In the first edition of On the Rush for the 2012-13 season, we take a look at prospects either excelling at their respective levels of play as well as those players who are not quite living up to expectations. This month we take a look at how the NHL lockout is impacting prospects playing in the minor leagues and junior levels and also discuss several top performers from the recent Subway Super Series between Team Russia and the CHL's top players.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
The Abbotsford Heat has been one of the AHL's top teams in the early stages of the 2012-13 season. Led by second-year pro Roman Horak and rookie Sven Baertschi, the team's offense has taken a step forward this year in front of an already stellar defense. Horak's 10 goals in 15 games puts him in a tie for the league lead but even more notable is the 19-year-old Baertschi's instant impact at the professional level.
With 14 points through 15 games, the Swiss winger is tied for the scoring lead among rookie forwards with Brock Nelson (NYI) and Grand Rapids’ Chad Billins. In Baertschi's case, it has been more than the production that has caught people's attention. He is not an overly big player but throws his weight around every chance he gets, never backing down from the high-traffic areas or working aggressively on the forecheck. He thinks the game at a very high level and has not looked out of place in the AHL, especially for a player his age.
Baertschi's seamless transition to the pro level is a welcome sight for a Calgary Flames team that ranked in the bottom third of the league in goals and shots per game in 2011-12. Whether he gets the opportunity to help turn the Flames around this year or in 2013, the Flames' top prospect will remain among the most exciting players at the AHL level.
Brock Nelson, C – Bridgeport Sound Tigers (AHL)
Drafted by New York Islanders, 1st round, 30th overall, 2010
In his first season playing professional hockey, Nelson has been extremely impressive. He has seven goals and seven assists through 14 games and has been a constant offensive force for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. More impressive than his production perhaps is how smoothly Nelson has transitioned to the professional style of game. While most forwards require a season if not more to fully adjust to the professional style of game, Nelson appeared to do it within several shifts of his first game. He has also been effective in all situations and on both special teams for Bridgeport.
The biggest issue for Nelson this season is to simply maintain his current high level of play for the stretch of the 2012-13 season. His strength, size, and skill are all close to NHL caliber, but he has never played a hockey season that even remotely compares to the 76 game regular season grind in the AHL, let alone the NHL.
North American Junior
Mac Carruth signed an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks over the summer, but due to the number of goaltenders already signed in the organization, he was re-assigned to the Portland Winterhawks for an overage season. The 6'2 goalie has dominated the WHL since his return, earning a 9-1-0 record and making it very hard for his partner in goal, Brendan Burke, to get starts in his draft year.
With such a strong offensive club in front of him, it was hard to judge just how much of an impact Carruth made in his first two years as the starter for the Winterhawks. He has left no question this season as to how important he is to the team's success, earning a .947 save percentage and allowing just 13 goals in his first 10 starts.
Although he was the odd man out in the Chicago organization this season, Carruth should have a larger workload at the junior level and play some meaningful hockey in the spring as Portland makes another push for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Playing for the lowly Saskatoon Blades, a team that not only allows a lot of shots but scores few goals, Makarov struggled early on in the 2012-13 season, managing only two wins in his first nine starts. The Blades continued to give him starts however and mid-way through October, Makarov started to turn things around. From October 13th to November 10th, Makarov posted a 6-3-1 record, 2.81 goals against average, and would head into the Subway Super Series with renewed confidence.
Representing Team Russia in their two matches against Team WHL on November 14th and 15th, Makarov was outstanding, especially given the inconsistent offensive effort from the Russians. He turned aside all 35 shots he faced in the first game, though Russia eventually lost in a shootout, and was equally impressive in the second match, where he made 22 saves en route to a 5-2 victory. Riding a wave of confidence, the 19-year-old immediately returned to Saskatoon and made his third start in as many days, a 42 save shutout against the Prince George Cougars. He followed that up on November 18th with a 30 save win against the Vancouver Giants.
North American Amateur
That the Waterloo Black Hawks are among the most productive teams in the USHL is not a surprise. The team ranked in the league's top-five in goals last season and had a productive performance at the Junior Club World Cup, scoring 23 goals through their first five games before they were shutout by Sudbury in the championship game.
The impressive thing about Waterloo's 2012-13 season so far has been the play of rookie Zach Stepan, who is one year removed from a productive campaign for Shattuck-St. Mary's. A smart hockey player with a quick set of hands, Stepan stepped directly into a prominent role with the top-six forwards and scored eight goals, 18 points in 12 games. He has made the transition from high school hockey to the USHL look easy, no easy task for a player that is still developing physically and growing into his frame. He delivers hard checks, is strong on the puck, and displays a maturity and work ethic that has him on the path to the NHL. Stepan, the cousin of New York Rangers' forward Derek Stepan, is still some time away from playing at the professional level, but if his early season performance for Waterloo is any indication however, Ohio State University will only be a stepping stone on his way to making an impact for the Predators.
It is exceptionally rare for an 18-year-old true freshman to have an impact in college hockey let alone the major impact Riley Barber has had so far this season. Through 12 games Barber has been the top offensive player for the Miami Redhawks and among the top scorers in the nation. He managed four goals and four assists in his first six games and was named the national rookie of the month for October by the Hockey Commissioners Association and also awarded top rookie of the month honors for the CCHA. Barber has been particularly productive on the powerplay, where he has two goals and five assists.
Selected in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft, Barber remains a long term project, as he still needs to add strength and fill out physically. There is no question however that the offensive potential is there.
The NHL lockout kept Nail Yakupov from debuting in Edmonton, and rather than spend another season at the junior level with Sarnia, the winger opted to play at the professional level in his native Russia. The 19-year-old winger made quick work of higher level of competition, scoring 10 goals in his first 14 KHL games. That total leads the team even though other players have skated in all 25 of the team's games and puts Yakupov at the top of the league's rookie scoring race.
Yakupov also served as captain for Team Russia during the Subway Super Series, finishing tied for the team lead with two goals, two assists through six games. Although he was held in check for stretches of the tournament, he nonetheless put his dynamic skill-set on display for the Canadian audience. His explosiveness and offensive instincts made him one of the few Russian forwards to put consistent pressure on the Canadian teams throughout the tournament, despite the trapping style of play that was employed by the Russians.
Expected to play out the rest of the season in the KHL, Yakupov will also suit up for his country on home soil at the upcoming WJC in Ufa.
Vasilevskiy represented the other half of Team Russia’s goaltending duo in the 2012 Subway Super Series. While his performance was not as dramatic as Makarov, he did an admirable job behind a team that allowed a lot of shots and did not score a lot of goals. Vasilevskiy is also one of, if not the top goaltender in the MHL, where through 22 starts he has 13 wins, a 2.06 goals against average and a .926 save percentage.
The 18-year-old Russian remains a long-term project, but he possesses good size, strong technique, and has the rare ability to steal games for his team. Look for him to compete with Makarov for the starting job for Team Russia in the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
Now in his second season of North American pro hockey, Anton Rodin has yet to make much of an impact in the offensive end for the Chicago Wolves. Success at Sweden's junior level and on the international stage had Rodin pegged as a potential top-six winger to complement the Canucks' depth down the middle.
The 21-year-old Swede has yet to even live up to those expectations in the AHL, where he is currently skating in a top-nine role for the Wolves but making little progress on the score sheet. After 10 goals, 27 points in 62 games as an AHL rookie, Rodin has yet to put the puck in the net through his first 11 games of 2012-13. He has a pair of assists so far, but has not brought a consistent effort to get pucks on net or create many scoring chances. His reliable play in the defensive end has kept him from becoming a liability, but it is not the start expected of Rodin now that he has a year of AHL experience under his belt.
Spencer Machacek, RW – St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers, 3rd round, 67th overall, 2007
Machacek had a strong end to his 2011-12 season, finishing the hockey year with nine points in 13 NHL games, and looking poised for a fulltime spot in the NHL for 2012-13. Instead, with the ongoing lockout, Machacek is playing his fifth year in the AHL and so far, has not been fairing well. Through 15 games, Machecek has a minus-10 rating but just as concerning, has been ice cold offensively. He started the season strong, registering three goals and two assists in his first five games, but has not managed a point since. Worse yet, he seems to have stopped playing the physical, two-way game that allows him to be an effective offensive player.
North American Junior
Expectations for undrafted free-agent signing Maxime Lagace may not have been very high entering the 2012-13 season, but the goaltender has still found a way to underwhelm so far. Signed after posting an .867 save percentage in his first year as the Rocket's primary starter, that number has regressed to .858 in 13 appearances so far in the 2012-13 season.
Lagace has seen an even split in playing time with Antoine Bibeau, but the duo's numbers could not be more different. Bibeau has come back down to earth after a torrid start, but he has still allowed almost two fewer goals per game than Lagace. Bibeau also has the better record of 8-4-1 against Lagace's mark of 5-5-0 as each player has seen an average of over 30 shots per sixty minutes on the ice.
The 19-year-old Lagace may begin to lose starts if his struggles persist and he already missed out the opportunity to suit up for the Subway Super Series. He will have to make the most his opportunities and regain his confidence in what could be his final junior season before joining the Dallas organization.
Hailing from one of the richest bloodlines in hockey’s history, Lukas Sutter came into the 2012-13 season riding high. He was named the Blades’ defensive player of the year, selected 39th overall by the Winnipeg Jets, and represented Team Canada at the Canada-Russia Challenge in August. He was also considered an early favorite for a checking-line role with Team Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships. Instead, Sutter is currently a minus-13 through 21 games, has managed only five points on the season, and was left off the Team WHL roster for the Subway Super Series. He is also at risk of being left off the Team Canada roster for the 2013 WJC.
One cause for Sutter’s struggles this season is a lack of chemistry. In 2011-12 he spent a lot of time on a checking line with overage wingers Jesse Paradis and Michael Burns and the trio did a good job of contributing in all three zones of the ice. This season he has yet to find that chemistry and has consequentially played with a variety of different wingers.
North American Amateur
As a sophomore at Northeastern in 2011-12, Cody Ferriero scored at near a point-per-game pace with nine goals and 15 points in 17 games. His sophomore season was cut short in January by knee surgery however, and he is still working his way back into form.
It was not until his 10th game of the season that Ferriero scored his first goal of the season. He also has four assists through 11 games, but ranks firmly behind the Huskies' leading scorers freshman Kevin Roy (ANH) and senior Vinny Saponari (WPG). Ferriero managed three multi-point efforts prior to his injury last season but none so far this season for a team that has been stifled offensively on more than a few occasions. With veterans like Ferriero off to a slow start, Northeastern has not had the early-season success they might have hoped. His play will be important for the club as it heads into conference play in the competitive Hockey East.
Following a suspension shortened 2011-12 season, where he managed 11 points in 19 games, Jon Merrill flirted with the prospect of going pro, but instead opted to maintain his amateur status and stay with the University of Michigan for his junior season. Unfortunately, Merrill fractured his neck in an early October exhibition game against the University of Windsor and, not surprisingly, has not played since. If there was any good news, it would be that the injury was minor enough to not require surgery and Merrill could actually return to play as soon as December.
Markus Granlund, C – HIFK (SM-liiga)
Drafted by the Calgary Flames, 2nd round, 45th overall, 2011
The HIFK offense has undoubtedly struggled to produce without the prodigious talents of Mikael Granlund (MIN). After finishing second in the SM-liiga in goals in 2011-12, the club now sits among the bottom five teams in the league in terms of offense.
The regression cannot all fall entirely on the shoulders of 19-year-old Markus Granlund, but there is still plenty of attention being paid to the skilled forward, who is now in his first pro season without his older brother. Markus' status as a second-round draft pick have also created perhaps unfair expectations on a player who has by all accounts developed into a solid SM-liiga forward. He is currently tied for fourth on the team in scoring with 12 points in 21 games, but he has been held off the score sheet entirely in 10 games so far this season. Although he is still among the team's leading scorers, the younger Granlund has been unable to elevate the play of those around him the way his brother did in his career with the club. For a player already facing an uphill battle towards the NHL due to his size, he will surely face even higher expectations as he makes his way up the Flames organization.
For the 2012-13 season, Khokhlachev decided to leave the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL and head home to Russia to play for Moscow Spartak of the KHL, where his father, Igor Khokhlachev, is the GM. The theory behind the decision was that the 19-year-old had little left to prove in the OHL and would benefit from playing in a professional league with older competition. So far, through 19 games, Khokhlachev has struggled mightily, and has managed only two points. In the young playmaker’s defense, Moscow Spartak has difficulty both scoring and preventing goals, and has among the worst records in the KHL, but his lack of production has been alarming nonetheless.
Khokhlachev represented Russia in the Subway Super Series and managed two goals and an assist. He was the only member of Team Russia to manage a powerplay goal and at times looked dominant in Russia’s 5-2 win over Team WHL.
There have been rumors circulating over whether or not Khokhlachev will return to Windsor to finish the 2012-13 season. While he has not ruled out a possible return to Windsor, it is more likely he will remain in the KHL for the rest of 2012-13.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.