German prospects: a 2010-11 season review

By Chapin Landvogt
Photo: Drafted in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tom Kühnhackl

recently finished his first year of North American hockey, where in 63 games he managed 39 goals and 29 assists.  (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The 2010-11 season was once again a very eventful one for Germany‘s ice hockey nation. After the DEL standings hosted their most balanced season ever, the men’s national team had an outstanding 2011 World Championships in Slovakia, eventually losing to Sweden in the quarterfinals, but only after an excellent first round saw them not only beat Russia 2-0, but also finish first in their group, gaining at least one point in every game. This past season also saw a change in guard for German prospects, as many Germans drafted throughout the first decade of the 21st century have since parted ways from their NHL drafters while a new group of youngsters looks to lead the brigade towards North America in the years to come. Those playing in Germany took rather modest steps while most German prospects playing in North America enjoyed very positive seasons from a developmental standpoint. With the 2011 NHL draft less than a month away, here is a short review of the progress made by drafted German this past season.

Draftees Playing in Germany

Dominik Bielke, D – San Jose Sharks
6’3, 202 lbs.
Drafted in round seven of the 2009 draft

After appearing in 10 games for the Eisbaeren Berlin in the 2009-10 season, gathering one assist, eight penalty minutes, and a minus-four rating in the process, Bielke found himself suiting up for the Eisbaeren 28 times this past season, putting up one goal, two assists, 36 penalty minutes and a minus-one rating. Although his playing time was sparse, he suited up for all 12 of Berlin’s playoff games, becoming a DEL champion in the process. Nonetheless, the bulk of his season was spent playing for Crimmitschau in Germany‘s 2nd Bundesliga, where he was given some prime minutes in key situations and wound up with three goals, four assists and 55 penalty minutes in 24 games.

The season he was drafted, there was belief that he’d develop into more of an offensive defenseman, having assumed an above-average offensive role in the DNL. He’s generally good at protecting the puck with his size. He also has a knack for running the point on the PP as well as recognizing when to pinch in from the blueline. This has not yet led to significant offensive production in two years of pro play. In addition, his propensity to gather penalty minutes in the pro ranks has been a bit alarming. Much of this has to do with the adjustment that bigger kids often need to make in finding their timing and keeping up with the speed of the game at the pro level. On top of it all, Dominik does have his difficulties pivoting and tends to use his stick to compensate for a lack of foot speed in keeping up with opposing forwards. His defensive work in the corners in his own zone remains a work in progress.

At the time this article was written, it appeared unlikely that San Jose would sign him before June 1st, allowing him to re-enter the draft if he so chooses.

David Elsner, Forward – Nashville Predators
6’0, 185 lbs.
Drafted in round seven of the 2010 draft

Elsner was a bit of a surprise pick in 2010, being taken only shortly before the end of the draft. Seen as a possibly bruising winger in the future, and often displaying a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude, David’s entire game remains a work in progress. Although he did manage to score his first DEL goal (along with a plus-one rating in three games for Ingolstadt), David’s role and offensive production for Landshut of the 2nd Bundesliga took a bit of a drop this past season. In total, he tallied four goals and two assists over the course of 37 games, while standing out more for his physicality, collecting 71 penalty minutes in the process. This was three points less than the season before despite playing two more games at the same level. Nonetheless, it was clear that his role was to keep things simple – and hard.

The season wasn’t without its highlight though, as Elsner was instrumental in helping Landshut’s DNL club win its first ever DNL championship – despite being the last team to qualify for the playoffs. The Young Cannibals went on an unprecedented run to the championship and Elsner took on an offensive role, keeping out of the penalty box in the process. After helping out in spurts during the regular season (two goals, four assists, and six penalty minutes in six games), David contributed five goals and four assists in nine playoff games, often playing one night for the men’s team and the next somewhere else for the junior club.

Nonetheless, David wasn’t a part of the U-20 team in Buffalo and only played in various international test games, not representing Germany at any major tournaments. There’s little doubt that David’s 2011-12 season will go a long way in determining whether Nashville will deem him fit for signing. Every aspect of his game will have to improve and a more predominant showing in either the 2nd Bundesliga or even the DEL would seem a prerequisite. In addition, anything less than a nomination and then a strong showing for Germany at the Division I U-20 WJC would be a disappointment.

Dennis Endras, G – Minnesota Wild
6’0, 167 lbs.
Signed as a free agent in 2010

After a dreamy 2009-10 season that saw Dennis Endras not only bulldoze his underdog Augsburg Panthers to the DEL finals, but also take the WC MVP trophy while (partially) backstopping Germany to a 4th place finish, he was promptly signed by the Minnesota Wild. The agreement involved him remaining in Germany for the 2010-11 season before heading to North America to join the Wild organization. Despite swapping almost a dozen players from the team that made the championship series the season before, Augsburg looked promising heading into this past season, with Dennis Endras affectionately being viewed as the top goalie in the league. However, things did not go according to plan as Augsburg ended up finishing dead last despite Endras’ often heroic efforts and the fact that Augsburg had the most effective line in the league, including the league’s top scorer Darin Oliver.

Statistically speaking, Endras put up a goals against average of 3.14 and a save percentage of .900 in 46 games, numbers that were comparable to those of the 09-10 season. In addition, he started six games for Team Germany at the World Championships, where he had a 3.36 goals against average and .893 save percentage. These numbers would appear to be anything but outstanding, still Endras’ true strength lies in his aggressiveness around the goalmouth and his strong mental composition, something not necessarily measureable in numbers. Quick and mobile, his reflexes often make his saves look spectacular. He’s also terribly difficult to beat on breakaways and penalty shots, rarely making a move before the shooter.

His playing style isn’t the most fundamental and it’ll be interesting to see what the Minnesota coaching staff does with him next season. With Niklas Backstrom in goal and Jose Theodore now an unrestricted free agent, he’s heading into a situation with a backup job to win. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if he spends the bulk of next season for the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Houston.

Draftees Playing in North America

Konrad Abeltshauser, D – San Jose Sharks
6’5, 212 lbs.
Drafted in round six of the 2010 draft

The large-framed German defender was drafted last summer after having come out of virtually nowhere to claim a regular role with the Halifax Moose of the QMJHL. Boasting a refreshing personality and strong work ethic, Abeltshauser remains a work in progress as the difficulties often acquainted with such size at such a young age continue to be glaring. Tall and often battling injuries, Konrad’s skating is actually quite good for a boy of his height and he continues to grow in a passing capacity, having also had more success with his shooting this past season. He upped his stats from the previous season for the Moose, who only managed to win 20 games this year, ultimately becoming the team’s top-scoring defenseman, posting eight goals, 19 assists and another three goals in a first round playoff ouster.

While only sitting in the sin bin for 47 minutes, Konrad was relied on to carry a good chunk of responsibility, often playing against the opponents’ top lines. The burden of these tasks weighed heavily as Abeltshauser posted a team worst -36 rating. All in all, his plus/minus rating has turned into a somewhat alarming -62 over the course of his junior career in Halifax. In addition, he was able to do little in altering the fate of Team Germany at the WJC – a team that was the best German squad on paper in quite some time – which was relegated on the tails of a pointless tournament, despite three one goal losses. There he had no points and a -3 rating in six games.

Konrad continues to possess a load of raw talent, earning a reputation as a tireless worker while trying to add a more physical touch to his primarily offense-oriented game. He’s still filling out and the belief is that he’s the type of player whose worth as a future pro will first really be measured once he’s not only grown into his frame, but also had the chance to play with a team built more for success. At this juncture, it is believed that he’ll return to the QMJHL for one final season and should his progress continue to be steady, will likely be given an ELC in order to show what he can do at the pro level.

Philipp Grubauer, G – Washington Capitals
6’0, 180 lbs.
Drafted in round four of the 2010 draft

Equipped fairly quickly with a three year entry level deal with Washington last October, Grubauer spent this past season with the Kingston Frontenacs, for whom he put up 22 wins, a 3.62 goals against average and .903 save percentage in 38 games, having clearly established himself as the team’s starter. Coached by NHL legend Doug Gilmour, his season came to an end after five playoff games. With his quick glove and leg-work considered amongst his greatest strengths, Philipp also represented Germany at the WJC, where it was thought he could be a real difference maker, coming in as the man who backstopped Windsor to the Memorial Cup championship in the 09-10 season. Unfortunately, Grubauer had one of the roughest tournaments of any goalie who participated, losing all four of his decisions and putting up less than flattering numbers (4.44 goals against average and.887 save percentage).

Full of promise, Philipp will likely find himself playing a role for the highly successful Hershey Bears of the AHL next season. With no less than Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby all 24 year of age or younger – and clearly ahead of Grubauer in the Capitals’ system – Philipp will likely spend the great majority of the next two seasons learning the pro game on the farm. It’s not unthinkable that, like fellow German goalie Timo Pielmeier before him, he could see a season as a starter in the ECHL.

Mirko Hoefflin, C – Chicago Blackhawks
6’0, 174 lbs.
Drafted in round six of the 2010 draft

The average-sized Hofflin was taken late in last year’s draft after a very strong year in Germany accompanied by excellent performances at the Division 1 U-20 and U-18 WJCs. He followed this by jumping to the QMJHL to play for the Quebec Remparts, where he had a fairly successful year. A strong skater whose game is about creating offense, the first year CHLer put up 14 goals, 31 assists and a plus-15 rating in 54 games for the offensively potent and very successful Remparts. He followed this up with four goals and 14 points in 15 playoff games. Continuing to fill out nicely, the somewhat lanky forward does seem blessed with the kind of speed capable of keeping up at the NHL level. Shifty, while fancying himself a playmaker, Hofflin will continue his junior career with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan next season. There’s no doubt he’s in need of a fair bit of development in order to one day make the NHL, but steadied improvement next season should see him get an ELC with Chicago by the 2012 NHL draft.

Korbinian Holzer, D – Toronto Maple Leafs
6’3, 206 lbs.
Drafted in round four of the 2006 draft

After three years of solid growth playing in the DEL for the Dusseldorf Metro Stars and a strong WC performance in 2010, Brian Burke signed the Leafs’ 2006 pick to a two-year entry-level contract. In his first season in North America, the defensive specialist quietly collected three goals, 10 assists, a plus-10 rating and 88 penalty minutes. He also spent two games with the Maple Leafs and then finished his season with one assist and 10 penalty minutes for Team Germany at the 2011 WC in Slovakia, where he played a key role in their second straight upstart WC appearance.

When all was said and done, this past season proved to be just the type of initial year in North America that was expected from him. His game improved in most all facets as he learned the North American style, how to get around a smaller rink, and got used to his first experience playing in the rough and tumble AHL. A bruising defender with a long reach, Holzer’s game is akin to that of fellow organizational talent Luke Schenn, even if Holzer continues to be seen as a primarily defensive specialist. Generally safe and solid in all three zones, Korbinian can be physically abusing and rarely backs down from a challenge. Like many taller players coming to North America, he too has had to adjust and alter his game in order to be effective on the smaller ice surfaces. Time and space are commodities he’s had to turn into priorities. In addition, his first pass and blueline play has experienced its share ups and downs.

Holzer’s game improved considerably over the course of the season and the Maple Leafs are very satisfied with his progress. Korbinian will return to Toronto in the fall and battle for a spot on the Leafs’ blueline. With only one year left on his contract, next season will be critical for any future he may have playing in North America, but his playing style is certainly well-suited for the North American game.

Tom Kühnhackl
, W/C – Pittsburgh Penguins
6’2, 183 lbs.
Drafted in round four of the 2010 draft

Going into the 2009-10 season, Tom was being hailed as Germany’s best prospect to come along in ages. Names like Sturm and Hecht popped up as comparisons, although it was felt that Tom was already showing more natural talent and goal-scoring ability than his countrymen had when they were his age. Of course there’s logic to this as Kuhnhackl’s father, Erich, is Germany’s most famous ice hockey player ever. The genes are simply there. All the more surprising when one hears Tom’s story that, as a child, he simply chose to play ice hockey, not having had any real idea that his father had not only been a famous player himself, but was Germany’s equivalent to Wayne Gretzky. Ultimately, Tom chose to stay in Germany for his draft year and this proved to hurt his draft position. He played in a men’s league for his hometown Landshut Cannibals and although his junior line was exciting and inspiring, he ended up facing a number of injuries and disappointments along the way. The Penguins decided to take him in the 4th round and haven’t looked back since.

Recognizing the need to take the next step in his development and play against the best in his age group, Tom joined the Windsor Spitfires this past season. He started off slowly while making the adjustments to a new country and a league posing a higher level of speed and intensity than he had yet seen. An offensive player in every sense of the term, the points didn’t come easy in the first quarter of the season (zero points in his first seven games), but once things started clicking, Kuhnhackl’s game skyrocketed. In all, he scored a team high 39 goals and put up 68 points in 63 regular season games. He became a key PP contributor, even having garnered time on the point. His steady rise in production actually met its peak where it matters most; in the playoffs. There he scored 11 goals and 23 points in 18 games. By season’s end, he and 2011 Top 30 ranked Alexander Khohkhlachev had formed one of the OHL‘s top duos.

Still a wee bit lanky, Tom continues to add muscle to a frame well-suited for it and his game has simply grown in leaps and bounds. With his size, newfound experience and outstanding goal-scoring ability, Tom was expected to play a key role for Germany at the WJC in Buffalo. This tournament proved to be lowlight of his season, as he only had one goal and 16 penalty minutes while tying for a team worse minus-five in six games for the winless German side. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh didn’t have to think twice about signing him to a three-year ELC. He is expected to participate in the Penguins prospect camp this summer followed by their NHL training camp in the fall.

Marcel Mueller, LW – Toronto Maple Leafs
6’3, 220 lbs.
Signed as a free agent in 2010

Having never been drafted, Marcel Muller received a two-year entry-level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs last offseason. Coming off the strength of 60 points in 57 DEL games and a strong performance at the 2010 WC in Germany, his move to North America was a not surprising one, as the combination of size and talent would lead any observer to believe that Marcel could have a good deal of success translating his game to the North American ice surfaces. Not the fastest skater, Mueller’s season started off very slow. Despite having been impressive in Toronto’s summer prospects camp, he couldn’t make any headway at the main camp last September and even started off very slowly with only one goal in his first 17 AHL games. Then things just started clicking, as Marcel scored 12 goals and 14 assists in the second half of the season. In total, the hulking winger had 14 goals, 19 assists, 44 penalty minutes and a plus-three rating on the year. He finished fifth in scoring for the Marlies. His play even earned him a three game debut with the big club, where he remained scoreless, but showed he didn’t look out of place.

With the Marlies having failed to make the playoffs, Muller quickly joined Team Germany in Slovakia for the 2011 WC, where he played a central role for the upstart Germans. In total, he had one goal, four assists and six penalty minutes in seven games. Like teammate Korbinian Holzer, he’ll head into next season hoping to push hard not only for a job in the NHL, but also for his next contract. With Toronto expected to be busy on the free agent market as of July, it is unclear at this point how much competition for a lower line job he’ll face in camp. With a number of players in the running, it is felt that – despite his offensive promise – Marcel can also assume a banging role on a checking line, which should increase his chances of getting a longer look in the bigs next season.

Timo Pielmeier, G – San Jose Sharks
6’0, 165 lbs.
Drafted in round three of the 2007 draft

Traded to the Anaheim Ducks in March of 2009 for Travis Moen and Kent Huskins, Timo spent this past season making 37 appearances for the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. There he put up 16 wins, 17 losses and one overtime loss while boasting a .906 save percentage. His goals against average came in at 3.09, which was the nonetheless better than in the prior season when he played for the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL. His fairly solid performance on the farm eventually earned some action at the NHL level, where he allowed five goals on 12 shots against in 40 minutes of play. Though not the most successful debut for a young goaltender, it was a career highlight in a season that saw him flip between the ECHL and the NHL.

His real career highlight to date came when he scored an empty net goal in a 6-4 win over the Utah Grizzlies in December of 2009. Still, the young goaltender displays the type of quick movement and recovery that leads scouts to believe that he should have a solid career as a pro. He enjoys making use of his stick (as his empty-net goal the season before last goes to show) and has been available for his country at every given opportunity throughout his young career. Improvement on a much larger scale will nonetheless be mandatory as he is neither large nor has he shown himself to possess the greatest endurance. In addition, his rebound control simply hasn’t gotten to level it needs to be at in order for him to make headways as a possible NHL back-up in the future.

After having gone from a regular in the ECHL to a semi-regular in the AHL, this next and final year of his entry-level contract will be critical for him. Goaltenders generally take longer to develop and are battling for far fewer spots at the NHL level, but Timo does seem to be no less than two full AHL seasons removed from a more regular NHL gig.

DEL = Deutsche Eishockey Liga (Germany’s premiere men’s hockey league)
DNL = Deutsche Nachwuchs Liga (Germany’s top junior league)
2nd Bundesliga = Germany’s second highest level of professional ice hockey
3rd Bundesliga = Germany’s third highest level of professional ice hockey