On the weekend, I attended the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in Michigan, where eight NHL teams got a chance to see what some of their top youngsters could do. This year in particular, there was a ton of high-end talent and thanks to several NHL rebuilds, every franchise had at least one high-end player.
The following mini-reports are based off my viewings of the first two days of the tourney. So let’s get a couple of notes out of the way before I begin:
First, the games are staggered double-headers, played at two rinks in the same building. Therefore, I saw some teams more than others.
Secondly, these squads are not constructed equally and my interest reflected that. Current NCAA players do not participate in the tourney because it would wreck their eligibility. Also, most current European prospects are already back home playing in their leagues, which start earlier than North America. Due to this, teams that draft a lot of those players have to fill out their lineup with undrafted/free agent invites. I tend not to focus on these players unless they really stand out.
Finally, older players have to truly dominate for me to care; if you’re 24, I would expect you to carry the play against younger competition.
With all that said, let’s go through the teams alphabetically.
Martin Necas: The 2017 first-rounder showed off great passing vision and will be lethal on the Canes’ power play very soon. Great speed is another calling card for Necas, who established very nice chemistry with Andrei Svechnikov and Janne Kuokkanen on the top line. His defense was so-so in Game 1.
Andrei Svechnikov: Wicked shot and a dominant performance that drew penalties because opponents couldn’t otherwise stop him when he had the puck. The second overall pick in 2018 was one of Carolina’s most dangerous players and it’s easy to see him making the jump straight to the NHL this year.
Stelio Mattheos: Solid, all-around game. Good skater, worked the penalty-kill and created offense with Luke Henman and Morgan Geekie on a very impressive unit for the Canes. Mattheos was taken first overall by the Brandon Wheat Kings in the 2014 WHL bantam draft, but he has demonstrated a complete game that goes beyond pure offense.
Aleksi Saarela: Great battle level. Listed at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds - so he’s not small anymore - but I was surprised how well he leveraged his frame behind the net. Nice playmaking vision, too. Saarela has been playing with AHL Charlotte, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he spends at least some time in Carolina this year.
Luke Henman: An honest player who gets back on defense and showed some nice offensive acumen as well. Smart kid will return to the QMJHL’s Blainville-Boisbriand Armada this season.
Jeremy Helvig: Made some huge stops against St. Louis in Game 1: big and athletic, he’ll scramble to snuff out pucks when he needs to and never gives up on a play. Look for Helvig to battle for a job in AHL Charlotte this year.
Julien Gauthier: Showing more of a complete game, which had been the knock on him. Physical, and still has the goal-scorer’s touch around the net, so there’s reason for optimism after an up-and-down rookie pro campaign with Charlotte.
Dylan Sikura: Just an awesome puckhandler. Led a ton of rushes thanks to his speed and you can tell the Northeastern University alum is ready to contribute at the NHL level. Given where the Blackhawks’ depth chart is right now, he should get that chance.
Adam Boqvist: Gets the rush going fast. Still working on battle results, but that will come with time as he gets bigger and stronger. Learning the North American game with OHL London will help, too. Very quick shot. Played on a great pairing with fellow 2018 first-rounder Nicolas Beaudin, giving off a Drew Doughty-Jake Muzzin vibe, since both can rush the puck.
Henri Jokiharju: Great escapability when he’s breaking the puck out of the zone. The 2017 first-rounder is another mobile blueliner who handles the puck and can run the point on the power play. Jokiharju will return to the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks this season.
Graham Knott: Continues to impress with his growth as a player. Wore the ‘C’ and was very involved in the play. Knott had a rough go in his first pro season with AHL Rockford, so hopefully he can build off this.
Dominik Kahun: Plays at a high pace and has a hard, quick shot. Kahun has been playing in Germany for the past few seasons after spending time in the OHL with Sudbury. Already 23, he’ll get a shot at the Hawks this fall.
Nicolas Beaudin: Very smart; disrupts the opposition by stepping up and taking away time and space. Handles the puck well and will be part of a very strong Drummondville team in the QMJHL this season.
Alexandre Fortin: Elusive, quick hands, drew two penalties on breakaways in the first two games. Tenacious player who almost made Chicago a couple years ago, Fortin will look to build off his first pro season with AHL Rockford, which didn’t feature a ton of offense.
Philipp Kurashev: Looked a lot more engaged away from the puck and even killed penalties. Engagement was one of the knocks on him in his draft year, but Traverse City coach Jeremy Colliton didn’t know that, so he sent the Quebec Remparts forward out and got rewarded for it.
Dennis Gilbert: Smooth skater and he hits hard. Got a couple penalties early, so he’ll have to learn how to walk the line, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish alum will get a chance to do that with AHL Rockford this season.
Liam Foudy: The speed is incredible in Columbus’ 2018 first-rounder. Used in all situations by a Columbus squad that didn’t have much drafted talent this year (but made it to the final nonetheless). I had one defenseman from an opposing team tell me Foudy was the hardest player he had faced through the first two days of competition.
Kevin Stenlund: Great size and shot, but is it because he’s already 22? Stenlund certainly dominated up front for Columbus, but the real challenge will come in his first NHL training camp. Previously, the powerful center was with HV71 in Sweden. Look for him with AHL Cleveland this year.
Jordan Sambrook: Had a great goal and multi-point game coming in from the blueline against St. Louis. Nice frame and plays a two-way game. Originally drafted by Detroit, Sambrook was not signed because the Red Wings had a glut of defensive prospects all around the same age. Detroit’s loss could be another team’s gain, as Sambrook is a free agent now.
Jonathan Davidsson: Really quick, used his speed at both ends of the ice effectively. Davidsson is already 21 and will return to Sweden if he doesn’t make the Blue Jackets this fall. Given how deep Columbus is right now, it seems like Djurgarden is the answer.
Miro Heiskanen: So smooth, so quick. Went end-to-end for a goal that ended with a wicked wrister in Game 1. I can’t help but think that he would have played more if this tournament wasn’t about getting good looks at everyone on the squad. Nonetheless, Heiskanen looked like a guy who will step right into the NHL.
Curtis Douglas: The Windsor Spitfires center is a ridiculous 6-foot-8 and 234 pounds. His reach gives him such an advantage in getting to pucks and creating offensive opportunities. Linemates couldn’t bury all of them, but the chances were there.
Nicholas Caamano: Such a natural goal-scorer. Quick hands in tight and he goes to the right places. Caamano helped OHL Hamilton win a league championship last year and now he’ll get his first full year of pro experience with AHL Texas.
Ty Dellandrea: Always facing the right side of the play. Needs to get stronger, but he goes where he needs to and has nice offensive skill. The 2018 first-rounder plays a great two-way game and will be a force for OHL Flint again this season.
Roope Hintz: You can tell he just came off a deep AHL playoff run. Fast, aggressive and confident in his offensive manoeuvring, Hintz was one of the few true prospects on Texas’ Calder Cup finalist team last season. Can play center or wing. Likely gets a call-up to the NHL this year.
Jason Robertson: The 2017 second-rounder looks a lot more fit now - his speed has improved and he uses his big frame to shield the puck from checkers. Still has a nice shot, which he will undoubtedly use in his final OHL season with Kingston. Already has two straight seasons with at least 40 goals.
Filip Zadina: High-end puck touches and off-the-charts creativity/offensive IQ. The sixth overall pick in 2018 showed off a lot of elite skill and played the point on the power play. Showed off nice chemistry with Michael Rasmussen. He’ll get a chance to jump straight to the NHL this fall.
Vili Saarijarvi: The Finnish defenseman can really turn on the jets when he’s rushing the puck up the ice. Has an active stick on ‘D’, but still loses battles due to his size. Spent some time in the ECHL last year, but look for him to play a bigger role in AHL Grand Rapids this season.
Joe Veleno: Does everything at a high pace and will take a hit in order to make a play. The 2018 first-rounder was promoted to the top line for Game 2, joining Zadina and Michael Rasmussen and pushing the pace. He’ll go back to a strong Drummondville squad in the QMJHL.
Michael Rasmussen: Has a quick shot and looked faster than before. Played on the top line with Zadina and was very effective. The Red Wings also experimented with putting Rasmussen on the wing in Game 2 and there’s the possibility that the big two-way center starts his NHL career there, just like Dylan Larkin did in Detroit.
Zach Gallant: Effective defensive forward who gets into passing lanes to disrupt the opposition. Stats dipped in his second year with OHL Peterborough, so Gallant needs a bit of rebound.
Dennis Cholowski: Nice all-around game, has definitely filled out his frame. Assertiveness will be the key moving forward. If he can do that, he may see games with Detroit this year. Otherwise, he’ll be part of a strong defense corps in AHL Grand Rapids.
Jordan Greenway: At one point in Game 1, he was so physically dominant, I thought of Super Mario Bros, when Mario gets the star. Three Rangers hit him at the same time and the collision was still a draw. Great net-front presence, but he needs to be a bit more engaged. Started jawing with New York’s Derek Pratt at one point and that kind of anger could serve Greenway well.
Dmitry Sokolov: Scored on a rocket shot in Game 1. Otherwise, you don’t always notice him, but it’s hard to find pure goal-scorers. Sokolov begins his pro career this season with the AHL’s Iowa Wild.
Mason Shaw: High-end playmaking IQ and a deceptively quick shot. Shaw missed basically all of last season due to a knee injury, but he didn’t look very rusty. Though he could return to WHL Medicine Hat for an overage season, the Wild want to see what he can do at the pro level, so AHL Iowa is the likely play.
Lias Andersson: The speed is the big thing. Always involved in the play and he plays a 200-foot game. Expectations are high for Andersson, but he looks like someone the Rangers can get into their lineup full-time this season.
Filip Chytil: Another speed guy, Chytil led a ton of rushes and has great passing vision. Like fellow 2017 first-rounder Andersson, Chytil looks ready to take on a full-time role with the Rangers this year.
Tim Gettinger: Big body, great puck protection and he gets back on ‘D.’ Gettinger just completed a very successful junior career that included a trip to the OHL final with Sault Ste. Marie. The 6-foot-6 left winger will now start his pro career with AHL Hartford.
Libor Hajek: Big-time point shot for a goal in Game 1. Hajek plays an effective two-way game and will be a key defense prospect for the Rangers going forward. Acquired from Tampa Bay in the Ryan McDonagh deal, Hajek will head to AHL Hartford this fall.
Ryan Lindgren: Nasty to play against, great battler in his own zone. Lindgren is a character guy on the blueline with lots of leadership traits. He was acquired from Boston in the Rick Nash deal and will play for AHL Hartford. Lindgren didn’t have much offense in his game while he was at NCAA Minnesota, but did post four points in 10 games during a late-season stint with Hartford last year.
Gabriel Fontaine: A bang-and-crasher who just finished his first pro season with AHL Hartford, Fontaine was very effective on the forecheck for the Rangers in Traverse City. Destined for a bottom-six role if he can make it to the NHL.
Ville Meskanen: Nose for the net, sees the ice well and has a great wrister. Already 22 years old, Meskanen had a breakout season with Ilves back in Finland, sparking a lot of free agent interest among NHL teams. New York won the right to his services and now we’ll see what he can do against men over here.
Joey Keane: Great skater, elusive and makes the first forechecker miss. Keane is an athletic defenseman who took great strides last season with OHL Barrie and is on the type of trajectory that will see him produce even more as a 19-year-old.
Brett Howden: Crashed the net for a greasy goal against Minnesota in the second game. Very effective center who came over to the organization from Tampa Bay in the Ryan McDonagh trade, Howden plays a 200-foot game and can put points on the board. He’ll head to AHL Hartford.
Robert Thomas: Can dominate possession. Sometimes his passes were too futuristic for their recipients, but once he gets to the NHL that won’t be a problem. Great puck patience to set up Jake Walman for a goal against Carolina. Thomas took on top lines and looked good, even though the Blues disappointed as a group.
Alexei Toropchenko: He was flying in Game 1. Toropchenko is a big-bodied kid who needs to find more of a scoring touch, but the physical attributes are all there. He’ll return to OHL Guelph, where the Storm should be pretty good this season.
Jake Walman: Big shot, physical presence, great skater but he gets too cute with the puck sometimes. Walman brings a lot of talent to the blueline and it feels like at this point, he just needs to nail down the mental part of the pro game. Since St. Louis didn’t have a dedicated AHL team last year, he spent some time in Binghamton with the Devils’ kids, but look for him in San Antonio now that the Blues have their own farm team again.
Erik Foley: Fast, tenacious and makes smart little plays to get the rush going. Highlight reel goal in Game 2. I’ve always been a Foley fan and he continues to impress in viewings. Originally drafted by Winnipeg, he came over to St. Louis in the Paul Stastny trade and will start his pro career in San Antonio after three years at Providence College.
Dominik Bokk: Hands and quickness are great but needs to get stronger. The Blues brought him over to Traverse City so the 2018 first-rounder could experience North American hockey for the first time and Bokk told me after Game 2 that it has been an eye-opener. The German winger will return to Sweden, where he hopes to stick with Vaxjo’s SHL squad all year.
Jordan Kyrou: Muscled past Columbus’ Justin Wade for a great goal in the second game and looked dominant early against Carolina. But St. Louis lost both those games, which was a little troubling. Kyrou has great speed and skill, which will be fun to see in AHL San Antonio this year.