Welcome to the December edition of On the Rush, 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 the "Leading the Rush" section this month we will take a look at a pair of surprising names atop the CHL leaderboards as well as several prospects competing for their country at the World Junior Championships in Alberta. The "Trailing the Play" portion features a highly-touted prospect off to a rocky start to his pro career as well as a pair of Swedish prospects looking to earn NHL contracts before their draft rights are relinquished this summer.
North American Pro:
Colorado’s trade of Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart to St. Louis last season was seen by many to be a clear win for the Blues, who sent defenseman Eric Johnson, Jay McClement and a first round pick the other way. With Shattenkirk in the midst of a breakout rookie season, the Avalanche brass cautioned fans to be patient for their next wave of defensive prospects to hit the NHL ice.
That began this season with Stefan Elliott getting the first crack in place of an injured Johnson, and the 20-year-old blueliner made a quick impression with the big club. He ended up with the game-winning goal in his first game against Edmonton and also showed his defensive smarts with a key stop against an odd-man rush earlier in the game.
While the former Saskatoon blueliner has had his struggles after making such a quick transition to the NHL after just 18 AHL games this year, he is still tied for the lead among rookie defensemen with four goals and has earned the best point-per-game mark (0.47) of any rookie defender to skate in more than six NHL games. With seven of his eight points coming on home ice, Elliott also played a major role in Colorado’s recent streak of eight consecutive wins at the Pepsi Center that was just snapped by Winnipeg.
Further injuries to the Av’s blue line to Ryan Wilson and Kyle Quincey have allowed Colorado to extend Elliott’s stay with the big club. His play through his first 17 NHL games has made it a tough decision when that whole unit is finally healthy.
It was a forgone conclusion there would be several high profile rookies on the Ottawa Senators this season. After all, two first-round picks in Jared Cowen and David Rundblad (now with Phoenix) cracked the 23-man roster out of training camp, not to mention star center prospect Mika Zibanejad, who was given a nine game cup of coffee. So at the mid-way point, it has to be at least of some surprise forward Colin Greening leads all Senator rookies in goals (eight) and points (18).
Offense however, is only a small part of Greening’s contributions this season. He is fourth among all players on the Senators in hits (75), eighth in blocked shots (25), and has 116 shots attempted on net. He has averaged 16:18 minutes per game, fourth on the team among forwards.
Over the month of December, Greening saw an increase in production, posting two goals and five assists over 14 games while playing in all situations for the Senators. What makes this production even more compelling is it continued after the Senators added Kyle Turris to the forward mix, forcing Greening to play on the third line, often with Zack Smith and Chris Neil. Regardless of where he plays in the lineup, Greening looks to be an important piece in the Ottawa Senators revival.
North American Junior:
Despite the injury to star defenseman Ryan Murphy (CAR), the Kitchener Rangers have managed to stay afloat thanks in large part to the play of a pair of imports in rookie Radek Faksa and winger Tobias Rieder. Through 28 OHL games, the German-born Rieder is tied for fifth in the OHL with 21 goals and leads the Rangers with 35 points.
He has displayed his goal-scoring prowess in a variety of situations. Five goals have come on the power play, while he is tied for fourth in the OHL with four shorthanded goals. His five game-winners ranks him in a tie for second in the league as well.
For all of his success at the junior level, Rieder’s December will be remembered for his performance on the international stage in the Division I Group A U20 World Championships. Representing his country on German ice, the winger led all players with 13 points in helping Germany sweep all five games en route to the gold medal. With the victory, the 18-year-old Rieder and the rest of the German national team will step up to the Championship level in the 2013 tournament.
With Murphy returned to action and Rieder back from international play, the Rangers can again look to compete for the top spot in the OHL’s Midwest Division. They are currently nipping at the heels of the high-flying London Knights with a 23-10-1 record.
Statistics are only a small part of the equation when it comes to evaluating players at the CHL level. There are many determining factors in why a player generates the numbers they do and those numbers are often not an accurate reflection of that player’s abilities.
Then there are players like Michael St. Croix who managed 57 points in his last 30 games, 23 in his last 10. Long considered to be a talented yet one-dimensional forward, St. Croix is producing at an offensive pace so prolific, he could easily pass last year’s career highs of 27 goals and 48 assists before the end of January. One of the hottest players in the WHL at the moment, St. Croix is doing most of his damage offensively alongside undrafted forwards Dylan Wruck and Tyler Maxwell.
North American Pro:
After skating in a checking role as a freshman at Boston College, Bill Arnold has taken on a share of the offensive load in his second season of college hockey. He ranks second on the Eagles behind Chris Krieder (NYR) with 11 goals and 20 points through 18 games this season. He scored a total of 20 points as a freshman, but it took him 39 games last year.
Arnold’s sophomore production was buoyed by a five-game point streak that included goals in four consecutive contests. That stretch included two goals and an assist in a weekend split against arch-rival Boston University.
His productive stretch led right up to the Team USA selection camp, where he earned a spot on the American World Juniors squad. Considering his physical strength and the energy that he brings to the ice, Arnold will open in a bottom six checking role. That does not mean he won’t contribute on the score sheet, as he has already chipped in with one goal and one assist through the first two games of round robin play.
High draft picks playing in the collegiate ranks normally develop at a quicker pace than most, so Brock Nelson was definitely expected to dramatically improve upon his modest eight goals and 13 assists from 2010-11. To already have surpassed those totals, and in the dramatic fashion he did however, was probably not expected. Through 19 games, Nelson has 14 goals, eight assists, and has been charged with only two minor penalties.
From last season to now, Nelson underwent a physical transformation, physically filling out his large frame, and adding strength, so where much of his improvement has come from is no mystery. His emergence this season has been key to any success North Dakota has had this season as he has directly figured into 40 percent of their overall offensive production and 60 percent of their powerplay goals. Interestingly, 11 of his 14 goals have come in either the first or third period.
Nelson has had a particularly productive December, where he managed four goals and an assist in five games.
Swedish winger Johan Larsson is another example of a prospect earning an expanded role and justifying it on the score sheet. After skating limited minutes in the 2010-11 season for Brynas, he has moved into the top six and currently ranks among the top 15 scorers in the Elitserien.
Larsson sits third on Brynas in scoring with 23 points through 31 games this season. Four of his seven goals have come on the man advantage and he has notched one game-winner on the season. At least some of his success can be attributed to his increased role with the club, as he is skating in almost twice the ice time (18:13 per game) he did in his first season (9:43).
The 19-year-old Swede is the captain for his country’s WJC entry in Alberta and has notched three assists through the team’s first three games. In addition to his production, look for Larsson to play with maximum effort and use his strong 5’10, 200-pound frame in helping the Swedes in their journey for gold.
When Yaroslav Kosov was in a severe accident in late October, initial reports were vague and grim, stating he had a closed head injury, a severe concussion, shifted vertebrae, and would need months of rehabilitation to recover. Shortly thereafter, his condition was reported to be not serious, and less than a month later he returned to the KHL, where he currently has three goals and three assists through 17 games, playing mostly on the third or fourth line.
He is currently with Team Russia at the 2012 WJCs in Alberta where he has a goal, two assists through three games, playing mostly in a bottom-six, energy role.
Standing at 6’3 and around 220 pounds, Kosov already possesses an NHL frame. He also plays with a lot of speed in his game. However, like most players who come through the KHL developmental system, there are concerns regarding his interest or commitment playing in North America, particularly in the AHL for any extended periods. Regardless, the Panthers could have unearthed a late-round gem in the hulking Russian.
Trailing the Play
After a 2010-11 season that was cut short by a concussion, Mitch Wahl was poised to regain his status as one of Calgary’s top center prospects. After starting the year with five games in the ECHL with Utah, however, Wahl was unable to find a consistent spot in the line-up with Calgary’s AHL affiliate in Abbotsford. He skated in five games with the Heat without a point before being loaned to Montreal’s affiliate in Hamilton.
Since joining the Bulldogs, the 21-year-old pivot has at least been able to get consistent ice time. That has not translated into very much production, however, as he has scored just two goals and two assists in 14 games since the move.
With such high hopes for the Seal Beach, California-native after a productive junior career in the WHL with Spokane, Wahl has struggled to be that same playmaking center at the pro level. With the injuries behind him now and a consistent spot on a roster, his best chance to fulfill that potential will be in the second half of the season.
Though Nino Niederreiter looks to finally be a regular member of the Isles lineup, it is safe to say the progress that he was expected to make this season has been delayed.
Niederreiter started training camp and preseason playing mostly on the top line with Isles star John Tavares and sniper Matt Moulson. A groin injury suffered in a preseason game against New Jersey however derailed those plans and Niederreiter was out of the lineup until November. Before being re-inserted into the NHL lineup, Niederreiter was sent down to the AHL for a six-game conditioning stint. Upon returning to the Isles lineup, he was used sparingly, primarily on the third or fourth line. Then, on December 3rd, Swiss-born winger was knocked out by a vicious check by Mark Fistric. He has returned once again and has seen increased ice time as of late but remains a non-factor on the scoresheet, recording one goal so far this season and 12 shots through 12 games.
While his career is certainly not in jeopardy, there has to be legitimate concern over his long-term development. Both former Isles first-rounders Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey have seen their development stunted because of injury and neither look like they will develop into the player they were projected to become. That is not to suggest the same thing will happen to Niedderreiter, but it could.
North American Junior:
Brock Beukeboom, D – Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall 2010 by Tampa Bay
Acquired by St. Louis in February, 2011
Brock Beukeboom has seen his rights traded each of the last two season, first in the NHL when he was traded by Tampa Bay to St. Louis in the Eric Brewer trade. Then his OHL rights were traded from Sault Ste. Marie to Niagara prior to the start of the 2011-12 season. The IceDogs traded Mike Schwindt and a few draft picks in the hopes that the veteran blueliner could push them closer to being one of the top contenders in the OHL this year.
The 19-year-old defenseman was out to prove his injury-riddled 2010-11 season was a fluke and has already matched that output with two goals and nine points through 24 games this season. Known as more of a two-way defenseman, Beukeboom still possesses solid offensive skills and should be able to produce on the power play.
Beukeboom’s season has certainly not been a complete disappointment, but it has also not been the punch in the arm for Niagara that team brass hoped when they acquired him over the summer. Considered a project pick since he was drafted by the Lightning, he will have to continue developing his overall game now that he is a veteran of the OHL level.
The player known as CoJac returned to the ice on December 9th after a serious shoulder injury caused him to miss the first 26 games of the season. In eight games back he has played a physical game, though he has only managed two goals, one assist, and a minus-four.
Jacobs is still shaking off some of the rust left over from his long layoff and will be hard pressed to repeat his performance in 2010-11, where he produced at .64 points-per-game. Despite a lack of production, his presence on the team has been important, as Seattle is 5-3 since his return.
A power forward with size, Jacobs brings many elements the Sabres lack at the NHL level. A healthy, productive rest of the season will go a long way in whether Buffalo decides to sign him to an entry-level deal.
North American Amateur:
Power forward Seth Ambroz was considered a top-50 prospect leading up to the 2011 draft, his draft stock fell dramatically though and he was taken in the fifth round. Concerns about his skating and compete level at both ends of the ice were the main reasons for his drop in stock and mid-way through his freshman season, those concerns have yet to subside.
Despite playing for one of the most productive offenses in the nation, Ambroz has scored just three goals and five points through the first 20 games of his freshman season. While the transition to college hockey from the USHL is often a slow one, the 18-year-old has earned third line duties and power play minutes throughout the season. Other than a one goal, one assist performance on December 2nd against Minnesota State, he has been held off the score sheet entirely in 14 of his last 15 contests.
The 18-year-old winger’s slow start has not held the Gopher’s back, as they still lead the nation with 83 goals scored and are averaging 4.15 goals per game. Ambroz will look to pick it up a bit on the score sheet in the second half as he continues to play a significant offensive role for Minnesota.
Mark MacMillan was drafted by the Canadians for his offensive prowess. In the 2009-10 season, he was the ninth overall scorer in the BCHL with 26 goals and 54 points through 59 games, second among players 18 and younger. He followed that season with 21 goals and 36 points through 40 games in 2010-11.
In his freshman season with North Dakota, the offensive opportunities haven’t been there. Not yet anyway. It is not uncommon for a freshman player to have some growing pains. Still, MacMillan has physically matured considerably since being drafted, adding about 10 pounds of muscle, and with a North Dakota offense that has struggled to find secondary offense, a contribution of more than two goals and four assists in 19 games would be a welcome addition.
The season should not be declared a failure for the young forward however. He is still only 19 and is expected to spend at least another two years in the NCAA ranks.
Patrick Cehlin was a prospect on the rise during the 2010-11 season. He increased his point total in his second season of SEL hockey with Djurgarden to 16 points in 48 games. His performance for Sweden at the WJC also turned heads, as he scored four goals and six points in six games and was named one of the team’s top three players by the coaches.
The 2011-12 season has seen his SEL production regress slightly to just four goals and three assists through 27 games for Djurgarden. Star forward Mika Zibanejad (OTT) reached that same point total in just 13 games after returning to Sweden. Cehlin has earned the most ice time of his pro career with around 13 and a half minutes per game but has still struggled to crack the score sheet with any consistency, having gone scoreless in nine of his last 12 games.
Cehlin’s biggest weakness has been his lack of strength on his 5’11, 176-pound frame and the fact that he has struggled to produce against professionals does not alleviate those concerns. Now playing in his second season after being drafted in 2010, the talented Swedish prospect will need to be signed by Nashville this coming summer or else his rights will be relinquished.
Marcus Sorensen, RW – Skelleftea HC/Boras (SEL/Allsvenskan)
Drafted by the Ottawa Senators
4th round, 106th overall, 2010
After inking a two-year deal with Skelleftea in April 2011, it was expected Marcus Sorensen would not only compete for a regular spot in the Elitserien lineup, but also build off the 14 goals and 22 assists he recorded for Djurgarden’s U20 team in the SuperElit league. It’s been two steps forward, one back for the offensively gifted Swede however and he is currently playing tier-2 professional hockey for Boras in the Allsvenskan league.
He has managed okay numbers at the Allsvenskan level, posting six goals and five assists through 17 games. He has yet to prove he can produce against higher competition however and his lack of invite to the 2012 WJC doesn’t help. Similar to Cehlin’s situation, the Ottawa Senators will have to make Sorensen an offer this summer or relinquish his rights.
Article was written by Brad Gardner and Ian Altenbaugh.