Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)
In this season's final installment of On the Rush, we take a look at the seasons of several prospects who are exceeding expectations, including a pair of prospects making the most of opportunities in the NHL after injury-related call-ups. We also delve into the reasons behind the struggles of other prospects who appeared poised to make a splash prior to the season and check in with prospects who missed significant development time this year.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
Playing in his first professional season, Swedish winger Gustav Nyquist made quick work of the American league with 22 goals and 58 points in 56 games with Grand Rapids. That point total still leads the team in large part because of his consistency, going consecutive games without a point just four times all season long. At 5'10 and 169 pounds, Nyquist may not look the part of a pro player but has been effective due to his hockey sense and confidence with the puck.
Injuries in Detroit led to 18 NHL games over the course of the regular season, including shifts on Datsyuk's wing down the stretch. His dependability on the defensive side has made him an effective player in a checking role as well, making him a versatile addition to the Wings forward groupings.
With Darren Helm out of the playoffs after surgey to repair lacerated tendons in his arm, the 22-year-old Nyquist returned to the lineup for game two of Detroit's first round series against Nashville. He skated limited minutes and was held off the scoresheet in his first two appearances, but the playmaking forward may yet have another opportunity to provide a spark for the Wings.
The hulking Foligno is another in a long line of Sabres prospects to serve an apprenticeship in the minors before breaking out at the NHL level. Like Tyler Ennis and Luke Adam before him, Foligno played almost a full season in the AHL before getting a late-season cup of coffee in the NHL.
When he was recalled in March, it appeared on the surface that Foligno was getting a look in the NHL with an eye towards the future, as the Sabres at the time were far removed from a playoff spot. Instead, he was one of the primary catalysts in a late-season playoff surge by Buffalo. Playing on a line with Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis, Foligno managed six goals and seven assists in 13 games from March 10th to April 5th; a span in which the Sabres went 7-3-3.
While the Sabres ultimately fell short, missing the playoffs by three points, Foligno looks to have a shoe-in to start the 2012-13 season in the NHL.
North American Junior
Michael Sgarbossa went undrafted and unsigned until the start of the 2010-11 season when he was offered a contract by San Jose. In the midst of a breakout OHL campaign in 2011-12, his rights were then sent to Colorado at the trade deadline with Jamie McGinn in the deal that brought Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi to the Sharks.
The 19-year-old Sgarbossa went on to win the OHL scoring title with 102 points in 66 games with Sudbury. He paced the Wolves with 47 goals while playing in all situations. Sudbury's power play ranked in the top half of the league in large part to Sgarbossa's 18 goals with the man advantage, a total which led the league. Though he helped the team capture a playoff berth, he managed only two goals and three points when the Wolves' were swept out of the first round of the OHL playoffs by Brampton.
The 5'11 and 175 pound pivot does not project to be such a potent scorer at the pro level. His hard-nosed and high energy style of play will still give him an opportunity to make an impact at the pro level. As stylistically similar former OHL player Andrew Shaw has shown in Chicago, there is plenty of room in the NHL for skaters eager to get their nose dirty and provide skill around the net.
Mahalak had a coming out party in late December when regular Plymouth starter, Scott Wedgewood (NJ), was tagged to represent Canada in the 2012 U20 WJCs. During that span he'd win five games in a row and go on to spell Wedgewood regularly throughout the season.
The 19-year-old finished the regular season with a 19-8 record in 30 starts. Equally impressive as his strong record were regular season numbers. His 2.66 goals against average, three shutouts, and .923 save percentage, all either match or surpass Wedgewood.
With Wedgewood signed to an entry-level deal and little left to prove at the OHL level, expect him to go pro following the completion of his 2011-12 CHL season, opening the door for Mahalak to be Plymouth's starter in 2012-13. Based off his past body of work, there should be every reason to believe Mahalak should not miss a beat.
North American Amateur
An early commit to Northeastern University, John Gaudreau instead wound up at Boston College after two Northeastern coaches, Greg Cronin (Toronto Maple Leafs assistant) and Albie O'Connell (Harvard Unversity assistant), left the program. The change ended up being fortuitous, not only for Gaudreau, but also for Boston College, whose forward depth played a major role in their 19-game winning streak that ended with another National Championship.
Listed at 5'6 and 141 pounds, the 18-year-old Gaudreau was among the leading freshman scorers throughout the year. It was his MVP performance at the Beanpot tournament that really began to draw attention to the winger. From the start of the Beanpot through the end of the season, Gaudreau managed an impressive 12 goals and 26 points over his last 17 games of the season. Eight of those contests were multi-point efforts and the playmaker was held without a point only twice in that stretch.
On the year, Gaudreau finished third on the Eagles with 21 goals and second on the team with 44 points in 44 games. Despite the loss of key contributors like Chris Kreider (NYR) and Brian Dumoulin (CAR) to the pro ranks, young players like Gaudreau will keep BC competitive next season as they try to defend their title.
The third to last player selected in the 2011 entry draft, Scott Wilson took the college hockey community by storm this past season when he managed 16 goals and 22 assists as a freshman with UMass-Lowell. His 38 points ranked third highest among freshman, behind only Kyle Rau (FLA) and Matthew Peca (TB). Wilson also finished as the eighth highest scorer in Hockey East with 13 goals and 17 assists.
For most freshmen, simply contributing in their first year should be considered an accomplishment. So for a player like Wilson to finish as not only one of the top players on his team but in all of Hockey East, it's a great accomplishment.
Expect him to return to UMass for another season where he will continue to develop his overall game.
Far from an unknown commodity in North America, Johan Larsson nonetheless continues to prove himself on big stages. As captain of Sweden's World Juniors squad, the center scored six assists and helped lead the team to their first gold medal since 1981.
In the Elite League, Larsson has worked his way up the Brynas lineup to serve as the team's top line center. He tripled his goal total in his second season at Sweden's top level with 12 tallies in 49 regular season games while his 36 points ranked third on the team.
The club is currently competing for the SEL championship thanks in large part to Larsson's play in all situations. Though he only has registered one goal and five points in 13 playoff games, he has often led forwards in ice time and averaged over 20 minutes per game in the finals.
The 19-year-old Larsson was signed by Minnesota in the summer of 2011 and is expected to join the organization next season. Given his physical maturity and willingness to play any role asked, do not be surprised to see the Swede in a Wild uniform in the near future.
Arguably the top player playing in Sweden, Jakob Silfverberg's decision to play another season in the SEL seems to have paid dividends. He finished second in the league in goals (24), points (54), and led the league with 1.10 points-per-game. He was also was awarded the Guldhjälmen or Golden Helmet which goes to the league's most valuable player as determined by their peers.
Unlike teammate Johan Larsson, who is considered more of a two-way player, Silfverberg's forte is offense, whether it is creating off the rush or manufacturing offense from the cycle, he is seemingly a threat every time he has the puck. He has also been a standout in the Elitserien playoffs, posting nine goals in 14 games.
Already signed to an entry-level contract, Silfverg is expected to compete for a spot on Ottawa's NHL roster next season.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
A strong finish to the 2010-11 season led to plenty of optimism over the summer for defenseman Jon Blum. With Nashville facing an uncertain future with regards to their premier blueliners Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, Blum's ascension to a full-time pro role was expected to be an audition for an increased responsibility.
The 2011-12 season did not begin so well for Blum, however, as he was able to open the season in a top four role with the Preds but could not come up with the same production that he did as a rookie. When the Nashville blue line got healthier, Blum was sent down to Milwaukee in favor of Roman Josi, who opened the season on injured reserve. Later in the year, rookie pro Ryan Ellis was the one to get the call when Josi missed nine more games due to injury.
Blum's AHL production is not far off his rookie pace, with four goals and 24 points in 37 AHL games. In the NHL, however, he managed only three goals and seven points in 33 games and had a team worst minus-14 rating. Another chance in the big leagues may not be far off for Blum, but with Nashville's depth on the blue line it may be with another club.
Brad Thiessen, G, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
Signed as a free agent by Pittsburgh, April, 2009
Following a 2010-11 season where he was the top goaltender in the AHL, Brad Thiessen has seen a meteoric decline in numbers and in overall play. He has allowed almost an entire goal more per game than last season, from 1.94 in 46 games in last season to 2.82 in 41 games in 2011-12. Similarly, he went from a .922 save percentage to an .887, and managed only two shutouts compared to the seven he posted last year.
His statistical decline can be partially blamed to a Penguins defense that was ravaged by injuries organization wide. With many of the Penguins AHL defenders seeing time in the NHL, Thiessen had a different group of defenseman in front of him on practically a game-to-game basis. Still, injury ravaged lineup or not, Thiessen looked extremely shaky in net all season, overplaying pucks, and flopping around all over the ice.
He was called up to the NHL for most of March where he managed a 3-1 record, though it was very much despite his uneven play rather than because of it, as he posted a bloated 3.72 goals against average and .887 save percentage.
Thiessen will be a free agent at the end of the season and if he is re-signed by the Penguins, it will be with the hope he'll turn it around but also because there is a lack of goaltending depth throughout the organization.
North American Junior
The Windsor Spitfires received quite a haul when they traded goaltender Jack Campbell to Sault Ste. Marie, who saw him as the missing piece to a potential contender in the OHL. Although many eyebrows were raised by the number of picks and prospects going the other way, Campbell was also considered one of the top goaltending prospects in the world and a potential difference-maker for the Greyhounds.
His uneven performance, however, coupled with some unspectacular showings from the skaters in front of him down the stretch resulted in the club missing the postseason by one point. Campbell's numbers got worse after the trade as he carried a .892 save percentage, 3.58 goals against average, and 15 wins in 34 games for the Greyhounds.
The pro level will be an entirely different challenge for the 20-year-old Campbell, though he will likely be glad to have his major junior days behind him. His appearances with the Texas Stars late this season were solid. In 12 appearances, he earned a .912 save percentage with a 4-7 record and one shutout.
Reassigned to the OHL out of training camp, Matt Puempel went into the 2011-12 season in hopes of improving his two-way game, adding muscle, and developing a more consistent level of intensity. More important than all of that however was the need for Puempel to not lose significant playing time to injury, something that he was not able to do during his first two seasons in juniors.
Based off his performance this past October and November, Puempel seems to have started to figure things out. He was playing a more defensively responsible game but also ratcheted up his physical play. Things went horribly wrong however in December when Puempel hit Oshawa forward Sebastian Uvira high and was consequentially suspended for eight games. They got even worse when, in his first game back from the suspension, Puempel himself was hit in the head by Kingston defenseman Alex Gudbransen and missed the remainder of his OHL season because of concussion symptoms.
He has since been given a clean bill of health and reported to the Senators AHL affiliate in Binghamton where through nine games he has one goal. Expect Puempel to return to the OHL next season with the same goals as he entered with this season; adding strength and avoiding injury.
It was a disappointing freshman season for the burly winger Seth Ambroz. While freshman are not expected to contribute as many points as Gaudreau at BC or Ambroz' teammate Kyle Rau (FLA), the 19-year-old Ambroz managed only five goals and eight points on the season. This coming after three consistent USHL seasons with Omaha that saw him average 20 goals and nearly 100 penalty minutes each year.
Part of Ambroz' low totals were a matter of opportunity. Minnesota's top six was fairly set throughout the season, not allowing many of the bottom six players much of a chance to skate with some of the highly-skilled forwards on the top lines. As a regular on the checking line, his even plus/minus rating hovered among the lower end on the team but he ranked third on the team with 53 penalty minutes.
Ambroz could see some increased time as a sophomore, particularly if he is able catch up with the play and turn more chances into goals.
About a year ago Rocco Grimaldi was considered one of the more talented players in the 2011 NHL Draft, so much so that he could potentially sneak into the first round. While that did not happen, as he went high in the second, he remained one of the most highly anticipated freshman players in college hockey, even getting named the Preseason Rookie of the Year in the WCHA.
Unfortunately for Grimaldi, that standout performance in the preseason resulted in him injuring his knee. Compounding matters is the fact Grimaldi was discovered to have a bipartite patella, meaning the pieces of his knee cap have not been fully fused together. A problem that causes irritation to the cartilage that holds the kneecap in place. While initially hoped he could get through it with proper rehab, it was eventually determined in late January that Grimaldi needed surgery. His freshman season ended with him registering two points in four games.
While the 2012-13 season will be important for Grimaldi, as he has to regain the strength in his surgically repaired right knee, the following season may be even more important, as it typically takes a player a full year to completely recover from major knee surgery.
Defenseman John Klingberg has jumped around the European circuits this season, suiting up first for Jokerit in the SM-liiga. His aggressive offensive style was not the best fit and his ice time eventually fell enough that he was loaned to an Allsvenskan team and saw one game with the J20 squad.
Klingberg was nonetheless chosen for Sweden's WJC squad. The 19-year-old blueliner was used in a limited third-pairing rotation as the team ran seven defensemen but still registered three assists in six games for the gold medal squad. Soon after returning from the World Juniors tournament, he was loaned back to the SEL, joining Skelleftea for their final 16 games of the season and playoff run.
While Klingberg's ice time was fairly consistent at both of his stops at the pro level, averaging around 15-16 minutes of ice time, his production did not quite live up to his vast skill and hockey IQ. He managed one goal and three points in 20 games with Jokerit and one goal, four points in 16 regular season games for Skelleftea.
Skelleftea is still alive in the SEL finals against Larsson's Brynas squad. Klingberg has notched four more assists in the 14 postseason games but is near the bottom on the team with a minus-four rating. The smooth-skating blueliner will likely try to find his game at the pro level in Sweden again next season.
Selected sixth overall in the CHL Import Draft by the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL, Soberg ended up returning to Norway early on in the season to play once again for Mangerlud, one of the weaker teams in the Norwegion GET-Ligaen. In 17 starts he managed a 3.86 goals against average and a .901 save percentage, which are terrible numbers but to offer perspective, are still easily the best among the three goaltenders to start for the team.
The value of a European playing early in his career can be occasionally overblown, look no farther than Pavel Bredl who managed 73 goals in a single season in the WHL but couldn't hold down a regular job in the NHL. But Soberg is playing for one of the worst teams in a not particularly competitive league, seemingly not the best formula for a player's development.
Soberg recently signed a four-year deal with Vålerenga, a strong team in the GET-Ligaen where he will also get several more starts.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.