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Looking back at Traverse City tournament

by Dan Rosen and Mike Morreale
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – As training camps open across the National Hockey League this week, one very important exhibition tournament came to a close Wednesday night.

The Dallas Stars were crowned champions of the 10th annual Traverse City Prospects Tournament Wednesday with an 8-3 victory against the Atlanta Thrashers, but all eight organizations here felt like winners.

No matter where they finished in the standings, the tournament was a major success from the business and player-development standpoint.

"You can judge from the number of people in the stands, and (camp director) Pete Correia told me the attendance was better this year than it was last year and the year before," Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland said. "We've been at it for 10 years and our organization loves it. You're going to bring these kids in for a week anyway, so instead of just practicing on your own, you get a chance to watch them play games."

As usual, there were future NHL stars playing at Centre I.C.E. Arena during the past five days, and was there to document it all. Before we close the book on our summer of prospects, here is a recap of the Traverse City Prospects Tournament:

1. Dallas Stars (4-0-0, 8 points)

Dallas earned its first Traverse City championship behind the play of several big names, including tournament scoring leader James Neal (second round, 2005). Neal had a goal and 2 assists in an 8-3 victory against Atlanta in Wednesday's tournament finale.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Ontario native, who finished with 4 goals, 5 assists and a plus-3 rating in four games, was Dallas' unofficial MVP of the tournament.

"I've seen James in this tournament for three years and he really stepped up this year and took this team on his back, taking us to the championship," said prospects coach Derek Laxdal, who also coached the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL. "He's a player who's starting to mature and show a lot of character."

Stars co-GM Les Jackson certainly likes what he sees in Neal.

"James has really made some nice strides since we drafted him," he said. "He's knocking right on the door for our team, and if he doesn't make the team he'll go back and play in the American Hockey League (with Iowa). He's certainly been one of our quicker players at this tournament. He's a kid who really competes, plays hard and offers a nice blend of skating and scoring."

Free-agent acquisition Fabian Brunnstrom, 23, also looked sharp, particularly along the boards and around the goal, and finished with a goal and 3 assists in the tournament. He put plenty of pressure on the defense with a fierce forecheck and was in constant motion inside the offensive zone.

"Fabian is a little bit older than some of the kids here, but our whole goal in bringing him to this tournament was getting him some ice time prior to the big camp," said Jackson. "He's a great kid with some pretty nice hands and I think it'll be an interesting year for him."

In addition to Neal and Brunnstrom, forwards Tyler Shelast (free agent, 2008), Jamie Benn (fifth round, 2007), Colton Scevior (fourth round, 2007) and Aaron Gagnon (free agent, 2007) all were productive.

Defensively, Trevor Ludwig (sixth round, 2004), Ivan Vishnevskiy (first round, 2006) and Guillaume Monast (tryout), who finished a plus-4 in three games, made solid impressions.

2. Atlanta Thrashers (3-1-0, 6 points)

The Thrashers, who scored a thrilling 3-2 shootout decision against Detroit to garner the Eastern Conference championship, possessed a formidable group that was tough on defense and entertaining to watch.

Bolstering the blue line were Zach Bogosian (first round, 2008), Arturs Kulda (seventh round, 2006), Paul Postma (seventh round, 2007) and goalies Chris Carrozzi (sixth round, 2008) and Ryan Daniels (tryout).

"Zach is just a machine,'' said Thrashers prospects co-coach Jeff Pyle. “He's a great kid who wants to be out there for 60 minutes. You can't really measure heart and commitment and I just think he's going to keep getting better and better. When you're motivated you want to prove yourself every day and that's the way Zach is. He's never content with his game and, while I think he understands he's a good player, here's that carrot dangling out there in front of him and he's determined to go after it. That's almost a lost art for some of these kids today, so it's something great to see."
Pyle also was pleasantly surprised with Carrozzi's play.

"I didn't know a whole lot about him, but he reminds me of a guy we faced in the East Coast (league) in my first year at Gwinnett in the conference finals against Idaho – Dan Ellis," Pyle said of the current Nashville Predators goalie. "He has the same type of stance, is calm and never looks rattled. Some goalies don't know how to handle allowing a goal, but he's never rattled and is great on his angles."

On offense, Spencer Machacek (third round, 2007), Angelo Esposito (trade, 2008), Matt Lyall (tryout), Riley Holzapfel (second round, 2006) and Carter Bancks (tryout) also impressed.
"Spencer just works so hard," Pyle said. "I had him last year when we were here and he's a great kid with great character. He's proven to be a great leader and one of those guys who might not be a 100-point scorer, but one you'll always want on your team any day of the week."

3. Minnesota Wild (2-1-1, 5 points)

The Wild drafted a defenseman in the first round for the first time in four years when Tyler Cuma went off the board at No. 23 at the 2008 Entry Draft.

According to Wild prospects coach Kevin Constantine, Cuma did nothing to disappoint in Traverse City, finishing the week with an assist and a plus-1 rating.

"Zach is just a machine,'' said Thrashers prospects co-coach Jeff Pyle. “He's a great kid who wants to be out there for 60 minutes. You can't really measure heart and commitment and I just think he's going to keep getting better and better."      -- Atlanta Thrashers prospects co-coach Jeff Pyle on prospect Zach Bogosian

"Tyler has a great blend of everything, from competitiveness to skill and skating," said Constantine, who coaches the Houston Aeros, the Wild's AHL affiliate. "The challenge becomes to continue to improve, and all you have to do to improve is care, analyze, learn and listen. He just needs to find the little things in his game to get better at and have the mental willingness to continue to grow and mature and I believe he will."

The Wild also received some fine performances from defensemen Maxim Noreau (free agent, 2008), who actually played forward in the team's final game Wednesday, and Justin Falk (fourth round, 2007).

On offense, Colton Gillies (first round, 2007), Cody Almond (fifth round, 2007), Justin Hodgman (tryout) and Cal Clutterbuck (third round, 2006) impressed.
Clutterbuck (2 goals, 4 points) and Noreau (3 goals, 4 points), who both played for Constantine in Houston last season, received plenty of ice time as two of the more energetic and enthusiastic skaters on the team. Hodgman scored the clincher in a 3-2 shootout decision against Detroit in the bronze-medal game Wednesday.

"Cal was a very consistent player for us last year," Constantine said. "He brought his 'A' game every night and provided our club a lot of energy, physical play and solid penalty-killing."

4. Detroit Red Wings (2-0-2, 6 points)

Another year in Traverse City has passed without a Detroit championship, but entering the tournament the Red Wings' staffers felt this was the best team they had fielded here, which proved true.

For the first time in the tournament's 10-year history the Red Wings made it to the third-place game, and Tuesday night they fell just short of the championship game. The Wings lost, 3-2, in a shootout Wednesday in the third-place game.

"It's been fun to watch how they bought into the concept of the Red Wings and how we apply the high-pace, five-guys-offense, five-guys-defense hockey," said Jiri Fischer, the Wings' Director of Player Development. "I've been really impressed with how they were able to manage it together."
Cory Emmerton was the Wings' best forward as he registered a team-high 6 points, including 3 goals. Emmerton will play this season in Grand Rapids for the Wings' AHL affiliate. He played seven games there last season.

Fischer said the Wings also were happy to see the leadership of their players who had already played professionally, including Jakub Kindl, Mattias Ritola, Justin Abdelkader and Jan Mursak.

5. St. Louis Blues (2-2-0, 4 points)

After coaching the Blues prospects here, Peoria Rivermen head coach Davis Payne figures he'll have a good AHL squad this season. However, Payne doesn't figure to have either of the Blues' top two forward prospects in Peoria this season.

"It's been fun to watch how they bought into the concept of the Red Wings and how we apply the high-pace, five-guys-offense, five-guys-defense hockey."
-- Jiri Fischer, Red Wings Director of Player Development on his club's Traverse City experience

"We don't expect to see (Patrik) Berglund and (T.J.) Oshie there," Payne said. "In order to be a good American Hockey League player you've got to be able to stand out here. In order to be a National Hockey League player you've got to dominate here. I think we saw that out of Bergie and Osh."
While Berglund, who was second in scoring with 8 points (4 goals), and Oshie (4 points) played up to expectations, Payne said he also was impressed with several other prospects.

"Jonas Junland showed how he can control the game at this level with his skating, his puck movement and his intelligence," Payne said. "We really feel like (goalie) Ben Bishop is a guy we can count on and expected his level of play to be where it is. (Goalie) Jake Allen played extremely composed for a young guy."

Payne also said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, got better every game as he got accustomed to the speed of the game, and forward Anthony Nigro was a good fit on the top line with Berglund and Oshie.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets (2-2-0, 4 points)

Anybody wondering what the Blue Jackets think of Jakub Voracek needs only to know that he played so well in the first two games that Columbus' staff felt they didn't need to see anymore from him.

"Jakub Voracek is obviously a very special player," Jackets development coach Tyler Wright said.
Voracek finished the tournament with 2 assists and a plus-2 rating in two games, but he was hardly the only positive in Wright's eyes despite the Jackets' sub-par finish in the tournament.

Wright mentioned the play of forwards John Hughes, who had a team-high 5 points, Matt Calvert (4 points), Maxim Mayorov and Brian McGuirk (12 penalty minutes). He also commented on defensemen Grant Clitsome (2 points, plus-3) and Nick Holden.

McGuirk, Hughes and Holden were in Traverse City on tryout deals.

"Calvert has really impressed me with his hockey sense," Wright said. "He's a hard-working kid that doesn't take a shift off. He's not the biggest guy and he gets his nose dirty. He's got better hockey sense than I think we have given him credit for."

7. New York Rangers (1-3-0, 2 points)
When asked for the Rangers' biggest surprise of the tournament, assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld named a pair of 2008 draft picks.

"I think Michael Del Zotto (No. 20) was our best defensemen, and that says he's got a heck of a future ahead of him if he keeps working," Schoenfeld said. "Dale Weise (fourth round) has been a big surprise, too."

"He's a hard-working kid that doesn't take a shift off. He's not the biggest guy and he gets his nose dirty. He's got better hockey sense than I think we have given him credit for." -- Columbus Blue Jackets Development coach Tyler Wright

Regarding Del Zotto, who is 18 and likely headed back to play with the Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League, Schoenfeld said his composure was remarkable. On Weise, a 20-year-old who played for Swift Current of the Western Hockey League last season, Schoenfeld liked the complete package.

"He's got a good package of skill with some speed, grit and toughness," Schoenfeld said of Weise, who had a team-high 3 goals. "He's going to get a crack. He'll go to New York now and we'll see how he does with the bigger boys."

Schoenfeld also liked what he saw from Artem Anisimov, Joe Barnes and Brodie Dupont, a trio of prospects who played last season in the AHL with Hartford. As for defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, the 2006 first-round pick who was playing in his third Traverse City tournament, Schoenfeld is curious to see him play with more skilled offensive players in New York.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning (0-3-1, 1 point)

When Barry Melrose was hired as coach in June, he made it known that one of his goals was to make certain the organization's depth chart would remain stacked.

The statement came on the heels of Tampa's AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, finishing last in their division, and its ECHL affiliate, the Mississippi Sea Wolves, finishing second-to-last.

"We're going to completely revamp our minor-league system," Melrose said. "Ownership realizes this is one of the main areas we must improve on. The minor-league teams are going to become much more of a focal point. We're going to spend more money, more time and a greater commitment into building a good foundation for Tampa Bay."

While Darren Rumble, who coached the Lightning prospects in Traverse City, realizes a transformation won't happen overnight, he was encouraged by the play of several young prospects this week.

"The fact is, you're probably looking at a four-year rebuilding process," said Rumble, the coach in Norfolk. "That said, the organization has done a really nice job with signing some depth, and if there is a rash of injuries this season I think we'll be able to sustain our play a little better than in the past."

Ty Wishart, the 20-year-old defenseman acquired in a trade with San Jose in the offseason, exhibited some offensive flair combined with an edge along the blue line. The 6-foot-5, 203-pounder is the team's top prospect behind 2008 first-round pick Steven Stamkos.

"He's a young guy playing a tough position so it's very easy to be inconsistent," Rumble said. "That'll come with time since consistency is all about experience. You have to learn how to be consistent and I'm confident he'll do that. I'm excited to be working with him."

In addition to Wishart, defensemen Daryl Boyle (undrafted) showed a knack for getting shots through traffic, and forwards Dana Tyrell (second round, 2007), Lucas Bloodoff (tryout), Luciano Aquino (tryout), Chris Lawrence (third round, 2005) and James Wright (fourth round, 2008) performed confidently and with a purpose.

Brady Leavold (undrafted), according to Rumble, "was a little (5-10, 194) agitator who made it tough on the opposition."

Another player to keep a close eye on is goalie Dustin Tokarski (fifth round, 2008), who finished with a 3.32 goals-against average and .863 save percentage in two appearances in Traverse City.

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