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Tournaments could be next step to NHL for prospects

by Mike G. Morreale

There's a strong chance a candidate for the 2016 Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year will be among the many top prospects participating in various rookie tournaments throughout the League this week.

The rookie tournaments are becoming a staple for many teams prior to the start of training camp each season.

The oldest and largest is the eight-team Traverse City Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., which will be held Sept. 11-15. Now in its 17th year, the tournament features prospects from the host Detroit Red Wings, along with the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will host the Toronto Rookie Tournament, which will include the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins and will take place in London, Ontario, from Sept. 11-13.

The Young Stars Classic, hosted by the Vancouver Canucks and running Sept. 11-14, will include the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets in Penticton, British Columbia.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will host a four-team rookie tournament in Estero, Fla., from Sept. 12-15 that will have prospects from the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators.

The Buffalo Sabres will host the first Prospects Challenge with the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins at First Niagara Center and HarborCenter from Sept. 12-14.

The San Jose Sharks will host a two-game mini-series against prospects from the Anaheim Ducks in San Jose on Sept. 12-13. The Los Angeles Kings will host a two-game set against prospects from the Arizona Coyotes on Sept. 15-16.

Here are some storylines to follow at the rookie tournaments:

An inspiring return

On March 1, 2014, Canadiens prospect Tim Bozon was hospitalized and diagnosed with bacterial meningitis at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He spent time in a medically induced coma, and during his hospital stay he lost 40 pounds and was left with difficulty speaking and walking. Bozon was discharged from the hospital on March 28, 2014, and was able to start skating again in June of that year.

A third-round pick (No. 64) in the 2012 NHL Draft, Bozon, 21, played one preseason game with the Canadiens and spent most of last season with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League. He'll put on a Canadiens jersey again Friday against the Penguins in the opener of the Toronto Rookie Tournament.

All eyes on McDavid

Fans will get another glimpse of Oilers center Connor McDavid, the first pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, in the Young Stars Classic at South Okanagan Events Centre. The Oilers will open the event against the Canucks, who will be led by forward Cole Cassels, a 2013 third-round pick (No. 85). Last season Cassels helped the Oshawa Generals beat McDavid's Erie Otters to win the Ontario Hockey League championship en route to winning the Memorial Cup.

Eichel ready to impress

The Sabres' Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft, enters 2014-15 with as much fanfare and excitement as McDavid. The 2015 Hobey Baker Award winner headlines Buffalo's entry at the Prospects Challenge and will look to showcase the power and grace that enabled him to help Boston University reach the NCAA championship game as a freshman last season. Eichel signed his professional contract with the Sabres on July 1 and is expected to step right into the lineup and join Ryan O'Reilly as one of the team's top two centers.

Russians on the radar

There will be quite a few Russian-born players playing for their respective teams in tournaments this week, including Sharks forward Nikolay Goldobin (2014, No. 27) in the mini-series against the Ducks; Canucks defenseman Dmitry Zhukenov (2015, No. 114) in the Young Stars tournament; Predators left wing Yakov Trenin (2015, No. 55) in the Tampa Bay rookie tournament; Canadiens right wing Nikita Scherbak (2014, No. 26) in the Toronto Rookie Tournament; and Red Wings left wing Evgeny Svechnikov (2015, No. 19), Rangers defenseman Sergey Zborovskiy (2015, No. 79) and Blues center Ivan Barbashev (2014, No. 33) in the Traverse City tournament.

First-round finds for Bruins

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney was busy during the first round of the 2015 draft, with three consecutive picks. The three selections, defenseman Jakub Zboril (No. 13), left wing Jake DeBrusk (No. 14) and right wing Zachary Senyshyn (No. 15) will play in the Buffalo Prospects Challenge. Zboril, a 6-foot, 200-pound left-shot defender who had 33 points in 44 games last season with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, could eventually develop into a replacement for Dougie Hamilton, who was traded to the Calgary Flames for three draft picks on June 26.

The 'Wild' life of Reilly

Mike Reilly, a 6-foot-2, 186-pound defenseman, made headlines this summer as one of the more coveted college free agents after finishing his junior season at the University of Minnesota as a 2015 Hobey Baker Award finalist. A two-time All-American, Reilly, 22, signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Wild on July 1 after becoming a free agent June 15. He was a fourth-round pick (No. 98) in the 2011 draft by the Blue Jackets, the team he'll face in the Traverse City tournament on Saturday.

Toronto packs offensive arsenal

Now that the Maple Leafs have reshaped the front office and coaching staff, it's time to evaluate the potential of its future players. The Maple Leafs will have four first-round draft picks participating in the rookie tournament. At the top of the list is center Mitchell Marner (2015, No. 4), who signed a three-year, entry-level contract July 28. Marner, who played with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League last season, was second in the league with 126 points in 63 games. Also on the roster is right wing Kasperi Kapanen, taken No. 22 in the 2014 draft by the Penguins and acquired by the Maple Leafs as part of the Phil Kessel trade. Center William Nylander (2014, No. 8), and center Frederik Gauthier (2013, No. 21) also will look to impress.

Plenty to prove

Defenseman Derrick Pouliot likely will make the Penguins' opening-night roster, but that doesn't mean he'll take his participation in the Toronto Rookie Tournament lightly. Pouliot (2012, No. 8) played a key role for the Penguins last season when defenseman Olli Maatta was injured. The departure of veteran defenseman Paul Martin to the Sharks in free agency means the Penguins will expect Pouliot, a 5-11, 195-pound left-shot defender, to push for a top-four role. Pouliot had two goals and seven points in 34 regular-season games with the Penguins in 2014-15.

Happy homecoming

For the second straight season, Rangers goaltender Brandon Halverson (2014, No. 59), born in Traverse City, will play in front of his hometown fans. Halverson is the favorite to be named starter for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland. Halverson played with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last season and led the OHL with 40 wins; he had a 2.63 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.

Czech out this Devil

As the Devils seek more consistency on offense this season under new coach John Hynes, close attention will be paid to their young forwards participating in the Buffalo Prospects Challenge. Pavel Zacha, the sixth player taken in the 2015 draft, was impressive at development camp in July and signed a three-year, entry-level contract Aug. 11. The tournament will provide an opportunity for the Czech Republic native to test his game against other players looking to earn NHL roster spots.

Hurricane warning

Carolina will have a formidable group of defense prospects at the Traverse City tournament. Among them is Haydn Fleury, the seventh pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. Fleury stood out at last year's Traverse City tournament and will challenge for an NHL spot this season. Defenseman Brett Pesce (2013, No. 66), who spent time in the American Hockey League last season, also is receiving high praise. Noah Hanifin, the fifth pick of the 2015 draft, will miss the tournament because of an injury sustained last month at USA Hockey's World Junior Evaluation Camp. The Hurricanes believe Hanifin will be a full participant when training camp opens.

NHL-ready Young Stars

The Young Stars Tournament offers a fine collection of players capable of earning NHL spots. In addition to McDavid, the Oilers are optimistic that Leon Draisaitl (2014, No. 3), who will slide from center to left wing, and defenseman Darnell Nurse (2013, No. 7) will be in their lineup at some point this season. The Canucks are hoping right wing Jake Virtanen (2014, No. 6) will take the next step in his development. The Flames hope to see more from center Sam Bennett (2014, No. 4), the highest draft pick in team history, who missed most of last season because of a shoulder injury. He played one regular-season game and 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Flames.

Howling Coyotes

The Coyotes will bring five first-round picks to the two-game event with the Kings, which will be held at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, Calif.: centers Max Domi (2013, No. 12), Dylan Strome (2015, No. 3) and Henrik Samuelsson (2012, No. 27), right wing Nicholas Merkley (2015, No. 30) and left wing Brendan Perlini (2014, No. 12). Left wing Anthony Duclair, who was acquired in a trade with the Rangers on March 1, could be the Coyotes' second-best prospect after Domi; he got into 18 games with the Rangers last season before being traded. Forward Ryan MacInnis (2014, No. 43), the son of Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis, also will look to make an impression on the Coyotes' staff. He had 25 goals and 62 points with the Kitchener Rangers in the OHL in 2014-15.

The champs and the runners-up

The top prospect the Blackhawks will have at their Traverse City tournament debut could be forward Ryan Hartman (2013, No. 30). The Lightning, who lost to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final in six games, will have two recent first-round picks in defensemen Slater Koekkoek (2012, No. 10) and Anthony DeAngelo (2014, No. 19) representing their team in Estero, Fla. But the most interesting place to watch could be in goal, where Kristers Gudlevskis (2013, No. 124) and Adam Wilcox (2011, No. 178) will split time. With the announcement on Sept. 4 that Andrei Vasilevskiy will be out 2-3 months after having a blood clot removed from near his left collarbone, they could be auditioning to start the season as the backup to Ben Bishop with the Lightning.


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