college hockey’s most dangerous playmakers. Given Haula’s history in Minnesota, first skating whit Shattuck’s St. Mary’s prep school in Fairbault, MN and now his success with the Gophers, fans of the Wild are hoping their newfound ‘homegrown’ draft pick can continue to dazzle as he works his way up the ranks.
In his junior season with St. Cloud State, Ben Hanowski is finally starting to look like the offensively gifted forward he was projected as when drafted out of Little Falls High School in 2009.
One of the captains of St. Cloud, Hanowski currently has 10 goals and 18 points in 16 games, placing him in the top 20 in the nation in both categories. More amazingly, nine of his 10 goals have come in even strength situations, an area in the past where he struggled to consistently produce offense. The increase in five-on-five production is due to and added strength, excellent chemistry he has developed with forwards Drew LeBlanc and David Eddy, and improved two-way play.
The 21-year-old forward has also started to play a more physical game and get involved in higher traffic areas on the ice, two concerns that also plagued him early in his collegiate career.
Still something of an unknown commodity in North America due to limited exposure, Vladimir Tarasenko has emerged as one of Russia‘s most promising prospects. The 19-year-old winger was the highest-ranked Russian prospect in Hockey’s Future’s Top 50 prospect rankings at eighth overall. He has started to come through on his enormous offensive potential in his fourth professional season, ranking in the KHL’s top 10 in goals and points.
Tarasenko began his KHL career like most other prospects by skating a few minutes per game in a checking role, limiting his ability to make much of an impact on the scoresheet. As his ice time has increased each season, so has the production. It has culminated in a team-leading 11 goals and 23 points through his first 25 games of the season. Though the KHL is well-known for favoring veteran players, he also serves as an alternate captain for Sibir.
With the Russian winger targeting the 2012-13 season for his North American arrival going back to his draft year, speculation about his future will certainly follow the Blue’s top prospect throughout the season. For now, he will continue to get quality ice time for his KHL squad against professional competition.
Splitting the 2011-12 season so far between CSKA Moskva of the KHL and CSKA-Krasnaja Armija Moskva of the MHL, Nikita Kucherov is having a breakout season. In his 14 games in the MHL, he has 13 goals and 15 assists, good for ninth in the league, despite playing about half as many games as his peers.
Kucherov was extremely strong for Team Russia in the 2011 Subway Super Series, leading the team with four goals and seven points through six games and was a threat seemingly every time he stepped on the ice. He figured prominently into Team Russia‘s success, scoring a goal, an assist, and a shootout goal in a 5-4 win against Team QMJHL on November 9th, and managed two goals, an assist, and a plus-five in Russia‘s win over Team WHL on November 17th.
The young Russian is expected to play at least one more year overseas before looking to make the jump to North America. He needs to add considerable strength and fill out his frame, so playing in the less rigorous KHL/MHL might best serve him at this time.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro:
Nashville entered the season with several rookies expected to play big roles and none of them had proven themselves at the NHL level as much as Jonathon Blum did late last season. He appeared in 23 regular season games in his first professional season with three goals and eight points, a strong enough showing to earn him a spot on an injury-depleted defensive unit in 12 playoff games for the Preds.
The 2011-12 season opened with Blum skating in a top-four role as Francis Bouillon worked his way back from a concussion. However, Blum has little to show for the increased ice time on the ledger except for a sinking plus/minus rating. Through 22 games for Nashville, he has just four points and a minus-10 rating that is among the team’s worst.
As a team, Nashville’s defense has not kept pace with last year’s stellar numbers. The Predators rank in the middle of the pack in terms of goals against (57) and an even goal differential. The third pairing has been a sore spot, with Blum and Kevin Klein one of three players on the Nashville roster below a minus-three rating. The duo has seen a lot of time in their own zone, evidenced by their 52 and 49 blocked shots, respectively, which leads the next guy by over twenty blocks.
Blum notched his first goal of the season on November 3rd, but his next three games saw him struggle to a minus-six rating. Blum’s play will be worth monitoring considering the number of defensive prospects the Predators have playing at the pro level.
It would be unfair to expect Matt Frattin to come into the NHL and produce at the .81 goals per game clip he did during his senior year at North Dakota. On the other hand, it would not be unreasonable to expect him to have more than the one goal, three assists, and 29 shots he has through 21 games.
Now playing on the third line with Joe Colborne and Joey Crabb, Frattin has seen his ice time gradually dwindle and is averaging about 12 minutes per game, far removed from the 13-15 minutes he was averaging at the beginning of the year. Furthermore, Frattin has failed to get the puck on net with consistency, averaging under two shots per game.
As long as the Maple Leafs continue to have one of the top offenses in the league and Frattin plays an otherwise strong two-way game, his lack of offensive production will remain on the backburner, with the hope it will work itself out. However, if their offense begins to sputter, Frattin could see his ice time further dwindle or even be returned to the AHL.
North American Junior:
Before being drafted in the third round by Los Angeles last summer, Oshawa Generals forward Andy Andreoff was passed over in two NHL Entry Drafts. A breakout OHL campaign for the Generals in 2010-11 put him on the NHL radar this time around and he followed through with a strong showing at LA’s development camp and then again in exhibition play at the Kings’ rookie tournament with Phoenix.
At 20 years old, Andreoff was eligible for a spot with the Kings’ AHL affiliate Manchester Monarchs for the 2011-12 season and got a long look at the pro level before being assigned to Oshawa for an overage season in the OHL. The Generals got off to a shaky start, and the team has yet to totally right the ship.
Skating as the team’s third line center and in all special teams situations, Andreoff has still been productive with a point-per-game pace at eight goals and 11 assists through 19 games. Those types of numbers are not all that eye-popping for an overage winger however, particularly when the rest of Andreoff’s game has not been up to par with his breakout season. The defensive end has been where the rough-and-tumble forward has made his presence known, but he has struggled to a team-worst minus-12 rating this season. After 106 penalty minutes (including 11 fights) in 66 games last year, he has just 28 penalty minutes and two fights so far this season.
With Oshawa still very much in the mix in the OHL‘s Eastern Conference, the club will need some of their veteran secondary scorers to step up and help their top unit of Boone Jenner (CLB) and Nicklas Jensen (VAN) generate more consistent offense.
His totals, eight goals, seven assists through 18 games are not awful, but for a player who managed 95 goals in his prior two seasons with Oshawa, there is much left to be desired.
There are several factors that have played heavily into his early struggles this season. The most obvious is the team-wide struggles Oshawa has had this season. Another is how he received a 10-game suspension for a stick-wielding incident on October 23rd. The most likely cause for his struggles however, is a loss of confidence stemming from a poor showing he had for the Rangers in the 2011 Traverse City Prospects Tournament
Following a strong appearance in the Subway Super Series, Thomas returned to Oshawa with what appears to be a new found focus. He is still well off the prolific pace he set last year however.
North American Amateur:
Forward Kevin Lynch has gotten off to a slow start in his junior season for the University of Michigan. Deployed mostly in an energy role again for the Wolverines, there were still some expectations for him offensively. After averaging one goal every four games as a sophomore, Lynch has registered two goals in 14 games to kick off his junior year. His aggressive checking ability and nose for the net earned him a fairly high selection at the 2009 draft, but he has yet to put it all together at the college hockey level.
The Gross Pointe, MI native has scored just three points and owns a team-low minus-four rating through the first third of his junior season. Improving his anticipation of the play and getting in better position for scoring chances would go a long way towards pushing Lynch’s offensive game to the next level. Upperclassmen are often expected to be able to read the play and be a step ahead of the play, but that is an area where Lynch has struggled.
While his strong 6’1 frame and checking ability may ensure he can find some sort of role at the pro level, the 20-year-old Lynch has a ways to go before living up to the expectations heaped on him as a second round pick. He should continue to see plenty of ice for the Wolverines to try to turn his fortunes around on the scoresheet.
Touted as a potential first-rounder this past spring, it has not been an easy beginning of the season for Rocco Grimaldi. Suffering from a condition called bipartite patella, where the bones of the kneecap never fully fuse together, Grimaldi took a shot off his right knee in late September, exasperating his condition and making it difficult for him to play. He tried playing in one game on October 8th against Boston College but was shutdown for several weeks after that. He tried to once more return to action in late October, suiting up for three games, but ultimately shut things down once more. In mid-November it was finally determined he needed six to eight weeks to fully recover from his injury. He has been in street clothes since.
In the four games Grimaldi did play in, his numbers were not great. He managed a goal, an assist, and a minus-five.
Assuming he will not need surgery to correct his knee injury, Grimaldi should be expected to return sometime in January or February.
Talented forward prospect Toni Rajala returned to his native Finland to fulfill military obligations after one season in the WHL with Brandon in 2009-10. Now in his second SM-liiga season in 2011-12, the 20-year-old Edmonton prospect got off to a slow start for a struggling Ilves team with only one goal and three points in his first 10 games of the season.
The 5’10, 163-pound prospect was regarded as a highly-skilled playmaker in his draft year but his stock fell because of his slight build. He has remained a dark horse prospect in Edmonton’s pipeline since then and had a good showing at the Oilers’ training camp this fall. There are still plenty of questions about his ability to stick in the NHL due to his relative lack of success compared to other talented Finnish prospects like Mikael Granlund (MIN) and Teemu Pulkkinen (DET) in the SM-liiga.
Rajala has come on in November to some extent, registering three goals in seven games this month. His six goals in 21 games on the season now lead the team, but the Ilves offense has yet to lift itself from the league basement. Adding strength and developing more consistency against professionals will be key to Rajala’s development overseas, but it may be a difficult task on the SM-liiga’s worst offensive team.
In his second year of Finnish hockey, Norwegian netminder Lars Volden has struggled to mimic the modest success he achieved in his rookie season, where he posted the eighth best save percentage (.907) and goals against average (2.76) among goaltenders playing in the Jr. A SM-Liiga and represented Norway (albeit with a bloated 6.17 goals against average) at the WJC.
So far this season, he has a 3.03 goals against average and a .884 save percentage through ten games. He did play five games in the SM-Liiga, but faired poorly, posting a 1-1-2 record, a 3.20 goals against average, and a .898 save percentage.
Hailing from Norway, Volden has come from an only now burgeoning hockey hotbed and has definitely had growing pains in his two years of playing SM-Liiga Jr. A hockey. He has however showed in tournaments that he has great athleticism which bodes well for the future.
He is a long term project, but with Tuukka Rask the future netminder for the Bruins, Volden can afford to develop slowly.
Article was written by Brad Gardner and Ian Altenbaugh.