Welcome to the November edition of On the Rush, Hockey’s Future’s monthly look at NHL prospects who are either exceeding expectation or not quite living up to them.
In the debut edition for the 2010-11 season, we take a look at several 2010 draft picks who are excelling and some who are not exactly living up to their draft status. We also cast our eyes across the sea for the first time in this space and take a look at how some prospects are faring in European pro leagues.
Leading the Rush
North American Pro:
Michal Neuvirth, G – Washington Capitals
Drafted by the Washington Capitals
2nd round, 34th overall, 2006
Going into the 2010-11 season, the expectations in net for the Washington Capitals was that Semyon Varlamov, a goaltender who had shown flashes of brilliance during the playoffs but had been fighting injuries, would be the starting goaltender for the 2010-11 season. After tweaking his groin in training camp, a much different narrative has unfolded. Instead, 22-year-old Czech Michal Neuvirth, originally scheduled to be Varlamov’s backup, started the Capitals first game of the season and the next six in a row before Varlamov was even given a chance at a start. Of the 19 games the Caps have played this season, Neuvirth has started in 17 of them. Statistically, Neuvirth is in the middle of the pack, ranked 12th in goals against average and tied for 16th in save percentage among goaltenders who started in 10 or more games. However, he leads the league with 12 wins and has been a steady, calming presence in net for the rest of the Capitals team. Neuvirth has also shown a proclivity for playing well even after giving up several goals, as evidenced by his 6-1 record in games in which he has allowed three or more goals.
With Semyon Varlamov returning back to health and currently getting back into game shape, it should be safe to assume Neuvirth’s workload, a torrid pace that would see him make 73 starts, will be eventually reduced. He should however remain the team’s number one netminder and start the bulk of their games.
While the big three of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi have been showing off their talent with the big club in Edmonton, Linus Omark has had quite a start himself with the team’s AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City.
The talented winger was unhappy with his demotion to begin the season, his first in North America after a four-year European pro career in the Elitserien and KHL. His response has been an offensive explosion with 10 goals and 9 assists through 17 games. The 23-year-old leads the Barons in both goals and points, keeping the first-year club in the mix in the AHL‘s West Division.
Omark possesses incredible offensive instincts and skill, which were on full display in his 5-goal outburst against the Toronto Marlies. He scored his team’s final 5 goals to sustain a tie and eventually beat James Reimer (TOR) again in the Baron’s shootout victory. The Swede has also been producing consistently with at least one point in 12 of his last 14 games.
His quick skating and excellent offensive instincts have helped him find space and he has been willing to drive to the front of the net for goals. Despite the wealth of offensive talent, his small stature and lack of strength will likely limit him to a top six role at the NHL level. With Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini recently issuing a vote of confidence in his current roster, Omark’s NHL debut is not imminent despite his excellent start.
North American Junior:
Drafted in the seventh round, there was no question Ranford was a project player, his skating was subpar, particularly his stride, and his offensive output was inconsistent. Early into the 2010-11 season, some of those concerns appear to have been put to rest. In the 21 games Ranford has laced up for this season, he has gone without scoring a goal in only five game and has been held of the scoresheet entirely only three times. In total, he has 20 goals and 13 assists in 21 games, only nine goals shy of matching his entire output from 2009-10.
Much of his breakout season can be attributed to a gradual improvement in his skating ability, particularly his sloppy stride and lack of explosiveness. He’s still not the fastest player on the ice, a palatable concern for a prospect who is only 5’10 and 186 pounds, and he still loses foot races to the puck. In addition to gradually improving his skating, he has also improved his play away from the puck, better utilizing his awareness and putting himself in a position to create more offense and score goals.
Ranford was a late addition to Team WHL for the Subway Super Series and while he didn’t register a point in the single game he played, the experience should be nonetheless beneficial to a player who has seen limited post-season and tournament play in his career.
Ryan Howse has been off to a torrid start this season for the Chilliwack Bruins with a near goal-per-game pace. Chilliwack’s first ever draft selection third overall in the 2006 bantam draft, the 19-year-old is third in the WHL with 17 goals and leads the Bruins with 30 points in 20 games.
The winger has blossomed into a leader for the Bruins, serving as one of the alternate captains. He is used in all situations and his presence has certainly been felt on special teams. Chilliwack’s power play has been converting around 27 percent of their chances, good for second in the league, thanks in part to Howse’s nine markers with the man advantage.
His quick hands and hockey IQ make him a constant threat offensively, but he has also rounded out his defensive game. The Prince George-native skated in a hometown game for Team WHL in the Subway Super Series where he skated alongside Cody Eakin (WAS) and another Prince George-native in Brett Connolly (TB). For a Calgary prospect system that is short on talent, Howse’s season thus far has provided reason for optimism. Hopes are high in Chilliwack as well, as the club looks to build on last year’s playoff appearance.
North American Amateur:
Many players at the NCAA level have more points than Shore’s 13 in 12 games, but few matched their entire goal output from the previous season in their first eight games. Sophomore Drew Shore currently leads the Denver Pioneers with eight goals and 13 points. Part of the 19-year-old’s new found success is due to the added responsibilities he has earned, in part because Denver lost several very talented players in Rhett Rahkshani (NYI), Joe Colborne (BOS), and Tyler Ruegsegger to the pro leagues or graduation, not to mention the horrific and near fatal injury to senior forward and goal-scoring pivot Jesse Martin (ATL). Shore is also starting to grow into his 6’3 frame as well as learning to use his size and reach to his advantage. He is currently seeing some top-line duties alongside Jason Zucker (MIN) and Luke Salazar.
New Panthers GM Dale Tallon went to some lengths to address what he perceived as a weakness at center when he drafted rangy collegiate center Nick Bjugstad and two-way pivots Quinton Howden and John Mcfarland in the 2010 draft, but Shore, drafted a year earlier, is more physically developed than the three and with the Panthers likely to see a lot of forward turnover next season, as only four of their current forwards on their NHL roster are under contract for 2011-12, there is a good chance they will try to lure him into signing an entry-level deal at the end of his second season, much the way Colborne did with the Bruins.
Jaden Schwartz has distinguished himself early in his freshman season at Colorado College. The gifted forward leads all first year players and is tied for third in the nation in points with 18 in just 12 games. He has recently beaten up on in-state rivals with a five-point night against Denver University and three-point night against Air Force highlighting his November games.
Though the Tigers record puts them in the bottom half of the competitive WCHA, their power play has been among the best in the nation. The unit currently ranks sixth, converting at 24.7 percent. The 18-year-old has accounted for over a quarter of that production with five of the team’s 19 power play tallies. Playing on a line with his older brother Rylan, the Schwartz brothers have accounted for 12 of Colorado College’s 36 goals.
Schwartz is a dazzling offensive talent with quick hands and great hockey sense. He will have to keep his production up if Colorado College is to climb the rankings, but his brilliant start bodes well for this season and his future. With the Blues off to a good start with their young forward corps, expect them to give Schwartz plenty of time to develop in the NCAA.
When Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray traded the 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft to the St. Louis Blues for David Rundblad, it was to acquire a potential top-four defenseman who already had two full seasons of European professional hockey under his belt. From a developmental standpoint, the young defenseman was much farther along than any of the remaining defenseman at the 2010 draft as well, having been selected a season before in a 2009 draft flush with puck-moving blueliners. Rundblad also was a former WJC teammate and occasional linemate of current Senator Erik Karlsson.
The 20-year-old is currently tied for tenth in scoring in the SEL with four goals and 11 assists through 21 games, while averaging 20:57 in ice time. Signed under contract by the Blues two weeks before being traded away, Rundblad is currently on loan to Skellefteå. Even if his offensively explosive start to the 2010-11 season cools off, he seems destined to start the 2011-12 season in North America.
A highly-touted scorer in the 2010 draft, Teemu Pulkkinen is making the Detroit braintrust look like geniuses with another excellent mid-round draft pick. At just 18-years-old, the Finnish winger is among the top producers in the SM-liiga.
Hands down the best junior-aged player in the league, his 20 points lead all SM-liiga rookies while he ranks in the top ten league-wide. On his own team, his eight goals and 12 assists in 21 games each rank him second on Jokerit. He has fired 105 shots on net while averaging around 16 minutes of ice time per game.
An exciting offensive player with a nose for the net, Pulkkinen’s fall in the draft was due mostly to concerns about his durability and defensive play. While his early season performance for Jokerit might not put those worries to rest, his production against professional competition certainly makes him look like a mid-round gem for the Red Wings.
Trailing the Play
North American Pro:
It may have been unfair to heap high expectations upon the 22-year-old defenseman for the 2010-11 season, his first full year in the NHL, but McBain made it very easy last season, posting 10 points and a plus-6 in 14 games. So far this season, the gifted puck-moving defenseman has posted a paltry four assists in 18 games. Part of this is due to the Canes boasting a deeper and more talented defensive group from a year ago, although he still sees ample time on the man-advantage. Also, McBain is averaging 19:02 minutes of ice time, down from 25:47 minutes last year. Another issue for McBain is his lack of shots on net. He has thus far has a total of 19 shots on net this season, a number he reached and surpassed in seven games last year.
Despite his lack of offensive production, McBain remains a key building block for the future. His defensive game has been secure enough that the Canes have allowed him some time on the penalty-kill, while he has seen a lot of even-strength time with defenseman Joni Pitkanen. The recent acquisition of defenseman Ian White could however put a damper on the amount of time McBain sees in even-strength situations. White is a steady presence in the defensive zone and is more defensively reliable than the gifted but still inexperienced McBain.
Chet Pickard‘s slide at the end of his rookie year last season with Milwaukee has carried over to the current season, which currently finds him in the ECHL with the Cincinnati Cyclones. He failed to win a game in his final 10 AHL appearances last year and had a 0-3-1 record for the Admirals when he was demoted near the end of October in order to get more starts. Fellow Preds prospect Mark Dekanich was getting the bulk of starts, having played lights out to start the year with an 8-1-1 record and 1.48 goals against average.
That demotion has not gone as expected, though, as Pickard is 1-3-1 in six appearances for the Cyclones with a .876 save percentage and 3.50 goals against average. Again the 20-year-old has ceded starts to his netminding partner. This time, former Denver University standout Marc Cheverie (FLA) started four games in a row, dominating with a pair of shutouts, five wins, and a .915 save percentage.
While the first round pick has certainly been outplayed by his counterparts, it is a bit of bad luck to run into a couple goalies playing so well. Considering Nashville’s track record with goalie development, this stretch could just be a bump in the road for the Winnipeg-native. Still, his tendency to open the five hole and give up soft goals is troubling. Between the play of the 24-year-old Dekanich in Milwaukee and 22-year-old Anders Lindback‘s strong play backing up Pekka Rinne with the big club, Pickard suddenly has a host promising young netminders in his path.
North American Junior:
For a player who was drafted third overall, compared to Chris Pronger, not to mention considered a longshot to make the NHL before training camp, Erik Gudbranson has had a troubling beginning to his 2010-11 campaign. Plus/minus is not a stat that tells all, but for a defenseman who is 6’4, 204 pounds, boasts a wingspan comparable to a pterodactyl, and projects as a top-pairing shutdown defenseman, he should not have a team worst minus-seven. Especially when the Frontenacs, who were often the bottom dwellers of the OHL, are finally starting to emerge as a balanced and competitive team. He still has plenty of potential as a prospect but need to cut down on careless play in his own zone.
Gudbranson joined team OHL for the Subway Super Series where he in two games posted an assist and was a disruptive force in his own end. Hopefully, he can carry the confidence gained from the tournament over to his season in the OHL.
A high second round pick by Columbus last summer, Dalton Smith was expected to step into a bigger scoring role this season for the Ottawa 67’s. The 6’2 203 pound power forward finished fourth on the team last year with 21 goals and was sixth with 44 points in 62 games. Though not eye-popping numbers, he also led the team with 129 penalty minutes in a solid rookie season.
This year, however, Smith has struggled offensively. The 18-year-old winger went eight games to begin the season before scoring his first and second goal in a tilt on October 20th against Kingston. His next 10 games produced no points and a minus-6 rating. With just two goals and three assists in 20 games, his five points have him tied for twelfth on the team in scoring.
The encouraging sign is that Smith’s physical play is still there, as he leads the team with 54 penalty minutes. He has also dropped the gloves six times against such high-profile OHLers as Erik Gudbranson (FLA) and Brock Buekeboom (TBL).
The 67’s as a team are currently leading the OHL’s East Division with a 14-8-0 record behind an overwhelming offense, which ranks third in the league in goals scored. Smith has gotten plenty of ice time with the top six forwards, like Tyler Toffoli (LAK) and Ryan Martindale (EDM), as well as power play time, so one would expect him to eventually begin to reap the benefits of the Ottawa’s potent punch.
North American Amateur:
For a player who capped the 2000-10 season on a high note, posting seven goals and nine assists in his last 15 games to finish with 15 goals and 21 assists in 41 games, there was a general hope that Kristo would carry that momentum over to his sophomore year. So far that has not been the case. The 20-year-old has been snake-bit in 12 games so far this season, not registering a goal and posting only three assists. It is not for lack of effort either. Kristo has been a constant offensive threat for the Fighting Sioux, peppering the net with shots, and is helping teammates manufacture goals, just none have gone in for himself.
As long as Kristo remains an offensive threat for North Dakota, there is no reason to think the offense will not eventually come. By his actions in his most recent game, passing up an opportunity to an empty net goal to a linemate, Kristo has demonstrated that he, while he realizes he is in a scoring drought, he wants to earn, and truly savor that first one of the season.
Notre Dame entered the season with just three senior forwards on the roster, leaving plenty of room open up front for a top NHL prospect like Riley Sheahan to step up. After a decent freshman season with 17 points in 37 games, the 18-year-old sophomore has not had the offensive impact many predicted.
With just four assists in 11 games, Sheahan is tied for ninth on the team in points. He had one assist in each of his first three games but has managed only one point in his last eight contests.
While it has not gone his way offensively, Sheahan has shown improved strength and confidence with the puck. He plays in all situations for the Irish and his play in his own zone has improved within Notre Dame’s defense-first approach. The Ontario-native is a member of the team’s top penalty killing unit, which ranks sixth in the nation.
Notre Dame as a team has not missed a beat, beginning the season with a 7-3-1 record. If Sheahan can produce more consistently going forward, the Irish could be a handful in the second half of the season.
Klingberg’s 2010-11 season is a far cry from the expectations built up for him going into the 2009 draft and in some respects, not even up to par with the workman like season he put in with Vastra Frölunda HC last year, playing in the bottom-six and averaging 7:36 in ice time. So far this season, while playing primarily on a third-line, Klingberg has registered a paltry one goal and one assist through 21 games. It’s assuredly not for lack of effort, he has registered 43 shots on net and has been a disruptive force in the opposition’s end. But regardless, the offense is not coming for the thick-framed Swede.
Klingberg is currently under contract with the Thrashers, having signed last season, and is currently on loan to Vastra Frölunda HC. Expect the Thrashers to try and bring him to North America next season, regardless of how the remainder of his season in the SEL goes.
With the departure of last year’s starter Evgeni Nabokov to the KHL, Thomas Greiss appeared poised to increase his workload for the San Jose Sharks heading into this season. In 16 appearances as Nabokov’s back-up last year, the German netminder posted a 7-4-1 record with 2.68 goals against average and .912 save percentage.
The Sharks appeared to be going for a solid one-two punch when they signed Antero Niittymaki from free agency. The Finnish netminder has excelled in timeshare situations, playing last year with Tampa Bay, and is noted for pushing his fellow goalie. It was the addition of free agent Stanley Cup champion goalie Antti Niemi that was a surprise, likely as much for Greiss as anyone else. Originally expected to get a real shot to carry the load in San Jose, the German was waived but did not make an appearance for Worcester.
Greiss was eventually assigned to Brynas in the SEL, where he started the club’s last six games before a break for the mid-season Karjala Tournament as well as their first game back into action. The results have not been good, though, with a 2-3-1 record, a 3.77 goals against average, and .864 save percentage in seven appearances. While not the numbers expected of someone who was an NHL goalie just over a month ago, the 24-year-old should continue to get plenty of starts in order to get back on track.
Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner contributed to this article.