TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. --
It was only one year ago that forwards Jeff Skinner
and Derek Stepan
and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo
were providing a sampling of what would be a pretty productive inaugural season in the NHL with their performance in the Traverse City prospects tournament.
Skinner went on to win the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie with the Carolina Hurricanes
. Stepan scored an opening-night hat trick for the New York Rangers
and finished with 21 goals and 45 points. Pietrangelo played 79 games in 2010-11 and produced 11 goals and a team-leading 32 assists for the St. Louis Blues
In all, 19 players competing in the eight-team tournament played at least one NHL game during the 2010-11 season. Don't be surprised if that number grows -- the players in this year's event have been that impressive.
The tournament champion Buffalo Sabres
actually possessed one player with 19 games of NHL experience under his belt in forward Luke Adam
, who had three goals, four points and a plus-4 rating in three games at this week's tournament.
Here's a look at NHL.com's top nine standouts (listed alphabetically) who participated in Traverse City this year.
Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues --
"I really wanted to separate myself from the group. I wanted to prove that it was almost a man playing against kids. I thought I got better as the tournament progressed. I just wanted to show Blues management that I've improved."
-- Jake Allen
A season in the American Hockey League in 2010-11 changed everything for Allen, the 34th overall selection in 2008.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound goalie had a strong rookie season with the Peoria Rivermen last season, appearing in 47 games and posting a 25-19-3 mark, 2.52 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and six shutouts. He also earned a trip to the AHL All-Star Game after posting better numbers across the board than incumbent starter Ben Bishop
Allen, who finished 2-1-0 with a 2.97 GAA and .920 save percentage in Traverse City, had a tournament-leading 104 saves in 181:51. He stopped 47 shots in a 4-3 double overtime thriller against the Columbus Blue Jackets
in the third-place game on Wednesday.
"I just wanted to come in and get my feet wet for the upcoming camp and season," Allen told NHL.com. "I really wanted to separate myself from the group. I wanted to prove that it was almost a man playing against kids. I thought I got better as the tournament progressed. I just wanted to show Blues management that I've improved."
Evidently, he has.
"This kid has a lot of experience under his belt for his age (21) and he's still learning," said John Davidson
, the Blues' President of Hockey Operations. "Last year, he played in the All-Star Game as a rookie and got a full year under his belt. He has great knowledge of the game and great push with his legs. He's smart and going to be a good goalie. He's right on track with his maturity on and off the ice."
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Allen, who credits his improved play to goalie coach Corey Hirsch
, is expected to start the season in Peoria in 2011-12 since the Blues signed veteran Bryan Elliot from the Colorado Avalanche
to back up Jaroslav Halak
Brenden Dillon, Dallas Stars --
Dillon, an undrafted free-agent acquisition, received rave reviews from his teammates, management and coaches at the Traverse City.
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound bruiser, led the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds in assists (51) and was second in points (59) in 2010-11. A captain in Seattle, Dillon racked up 139 penalty minutes, which included nine fights.
Dillon, who also wore the "C" for Dallas' team in Traverse City, is the ultimate team player -- he'll stick up for teammates but is also very savvy on the ice. He was rarely out of position and he was relatively flawless in the transition game.
"I coached Dillon last year (for the Texas Stars)," first-year Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan told NHL.com. "For a kid undrafted and signed as a 20-year-old free agent, he's starting to take off like a rocket. You can see him getting better in the month he was in Austin and all of a sudden, in the playoffs, he elevated his game even more. Watching him in Traverse, I can see he's maturing physically into a man and he's a guy who will be pushing. He needs to go to the AHL and dominant, but he's a guy to keep an eye on for sure."
In six playoff games with the Texas Stars, Dallas' AHL affiliate, Dillon had a pair of assists, a plus-1 rating and seven penalty minutes.
, Dallas' first-round pick (No. 14) in the 2011 Entry Draft, was Dillon's roommate during their stay in Traverse City.
"Dillon is a phenomenal player," Oleksiak said. "I got to see how he carried himself and I think he's a real natural leader. There's a lot of positives he does on the ice; he plays the penalty-kill and power-play so well. He also sticks up for teammates, so he's a player I definitely try to watch and learn from."
Tim Erixon, New York Rangers --
Don't be surprised if the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman acquired from Calgary earlier this summer works his way into the Rangers lineup at some point this season.
Erixon was not only New York's best player in Traverse City, but arguably the best player in the tournament. He finished with one goal and four points in four games for the Rangers, working in all situations alongside usual partner Dylan McIlrath
"I'm very impressed," said J.J. Daigneault, an assistant coach with the Connecticut Whale, the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate. "He's a very good skater and has good mobility, is a good passer and rarely losses a battle on the rush or even down low. He can contain players and has good offensive skills, a good head and good poise. There's not much negative to say about this guy."
Rangers defensive prospect Tim Erixon
, finished the Traverse City Tournament with one goal and four points in four games. (Photo: Getty Images)
Perhaps most impressive was the fact Erixon held his own whenever players attempted to engage physically with him. He stood his ground and never retreated when it came to clearing the crease or taking a hit to clear the puck. His poise and endurance were also impressive -- he ate up a ton of minutes.
Erixon was 5-19-24 in 48 games for Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League last season. In 140 games with the team, the son of former Rangers forward Jan Erixon
has 14 goals and 44 points.
"I really like the overall package he brings to the table and the skill set," Daigneault said. "He's one of our top defensemen, if not the top defenseman, at this tournament. He's been controlling the power play and playing some penalty kill, as well. I think the future is very bright for him and the organization."
Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes --
How high is Carolina's managerial team on the smooth-skating defenseman?
As a freshman, Faulk all Minnesota-Duluth defensemen in goals (8), assists (25) and points (33) in 39 games while helping UMD to its first NCAA championship. Less than a week later, Faulk inked an entry-level deal with the 'Canes and jumped right into the AHL playoffs, playing 13 games with Charlotte.
It's not impossible he could be in the NHL this season.
"I would say he has an outside chance of making the Hurricanes this year," Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford told NHL.com. "He sees the ice and moves the puck and can skate and is really built (6-foot, 205 pounds). He's in good shape. In Traverse City, he stood out as a high-level player. Ideally, we'll give him more development time in Charlotte, but we're keeping an open mind in camp with this guy."
Former NHL defenseman Glen Wesley
, who works exclusively with all present and future Carolina defensemen, believes Faulk has all the tools required to reach the next level.
"When we got him out of Minnesota-Duluth after they won the national championship, he came into Charlotte and played really well," Wesley told NHL.com. "You started to see it tail off a little bit, which is natural for anybody who comes in to play at that level, but he's got the physical elements … he's big and strong on the puck. He likes going into the corner and can separate the man from the puck. He plays the power-play and all situations.
"I feel right now he can be a guy to come into camp and surprise a lot of people. He's so far ahead of where we thought he'd be at this point and, let's face it, we've seen younger guys come into this organization and surprise too."
Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets --
The odds of Johansen earning a roster spot right out of training camp appear to be pretty good.
"My goal coming in here was to make sure I was leaving really comfortable and feeling confident with my game and I'm leaving here confident."
-- Ryan Johansen
Johansen is a proven performer both internationally and within the junior ranks. He finished last season with 40 goals and improved his point total by 23 in fewer games with the Portland Winterhawks. He was also a major attraction on the silver medal-winning Canadian National Junior Team at the 2011 World Junior Championships in Buffalo. He wanted to use Traverse City as a springboard into main camp, and he believes he did that.
"My goal coming in here was to make sure I was leaving really comfortable and feeling confident with my game and I'm leaving here confident," Johansen told NHL.com. "I have the mindset of making the Columbus Blue Jackets
, so I'm excited to get back to Columbus for training camp."
Johansen, the fourth player taken in the 2010 Entry Draft, finished the tournament with three goals, six points and a plus-5 rating in three games. He was a healthy scratch for one game.
"We drafted Ryan because we needed to get stronger through the middle of the ice," Columbus coach Scott Arniel
told NHL.com. "He has an opportunity to come in and battle for a job on our hockey team but at the same time he doesn't have to be one of our top two centers if he does make our hockey club. He's a talented kid who can play in a lot of situations."
Zack Kassian, Buffalo Sabres --
There's no doubt Kassian is a powerful presence on the ice -- but he has to find a way to control that aggressiveness, which has sometimes gotten him into trouble.
While his junior hockey career has been hampered by suspensions, his performance in Traverse City offers reason to believe he will turn the corner and become the player the Sabres envisioned when they chose him with the 13th pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. In four games, Kassian had one goal, five points, a plus-4 rating and seven penalty minutes. He did benefit from playing on a line with center Luke Adam
and left wing Marcus Foligno
-- but to his credit, Kassian made the most of it.
"I think you'd rather have someone like that who you'd have to rein back a little bit than somebody you're trying to get it out of all of the time," said Ron Rolston, coach of Buffalo's AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. "I think as Zack grows and understands the pro game there are a lot of good leaders in Rochester and Buffalo who can help our young players that he can learn from."
In his initial two-plus seasons with the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes, Kassian produced 41 goals and 193 points while totaling 268 penalty minutes in 152 games. Contributing to that penalty total were 13 fighting majors during the 2008-09 season. Kassian was suspended twice in the OHL and also received a two-game suspension during last season's World Junior Championships.
Hurricanes prospect Ryan Murphy
finished the tournament with a goal, two points and a team-leading 13 shots on goal. (Photo: Getty Images)
He was traded to Windsor late in the 2009-10 season and put up 26 goals, 77 points and only 67 PIM with the Spitfires last season.
"I have to play my style of game in order to bring out my best," Kassian said. "Obviously, I bring other attributes to my game. I have skill and can put the puck in the net; I make plays. I'm not the same player if I'm not physical."
Ryan Murphy, Carolina Hurricanes --
His 5-foot-11, 176-pound frame will likely keep him in Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League this season, but one would be hard-pressed to find a faster skater at this year's Traverse City tournament.
Murphy goes from zero-to-60 effortlessly and with a purpose. He doesn't mind contact along the boards and appeared to do a better job of keeping his head up to find open teammates as the tournament went on. He had a goal, two points and finished with a team-leading 13 shots on goal.
"From a skill level point of view, Murphy has about as much skill as anyone in the 2011 draft -- in a lot of ways, he has as much skill as Jeff Skinner
, only he plays a different position and may take a little longer to get to the team," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford told NHL.com. "But these are the types of defensemen you need with the way the game is played today."
Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings --
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound forward was a factor almost every time he hopped over the boards.
Nyquist, selected in the fourth round (No. 121 overall) of the 2008 Entry Draft, has a smaller body but plays with that intensity the Red Wings brass loves to see.
"He's one of the best players on the ice; he's shifty and quicker than you think," Curt Fraser
, Detroit's AHL coach in Grand Rapids, told NHL.com. "His skill level was above most people in this tournament. He's a real bright spot for us, a good young prospect. Give him a year in the AHL and, hopefully, he'll lead the charge for us and then give Mike Babcock a real tough decision when it comes to picking the team."
As a freshman at the University of Maine in 2008-09, Nyquist scored 13 goals and 32 points in 38 games. He led the nation with 61 points (19 goals) as a sophomore and topped the team with 51 points (18 goals, 33 assists) as a junior in 2010-11. He'll forego his senior year at Maine this season and begin his professional career in Grand Rapids -- but not before giving fellow Detroit forwards a run for their money at main camp, which begins Saturday.
Brendan Smith, Detroit Red Wings --
Detroit's scouting team and coaching staff are very high on Smith, the organization's top prospect.
In his first full campaign on defense with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder generated 12 goals, 32 points and 124 penalty minutes in 63 games. Fraser believes there's just one thing Smith might need in order to reach the next level.
"I think he needs to spend time with Nick Lidstrom and learn from the best," Fraser told NHL.com. "Smitty does everything well but he's got to learn to play the NHL game and that's low risk, high reward. He might make mistakes but he's trying so darn hard to win the game, he puts the whole weight of the team on his shoulders and sometimes things happen. He just needs to pick his spots a little bit and use that cannon of a shot he has. He was our best player in Traverse last year and looks great this year as well. He's ready to take the next step, but he just needs to spend time with the Niklas Kronwalls and Lidstroms."
That would certainly lead you to believe he will, at some point this season, be manning the blue line at Joe Louis Arena.
Smith, drafted in the first round (No. 27) in 2007, spent three seasons at the University of Wisconsin before turning pro in 2010-11. He was a Hobey Baker finalist in 2010 -- when he scored 15 goals and had 52 points in 42 games -- and is thought of as a Kronwall-type of player.
"In the AHL last year, whenever the game was on the line, (Smith) was the guy you wanted on the ice because he gave you the best chance at winning," Fraser said. "Obviously, Detroit likes winning."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale