TRAVERSE CITY, MI --- Normally when a team hits the ice with a playoff spot already clinched, expectations are set lower than normal as players look to stay healthy for the big games ahead. But that shoudn’t be the case tonight when Buffalo faces Detroit (7 p.m.) in their last divisional game of the NHL Prospect Tournament. By virtue of consecutive 6-3 victories in their first two games, the Sabres have already locked up first place in the Howe Division. They will now face the Gretzky Division champion New York Rangers in tomorrow’s winner-take-all championship game at 7 p.m.
But try telling the players that tonight’s game is meaningless. NHL careers are on the line for most, while some of the free agent participants are just looking to get the attention of one of the hundreds of GM’s and scouts that have traveled to the two-rink Centre ICE complex, nestled in the back corner of a quiet Traverse City subdivision.
This is the 14th year of the NHL Prospect Tournament, and 297 players that have played here in Traverse City have gone on to the NHL. Carolina’s Jeff Skinner was here last season, and he wound up being named the NHL’s 2010-11 Rookie of the Year with 63 points in 82 games.
Skinner isn’t the only big name to have participated in Traverse City since its inception in 1998. New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk played here as an Atlanta Thrashers prospect in 2001, and he is now the tournament’s all-time NHL points leader with 642 (338+304) in 621 NHL games. Dany Heatley joined Kovalchuk on that 2001 Atlanta prospect squad, and his 625 points are second all-time among former participants.
Former Sabre J.P. Dumont has played the most NHL games of any former Traverse City participant, skating in 752 combined contests during his 12-year NHL career with Chicago, Buffalo and Nashville. Dumont played with Chicago’s entry in the inaugural 1998 tournament.
The big names don’t stop there. Detroit superstars Pavel Datsyuk (2001) and Henrik Zetterberg (2002) have also skated here, along with Scott Hartnell (Nashville, 2000), David Legwand (Nashville, 1998) and Martin Erat (Nashville, 2000/01). Twelve former prospect tournament players have gone on to play 500 or more NHL games, while another 46 have played in 250-499 games.
There will be a new champion this year, as the 2010 winners from Minnesota are just 1-1 through their first two games. The New York Rangers – Buffalo’s opposition in tomorrow’s final – captured the 2007 title. There have been eight different winners in the first 13 years, with St. Louis owning a record four championships (1999-2001, 2004). Ironically, the host Detroit Red Wings have yet to win their own event.