With rookies reporting to their NHL clubs for the annual rite of passage before the veterans show up next week to begin the real work of building towards that opening night roster next month, it’s time to take a look at some of the kids who will be competing in prospect tournaments this weekend and may one day contribute to the fortunes of their NHL clubs. Some of them might be doing that as early as this season.
I’m breaking the preview up into 2 parts- each by conference, starting in the East. There is no particular method to my madness other than to focus on players I have more personal and professional familiarity with. That might mean that certain highly-touted rookies don’t get a mention- that will be by design. I can’t cover every single prospect and some that are not highlighted might come off as snubs to some readers- that is not my intent.
This blog attempts to give you my insights based on what I observe and know, not what someone else writes about or observes unless I cite that particular source. If there is a particular player you want to see covered, let me know and I’ll hit up NHL guys I know who will have the firsthand knowledge of those individuals. Unlike other analysts out there who try to cover every player, league and geographic region in hockey, I simply don’t do that.
Thanks for reading- watch for the Western Conference watch list later this weekend.
Austin Czarnik, F- Small but speedy and offensively gifted forward was a nice free agent get for Boston last spring after captaining Miami University the previous two seasons and earning Hobey Baker finalist honors as a junior. The Michigander is not going to break on through to the NHL right away, but he could be an instant impact player offensively for Providence in the AHL.
Justin Hickman, F- Rugged power center was another undrafted pickup a year ago in January after shoulder surgery forced him out of his overage WHL campaign as captain of the Seattle Thunderbirds. He had a quietly solid development camp in July, but was not cleared to participate in the scrimmage to further protect that shoulder. A Boston team source expressed optimism that Hickman will surprise at his first Boston NHL camp (he previously attended Winnipeg Jets training camp) and with his heavy game and underrated scoring potential, watch for him to be another Providence youngster who is in line for an immediate role.
Eric Neiley, F- This Pennsylvania native and Dartmouth College product may have just average size and skating ability, but he once put up 40 points in just 10 games (due to injury) as a senior prep player at Phillips-Exeter. He’s a dangerous and creative player with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. If he can do enough to impress, there might be an NHL contract in the offing down the line.
Frank Vatrano, F- The former Boston Jr. Bruins standout missed out on some D1 hockey while working a transfer to UMass, but the wait was worth it as he fired home 18 goals in his only full season with the Minutemen before turning pro. Although short in stature and of stocky build, he worked hard to come to camp with a leaner frame. The end result: he’s quicker, more agile and still has a lethal stick, especially between the hash marks. He’s got 20-goal NHL upside in time if he can stay driven and develop his all-around game.
Linus Arnesson, D- The Swede came over late last season to finish out the year with Providence of the AHL, where he was solid if unspectacular. He’s got fine size and mobility, but isn’t going to wow you in any particular aspect of his game. He’s more of a defensively savvy blue liner who can move the puck out of trouble and does well in puck retrieval, but don’t expect him to join the rush much or put up many points. You win with guys like him, but he’ll benefit from time in the AHL before he’s ready for full-time NHL duty.
Zane McIntyre, G- McIntyre has won top goalie awards at every level from high school (Frank Brimsek- Minnesota), junior (USHL) and the NCAA (Mike Richter). Now, he is entering the pro ranks and it will be interesting to see what the Bruins will do with him in his first year. To maximize his playing time, the ECHL might be the best fit for him, but an excellent camp and exhibition season will make it tough on the brain trust. Depending on what happens with Jonas Gustavsson and his PTO, there probably isn’t enough net for all three of Malcolm Subban, Jeremy Smith and McIntyre, so this rookie tourney will be key to the 23-year-old making a good first impression.
(Good UND-produced video and segment on McIntyre at the 7:00 mark.)
Jack Eichel, F- The excitement is palpable, as the 2015 Hobey Baker winner and second overall pick left BU after just one year to turn pro. Unless something unforeseen occurs, Eichel is expected to play the season in Buffalo and will energize the town and team with his superb speed, hands and all-around game. Eichel is both skilled and mature enough to earn new coach Dan Bylsma’s trust, and although the vast majority of Sabres Nation was hoping for Connor McDavid, if there ever was a year to have the second pick in a draft, 2015 was it.
Justin Bailey, F- I’ve been tracking with interest this Buffalo native’s since his draft year (2013) when he impressed with his pure potential even if he was (and still is) a raw, developing prospect. The son of a former NFL player, Bailey was raised by his mother, Karen, who infused old school values into his upbringing. Bailey also benefited from being around members of the Sabres like Matthew Barnaby and Daniel Briere, who got to know the family and helped stoke his passion for hockey at a young age. Like Boston’s Ryan Donato, Bailey is living the dream of being a prospect for the team he grew up cheering for and having a personal connection to. With his 6-3 frame, and NHL-caliber tools, he has the makings of an eventual NHL power forward.
Noah Hanifin, D- Carolina fans unfortunately will have to wait a little longer on Hanifin, who is not participating in the team’s annual venture to the Traverse City, Mich. Rookie tournament due to injury. Like Eichel, Hanifin left the Hockey East after just one season but several NHL scouts tell me they think he can play in the big show right away. We’ll see if he can put his nagging injury behind him in time to have a strong camp and preseason, but everything about Hanifin to date in his young career indicates he will do just that.
Brett Pesce, D- Former UNH standout and 2013 third-rounder is a rangy defender from New York who didn’t quite elevate his offense as expected, but was a solid contributor to the Wildcats in his three seasons at Durham. He’s a hard-nosed defender with size and underrated puck-moving skills who doesn’t give up real estate willingly and will likely become an effective shutdown presence in the NHL after some minor league apprenticing.
Sergey Tolchinsky, F- Speedy little Russian waterbug was passed over in the 2013 NHL entry draft despite putting up a fine season at Sault Ste. Marie with the Greyhounds, only to earn a free agent contact. He’s so skilled and dangerous, reminding of another little Russian named Sergei- Samsonov- who should have been a bigger NHL star than he was, but never really fully recovered his magical hands after wrist surgery. Filthy move at this summer’s development camp…
Columbus Blue Jackets
Sonny Milano, F- The Long Island product switched NCAA commitments from Notre Dame to Boston College, then jumped to the OHL with Plymouth last summer. After a solid first campaign there, he’s shown that his offensive ability is among the best in his peer group, but his overall game still might give his coaches fits at times. He’s a dynamic scorer, but must be more careful not to turn the puck over and guard against taking bad penalties.
Mike Paliotta, D- Chicago’s third-round selection in 2011 went on to captain the University of Vermont, which pulled an upset in the Hockey East quarterfinals last March over favored BC. Sent to the Buckeye State as part of the Brandon Saad trade this summer, Paliotta is a smart defender who isn’t all that flashy but makes good decisions with and away from the puck. He’ll boost the transition game after some time in the minors.
Detroit Red Wings
Dylan Larkin, F- The Wings’ top pick in 2014 left the Wolverines to turn pro and could very well be skating for the big club in October. Skilled and creative, Larkin can do a bit of everything as a plus-skater who is defensively responsible. Given how active and difficult he is to contain on the rush, he has the makings of a perennial All-Star and local that the Motown fans will really get behind.
Mike Matheson, D- When it comes to defensemen who are absolute naturals at moving the puck up the ice, Matheson is right up there with the best. The former Boston College star is a tremendous skater who generates top speed but also masters his edges for effortless lateral glide and shiftiness to avoid the forecheck. He can make the crisp outlet and loves to join the rush. He’s not a finished product by any means, but has improved his overall defensive play coming out of college. He was not a major point producer, but does those things for the transition game that the top teams use to great effect.
Colin Stevens, G- After backstopping Union to the 2014 NCAA championship this season was a step back for the New Yorker and former Boston Jr. Bruin. He signed with Florida last spring and with his live, athletic 6-2 frame, he’ll have time to grow into his body and develop at the minor league level. He’s a winner who can steal games for his team and will be a fine netminder in the AHL soon.
Nikita Scherbak, F- The Habs got excellent value with the big Russian horse out in Saskatoon (since traded to Everett) of the WHL last year. He’s added solid mass to his 6-2 frame, topping out at around 200 pounds entering the season but he’s a very good skater and talented forward who competes hard and brings with him many North American attributes. Like the Bruins with David Pastrnak in 2014, the Canadiens somehow ended up with a promising power forward who should not have been available to them that late in the opening round. Bruins fans will soon know this kid’s name and not in a good way.
New Jersey Devils
Pavel Zacha, F- The stats this last season with Sarnia weren’t much to write home about, but the Devils wasted no time in jumping on the uber-skilled Czech who will likely mature into a more productive player at the highest level. One NHL scout based in Ontario told me that he just oozed talent and potential every time he saw him but for some reason, it wasn’t clicking for him. The Devils desperately need a marketable, exciting young star and they appear to have it in Zacha. He seems to have the tools and right stuff to make the jump to the NHL right away.
New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, F- I’ll admit it was a surprise to stand there in Sunrise and watch the Bruins make three consecutive picks at 13, 14 and 15 and not once call the undersized but electric Seattle forward’s name. When peeling back the onion a bit with team sources and those outside Boston familiar with him, we’ll chalk it up to concerns about some of the injuries he’s dealt with in the WHL and questions about the kind of fit. However, given how quickly the Isles traded (twice I would add) into the first round to grab Barzal at 16, this is going to be someone Bruins fans who follow the draft and prospects closer than the rank and file do, lament for years to come if he develops into a Claude Giroux-type star in Brooklyn.
Michael Dal Colle, F- He was a treat to watch in leading the Oshawa Generals to the 2015 Memorial Cup championship this season. The playmaking winger is so smart and productive- he’s got a great release and stealthily attacks defenses, getting into prime scoring areas or setting the table with effortless ease. He’s a major part of a dangerous group of forwards that will be coming up to take advantage of the presence of John Tavares in his prime (Speaking of Tavares, didn’t he used to skate for the Gennies? Sho ’nuff he did).
New York Rangers
Brady Skjei, D- A major offensive threat he is not, but the big and fluid Minnesotan is going to be one of those dependable minute-munching 3-4 d-men who skate in the NHL for years. Coming out of the NTDP there was thought that he might develop more of a scoring punch, but the lack of that element should not sell him short as a premiere defensive player and character leader type who can move the puck and will be someone his coaches trust to send out and protect a lead late in the game. Those players are valuable, even if they don’t always get the respect they deserve.
Matt O’Connor, G- Even with the breakthrough of Andrew “the Hamburglar” Hammond this past winter in Canada’s capital, the Sens went out and signed the best free agent goaltender available on the market. O’Connor’s misfortune in the third period of the NCAA title game loss to Providence aside, he’s got the size, athletic ability and maturity to rebound from BU coming up just short and develop into a solid pro. He doesn’t give shooters much net, and is a competitive gamer.
Ivan Provorov, D- The Flyers got their man by standing pat and letting the Russian come to them last June. An interesting story as a kid who left Russia a few years ago and played minor hockey in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before jumping to the USHL and then north to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, Provorov was seen as the best defenseman available in the 2015 draft, ranked by some ahead of Hanifin. With his mobility, smarts and puck skills, he’s a prime candidate to shine in his first pro camp and make a tough decision on the Flyers brass to keep him or return him to junior- he’s poised, mature and polished for one so young.
Travis Konecny, F- Along with Barzal, the Ottawa 67’s captain was one that Bruins fans who follow the draft were hoping the team might jump on with one of three first-round picks. Although undersized and didn’t get off to a great start last season, the Flyers made a move to go and get him. If he gets his development back on track to where it was entering 2014-15, Philly fans will have a lot to cheer about with his speed, offensive upside and energy.
Travis Sanheim, D- Another WHL standout defender who rode the wave a year ago of a superb performance in the Under-18 championship tournament to a top-20 selection in 2014. The Calgary Hitman has all of the key tools NHL clubs want in a defender including a fearsome point drive. He parlayed his success into a spot on Canada’s gold medal WJC squad last winter and along with Provorov and Samuel Morin, might turn the defense position from an area of concern in Philly to one of strength if all three pan out as expected.
Daniel Sprong, F- Arguably one of the 2015 draft’s most pure talents on offense, Sprong’s 200-foot game was lacking and a big reason he fell into the second round. However, put a kid like him on the Penguins and you have the potential for it not to matter a whit because of how dangerous he is when the puck’s on his stick. I didn’t think he was a good fit for what Boston is doing, but he makes total sense in the Steel City. They don’t come much more flashy and slick than this Netherlands product.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tony DeAngelo, D- The tremendously skilled yet undersized offensive defenseman has gotten into trouble for his mouth in the past, but his 25 goals and 89 points in just 55 OHL games speak for themselves. The Philly-area native is a sublime skater with the vision and elite hockey IQ to push the offensive pace. Tampa rolled the dice a bit by grabbing him 20th overall a year ago, but he’s on the verge of paying that decision back in spades.
Adam Erne, F- 2013 second-rounder and Connecticut native was injured when his Quebec Remparts needed him most last spring, but when healthy, Erne has the offensive talent and big body to excel in puck possession. He plays a rugged style but needs to cut down on undisciplined penalties. When at his best, he’s dropping his shoulder and driving hard to the net- he’s a load to contain and is built for the modern NHL. Erne is the kind of player that will make an already difficult team to play against that much tougher.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, F- This skilled and gritty gamer had a monster season in the OHL with the London Knights, leading the new-look Leafs front office to go with him fourth overall. There is a lot of pressure on him to get the Blue and White back on the road to respectability, but he didn’t average 2 points per game by accident. He plays with the kind of intelligence and all-around savvy that should see him thrive in that organization and embrace the enormous expectations that come with a player of his draft pedigree and background. He’s got some physical maturing ahead, but there’s a lot to like about him- winner.
Madison Bowey, D- The latest graduate from the Kelowna defenseman factory out in the WHL, Bowey has it all- size, skating, skill, shot and sense. He’s a poised puck mover who plays the game with some jam and has enough confidence to keep things simple. In hindsight, given how much Bowey’s development has taken off since the 2013 NHL draft, it’s hard to figure how the Caps got him in the second round.