Welcome to the January 2013 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 a handful of participants from the 2013 World Junior Championships, both the positive performances for Team USA and Sweden as well as the more disappointing showings from the likes of Canada and Finland. We also discuss a pair of pro prospects who are hot at the right time and putting themselves in a good position in their respective organizations now that the lockout is over.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
Having recently made the opening night roster for the Buffalo Sabres, T.J. Brennan has been dominant in the AHL this year, managing 14 goals and 21 assists in 36 games. He is second in the league among defensemen in points and seven of his 14 goals have come on the man advantage. Leading up to his NHL recall, Brennan was among the hottest players in the AHL, managing 17 points in his last 15 games.
In the NHL, he will be expected to play a much more minor role, likely seeing time in the third-pairing and second-unit power play. The Sabres are flush on the blue line, so barring a trade or injury, Brennan will likely have to compete for ice time to start the season.
Drafted in 2012 in his third year of draft eligibility, left winger Tanner Pearson made the immediate jump to the AHL this season but got off to a slow start. He scored four points in his first 13 games, but in late November he began showing up consistently on the score sheet, coming away with 23 points in his last 26 games with the Monarchs.
Although he was beat out for the AHL's December Rookie of the Month honor by Reilly Smith (DAL), Pearson is making a strong case for himself so far in January. Through seven games this month he has registered four goals and three assists.
He has most recently been skating on the Monarchs' top line alongside Linden Vey and Tyler Toffoli, Manchester's leading scorers who have 35 and 30 points, respectively. A solidly-built power forward, Pearson's keen hockey awareness and willingness to bang bodies has complimented the Monarch's undersized offensive leaders and established his place among the organization's top prospects.
North American Junior
Arguably the hottest player in the WHL, Lowry recently had a 21 game hot streak snapped after scoring 21 goals and 16 assists in that span. The point streak has vaulted him into a tie for the league lead for goal-scoring and puts him fourth overall in points. Lowry’s strong play of late is also among the reasons why Swift Current has won 14 of their last 22 games.
Coming off a nagging wrist injury which cost him the second half of the 2011-12 season, Lowry’s production is due to him physically getting stronger, but also learning to play a more responsible game at both ends of the ice. He has cut his penalties down considerably and has logged only two fighting majors, but he has continued to play physically and has used his huge 6’5 frame to his advantage in the offensive zone.
Not yet inked to an entry-level contract, expect the Jets to make Lowry an offer so that they do not lose his rights. He does not project as an offensive force at the professional level, but his combination of size, skill, and grit would be a welcome addition to most lineups.
The difference between Team USA and the rest of the WJC field was undoubtedly the play of goaltender John Gibson. The Pittsburgh native lost twice in the round robin, both narrow 2-1 decisions against Canada and Russia, and still only gave up nine goals in the entire tournament. He led all netminders with a .955 save percentage and 1.36 goals against average en route to the gold medal. The 6'3 goalie was an imposing presence and virtually unbeatable in the medal round, stopping 33 of 34 shots against Canada in the semi-final and 26 of 27 shots against Sweden in the championship game.
Gibson has won two of his three starts since returning to Kitchener, which ranks among the top teams in the OHL's Western Conference. His .930 save percentage and 2.29 goals against average each rank in the top five league-wide. The combination of Gibson in net and the Rangers' excellent defense will give the team a chance to make a run in the OHL playoffs.
North American Amateur
Jacob Trouba, D – Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets
1st round, 9th overall, 2012
Trouba has had a stellar freshman season so far, despite the overall struggles of Michigan this season. He started the season strong enough, managing 11 points in his first 16 games, but appears to have taken his game to an even greater level since returning from the 2013 World Junior Championships. The top defenseman for the gold medal winning Team USA squad, Trouba managed four goals, five assists, and a plus-two rating through seven tournament games. Since returning from Russia, Trouba has three goals and two assists in five games, and has been among the hottest players in college hockey.
Through 20 games on the season, Trouba has eight goals and eight assists including eight points on the man advantage. Expect him to continue to be one of the bright spots on an otherwise dismal season for Michigan.
Few players improved their stock the way that Jimmy Vesey did at the 2013 WJC with Team USA. Though he only managed one goal and five points through seven games, he helped solidify Team USA's highest scoring line alongside John Gaudreau (CGY) and J.T. Miller (NYR), a line that was integral in handily beating Canada and scratching out a win over Sweden for the gold medal.
His success this season has also extended to the college level, where he leads Harvard in goals with six tallies through 13 games. He can uses his size effectively in the physical game and to protect the puck in the offensive end. Vesey has already developed into a primary contributor for Harvard because of the chances he creates himself and space he opens up for others.
Pokka was one of the few players who performed very well for Finland at the 2013 WJC, managing six points in six games and a plus-10. He is amidst a breakout season with Karpat, posting four goals and five assists through 31 games, and has looked good at both ends of the ice.
Pokka has two years left in his current contract with Karpat and more than likely will explore coming to North America once the deal is over.
William Karlsson, C – HV71 (SEL)
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
2nd round, 53rd overall, 2011
While he was not among the top scorers on Team Sweden at the WJC, William Karlsson was a key piece to the team's silver medal run. He was the team's best faceoff man, his 63-percent winning percentage was in fact the best of the tournament, and he played his best hockey in the medal round games. Karlsson was named Sweden's top player in the gold medal game, joining fellow Anaheim prospects Gibson and Rickard Rakell as players who stepped up when the games mattered most.
In addition to a good showing at the tournament, Karlsson ranks second in the Elitserien in scoring among junior-age players with 22 points in 36 games. His success against the best of his peers as well as against professional competition bodes well for his eventual transition to North America, particularly given his versatility and ability to play any role asked.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
Ed Pasquale, G – St. John’s IceCaps (AHL)
Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets)
4th round, 117th overall, 2009
It has been a rough year for the third-year pro, who has won only four games in the last month and a half of hockey. Over his last 13 starts, dating back to December first, he has a record of 4-8-1 and has allowed 37 goals. While all of the blame does not fall solely on Pasquale’s shoulders, as he sees around thirty shots a game and gets little offensive support, his play is a big reason why the IceCaps have struggled a great deal this season.
Pasquale has wins in two of his last three starts, including a shutout of Norfolk, so perhaps it is a sign he is starting to turn his game around. He needs to gain the confidence of Jets management quickly, as his entry-level deal will be over at the end of the season.
The 22-year-old Stalberg made a quick impression with the Worcester Sharks this season with two goals in his first game and seven points over the course of his first nine. Following that opening burst, however, he scored just two goals and an assist in his next 26 games. He has been held off the score sheet completely through eight January games and his minus-six rating has plunged him down to minus-eight on the year.
A winger who plays hard and can skate well, Stalberg has not been too much of a liability as he adjusts to the speed of the pro game. He has neither the size nor electrifying speed of his older brother, Blackhawks winger Viktor Stalberg, but plays with speed and purpose. The elder Stalberg brother had plenty of dry spells as well en route to his first 20-goal season last year for Chicago. Sebastian has to make the most of his opportunities for the Sharks in order to get back on track.
North American Junior
It has been a down year production-wise for Ryan Murphy, who after posting over a point-per-game the previous two seasons, has managed only four goals and 20 assists through 34 games this season. Representing Team Canada at the 2013 WJCs, Murphy was less than stellar, posting a goal, two assists, and a minus-two in six games. His play was uneven at both ends of the ice and in many ways epitomized the team-wide struggles Team Canada had at the tournament.
Since returning from Russia, Murphy has traveled quite a bit, going home to Ontario, then to Carolina for training camp. His play at the OHL level has picked up slightly, with him managing two assists in his past four games, but remains far off from the level he is expected to play at.
Regardless of how he finishes this season, expect Murphy to make a strong bid for the 2013-14 Carolina Hurricanes roster.
Far from the only player on Team Canada to turn in an underwhelming performance at the WJC, Mark McNeill was nonetheless the only player to skate in all six games without scoring a point. An injury fill-in for Charles Hudon (MTL), McNeill wound up playing the role of shutdown center because Boone Jenner (CBJ) was suspended three games for a dangerous hit in a pre-tournament game. The 19-year-old center performed well in that role but when Canada was in need of secondary offense, McNeill was unable to produce.
Now returned to his junior club in Prince Albert, McNeill has resumed his status as the club's top centerman in all situations. He returned with a bang, scoring four goals and three assists in four games since his return. The Raiders went 3-0-1 during that span, continuing their breakout season and extending their lead atop the WHL's East Division.
North American Amateur
Though it would not be fair to characterize Alt as an offensively dynamic defenseman, his 2012-13 season so far has to be considered somewhat disappointing. After posting 22 points in 43 games in 2011-12, he has only four points through 23 games this season. Some of his struggles are a byproduct of how he has been used, as he has not seen as many offensive opportunities as he did last year. Still, he has seen quality top-six minutes in Minnesota’s defense.
Regardless of how he finishes his junior season, Alt will likely get an offer from the Philadelphia Flyers, whether at the end of this year or next. He is a solid presence in his own end and Philadelphia needs to replenish their defense.
Defenseman Patrick McNally was a member of ECAC All-Rookie team in 2011-12 with a productive 28-point freshman season. That performance put him on the map in the Vancouver system, where he is similar in style to fellow Canucks prospect Kevin Connauton. He is not afraid to use his 6'2 frame defensively but is more often found chipping in at the offensive end of the rink.
This season, however, McNally registered three points and skated in just seven games before he and three teammates were removed from the hockey team for suspected academic impropriety. The lockout prevented the Canucks from signing him to a pro contract, but with no contract signed even since the NHL reopened for business, McNally may be planning to sit out the season in order to return to Harvard next fall.
Granberg’s development took a major hit this fall when he was first injured during the pre-season and then, in late October, during his second game back, he sustained a collarbone injury requiring surgery, and has been out ever since. He was just beginning to establish himself as an SEL regular last season, playing in 38 games with Skelleftea.
The big, two-way defenseman is expected to return to action soon. Already under contract with the Maple Leafs, he is likely to come to North America in either the 2013-14 season or the year after that.
The Blue Jackets addressed an organizational weakness at the 2012 draft with the selection of Swedish netminder Oscar Dansk in the second round and Finnish goalie Joonas Korpisalo in the third. Both participated in the WJC tournament with their respective countries, but while Dansk suited up in only one game as a back-up, Finland stuck with Korpisalo in five of their six games during the squad's disappointing showing.
Korpisalo was one of the pre-tournament favorites to make an impact in net, but Team Finland struggled along with their goalie in the round robin, resulting in an unexpected appearance in the relegation round. Although the offense stepped up in the team's final games, finishing tied with the U.S. with 36 goals scored by the end of the tournament, Korpisalo continued to struggle. He ended the tournament with a 3.36 goals against average and .858 save percentage, among the worst marks of any starting keeper in the tournament.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.