On the Rush, March 2011

By HF Staff
Photo: One of the most prolific offensive defensemen in junior hockey history, Ryan Ellis finished the 2010-11 regular season with 24 goals and 76 assists through 58 games. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

In the March edition of On the Rush we feature several prominent prospects for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings as well as two Columbus Blue Jackets prospects who have not progressed quite as expected.

Leading the Rush

North American Pro:

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

With goalies Jonas Gustavsson out for the season and Jean-Sebastien Giguere battling injuries and inconsistency, the 2010-11 season seemed like a lost cause for the Maple Leafs by mid-January. In February the Leafs anointed James Reimer the starter for the remainder of the season and he responded by posting a 14-5-4-2 record, boosting the Leafs record from 20-25-5 to 35-32-10, and keeping them in the hunt for the playoffs through much of the late winter and early spring.

Through 31 games this season, Reimer has a 2.55 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. His goals against average is a half-goal lower than the team’s 3.05 average, so Reimer has statistically given the team a better chance to compete but more importantly, he gives the players in front of him confidence that if they make a mistake, he will be there to bail them out. As a result the team has played a more determined and consistent brand of hockey.

The 23-year-old will be up for contract at the end of the season and while the Leafs retain exclusive negotiating rights with him, it would not be a shock to see him get a significant bump in pay from the almost 600,000 dollars his entry-level deal pays him.

Kyle Palmieri, RW – Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks
1st round, 26th overall, 2009

Kyle Palmieri has been one of the top forwards for the Crunch throughout the season, though he has had bouts of inconsistency and streaky production. The forward’s compete level and shot make him noticeable every game, it just has not turned into consistent production all season long. Following a six game point drought from the end of February into March, Palmieri has been one of the hottest forwards in the AHL.

With 12 goals and 15 points in his last eight games, the winger’s recent tear has vaulted him amongst the top rookie scorers in the AHL. He now ranks first in rookie goal scoring behind Luke Adam (BUF) with 26 goals in 55 games, putting to rest any doubt that his offense could translate at the pro level. The New Jersey-native is the second-leading scorer for Syracuse with 46 points on the year, despite missing time for a ten game NHL call-up and World Juniors.

While it has been a tough season for Syracuse as a whole, Palmieri’s recent play has helped the club to their best stretch of the season with a 11-4 record in March. The Ducks’ prospect was a big reason for the run with five of his 12 goals being game-winners.

North American Junior:

Christian Thomas, RW – Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Drafted by the New York Rangers
2nd round, 40th overall, 2010

With his 41 goal breakout campaign in 2009-10, Christian Thomas serviced notice that despite his diminutive size (5’9 165 pounds), he possesses explosive offensive potential. That potential was rewarded by being selected in the second round by the New York Rangers and all Thomas did as a response was develop into one of the most consistent and dangerous offensive threats in the OHL.

Through 66 games, the son of former NHLer Steve Thomas posted 54 goals and 45 assists. Making it all the more impressive is the fact he never went more than two games without a point and was held off the scoresheet entirely on only 15 occasions. Of his 54 goals, 19 were on the powerplay, two came shorthanded, and nine were game-winners.

Now in the playoffs, Thomas has elevated his game to places it has never been before, posting four goals and seven assists in four games.

Given his skill and pedigree, Thomas could possibly benefit from a pro setting next year. However, because he is only 18 years old, he will have to spend another season at the junior level before making the transition to the AHL. Expect the Rangers to monitor him closely this off-season and in training camp next year.

Ryan Ellis, D – Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Drafted by the Nashville Predators
1st round, 11th overall, 2009

The diminutive defenseman has had a fitting final season for one of the most decorated junior hockey players from the last decade. Ellis finished fifth in the OHL with 100 points in 58 games, becoming the first OHL blueliner to reach triple digits since the 1994-95 season and the first Windsor defenseman since Joel Quenneville did it in the 1977-78 season.

Despite three productive seasons on more talented Windsor teams, the 20-year-old Ellis set career-highs with 24 goals and 76 assists in what is perhaps his best season to date. While most expected the Spitfires to suffer from losing several key players from previous Memorial Cup runs, Ellis lead the squad at both ends of the rink and helped carry the team into the post-season.

He has added four points in the club’s first three playoff games, including the game-winning goal in game three against Erie. Ellis is poised to begin his pro career next season within the Nashville organization and could make an appearance with the Milwaukee Admirals by the end of this season if the Spits stumble.

North American Amateur:

Matt Frattin, RW – North Dakota Fighting Sioux (WCHA)
Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs
4th round, 99th overall, 2007

This season no player has raised his profile more than Matt Frattin. His 36 goals and 60 points are both more than he posted in his combined first three years of school (he recorded 28 goals and 59 points through 104 games through his first three years). Moreover he has been a model of consistency, currently amidst a 15-game point streak in which he’s registered 16 goals and 14 assists. He’s never gone more than two games without a point and has been held off the scoresheet on only nine occasions.

Through March Frattin has elevated his game, first lighting it up in the WCHA tournament, posting six goals (including a hat trick) and eight points through four games. Then in the NCAA tournament, registering a goal and two assists in two games.

Regardless of how North Dakota does in the remainder of the tournament, there is no doubt Frattin will see his hockey career extend to the professional level. The Leafs have struggled to produce offense this season so Frattin’s addition should be welcome.

Jason Zucker, LW – Denver University Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild
2nd round, 59th overall, 2010

Rated one of the top defensive forwards heading into the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Zucker exceeded all expectation with a phenomenal freshman season for Denver University. He was the Pioneer’s first star in the team’s opening game at the NCAA tournament, figuring in on all three tallies and scoring the double-overtime game winner to beat Western Michigan.

On the season, Zucker finished with 23 goals and 45 points, just a single assist behind Drew Shore for the team lead in points. Linemates for much of the season, Zucker’s hard work and nose for the net turned out to be a perfect compliment for the playmaking Shore. The Pioneer’s top line was clearly a point of emphasis by North Dakota, who defeated Denver in the WCHA conference finals and then again in the NCAA regional final, as the disciplined Sioux held Zucker to just one goal in those two games.

Not the biggest forward at 5’11 and 174 pounds, the winger will need to continue filling out. With the Wild lacking forward depth at the pro level, it is possible Zucker joins the organization sooner than expected if he can continue to dominate college competition.

uropean Pro:

Dmitri Orlov, D – Novokuznetsk Metallurg (KHL)/Hershey Bears (AHL)
Drafted by the Washington Capitals
2nd round, 55th overall, 2009

Every year it seems like a young puck-moving defenseman joins the Capitals organization. Last year it was John Carlson and the year before Karl Alzner. Both followed up there pro debuts with spot time in the NHL and quickly developed into full-time NHLers. It’s safe to think that Orlov will follow a similar path.

Although he had a solid season in the KHL, posting 12 points in 45 games while seeing limited ice-time in a men’s league, it was the WJC where he displayed his vast potential. Through seven games with Team Russia, Orlov posted nine points en route to a gold medal. In late February the 19-year-old Russian signed an entry-level deal with the Capitals and promptly joined their AHL affiliate the Hershey Bears.

He was instantly one of the top puck-moving defensemen on the team, registering two goals and five assists through 16 games and has also seen some time on the man-advantage.

The Capitals have a logjam at defense and unless they make some moves in the off-season, will have eight guys under contract competing for six spots on defense. Meaning Orlov will almost assuredly begin next year in the AHL.

Calle Jarnkrok, C – Brynas (SEL)
Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings
2nd round, 51st overall, 2010

Featured for the second time in this space, Calle Jarnkrok has continued to exceed expectation in the Swedish Elite League. One of a handful of junior-aged forwards on the Brynas roster, the 19-year-old center stepped up into the team’s top six forwards, playing over 16 minutes per game in all situations.

Jarnkork finished the regular season ranked seventh on the team in points, with 11 goals and 27 points in 49 games. He stepped up in the postseason, ranking second on the team with three goals despite playing in only three playoff games. A shoulder injury knocked him out of the lineup for the final two games of the year as Brynas fell to Farjestad in five games.

While Teemu Pulkkinen‘s excellent year in the SM-liiga may be getting more of the headlines, Jarnkrok also enjoyed an excellent rookie season against pro competition. With the shoulder injury keeping "Iron Hook" out of the World Championships, he will likely continue to fly under the radar heading into next season.

Trailing the Play

North American Pro:

Jordan Caron, RW – Providence Bruins (AHL)
Drafted by the Boston Bruins
1st round, 25th overall, 2009

Having started out the season in the NHL and finishing it in the AHL, Caron’s first pro season, ended on a down note. A goal-scoring winger by trade, he produced only ten goals in 45 games of AHL play, six of which were potted during the month of January. He finished the month of March with two goals, fours assists, and a minus-three through 11 games.

Part of the issues Caron had in the AHL were due to the overall young age and inexperience of the Providence Bruins. Also though, Caron is a sniper and most of the centers in the Bruins system are either already in the NHL or have yet to go pro, so he hasn’t been able to maximize his sharpshooting abilities.

With Bruins wingers Michael Ryder and Marc Recchi scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, expect Caron to compete for a regular NHL spot next season.

John Moore, D – Springfield Falcons (OHL)
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
1st round, 21st overall, 2009

One of the Blue Jackets’ most coveted prospects, John Moore has struggled to adjust to the pro ranks in his rookie season. The 20-year-old defenseman is part of a very young blue line in Springfield, but has not been the stand out performer that might have been expected of a first round pick. Though the offensively-dynamic Moore got off to a solid start, he has struggled to find consistent production and stand up to the physical demands of the pro game.

March has been perhaps the worst month of the year for Springfield. The Falcons have been in a tail spin and Moore has been one of the reasons, scoring just three points and earning a minus-15 rating in 13 games this month. On the season, the Chicago-native ranks third among Springfield’s defenseman with 23 points in 67 games but carries a team worst minus-29 rating.

The Columbus organization is looking to play a more up-tempo style under head coach Scott Arniel, and the development of their puck-moving defensive prospects will be a vital piece of the puzzle. Moore is far from the only prospect struggling on Springfield, as Cody Goloubef and Theo Ruth have also had their share of struggles as rookies this season. All three will have to contend with David Savard and Nick Holden, who each have had strong seasons for the Falcons.

North American Junior:

Ashton Bernard, LW – Flin Flon Bombers (SJHL)
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils
6th round, 174th overall, 2009

Bernard has actually played for five different teams in four different leagues this season starting with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL, then the Campbellton Tigers of the MJAHL, then the Cowichan Valley Capitals of the BCHL, then back to the MJAHL to play for the Truro Bearcats, then finally the Flin Flon Bombers of the SJHL.

Drafted for his pugilistic skills, Bernard needed to go to a lower level of hockey to work on his skating and scoring ability, hence the move to Campbellton. The stay was short-lived however and Bernard saw his rights traded several more times, never staying with one organization for more than nine games. Currently with Flin Flon, Bernard has zero points and 21 penalty minutes through four games.

Considering the odyssey he has been on over the past six months as well as his limited upside, it would be a shock to see Bernard signed by the Devils this season.

Petr Straka, C – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets
2nd round, 55th overall, 2010

Poised for a breakout season after leading Quebec league rookies with 28 goals last season, Czech forward Petr Straka has instead taken a step back in his sophomore season. Part of a Rimouski team that has struggled for much of the season, Straka has managed just 10 goals and 25 points in 41 games after scoring at a point-per-game pace as a rookie.

Though he has missed time this season due to injury and his WJC appearance, it seems that the 18-year-old pivot has just struggled to get on track this season. While few Czech forwards really stood out at the tournament, Straka’s was one of the more disappointing performances as a top NHL prospect and experienced scorer on North American ice.

Now that the opposition realizes how dangerous Straka can be with space, the pivot will have to find a way to continue creating offense for his team as he tries to find the scoring touch from a year ago.

North American Amateur:

Matt Rust, C – University of Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)
Drafted by the Florida Panthers
4th round, 101st overall, 2007

Considering Michigan is making an appearance in the upcoming Frozen Four, it’s safe to say that the season was a resounding success for the team. However for senior Matt Rust, it signified a career low in offense as the center posted a paltry five goals through 42 games and only two assists through the month of March.

A playmaking center by trade, one major reason for his drop in points was the lack of top-unit powerplay time he was seeing.

The Florida Panthers will have to make a decision on Rust in the very near future. At 5’10 he is a little undersized but brings a decent set of skills to the organization, most notably slick passing ability and good offensive awareness. The Panthers are weak at center at the professional level so it would make sense for them to sign him.

Dan DeLisle, C – University of Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA)
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks
3rd round, 89th overall, 2009

An intriguing blend of size and skill coming out of the Minnesota high school ranks, Dan DeLisle was still a surprise selection by Chicago in the third round. Ranked 138th in Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters for the 2009 draft, DeLisle has yet to really make an impact at the college level.

DeLisle has been a bottom six forward for each of his first two seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and has been a healthy scratch for several games. The 6’4, 222-pound center scored four goals and two assists in 31 games as a sophomore, but was still unable to hang on to a consistent spot in the lineup in the second half. Though he played in all three of the Bulldog’s WCHA tournament games, he was a scratch for the team’s first two NCAA tournament games in favor of another high profile Minnesota high school player, freshman Max Tardy (STL).

UMD had little turnover coming into this season, and will only graduate two forwards from this year’s squad. DeLisle will have to improve his play if he is to earn a larger role in the Bulldogs’ offense.

European Pro:

Joonas Nattinen, C/W – HPK Hameenlinna (SM-Liiga)
Drafted by the Montreal Canadians
3rd round, 65th overall, 2009

The 2010-11 season was a forgettable one for the big Finn. After rupturing his Achilles tendon in September and missing the first half of the season, Nattinnen found himself in an up-hill battle for icetime and playing opportunities, bouncing around four different teams in Finland including the Blues, their Jr A affiliate, Suomo U20, and HPK.

Although he has had a down year, Nattinen is a prospect who still posseses a great deal of promise. He played an offensively sound game for Team Finland at the WJCs a few months back and has been fairly solid for HPK. With his contract set to expire at the end of the season, Nattinnnen will have to make a decision on whether to sign an entry-level deal with the Canadians, and likely spend next season in the minors, or play another year in Finland.

Jesper Samuelsson, C – Vita Hasten (SWE Div. I)
Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings
7th round, 211th overall, 2008

Detroit has had unprecedented success with their late draft picks, particularly European players that were seemingly overlooked by every other organization. When Jesper Samuelsson was drafted in 2008 from Vita Hasten, the same Swedish Division I team from which Jonathan Ericsson was drafted, many pegged him as a prospect to watch.

His development in Sweden has not gone all that well, however, and Samuelsson is more or less an NHL prospect in name only. After an offensive breakout for Vita Hasten heading into the draft, Samuelsson bounced between the Elite league and Allsvenskan for the next two season, unable to produce the same offense against bigger and better competition.

The 22-year-old center returned to Vita Hasten in an attempt to rediscover his offense, scoring 10 goals and 33 points in 31 games this season. The next step will be finding a way to make those numbers translate at the higher levels as he continues to develop in Sweden.

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