2010-11 German prospects preview

By Chapin Landvogt

The 2009-10 season proved an eventful one for Germany’s ice hockey nation. Alone the men’s national team participated in no less than the Deutschland Cup and the Olympics before hosting the 2010 World Championship in Cologne and Mannheim. With the 2010-11 season already underway for the DEL, several recent signees and prospects are already working on the next step in their development. A number of drafted (and undrafted) German talents are also looking forward to the season in North America. Looking to follow in the paths of young NHL veterans like Christian Erhoff, Dennis Seidenberg, and Marcel Goc, younger Germans at various stages of their development have recently attended NHL camps to battle for a spot in the big league line-up. At the same time, new draftees like Tom Kuehnhackl (PIT), Mirko Hoefflin (CHI), Philipp Grubauer (BUF) and  Konrad Albeltshauser (SJ) will be working on their game at various professional and junior levels with their eye on future employment in the NHL.

Here’s a short preview of the 2010-11 season for current German prospects – drafted and/or signed.

Prospects Playing in Germany

Dominik Bielke, D – San Jose Sharks
Drafted 7th round, 207th overall, 2009

Dominik spent last season developing in Germany, experiencing first hand that the rigors of the DEL are a good bit more demanding than had been the case in his previous experience, namely that of Germany’s third league. In all, he played 10 games for the DEL’s top regular season team Berlin Eisbaeren (who set a DEL record with 123 points), gathering one assist, eight penalty minutes and a minus-four rating. The bulk of his season was spent playing for Dresden in Germany’s 2nd Bundesliga, where he made some progress as a defender, but took baby steps on the offensive front. There he put up one goal, five assists and 71 penalty minutes in 36 games.

Having been drafted with the reputation of possessing above-average offensive instincts, Dominik has since been learning other facets of his position and the game. He recently tested his mettle with the San Jose Sharks at their NHL camp, having since been sent back to Berlin to continue his development. Thus far this season he has played one game (no points) for the team in the nation’s capital and may see more time there as the Eisbaeren are currently playing without several of their planned defensemen.

David Elsner, F – Nashville Predators

Drafted 7th round, 194th overall, 2010

A winger with good size and room to grow, David Elsner spent the bulk of last season playing for his organization’s men’s team in Germany’s 2nd Bundesliga, the Landshut Cannibals. There he spent most of his playing time on the third and fourth lines, proving most effective in a banging capacity. While handling the physical rigors admirably, he put up six goals, three assists and 22 penalty minutes in 35 games. He also spent time with Landshut’s DNL team (primarily in the first half of the season), where he always played a central role, collecting 12 goals, 11 assists, 75 penalty minutes and a plus-15 rating.

Elsner has begun this season with the Landshut Cannibals, who are currently ranked last in Germany’s second league. He has yet to gather any points, but is being looked at to assume an even greater role this year, especially now that the team has lost both Tom Kuehnhackl and 2011 top ranked German prospect Tobias Reider to Canadian junior leagues. In addition, Elsner has a special transfer agreement with the Ingolstadt Panthers of the DEL and can be recalled should the big club need his services. David also remains a prime candidate for this year’s WJC team, which gained entry back into the U20 Top 10. His physical play will be of great importance for Germany, especially considering that the team will be playing in what is widely considered the more favorable of the two groups.

Dennis Endras, G – Minnesota Wild
Signed as a free agent, 2010

If you know little about Augsburg’s Denis Endras, then it’s time to get caught up. In the course of four short years, Endras has gone from a young hopeful in Germany’s third league to World Championship MVP. The feat achieved last May capped off a storybook 2009-10 season that also saw him carry the DEL’s Cinderella team, the Augsburg Panthers, all the way to a championship loss to the Hannover Scorpions. It didn’t take long for the news to hit that Endras had signed with the Minnesota Wild. According to terms of the agreement, Endras is scheduled to spend the entire 2010-11 season with the Panthers and will go to North America for the 2011-12 season. Thus far, Endras has picked up where he left off last season, serving as Augsburg’s unchallenged go-to guy. The season has gotten off to a good start for Endras, who has won four of his six starts – all on the road – and currently boasts a 2.35 GAA and a .924 save percentage. In general, the Wild organization can look forward to a very agile and intelligent goalie that is particularly strong in his rebound control. His current play would indicate that he may very well be the DEL’s top goaltender and suddenly the most highly touted of all German prospects.

Jerome Flaake, LW – Toronto Maple Leafs
Drafted 5th round, 130th overall, 2008

Drafted two summers ago, Jerome Flaake enjoyed a very productive and promising post-draft DEL season. Unfortunately for him, the tumultuous 2009-10 season experienced by the Cologne Sharks had on obvious affect on his development. His personal stats took a bit of dive, dropping from five goals, 11 assists and 16 points with 22 penalty minutes in 43 games in 2008-09 to three goals, six assists and 45 penalty minutes in 42 games last season. At one point, he was sent on a two game hiatus to Bremerhaven in the 2nd Bundesliga. There he gathered three assists in those two games.

On a brighter note, Flaake did put up a promising performance in helping Germany get back into the top division as the nation went undefeated at the Division I Group A U20 championships in France. There he managed four goals, one assist and a plus-seven rating, having taken 19 shots in five games. A forward with a lot of tools, Jerome continues to show signs of possessing an above-average in-game intelligence as well as a nose for the net. His skating sets him apart from the majority of players in his age group in Germany. For the 2010-11 season, Jerome is lacing up his skates for the Hamburg Freezers, with whom he has two-year contract. His game appears to be right where he’d want it to be as he has tallied three assists in six games. Taking a regular shift, Flaake must surely know that the results of this season will go a long way in possibly allowing him to sign an ELC with the Toronto Maple Leafs next summer.

Draftees Playing in North America

Mirko Hoefflin, F – Chicago Blackhawks
Drafted 6th round, 151st overall, 2010

Surely excited about being selected by the reigning Stanley Cup champions, Mirko Hoefflin is coming of his second season with the Mannheim Juniors, for whom he put up 32 goals, 35 assists, 20 penalty minutes and a plus-47 rating in only 24 games. These totals included 13 power play goals. He added another five goals, nine assists and a plus-6 rating in 8 playoff games, the same amount of points he had in the previous season’s playoffs. Mirko also had a busy winter representing his country – and getting vital exposure – at both the Division 1 U20 tournament in France as well as the Division 1 U18 tournament in Poland.

Hoefflin was also selected this summer by the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, with whom who’ll be spending the 2010-11 season. Having arrived in Quebec in August, Hoefflin took part in the team’s preseason preparation and enjoyed some scoring success before joining the Blackhawks for their camp activities. The Remparts, coached by none other than NHL legend Patrick Roy, have started the season off with four wins and one shootout loss in their first five games. Hoefflin has only suited up for one match, but had two goals and two assists in a 12-2 rout of the RN Huskies. A center by nature, it is yet to be seen whether the speedy forward will be placed on the wing for a team looking fairly set down the middle. In addition, Mirko’s size is just average and it is yet to be seen how well he’ll adjust to the North American game.

Korbinian Holzer, D – Toronto Maple Leafs
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2006

In his third season with the Dusseldorf Metro Stars, Holzer improved on his totals from the previous season, putting up six goals, 16 assists, 100 penalty minutes and a plus-12 rating in 57 total games, three of which were in the playoffs. Like Alexander Sulzer and Robert Dietrich before him, he has spent a considerable amount of time paired with the Slovakian-born German defenseman Marian Bazany, and like Sulzer and Dietrich before him, is now on his way to North America. This step is a logical one in light of Holzer’s progress, after a very strong performance for Germany at the World Championships, where Germany finished 4th in the tournament. With Brian Burke in attendance as the GM of Team USA, it came as no surprise that Holzer signed his entry-level contract with Toronto not one week after the worlds, where he managed 22 penalty minutes and a plus-1 rating in eight games. This came on the heels of two penalty minutes and a minus-1 rating in four games for a very underwhelming German squad at the 2010 Olympics.

A tall and anything but nimble defenseman, Holzer’s game is surprisingly similar in style and appearance to that of future teammate Luke Schenn. Remaining injury-free for the most part (until being the subject of an unfortunate head-related collision against Russia in the semifinals of the WC), Holzer’s game has become noticeably refined. He has been able to cut back on unnecessary penalties while continuing to be a physical presence, especially in his own end. Offensively, he’s shown a greater tendency to make a solid first pass out of the zone and to think in a more transition-oriented manner. His shot from the blue line continues to be heavy one. At the moment, it seems his path will at least be taking him to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Tom Kuehnhackl, RW – Pittsburgh Penguins
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2010

The son of German ice hockey legend Erich Kuehnhackl, Tom was Germany’s top-ranked prospect for the 2010 draft, ultimately going first amongst all Germans to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fourth round. The oft-injured Kuehnhackl spent the bulk of last season in Landshut, where he racked up 12 goals, nine assists and 40 penalty minutes in 44 games. Although already having been drafted by an OHL club, he and his advisors felt another year in the pro ranks in Germany would be best for his development. Having entered the season looking like a probable second rounder, even he himself has attested to the decision likely not having been the best one for him. Tall, lanky, and possessing a number of offensive weapons, the younger Kuehnhackl is set to begin what will be his busiest season to date. The avouched Sidney Crosby fan has joined the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, hoping to pick up where a number of excellent departures such as Taylor Hall have left off – in a drive for a third straight Memorial Cup title. The German program is also looking for him to assume a role of leadership with the national team at this winter’s WJC.

Marcel Mueller, LW – Toronto Maple Leafs
Signed as a free agent, 2010

Much like Denis Endras, Mueller is a young, undrafted German who had a monster 2009-2010 season. He tallied 26 goals, 35 assists, 126 penalty minutes and a plus-12 rating in 56 total DEL games, a feat made more impressive when you consider that injuries saw him helping out as a defenseman for about a dozen games. The well-built power forward played a key role in Germany’s fourth place finish at the 2010 World Championships after having taken a regular shift for a disappointing German Olympic team. A top line winger, established players from many nations had their fair share of problems trying to keep the boy in check, especially in a physical capacity. That the Maple Leafs ultimately signed him to a two-year free agent contract came as no surprise seeing as how his style of play is similar to a number of Brian Burke’s acquisitions in recent years. It is expected Mueller will start the season on the AHL Marlies and do his part in hopefully earning a cup of coffee with the Maple Leafs this season.

Timo Pielmeier, G- San Jose Sharks
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2007

Taken as yet another in a long line of German-born players drafted by the San Jose Sharks – and the fourth German goalie drafted by San Jose since 2001 – Timo Pielmeier is currently the property of the Anaheim Ducks. He was assigned to the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL for the 2009-10 season after having spent two successful years as a starter in the QMJHL. Well-schooled, Pielmeier simply continued his progression last season, manning the nets for 57 games and ultimately pitching a record of 27 wins, 22 losses and five ties. As is often the case in the ECHL, he was left out to dry on a number of occasions, making a phenomenal total of 1341 saves despite having an .883 save percentage and 3.29 goals against average. This earned him a spot in the all-star game, which was followed by a Pacific Division title. More amazingly, he provided the hockey world with something special when he scored an empty net goal in a 6-4 win over the Utah Grizzlies last December. He also added three assists in the course of the season. His progress remains solid and promising, but it could be seen as somewhat urgent for his proper development to have him playing regularly for the Syracuse Crunch in AHL this upcoming season.

Felix Schutz, C – Buffalo Sabres
Drafted 4th round, 117th overall, 2006

An all-round center, Felix Schutz’ made the jump to the AHL for the 2008-09 season and had a very solid and promising rookie season there. Nonetheless, last season saw his goal totals drop from 15 to 13 while his helpers were cut in half from 27 to 14. His ability to be consistent was nonetheless reflected in the department of penalty minutes, where he once again racked up exactly 61. Unfortunately for the two-way center, his plus/minus dropped from plus-seven to minus-two. His unspectacular season also played a role in not being named to Germany’s roster for the 2010 Olympics, although he had seemed a likely candidate entering the season. Nonetheless, the competitive center continued to battle, and found ended up playing a key role on Germany’s most effective line at the World Championships in May. There he tied for the team lead in points with two goals and two assists. More importantly, his incredibly solid play was critical in Germany’s fourth place finish.

The defensively aware center is entering the third and last season of his entry-level contract with the Buffalo Sabres. It will be a critical year, as he’s expected to return to Portland and once again try and show his employers that he should be considered an NHL option. Still, with Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis on the brink of the NHL and Tim Kennedy no longer in the picture, solid performances in the AHL should see the 22-year-old get at least an in-season shot in the NHL. It may be his last chance for the slowly developing Schutz.

Notes for North America

It is suspected that the 26 year old Alexander Sulzer (NASH) will graduate into a full-time role in the NHL in some capacity this season. Despite a prospect-deep blue line, Sulzer found himself suiting up for 20 NHL games last year for Nashville, putting in two assists and four penalty minutes in the process. More importantly, Alex had a plus-four rating and showed himself very worthy of a spot amongst Nashville’s top seven on the blueline, responsibly concentrating on his defensive tasks during this audition. After having enjoyed two pretty productive AHL seasons, his third season there proved to be the charm, seeing Alex put up seven goals, 23 assists and a plus-13 rating – in only 36 games. That pace would have likely had him be one of the top-scoring defensemen in the AHL. He has played a total of 22 NHL games to date.

The 24-year-old Thomas Greiss of the San Jose Sharks spent last season as San Jose’s official backup goaltender. There he had seven wins, four losses and one overtime loss in his few decisions, having watched minute-cruncher Evgeni Nabokov get the bulk of the playing time. Despite Nabokov’s departure, Greiss is currently battling no less than the similar-sized and more experienced Antero Nittymaki and Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi for one of two goaltending spots on the Sharks’ roster. Despite this competition, the path to playing time with San Jose has never been clearer.

Germans Philipp Grubauer (WAS) and  Konrad Albeltshauser (SJ) spent last season in North America and were ultimately drafted as North American prospects. Grubauer had an incredible 2009-10 season, having been traded from the Belleville Bulls to the Windsor Spitfires in January and then going on a fairly-tale run with a talent-laden team, ultimately winning not only the OHL title, but also the Memorial Cup. Grubauer also went undefeated in five starts for Germany at the WJC U20 Division 1B tournament, helping Germany earn a promotion to the top pool for the 2011 WJC. He is currently playing for the Kingston Frontenacs. The very outgoing Abeltshauser ended up being a pleasant surprise for the Halifax Moose of the QMJHL last season. By season’s end he had earned a top five defensive role and put up five goals, 20 assists and 28 penalty minutes in 48 games. With lots of height and a frame to grow into, the sixth rounder is once again playing for the Moose and currently has one assist in three games. The team has started the season with two wins in six games. Both Grubauer and Abeltshauser are expected to represent Germany at this winter’s WJC in Buffalo, New York.

2011 Draft eligible Tobias Rieder will spend the upcoming season playing for the Kitchener Rangers. Widely considered Germany’s best prospect since Marco Sturm, Rieder tallied 10 goals, 13 assists and 28 penalty minutes in 45 games for the Landshut Cannibals of the 2nd Bundesliga last season. The 5’10, 172 pound right winger played on the same line as Tom Kuehnhackl. To begin this season, Rieder scored a goal and two assists in his first game with Kitchener, helping the team to a 5-2 victory.