Welcome to the December 2013 edition of On the Rush, a monthly column featuring prospects at various levels of competition who are either exceeding expectations or are falling a little behind.
This month's edition features a pair of pro prospects that have stepped up for their injury-plagued teams as well as high scoring junior players struggling to find the back of the net. We also touch on some defensive players lighting it up and some who are struggling to adjust to their new environments.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro
It has been fun to watch the highly skilled Nikita Kucherov in his first pro season. Starting the year out in the AHL, he quickly adjusted to the professional level, managing In 13 goals and 11 assists through 17 games.
Key injuries in Tampa Bay forced the team to recall Kucherov in late November. He scored on his first shot in his first NHL game on November 25th. Since then, he has played in 12 games and added two more goals along with a plus-five rating. One of his best attributes that has carried over is his anticipation of where the puck is going. That has helped him find open ice and beat defenders at the blue line.
The Russian-born forward is getting plenty of ice time in Tampa's top nine. He was reunited with his Syracuse teammate J.T. Brown, who played on the top line with him at the AHL level. Recently, Kucherov was promoted to the team's first power-play unit.
While the team needs goals, head coach Jon Cooper is also helping the youngster focus more on the weaker parts of his game when he does not have the puck.
After a 2012-13 rookie season that saw Tyler Toffoli among the point leaders of both his team and the AHL, it was expected he would develop into an impact player in the NHL. He was not however, expected to be this good, this soon.
While starting the year at over a point-per-game pace in the AHL, he was called up when a slew of injuries impacted the Kings roster. Most notably, he stepped into the second line role in place of injured Jeff Carter. Since then, he has managed 17 points in 22 games for the Kings, which leads the NHL for rookie point per game. While players like Valeri Nichushkin (DAL) and Tomas Hertl (SJS) have grabbed the majority of rookie headlines, Toffoli has quietly been one of the more important pieces in the Kings offense. He has seen time on the team's power play unit and also has an impressive five game-winning goals on the season.
What is most impressive about the former Ottawa 67's product is the way he has scored. Toffoli, most commonly noted as a sniper, has been a presence in front of the net, which has led to many garbage goals, deflections, and second or third chance goals. While he did not start the season in the NHL, at this point he has to be in the early talk for the Calder trophy with the likes of Hertl and Torey Krug (BOS).
North American Junior
Graham Black's season is an encouraging story of a player trying to overcome off-ice health issues. The young center suffers from Graves' disease, a rare autoimmune disease that has hampered his development throughout the years. One of his worst moments came last October when he lost 30 pounds in two weeks. When he is healthy, he is an important piece to the Broncos as a player that is used in all situations. He currently leads the team in scoring with 49 points, and also has a strong plus-15 rating.
Black is confident his long-term career will have better days. Since he had surgery on his thyroid last February, he has been able to maintain his energy and a healthy weight of 184. Since he has not signed an entry-level contact with New Jersey, it was imperative to get his health manageable and play a strong season to show he can carry on his hockey career into the professional ranks.
The smart defensive forward excels away from the puck and is a fierce competitor. He has shown he can contribute down the road as a complementary scorer due to his quick shot.
Portland Winterhawks forward Nicolas Petan was drafted in the mid second round after a 120-points sophomore season in the WHL. Despite his size at 5'9, Petan drew the attention of many scouts due to a well-rounded game that includes solid skating, offensive ability, and physical engagement.
Petan is once again on a torrid offensive pace this season, with 66 points through his first 32 games. The Winterhawks have no shortage of offensive weapons this year with Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ), Taylor Leier (PHI), and Brendan Leipsic (NSH) all having tremendous seasons, but Petan has been the cream of the crop.
The 18-year-old currently ranks second in the WHL in scoring, behind undrafted forward Mitch Holmberg.
Petan was selected to Team Canada's preliminary roster for the 2014 World Junior Championships.
North American Amateur
Brian Ferlin is in the midst of a quality junior campaign. Cornell has been inconsistent through 13 games, but the Jacksonville, Florida native is providing steady play to keep his team competitive.
In 13 games this season, the power forward has seven goals (four on the power play) and 14 points. What is remarkable is that he only has eight penalty minutes all season. He amassed a total of 85 over his first two college seasons.
With an added leadership role comes responsibility. Ferlin is leading by example and having fun with it. His teammates and the Big Red faithful feed off his energy whenever he is involved in a play. Since he appears physically ready for the pros, it will be interesting to see if he opts to leave school early or finish his college eligibility. Considering that Boston has a fair amount of wingers in the pro system, it is possible he will stick around for his senior year.
Connor Hellebuyck, G – UMass-Lowell River Hawks (Hockey East)
Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets
5th round, 130th overall in 2012
One of the best goaltenders in college hockey is back at it again, proving last year's freshman accolades were no fluke. The big 6'4 Connor Hellebuyck made waves last year when he stole the starting position at UMass-Lowell from Doug Carr and went on a 20-3-0 tear with the River Hawks. With a 6-4-0 record and a .947 save percentage, Hellebuyck is right back where he left off.
The 20-year-old is also performing huge with very little offensive support. The River Hawks weigh in at 29th in the entire nation in goals per game with an average of 2.81 per game. Lack of offense has not been an issue however, as the team has allowed an average of only 1.88 goals per game.
There has been an extreme amount of pressure on Hellebuyck to perform night in and night out in close games, and thus far, he has risen to the occasion. With a college system that relies heavily on its defense and goaltending, he has been rock solid.
While it is hard to gauge goaltending prospects in college due to the level of competition they face, Hellebuyck is doing well to make a case for himself as one of the best young goaltenders in recent NCAA history.
Ullmark is rising as one of Sweden's top young goaltenders. In his rookie season as a full-timer in the SHL, he has helped a young MODO squad remain in the hunt against quality opponents. He is 8-10 with a 2.05 goals against average, along with a .933 save percentage, and two shutouts in 19 starts. Splitting starts with Anton Forsberg (CBJ), this goalie battle has brought the best out in both players.
With four goaltenders currently at the pro level, the Buffalo Sabres will keep an eye on Ullmark as he continues his development in Europe. He has the potential to become an NHL-caliber goalie, but management is likely to be patient before they bring him over to North America.
Nikolai Prokhorkin, LW – CSKA Moscow
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings
4th round, 121st overall in 2012
Lack of playing time and acquiring bad habits is a legitimate fear of many organizations when they have a young prospect playing overseas. Fortunately for the Kings, Nikolai Prokhorkin is avoiding both of those things thus far in the KHL.
While used briefly in 2012-13 with CSKA Moscow of the KHL, Prokhorkin has been an every day starter for the big club this year. His 27 points in 38 games leads CSKA and is a comparable total to other older and more experienced players in Alex Burmistrov and Viktor Tikhonov who have 27 and 25 points, respectively. He is doing it all at the young age of 20 as well which is impressive. He has been playing around 17 minutes a night on one of the better clubs in Russia, and showing some solid offensive ability and poise as well.
Prokhorkin is currently the third youngest player on a team primarily dominated by elder statesmen of Russian Hockey like Alex Frolov, Oleg Saprykin, and Viktor Kozlov. With several former NHL players and good Russian mentors on the team, Prokhorkin has flourished this year and stepped up as one of the squad's offensive leaders.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro
Following a tremendous 2012-13 campaign with the Plymouth Whalers, Carrick earned a spot on Washington's opening night roster during training camp. He earned some decent minutes through the first three game, which included his first NHL goal, but became the odd man out due to the numbers game and was sent down to Hershey to earn more significant playing time.
At the AHL level, he has played in a top four role and manned the Bear's power play. However, considering his surprising jump to the pro level, the Illinois native is still trying to find his offensive side and adjust to life at the pro level. Something he can look to improve upon is his strength to avoid getting knocked off the puck. After 13 AHL games, he has four assists, 15 penalty minutes, as well as a minus-three rating.
Recently, Carrick was named to Team USA's World Juniors selection camp roster and is likely to make the team. He and Stefan Matteau (NJD) are the only two players on the USA roster with NHL experience. He brings an aggressive, puck-moving presence that can create scoring chances at even strength and quarterback the power play.
Having 11 points in 26 games does not seem all that bad when you consider that Baertschi had only 25 games of NHL experience prior to 2013-14. However, the Flames and Jay Feaster in particular, were counting on the Swiss winger to have a big start to the season to jumpstart a full rebuild of the organization. Baertschi has stumbled considerably though, and be it by mismanagement of the coaching staff or the organization as a whole, it is looking more and more like the confidence of the young forward is shot this season.
He has been benched for long periods of time, getting around 11-12 minutes of ice time a night, and has not played any vital minutes for the Flames. He has also been a healthy scratch at times during the first third of the 2013-14 season. These are not things that a team wants to see from a projected cornerstone of their rebuild.
After a solid set of games in Abbotsford last season it was a questionable move to force the former Winterhawk into a large role with the Flames instead of playing the young prospect in the minors. The risk of pushing both Baertschi and Sean Monahan, who now look like boys amongst men, into large roles so quickly may have ultimately been what cost Jay Feaster his job early in December.
Baertschi was subsequently sent to the AHL the day of Feaster's firing. Hopefully he can build up confidence there and return to the top of his game soon.
North American Junior
Bozon's third season in the WHL has been a frustrating one. As Kalmoops struggled in their first 13 games, so too did Bozon. With his former linemates Colin Smith (COL) and J.C. Lipon (WIN) in the pros and the Blazers not winning, Bozon was unhappy and approached general manager Craig Bonner about trading him. On October 22nd, Bonner pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade sending their coveted scorer and defenseman Landon Cross to the Kootenay Ice for forward Colin Shirley, defenseman Matt Thomas, and three draft picks.
Kootenay is currently in a playoff spot and will be contending to hold it in the second half. It is understandable that Bozon would struggle to adjust to his team's new system and schedule in the Eastern Conference. The Ice institute a more defensive style than the run-and-gun offense employed by the Blazers. Slowly but surely, he is becoming a more complete player, improving his defensive game and playmaking skills. After 24 games with his new team, he has eight goals and 23 points.
Fortunately, Bozon has the opportunity to re-establish himself as an upper echelon scorer. He has been streaky in the past, and based off his play in December, it appears he is starting to heat up.
With a sizzling start to the season that saw Boudreau net 15 points in the first 19 games, he has since gone ice cold with five points in the following 16 games. The McMasterville, Quebec native also went on a nine game pointless streak through November. One of the potential reasons for the drop in production from the forward is that he was taken off the line of the highly talented goal scorer Valentin Zykov (LAK), who is second in both points and goals on the Drakkar. While it is definitely a good thing to see such production early on from Paquin-Boudreau, you have to wonder if it was based on his play or the play of his linemates. As a playmaker, he is obviously somewhat dependent on a trigger man to get his points, but the fact that Boudreau went completely invisible when not paired with the team's top scorer is concerning.
North American Amateur
Hyman has reprised his role as a bottom six forward at Ann Arbor, but once again, has been unable to generate much offense. Over the years, he has become one of the Wolverines best possession players thanks to his smooth, shifty skating and balance to stay on his feet. Michigan has returned to the top tier in college hockey this season, but will need secondary scoring if they hope to make a postseason run.
The Ontario native only has one goal and two assists through 14 games this season. He still provides excellent play as a defensive forward, but until he can start to convert on his scoring chances, he will project as nothing more than a potential bottom-line forward in the NHL.
Jake Jackson was one of the more highly regarded high school players entering the USHL draft in 2013. After being selected 12th overall in the USHL draft by the Sioux City Musketeers, Jackson was traded to Des Moines. Since then he has seen his production fall off a cliff. The young forward, who was scoring a goal a game for Tartan High School, has just a solitary marker in his 17 games for Des Moines and is also a minus-seven rating. He has been a healthy scratch at times for the Buccaneers as well. Whether it be a lack of confidence or a lack of adjustment to the next level, Jackson has been a big disappointment considering how high he was taken in the USHL draft.
While he is still very young and is in his first year at the USHL level, Jackson has definitely hit his first major hurdle of his career. How he comes out of this slump may ultimately decide his future as a player.
There was bound to be an adjustment period for Hägg when he made the jump to the Swedish Hockey League. The former MODO-Jr captain has been streaky thus far. Some nights he looks good, but he struggles to be effective on others. While his 6'2, 204-pound frame was an advantage in junior, he is now on even level physically against the grown men of the SHL. He only has a goal, four assists, and a minus-three rating through 33 games.
Some good news for Hägg is that he made the cut to be on Team Sweden in the upcoming World Junior Championships in his home country. This will give him and the Flyers a chance to see how he does against the best players of his age group. With his strong hockey IQ, he should make a difference on Sweden's blue line.
Coming into this season Kiviaho was expected to challenge for the starting job with KalPa. However, he was beat out for the position by veteren Pekka Tuokkola. Kiviaho has since been very infrequently used, suiting up for just three games this season and putting up less than stellar numbers. With limited playing time, it has to be hard for Kiviaho to get into any sort of groove and it has shown, as he has a 3.42 goals against and .875 save percentage in his limited starts.
Also more concerning is the fact that he was not named to Finland's preliminary WJC roster, which many thought he would be a part of. Instead Juuse Saros (NAS), Janne Juvonen (NAS), and undrafted Ville Huuso will get the opportunity to represent their country while Kiviaho tries to figure out how to make the best of his very limited role. It might be best for Kiviaho to be sent to the minor league in Finland, because the lack of playing time could be very damaging to his development if the spotty starts continue throughout the year.
Article written by John Iadevaia (Eastern Conference) and Jason Lewis (Western Conference).