On the Rush, April 2013

By HF Staff

Nikita Kucherov - Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: Nikita Kucherov, always a productive member of Team Russia in international competition, finally showed that scoring touch in the QMJHL after being traded to Rouyn-Noranda. (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Welcome to the final 2012-13 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 many leagues around the world approaching their finals or already finished, we take a look at some of the prospects who stood out over the course of the season. While some players proved to be farther along than initially expected, there are also those prospects who did not develop as planned in 2012-13.

Leading the Play

North American Pro

Patrick Wiercioch, D, Ottawa Senators (NHL)
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2008

Wiercioch was invaluable to the Ottawa Senators this season. An extremely productive prospect at the NCAA and AHL levels, the 22-year-old defenseman was thrust into a prominent role when Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson went down in February with a partially severed Achilles tendon. Fortunately for all involved, Wiercioch was more than up to the task and performed admirably in his expanded role. Through 42 regular season games, he managed five goals, 14 assists, and a plus-nine rating while averaging over 15 minutes a game.

With Karlsson recently returning to the lineup, Wiecioch has seen his role and ice time scaled back. He nonetheless remains an important part of the Senators future. He will be up for contract renewal at the end of the season.

Brandon Saad, LW, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)
Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2011

Blackhawks' winger Brandon Saad has been in the enviable position of skating on the team's top line alongside premier players like Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. At first blush the rookie's 27 points in 46 games may look like a product of those talented linemates, but what the score sheet does not show is just how easily Saad has fit in with the likes of Toews and Hossa, players who play and think the game as fast as anyone in the league.

Saad's style is comparable to that of Toews and Hossa, giving that line three forwards who can control the puck on the forecheck, fight through traffic, and create chances. A dynamic skater, Saad has shown that extra gear in transition as well, making the 'Hawks top line that much more effective on the rush. Even against the toughest checking assignments in the Western Conference, the 20-year-old winger has emerged as yet another offensive threat in the Blackhawks arsenal.

North American Junior

Nikita Kucherov, RW, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning
2nd round, 58th overall, 2011

The 2012-13 season could be split into two distinctive parts for Kucherov. The first part of the season he was in and out of the lineup for the Quebec Remparts. Kucherov was one of three import prospects for the Remparts, the other two being Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF) and Nick Sorensen. League rules stipulate a team can only dress two import players, and Kucherov was frequently the one sitting on the bench. Quebec coach and GM Patrick Roy decided to finally trade Kucherov in late November to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. At that point, he had appeared in only six games and managed only 10 points.

Kucherov was not only a regular member of the Huskies roster, but played extensive minutes for the team, seeing time in the top six and on both special teams. His production skyrocketed as a result, and through 27 games with Rouyn-Noranda he posted 26 goals and 27 assists. He added an additional nine goals and 15 assists through 14 post-season games, including four goals and five assists in a second-round playoff win over the Remparts.

The 19-year-old was also one of the top producers for Russia's entry in the 2013 WJCs, posting five goals and eight assists through seven games.

Kucherov is already inked to an entry-level contract, and will likely join the Lightning organization for the 2013-14 season.

John Gibson, G, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
2nd round, 39th overall, 2011

John Gibson was already a proven commodity in the Ontario Hockey League coming into the 2012-13 season, but he nonetheless raised his stock with a magnificent performance at the 2013 World Junior Championships. He was named the tournament's best goaltender, leading netminders with a 1.36 goals against average and .955 save percentage, and tournament MVP on his way to backstopping Team USA to a gold medal.

It was another limited sample size for Gibson during the regular season in Kitchener due to his international play and injuries that slowed him in the second half. He was healthy when the playoffs rolled around this season and was sharp despite the Rangers giving up an average of 40 shots in Gibson's starts. Health and experience will be the keys to the goaltender's development as he adjusts to the pro level in 2013-14.

North American Amateur

Connor Hellebuyck, G, Umass-Lowell Riverhawks (Hockey East)
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets
5th round, 130th overall, 2012

It is rare for a goaltender to see a substantial amount of game time in his freshman season, let alone take over the primary starting duties, but Connor Hellebuyck was no ordinary freshman goalie. Starting the 2012-13 season as the backup to junior Doug Carr, Hellebuyck saw limited time initially, playing in only three games in October and November. Hellebuyck was gradually earning more and more time however and following back-to-back shutouts on December 8th and 10th, became the starting goaltender for the Riverhawks.

Hellebuyck would finish the season with a 20-3 record, and would lead the nation with a 1.37 goals against average, a .952 save percentage, and six shutouts. His stellar play would help UMass-Lowell to their first ever appearance in the Frozen Four, and an overall record of 28-11-2.

Despite an otherworldly performance, Hellebuyck is like most other goaltending prospects in that he is a long-term project, with many years of development ahead of him. Still, what he did this season raised his profile considerably, and he is now one of the top goaltending prospects in college hockey. He will not be surprising anyone in 2013-14.

Jon Gillies, G, Providence College Friars (Hockey East)
Drafted by the Calgary Flames
3rd round, 75th overall, 2012

The Calgary Flames were heavily invested in Providence's freshman recruiting class this season, having selected Mark Jankowski in the first round and Jon Gillies in the third round. Both players were counted on by Providence from the drop of the puck, but Gillies performance in net was a primary reason for the Friars' strong season. Appearing in all but three of his team's games, the netminder earned a 17-12-6 record with a 2.08 goals against average and .931 save percentage.

The 6'5 Gillies, who served as Gibson's back-up at the WJC, also possesses excellent size. Where he differentiates himself from many other big goalies is how smoothly he moves around his crease. Gillies proved that he could play his style with success at the college level, and the test now will be for him to do it again as a sophomore.

European Pro

Ville Pokka, D, Karpat (SM-liiga)
Drafted by the New York Islanders
2nd round, 34th overall, 2012

Pokka staked out a name for himself this season amid a vast pool of defensive prospects for the Islanders. In his second full season playing professional hockey in Finland, Pokka finally began to realize his vast potential, and managed six goals and six assists through 47 games. He also pitched in two assists in three playoff matches.

Pokka signed a three-year contract extension in January of 2012, and it is quite common for Finnish players to remain overseas until they are 20 years old, so expect him to fully honor the contract through the 2014-15 season. When he eventually does come to North America, he will provide a steady, confident presence on the Islanders blue line.

Filip Forsberg, LW, Leksands IF (Allsvenskan)
Drafted by the Washington Capitals, 1st round, 11th overall, 2012
Traded to Nashville Predators, April 3rd, 2013

The Predators traded a franchise cornerstone in Martin Erat during a tough 2013 season in Nashville, but part of the return was Filip Forsberg, as talented a forward prospect the organization has had in recent memory. He improved his production at the pro level overseas, and now after having been acquired by Nashville, has already appeared in his first five NHL games.

Forsberg spent most of his season with Leksands in Sweden's second tier pro league, Hockey Allsvenskan, and ranked second on the team in points per game with 33 points in 38 games. He was among Sweden's top scoring forwards at the 2013 WJC as well, serving as captain for the silver medal squad.

Both of those performances, not to mention a solid showing in Nashville with a scoring line role, indicates that the Predators received a relatively pro-ready prospect and he should be able to contribute to the team's retooling up front.

Trailing the Play

North American Pro

Chris Kreider, RW, New York Rangers (NHL)
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2009

Expectations were perhaps unrealistically high for Kreider heading into the 2012-13 season. Following a 2011-12 season where he was stellar in his junior year with Boston College, winning a NCAA championship and later impressing in the NHL playoffs with the Rangers, Kreider came into the Rangers organization this season with heightened expectations.

Because of the NHL lockout, Kreider started the 2012-13 season with the Connecticut Whale and struggled, posting five goals and seven assists through 33 AHL games. When the NHL lockout ended he was eventually recalled to the NHL, but suffered an ankle injury just three games into the season. After missing some time, he returned to the Rangers lineup, where he saw limited ice time and occasionally did not dress. He was eventually reassigned to Connecticut for an extended period of time in late February, and while he was a much more productive forward at the AHL level, his play remained mostly uninspiring at the NHL level.

On the season Kreider managed 12 goals and 11 assists through 48 AHL games and two goals and one assist through 23 NHL games. Of his 23 points at the AHL level, 11 came in the final 14 games he played at that level. He continues to be a promising prospect for the Rangers, though expectations for him to produce immediately have been dampened.

Mikael Granlund, C, Houston Aeros (AHL)
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild
1st round, 9th overall, 2010

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mikael Granlund, the super-skilled but slight Finnish center, struggled to make the adjustment to the North American game. After a productive first half of the season in the AHL during the NHL lockout, Granlund was called up to the Wild but never really caught on with the likes of Matt Cullen and Kyle Brodziak holding down center spots behind captain Mikko Koivu.

With the Wild playing for its post-season life during the final weeks of the season, Granlund was re-assigned to the AHL so that he could play more ice time for the Aeros as they headed to an assured playoff berth. While prospects like Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker were skating with the big club, Granlund skated in the Houston Aeros first-round playoff series loss to Grand Rapids in the hopes that he could regain some confidence.

North American Junior

Slater Koekkoek, D, Peterborough Petes (OHL)
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning
1st round, 10th overall, 2012

The 2012-13 season started promisingly for Koekkoek. After missing most of the prior season to a left shoulder injury that required surgery, Koekkoek played 40 games without any problem, and amassed six goals and 22 assists in that span. He was however also a minus-26, though much of that was attributed to the fact he played on a struggling Peterborough team that lost 23 of their first 35 games.   

He was traded to the Windsor Spitfires in early January where he was expected to benefit from playing for a better top-to-bottom team, but in just the second game with his new team, he aggravated his old shoulder injury. The injury set back required a second procedure and he was once again done for the season.

Koekkoek has missed about an entire season worth of hockey over the past two years because of his reoccurring shoulder problems. Already signed to an entry-level deal, Koekkoek should return to the OHL for a fourth season in 2013-14.

Connor Murphy, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
Drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes
1st round, 20th overall, 2011

A second knee injury in as many years prematurely ended Connor Murphy's 2012-13 season, leaving the former first-round pick with an incomplete grade during his junior career. He has been a productive member of the Sarnia blue line over the past two seasons but limited to just 68 regular season games because of back and knee injuries.

Murphy has also taken the ice in international competition, and unfortunately for the Sting, that is exactly where he has had his luck turn. A knee injury at Team USA's evaluation camp in 2011 meant that he was left off the 2012 WJC entry. He was healthy and enjoyed a strong tournament at the 2013 WJC for the gold medal team, but late in the final game, he blocked a shot that would put him back on the shelf.

Whether he spends an overage season in the OHL after returning from the latest surgery or turns pro with the Coyotes organization, the depth in the Phoenix defensive pipeline will allow the team to be patient with Murphy's development.

North American Amateur

Sam Brittain, G, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted by the Florida Panthers
4th round, 92nd overall, 2010

Considered a highly touted prospect a few years back, Sam Brittain has seen his fair share of struggles over the past two seasons. Coming off an injury abbreviated 2011-12 season, where he suffered a torn ACL, Brittain came to DU this season as the presumed starter. He began the season strong enough, winning four of his first five starts, but the quality of his play declined as the season went on, and by late November, he was splitting starts with the undrafted Juho Olkinuoro (WPG). By the time the season was over, he was relegated to backup duties. Through 13 starts he managed five wins, seven losses, and one no decision. His goals against average was 2.95 and his save percentage .907.

Brittain will have an opportunity to redeem himself in his senior season, as Olkinuoro signed an entry-level contract with the Winnipeg Jets. It will be a challenge for him to earn a contract with the Panthers, as they already have several promising young netminders in their minor-league system.

T.J. Tynan, LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
3rd round, 66th overall, 2011

After leading Notre Dame in scoring each of his first two seasons, T.J. Tynan took a step back production-wise in his junior season. He finished fourth in points (28) and fifth in goals (10) in 2012-13 after scoring 95 points over his first two seasons of college hockey.

Tynan appeared in all 41 games for the Irish, and although the score sheet might not have shown it, he remained one of his team's better offensive options. It is not surprising that he could not keep up his near 20-percent shooting percentage as an underclassman, but the winger's off-year is one reason the Irish offense struggled throughout the season. Given his slight stature, Tynan is almost assured a senior season in the NCAA and he will have a chance to bounce back for the Irish in 2013-14.

European Pro

Petter Granberg, D, Skelleftea (SEL)
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs
4th round, 116th overall, 2010

Granberg came into his second full season in the SEL with the intent of improving his overall game, and establishing himself a reliable top-four defenseman for Skelleftea. He sustained a collarbone injury in just his second game of the season however, and the subsequent surgery would cause him to miss the vast majority of the season. He would eventually return to the Skelleftea lineup, and appear in 11 games to close out the season. He also helped Skelleftea to an SEL championship, managing two assists through 13 games.

Though he did not progress as hoped this season, Granberg still managed to have some success despite missing most of the regular season to injury. He is already signed to an entry-level contract and is expected to join the Toronto Marlies next season.

Nikolai Prokhorkin, LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings
4th round, 121st overall, 2012

The beginning of Prokhorkin's season was marred by controversy, as a contract dispute between the Kings and his KHL team, CSKA Moscow, took the talented winger off the ice after eight games in Manchester. The Kings fourth-round pick remained off the ice until December, when he began playing in the CSKA system.

Even after the dispute was settled and Prokhorkin returned to Russia, the talented winger had trouble getting into a rhythm. He scored three points and averaged around 12 minutes of ice time per game in 14 regular season games, but his ice time increased by a couple minutes per game in nine post-season games where he managed three goals and an assist. Despite the signs of improvement, the fact that the 19-year-old forward was held out of action for so long could not have helped his development.

Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.

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