Welcome to the February 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 edition features a number of defensemen who have asserted themselves recently, both offensively and in their own zone. We also check in on a pair of WCHA netminders who are experiencing opposite fortunes as their season winds down.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
Averaging over 19 minutes of ice time per night, Brenden Dillon is one of two Dallas defensemen to skate in every game as the team has tried different combinations. He has not been sheltered in those minutes either, averaging 2:41 of shorthanded time per game and settling into a shutdown role alongside veteran Stephane Robidas. Dillon's physical ability has had a big impact on a Dallas defensive corps that is looking to be harder to play against.
Dillon leads NHL rookie defensemen in hits (45), ranks second in blocked shots (19), and is among the leaders in total ice time. He has been able to get the puck on net in the offensive end as well, leading Dallas defenders with three goals on the season. Even if that offense is not sustained, Dillon's presence will be a key piece of the Stars' defense going forward.
If the Islanders had not claimed defensemen Joe Finley, Thomas Hickey, and Brian Strait off waivers in January, Matt Donovan may have made the NHL roster out of training camp. Instead, the second-year pro continues to ply his trade in the AHL, where he has been one of the better offensive defensemen in the league.
Donovan has been particularly productive on the scoresheet over the last month, producing seven points in seven games in February. Making the accomplishment all the more impressive is that he managed to do it on a defensively weak Tigers team that has hovered around .500.
Expect Donovan to see time in the NHL before the season is over.
North American Junior
Like Dallas, the Detroit Red Wings blue line has gone through several iterations already early in the NHL season as they search for the right combination. While the 2013 season has been a struggle for Detroit's rearguards, there is reason for optimism looking towards the future of the Red Wings blue line because of the performance from prospects like Ryan Sproul, who is averaging over two points per game in his last dozen games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
With five goals and 20 points in nine February games, Sproul has catapulted himself to the lead in OHL defensive socoring with 61 points in only 41 games. The point outburst from Sproul and continued dominance from Nick Cousins (PHI) has led the team to a 6-2-1 month, which has seen the Greyhounds average 5.22 goals per game.
Few players have been as offensively productive over the past two months as Vince Trocheck. Since he was traded to the Plymouth Whalers in early January, the Pittsburgh native has managed 18 goals and 20 assists in 18 games. He is currently riding a 11 game, 25 point hot streak dating back to January 26th, which has vaulted him into third place in the OHL scoring race with 87 points through 52 games. He is also among the top short-handed players in the OHL, leading the league with five short-handed goals.
Already inked to an entry-level deal, Trocheck will join the Florida Panthers organization at the conclusion of his 2012-13 season. His blend of skill, grit, and smart two-way play should make him a solid addition to the Panthers group of forwards.
North American Amateur
Freshman forward Kevin Roy has had a stellar debut at the collegiate level. There is no bigger regular season stage however for a college hockey player in Boston than the Beanpot, where Roy recently took MVP honors for his five goals in two games. It was the first time in 40 years that the tournament's MVP award went to someone on the losing side, as his Northeastern team fell to Boston College in a 6-3 championship game.
That Beanpot performance was just part of a six game point streak Roy began in late January. Through 29 games he has scored 17 goals and 34 points, both totals that lead his team by a wide margin.
After an epic 104-point season in the USHL, the 5'10 Roy is adjusting just fine to the college game. If there is anything to ease the sting of a season like Northeastern has had, it is a dominant freshman campaign that portends even more promise for the future.
Freshman Zane Gothberg started his NCAA career this season watching a lot of games from the bench, seeing only four starts through November 24th. It is common for freshman goaltenders to not see many starts, but North Dakota started the year with a hot goaltender in veteran Clarke Saunders, which meant Gothberg saw even fewer starts than he otherwise might have. By mid-January though Gothberg improved his game to the point where he started splitting series with Saunders, and by February, was the starter for UND. He has started all five games for North Dakota in February, managing a 3-0-1 record with one non-decision, a .943 save percentage, and allowing only eight goals.
North Dakota seems likely to go with whatever goaltender is playing the best, so as long as Gothberg continues to play the type of lights out hockey he has for the last month, he should be the starter.
Mattias Backman, D – Linkoping HC (SEL)
Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings
5th round, 146th overall, 2011
Backman established himself in Sweden's top pro league in 2011-12 and is building off that experience in his second full season with Linkoping. The 20-year-old defenseman is averaging just over 20 minutes per game and has more than doubled his point output in his second season.
Even though he has found points hard to come by in recent weeks, he remains tied for ninth in SEL defensive scoring with 21 points through 47 games. Known more for his skating and well-rounded game than his offensive ability, this season is only the second time in his career at any level of play that he has scored in double digits. His plus-nine rating is tied for the best among Linkoping's blueliners, making Backman yet another promising defenseman on the horizon for the Red Wings.
Drafted as an overage player in 2011, Nygren has made substantial offensive progress over the past two seasons, and is now one of the top offensive defensemen in the SEL. He currently leads the league with nine powerplay goals and leads all defenseman with 12 goals overall. On the season he has 27 points through 46 games.
A mobile, right-handed defenseman, Nygren has been particularly productive over the past month, managing five goals (four of which were on the powerplay) and two assists in his 10 games dating back to January 18th.
Nygren is under contract with Farjestad through the 2013-14 season, so it is likely he will not come to North America before then.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW – St. Louis Blues (NHL)
Drafted 1st round, 16th overall, 2010
Russian rookie Vladimir Tarasenko earned a lot of early-season Calder consideration through his first handful of games this season and for good reason – with five goals and four assists through his first seven NHL games, he was not only among the leading first-year scorers but also appeared to dominate the world's top hockey league at times.
The 21-year-old winger has hit a bit of a wall in February, however, and has managed just one goal and two assists in his last nine games. He went through a stretch of five games that saw his plus/minus drop each game, from plus-six entering February to minus-two by Valentine's Day.
His ice time has also dwindled recently as the Blues try to rebound from the funk they have found themselves in. Tarasenko's production has been a key for his club this season; he has just one assist in the eight games the Blues have lost while his other 11 points have all come in wins. He will certainly get hot again at some point this season, but the St. Louis offense is much more dangerous when he scores consistently.
Unfortunately for Tarasenko and the Blues, the winger was recently placed on injured reserve because of a concussion and facial lacerations. The injury occurred on Wednesday, February 20th, from a hard hit by Mark Olver (COL). It is the second concussion Tarasenko experienced this season, the first occurring when he was playing in the KHL.
After an impressive run in the 2012 NHL Playoffs, where he managed five goals and two assists through 18 games, Kreider appeared to be on the fast track to a productive NHL career. He was also an early favorite for the 2013 Calder Trophy, awarded to the top NHL rookie of the year. The 2012-13 season has not played out as expected however, for Kreider or the New York Rangers organization.
Prior to the start of NHL lockout-shortened season, Kreider was playing for the Connecticut Whale of the AHL, and after a decent start, where he managed 10 points in his first 14 games, his offensive game seemingly dried up and he posted only two points through his next 19 matches. Nonetheless, he made the Rangers roster out of training camp and dressed for their first game of the season on January 19th. Since then, Kreider has appeared in only nine of the Rangers 16 games, managing only a goal and an assist. He missed several games due to an ankle injury, but was a healthy scratch on other occasions, and was even sent back down to the AHL for a game in mid-February.
While there is no one specific reason for Kreider's slump, a lack of confidence seems among the things afflicting him. He is not shooting the puck much (only five shots on goal through nine games) and appears to be caught in the vicious cycle of declining production and dwindling ice time. It is still extremely early in his career however, and he will have plenty of time to rediscover his confidence, and the offensive game that should come with it.
North American Junior
A third overall pick in the CHL Import Draft over the summer, it has been a tumultuous first season in North America for Oscar Dansk. Playing behind a suspect Erie Otters defense has not been an enviable position this season, as he sees an average of 37.7 shots per 60 minutes.
Although he was selected for Team Sweden at the 2013 World Junior Championships, Dansk did not appear in a game. Shortly after his return to Erie, he was knocked out of the lineup for nearly a month with a concussion, even further limiting his playing time.
His five starts since returning to the Otters lineup have been a mixed bag as well with Dansk allowing five or more goals in three of those games. Even the game he did win during that stretch was only his ninth victory through 35 appearances this season for the Otters. On the season Dansk has a 3.99 goals against average and .894 save percentage.
Stefan Noesen has not been the same player since he was suspended for 10 games in mid-December for a brutal hit on Tyler Hore. The incident took place just before Noesen was scheduled to leave for Russia to represent the United States at the World Junior Championship, and as a result, the IIHF barred Noesen from participating in the event.
Noesen, in the end, would miss over a month of hockey and upon his return, was a much less effective player. Having totaled 17 goals in his first 26 games, Noesen has only four goals in 14 games since his return, including a 12 game goalless drought. Furthermore he has not been as consistently effective at both ends of the ice as he was in the past, showing lots of rust.
Though his streaky play in the last two months is concerning, there are signs Noesen has started to regain his rhythm. He appears to have shaken off some of the rust, managing four goals and eight points in his last three games, but has also played with more confidence and authority.
Noesen will have to continue to balance his game, as he is much more effective when he is plays with an edge. Expect him to join the Senators organization upon the conclusion of his junior season.
North American Amateur
Denver's leading scorer Nick Shore has been more inconsistent of late after busting out to 15 points in his first 10 games of his junior season. He was held off the scoresheet just twice in the first two months but has since been unable to string any point streaks together, coming up with just four goals and an assist in his last 11 games.
The junior winger has two goals but no assists in five February games. The team's bye last weekend could not have come at a more opportune time as Shore looks to get back on track.
Although Nick is not projected to be the scorer that his older brother Drew is already proving to be in the NHL with the Panthers, his production will be important for Denver, as they to secure a spot for the NCAA tournament.
Sam Brittain, G – Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted by the Florida Panthers
4th round, 92nd overall, 2010
After an injury abbreviated season in 2011-12, Brittain was expected to take the starting reins for the Pioneers in 2012-13. He started his season well, managing a 2-0 record in his first two games while splitting starts with veteran Adam Murray. However after a poor loss to St. Cloud State on November 2nd, Denver head coach George Gwozdecky decided to start Finnish goaltender Juho Olkinuora over Brittain, and he performed extremely well. Olkinuora and Brittain continued to split starts through November, but by early December it was clear Olkinuora was going to see the bulk of the starts the rest of the way.
Brittain has appeared in three games since December 1st, allowing 12 goals and posting a 0-3 record. On the season he has a 4-5 record, a 3.03 goals against average, and a .902 save percentage.
Sebastian Wannstrom, RW – Brynas IF Gavle (SEL)
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues
2nd round, 44th overall, 2010
St. Louis added several prospects to their pro level this season, and although Sebastian Wannstrom's debut was not nearly as anticipated as fellow 2010 Blues draft picks Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, his North American premier was worth monitoring. The winger showed he could produce in the SEL when given the opportunity due to injuries in 2011-12, but any confidence gained from his finish to that season did not surface in his time in the U.S.
Wannstrom suited up for 16 AHL games with Peoria before he was reassigned to ECHL Evansville. He remained in the ECHL through 14 games, scoring six goals in January, but did not get another chance in the AHL even after the lockout ended.
The 21-year-old winger rejoined Brynas in the SEL at the end of January. He has yet to crack the score sheet in his first four SEL matches of this season, but is at least seeing some ice time with the Swedish club. He averaged fewer than 10 minutes of ice time per game last season but that number is up above 13 minutes since his return in 2013.
Kirill Petrov, LW – Kazan Ak Bars (KHL)
Drafted by the New York Islanders
3rd round, 73rd overall, 2008
Petrov has recently completed his third full season in the KHL, his second with Kazan Ak-Bars, and is now competing in the KHL playoffs. On the season Petrov managed 12 goals and eight assists through 47 games, numbers that while not bad, are down from the 16 goals and 13 assists he managed last season. Furthermore he has only one powerplay goal, compared to the six he had last year. So far, he is scoreless through two playoff games.
When he was drafted in 2008, there were questions as to whether or not Petrov was interested in ever playing in North America and with him signed in the KHL through the 2013-14 season, those questions will remain. Still, if he does decide to play for the Islanders, he has the skill level to make an immediate impact. That is assuming he ever decides to cross the pond.
Brad Gardner and Ian Altenbaugh contributed to this article.