Even before his Calder Trophy-winning season began, Jeff Skinner
of the Carolina Hurricanes
was one of several promising players looking to make his mark at the annual Traverse City Prospects tournament in Michigan last September.
Needless to say, he accomplished that goal.
"Besides being a short conditioning camp, it was sort of my first taste of the next level and it's fun to go there and get to know the people in the organization and at the same time have that competition feeling when you're playing in the tournament," Skinner told NHL.com. "I think for the players, it's a great opportunity to show your stuff to management and the people in the organization. For me personally, it was good preparation heading into (training) camp to sort of get into game shape."
First-rounders to be in Traverse City
Each of the eight teams headed to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament from Sept. 10-14 will be fielding impressive lineups.
The ultimate goal is to earn a plaque to take home and have a permanent trophy displayed year-round at the Centre ICE Arena in Traverse City, Mich., as the tournament champion.
In 2010, the tournament featured 19 players who would play at least one NHL game for their respective NHL team in 2010-11, including forward Jeff Skinner
of the Carolina Hurricanes
, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo
of the St. Louis Blues
and center Derek Stepan
of the New York Rangers
Skinner and Stepan finished tied for the tournament lead last year with 7 points apiece.
In 2009, the tournament featured 10 players who would play as least one NHL game for their respective NHL team in 2009-10, including forward Brandon Sutter
and defenseman Jamie McBain
of the tournament champion Carolina Hurricanes
and defenseman Michael Del Zotto
of the Rangers. Atlanta defenseman Zach Bogosian
, Columbus forward Jakub Voracek
, Dallas forward James Neal
, Minnesota forward Cal Clutterbuck
and St. Louis forwards Patrik Berglund
and T.J. Oshie
highlighted the 2008 tournament.
"It's not training camp with all the big guys, but it's a first step for guys just coming into the League and trying to make an impression," Oshie told NHL.com. "I think just the confidence you gain there by meeting new guys gives you a sense of the pro life and it makes you a little more comfortable for training camp."
Here's a list of the 13 first-round draft picks participating this year:
: Forward Zack Kassian
(2009); defenseman Mark Pysyk
: Defenseman Ryan Murphy
Columbus Blue Jackets
: Defenseman John Moore
(2009); forward Ryan Johansen
: Forward Scott Glennie
(2009); goalie Jack Campbell
(2010); defenseman Jamie Oleksiak
Detroit Red Wings
: Defenseman Brendan Smith
: Forward Zack Phillips
New York Rangers
: Defensemen Tim Erixon
(2009) and Dylan McIlrath
(2010); forward J.T. Miller
--Mike G. Morreale
Skinner, the club's 2010 first-round draft pick (No. 7), looked every bit as good as advertised competing against the top prospects from other NHL squads while donning a Hurricanes jersey for the first time. 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 final goal, 3:36 into overtime, gave the Hurricanes a 4-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning
in the third-place game.
"Anytime you have people sort of fighting for spots and trying to get an opportunity it's going to be a competitive environment," he said. "I think to be a part of that with your new organization and the people that showed the trust in you at the draft, is a lot of fun. It was the first time I was part of the team and competing in a tournament."
Skinner won't be playing in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament this year, to be held Sept. 10-14, but his former teammate with the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League, defenseman Ryan Murphy
, will be. Murphy, Carolina's first-round pick (No. 12) in June, is looking forward to this year's tournament. He's hoping to follow in Skinner's footsteps.
"There will be a bunch of high-caliber hockey players at this camp," he told NHL.com. "Hopefully, this one can help tune me up for the upcoming camps. The main thing (Skinner) told me to do was to work my butt off in Traverse City at the conditioning camp and show them that I won't quit."
Skinner said he expects Murphy to play his game and have fun with his teammates, just as he did, at last year's tournament.
"The team drafted Murphy for the skill he brings to the ice, so I think he should just sort of go there, have fun and just play his game," Skinner said. "It can be overwhelming, I guess, to think about the new things that are going to come at him and the new situation, but just have fun and sort of roll with things. That would be advice."
The five-day Traverse City Prospects Tournament was expanded to eight teams in 2006 and has become an annual opportunity for coaches and general managers to evaluate their prospects against their peers.
"When we first started out, Ken (Holland, Red Wings GM) and I were talking about how we could evaluate our players better," Red Wings Vice-President/Assistant General Manager Jim Nill said. "We used to always bring players to training camp and you'd throw them on the ice with (Steve) Yzerman and (Brendan) Shanahan and (Nicklas) Lidstrom and it was sink or swim. We felt that wasn't a fair evaluation -- these kids aren't strong enough, mentally or physically.
"So this prospects tournament came about. Here, we get to evaluate our kids against their own age group. The thing we didn't realize was how high a level of play it would become, and looking at the alumni of players who have come out of this tournament … (Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Dany) Heatley, (Pavel) Datsyuk, Skinner … the level of play at this tourney is so high for this time of year. When you think about putting a bunch of kids together, who never played together on the ice, you think, 'Oh boy, this isn't going to be that crisp of hockey,' but the hockey is unbelievable."
Is it possible this season's Calder Trophy winner will start his season at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament?
Columbus Blue Jackets
prospect Ryan Johansen
might be the closest thing. The 6-foot-2, 192-pound center, chosen with the fourth pick of the 2010 draft, will be joining his teammates in Traverse City for the second straight season.
Despite playing for a team that allowed the most goals, took the fewest shots and finished winless at last year's event, Johansen skated hard throughout and wasn't afraid to work the corners, finishing with a goal and 2 assists.
"It's a great experience and good to get in some exhibition games before you start your main camp," Johansen told NHL.com. "It's nice to be in that game mode before you even arrive at main camp. Traverse was really high-paced. The few games that we played were a lot of fun and competitive."
Columbus will compete in the Howe Division, with the Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres
and defending tournament champion Minnesota Wild
. The Gretzky Division will feature prospects from the Hurricanes, St. Louis Blues
, Dallas Stars
and New York Rangers
. The Sabres, competing in the Traverse City tournament for the first time, will send a talented lineup that includes forwards Luke Adam
(No. 44 pick of the 2008 draft), Daniel Catenacci
(No. 77, 2011), Marcus Foligno
(No. 104, 2009) and Zack Kassian
(No. 13, 2009) and defensemen Mark Pysyk
(No. 23, 2010) and Brayden McNabb
(No. 66, 2009).
"Here, we get to evaluate our kids against their own age group. The thing we didn't realize was how high a level of play it would become, and looking at the alumni of players who have come out of this tournament … (Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Dany) Heatley, (Pavel) Datsyuk, Skinner … the level of play at this tourney is so high for this time of year. When you think about putting a bunch of kids together, who never played together on the ice, you think, 'Oh boy, this isn't going to be that crisp of hockey,' but the hockey is unbelievable." -- Jim Nill
Once the eight teams have finished round-robin play in the two groups, each will play a final game Sept. 13 to determine final tournament ranking, with the championship game taking place Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. All games will take place at David's Rink and Huntington Rink at the Centre ICE Arena, the training camp home of the Detroit Red Wings
"The level of play coming through this tournament has been so high," Nill said. "You get to watch other teams, so you're not only evaluating your players but other teams'. Most of these kids are 4-5 years down the road, but at least you kind of see where teams will be at in 4-5 years."
The Wild defeated the Red Wings 3-1 in last year's prospects championship game behind goalie Matt Hackett
(3-0, 1.68 goals-against average, .942 save percentage), a third-round pick (No. 77) in 2009, and defensemen Tyler Cuma
(No. 23, 2008) and Marco Scandella
(No. 55, 2008). Hackett and Cuma will return to Traverse City for the Wild this year.
Follow Mike Morreale at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament on Twitter at: @mike_morreale