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Connor Brickley among five impressive rookies of preseason

Florida Panthers forward Connor Brickley is just one rookie to watch during the NHL preseason.

Connor Brickley wasn’t the rookie I was planning to watch going into Sunday night’s preseason tilt between the Dallas Stars and the Florida Panthers, but by the end of the night he had clearly made the best impression.

That’s no surprise to regular observers of the Panthers. They say he’s been doing it since the start of camp.

Brickley (in photo above), a second-round pick by Florida in 2010 and the nephew of Boston Bruins broadcaster Andy Brickley, is one of several rookies around the league who have played themselves into a mix for a roster spot with the regular season just around the corner. On Sunday night, he was the most dynamic Panthers forward, constantly buzzing around the puck and finding ways to make the most of each shift. He ended up scoring the winner in Florida’s 4–2 victory and while it wasn’t exactly one for the highlight reel—he slammed a three-footer into an empty cage after Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen turned the puck over behind the goal line—but it was a fitting reward for a solid night’s work. The key to the play: beating the Dallas defenseman to the crease and Brickley keeping his stick free of the check so that he was able to capitalize when the puck got to him. It wasn’t a flashy play but it indicated the effort and intelligence that he could bring to a depth role for the Panthers this season.

After the game, Panthers beat writer Harvey Fialkov tweeted that Brickley has been the best player in camp and his play likely means that David Booth and Martin Havlat, a pair of veterans in camp on professional tryouts, won’t be offered contracts. Can’t argue with that assessment.

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Lawson Crouse, the player I wanted to watch, came into camp with a much higher profile as the 11th pick in this year’s draft, but the polarizing prospect doesn’t appear close to making the cut. He used his size well against Dallas in Sunday night, working effectively along the boards and powering his way to the net on a couple of occasions. The reads aren’t quite there yet though, and neither are the hands. He’s gaining valuable experience from this exposure, but his raw talent will need considerable refinement before he can be a consistent contributor to the Cats.

At the other end of the ice, Mattias Janmark continued making a strong case for a spot on the Stars’ opening night roster. The 22-year-old forward, acquired at the deadline last season from Detroit in the Erik Cole deal, has been one of Dallas’s most noticeable players every step of the way this fall. He dominated the Traverse City rookie tournament, tallying six points in four games, and has made an impression with his hustle and net presence.

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Janmark opened the scoring in the loss to Florida, taking a drop pass from Jyrki Jokipakka at the top of the left circle and beating Roberto Luongo five-hole with a heavy one-timer, but it was his consistency that stood out. He got behind the Panthers defense on at least two occasions and was a constant presence deep in the zone. He finished the night with a team-high five shots on goal and probably generated three solid scoring chances.

The Stars appear set up front, but every team is looking for more skill on its depth lines. If he can show during the next week that he can handle the defensive zone as well as he can create, Janmark should stick.

Elsewhere, Mikko Rantanen seemed like a long shot early on to break camp with the Colorado Avalanche, but he might be the right player at the right time for a team that’s re-thinking itself a bit. The 10th selection in the 2015 draft played nearly 17 minutes on Sunday night against a Los Angeles squad that was nearly full strength and he was arguably Colorado’s most impressive forward in the Avs’ 2–1 loss. Coach Patrick Roy has made it clear that offense will be a priority after his team finished 23rd last season with an average of 2.55 goals per game. A skilled attacker with speed like Rantanen then might be able to swipe a depth role from a defensive stalwart like Cody McLeod, Patrick Bordeleau or Marc-Andre Cliche. Borna Rendulic and Dennis Everberg also have to be in the mix if the goal is to get the puck moving in the right direction.

Joonas Donskoi, the 2015 Finnish league MVP, looks like a good bet to stick with the San Jose Sharks. The 23-year-old scored a goal and led the team with six shots on net in a 3–1 win over Arizona on Friday night. Of course he was skating on the top line alongside Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, and they have a way of making anyone look good, but Donskoi impressed just the same with his ability to read the play and get to the right places. He’s a viable option to play in their top six.

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Donskoi might have at least one fellow freshman to help cover the rookie dinner tab. Dylan DeMelo could fill a hole on the team’s third pair alongside Brenden Dillon, providing some transitional skill to the unit. DeMelo, a sixth-round pick in 2011, has outplayed both Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson, both of whom spent time with the big club last season. The key to his success: better decisions with the biscuit. He notched a pair of assists in that win over the Coyotes thanks to his ability to get pucks to the net. Timing and movement are everything and DeMelo has shown a knack for finding and exploiting those lanes when they open up. 

The Sharks may prefer to add a veteran to fill that spot as they gird up for a tough battle in the west, but DeMelo has played well enough to give GM Doug Wilson an option. They both should be happy with that.

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