The Later Rounds

By Jake Dole
Each and every year, the NHL season offers it’s own surprises. It can be a blockbuster trade, a player holding out, a head coach getting fired, or an overachieving team. It is equally important to note that ever so often, a player makes an impact whose name previously seemed unfamiliar. Players like Andreas Dackell, Brian Smolinski, Tomas Holmstrom, Steve Rucchin and Todd Marchant all have something in common. At one point of their careers, their NHL futures were in question. However, at this moment, all of them have successful (although by no means perfect) careers.

Some players get overlooked, whether at the NHL draft, or as a free agent. How many times do we see a career rejuvenated through a trade, or expansion draft? Certain players make their respective teams as grinders and fourth-liners, and eventually make their way up into larger and more serious roles.

Hockey critics like to rank prospects differently. Some like to divide them in half; there are the prospects that are likely to make the NHL, and there are those who probably won’t get a sniff. Using the Rangers as an example, we are likely to see Jamie Lundmark in the big show sometime soon, maybe as early as next year. Where does Layne Ulmer fit in? He’s got the numbers, the finishing ability, but his skating is getting in the way of his pro career. Scouts say he is too slow, pros are harder than juniors, he is too soft… When you hear all the experts pile on these prospects, it almost seems like a youngster cannot shake off that price tag.

Plodding, not skilled enough, not physical, stone hands, Swiss miss, Swiss cheese, pretty boy, goon, inconsistent, can’t pass, can’t finish, mistake-prone, just simply not good enough… They’ve all heard it, but they played through it and earned respectable careers. For example, last year, Shane Willis was criticized for being too soft and a defensive liability. Although Shane remains no Dave Semenko, he had a fine year, mainly highlighted by 20 goals and 44 points. It is key to mention that Willis improved on his defense and consistency.

Steven Reinprecht was apparently running out of time. At 24, he was too old, not skilled enough, and not tough enough. Or so the experts thought… Reinprecht responded with a fine rookie year, as he collected 15 goals, 36 points, played a solid two-way game, and won a Stanley Cup. We might never see Steven on a second-line in Colorado, but it is pretty clear that he was a major part of Avalanche’s success. Skilled enough and tough enough to play for the best team in the World.

What would you say if I mentioned the name Ruslan Fedotenko to you a year ago this day? You would probably say, Ruslan who? Granted, he was somewhat of an unexpected surprise, and even in some way a late bloomer. But the guy collected 50 points in 67 games in Philadelphia of the AHL at the age of 20. Yet he received little recognition. That is, of course, until he made his name known to Flyers fans and hockey fans in general, with a stellar rookie season. He’s no Pavel Brendl, but he sure as heck is a dozen times more hard-working. Shouldn’t that result in more deserved attention?

Nobody told Dan Hinote that he was NHL-material; he didn’t know so he wanted to become a cop. Soon enough, Hinote impressed the NHL with his excellent two-way ability and unparalleled work ethic. Not as sexy as Paul Karya on a breakaway, kids. But effective enough for a Stanley Cup ring.

Predicting this year’s success story is not as tough as it might seem. Think of a young, overachieving youngster with the willingness to learn and improve his game. Or a late bloomer that has rejuvenated his. The tougher part is leaving anyone off…

Here are some names that I think have a lot to offer next year. They’re not potential superstars, but rather “wildcards” and possible role players.

Ramzi Abid. LW. 6’2, 209. Born: 1980-03-24. Phoenix Coyotes (played with Springfield of the AHL).

Ramzi is a prototypical hard-working guy, with toughness and finishing ability along with that. Just two seasons ago Abid collected 209 penalty minutes in 72 games with Halifax of the QMJHL.
He had a solid start to his season last year, as he had 6 goals and 10 points in 17 games in the AHL. He also showed plenty of grit with 38 penalty minutes. However, wrist injuries shortened his season considerably.
Abid had a great camp last year, and nearly made the club. With the Coyotes in the rebuilding mode, he would fit nicely in Phoenix’s youthful lineup. Phoenix is pretty deep at Left Wing however, so making the team behind the likes of Berezin and Johnson will not be an easy task.

Radim Bicanek. D. 6’1, 210. Born: 1975-01-18. Columbus Blue Jackets (played with Syracuse of the AHL).

Bicanek is 26 years old, but getting picked in the expansion draft renewed his NHL career. Radim’s minor league stats underwent a dramatic increase, as he amassed 65 points last year, comparing to only 32 the year before.
A native of Uherske Hradiste, Czech Republic, Bicanek had seen time with the Ottawa Senators and the Chicago Blackhawks before getting drafted by Columbus.
Radim has earned a reputation for being a big hitter. Although he has never had much more than a few cups of coffee in the NHL, Bicanek consistently delivered roughly 2 hits a game. He will join a solid defensive lineup that includes Rostislav Klesla, Deron Quint and Lyle Odelein. With considerable even strength and powerplay duty, Bicanek will be expected to collect over 20 points, and somewhere around 100 hits.

Yuri Butsayev. LW. 6’1, 183. Born: 1978-10-11. Detroit Red Wings (played with Cincinnati of the AHL).

Detroit’s first choice in the 1997 draft seems ready to take over fourth-line duty for the Red Wings. Yuri had a checking role in the grand total 15 games for Detroit last year, playing under 10 minutes a game. After getting sent down to Cincinnati of the AHL, Butsayev quietly had an all-star year. In 54 games, Yuri amassed 29 goals and 46 points at the age of 21.
Butsayev is not extremely skilled; he is a hard-working two-way checking centre. He plays well along the boards and finishes his checks. Yuri makes good on-ice decisions and is an excellent puck handler.
Although Butsayev is not a strong skater, he has virtually no weaknesses. He is solid in all aspects of the game and is capable of a lengthy NHL career.
With Detroit’s aging lineup, Yuri could see some playing time. Making the team at camp might be unlikely, but the aches and pains of the regular season might open up a spot for Butsayev.

Artem Chubarov. C. 6’1, 189. Born: 1979-12-12. Vancouver Canucks (played with Kansas City of the IHL).

A shoulder surgery ended Chubarov’s short season. He had a good start with Kansas City of the IHL, with 7 goals in 10 games. But the nagging shoulder eventually put an end to a promising season.
Like Butsayev, Artem does not have one area where he specifically excels. A strong skater, Chubarov is solid on one-on-one situations with accurate passing skills. He has grit and plays good defense, especially well along the boards.
Just two seasons ago, Chubarov played in 49 NHL games. Therefore, with his experience, a good training camp should result in either third or fourth line duty.

Pierre Dagenais. LW. 6’5, 210. Born: 1978-03-04. New Jersey Devils (played with Albany of the AHL).

If you had the opportunity to look over Pierre’s career stats, you would come to the same conclusion as I: Pierre is a finisher. After compiling excellent stats in the QMJHL, Dagenais’s offensive prowess continued at the pro level. In his last two seasons in Albany of the AHL, Pierre had seasons of 35 and 34, respectively.
One thing to point out about Dagenais is that he seems to take control at any level he is playing. After a call-up to the NHL last year, he collected 3 goals and 5 points in 9 games with 20 shots on goal last season.
The boundary that is holding up Pierre’s career is New Jersey’s two-way defensive style. Dagenais, who is mainly a sniper, has never been praised for his defensive play, nor his skating or passing skills. He is somewhat one-sided, and unless his two-way game improves, he might turn into another Steve Maltais.
However, with Alexander Mogilny leaving, do not be surprised if the Devils go out looking for more offense. And Dagenais might be there to provide it.

Jeff Farkas. LW. 6’0, 190. Born: 1978-01-24. Toronto Maple Leafs (played with St. John’s of the AHL).

He will get a shot to make the team at camp. In fact, it might be either Farkas or Ponikarovsky to take over the empty left wing slot in the Leafs lineup. Fourth line is for the taking.
However, Farkas will need a pretty good performance in the pre-season even to earn the dubious honour as the team’s fourth liner. The Leafs will have to decide whether to send Jeff to St. Johns’s to earn more playing time, or to let him develop defensively with the big club. Although Farkas has bulked up to 190 lbs, he is still a soft player that is known for avoiding traffic. Unless he becomes more physical along the boards, Jeff might not see much more than a late-season call-up.
However things could still go Farkas’s way. The leafs are weak on the left side; after Gary Roberts, there is Shayne Corson, Jonas Hoglund, and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Farkas could climb the ladder if the team struggles to score consistently. Hoglund is barely hanging on to his job; Corson is no prototypical second-liner, and Ponikarovsky hasn’t realized his potential.
It is possible for Pat Quinn to juggle his lineup, and we might see some second-line duty for Farkas. That is, assuming he finishes his checks.

Alexander Riazantsev. D. 5’11, 200. Born: 1980-03-15. Colorado Avalanche (played with Hershey of the AHL).

The defending Stanley Cup champions appear to have some holes in the armour. Ray Bourque retired and Jon Klemm signed on as a free agent with the Chicago Blackhawks. It appears that Hershey’s Rick Berry will take over as the Avalanche’s fifth defensemen. Aside from that, the sixth and seventh positions are wide open.
Unless the Avalanche make further acquisitions, Riazantsev is one of the candidates for the job. A dominant offensive pivot for Victoriaville of the QMJHL a couple of seasons ago, Alex adjusted well to the pros with a solid year in the AHL.
Riazantsev is a solid puck distributor with a sneaky shot from the point. He is not a defensive stopper, nor is he physically dominating. He does play a consistent style and has showcased maturity beyond his years.

Peter Smrek. D. D. 6’1, 220. Born: 1979-02-16. New York Rangers (played with Worcester of the AHL).

Acquired in March for Alexei Gusarov, Smrek might have become a steal for the New York Rangers. The Slovakian defenseman plays a tough, two-way game. Known for his huge frame, Smrek is also very sure-handed and consistent in his own zone. He battles hard along the boards, and has the speed to get involved in offensive situations. Smrek stickhandles well, and distributes the puck effectively.
The trade of Kim Johnsson now virtually guarantees Smrek a job with the Rangers. He has the hockey sense and maturity to play twenty minutes a game.

Other names to keep an eye on: Brad Larsen of Colorado, Jesse Wallin of Detroit, Jarkko Ruutu of Vancouver, and Ivan Ciernik of Ottawa.