On the Rush, February 2014

By HF Staff

Adam Wilcox - University of Minnesota Golden Gophers

Photo: University of Minnesota backstop Adam Wilcox, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, and the Gophers hold the top spot in the Big Ten going into the final weeks of the NCAA regular season (courtesy of Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)

Welcome to the February 2014 edition of On the Rush, a monthly column featuring prospects at various levels of competition who are either exceeding expectations or falling a little behind.

In this article, we will focus on power forwards, high-octane defenders, solid goaltending, and European prospects in the KHL and the SHL going in opposite directions.  

Entering the homestretch in the regular season for the junior and amateur leagues, this is the time for prospects to step up their game and show their worth. Some are ready for the playoffs now, others need to find their desperation level, or have the opportunity to salvage a bad season.

Leading the Rush

North American Pro

Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning
1st round, 27th overall in 2011

Back in December, Nikita Kucherov was our leading pro prospect. This month, we recognize his Syracuse linemate and countryman Namestnikov. Both players have pushed one another to improve, but Namestnkikov has steadily risen throughout the season. The two-way forward has looked more comfortable in his second pro season, demonstrating his playmaking and responsible play away from the puck. He has already surpassed his rookie numbers with 30 points (13 goals and 17 assists) through 34 games. Prior to the Olympic break, he was rewarded by playing in his first NHL game. Given the organization’s proven depth in the system, it might be best to allow Namestnikov to continue his development in the AHL.

Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota Wild (NHL)
Drafted 6th round, 161st overall in 2009

It has definitely been the year of the backup goalie in the NHL this season. With players like Martin Jones (LAK), Cam Talbot (NYR), Ben Scrivens (EDM), and Frederik Andersen (ANH) stepping forward, you can now add Darcy Kuemper to that list. He has been dynamite since the New Year, holding an overall record of 8-3-2 with a .917 save percentage and 2.46 goals against average. He also recorded his first career shutout against Nashville during that stretch. More important than stats though is the overall contribution of Kuemper. The Wild have remained relevant in a very tight Western Conference playoff race despite not having their top two goaltending options in Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding due to injury and illness, respectively. They have their 23-year-old netminder to thank for that. He has put together some stunning performances recently including five 30-plus save efforts which resulted in wins against Dallas, Anaheim, Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Los Angeles. Minnesota moved from 10th in the west to sixth in the last month and Kuemper played a big part in it.

North American Junior

Connor Crisp, LW, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens
3rd round, 71st overall in 2013

While Toronto has a power forward who is adjusting to a new role, Montreal is starting to see one of their own emerge. In his first season with Sudbury and final year in the OHL, Crisp has managed to surpass his best numbers from his time with the Erie Otters. He has created more offense for himself on the forecheck and by driving and battling around the net. In 55 appearances, he has 24 goals, 22 assists and has been a near point-per-game player for most of the season.

Two areas he needs to improve upon are his consistency and staying out of the penalty box. His 108 penalty minutes dwarf the rest of the team. Many of them however have come from Biggs’ willingness to drop the gloves.

Shea Theodore, D, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
1st round, 26th overall in 2013

With Theodore being a first-round selection you expect him to be leading the rush for the most part. However, in the last month he has gone completely off the charts. The puck-moving defenseman is already on pace to obliterate his 2012-13 numbers having potted 65 points in 59 games. A 21-point January/February effort has helped vault him to the top of the WHL scoring race amongst defenseman. The plus-minus stat that haunted him last season with a minus-24 has also turned around. Theodore has been a plus player the entirety of the season. This comes as a bit of a surprise considering the Thunderbirds are a team that scores a lot, but also gives up a ton of goals.

Also take into consideration the snub that Shea Theodore received from Team Canada this season for both the Super Series and the World Juniors. With these events still fresh in his memory, he has not let up a bit. The Ducks currently have some of the more promising young puck movers in the game with Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Hampus Lindholm, but Theodore is definitely making a case for himself with his stellar play this season.

North American Amateur

Adam Wilcox, G, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning
6th round, 178th overall in 2011

Tampa Bay has to be pleased by the leaps that Wilcox has made in his first two years of college. The sophomore has stepped up his game in 2013-14, establishing himself as one of the best goaltenders in the nation. His January was, quite simply, brilliant. He amassed an 8-0-3 record, had two shutouts, earned MVP honors at the North Star College Cup, and two Big Ten all-conference honors. While Minnesota remains among the best teams in college, the South St. Paul native has helped keep them in that top tier.

In 29 starts, his record stands at 20-4-5, with two shutouts, a 1.97 goals against average, and a .931 save percentage. Those wins are the most of any NHL-drafted netminder this season.

Devin Shore, C, University of Maine (Hockey East)
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
2nd round, 61st overall in 2012

Devin Shore, no relation to Nick (LAK) or Drew Shore (FLA), has been on fire of late for the University of Maine. The center currently sits in fourth place in Hockey East scoring. A stretch of 14 points in his last 10 games certainly helped both he and his squad rise to the top. Playing in a conference that is overshadowed by Kevin Hayes (CHI), Johnny Gaudreau (CGY), and Boston College, Shore has done well in leading the Black Bears in a surprising turnaround season where they currently sit third in the conference. He has been the leader for Maine in all situations, be it five-on-five or special teams. Also note that in his sophomore year at just 19-years old, he is already the alternate captain for Maine. It seems to be just another name in a long list of Dallas Stars prospects having tremendous seasons. However, with the leadership quality that he brings along with the high level of play, Shore is definitely going to carve out a nice place for himself in the Dallas system if he keeps it up.

With 37 points in 29 games this year overall, he is on pace to nearly double the 26 points in 38 games from his freshman year. The development curve from Shore is definitely trending upwards.

European Pro

Pavel Buchnevich, LW, Severstal Cherepovets (KHL)
Drafted by the New York Rangers
3rd round, 75th overall in 2013

The KHL can be a grueling league for youngsters trying to break into the professional ranks. Buchnevich seems to be an exception as he has found minor success in his rookie season. While his club team is having a bad season, Buchnevich, the team’s youngest player at 18 years old, is seeing around 12 to 13 minutes a night, compared to other young players like Ignat Zemchenko, Pavel Dedunov, and Alexander Fedoseyev who receive six to eight minutes or are healthy scratches. In 36 games played, Buchnevich has scored six goals and nine assists.

Similar to Alexander Semin, he has the combination of speed, instinct, and offensive talent to get fans out of their seats. He is also a good playmaker. Areas he needs to improve upon are defense and playing a more cohesive game. It remains to be seen whether the Rangers will ever enjoy Buchnevich’s services or if the youngster will stay in Russia.

William Karlsson, C, HV71 (SHL)
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
2nd round, 53rd overall in 2011

Not only is William Karlsson playing at the top level of Swedish hockey for the second straight year, he is succeeding. HV71 has enjoyed a tremendous season so far from the 21-year-old Karlsson, and a strong January/February has vaulted the forward into the top-20 in scoring in the league. He is playing a whopping 20 minutes a night on average, which leads all HV71 forwards, and also leads all forwards in hits and blocked shots on the season. His five power play goals are currently second on the team as well. Clearly Karlsson is performing in various areas with a stat line like that. He is on a run of 10 points in his last 10 games and will be an interesting player to watch as HV71 moves into the playoffs.

At such a young age he is leading his SHL squad and it will be interesting to see how he translates this over to the AHL and NHL when the time comes. His European career has been nothing short of impressive at this point and another solid month has continued that trend.

Trailing the Play

North American Pro

Tyler Biggs, RW, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs
1st round, 22nd overall in 2011

When Toronto took Biggs in the first round in 2011, he was projected to become a top-six forward. Combined with his shot, speed and size, it seemed like the perfect formula for a physical, effective player for Toronto. However, his development has come under scrutiny, especially this season, as he is being used on the third line as a defensive-forward on the Marlies. Through 41 games, he has five goals, seven points, 30 penalty minutes, and a minus-four rating. He has also been a healthy scratch at points this year.

The reality is that Biggs’ scoring prowess has not transferred to the pro ranks. Thus, his role has changed to a depth forward. It is possible he becomes similar to Chris Stewart (STL), a prevailing power forward and a physical, defensive presence that can contribute offensively. For now, he must show he can find the back of the net when given the opportunity.

Nicklas Jensen, RW, Utica Comets (AHL)
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks
1st round, 29th overall in 2011

First off, Jensen has been much better as of late. He has seven goals in February alone and potted his first career hat trick back on February 9th. However, the Dane is still a far cry away from where the Comets and the Canucks want and need him to be. While the goal scoring is starting to come around for Jensen, he is still an individual player rather than a team player, which makes him prone to extreme hot and cold streaks. The consistent level of play has not been there for Jensen with Utica this season. With Vancouver in a transitional period, they need him to lift the play of not only himself but his teammates. He also tends to be a one-sided player when it comes to defensive responsibility. It is good that the natural offensive abilities of the former first-round selection have come around in the last month and a half, but under John Tortorella he is going to find no solace in playing a one-dimension game. This could explain why Jensen has yet to get a shot in the NHL despite the Canucks being bombarded with injuries and suffering from a lack of scoring.

At just 20 years old he is one of the Canucks best and most promising prospects. Again, he has been strong in goal scoring numbers of late but he needs to be much better overall. The Canucks currently have a thin prospect system and are going to be looking to players like Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Bo Horvat to lead the charge in the coming years. While the goals are great, he needs to round out his game and step up to the plate in more aspects of the game if he wants to make the NHL.

North American Junior

Tyrell Goulbourne, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers
3rd round, 72nd overall in 2013

When the Flyers reached for him in the third round of the 2013 draft, the expectation was that Goulbourne suited the Philadelphia enforcer mold that could provide secondary scoring. The Alberta native though has not stepped in the right direction offensively this year. Since the turn of the New Year, he has 12 points in 24 games. For someone that was taken as high as he was, it is concerning that at 20 years old his production has somewhat plateaued. He has gone stretches without recording a point or factoring into Kelowna’s scoring. In 56 appearances, he has 12 goals, 18 assists, 96 penalty minutes, and a plus-19 rating. Where he has shown promise is his physicality to open up space for his teammates, proving he could become an energy third/fourth line player.

Chris Bigras, D, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche
2nd round, 32nd overall in 2013

Owen Sound has struggled this season with generating offense and keeping pucks out of their net. Chris Bigras, like his team, has also struggled this year. In the late stages of January and early February, the two-way defenseman was loading up on the minus stats and failing to find himself in the point column. At age 19, he is one of the veteran leaders for the Attack, who are going through a significant transitional period. Bigras is not going to come close to his 40 point, plus-35 season had last year, and much of that has to do with the entire Owen Sound Attack roster struggling with turnover and injuries. Bigras has a tremendous amount of talent, but this is certainly not the way he wished to finish his OHL career.

As an elder statesman on a rebuilding squad there was talk that Bigras could have been moved at the deadline in January. But when the dust settled, he remained an Attack player. The talk of it all, however, may have distracted him as he has since put together a January month with a minus-10 rating and two points. He has only now started to recover and refocus in the last four or five games of the February month.

North American Amateur

Phil Di Giuseppe, C, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes
2nd round, 38th overall in 2012

Michigan has returned to its traditional spot as one of the top-10 teams in college. Di Giuseppe continues to factor into the Wolverine’s top six, but his overall performance this year has been underwhelming. While the junior continues to challenge defenders and generates quality scoring chances every game, the lack of execution and inconsistent play on defense have stood out.

Through 27 games, he has scored only six goals and 15 points. This year’s Wolverines have also relied upon contributions from across the roster, including the underclassmen. So far players like J.T. Compher (BUF) and Andrew Copp (WPG) have outplayed the older and more experienced Giuseppe.   

Mark Jankowski, C, Providence College (Hockey East)
Drafted by the Calgary Flames
1st round, 21st overall in 2012

When you look at the overall stats of Jankowski it does not look bad at all. With 19 points in 31 games he has matched his 2012-13 stats already. However, the majority of those points came in the early stages of the season. Since the start of January, Jankowski has just seven points and three goals. He also has just eight points in 17 games against conference opponents. The Friars are a bit of a middling team this year and many expected a bigger season from the first-round selection. With the pedigree that he owns, it is puzzling he has not played at his full potential in 2014. The Calgary Flames draft pick is expected to take the reins of the Providence team in the future and he has shown little signs of that willingness in his sophomore season.

Jankowski means a lot to this Providence team. It is no surprise when his level of play has dropped so has the play of his linemates Nick Saracino and Ross Mauermann. Perhaps in the late stages of the NCAA season he can put together some more consistent and reliable performances. The Friars have gone 3-6-3 in 2014 and have a tough stretch of back to backs against Massachusetts and Maine to finish out the season.

European Pro

Marko Dano, C/W, HC Slovan Bratislava (KHL)
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
1st round, 27th overall in 2013

Dano’s rookie season was rough last year, only recording seven points in 37 games. To prepare for his second season in the KHL, the Austrian born Slovak bulked up to 198 pounds to better suit his chippy style. Unfortunately, 2013-14 has not gone well for him either. The top European league is making him a tougher player, but it has not translated to overall success on the ice. In fact, after 37 games, the forward only has four points, 34 penalty minutes, and is a minus-12.

What might benefit Dano is if he came to North America and joined the Prince George Cougars, who took him in the 2011 CHL Import Draft. He could earn more ice time, play against players around his age, and grow his confidence.

Tim Heed, D, Skellefteå (SHL)
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
5th round, 132nd overall in 2010

A number of other Duck prospects pepper the list this month in a positive way, but Tim Heed unfortunately falls into the negative side of things. The defenseman turned forward has begun his SHL career with a bit of a whimper offensively. While he showed a tremendous amount of promise in the Allsvenskan in 2011-12 with 30 points in 47 games, he has gone the last month in the SHL without a single point. For a highly-skilled playmaking defenseman, that is not the best stat line. Overall, he has just five points and a lone goal in 36 games with Skellefteå. However, he was drafted as a defenseman with strong offensive capabilities and none of those have come to the forefront in his first season of the highest level of Swedish pro hockey.

Article written by John Iadevaia (Eastern Conference) and Jason Lewis (Western Conference).