Welcome to the December 2012 edition of On the Rush, a monthly column featuring prospects at various competition levels who are either exceeding expectations or falling a little behind. This month’s edition features several players who will represent their country in the 2013 World Junior Championships. We also feature several players who, while posting decent numbers at their respective levels of competition, have fallen short of expectations through the first few months of the 2012-13 season.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
Rookie defenseman Adam Clendening was banged up when theAHL season opened and took some time to get into a rhythm early in the year. He exploded on the score sheet in mid-November and has not let up, registering 16 points in his last 14 games.
The blueliner played a key part in Rockford's best stretch of the season, often skating on the team's top pairing alongside Nick Leddy. The duo also plays together on the power play, which ranks among the top five units in the league thanks in part to the opportunities created from the point. Clendening's willingness to pull the trigger has helped create deflection opportunities, a few goals of his own, and plenty of pucks bouncing off the shins of the guy defending him.
Defensively, he is willing to throw his body around, but is still adjusting the speed of opposing forwards. Never very fleet of foot, Clendening's strength can only help him when he is in position. He should remain a key defender for Rockford whether the NHL resumes play this season or not.
Few goaltenders have had as strong a start to the 2012-13 season as Robin Lehner. The 21-year-old Swede, who is now in his third professional season, is 9-4-1 through 15 starts, and his 1.99 goals against average and .941 save percentage are among the best in the AHL. He is also the main reason why the Senators as a team are allowing only 2.43 goals-per-game, among the fewest in the league. The numbers are even more impressive considering Lehner plays behind a defense that allows an average of over 30 shots per game.
Expect Lehner to continue to split starts with 60-40 with Ben Bishop, as the two have proven to be among the most effective goaltending tandems in the AHL.
North American Junior
The Winterhawks entered the 2012-13 season with a key returning player from last season in 57-goal scorer Ty Rattie (STL). The WHL veteran is third on the team in goal scoring however as Portland continues to reload on offense with young players. Draft-eligible Nicolas Petan and 18-year-old Brendan Leipsic have paced the offense so far this season, leading the squad with 24 goals and 22 goals, respectively.
It is Leipsic's quickness that has made him such a threat in the offensive end, particularly given the room afforded while defenses focus on Rattie. It was also a reason Leipsic was among the invites to Team Canada camp, although he did not make the cut for the final roster. Now that he is back with Portland, Leipsic may face new challenges when he returns if opposing defenses begin to focus in on him more often while Rattie is away representing his country. That said, the 5'9 forward has done nothing but impress early in the 2012-13 season and will look to build on his 56 points heading into the second half of the season.
For Garret Sparks, 2012-13 has been a tale of two seasons. In his first 15 starts he managed a 9-3-1 record but had a gaudy 3.77 goals against average and .897 save percentage. Since November however, it has been a different story. Sparks has continued to win, now boasting an 18-8-0-4 record, but has done so without relying on the Storm’s offense to bail him out. In the 18 starts he has made since the beginning of November, Sparks has a 1.95 goals against average, a .933 save percentage, and three shutouts. His performance has been so strong, that he was named one of the goaltenders for Team USA’s entry in the 2013 World Junior Championship.
Given the general lack of skill and depth the Maple Leafs have in goal, Sparks should get signed to an entry-level deal once the current NHL lockout is resolved.
North American Amateur
Defenseman Joey Laleggia has continued to produce points at the college level after bursting on the scene as a freshman in 2011-12. The 20-year-old blueliner leads the nation in scoring from the blue line with 16 points in 18 games. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his production is that he has not been held off the score sheet for any of the team's nine weekend sets this season.
Passed over in his first two years of NHL draft eligibility, LaLeggia was finally selected by Edmonton last summer. His defensive zone play is still an area in need of improvement before an eventual transition to the pro level, but there is no reason to doubt LaLeggia's ability to produce points at the next level.
Until then, he will be depended on to continue creating offense from the point for the Pioneers, especially on the power play, where he has scored three of his goals this season.
It is difficult enough for an 18-year-old freshman to crack an NCAA roster, let alone make a palpable offensive contribution to his team, but that is exactly what Teddy Blueger has done though 18 games this season. Coming from Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep program, Blueger was slow to adjust to the quicker, more structured brand of hockey played at the collegiate level. He managed only five points in his first 13 games and, in general, some of the decisions he was making on the ice were poor.
Perhaps it was the prospect of representing his home country of Latvia in the 2013 WJCs, but since a three assist effort on December 1st against Bemidji State, Blueger has looked like a different player. He has been more involved physically and started to produce offensively, posting seven points in his last five games. His offensive skill has been particularly evident on the man-advantage, where he at times has looked dominant.
Blueger will be one of only two drafted players representing Latvia at the 2013 World Junior Championships (the other being Buffalo Sabres prospect Zemgus Girgensons), so his spike in production could not come at a better time. He will see substantial ice time at the tournament and be depended on to contribute in a variety of different roles.
Now in his fourth season of Elitserien hockey, Oscar Lindberg is experiencing a breakout year offensively. Through 32 games, the 21-year-old center has 10 goals and 16 assists, matching his point totals from the previous three seasons combined. More importantly, the offense is not coming at the expense of his two-way game, which remains Lindberg’s greatest asset.
Inked to an entry-level deal by the Rangers in the 2012 off-season, Lindberg is expected to come to North America for the 2013-14 season. His smart two-way play and excellent faceoff abilities should complement the Rangers well.
The NHL lockout has led to an influx of talent in leagues across Europe, including Finland's Jokerit club, which added Detroit centerman Valtteri Filppula and Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson. The duo has been great for Jokerit but they have also overshadowed the contributions from a homegrown prospect in defenseman Teemu Eronen.
A former captain during his days in Jokerit's junior clubs, the now 22-year-old blueliner ranks third on the team, behind the two NHL players, with over 22 minutes of ice time per game. He has also played a key part in the league's second best offense, registering 15 points in 31 games and ranking among the top-10 leaguewide in points by a defenseman.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
Offensive-minded defenseman Stefan Elliott made quick work of the AHL during his 2011-12 rookie season, playing the second half of the year in the NHL and scoring a solid 13 points in 39 games. The lockout forced the 21-year-old blueliner back to the AHL, but he has struggled to replicate his production from a season ago.
Through his first 17 games of the 2012-13 season, Elliot had no points and a minus-11 rating. He finally cracked the scoresheet in December, and so far this month he has registered a goal and three assists through nine games and raised his plus/minus rating to a minus-seven, so Elliott may be starting to rediscover his rookie form.
He and Tyson Barrie have consistently skated in the top-four but it has been a rotating cast of defensive partners, many of which are also capable of contributing in the offensive end. Despite the limited production, Elliott is earning ice time in all situations and has the opportunity to improve other parts of his game.
Howden has struggled quite a bit in his rookie AHL season. Playing for a San Antonio team that has a porous defense and popgun offense, Howden has managed only 11 points in 28 games and has been completely held off the scoresheet in all but nine of the matches he has suited up for. The month of December has been particularly unforgiving to the forward as he has two goals, no assists, and a minus-three in 10 games.
In addition to being put in various offensive situations this season, the 20-year-old has also been used in a shutdown role, often on a line with James Wright and Casey Wellman, and has seen some time on the penalty kill.
Howden’s development at this point is not at any risk, as it often takes players time to become assimilated to the pros, and playing on a team that has lost six of their last 10 games does no help.
North American Junior
The Blue Jackets believed they drafted an NHL-ready defenseman in Ryan Murray with the second overall pick last summer. The lockout forced the 19-year-old blueliner back to junior hockey for another season with the Silvertips in the WHL. Murray was deployed in every situation and served as the team's captain during his 23 games with the club, managing 17 points during that stretch.
Murray's season was cut short by a shoulder injury, however, and he underwent surgery that will keep him out the remainder of the season. The injury was especially tough to swallow given the likelihood of Murray suiting up for Team Canada the WJC. Despite the setback this season, he is still poised to challenge for the NHL lineup heading into the 2013-14 season.
While some may question why Bozon, a player with 47 points in 37 games, is considered “trailing,” they need only to look at his totals over the past 20 games to understand why. After posting 14 goals and 31 points in his first 17 games, Bozon has managed only five goals and 11 assists in his past 20 games.
Some of this dramatic drop in production is due to the overall play of the Blazers, who after going 16-0-1 in September and October went 9-9-3 in November and December. They have struggled particularly hard on the road, where they are 2-7-1 in their last 10. Fortunately for Bozon and the rest of the Blazers, the remainder of their schedule is favorable, with 18 home games to 16 away games, and the team will also be getting back some of their depth offensive players in Dylan Willick and Cole Ully.
The infusion of depth and favorable schedule should mean that Bozon will not be relied on quite as heavily to produce offense. Though whether or not that will translate into additional production remains to be seen.
North American Amateur
Jordan Schmaltz, D – University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
1st round, 25th overall, 2012
Another first-round pick in 2012 that has enjoyed a less-than-stellar season so far, Jordan Schmaltz has been outscored by all five of his fellow regular defensemen at North Dakota. Even senior stay-at-home defenseman and Maple Leafs prospect Andrew MacWilliam has recorded more points than the offensively-inclined Schmaltz, who recorded 93 points over the course of his 125 USHL regular season and playoff games.
North Dakota has not had such a dynamic offensive-defensemen since Minnesota Wild prospect Chay Genoway graduated, so the table seemed to be set for Schmaltz to assume that role in 2012-13. However with only one goal and four points in 18 games as a freshman, it is safe to say that Schmaltz has not quite made the splash some expected of the dynamic, smooth-skating blueliner. The NCAA level is often a tough environment for first and second-year players to dominate, so Schmaltz should benefit from more experience against college competition as his freshman season rolls on.
Ferlin took much of college hockey by storm in the 2011-12 season when he posted 12 points in his first 10 games and 21 over 26 games as a freshman. So it is a little surprising to see the 20-year-old forward with only five points, all assists, through his first 11 games this year.
While there are probably several reasons as to why Ferlin has struggled offensively this season, the biggest is probably a simple sophomore slump. After a freshman season that saw him awarded ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year and Ivy League Rookie of the Year, there likely a great deal of self-induced pressure to have an even better sophomore campaign. This causes a player to perhaps force the play a little more than they should and grip their stick a little tighter than usual.
At this point, Ferlin’s long-term development is not a concern. Physically, he has the size and skills to be an effective player at the professional level. He simply needs to continue adding strength and confidence.
The influx of NHL talent in Europe has relegated some fringe players to lower levels of play. One such case may be Alexander Ruuttu, whose Jokerit squad added Detroit's Valtteri Filppula at forward. Along with the acquisition of college free agent Stevie Moses, Ruuttu ran into an even steeper uphill battle heading into the season than he initially expected after appearing in a limited role in 13 SM-liiga games a year ago.
He has skated in four games with Jokerit this season and, so far, spent most of the year on the farm team in Finland's second tier league. The son of former NHL player Christian Ruuttu has been productive with Kiekko-Vantaa with eight goals and 20 points through 27 games. While the big winger is gaining experience against professional players, he has been unable to breakthrough at Finland's top level thus far in his career. He may get that opportunity, because Jokerit is sending four forwards and seven players overall to the WJC for Team Finland.
Nesterov had an excellent 2011-12 season in the MHL, managing 31 points in 41 games. For 2012-13 Nesterov has spent the entire season thus far in the KHL and the results thus far have been mixed. Through 25 games he has zero points, 12 shots on goal, and a plus-four rating while averaging around 12 minutes a game. While some of the drop in production comes from the obvious adjustment of having to play fewer minutes at a higher level of competition, Nesterov is considered a two-way defenseman with good puck-moving ability, so there were at least some expectations for him to produce offensively.
The 19-year-old Russian is another player who is scheduled to represent his country in the 2013 WJCs. The experience should benefit him greatly, as he will log big minutes in all situations against opponents around the same age.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.