Hockey Hopefuls Meet in Hull

By Scott Petersen

There is always room for those who impress. And if there appears to be none, then some room will be made.

That is the prevailing theory you will find among prospects at the annual rookie tournament held in Hull, Quebec. Entering its fourth year, the tournament pits the future of four NHL organizations – Florida, Montreal, Ottawa and Phoenix – against each other under the watchful eyes of the men who dole out playing time and contracts in the big leagues.

The Senators are a prime example of this youthful optimism coming to fruition. Both Mike Fisher and Martin Havlat, rising stars at the NHL-level, first captivated the organization with their performances at the rookie tournament before cracking the main squad.

This year, that tradition of enthusiasm is carried on by the likes of Jason Spezza and Antoine Vermette – two strong candidates battling for a spot on the Senators’ roster. Both players increased and refined their training regimens over the summer, and neither did all that work in order to shine with the Senators’ affiliate in Binghamton, New York.

“I had a very busy summer but I know where I want to go and I’ll do whatever it takes,” says Vermette, a centre with the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year. “I have one goal and I’m not ready to think about (being sent to Binghamton). There’s people who do that job and my job is just to work hard on the ice and off the ice and push myself to make their decision easier.”

Vermette lost most of last year with an injury originally misdiagnosed as post-concussion syndrome after he was knocked into the boards at a Canadian world junior camp last year. He says the time spent away from the game only solidified his resolve to make the NHL this year.

“I like challenges and this is a big one,” says Vermette. “I’ll do whatever the coaches want.”

Faced with a waiting list of veteran centers ahead of them, both Spezza and Vermette are entering camp with one goal in mind. The plan is to excel, avoid a trip to the farm team, and force the Senators to make the necessary arrangements to accommodate them on the team.

That same theory will apply to the crop of rookies in the Panthers’ system. A strong group of prospects led by Jay Bouwmeester and Stephen Weiss will be fighting for available spots on a rebuilding Panthers team. The team is retooling and presents the perfect opportunity for a rookie to make a name for himself.

“There may be a player or two that comes out of this rookie camp and plays with the big team,” says coach Mike Keenan. “This is invaluable to us in giving us a good handle on what we can expect from our prospects in the future.”

Though it is expected Bouwmeester and Weiss will get every opportunity to make their case, Lukas Krajicek and Filip Novak will also get a long look on a defence that was porous last season. But for Bouwmeester, a spot on the point is his to lose and he isn’t going to let it slip away.

“I’m not playing against 17 and 18 year olds anymore,” says the soft-spoken Bouwmeester. “Guys are a lot bigger and a lot stronger so I’ve been working on everything.”

The Coyotes will throw rookie coach Marty McSorley behind the bench and in charge of the team. He will be responsible for the progress of the team’s most valuable set of prospects in U.S. College standout Jeff Taffe, the speedy Fredrik Sjostrom and the latest first-rounder, Ben Eager. Taffe, a forward acquired from St. Louis as part of the Keith Tkachuk trade, should have the best shot at making the Coyotes.

Mike Komisarek, a physically imposing defenceman who starred with the University of Michigan, will also push the Canadiens to make tough decisions about his destination. As probably the most NHL-ready player in the Habs’ camp, Komisarek is blessed with size and skill the team could use immediately.

“He’s very impressive,” says Claude Julien, who will coach the Canadiens’ affiliate in Hamilton, and is running the Habs’ prospects through the paces at the tournament. “If he’s not in the NHL this year, he’s pretty close to being there.”

Other players the coaches will be keeping an eye on include offensive gems Jozef Balej, Tomas Plekanec and Duncan Milroy, defenceman Andrew Archer and goaltender Olivier Michaud.

While the camp is an opportunity for the prospects to plead their case for an NHL job, it’s just as important that it provides the teams a chance to assess their collective talent.

“The number one thing is being able to evaluate our prospects against other teams,” says Julien. “They’re able to show a lot more than when they’re playing against each other. These guys get to know each other so well, they don’t put out as much as they would if they were playing against teams from another organization.”

Julien says that while it can be tempting to gear everything towards winning the tournament, it’s also important to let the players show what they can do on the ice.

“Those players were drafted because they did something well before they became a part of this organization,” says Julien. “So you’d like to see them show that kind of stuff that got the organization’s attention and I think that’s what most players are coming here to do.”

With the reins off and the pressure on, the players control their own fate as the start of the regular season draws near.