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Rookies gather at NHLPA Showcase

Improved health of Pavel Zacha, Thatcher Demko among takeaways at event in Toronto

by Mike G. Morreale @MikemorrealeNHL / staff writer

TORONTO -- The NHLPA invited 27 NHL prospects and rookies to its eighth annual National Hockey League Players' Association Rookie Showcase at Mattamy Athletic Center on Monday, including the No. 3 pick from the 2016 NHL Draft, center Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Center Auston Matthews, chosen No. 1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and right wing Patrik Laine, selected No. 2 by the Winnipeg Jets, were each unable to attend due to responsibilities for their respective teams in the World Cup of Hockey 2016. Matthews will play for Team North America, and Laine for Team Finland in the eight-team tournament which will take place from Sept. 17-Oct. 1 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

The two-day rookie showcase event was a chance for Upper Deck, the official trading card partner of the NHL and NHLPA, to photograph and film the next wave of talent in their NHL uniform and get their autographs on cards and other memorabilia. The players met with the media on Monday, the final day of the event.

"It's pretty cool to see some familiar faces and new connections; it's a laid back atmosphere and we took a lot of fun pictures," Winnipeg Jets forward prospect Kyle Connor said. "It's a pretty cool feeling knowing I'll be on a rookie card someday. I collected some of those cards as a kid. I had a booklet of them and I just remember trying to get as many Wayne Gretzky cards as I could."

Here are five other interesting takes from a few participating prospects during the Rookie Showcase on Monday:

Video: The Rookie Showcase begins

Zacha returns from injury: New Jersey Devils forward prospect Pavel Zacha said he has fully recovered from a hip-pointer injury that kept him off the ice during development camp in July.

"I went back [to the Czech Republic after development camp] and took three or four days off and started working out again and then began going on the ice five times a week and it's been great," Zacha said. "I think I'm all good and ready for rookie camp [which starts Sept. 15]. I'm leaving for New Jersey [on Monday] too, so I'll be there working out for 14 days before camp. My health is good."

Zacha (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) was selected No. 6 in the 2015 NHL Draft and signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Devils on Aug. 11, 2015. He had two assists and a plus-4 rating in one game with the Devils last season when he played on a line with fellow countryman Patrik Elias. Zacha said he learned how to deal with injuries.

"I think it's more how to prepare for games and practices," he said. "I never saw NHL players getting ready before practice; stretching and working out. That opened my eyes to watching the pros. This injury happened to me because I didn't stretch that area of my body. My strength coaches have stressed to me what I need to do and I'm confident going through the season because I know what to do in getting ready for practices and games to avoid these injuries in the future."

Zacha had one goal and three points in three games in Albany of the American Hockey League. He also had one goal and three points in five AHL playoff games before he sustained his hip pointer in the second round of playoffs.

Video: Matthew Tkachuk mic'd up at the NHLPA showcase

Demko feels 'normal' again: Vancouver Canucks goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko is ready for the adjustment he'll need to take when he begins his professional career with Utica in the American Hockey League this season.

Demko, fully recovered from hip surgery he had last summer, went 27-8-4 with a 1.88 goals-against average and .935 save percentage as a junior at Boston College in Hockey East in 2015-16. He had 10 shutouts, breaking the school record set by former New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider , was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey and won the Mike Richter Award as the top NCAA goaltender, leading them to the Frozen Four.

"I feel like I'm ready to go; I feel ready for a pro season, which is something I probably couldn't have said two years ago," Demko, 20, said. "I think one of the biggest things about turning pro is probably the adjustment because older guys have been in these situations and know how to handle themselves. I think that's one thing the AHL is great for. You learn the pro lifestyle, how to play at that level, develop and try to make the team as soon as possible."

If there's one thing Demko (6-4, 192) learned during the rehabilitation process was patience.

"Every ounce of my being wanted to be on the ice and it's tough," Demko said. "Some days you wake up and you feel awesome but that's just how recovering is. You feel so good you say, 'OK, I could probably skate today,' but you know you still have three weeks until you are allowed back on the ice."

Demko, selected in the second round (No. 36) by the Canucks in the 2014 NHL Draft, signed a three-year entry-level contract on April 20. He felt the time off the ice was beneficial.

"It's a demanding sport and that's the nature of it, so when I resumed skating I had that fire again," he said. "When you miss something and that's all you think about, all you want, all you need, that's when you come back bigger and stronger than you were before. That's how I feel now."

The 'Ultimate' fan: Dubois is a tremendous fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and those athletes schooled in mixed martial arts.

When asked about the UFC, Dubois admitted that featherweight champion Conor McGregor is his favorite fighter to watch.

"It's just his attitude," Dubois said. "He's a really good fighter and so confident, but when he lost the first fight to [Nate] Diaz, he admitted he lost and wasn't arrogant about it. He made errors. Then he won [in the rematch]. He's a good loser and a good winner."

Michigan present at the Showcase: Columbus Blue Jackets defense prospect Zach Werenski and Winnipeg Jets forward prospect Kyle Connor, teammates at the University of Michigan this past season, were happy to renew acquaintances at the rookie showcase.

Each player admitted learning much under the tutelage of veteran Michigan coach Red Berenson.

Werenski (No. 8 pick, 2015 NHL Draft) left Michigan after his sophomore season and contributed to Lake Erie's playoff push. Werenski (6-2, 209) a Grosse Pointe, Michigan, native had five goals, nine assists and a plus-8 rating in 17 games for the Calder Cup champions.

"[Berenson's] been around the game for so long and he knows individual players and what they can do and what they need to work on," Werenski said. "He was spot-on on what I needed to work on at Michigan, what I was good at. He gave me the green light to go whenever I wanted, which I think is a huge part of my game. He was there to tell me when I did something wrong."

Connor became a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman. He led the NCAA with 71 points and had a 27-game point streak. He was Big Ten Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, and earned All-Big Ten First Team and Big Ten All-Rookie Team honors.

"Red teaches you a lot of little things about the game, in the defensive zone and certain spots that I don't think about," Connor said. "He was really good with the video and breaking it down."

Connor (No. 17, 2015 draft) believes Werenski has a good shot at earning a roster spot with Columbus this season.

"He's very competitive in everything he does; he loves to win," Connor said. "I think he'll definitely be an impact in the NHL. You can see it in the way he plays the game. He's so dynamic and plays at a high level."

Dvorak in the desert: Arizona Coyotes forward Christian Dvorak is considered to be one of few rookies challenging for a roster spot out of training camp this season.

Dvorak (No. 58, 2014) has exceled in London of the Ontario Hockey League the past two seasons, and appears ready to begin his NHL career. He scored 41 goals and 109 points in 66 games in 2014-15 and 52 goals and 121 points in 59 games as captain last season when London won the Memorial Cup.

Dvorak (6-0, 187), who signed a three-year entry level contract on April 17, 2015, feels having so many good young players battling for roster spots in training camp will create good competition.

"I think that brings out the best in you," he said. "It just brings out the competitive juices a little more trying to vie for a spot with all these other great prospects. The future looks very bright for the organization."

Calgary Flames prospect Matthew Tkachuk, who, along with Dvorak and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Mitch Marner formed one of the most dangerous offensive lines in junior hockey last season, feels Dvorak was a solid two-way player.

"He's sneaky offensively, too," Tkachuk said. "He had over 50 goals last season and a ton of points and he is so sound defensively. He showed that throughout the year in the regular season, playoffs, the Memorial Cup and at the World Junior Championship (for the United States). I think he's going to have a great year with Arizona and a great career."

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