On the Rush, February 2011

By HF Staff
Photo: Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Ryan Johansen has been among the top players in the WHL this season.  (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

In the February edition of On the Rush we check on several top prospects who have been called up to the NHL recently, examine several mid-round draft picks who are excelling at the college level and in Europe, and take a look at how some goalie prospects have fared behind struggling teams.

Leading the Rush

North American Pro:

James Reimer, G – Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs
4th round, 99th overall, 2006

Backstopping a team with one of the worst offenses and defenses in the NHL is rarely a good formula for success but James Reimer has flourished since his early-January recall to the NHL. In the month of February he has a 6-1-3 record and two shutouts (one of which came in a shootout loss to Ottawa on February 19th). More importantly though, since taking over the starting reigns for an injured Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, Reimer has given the Maple Leafs a chance to compete most evenings.

The 22-year-old has actually outplayed the two veteran netminders in his two-month stint. His 2.39 goals against average on the season is better than Giguere and Gustavsson’s, as is his .930 save percentage. His 6-1-3 record this month is also the main reason the Leafs are 8-2-3 in February and still mathematically in contention for the playoffs.

Jonathan Blum, D – Nashville Predators (NHL)

Drafted by the Nashville Predators
1st round, 23rd overall, 2007

The defensemen of the Milwaukee Admirals have sparked the offense of late, propelling the team to the top spot in the West Division. One of the AHL‘s hottest teams, the Admirals have a 10-4-3 record in their last 17 games dating back to January 15th. Two blueliners, Jonathan Blum and Roman Josi, rank among the top four scorers on the team, with the second year pro Blum leading the unit with 34 points in 54 games this season.

The smooth-skating, offensive defenseman had 12 points in his last 14 games at the AHL level before getting recalled to Nashville. Swedish defenseman Roman Josi is gaining with the leader gone, scoring 17 points in his last 16 games. When both are in the Milwaukee lineup, they give the Ads an offensive option on each of the top two defensive pairings and a potent power play tandem. Blum however, has been the better all-around defenseman with a plus-10 rating at the AHL level.

The Preds initially recalled the California-born defenseman when Ryan Suter missed a game due to injury and stuck around for a second game when Andrew Sulzer had to miss time. The rookie played well, showcasing his skating and offensive instincts. The Predators then dealt Sulzer to Florida, opening a regular spot in the lineup with Francis Bouillon also out with a concussion. As long as Bouillon remains sidelined and there are no changes before the deadline, Blum may get to spend more time with the big club in Nashville.

North American Junior:

Eric O’Dell, C – Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
Traded to Atlanta Thrashers March 4th, 2009
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
2nd round, 39th overall, 2008

After experiencing heart palpitations over the summer, Eric O’Dell visited doctors and discovered he suffered from a small hole in his heart that could only be corrected through minor surgery. Since no surgery on the heart is truly minor, O’Dell had to spend a week in the hospital recovering from the successful procedure. After several months of recovery as well as conditioning, O’Dell made his season debut on December 10th.

Although he made his triumphant return in December, it took some time for his offensive game to return. He started to heat up in January and by mid February, he became one of the hottest players in the OHL, going on a six-game, 14 point streak that saw him post two hat-tricks. The offensive explosion couldn’t have come at a better time as the OHL playoff race heats up and Sudbury is battling for a spot. Ranked in the bottom five in the league in offense and possesses an equally porous defense, the Wolves need all the offense they can get.

Playing in his overage season, O’Dell is already signed to an entry-level deal and should expect to join the Thrashers organization as soon as his junior season is over.

Ryan Johansen, C – Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
1st round, 4th overall, 2010

Ryan Johansen somehow raised his stock this season after being a top five draft pick by Columbus over the summer. One of Canada’s top forwards at the World Junior Championships, his nine points ranked third on the silver medal team. The confidence from that performance has carried over to his play for Portland, where his red hot February has helped the team take over first place in the Western Conference. The squad has been shutout twice this month, but is averaging seven goals per game in the rest of their matches and have a 8-2 record this month.

The 6’2 center is third on the team with 71 points in just 52 games, surpassing his rookie season point total in 20 fewer games. He leads Portland with 34 goals as well as a plus-33 rating on the season. With nine goals and 10 assists in ten February games, he has averaged almost two points per game during the Winterhawks’ hot streak.

While there is still plenty of hockey to be played for Portland, the 18-year-old has emerged this season as Columbus’ greatest hope. His all-around game would suit him to many different roles, which will certainly help his adjustment to the pro game. There is even speculation that he could be ready for the NHL as soon as the 2011-12 season.

North American Amateur:

Danny Biega, D – Harvard Crimson (ECAC)

Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes
3rd round, 67th overall, 2010

In his sophomore season Danny Biega is looking like one of the best players on the Harvard Crimson. Considering the team currently sits at 9-19-1, Biega has been something of a model of consistency, going no longer than four games without a point and putting together several impressive point streaks through the season. His most impressive streak to date came over the second half of February, where in five games spanning from the 11th to the 22nd he posted 10 points including a four game goal-scoring streak and three multi-point efforts.

To date the 19-year-old Biega has 10 goals and 15 assists in 29 games. Five of his goals have come on the powerplay and three are game winners. He has shown phenomenal growth from his freshman to sophomore season but given the fact he’s 19 and only in his second season of NCAA play, there is a good chance he will return to the NCAA for atleast another year.

Joe Cannata, G – Merrimack College (Hockey East)

Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks
6th round, 173rd overall, 2009

Merrimack has been one of the biggest surprises in college hockey this season with a 21-7-4 record, battling for second place in the competitive Hockey East. Junior goaltender Joe Cannata has been excellent all year and a big reason for the team’s hot play in January and February helping the squad to a 13-3 record in 2011.

In the club’s 14 games heading into the weekend series against Maine, the goalie earned a 2.14 goals against average and a .915 save percentage with just one loss to his credit. That stretch included an excellent 38 save overtime victory to complete the sweep of first place New Hampshire. Cannata has in fact been steady and consistent all season, allowing more than three goals in just four of his 31 appearances.

The netminder has played in every one of Merrimack’s games this season, and will continue to be an intrinsic part of the team’s success as they push towards the postseason. The Warriors will look to keep pace near the top of the pack after dropping their Friday night tilt to the Black Bears.

European Pro:

Joonas Donskoi, LW/RW – Karpat (Finland)
Drafted by the Florida Panthers
4th round, 99th overall, 2010

One of the few players on the team Finland at the 2011 WJCs who made an impact, Donskoi has been a dynamic offensive presence for much of the 2010-11 season. While he spent a brief amount of time in the Finnish lower leagues, he has spent the bulk of the season in the SM-liiga playing for Karpat, where he has 16 goals, nine assists, a plus-eight, and only ten penalty minutes through 46 games. Averaging a little more than 15 minutes a game, Donskoi has seen ample ice-time, something that isn’t always the case for an 18-year-old playing in a European Men’s league. Using that ice-time he plays an offensively oriented style of game and shoots the puck with great frequency, hitting the goaltender 150 times to date.

Donskoi has been fairly consistent for much of the 2010-11 season but has recently started to heat up, posting three goals and an assist in his last five games.

Marcus Kruger, C – Djurgardens IF (SEL)
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks
5th round, 149th overall, 2009

Passed over at the NHL draft as an 18-year-old, there were relatively low expectations for Marcus Kruger when he was selected in the fifth round of 2009. His strong play in the SEL and on the international stage over the past two seasons have made the Swedish center one of Chicago’s most coveted center prospects.

The pivot helped Djurgardens to the SEL finals last season and has been the team’s top scorer this year. Djurgardens climbed the standings in February with a five game win streak, thanks in part to Kruger’s top line production. He scored in each game during the streak, finishing with two goals and five assists before Djurgardens was shutout by Sodertalje February 24th. Now with 14 points in his last 16, the Stockholm-native leads the squad with 35 points in 49 games.

The Swede is signed with Chicago and is expected to challenge for a roster spot in next year’s training camp. A skilled playmaking center, his outstanding hockey sense helps him play an effective game in all three zones. With the Blackhawks lacking center depth this season, Kruger will likely get every opportunity to step right into Chicago lineup.

Trailing the Play

North American Pro:

Mikko Koskinen, G – Bridgeport Sound Tigers (AHL)
Drafted by the New York Islanders
2nd round, 31st overall, 2009

After making his North American debut in 2009-10, continued growth was expected from the 6’6 Finnish netminder as he went into his second season of North American professional hockey.

Some of his struggles this season can be attributed to the massive amount of injuries the Islanders organization experienced this season. That type of constant roster turnover can lead to massive disorganization on the ice and poor communication between forwards and defense. Still, a goaltender is expected to occasionally steal a game for a team and Koskinen hasn’t done that nearly enough. Playing for a struggling organization, his season started poorly, going 5-7 through December and posting a 3.43 goals against average. It continued to get worse however as he went winless through seven games in January. When the injury bug struck the goalie position for the Isles, Koskinen was called up to the NHL and his struggles only amplified. The goaltender actually fashioned a 2-1 record in his four game stint but allowed 15 goals on only 103 shots and posted a gaudy 4.33 goals against average.

Since returning to the AHL, Koskinen has a 2-2-1 record in six starts but has allowed 19 goals on 175 shots. On the season, Koskinen has a 3.60 goals against average, a .884 save percentage and a record of 7-17-1.

Cody Hodgson, C – Vancouver Canucks (NHL)

Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks
1st round, 10th overall, 2008

More eyes are on Canucks rookie Cody Hodgson this season as he continues a development that has been anything but typical. Though he has filled in admirably as Vancouver’s fourth line center in seven NHL appearances in February, the Canucks’ top prospect has been inconsistent when he has gotten more ice time with Manitoba.

The 21-year-old missed about six weeks with a facial injury and has struggled to get his game back on track since returning. While he still ranks third on the Moose with 12 goals and fourth with 117 shots in just 34 AHL games, the center has scored just two points in his last 10 AHL appearances. The eight NHL games have not helped his rhythm either, as he has been asked to play sporadically in a fourth line role with limited power play opportunities thus far. Averaging a little more than seven minutes of ice time per game, he has scored one goal and one assist.

After losing a year of development to injury last season, getting plenty of time on ice should be a priority for Hodgson. Of course, the Canucks’ recent track record developing centers is fair considering Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. Along with free agent aquisition Manny Malhotra, Vancouver’s considerable center depth should give Hodgson the opportunity to get more minutes under his belt in Manitoba.

North American Junior:

Ryan Button, D – Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Drafted by the Boston Bruins
3rd round, 86th overall, 2009

Drafted for his ability to adeptly move the puck up ice, Ryan Button has struggled all season to find consistency. He was held to only four assists in his first 15 games and took 22 games to score his first goal. He was eventually traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds in mid-January and has yet to rediscover his offensive swagger, posting one goal and six assists through 15 games.

In the month of February, Button has only one goal and four assists through ten games. On the surface those stats are not bad, but considering he managed those points in three games, the month typifies the type of inconsistency he has experienced all season long. The skill is there, it is just a matter of doing it consistently night in and out.

The remainder of the 2010-11 season will be very important for the enigmatic young defenseman as the Bruins have to decide by the beginning of the off-season whether or not they want to sign him to an entry-level deal or relinquish his rights.

Jack Campbell, G – Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

Drafted by the Dallas Stars
1st round, 11th overall, 2010

Despite massive success over the past few years for Team USA, goalie Jack Campbell has yet to find that level of play as a member of the Windsor Spitfires. The 19-year-old netminder won four straight starts in January shortly after another stellar World Juniors performance, but has struggled to a 3-3-3 record since then.

Through his first 16 games of 2011, he has earned a 3.25 goals against average and .882 save percentage. His most recent outing, 94 seconds in relief of John Cullen’s three goal lead after the starter was booted with an unsportsmanlike penalty, resulted in one goal against on two shots. The Michigan-native was expected to be an impact player for the Spits, but he has yet to record a shutout and has been unable to steal games for his squad. He allowed 2 goals or less just twice in his first 14 appearances since returning from the WJC.

Windsor has a very different team than previous years, having already allowed more goals than last season with nine games still to go. The offense has also taken a step back, as it is not on pace to crack the 300 goal mark that Windsor surpassed each of the past two years. The team currently sits fourth and just clinched a spot in the Western Conference playoffs, where Campbell will have a chance to shine again on a big stage.

North American Amateur:

Ben Hanowski, C/W – St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins
3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009

Drafted as one of the top Minnesota High School players in 2009, Hanowski came to St. Cloud as a raw but highly skilled package. He showed flashes of talent during his freshman season but was inconsistent and would disappear from the scoresheet for weeks at a time. Now in his second season, it has so far been more of the same. He is second on the Huskies with 11 goals but the number is misleading as three of the goals came from a November 5th hat-trick and two others came in another multi-point effort against Minnesota-Duluth in February.

At 20 years old Hanowski still has a few more years to rediscover the scoring touch that made him high school star but certain issues with his game, such as his skating, need to be addressed before he can truly realize that offensive potential.

Curtis McKenzie, LW – Miami-Ohio University (CCHA)
Drafted by the Dallas Stars
6th round, 159th round, 2009

Curtis McKenzie has struggled to duplicate his success after a strong freshman year last season for the Miami Redhawks. After six goals and 27 points in 42 games as a freshman, the 20-year-old winger just cracked double digits with 11 points through 32 games as a sophomore.

While fellow Dallas prospect Reilly Smith has taken his game to a different level as a sophomore and ranks among the top scorers in the NCAA, McKenzie has only recently caught up to his goal scoring pace from a year ago. Miami earned three points against Western Michigan with McKenzie scoring a goal in each game. He had just one tally, though, in the nine preceding games dating back to early January.

A power forward with a strong physical presence, McKenzie can still make an impact in the Miami lineup heading forward. The Redhawks, who currently sit at third in the CCHA, would certainly benefit if he can continue to show up on the score sheet as well.

European Pro:

Juraj Simek, RW – HC Geneve-Servette (Swiss-A)
Traded to Boston Bruins December 9th, 2010
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks
6th round, 167th overall, 2006

Traded from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Boston Bruins on December 9th for center Levi Nelson, Simek was expected to add scoring depth on the wing for an organization that was somewhat lacking in that department. After 11 games no points and three minor penalties, Simek was placed on waivers and signed a deal with HC Geneve-Servette of the Swiss National League.

The season continued to get worse for Simek as two games into his career in the Swiss National League, he sustained an injury and has since been out.

The 23-year-old is still technically under contract with the Bruins for the remainder of the season but there is no reason to think the organization will attempt to re-sign him.

Johan Larsson, LW – Brynas IF (SEL)
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild
2nd round, 56th overall, 2010

Known mostly for his strong two-way game and leadership ability, Johan Larsson showed some offensive upside last season in the Swedish junior levels, scoring 34 points in 40 games for Brynas’ J20 squad. This year, however, which has been spent mostly in the Elitserien on a young Brynas team, has not seen that same level of production.

Having dominated the J20 level again with 15 points in 10 games, Larsson has spent 40 games in the SEL where he has been given mostly bottom six duties. While certainly a role in which he can thrive, the 18-year-old has been unable to take ice time away from fellow junior-aged players like Anton Rodin (VAN), Jakob Silfverberg (OTT), and Calle Jarnkrok (DET) who play more offensive roles. He has managed just four goals and three assists at Sweden‘s top level, though three of those goals have come in his last 14 games.

The lack of production certainly does not take away from the responsible and gritty style that has made Larsson a solid pro prospect. The Swedish winger could really help a Wild organization that is relatively low on offensive prospects if he is able to begin finding that scoring touch at the pro level.

On the Rush was compiled and written by Ian Altenbaugh and Brad Gardner.