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Young stars have edge after spending time in AHL

by Brian Compton

While many players either skated overseas or on their own during the work stoppage, several of the game's bright young stars honed their skills these past few months in the American Hockey League.

Those who stayed in North America and played within the systems of the parent clubs should benefit when competing for an NHL roster spot during training camp.

With that in mind, takes a closer look at players who could turn heads during the 2012-13 NHL season (list is alphabetized by NHL city):

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Peter Holland, C, Norfolk/Anaheim -- The Anaheim Ducks' first-round choice (No. 15) from 2009 was enjoying another solid campaign in the AHL, where he had 12 goals, 18 assists and 58 penalty minutes in 33 games for the Admirals. Last season in Syracuse, the Toronto native went 23-37-60 in 71 contests.

Kyle Palmieri, RW, Norfolk/Anaheim -- Another first-round pick by the Ducks (No. 26) in 2009 continued to produce in the AHL. The Smithtown, N.Y., native ranked second behind Holland with 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 32 games. Palmieri went 4-3-7 in 18 games for Anaheim after scoring 33 goals in 51 AHL games last season.

Chris Bourque, LW, Providence/Boston -- The son of Boston Bruins great Ray Bourque was acquired by the club from the Washington Capitals last May with hopes of one day getting to wear the same sweater his father wore for two decades. Though he has only 33 games of NHL experience since turning pro in 2005, Bourque spent the past few months showing Bruins brass he can play this game -- in 32 games, Bourque led Providence with 28 points (eight goals, 20 assists).

Sven Baertschi, LW, Abbotsford/Calgary -- He scored three goals in five games for the Calgary Flames last season, and the club's first-round pick (No. 13) from 2011 continued to produce for its AHL affiliate. In 21 games, the Swiss winger had six goals and 12 assists.

Cam Atkinson, RW, Springfield/Columbus -- The Columbus Blue Jackets' sixth-round pick (No. 157) from 2008 picked up where he left off after splitting time between Columbus and Springfield last season. A native of Greenwich, Conn., the 5-foot-8 wing had 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 33 AHL games -- reason to believe he could stick with the Blue Jackets. Atkinson went 7-7-14 in 28 games for Columbus last season.

Tim Erixon, D, Springfield/Columbus -- One of the biggest pieces in the Rick Nash trade, Erixon, who appeared in 18 games for the New York Rangers last season, was 4-18-22 in 33 games for Springfield in 2012-13. He should be a mainstay on the Blue Jackets' blue line for years to come.

Ryan Johansen, C, Springfield/Columbus -- The work stoppage allowed Johansen to work on his offense after he scored nine goals in 67 games last season as a rookie. He recaptured his scoring touch with Springfield, where the Blue Jackets' first-round pick (No. 4) from 2010 had 13 goals, 13 assists and a plus-10 rating in 33 games.

Jamie Oleksiak, D, Texas/Dallas -- He's only 20 years old, so the Dallas Stars might be hesitant to play him in the NHL, but the 6-foot-7 blueliner has all the tools. This is his first season as a pro, although you wouldn't know it judging by the numbers: three goals and 12 assists in 35 games for Texas. It wouldn't be a surprise to see this former first-round pick (No. 14, 2011) with the big club in the next couple of months.

Gustav Nyquist, RW, Grand Rapids/Detroit -- He likely won't step right in and play top-six minutes, but Nyquist caught the attention of the Detroit Red Wings brass. After going 22-36-58 in 56 AHL games last season (which earned him a 17-game promotion to Motown), Nyquist, Detroit's fourth-round pick (No. 121) from 2008, was solid again for Grand Rapids, with 12 goals and 23 assists in 34 games.

Jordan Eberle
Jordan Eberle
2011-12 STATS - RW - EDM
GOALS: 34 | ASST: 42 | PTS: 76
SOG: 180 | +/-: 4
Jordan Eberle, RW, Oklahoma City/Edmonton -- After leading the Edmonton Oilers with 76 points (34 goals, 42 assists) last season (his second in the NHL), Eberle was sensational during his stint with the Barons and was leading the AHL with 51 points (25 goals, 26 assists) in 34 games. Eberle said he believes the young Oilers will have an edge on some older NHL teams with a compressed, 48-game schedule.

"I feel like I'm in midseason form right now," Eberle told the Oilers' website. "There are going to be some guys that are going to be a little rusty and that's bound to happen. But we have enough guys here that have been playing that it shouldn't be a problem.

"With this compressed schedule, [the AHL] prepared us as well as we could have been. We're going to have a big advantage in that we're ready to go."

Taylor Hall, LW, Oklahoma City/Edmonton -- Hall, the No. 1 selection from the 2010 NHL Draft, is showing no ill effects from the shoulder injury suffered near the end of last season that forced him to miss the final 11 games. Skating alongside several Oilers teammates, Hall had 14 goals and 20 assists in 26 games with Oklahoma City.

"The OKC experience was great," Hall told the Oilers' website. "It's obviously not the situation we wanted -- we wanted to be in the NHL. But as far as gaining experience, being a better player and being a better leader on a team, it was great for us."

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Oklahoma City/Edmonton -- A runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie last season, the work stoppage forced the top selection of the 2011 NHL Draft to work on his game at the AHL level, where he continued to shine. Nugent-Hopkins had 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 19 games for the Barons before representing Canada at the World Junior Championship. It was at that tournament where Nugent-Hopkins battled Russia's Nail Yakupov, whom the Oilers tabbed with the No. 1 pick at last year's draft. The pair could be linemates when the NHL season gets under way.

Justin Schultz, D, Oklahoma City/Edmonton -- Schultz opted to sign with the Oilers rather than the Anaheim Ducks, who picked him in the second round (No. 43) of the 2008 NHL Draft. After compiling 91 points over his last two seasons with the University of Wisconsin, Schultz was second in AHL scoring (behind teammate Eberle) with 48 points (18 goals, 30 assists) in 34 games. With the 22-year-old blueliner now on board, the Oilers' power play could become lethal.

Several of the game's bright young stars honed their skills these past few months in the American Hockey League. Playing within the systems of the parent clubs should be an advantage when competing for an NHL roster spot during training camp. (Photo: Getty Images)

"Justin's the kind of guy who doesn't know what color the puck is because he never looks down at it -- he's always looking up at the ice the whole time," Oilers/Barons teammate Taylor Hall said. "He's an easy player to play with. He's a great passer. He knows and sees the game so well."

Jason Zucker, LW, Houston/Minnesota -- Zucker appeared in two games for the Minnesota Wild at the end of last season after finishing up at the University of Denver, and he performed well for the Aeros in 2012-13. In 31 games this season, Minnesota's second-round pick (No. 59) from 2010 had 15 goals and 17 assists in 31 games.

Adam Larsson, D, Albany/New Jersey -- The work stoppage allowed this Swedish defenseman to work on some things after he spent the majority of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the press box. Larsson played extremely well for the Devils' top affiliate, notching three goals and 14 assists in 31 games. One has to believe New Jersey's first-round pick (No. 4) from 2011 will take a step forward this season.

Nino Niederreiter, LW, Bridgeport/N.Y. Islanders -- Niederreiter struggled in his rookie NHL season, scoring one goal in 55 games for the New York Islanders in 2011-12. Instead of dwelling on that experience, the highest Swiss player ever selected at the NHL Draft (No. 5 in 2010) performed well for Bridgeport this season. In 34 games, the power forward had 17 goals and 17 assists.

"This is a great opportunity for Nino to come down here … he's playing in every key situation," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said before the end of the work stoppage. "It's the ability for him to come down and get the ice time that he needs, the conditioning that he needs and develop the confidence that he needs in his game and play the system that we're going to play.

"It was an up-and-down year (last season), as we know, for him. Injuries played a little bit of a part in that. I do believe that set him back a little bit, but I really like the way that he's playing now. He's got a great attitude. He's a good team guy and his development is coming along quite well."

Robin Lehner, G, Binghamton/Ottawa -- Lehner appeared in five NHL games for the Ottawa Senators last season and looked solid (2.01 goals-against average, .935 save percentage). He is expected to battle Ben Bishop for a spot on Ottawa's roster to back up starting goaltender Craig Anderson, and one has to imagine Lehner enters camp with the edge. He appeared in 21 games for Binghamton, ranked second in the AHL with a 1.90 GAA and was tops with a .945 save percentage.

Sean Couturier
Sean Couturier
Center - PHI
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 27
SOG: 116 | +/-: 18
Sean Couturier, C, Adirondack/Philadelphia -- Already a solid two-way player at the NHL level, Couturier was productive for the Philadelphia Flyers' AHL affiliate. In 31 games, the eighth pick at the 2011 NHL Draft had 10 goals and 18 assists. Couturier went 13-14-27 in 77 games as a rookie with the Flyers last season.

Brayden Schenn, C, Adirondack/Philadelphia -- Few players are more excited than Brayden Schenn, who finally gets to play with older brother Luke, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brayden, 21, averaged a point per game for Adirondack, with 13 goals and 20 assists in 33 contests. He had nine points (three goals, six assists) in 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games for Philadelphia last spring.

David Rundblad, D, Portland/Phoenix -- Acquired by the Phoenix Coyotes from Ottawa in the Kyle Turris trade, Rundblad has been solid in both ends of the ice for the Pirates this season. In 32 games, the 6-foot-2 blueliner had six goals, 17 assists and a plus-2 rating. Now 22, Rundblad could play a major role in the desert.

Beau Bennett, LW, Wilkes-Barre/Pittsburgh -- It's unclear whether the Pittsburgh Penguins' first-round pick (No. 20) from 2010 is ready to play in the NHL, but he certainly didn't look out of place for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Bennett, who played two seasons for the University of Denver, had 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) and impressed future NHL teammates 29 games into his professional career.

"He's really good," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Great hands, and he can really skate. You can see that he's going to be really good."

James Sheppard, C, Worcester/San Jose -- It's been a long road back for Sheppard, who suffered a major knee injury in an ATV accident in September 2010. He was traded by Minnesota to the San Jose Sharks the following August and didn't appear in a game until last February with Worcester and was limited to four contests. Things have turned for the better this season -- Sheppard ranked second on San Jose's top affiliate with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 34 games. The 24-year-old hasn't played in an NHL game since April 8, 2010.


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Jaden Schwartz, RW, Peoria/St. Louis -- Schwartz completed his collegiate career at Colorado College last season, immediately headed to the St. Louis Blues, and had two goals and an assist in seven games. The 20-year-old has been productive for Peoria, where he tallied nine goals and 10 assists in 33 games.

Brett Connolly, RW, Syracuse/Tampa Bay -- The 20-year-old didn't put up the numbers he would have liked during his rookie season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the No. 4 pick from 2010 found his scoring touch in Syracuse. In 34 games, Connolly had 14 goals and 18 assists.

Nazem Kadri, C, Toronto/Toronto -- The speedy center has shown flashes in the past for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he's been able to contribute consistently at the AHL level. Kadri, the Maple Leafs' first-round pick (No. 7) from 2009, averaged nearly a point per game for the Marlies during the work stoppage. In 27 games, he had eight goals and 18 assists.

"I feel ready … I feel prepared," Kadri told reporters Thursday. "You're looking for some healthy competition. All these guys can play, and they know they can. It's just a matter of who kind of fits into the system."

Zack Kassian, RW, Chicago/Vancouver -- He put up a goal and two assists in 17 games for the Vancouver Canucks after being acquired last season in a trade that sent Cody Hodgson to the Buffalo Sabres. In 28 games for the Wolves, Kassian had seven goals, 13 assists and 61 penalty minutes.

Braden Holtby, G, Hershey/Washington -- He seized the Washington Capitals' No. 1 job during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, helping them earn a first-round victory against the Bruins before pushing the Rangers to the limit in Round 2. At Hershey, Holtby went 8-5-2 with a 2.14 GAA and .944 save percentage.

"I think it's definitely to all of our advantage, the guys who have played in the AHL or kept playing in other leagues," Holtby said. "At the same time, the games still have to be played. That advantage goes out the window once the puck drops. You have to perform."


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