It was just last year that Almond, a fifth-round pick (No. 140) in 2007, suffered a torn knee ligament the day before the opening faceoff of the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament. As if learning he'd be out a month wasn't painful enough, the Wild dropped a 4-1 decision to the Carolina Hurricanes in the championship game of the tournament five days later.
Fortunately for Almond, opportunity came knocking again.
Not only was the 21-year-old center named captain of the Wild's team for this year's event, but he helped rally the Minnesota prospects to a 3-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings' hopefuls in the tournament final Thursday at Center Ice Arena. The Wild, who finished 4-0 in the five-day event while outscoring the opposition 15-7, connected for three goals in a span of 7:28 in the third period to help the Wild overcome a one-goal deficit.
"When we needed a leader, Cody took over and he was saying all the right things and doing the right things on the bench," Minnesota prospects coach Mike Yeo told NHL.com. "It was great to see him get rewarded with that big goal, too."
It was a nice turnaround for Almond after last year.
"It was extremely disappointing when I hurt my knee last year because I didn't get a chance to partake in any of the training camps, so it's kind of tough to start out the season that way," Almond said. "But I think I showed a little character here by battling back. It was weird in a way because I've never been on a training camp team that was so close, but it seemed everyone was on the same page from the get-go and that showed on the ice."
Almond, who spent 48 games in the American Hockey League with the Houston Aeros last season before getting called up to the big club for seven games, is hoping to carry the momentum he's gained in Traverse City into the Wild's main training camp.
"I want to be on Minnesota this year but I know it won't be easy and it's going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm going to play my best and do what I can to kind of stick around," Almond said.
The victory was the second Traverse City tournament championship for Minnesota and first since 2003. Detroit, which was making its initial appearance in the tournament final, has never won the crown.
Here's a breakdown of each team and those players who stood out this week. The teams are listed in their order of finish:
Minnesota Wild (4-0-0) -- The Wild reached the championship game for the second straight year behind leading scorers Jarod Palmer (3 goals, 5 points), Casey Wellman (2 goals, 5 points) and Almond (2 goals, plus-1 rating).
Palmer, who spent the previous four seasons at the University of Miami, signed an entry-level contract with the Wild at the end of his senior season. Wellman played in 12 games with Minnesota last season after signing a two-year, entry-level contract. He led the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with 23 goals (11 on the power-play) and ranked second on the team with 45 points in 36 games as a sophomore in 2009-10.
"The purpose of this tournament is to have players develop and grow and the Minnesota Wild are looking for winners and that's exactly what these kids brought," said Yeo, also the coach of Minnesota's AHL affiliate in Houston. "When you see kids laying their bodies out on the line to block shots; it was amazing how the team came together in such a short period of time.
"The best part for us is the fact all the guys had different moments and stepped up when we needed them to."
Goalie Matthew Hackett (third round, 2009) finished 3-0 with a 1.68 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. Defensively, Tyler Cuma (first round, 2008) and Marco Scandella (second round, 2008) played prominent roles for a team that yielded the second-fewest goals in the tournament, behind only Carolina.
"Cuma is a very talented player and great skater," Yeo said. "I think the best thing I can say about Tyler is that from game to game he got better and showed that he's capable of playing a pro hockey league game."
Hackett, the nephew of long-time NHL goalie Jeff Hackett, likely will turn pro this fall after spending the last three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Plymouth Whalers. He made 30 saves in the tournament final against the host Red Wings.
"I thought Matthew was tremendous," Yeo said. "What you're looking for in a goaltender when you're team is not at its best, or when there's a breakdown, is the key save and he pretty much single-handedly won the game (against the New York Rangers) that put us in the championship game."
Detroit Red Wings (2-1-1) -- The Red Wings had their best finish at the tournament in its 13-year history.
The leading scorer on the team was Tomas Tatar (3 goals, 4 points). The youngest player in the AHL last season, Tatar still totaled 16 goals and 32 points in 58 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Other key contributors included forwards Joakim Andersson, Willie Coetzee (Red Deer, Western Hockey League) and Brent Raedeke (1 goal, 2 points), who could return to Brandon in the WHL or turn pro and join Tatar in Grand Rapids this season. Andersson, who had 6 goals and 18 points with Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League in 2009-10, will play in Grand Rapids this season.
Defensively, Brendan Smith (Grand Rapids), who earned the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Defensive Player of the Year award as a junior at Wisconsin last season, and Brian Lashoff, who played his first season in 2009-10 with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs, contributed to the effort.
Goaltenders Thomas McCollum (Grand Rapids), Jordan Pearce (Toledo, ECHL) and Petr Mrazek (Ottawa, OHL) all played key roles.
"There's junior and then the AHL and then there's a huge jump to the NHL," said Red Wings prospect coach Curt Fraser, who's also the coach at Grand Rapids. "(Detroit GM) Ken Holland and (assistant GM) Jim Nill give players time to develop, and when they get to the big team, they must contribute -- they can't just be an extra guy. Tommy McCollum had a rough year last year and everybody had high expectations for this kid. The last 30 games of the year, he found his step and was very good, so we're looking for big things out of him this year. I believe that Tommy McCollum is the real deal, and I feel he'll be terrific. He just needs to get a few years playing in the AHL under his belt and he'll be good for the Wings."
McCollum, who took the loss in the final against the Wild, went 1-1 with a 2.00 GAA and .907 save percentage at the tournament.
"He's a guy who likes going into traffic. He'll go to the net and get those dirty goals and he's a smart, heads-up hockey player. He has the skill level and now it's just a matter of going to camp and making adjustments to the speed of the game and the size and strength of the players." -- Jeff Daniels
Forward Jeff Skinner, the Hurricanes' first-round draft pick (No. 7) in June, looked every bit as good as advertised. He finished tied for the tournament lead with 7 points, including 2 goals, a plus-2 rating and a tournament-high 21 shots on goal. Skinner's goal 3:36 into overtime gave the Hurricanes a 4-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the third-place game.
"The puck seems to find him and he knows what to do with it in the right situations," said Jeff Daniels, coach of Carolina's AHL affiliate in Charlotte and also the bench boss for the club's prospects. "He's a guy who likes going into traffic. He'll go to the net and get those dirty goals and he's a smart, heads-up hockey player. He has the skill level and now it's just a matter of going to camp and making adjustments to the speed of the game and the size and strength of the players."
Matt Kennedy, who signed an entry-level contract with the team in May, also starred offensively, finishing with 3 goals and 6 points. Kennedy, who captained the Carolina prospects, completed his fifth season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2009-10, splitting time between Guelph and Barrie. He totaled 18 goals and 34 points in 43 games, including 18 points in 29 games after being acquired by Barrie in December.
Zac Dalpe (2 goals, 4 points, plus-3) and Riley Nash (Cornell), who signed an entry-level contract in July, also looked sharp. In goal, Mike Murphy, who went 3-0 with a 2.43 GAA and .933 save percentage last season with AHL Albany, was splendid once again. Murphy, who finished 2-1 with a 1.00 GAA and .963 save percentage, signed an entry-level contract last season.
"To me, Jeff Skinner was one of the best on the ice," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. "He's prepared himself properly from a strength point of view to play in our League this year. He's got the skill level and the determination, so he's a guy who will have a really good chance at making our team."
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-1) -- The Lightning might have finished fourth, but they scored the tournament's most memorable victory in round-robin play -- a 4-3, 16-round shootout victory against the Red Wings. Memorable not only because of the high drama in the end, but because it marked the first time Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman was matched against his former employer.
"The history of the Lightning in this tournament hasn't been a great one in the win-loss department," said Jon Cooper, coach of the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Norfolk who also headed the prospect team. "I know it's not all about wins and loses -- it's about getting to know your prospects. But let's be honest, we had it in us to get that one for Steve Yzerman. Even though no one would admit it publicly, we were really pulling for that one and I thought the guys played really hard. That's one of the things I really liked about this team -- everyone was really receptive to ideas and we performed well. It might have taken 32 shooters to finally end the thing, but I'm glad we were on the happy end."
Starring on offense for the Lightning prospects were James Wright (3 goals, 6 points, plus-4), 2010 first-round (No. 6) draft choice Brett Connolly (2 goals, 4 points, plus-1) and 2009 first-round selection (No. 29) Carter Ashton (1 goal, 2 points). Dana Tyrell (1 goal, 2 points), a 2007 second-round pick (No. 47), also produced.
"Brett has tremendous skill and good size (6-foot-2, 181 pounds), but needs to put a little more beef on his body and get a little stronger," said Steve Thomas, Tampa Bay's player development consultant. "The next level is very different from the junior level he's playing right now. He's going to be an NHL player, he's got that ability. He doesn't get too high or too low; he just goes out there and does his job."
Defensively, Brock Beukeboom, the son of four-time Stanley Cup winning defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, was steady.
"For an 18-year-old, Brock makes some mistakes out there, but he has great poise and keeps his game really simple," Thomas said. "He keeps everything in front and has a good first pass. He's a stay-at-home type, make-no-mistake kind of defenseman."
Both goalies played admirably in the tournament -- Jaroslav Janus stopped 40 shots in regulation and overtime and turned away 14 of 16 shooters in the shootout victory against Detroit. Janus split time between Norfolk and the OHL's Erie Otters last season. He finished 1-0-1 with a 3.27 GAA and .909 save percentage in Traverse City.
New York Rangers (2-2-0) -- The Rangers provided some excitement in each of their games, particularly when Derek Stepan centered the top line with Ryan Bourque and Evgeny Grachev.
Defensively, Dylan McIlrath of Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League and Ryan McDonagh, who completed his third season at the University of Wisconsin before signing a pro contract, provided a formidable pairing for Hartford Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander, who again coached the Rangers prospects.
McDonagh was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round (No. 12) in 2007 and was dealt to the Rangers, along with forward Christopher Higgins, in exchange for Scott Gomez a year ago. He signed an entry-level contract in July and will be in training camp. In his third season with the Badgers, McDonagh, 21, established career-highs in games played, assists, points and penalty minutes.
Stepan, who had 1 goal and 2 assists in a 7-2 victory against Dallas in Wednesday's fifth-place game, led the Rangers in scoring and finished tied with Skinner for the tournament scoring lead with 7 points, including 5 assists, and a plus-5 rating. Stepan, captain of the gold medal-winning Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championship, was the team's best offensive playmaker. Bourque wasn't far behind him, producing 1 goal, 4 points and a plus-4 rating. Grachev was first on the team with 4 goals and finished with 5 points and a plus-4 rating.
"(Grachev) is still a young kid," Wolf Pack assistant coach J.J. Daigneault said. "When he wants to play hard, he's good. When he's on top of his game, he's skating, strong on the puck and dominant at this level. We had him in Hartford the whole year (in 2009-10), and you have to remember he's still only 19 years old and playing in a men's league. We're expecting a lot from him, but he's still developing. He had a good tournament but I think the best is yet to come."
Bourque appeared a lot more confident and stronger on his skates during his second go-round in Traverse City this season. One player who surprised on offense was Kelsey Tessier (3 points, plus-2 rating), who recently signed an entry-level deal with the Rangers.
"I thought Ryan Bourque was excellent with his forecheck, creating turnovers and recovering loose pucks," Gernander said. "It remains to be seen whether or not any one of them will make the team, but they had a nice showing in this tournament and that's what we're looking for."
Daigneault feels one more season in the WHL probably will do McIlrath, the 10th pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, a world of good.
"I was very impressed with his play; he showed basic fundamentals that I teach my defensemen and I liked a lot of things he did, like recovering pucks, absorbing hits, transitioning well, playing good one-on-one and taking care of his own end," Daigneault said. "He's very skilled and big (6-foot-4, 218 pounds), and he's only 18. He's not going to be a Ranger this year and I think he knows that."
McIlrath, who was involved in 19 fights and compiled 169 penalty minutes with Moose Jaw in 2009-10, wasn't challenged to drop the gloves all tournament.
"He'll finish out junior and come back here next year and I think he'll be a pretty darn good defenseman one day," Daigneault said. "The Rangers took a chance on Dylan because of his character and toughness and I think, hockey-wise, he impressed a lot of people."
Dallas Stars (1-3-0) -- While a sixth-place finish wasn't exactly what Dallas Stars prospects coach Glen Gulutzan envisioned, there were a few positives.
Sure, 2010 first-round pick Jack Campbell finished 0-2 with a 4.50 GAA and .870 save percentage, but the experience will do him a lot of good. Campbell will begin the season in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires, and that only will aid in his development.
"We don't want to move him along too quickly; he's on the right track and he's an impressive kid," Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk said. "That's where he'll be. We are now pretty deep on the goaltending position and we don't have to rush Jack by any means."
The club also is high on 2009 first-round pick Scott Glennie, although the 6-foot-1, 185-pound right wing managed just 1 goal along with a minus-5 rating for the tournament.
"In Scott, I see a young man who is getting older, mature, stronger and he's certainly a lot better player in my eyes from a year ago," Nieuwendyk said. "I think he'll be a really good player for us in the future."
For now, though, expect Glennie (No. 8, 2009) to spend his fourth season in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He's collected 86 goals and 217 points in 182 junior games.
The Stars relied on Tristan King (1 goal, 4 points) and Tomas Vincour (2 goals) for much of their offense, although the club finished tied with Columbus for the fewest goals in the tournament, with eight. King had 21 goals and 65 points in 70 games for the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL last season and Vincour, a fifth-round pick (No. 129) in 2009, had a combined 29 goals and 48 points in 57 games with Edmonton and Vancouver in the WHL.
St. Louis Blues (2-2-0) -- After winning this tournament three straight years from 1999 through 2001, the Blues have fallen on hard times in Traverse City. Still, they closed on a strong note with a 5-2 victory against the Blue Jackets in the seventh-place game en route to a .500 record.
"I thought we competed hard for the most part," said prospects coach Jared Bednar, also coach of the Blues' AHL affiliate in Peoria. "We saw a lot of good things out of a lot of good prospects. We bounced back after losing a tough one on Tuesday (2-1 to Detroit)."
Bednar singled out defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Brett Ponich, David Shields (2 assists) and Ian Cole.
"I thought Ponich and Shields were great when we paired them together; they were a big shut-down pair," Bednar said. "I saw a lot of good things out of them, and as they fill into their bodies, I think they're going to be something for our club to look forward to in the future."
Bednar also praised goalie Jake Allen, who finished the tournament 2-1 with a 2.00 GAA and .938 save percentage. It was a nice turnaround for Allen, who went 2-1 with a 4.12 GAA and .885 save percentage at last year's prospects tournament.
Pietrangelo, who's opened the last two seasons with the Blues only to be returned to his junior team after nine games each time, finished the tournament with 2 goals, 3 points and 12 penalty minutes.
"I think Alex is right where he needs to be at this stage in his career," Bednar said of the 2008 first-round pick. "He was really strong for us and is a guy who's been to this tournament before. He could have decided to look past this tournament with main camp right around the corner, but he didn't and took on a huge leadership role with (Brett) Sonne and had a great attitude. He brought a lot of energy and a lot of juice to our club and that translated onto the ice.
"I thought he was arguably our best player and best skater in all our games. I think we have a great prospect in him and look forward to seeing how he continues to develop."
Offensively, the Blues relied on Sonne (third round, 2007), who had 3 goals and 5 points, and Philip McRae (second round, 2008). Bednar also needed a herculean effort from penalty-killers Stephen MacAulay (sixth round, 2010) and Nick MacNeil as the team racked up a tournament-high 150 penalty minutes. The club allowed just two power-play goals on 32 times shorthanded. MacNeil, a former captain of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, is committed to the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, N.B., this fall.
Columbus Blue Jackets (0-4-0) -- The Jackets allowed the most goals (23), took the fewest shots (113) and were the only winless team of the tournament.
Still, there's a lot to like about center Ryan Johansen on the offensive side. The fourth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft had a goal and 2 assists and exhibited quite the motor by skating hard throughout and wasn't afraid to work the corners.
Johansen inked an entry-level contract last week. If he doesn't make the Jackets' roster, he'll be returned to Portland of the WHL.
"It's every kid's dream to get some money for doing something that he loves," Johansen told NHL.com. "So it was very exciting. Finally, I don't have to worry about that extra thing and I can focus on my game and get ready for main camp back in Columbus."
Chris Francis (3 goals, 4 points, team-high 15 shots), a non-roster invitee, and Tomas Kubalik (2 goals, 3 points) spurred the team offensively. Kubalik, who had 33 goals and 75 points in 58 games with the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, likely will be battling for ice time with the AHL's Springfield Falcons in 2010-11.
Matt Calvert (fifth round, 2008) mustered an assist in three games, but in 68 games in the WHL with Brandon, he had 47 goals and 52 assists. He also had an eye-opening plus-47 rating and scored 9 goals and 7 assists in 15 playoff games.
Defensively, John Moore looked to be in top form despite only producing 1 assist. He also had a minus-5 rating with eight shots. Even if Moore does begin the season in Springfield, it might behoove the Blue Jackets to get him to the NHL at some point. The Jackets open training camp Friday and the 19-year-old Moore, who added 12 pounds this year, figures to be fighting for a roster spot.
He was given a strict workout regimen by Blue Jackets strength and conditioning coach Kevin Collins over the summer and is in great shape.
"I put on some weight but I still feel quick and haven't lost too much speed," Moore said. "I feel like I actually gained speed. When you're in the NHL playing against grown men, they're big men. It's not like major junior, where you have the scrawny 16- and 17-year-olds coming out on the forecheck. It's the grown 25- to 30-year-old men who are going to put you through the glass so you need to be physically competitive. Everyone in pro hockey takes a lot of pride in strength and conditioning, and that's just part of the process."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale