Welcome to the March 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. With junior levels and European professional leagues playing in their respective post-seasons, this edition checks in with prospects who have elevated their games down the stretch and those who have struggled under the increased pressure in the playoffs. We also take a look at a pair of prospects who have stepped seamlessly into prominent roles for their clubs as they head into the final month of the NHL season.
Leading the Play
North American Pro
Tyler Johnson is one of many talented free agent prospects the Tampa Bay Lightning have signed under GM Steve Yzerman. Johnson started the 2012-13 season with a bang, picking up where he left off in 2011-12, where he posted a point-per-game in the AHL playoffs, helping Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate to a Calder Cup championship. He led the league in goal-scoring by a fairly wide margin for much of the 2012-13 season, and though he cooled off since January, remains second in the league with 32 goals in 59 games.
The 5’9 center was called up to the NHL on March 9th and has been a member of the Lightning’s 23 man roster ever since. He has primarily played center, often with fellow NHL rookies Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik, and has been productive, managing three goals and three assists through eight games so far.
Given the numerous long-term injures the Lightning have on their roster, Johnson should continue to see ice time in a top nine capacity. He could actually see more ice time under new Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, as Cooper coached Johnson in the AHL and seems comfortable using the diminutive center in a variety of different roles.
Justin Schultz (EDM) and Jake Muzzin (LAK) have led Western Conference rookie defensemen on the offensive side of things, but Swedish import Jonas Brodin has arguably had the biggest impact of the rookie class. Playing next to Ryan Suter on Minnesota's top pairing, Brodin has been a poised and reliable defensive presence.
The 19-year-old blueliner missed close to three months of the 2012-13 season to a broken clavicle, appearing in only nine AHL games before he was called up to Minnesota. Since joining the Wild, Brodin leads all rookie defensemen in average ice time and routinely skates in tough defensive situations against the opponent's best forwards. His good positioning always has him in the right spot to make a play. While not necessarily an aggressive player with the puck, he has the poise and skill to distribute well and minimize mistakes.
Brodin's quick transition to the NHL has helped solidify Minnesota's blue line pairings and he will only get better in his role as a shutdown defenseman.
North American Junior
Ceci’s development was done a great service when he was traded from the Ottawa 67's to the Owen Sound Attack on January 7th. Ottawa struggled mightily in their own end all season, and has allowed an average of well over four goals per game. So while Ceci was playing a lot of minutes, it was not exactly the type of quality ice time that is conducive to developing good defensive habits.
The 67's were expected to struggle some this season, after all they graduated Tyler Toffoli (LAK) and Shane Prince (OTT) to the pros, as well as starting goaltender Peter Mrazek (DET). Ceci was expected to help pick up some of the lost offense, and while he was offensively productive with Ottawa, managing roughly a point per game, his defensive game was neglected and he was a minus-14 through 42 games. Since the trade to Owen Sound, Ceci has looked like a different player. He has been smarter defensively, but has also played with a great deal of confidence, shooting the puck more, and playing a crucial role in the Attack’s transition game.
A concussion limited Martin Frk in his draft year and caused his stock to fall last summer. Detroit was more than happy to jump on a prospect once considered a first-round talent in the middle of round two, and Frk has done nothing but prove it was a worthwhile pick.
The 19-year-old Frk is in an enviable position for the Halifax Mooseheads, skating alongside a pair of top 2013 draft prospects in Nathan Mackinnon and Jonathan Drouin. Frk has predictably put up some gaudy numbers, but just as importantly has not experienced any ill effects from last season's injury.
Frk's emphatic five-goal, three-assist performance helped set the tone for the top-seeded Mooseheads' first round sweep of the Saint John Sea Dogs. Frk and the rest of the offensive weapons in the Halifax lineup are poised to have a long run in the Quebec league playoffs.
North American Amateur
Hellebuyck came into the 2012-13 season with the expectation as a freshman that he would start behind junior Doug Carr, who had been extremely good for UMass-Lowell in 2011-12. In his limited play however, he was absolutely brilliant, and earned Hockey East Defensive Player of the Month honors in December. He started to steal more and more playing time from Carr, and by mid-February was the primary starter for the Riverhawks.
In his 10 starts in the month of March he has allowed only 10 goals and posted a 20-2 record. His numbers through 23 starts are among the best in the nation, with a 1.31 goals against average, a .953 save percentage, and six shutouts. His .870 winning percentage is also among the best in the nation.
It took some time for freshman winger Nic Kerdiles to work himself into the flow of the college game, due in no small part to the 10-game suspension he served early in the year for a violation of the NCAA's amateur rules.
In the last two months, Kerdiles was a consistent offensive force and was held off the score sheet just twice since the beginning of February. With eight goals, 15 assists during those games, his offense turned the Badgers into one of the hottest teams in the nation down the stretch.
The 19-year-old winger led Wisconsin to the WCHA tournament title at the Final Five, registering one goal and one assist in each of the team's three victories. Two of those goals turned out to be game-winners. Although the team did not fair well against NCAA tournament heavyweight UMass-Lowell, Kerdiles notched the team's only goal to finish off his season on a 12-game point streak.
Hofmann had a breakout season in Switzerland this year, posting 16 goals and 11 assists through 49 games with Davos. Like many Swiss teams, Davos was the beneficiary of the NHL lockout, with Joe Thornton and Rick Nash among those to play big minutes with the team early in the year. So the fact Hofmann was able to contribute as a regular member of the lineup as a 20-year-old is even more impressive.
Hofmann remains a long-term project for the Carolina Hurricanes. He possesses breakneck speed, but needs to keep getting stronger in order to succeed at the North American game.
For the third consecutive season, Marek Mazanec spent about half his season in the top pro league in his native Czech Republic, the Extraliga, with HC Plzen. He again put up respectable numbers with a 2.49 goals against average and .912 save percentage despite earning a record around .500.
Mazanec has kicked up his play recently as he has assumed starting duties for Plzen in the playoffs. His 1.84 goals against average and .937 save percentage are his best marks of his pro career and he has helped lead his team into the Extraliga semifinals against HC Slavia Praha. Mazanec pitched a shutout in game two, tying the series at 1-1. The teams remain knotted at 2-2 heading into game five on Monday.
The 6'4 goaltender could turn this strong run into a contract with Nashville. At 21 years old, he is among the older selections of the 2012 draft but the Predators' goaltending coaches have had plenty of luck developing other late-bloomers.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
Cullen Eddy was signed to an entry-level contract this past off-season following two solid years in the AHL. Though possessing limited talent, Eddy became a stabilizing presence on the Phantoms blue line, and showed promise as a depth defenseman capable of providing a physical presence. However, like many members of the Flyers AHL affiliate, Eddy has struggled this season, and the struggles appear to have taken a toll on his overall game.
Injuries have ravaged the Flyers defense all season, and the result has been more ice time for everyone down the organizational depth chart. Eddy was among those who saw elevated ice time, particularly over the last month, and the results have been lukewarm. In the 10 games Eddy has played in March, he has a minus-seven and an assist.
A hard-hitting, goal-scoring winger in his junior career with the Kelowna Rockets, Brett Bulmer has had a steep learning curve at the pro level. The 20-year-old has scored three goals and two assists this season in 35 games while maintaining a team worst minus-14 rating.
The physical winger has been hampered by injuries during his rookie season, which has contributed to his difficulties in adjusting to the bigger, faster players at the pro level. For a player who was expected to compete for a roster spot with the Wild coming into the season, Bulmer has not come close to meeting expectations.
North American Junior
Slater Koekkoek, D – Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning
1st round, 10th overall, 2012
Koekkoek was dealt a huge blow in January when he re-injured his surgically repaired left shoulder and was forced to shut down his season early for the second year in a row. The injury encapsulated what has been a trying season for the 6’2 defenseman. He struggled mightily through 40 games with the Peterborough Petes, posting a minus-26, which was the worst on a struggling Petes team and among the worst in the OHL. He was then traded to the Windsor Spitfires in mid-January, with the expectation that he could play in a winning environment and help Windsor to a playoff spot. It would not work out that way however, as Koekkoek would sustain an injury in just his second game with the Spitfires and they would finish the season 10 points out of the playoffs.
The injury was an obvious setback to Koekkoek’s development. He has missed an entire season of regular season hockey over the past two years and while missing that amount of time is never good for a player, it is far worse for a young defenseman who is expected to develop into someone capable of playing a lot of minutes and a lot of different roles.
The Saskatoon Blades WHL playoff hopes faded fast again in 2013 as they were swept out of the first round by the Medicine Hat Tigers. The second-ranked team in the Eastern Conference mustered just four goals all series against the seventh-seeded Tigers.
Matej Stransky, coming off his second consecutive 80-point season in Saskatoon, was completely held off the score sheet as the Blades struggled to get many of their 40-plus shots per game past veteran goaltender Cam Lanigan.
Neither of the Blades' 40-goal men, Stransky and Josh Nicholls (NYR), were able to tally a goal, but both will be relied upon when the club hosts the 2013 Memorial Cup in a month and a half.
North American Amateur
It has been a season rife with controversy for defenseman Ben Gallacher. He transferred from Ohio State to UMass-Amherst and consequentially was forced to play in the USHL, as the NCAA requires players who transfer to a different school to sit out a year.
The season began with a bang and continued that way through December, as the 20-year-old Gallacher would miss almost the entire first third the season to suspension. He was first suspended for eight games because of a series of cross-checks he delivered to the head of an opposing player during an October 13th match against Cedar Rapids. He finally returned to action November 10th and played in only three games before he would do the same thing, and have another eight game suspension levied on him.
In all, Gallacher would miss 20 of Green Bay’s first 25 games, 16 to suspension and four to injury. He has managed to stay in the lineup since then, but the sooner he can put this tumultuous season behind him the better.
Playing in his second season with the Gophers, Seth Ambroz got off to a solid start in the first half of the year. He was able to chip in offensively while getting an increased opportunity in the lineup, racking up 14 points in his first 23 games of the season.
His fortunes have changed of late and Ambroz has been limited to just two goals in his last 15 games dating back to January 19th. Held off the score sheet entirely in March, Ambroz has been unable to provide the depth scoring down the stretch that he had earlier in the season.
The Gophers' offense failed them as their season came to an early end. They were shutout by Joe Howe and Colorado College in their first game at the WCHA Final Five tournament and they were then held scoreless for 48 minutes, despite ample power play time, in their first round overtime loss to Yale in the NCAA tournament.
Nikita Nesterov, D – Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning
5th round, 148th overall, 2011
Nesterov experienced positive development this season, spending almost the entire 2012-13 season with Traktor. That being said, he did not see the type of ice time conducive to a defenseman who specializes in moving the puck, appearing in only 35 games and playing mostly in bottom pairing situations. Furthermore, he posted zero goals and assists in his time in the KHL, and while it is expected for most young Russian players to have an initial drop off in their production when they move up a competition level, Nesterov has been extremely productive at every level he has played until his point.
The 20-year-old has seen been a little more productive in the playoffs so far, which should mean only good things for his development moving forward.
Christoph Bertschy, C – Bern (NLA)
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild
6th round, 158th overall, 2012
A productive debut in Switzerland's National League A last season put Christoph Bertschy on the radar of teams at the NHL draft. His 16 points in 31 games in his first taste of pro hockey showed that he could play with skill and maturity.
He has had a slower season on the score sheet in 2012-13 for Bern, although the first half of the season was played in a particularly competitive, skilled Swiss league due to the NHL lockout. Bertschy's team was specifically altered with John Tavares joining the club, and the young winger was never able to earn back an increased role. Despite playing in ten more regular season games this season, he could not even manage to score half the points he did last year. Through 10 playoff games, he has scored only a single goal.
The Wild will have no issue being patient with Bertschy's development against professional players and he should have an opportunity to bounce back in the NLA next season. His strong showing as captain for the Swiss team at the 2013 World Junior Championships was a point of optimism for the forward.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.