Saturday, September 10, 2011

Diamonds in the Rough: Who To Watch at the 2011 NHL Prospects Tournament

Each year at the NHL Prospects Tournament, there are several talented young players who aim to impress the hundreds of scouts and NHL brass in attendance, all in the hope of cracking the roster of their parent NHL club, seeking to avoid a demotion to the minors or being sent back to juniors (FYI, NCAA players are not eligible to participate in NHL training camps and rookie tournaments until they complete their four years in college or relinquish their collegiate eligibility by turning pro). This year is no different, and there are a number of skaters and netminders looking to make the grade.

I’m going to give a run-down of some of the big names I’ll be watching closely in the games I’ll be working. Bear in mind, by no means is this a ranking (the order in which I discuss these players is entirely random), nor is it intended to act as a comprehensive biography. But of all the players coming to Traverse City, their will be a handful of players who will have an impact playing with their NHL teams in 2011-12.

Some may turn out to be a pleasant surprise (such as last year’s Calder winner, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, and Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers), others merely a flash-in-the-pan (Fabian Brunnstrom for Dallas in 2008). But whether or not these kids break into the big time this season depends on a number of factors, most of which involve the positional needs of each team. A prospect will have a much easier time carving his niche on a cellar dweller such as Columbus than he will getting ice time on a perennial powerhouse like Detroit. But injuries, ineffective play by incumbent veterans, or a coaching change might make the need for a mid-season call-up necessary for some of these teams. Like I said before, I’d expect about 4-6 players here at Centre ICE this week will play most – if not all – of this season at the highest level in the world.

Without further ado, here’s some of the top names at the tourney this year who’ll be high on everyone’s “must see” list.

Ryan Johansen, F, Columbus:  The 4th overall draft pick in 2010 stand a good chance to stick with the Blue Jackets this year. Johansen led a stacked Portland Winterhawks (WHL) team with 93 points (40 / 52) in 62 games last year.

Jack Campbell, G, Dallas:  “Captain America” had his share of growing pains last year – his first in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires – but regained his composure to help lead the Spits to the conference final. The 11th overall pick in 2010 went 24-14-4 / 3.80 / .884 / no SO.

Jamie Oleksiak, D. Dallas:  The hulking stay-at-home blueliner (6’7”, 240) was taken 14th overall in this June’s draft. He’ll be taking his physical play to the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit after departing Northeastern University after his freshman season.

J.T. Miller, F. NY Rangers:  After two seasons with the U.S. National Developmental Team Program in Ann Arbor, Miller will make a short drive up M-14 to play with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, spurning a scholarship to the U. of North Dakota. Miller tallied 37 points (11 / 26) in 48 games with the USNTDP’s U-18 squad (3rd on the team), and was chosen 15th overall by the Rangers this June.

Jake Allen, G, St. Louis:  Originally taken 34th overall in 2008, Allen returns for his 4th visit to the T.C. tourney. Allen went 25-19-3 / 2.52 / .917 / 6 SO in his first pro season with the Peoria Rivermen (AHL), displacing Ben Bishop as the Blues’ top goaltending prospect in the process.

Stefan Della Rovere and Phil McRae, F, St. Louis Blues:  These two agitating grinders spent most of last season with the Blues’ top farm club in Peoria, but each had brief call-ups to St. Louis. No doubt they’ll be looking to impress the Blues’ coaching staff for more ice time at the NHL level this year.

Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota:  Hackett and Kuemper were two major reasons why the Wild won the NHL Prospects Tournament last year. In his first pro season last year, Hackett – chosen 77th overall in 2009 – helped lead the Houston Aeros (AHL) to the Calder Cup Final with a 23-16-4 record / 2.37 / .916 / 2 SO. Meanwhile, Kuemper was named the WHL’s Top Goaltender and Player of the Year in 2010-11, going 45-12-5 / 1.86 / .933 / and a staggering 13 SO with the Red Deer Rebels.

Zack Phillips, F, Minnesota:  The pick used to select Phillips (at 28th overall this past June) was part of the package sent to the Wild from the Sharks, landing Brett Burns in San Jose. Phillips tallied 95 points (38 / 57) in 67 games for the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL).

Chay Genoway, D, Minnesota:  The diminutive defenseman (5’8”, 165) was a Hobey Baker finalist as a senior with the U. of North Dakota, notching 37 points (6 / 31) in 36 games. Genoway was signed by the Wild as an undrafted free agent.

Ryan Murphy, D, Carolina:  Another pint-sized puck mover from the blueline (5’11”, 176), Murphy put up big numbers with the Kitchener Rangers (OHL). His 79 points (26 / 53) in 63 games was 2nd best on the Rangers, and helped him get selected 12th overall by the Hurricanes in 2011.

Brendan Smith, D, Detroit:  Considered the Red Wings’ top prospect in a deep talent pool, Smith stand a good chance to see some significant ice time on Detroit’s blue line. The 27th overall pick in 2007 had a steady rookie season in Grand Rapids (AHL) last year with 32 points (12 / 20) and 124 PIM in 63 games.

Gustav Nyquist, F, Detroit:  This crafty Swede – taken 121st overall in 2008 – enters his first professional season after completing three seasons at the University of Maine. A two-time Hobey Baker finalist, Nyquist had an impressive rookie camp in July.

Tomas Jurco, F. Detroit:  Another stellar puck-handler, Jurco was the Wings’ top pick (35th overall) this past June. While Jurco notched 56 points (31 / 25) in 60 games in helping Saint John (QMJHL) to the Memorial Cup crown last year, the slick Slovak made more of a name for himself thanks to YouTube with some sweet dangling.

Zack Kassian, F. Buffalo:  This bruising power forward (6’3”, 215) can punish you on the scoresheet, finishing with 77 points (26 / 51) last year with the Windsor Spitfires (OHL). But his chippy physicality can cross the line between tough and dirty from time to time – as evidenced by his cross-check to the face of Barrie’s Matt Kennedy (now a Carolina prospect) back in 2010, earning Kassian a 20-game suspension. The Sabres’ 1st rounder from 2009 (13th overall) was also suspended for 2 games at this year’s World Juniors for – you guessed it – a hit to the head.

Brayden McNabb, D. Buffalo:  Chosen 66th overall in 2009 by the Sabres, the rock-solid McNabb (6’4”, 210) helped the Kootenay Ice capture the WHL title last season, garnering 72 points (22 / 50) in 59 games.

Luke Adam, F. Buffalo:  The former St. John’s Fog Devil (QMJHL) had a great opening campaign in the AHL last year, scoring 62 points (29 / 33) in 57 games with the Portland Pirates. A second-rounder in 2008 (44th overall), Adam also potted 3 goals and an assist in 19 games in limited minutes with the Sabres in his NHL debut last season.

Feel free to mention any players you’ll be paying close attention to at the tournament in the comments below. Here’s where you can find all eight rosters (just click on each team's name for the link to their respective roster.


  1. I'm looking for news on some Michigan players, Austin Levi, Matt Mahalak, & Beau Schmitz (CAR), JT Miller (NYR), and Curtis Crombeen (DAL). Does any other Junior team have as many active players at the Prospects Tourney as the Plymouth Whalers - 5 not counting former Whaler Matt Hackett.

  2. Hey Ollie, I'm a Canes fan who will be tracking the first 2 closely and have seen them here in Raleigh. Beau Schmitz is an invitee. If you're on twitter I'll post what I know at @HMof2. Also check the Canes Traverse City game page for information on those 3. That's at

  3. Hey Ollie, by my count there 7 players from both the Portland Winterhawks (WHL Finalists last yeat) and the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs out of the Q. Can't say for sure how many of those players will be back in juniors next year (word is Columbus is qutie high on Ryan Johansen, and that he could make the big club out of camp). I haven't done a full tally of the OHL players represented by all 8 NHL teams here, but certainly Plymouth is in a good position to be a force yet again in the OHL. BTW, Miller looked strong on NY's top line yesterday vs. Dallas, with Oshawa's Christian Thomas and former U. of Michigan product Carl Hagelin on his wings.

    Carolyn, thanks for posting the links to the Canes' site and your Twitter. I'm working the Carolina-New York game tomorrow, so I'll have a write-up of that game later. I'm not slanted towards one team or another that's here, so I try to write as matter-of-fact and objective as I can.