TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- There's no question this year's Traverse City Prospects Tournament featured some of finest rosters ever assembled in the history of the event.
The eight participating teams had multiple first- and second-round draft picks in their lineups as well as featuring a handful of talented free agents and tryout players looking to earn invitations to training camps.
The Detroit Red Wings defeated the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 in the tournament final Monday to earn their first championship. The Red Wings had advanced to the finale one other time in tournament's 15-year history, but lost to the Minnesota Wild in 2010.
"We have a lot of kids who have a chance to play in the NHL out there," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told NHL.com. "There's a process that has to go on, but there's certainly a lot of optimism for our organization out there."
Adam Graves, who serves as a the New York Rangers' special assistant with prospect development/community relations, has witnessed the level of competition over the five-day tournament for some time.
"Whether it's [Ryan] McDonagh, [Derek] Stepan, [Brandon] Dubinsky or [Marc] Staal, they've all played at this tournament at one point before moving on and joining the big club that following season," Graves told NHL.com. "Even our current captain, [Ryan] Callahan, played in this tournament. It's become a great tool to cultivate that team concept and at the same time jumpstart the pro experience. The names may change each season, but the opportunity remains the same."
Buffalo Sabres forward Nicholas Baptiste, a 2013 third-round choice (No. 69), made an impression in his first big test for the team that drafted him in June.
"There were 68 guys taken ahead of me, so for me, I'm a competitor and I wanted to prove that I'm one of the best players out there," Baptiste told NHL.com. "I thought I did a good job of trying to play my game, get to the net, shoot pucks and create offense while being responsible in my own end."
Baptiste finished second among all scorers at the tournament with seven points (four goals) while producing a plus-5 rating. While he might not be a regular in the lineup for the Sabres this season, his future looks bright.
Carolina Hurricanes center Elias Lindholm, the fifth player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, played the final two games of the tournament after sitting out the opening two while recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in July. Despite the limited action, Lindholm proved to be the real deal. He was aggressive, smart and accurate.
Here's a look at NHL.com's top 11 players from this year's tournament (listed alphabetically). Lindholm is excluded because he played just two games.
Joel Armia, Buffalo Sabres (2011, No. 16): The 6-foot-3, 187-pound right wing is the best prospect at his position within the organization. He is expected to earn a roster spot with the big club out of training camp after spending the past two seasons in his native Finland with Assat in SM-liiga. Armia totaled 18 goals and 38 points in 54 games in 2011-12 and 19 goals and 33 points in 47 games last season. He didn't register a point in Traverse City, but finished with a plus-2 rating and generated 11 shots on goal. He skated effortlessly in the offensive end and appeared at ease on the top line.
"His skill level was at a different stratosphere than most players [in Traverse City]," Chadd Cassidy, who coached the Sabres prospects and serves as the coach of the Rochester Americans, the Sabres' American Hockey League affiliate, told NHL.com. "He didn't put up the points that he probably wanted to or that we expected him too, but you can see there's a different level of puck skills with him."
Mathew Dumba, Minnesota Wild (2012, No. 7): Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher told NHL.com that now is the time for the 6-foot, 180-pounder to win a roster spot following three seasons with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. Dumba spent the end of the 2012-13 season with the Houston Aeros, then the Wild's AHL affiliate, and was a "Black Ace" for the Wild during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher says defenseman prospect Mathew Dumba will have an opportunity to win a roster spot at Wild training camp. (Photo: NHLI)
"The expectation is he's going to play well and certainly challenge for an NHL spot this season," Fletcher told NHL.com. "Whether he can ultimately make the team, time will tell, but clearly he's played well at the junior level where he spent three seasons. We really believe he deserves a long look. The things he does well we could use … he skates well, he shoots the puck and has an ability out of [the defensive] zone to join the rush."
Dumba finished with one assist and seven shots in three games for eighth-place Minnesota.
"He probably played a little more conservative here than his draft season, but he's solid defensively and does a good job moving the puck out of our zone," Fletcher said. "He really helps that transition game."
Dmitrij Jaskin, St. Louis Blues (2011, No. 41): The 6-2, 196-pound forward was his team's best two-way force. He remained in the Czech Republic after being drafted, then shifted to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Moncton Wildcats in 2012-13. Jaskin was fourth in the QMJHL in goals (46) and points (99) last season, and earned a two-game stint with the Blues late in the season.
Jaskin is a natural wing, but Blues prospect coach John Anderson, who also coaches the team's AHL affiliate in Chicago, played him at center in Traverse City. Jaskin responded well, with one goal, three points and a plus-2 rating for fifth-place St. Louis.
"I have him playing center and he isn't even a centerman, but he's the best overall player," Anderson told NHL.com. "When he gets a hold of the puck you can't take it off him. He's going to be really good. At this point he might be a little more mature than the others on the roster and he has a little more of a complete game."
Boone Jenner, Columbus Blue Jackets (2011, No. 37): The 6-2, 204-pound left-handed shot had 45 goals and 82 points in 56 games with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League last season before being assigned to Columbus' AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, for five regular-season games and eight playoff games.
"He plays to his strengths; he's a strong man," Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson told NHL.com. "He's a very good down-low player at both ends of the ice, terrific on draws and he has leadership value."
Jenner finished with four assists and took 12 shots in four games.
Tomas Jurco, Detroit Red Wings (2011, No. 35): After three seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior League, the 6-2, 193-pound Slovakian played 74 games with Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids last season. He had eight goals and 14 points in 24 games during the Griffins' Calder Cup championship run.
"To me, he was probably our most improved player [in Grand Rapids] last year," Griffins coach Jeff Blashill told NHL.com. "He had to learn how to play the pro game, how to play from both sides of the puck, and over the course of the year did a great job of learning. He's also more physical, and I think he has a chance to be a top-six forward in the NHL someday."
Red Wings prospect Tomas Jurco had two goals and a team-high 19 shots on goal in four Traverse City games. (Photo: Andre Ringuette/NHLI)
Jurco had two goals, three points and a plus-1 rating while finishing with a team-leading 19 shots in four Traverse City games.
"We talked before the tournament and told him this was his opportunity to be the go-to guy [in Traverse City]," Blashill said. "He's going to have to be that for Grand Rapids this year since [Tomas] Tatar, [Gustav] Nyquist and [Joakim] Andersson aren't there anymore. I think he's shown he can be that guy."
Oscar Lindberg, New York Rangers (2010, No. 57): The 6-1, 190-pound Swede was acquired by the Rangers in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes in May 2011. He completed his third full season of pro hockey in 2012-13 with Skelleftea in the Swedish Hockey League, where he was third on the club with 42 points in 55 games and helped Skelleftea to its first league championship in 35 years.
"If you look at the entire tournament, Oscar would be one of the top players here," Graves said. "His game has improved by leaps and bounds since we were lucky enough to make that trade to acquire him. His offensive game has really elevated and he's skating as well as I've ever seen him skate; he sees the ice and makes plays and has been very impressive, especially for a guy just coming over who hasn't played a lot of hockey on the smaller [North American] rink."
Lindberg finished second in scoring in Traverse City for the seventh-place Rangers with seven points, including five goals, and a plus-3 rating. He had a hat trick in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Sabres on Friday.
"His decision-making and the quickness at which he reads plays is quite remarkable because when you're playing on that bigger rink in Europe, you have more time and it's more of a patient game," Graves said. "He's going to be a guy given a good shot at trying to break the big guys' lineup in New York and hopefully play on Garden ice this year."
Ryan Murphy, Carolina Hurricanes (2011, No. 12): The 5-11, 185-pound defenseman is the type of player who probably could be inserted into the Hurricanes' lineup and do wonders for the power play, but he's been accused of taking unnecessary risks at times. Still, Murphy is a future talent in waiting.
In four seasons with the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League, Murphy had 220 points in 228 games. He played four games for the Hurricanes in February as an emergency recall but didn't register a point and finished with a minus-4 rating. Murphy led the tournament with six assists in four games for sixth-place Carolina.
"Bottom line, with [Joni] Pitkanen injured entering the season, the door might open for [Murphy] to seize it because of the offensive game he possesses," Carolina coach Kirk Muller told NHL.com. "In training camp we'll put him in situations, evaluate him and make a judgment call of where he is in every situation."
Ryan Murray, Columbus Blue Jackets (2012, No. 2): After being limited to 23 games with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League last season due to a season-ending shoulder injury he sustained in November, the 6-1, 198-pound defenseman was champing at the bit to see some game action. He performed very well, with two goals, three points and a plus-1 rating for fourth-place Columbus.
"The thing that impresses me most is he's a player that hasn't played for a long time because of his shoulder surgery, yet his mind and his computer is a quick thinking, creative brain with the puck," Davidson said. "He's smart and strong, but it's his puck play, whether on the power play or a breakout, that impresses me. He's quick and concise and creative and against the grain sometimes … instincts you can't teach. He's got some things that make him really fun to watch."
Valeri Nichushkin, Dallas Stars (2013, No. 10): It would be a bit surprising if the 6-4, 202-pound forward didn't begin the season with the Stars. Based on his impressive showing in Traverse City, he may prove to be a steal after being taken with the 10th selection of the 2013 draft. Nichushkin had three goals, a plus-3 rating and generated a team-leading 16 shots on goal in four games for third-place Dallas.
Dallas' Valeri Nichushkin, St. Louis' Dmitrij Jaskin and Buffalo's Rasmus Ristolainen were just a few of the prospects that stood out at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. (Photo: Getty Images, Mark Buckner/NHLI)
"I've liked a lot from the first game of the tournament," Dallas coach Lindy Ruff told NHL.com. "He's had the puck a lot and made a lot of great plays. He's skated well, and in some of the tight areas he's really competed hard. When you see someone that has the puck most of the time or comes up with the puck most of the time, it tells you that he's in on a lot of the action."
Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres (2013, No. 8): "Risto," as he is referred to by teammates, exhibited plenty of poise and physicality along the Sabres' blue line in four games. He finished with one goal and took eight shots. Ristolainen will be given every opportunity to earn a roster spot with the big club out of training camp. The 6-4, 225-pound right-handed shot was Buffalo's highest first-round pick since Thomas Vanek was taken with the fifth pick at the 2003 draft.
"We're not going to hold anyone back [in training camp]," Sabres assistant general manager Kevin Devine told NHL.com. "Risto has three guys with NHL experience ahead of him in Tyler Myers, Mark Pysyk and Jamie McBain. We'll give him every chance because he's a 6-foot-4 guy who can make plays and end plays and you don't find those guys very often. He's skilled and plays hard."
Sergey Tolchinsky, Carolina Hurricanes (free agent): Carolina's prized undrafted free-agent signee from Russia was the biggest surprise of the tournament. He led all players with eight points, including five goals, and finished with a plus-3 rating.
The 5-7, 152-pounder was out to prove a mistake was made by all those teams that passed on him at the 2013 NHL Draft. He signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Hurricanes on Aug. 22.
"We only had five draft picks, so we weren't able to pick up as many players as we wanted [at the draft]," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford told NHL.com. "We knew when we came across one or two guys that we liked, that it would be good to add some. Sergey came to our development camp and played extremely well and had the great attitude, so we decided this is a guy that should have been drafted. He wasn't and we were really happy we were able to pick him up."
It's likely Tolchinsky will be returned to his junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL, to spend a second season there. Still, he was invited to Carolina's training camp, which begins Wednesday, and has said he'll do whatever he can to make the decision to return him to junior hockey a tough one.