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Recapping Traverse City's prospects

Friday, 09.11.2009 / 12:12 PM / Traverse City Prospects Tournament

By Mike G. Morreale and Larry Wigge - NHL.com Staff Writers

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- The 12th annual NHL Prospects Tournament proved to be a big hit here this week. In the end, the Carolina Hurricanes, making their first appearance here, earned the championship with a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday.

"I think it's a great tournament," said Jeff Daniels, coach of Carolina's AHL affiliate in Albany. "We don't get a chance throughout the year to see a lot of these kids, so it's a chance to watch them in practice and game situations, talk to them in the dressing rooms, and just get to know them as a person and as a player."

Grand Rapids Griffins coach Curt Fraser doesn't believe the tournament offered that definitive "home run" prospect, he was amazed with the overall play.

"I don't think there was a player with Dany Heatley or Henrik Zetterberg ability, but I do think this tournament has stepped up where the play has been lightning fast," he said. "Everybody's skill level is very good and there're a lot of good players on every team."

Here's a breakdown of each team and those players who stood out this week. The teams are listed in their order of finish.

CAROLINA HURRICANES (3-1-0) -- It was a successful trip for the Hurricanes in their first visit to this resort community.

Daniels had a strong team that included three former first-round draft picks in forwards Zach Boychuk, Brandon Sutter and Philippe Paradis, last season's Canadian Hockey League goalie of the year in Mike Murphy and last season's Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Player of the Year in defenseman Jamie McBain. None of them disappointed.

Murphy (3-0, 2.45 GAA, .933 save percentage) backed up his strong junior season in Belleville in 2008-09. "He stole a couple of games for us," Daniels said.

Defensively, Daniels sees potential in McBain (3 assists), who'll forego his senior year at Wisconsin and go to Albany full-time this season. "He has a lot of upside in the way he sees the ice and can make the play," Daniels said. "He's solid defensively and not a one-dimensional player."

Not surprisingly, forwards Sutter and Boychuk dominated the ice for Carolina. Boychuk finished with 4 goals, a plus-2 rating and team-leading 15 shots. Sutter had 2 goals, 3 points, a plus-2 rating and team-leading 18 shots.

"Brandon and Zach were our two steadiest forwards," Daniels admitted. "You can tell Brandon played in the NHL and he made a commitment this off-season to get stronger. Zach is a threat to score every time he's on the ice."

Daniels also said Paradis, Carolina's first-round draft choice last June, showed promise but "still needs a couple of years to mature and establish some confidence in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League." Paradis, who saw limited action on the third line in Traverse City, finished with a minus-2 rating and seven shots on goal.

MINNESOTA WILD (2-1-1)
-- The state of hockey in the State of Hockey is in flux. According to Kevin Constantine, the mandate for the Wild and its AHL affiliate in Houston is to play a more up-tempo, aggressive game. That started in Traverse City, and the results were mostly positive. Minnesota prospects (eight draft choices and the rest tryout players) made it to the championship game before losing to Carolina.

Going to the up-tempo style of play under GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards will bring some hiccups, but the Minnesota games here were some of the quickest in the tournament.

"It would be narrow-minded or shortsighted for anyone to just look at the scores and say, 'Same old Wild,' " said Constantine of 2-1 victories over Dallas (in a shootout) and Columbus to start the tournament. "The goaltenders have been solid. The defense, led by draftees Tyler Cuma (first round in 2008), Justin Falk (fourth round in 2007) and Marco Scandella (second round in '08) have led the way on a defense that has limited the number of shots and pushed the puck up the ice and pinched a lot according to our new mandate."

Minnesota had 72 shots in the first two games and 34 more in a 4-3 shootout loss in Game 3.

"I always say, 'Hockey is a game of tic, tac, toe and we've had the tic and tac, but not the toe," said Tommy Thompson, assistant GM/personnel of the Wild.

"There's a baseball analogy that if your team goes out there and they're ready to go and the pitcher walks everyone, you ask 'What's wrong with the team?' " said Thompson. "In hockey, if you go out there all guns a blazing and the goalie is letting pucks in, well, you're in trouble. For us, however, Jeff Hackett (two games, 1.85 goals-against average and .905 save percentage) and Darcy Kuemper (two games, 2.31 GAA and .898 save percentage) were both been exceptional. A couple of years ago we won this tournament when Josh Harding was so good for us. And Jeff and Darcy almost helped us do it again."

NEW YORK RANGERS (3-1-0) --There were two players that jumped off the roster when Hartford Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander and assistant J.J. Daigneault began discussing the Rangers' prospects -- defenseman Michael Del Zotto and forward Evgeny Grachev.

Daigneault, a former NHL defenseman, said Del Zotto was one of the best transition-game players in the tournament.

"We're expecting him to pick it up a notch when he joins the big club for main camp," Daigneault said. "Anyone who knows anything about the Rangers' roster knows there's room on defense for someone to make an impression in camp and jump right in. Maybe Michael can be that guy."

Grachev, who had 3 goals, 15 shots and had a plus-5 rating through four games, provided muscle and flair in the offensive zone and away from the puck.

"I think Grachev has shown quite a bit of improvement over last year and, obviously, you can see the raw physical attributes with his size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), skating ability and hands," Gernander said. "He has a better understanding of the game."

Gernander also was pleased with forwards Roman Horak and Hartford prospects Dale Weise and Justin Soryal, Kingston's Ethan Werek and Portland's Luke Walker, who led the team with 5 points. Ryan Bourque did nothing to disappoint, finishing with 1 goal and 3 points while displaying an insatiable desire to win the puck.

ST. LOUIS BLUES (2-2-0)
-- There's no change in style of play and there's no need to push a youngster along prematurely like there was with the Blues a few year ago.
 
"Our agenda is all about growth and steppingstones and which kids need some help," said Blues President John Davidson. "We love this tournament. It's played at a fast pace. It's good hockey and it gives us a good chance to see how our kids are growing and how they match up against the best young players the other teams have.

"We've got the youngest squad here and we came within 2.3 seconds from getting to play for the championship. For us, that's a win-win situation."

Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues' first-round pick in 2008 who played in eight games in St. Louis at the start of last season, has designs on a job with the Blues this season. He had 1 goal and 2 assists in the four games. But don't concentrate too much on his minus-6.

"This is his second time here. He was a leader for us," Davidson said. "He's the only one who will be pushing for a spot with the big club. You can see how hard Alex has worked to get a chance at the Blues' roster in his strength, his poise, everything. He's not the same wide-eyed kid that played here last year."

Davidson said he and his staff can see improvement in all of the players they've projected to be on the horizon of the NHL -- center Philip McRae (a high second-round pick a year ago), right winger Aaron Palushaj (second-rounder in 2007), defenseman Brett Ponich (a second-rounder this year) and goaltender Jake Allen (also second round a year ago).

"Philip's always had wonderful hands. He's got a good mind for the game. He continues to improve his footwork," Davidson said. "Palushaj (who was tied for the lead in the tournament with seven points on 3 goals and 4 assists) has such natural instincts, competitive nature and puck skills. Get him a little stronger and he could be a really good player.

"Brett Ponich. He's a boy in a 6-7 body and will fill out. He's 18 and he wasn't intimidated by a first-year pro on the Rangers who wanted to scrap. Come back and see him in a couple of years with the reach he has and how he learns to be better on his feet. And Jake Allen (who struggled a little in the team's development camp recently and had a 4.12 GAA and .885 save percentage in this tournament). You know something, I have no fear about him getting better -- especially with the help he'll get from Ed Belfour (new Blues organizational goaltending consultant)."

Davidson's summation wasn't limited to skill players. He talked about the improvement in two years of tough guy Anthony Peluso (three goals in this tournament) and how Ian Schultz might be the same kind of prospect.

All that from the youngest roster in the tournament.

DETROIT RED WINGS (2-2-0) -- Little would argue the best European prospect on Detroit's roster this year was Slovakia's Tomas Tatar. He might be small in stature, but Tatar, as he did in the 2009 World Junior Championships, proved to be fast and deadly.

He finished third in the tournament with five points, including three goals. He exhibited a spirited intensity each practice and carried that over into each of Detroit's games throughout the tournament.

The Red Wings also were paced by the Grand Rapids trio of Jan Mursak (5 points), Cory Emmerton and Francis Pare (3 points, plus-6), Edmonton's Brent Raedeke and the club's 2009 second-round draft pick Landon Ferraro of Red Deer. Defensively, Kingston's Brian Lashoff (2 goals), Grand Rapids' Sergei Kolosov (3 points, plus-4) and Portland's Travis Ehrhardt (2 points) were mainstays.

Goaltenders Thomas McCollum (2-0, 2.50 GAA, .906 save percentage) and Jordan Pearce (0-1, 5.00 GAA, .750 save percentage) will likely battle for backup duty behind Daniel Larsson in Grand Rapids this season.

"They both looked good but the big test will be in Detroit's main camp," Fraser said. "It'll be a big difference because the shooters are better, quicker and they'll be exposed a little more. This is the first time in a long time that Detroit has had this much depth in goal."

DALLAS STARS (1-2-1) -- With the Stars, it's not business as usual. Not after they went from the Western Conference Final in 2008 to out of the playoffs in 2009 amidst a changeover in the front office to Joe Nieuwendyk as GM and Marc Crawford as coach.

"We've definitely got some prospects in the cupboard and Jamie Benn (a 6-2, 185-pound left winger who had 46 goals and 36 assists in 56 games for Kelowna of the WHL) is a player knocking on the door. He's a boy in a man's body and has a lot of what it takes to play in the NHL already. Ivan Vishnevskiy (offensive defenseman who was a first-rounder in 2006) has a lot of skill and a lot of talent. Benn and Vishnevskiy are going to get a real good chance with us right away." -- Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk

Earlier in the week, Nieuwendyk said he felt like a kid in a candy store with all those new toys to look at -- minor-league prospects, draft choices and tryouts alike. When the week was over, he said, "It was a grind, four games in five days, but I thought it was a great tournament. Really competitive. It was a good opportunity for me to get a look firsthand at what we have.

"We've definitely got some prospects in the cupboard and Jamie Benn (a 6-2, 185-pound left winger who had 46 goals and 36 assists in 56 games for Kelowna of the WHL) is a player knocking on the door. He's a boy in a man's body and has a lot of what it takes to play in the NHL already. Ivan Vishnevskiy (offensive defenseman who was a first-rounder in 2006) has a lot of skill and a lot of talent. Benn and Vishnevskiy are going to get a real good chance with us right away."

Sergei Korostin and Mathieu Tousignant led the Stars prospects with 3 goals apiece and Scott Glennie, the team's first-round pick in June were being mentioned by more than one scout in the press box, but Nieuwendyk said the most pleasant surprise for him was Tomas Vincour, a 6-2, 203-pound winger who was selected by Dallas in the fifth round of this year's draft after scoring 17 goals and 19 assists in 49 games for Edmonton in the WHL. He had 2 goals in the four games here in Traverse City.

"I thought he showed off his size and ability to protect the puck," Nieuwendyk said. "Except for needing to get a little stronger, he stepped up and really caught my attention."

Regarding Glennie, Nieuwendyk added, "Scotty Glennie has a lot going for him. Great skills. Even greater desire to get better, whether it's on the wing or at center I don't know. He's just raw and needs to get stronger."

ATLANTA THRASHERS (1-2-0) -- Chicago Wolves coach Don Granato smiled when he began his soliloquy on the organization's 2009 first-round draft pick Evander Kane.

"I love Evander's self expectation," he said. "I think that pushes him. Any time he's challenged by another player, he's going inside himself and pushing more out of himself. I think aside from the fact he has an exorbitant amount of talent, his ability to elevate his game every shift certainly benefits him." Kane finished the tournament third in scoring with 6 points (5 goals). He also led his team with 20 shots.

Granato also pointed out Sudbury's Eric O'Dell, North Dakota's Andrew Kozek and Kitchener's Jeremy Morin on offense. Kozek (3 goals) and O'Dell (2 goals) combined for four goals and a plus-4 rating in the team's 7-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday. It was Carolina's only loss of the tournament.

Chicago's Arturs Kulda "has an ability to play physical and with an edge" on defense, according to Granato. Kulda, who missed much of last season with an ankle sprain, is determined to make the big club out of training camp this fall. The coach also lauded Calgary's Paul Postma, a highly skilled blue liner with intelligence and great lateral movement. Additionally, Saginaw's Cody Sol and Guelph's Ben Chiarot, both drafted this year, improved steadily as the tournament progressed and showcased great promise.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (1-2-1)
-- It would be easy to look at the Blue Jackets and start talking about how swift-skating defenseman John Moore, Columbus' first-round pick who turned down a chance to go to Colorado College, is on a fast track to the NHL with Kitchener of the OHL.

"He's a natural," said Syracuse AHL coach Ross Yates, who was running the bench in Traverse City. "I don't think I need to say any more. Do you?"

Yates also pointed out highly-competitive undersized winger Matt Calvert (a fifth-rounder in 2007) and how he plays so hard and how he's a step better in everything he does from last year at Traverse City while tying for the lead in the tournament with Atlanta's Evander Kane with 5 goals and in points with St. Louis' Aaron Palushaj with seven. He also mentioned 6-4 winger Anton Blomqvist (a sixth-round pick from this year's draft) and how he's been a pleasant surprise for everyone in the organization. Big, skilled forward, who's playing in North America for the first time and is headed back to Malmo in the Swedish Elite League this season. There has to be a mention of Stefan Legein, the former second-round pick who quit the game a year ago. He played harder as the tournament went on, getting a big goal in Game 4.

Don Boyd, the team's director of player personnel, added Tomas Kubalik to Yates' list of previously drafted players, saying the big Czech forward was going to player for Victoriaville of the Quebec  League and he's had a productive tournament. But then, bragging on their previously drafted players isn't what this week has been about for the Blue Jackets.

"We brought big numbers (18 tryout players) to see if we could find a few people with competitive skill that we could get our hands on outside the draft process," Boyd explained. "Scouting players is definitely not an exact science. Players slip through the cracks all the time. Just look around the league and you'll find some of them on almost every team. We're just looking for our share."

Even though Columbus made the playoffs last season for the first time in its eight seasons in the NHL, you can't stand still. There's always a need for more and more players. Competitive skilled players according to Boyd.

"Brock McBride and Chris Higgins, both of whom will be playing in the American Hockey League, have shown us lots of competitiveness up front," reasoned Boyd. "Andrew Loverlock has turned some eyes in goal and Spencer McAvoy, Tim Filangieri and Cam Brodie have fit that competitive mold on defense."

"Just look at that eight-round shootout we just completed," said Yates. "I dare you to say any of our players didn't compete hard."

He's right.

Quote of the Day

I feel that responsibility, I've felt it for the last two years. We core guys get a lot of minutes, we get a lot of opportunity out there. Our teammates, the organization and fans look to us to be the guys to put the puck in the net and to create momentum out there.

— Jordan Eberle on taking his game and the Edmonton Oilers to the next level