NHL teams will showcase their top rookies in a series of tournaments that begin this week.
There are five rookie tournaments kicking off this weekend across North America, the surest sign yet that hockey season is just around the corner.
These events bring together top prospects from around the league and give them a chance to make an early impression against their contemporaries ahead of their teams’ main training camp.
“For a lot of guys, it’s their first taste of hockey at this level,” Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving said. “You temper [expectations], it’s early September. There will be a lot nerves. [But] you get to see them play.”
Treliving’s Flames will take part in The Young Stars Classic hosted by the Canucks in Penticton, British Columbia. This tourney, which runs from Sept. 11-14, will be highlighted by the debut of Connor McDavid as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. The Winnipeg Jets round out the four-team field.
Even though he’ll be focused on his own prospects, Treliving understands what the presence of the 2015 top pick means for the event. “The attention around Connor McDavid is going make for a lot of excitement at the tournament,” he said.
But McDavid isn’t the only show in town. The Oilers will also have defenseman Darnell Nurse, forward Leon Draisaitl, and KHL vet Anton Slepyshev, a winger, on hand. The Canucks will boast four forwards who were recent first-rounders: Jake Virtanen (6th, 2014), Jared McCann (24th, 2014), Hunter Shinkaruk (24th, 2013) and Brendan Gaunce (26th, 2012). The Jets will show off the gems from their top-rated farm system, including first-rounders defenseman Josh Morrissey and winger Nikolaj Ehlers, both of whom could make the big club this fall, along with center Nic Petan and left wings Adam Lowry and Brendan Lemieux. The Flames will be led by Jon Gillies, the outstanding netminder who helped Providence College win the 2015 NCAA title.
“Guys are coming in here to earn jobs and show well,” Treliving said. “Every year there are surprises. Who that is and what that is, we don’t know yet."
Here’s a look at the other noteworthy tournaments and a preview of some of those potential surprises:
• Traverse City Prospect Tournament, Traverse City, MI: Sept. 11-15
Now in its 17th year and featuring eight teams, Traverse City is both the oldest and largest event of its kind. Nearly 500 players who have appeared in this tournament have skated in at least one NHL game, including 24 players who participated in last year’s event.
They’ll be challenged for the Matthew Wuest Memorial Cup—named in honor of the late founder of capgeek.com—by the host Red Wings, along with the Hurricanes, Blackhawks, Stars, Rangers, Wild and Blues.
Players to watch
C Adam Tambellini (Rangers). Third-round pick from 2013 scored 47 goals as an overager with Calgary (WHL) last season.
D Jordan Schmaltz (Blues). The 2012 first-rounder turned pro this summer after his junior season at North Dakota. Big, two-way blueliner with high hockey IQ could crack the roster as soon as this season.
D Michael Paliotta (Blue Jackets). Acquired from the Hawks along with Brandon Saad, this former college star has a shot to start the season on the blueline for Columbus.
• Toronto Rookie Tournament, London, Ont.: Sept. 11-13
Players to watch
C Mitch Marner, F Kasperi Kapanen and C William Nylander (Maple Leafs). With Toronto fully embracing a rebuild, it’s possible that all three of these young guns could be in the opening night lineup for the Leafs.
RW Michael McCarron (Canadiens). The 2013 first-rounder revived his stock last season after making the switch from wing to center. At 6' 6" and 235 pounds, he has the size the Habs desperately need down the middle. Unlikely to make the team out of camp, but could get a look-see this season.
G Matt O’Connor (Senators). Highly coveted college free agent surprised observers by signing with the Sens. His arrival hastened the departure of Robin Lehner. O’Connor wants to set himself as the first call-up in case of injury to Andrew Hammond or Craig Anderson.
F Dominik Simon (Penguins). A longshot to make the Pens this year, but a player who skated on a line with Jaromir Jagr at the World Championships deserves a close look.
• Tampa Rookie Tournament, Estero, Fla.: Sept. 12-15
Players to watch
C Jakub Vrana (Capitals). Washington’s top prospect has displayed top-six skills on the international stage (three assists for the Czech Republic at the 2015 Worlds as a 19-year-old). He’ll look to make adjustments to the North American game this season. Could see time with the Caps if injuries hit.
LW Vladislav Kamenev (Predators). The 2014 second-rounder would like to put an injury-plagued 2014-15 season behind him and demonstrate his top-six bona fides. Slated to play in Milwaukee this year but his size (6' 2", 203) and slick mitts could earn him a call-up.
LW Lawson Crouse (Panthers). Controversial 2015 first-rounder boasts an NHL-ready body, but are the rest of the pieces in place? Needs a strong camp to get his bid for a 2015-16 roster spot off to a good start.
LW Adam Erne (Lightning). Just what the Bolts need—more offense. Erne scored 21 goals in 22 playoff games last spring to go along with 41 in 60 regular-season contests. His size and strength give him a shot at a roster spot with the big club.
• Buffalo Prospects Challenge, Buffalo, NY: Sept. 12-14
Although this first-timer ranks as the smallest of the tournaments—the Sabres are joined by the Bruins and Devils—there already are whispers hinting at big plans for expansion in the future.
Players to watch
C Jack Eichel (Sabres). He’ll be watched as closely as McDavid is up in Penticton.
RW Zach Senyshyn (Bruins). The third of Bruins GM Don Sweeney’s three consecutive first-rounders this year was widely criticized back in June, but a few scouts have emerged since then to pump the young forward’s tires. His performance at this camp will go a long way toward soothing the nerves of frustrated Boston fans.
C Pavel Zacha (Devils). There are jobs to be won up front with the offensively-challenged Devils. Zacha can lay the groundwork with a strong showing in Buffalo.
• Could the NHL experience a Deflategate-style cheating event? Paul Stewart looks at a few examples from the past in which teams tried to game the system in their favor.
• Former SI scribe Jeff Pearlman has a fascinating interview with the “Wayne Gretzky of hockey writers”, a wizardly wordsmith who is also very lucky to be alive.
• Jason Reitman’s live reads of classic film scripts are like catnip to cineastes and big-name actors. So what’s a former hockey goon doing in his latest production?
• Here’s a look at the intense off-ice commitment it took to turn Connor McDavid from a rawboned underager into an NHL-ready man. Think I need to get one of those breakfast chefs for my, um, training.
• Suffering a broken leg wasn’t part of Max Pacioretty’s summer plans. Here’s an update on how the Montreal sniper is coming along in his recovery.
• Three legends of the women’s game announced their retirements on Wednesday. With nine Olympic golds between them, these players left an indelible mark on the sport.
• Further proof that hockey is a big tent: Randy Hernandes, born and trained in Miami and the son of Cuban immigrants, will join the U.S. National Team Development Program for the 2015-16 season.
• Remember this the next time you come across someone tickling the ivories in the lobby of a fancy hotel: That piano player might be a New Jersey Devils prospect.