26 January 2006

1st rounders: Ladd, Parise, Eaves, Lehtonen

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


“…With our first pick in this year’s NHL draft, we are pleased to select…”

…and with those words a young draftee’s professional life is forever changed, and forever defined. A first round pick in the National Hockey League automatically brings high hopes…and high expectations. The label “first-round pick” will remain with a player throughout his career and beyond. Often that label is an albatross which becomes impossible for a player to shed if the player doesn’t reach elite status. Rarely does a fan look back at his or her favorite team’s first round picks and not utter a simple declaration of “great” or “bust.” Unfair? Of course it is – labeling an 18-year old as a potential franchise savior is often a crapshoot as there lies the very possibility that a particular player peaks at that age and never improves. For every Guy Lafleur there’s a Brian Lawton; for every Denis Potvin there’s a Greg Joly. For every Mario Lemieux there’s…well, there’s an Alexandre Daigle, billed as a Lemieux clone based on his astronomical stats in the Quebec League. Daniel Tkaczuk, Rico Fata (sorry Calgary Fans), Jason Bonsignore…the list is endless. Even to this day if you mention Morris Titanic or Jiri Dudacek to old-time Sabres fans you’ll get eyes rolling skyward. My point is this: from the moment a player is selected in the first round, they will forever be etched into that team’s history. Nobody remembers a seventh-rounder that never made it at the top level.

This week we’ll be profiling some recent first round picks who have yet to become stars or household names - it is too early to tell whether they’ll be looked back at as stars or busts as they are all still in the very early part of their careers (all are NHL rookies this year) but each one is beginning to have an impact on their respective teams. In fairness, with the expansion of the league to 30 teams, what is now a late first-round pick would – in 1969 (the advent of the modern amateur draft) – have been an early third-round pick. The counter-argument can be made that with the huge expansion of international talent it evens out. But that’s nitpicking, isn’t it?

Andrew Ladd, Winger, Carolina Hurricanes

Andrew Ladd was drafted fourth overall in 2004 by the Hurricanes, so will obviously be carrying some pretty high expectations; in fact, the Hurricanes traded up (by dealing a few lower picks to Columbus) to specifically get Ladd. He has a relatively different resume than most top prospects, with only two seasons of major junior in Canada in the Western Hockey League – he spent the two seasons before entering the WHL starring in British Columbia Junior B and A leagues. After turning professional this season with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL he notched seven goals in just 15 games, then got the big call in November to join Carolina and ever since – in short time – he’s had great success. His overall numbers are impressive – six goals in his first 11 games, and that after being held off the scoresheet for his first two games. He was getting quality ice time on a top-level team, averaging nearly 16 minutes per game until he ripped up his knee in December….

Ladd was selected by the ‘Canes in 2004 after having a great rookie year with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL in 2003-2004, when he was the leading rookie scorer in the league with 75 points – one scout compared him favorably to Rick Nash. However, in his second season he dropped off offensively to 45 points, yet his gritty play contributed to him earning 167 penalty minutes that season which attracted the Carolina brass. Ladd plays an up-tempo game and has mostly been a playmaker in his career, despite the outstanding goal scoring prowess he’s shown in his thus far very short NHL career. One impressive number is that his six goals to date have come on only 21 shots, good for a 28.6% shooting percentage.

…now back to that knee: Ladd returned on January 17th after six weeks on the shelf and played a few minutes against Phoenix. In each game since (four in total) he has seen his ice-time increase – likely a wise move to make sure he’s fully healthy. Ladd has responded very well on the scoresheet, with two goals and his first NHL assist in the last three games. In his last game against Montreal, he played mostly with Rod Brind'Amour and Justin Williams, logging over ten minutes on the ice in 17 shifts. If Ladd continues this progression, he not only could make a surprise positive addition to your fantasy team in terms of points, he could round out an already-talented Hurricanes team that has their sights realistically set on a deep playoff run.

Zach Parise, Center, New Jersey Devils

I was surprised in 2003 when Zach Parise fell all the way to the 17th pick in the first round (although that class is already shaping up to be quite strong). Parise is a unique offensive dynamo – he created quite a buzz even before his draft year in his time spent at the famous hockey factory of Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota where in his senior season he scored 73 goals and 174 points in 63 games. In two years at the University of North Dakota he was a two-time Hobey Baker finalist while scoring 116 points in just 76 games. In his second season he was the most valuable player for the USA at the World Junior Championships, leading them to a gold medal by leading the tournament in scoring. That was clearly enough to convince the Devils that he was ready to turn pro, and Parise headed to Albany of the AHL last year. Even though his raw numbers weren’t at an elite level – 58 points in 73 games – he was the fifth-highest scoring rookie and was a starter on the AHL all-star team.

This year Parise made the jump to New Jersey, but immediately faced a big depth problem - Parise has played in 48 of the Devils’ 49 games this year but with the Devils’ other centers including Scott Gomez, John Madden, and Erik Rasmussen, quality ice time was limited. The Devils seemed to bring him along slowly this season as he saw inconsistent ice time throughout most of the first half of the season. Yet almost exactly coinciding with the “changing of the guard” behind the bench from Larry Robinson to Lou Lamoriello, Parise has seen his ice time increase, never dipping below ten minutes and often now playing in the 15 minute range, and just as important he’s been getting roughly 20 shifts every night.

Parise has been playing on a line with Sergei Brylin and Victor Kozlov. His status as a center will make him a little less valuable and only worthwhile this year in deep leagues – but there is no denying his great offensive talent (see last Saturday’s shootout winner vs. the Islanders). Watch him and if he continues to impress his new coach he should see more and more offensive (read: power play) opportunities. Zach Parise is on track to be a star in the NHL within the next few years and if you are in a keeper league, he is worth stowing away.

Patrick Eaves, Winger, Ottawa Senators

Another talent coming out of Shattuck in Minnesota, Patrick Eaves took his game to the east coast and the strong NCAA program at Boston College in 2002. Patrick’s freshman campaign was sadly marked by a terrible collision with an opposing goaltender (Merrimack’s Joe Exter) which left the goalie in a coma and Eaves with a concussion. His tough year seemingly came at a tough time in his draft year but the Ottawa Senators knew his talent and took him with their first pick in the first round in 2003, at #29 overall. Eaves went on to two more full seasons at BC, scoring at well over a point-a-game pace with 87 in 70 games.

This year, being Eaves’ first pro season, has seen him bounce between Binghamton of the AHL and Ottawa no less than five times already. Ottawa went through a string of injuries in the past few months and Eaves was called on to fill in as the team got healthy. If he continues to play at his current rate, he may not see central New York for a while. Eaves has been one of the Senators crucial players over the past few weeks as they’ve battled through their first adversity of the season – in his last seven games Eaves has six points and has been a fantastic +7.

Eaves has the offensive skills to be a top-six forward in the league – he’ll eventually get a chance to play on a line with other premier talents but with the Senators boasting a loaded offense, Eaves is learning the finer points of the NHL game on Ottawa’s third line with Chris Kelly and Vaclav Varada and has quietly totaled 10 goals through his first 24 NHL games. Eaves bears watching: if one of Ottawa’s top forwards again suffers an injury, Eaves would be a good bet to step up on one of their top lines.

Kari Lehtonen, Goaltender, Atlanta Thrashers

Kari Lehtonen is the highest-drafted of our profiles this week, having gone second overall in 2002 to Atlanta (behind Rick Nash and ahead of the highly-touted Jay Bouwmeester). The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau (seen as the standard authority for objective player rankings for NHL teams) had him ranked as the highest-ranked European prospect, but it was still seen as risky or cutting-edge to take a goalie so high in the draft. Nevertheless, the Thrashers took the chance that Lehtonen could be the cornerstone for their franchise for the next decade along with Ilya Kovalchuk. At the time, Lehtonen became the second-highest drafted goalie to date (Rick DiPietro, Islanders’ #1 overall, 2000 – since then Marc-Andre Fleury was taken first in 2003 by Pittsburgh). Lehtonen was seen as a “can’t-miss prospect” in many circles – twice he was awarded as outstanding goalie of the professional Finnish elite league SM-Liiga while playing for Jokerit (he became their starting goalie at age 18) and twice he was named Hockey News’ top prospect.

The Thrashers had high hopes for this season with Lehtonen in goal but he suffered a terrible groin injury in his first game of the season and Atlanta struggled for consistency for two months, going through a parade of goaltenders and trying to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference. He finally returned to the team just before the end of December, and if there was any question as to how effective he’d be, Lehtonen won five in a row in early January to help put the Thrashers firmly into the playoff discussion in the East. In limited time (12 games through Wednesday) he’s put up a 2.57 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage, and has given up three or less goals in each of his last six games. It certainly appears that health is no longer an issue for him.

Despite a recent slump by the team, look for Lehtonen to get virtually all the work between the pipes for Atlanta from here on out as he and players like Kovalchuk, Marc Savard, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov try and help push this team to their first playoff birth. If for some reason Lehtonen has been overlooked in your league due to his late start to the season, pick him up immediately.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

19 January 2006

struggles: Bruins and Penguins

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


As we’ve passed the halfway point of this season, it seems a logical spot for teams to self-evaluate. Have they been successful to this point? Or has the season been a disappointment? For some teams who had high hopes, this can be a point at which they attempt to turn the tide – either by changing coaches, personnel, or even philosophy on building a team.

Two of the more disappointing teams this year would be the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, both currently safely ensconced in last place in their respective divisions. I say “disappointing” in that many writers predicted both clubs to make the playoffs and even make some noise advancing in the spring. Yet in retrospect those were puzzling predictions – to me it seemed that both clubs had decisions to make: “do we focus on our very young talent and nurture it for a few seasons or do we make some noise with free agent signings and try to immediately jump ahead of our learning curve and “go for it” this year?” Well as you may know, both teams chose the “sign a bunch of free agents” route, fans and writers were blinded, and virtually none of those signings have worked out.

That hazy/unsure mix of “we like our young talent…but let’s still spend lots of money on aging veterans” rarely works, and I think often backfires on an organization. My philosophy would be to make a commitment either way (although I’d almost always steer towards building a young team), and stick it out. The New York Rangers – an active endorsement on how *not* to assemble an NHL team over most of the past decade, finally weren’t afraid to let their youth shine through this year and (along with a dramatic resurgence from Jaromir Jagr) it has kept them near the top of their division all season long. Aside from Jagr, their two most important players this year have been rookies Henrik Lundqvist and Petr Prucha. The Buffalo Sabres suffered a painful few years through bankruptcy and the departure of veteran stars. They claimed to have a plan in place, which didn’t sit well with fans but finally this season the club has gelled and after a cool start has been near the top of the league standings ever since. The team may not have the superstars that casual fans would recognize but they have an overloaded roster filled with skilled players - the franchise has been so deep, that call-ups like Jason Pominville, Dan Paille, and Derek Roy have stepped in due to injuries and the team has lost virtually nothing. If they can find a way to keep them all together they should be a force for the next few seasons.

Despite the disappointing seasons thus far by the Penguins and Bruins, there are still bright lights in their organizations. And they have both made mid-season moves, both minor and major, that perhaps point to them realizing their missteps and attempting to correct them midstream. If the moves have come too late to see postseason success this year, they should benefit the health of the franchises in the near future. Today we’re taking a look at a few of the youngsters on those teams….

Michel Ouellet, Winger, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a very bad hockey team right now. 11 wins in 46 games bad. I didn’t like the way they “built” the team in the summer – the multiple veteran signings smacked of desperation, when they have so much youth on the roster that I felt they should have let develop. Finally, to not let their goaltender of the future Marc-Andre Fleury even stay on the roster (due to his potential bonuses) and watch the team bury itself in the initial months…it must have been very frustrating for a Penguins fan who was fed so much hype on the heels of all the off-season activity, highlighted by Sidney Crosby’s arrival. The vets didn’t play well, Super Mario finally played like his age says he should, and their defence was abysmal. December rolled around, coach Ed Olcyck was fired and Michel Therrien was hired from their AHL team in Scranton. While the team’s overall fate hasn’t been any better at all, at least one bright light has been found – winger Michel Ouellet. Ouellet played three early-season games under Eddie O, but didn’t get much of an opportunity – averaging about 10 minutes per game. He was sent down to Scranton…and coach Michel Therrien…where he potted 10 goals and 30 points in just 19 games.

When Therrien was hired as coach of the Pens he called Ouellet up to the big club within one day. Ouellet responded immediately. He scored points in nine of his first ten games, including an amazing ten goals. He has cooled off in recent games to put his overall numbers at 11 goals and 17 points in 18 games. Incredibly, he’s only a -3 considering he’s only been on the Pens for four wins this year (against 14 losses). He has made his mark on the power play with nine goals and 13 points, perhaps not making him the next Tim Kerr (or even J.F. Sauve) but still producing at an impressive clip. Only twice since his recall on December 16th has he failed to register a shot on goal, and in fact his shooting percentage is an outrageous .355. Ouellet was a member of the Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Junior league (and a teammate of Brad Richards) where he racked up 118 goals over his final three seasons. He took that scoring talent to the next level with Scranton and over his first two seasons hit the 30 goal mark each time.

Due in part to the season being over three months old (his totals compared to other players’ season totals wouldn’t stick out) and the general ineptitude of the Penguins he’s still available in some leagues. Although I hardly expect him to keep up this pace all season, if the Penguins reshape themselves and continue to give young players like Ouellet a legitimate shot at being the future face of the team, I have high hopes for him and the Penguins in coming seasons.

Tomas Surovy, Winger, Pittsburgh Penguins

Wow, two Penguins? Could this youth movement be a return to the days of Pierre Larouche and Rick Kehoe (yes, I just wanted to drop those names)? Tomas Surovy was another mid-season recall by the Penguins - Surovy came up on December 11th. He played parts of the past two seasons with the Penguins, having some success in 2003-04 with 11 goals in 47 games. Yet possibly due to that previously mentioned Penguins inability to fully commit to a youth movement, he found himself beginning the season in the American Hockey League with Scranton (where he notched 28 points in 25 games). Noting a pattern here? Hello Mr. Therrien. Surovy actually made it to Pittsburgh about a week before Therrien – in the two games before the coaching change Surovy was held without a point and was a -1. In the first six games under the new coaching staff, Surovy had eight points and was a +2 (the team was 2-4).

Although Surovy has tailed off of late in Pittsburgh, this might be a time to keep an eye on him as other owners might not be noticing him. The young Czech was drafted in the fourth round in 2001 by Pittsburgh and spent most of the next four seasons assigned to their American Hockey League affiliate in Scranton, with the occasional cup of coffee with the big club in Pittsburgh. His second season in Scranton proved his best as he scored at a point-per-game clip and tallied 19 goals in just 39 games before being recalled. The troubling mark on Surovy’s career thus far might be his consistency. He seemed to take a step back the next few years in the AHL until this year before his call-up. A big attraction to Surovy is his linemates: Crosby and Ziggy Palffy – despite criticisms of Palffy, to me he’s been the only “name” addition who has done anything of worth this year. If Surovy continues to play alongside those two he’ll put up good numbers the rest of the way.

Yikes! Late news: Ziggy Palffy suddenly announced his retirement on Wednesday. You should note how this might affect line combinations on the Penguins.

Brad Boyes, Center, Boston Bruins

Continuing with our “lousy black and gold” theme this week, we move on to the Bruins. Brad Boyes is a very interesting player– he was a first round pick by the Leafs back in 2000 and then was shuttled in the Owen Nolan deal to San Jose, then finally to Boston a year later. Boyes’ game is offence – he twice won the Ontario Hockey League’s outstanding player award with the Erie Otters, amassing 167 points in his last 106 games in those two seasons – his last culminating in an incredible 22 goals in 21 playoff games while leading the Otters to the OHL championship. He also starred for Canada in the World Junior Championships that season, helping them win silver and ending up second in overall scoring with nine points.

Boyes’ statistics with the Bruins this year aren’t super: in 45 games he has 10 goals and 25 points. I think those numbers can and should rise. First of all, his average ice time has to this point been the second-least of any Boston regular. He’s shown a willingness to play a strong two-way game; some evidence of that is in his +4 efficiency rating - best on the team. Boyes has been moved between different lines a good deal this season as the Bruins try to find any identity. One good sign is that he has been matched up with Marco Sturm and Patrice Bergeron at times – two of their best offensive players.

On a larger scale, Joe Thornton’s departure should have sent a clear sign to Boyes and the rest of the club that they are the future. Speaking of which - while I don’t want to come out and say I necessarily liked the Thornton trade from a Bruins’ point of view, I hardly saw it as the disaster that so many in the media portrayed it as. It’s a new opportunity for the team. Thornton is a great talent but for a variety of factors it wasn’t happening in Boston. I don’t see Thornton as a player who can take a team by himself and carry it – that’s no indictment, only a handful of players in recent years could fall into that category (Peter Forsberg and Jerome Iginla come to mind – going back a few years: Ray Bourque and Dominik Hasek). Thornton is doing well playing with some like-minded players in San Jose. The Bruins may not have received “name-players” back in the deal but all three were former first rounders, including Brad Stuart who should anchor their blue line for a long time. The point I’m (slowly) getting at is that there comes a time when you have to realize that “the plan” (whatever it may be) isn’t working, and you have to start over. That’s not easy, least of all from a marketing or fan perspective. “Hey, we know we stink and it’ll take some time but we hope you stick with us as we blow it all up and start over!” – aside from being too long to fit on a billboard, you’re alienating your fans. But building from the ground up can be rewarding as it inevitably is the most efficient way of assembling a team that will compete year after year.

Boston’s top two centers now are Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes; two former junior superstars who should now expect to be the main men in Boston at center ice. Now is the time for Boyes to become the player he should be – a quality scoring centerman. I believe the rest of this season will be important to Boyes’ development, so keep an eye on his numbers, and especially if he gets an increase in ice-time (and power play opportunities). If he gets hot, he could be picking up confidence and he has the talent to keep a hot streak going.

Milan Jurcina, Defense, Boston Bruins

Milan Jurcina is another key to the future progress of the Bruins’ franchise. Jurcina was a low-risk gamble by the Bruins, taken in the eighth round of the 2001 draft while playing in the Quebec League for Halifax. He soon developed into a steady leader for the Mooseheads (yup, named after and backed by the famed brewery), and putting up decent numbers for the first-place squad in 2003 with 15 goals and 102 penalty minutes in just 51 games.

Jurcina will likely never develop into a top offensive defenceman – his strengths are his…strength (he’s listed at six foot four, 233 pounds) and defensive play. On a less-than-average team he has maintained a +3 rating, quite impressive especially for a rookie defenceman. Yet after scoring (gulp) just one point in his first 19 games, he has suddenly and shockingly turned up his offensive game with six points in his last five games. One reason for the stunning reversal is that he’s taking shots. In those first 19 games he took as many as two shots in a game only three times and averaged well under a shot per game. In these last five games he’s had 12 shots on goal, showing much more willingness to jump into the play. He recently admitted to being too nervous to be more aggressive earlier in the season and dumping the puck into the corner rather than take a chance with a shot.

While it’s unclear how much Jurcina will be counted on once Brian Leetch returns from a groin injury, the Bruins’ staff has had their eyes opened to the potential that the young Slovak brings to the Boston blueline (aside: Jurcina was named to next month’s Slovakian Olympic team). If he continues to be paired with the highly skilled Brad Stuart he may continue to see his confidence – and offensive contributions – grow.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

12 January 2006

WJC II - Stoll, Getzlaf, Meszaros

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The 2006 World Junior Championships are over and a hearty congratulations to Canada for an underdog gold medal winning performance, their second title in a row. Last year Canada assembled a roster that experts put outrageous pressure on to win gold - which they did - bringing such accolades as “best junior team of all time.” En route to a perfect 6-0 record, they outscored their opposition 41-7. This year the team was relatively unheralded and at best even money to even earn a medal. USA got the lion’s share of publicity, but as it turned out the team never gelled (no doubt due to their horrible uniforms – I digress: how hard would it be to dress the USA in vintage 1980 Olympic sweaters? Aside from being visually superior, I’d have to think it might actually attract a little media attention in the States) they were a bust and finished fourth.

Canada had a lack of “star” power in this year’s tournament but used a punishing team-oriented attack spearheaded by tournament all-star and general agitator (as well as Philadelphia Flyers’ first round pick in 2005) Steve Downie to dominate from start to finish, culminating in a 5-0 whitewashing of the dynamic Russian team (led by Evgeni Malkin, whom I would expect to be seen profiled in this column next year playing alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh).

As I mentioned in last week’s column, this tournament needs to be fully televised in the United States. With the specialty programming now offered through cable, there aren’t many good excuses why at least the medal round couldn’t be shown somewhere. While fully understanding that hockey is viewed in dramatically different terms in Canada as opposed to the States, last year’s final game between Canada and Russia attracted over three million Canadian viewers. With a little marketing (…ahem…1980 Olympic uniforms) I would think some fledgling US cable broadcaster wouldn’t mind taking a chance.

For the second week in a row, we’re spotlighting recent World Junior participants now playing in the NHL, and ones to keep an eye on in the coming weeks. One in particular has “arrived” and if he’s flying under your league’s radar, snap him up – the other two are projected future stars for you to monitor in the coming weeks…

Jarret Stoll, Center, Edmonton Oilers

Center is often a hard position to “break in” in fantasy terms – by this I mean that many fantasy leagues are set up so rosters have half the centers as wings, therefore the centers you usually have are the “stars” of the league – i.e. it’s easier to take chances on wingers since you have to fill more slots. Sometimes a “new” or hot/upcoming center is harder to spot.

Melville, Saskatchewan’s Jarret Stoll is rapidly stepping up into that category for the Oilers. Stoll has the classic scorer’s pedigree: in his final three years in the Western Hockey League for the Kootenay Ice, Stoll scored 109 goals in 180 games, culminating in two Memorial Cup championships, in 2000 and 2002 – he also starred in the World Juniors his final two seasons, winning bronze and silver medals for Canada. He was selected by Edmonton in the 2002 draft (after having been originally drafted by Calgary two years earlier, but failing to come to terms) and assigned to Hamilton in the American Hockey League where he put up decent but not overwhelming totals in his first professional season, notching 21 goals and 54 points. Finally he “graduated” to the big club in 2003-2004 where he put up modest totals of 10 goals and 21 points.

Expectations this season – his second in the NHL – were high but not overwhelming. Edmonton made no less than two high profile acquisitions last summer in defenseman Chris Pronger and center Michael Peca – perhaps this took the heat off of the other young Oiler centers as both Stoll and Shawn Horcoff have flourished. Stoll started off the season slowly, with only two goals in his first 14 games, but began to put up points on a regular basis starting in early November. He had 18 points in a terrific December which helped propel Edmonton up near the top of the most competitive division in the league. Overall his numbers suddenly look quite strong: in 42 games he has 14 goals and 26 assists for 40 points. His 143 shots are in the league top 20 and overwhelmingly tops on his club, showing aptitude to get into scoring situations. He’s getting time on the power play, netting 22 of his points in extra-strength situations.

Jarret Stoll is Edmonton’s leader in ice time for forwards this year and will be counted on to lead them into the playoffs. Stoll has only approached point-per-game status for the season in recent weeks and thus may still be available on the wire for a pickup – grab him if he is.

Ryan Getzlaf, Center, Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Another Saskatchewan native, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf was a two-time World Junior participant and member of the soon-to-be-historic 2005 Canadian gold medal junior team, lining up with Jeff Carter (making noise with the Philadelphia Flyers this year) and Andrew Ladd (selected fourth overall by Carolina in 2004 - currently injured but has four goals in seven NHL games). He was drafted in the first round by Anaheim in 2003 as a potential team building-block center – a good mix of offence and grit. For example, last year, in his final junior season with the Calgary Hitmen, he scored 29 goals and logged 102 penalty minutes in only 51 regular season games, then added 17 more points in 12 playoff games.

He set up perhaps unfair expectations this preseason after scoring seven points in as many games – after scoring seven points in 16 regular season games he was sent down to Portland (Maine) of the American Hockey League to work on his game. Making the direct step from major junior to the National Hockey League is not an easy one and perhaps Anaheim thought Getzlaf would benefit from some relatively lesser competition and working his confidence back up. Seems there are some smart Ducks in Anaheim’s front office as Ryan simply tore up the AHL while he was there – in a mere 17 games he vaulted to fifth in league scoring with a fantastic 33 points, averaging a shade under two per game. Anaheim needs help in the goal scoring department (currently hovering around the bottom 10 in terms of goals per game) and recalled Getzlaf this past week – he responded by scoring a goal in his first game back against the Kings.

For the same reason that Stoll might be overlooked, Ryan Getzlaf is likely not ready to step into your fantasy lineup today – the overall center position is too deep. However, he has made it clear this year that the American Hockey League is beneath him – he’s ready for the NHL. If he can ride the confidence he undoubtedly gained in Portland into his latest foray back into the NHL, he could energize the Ducks into an exciting young squad. I wouldn’t currently recommend for shallow leagues but keep a close eye on him – for keeper leagues or deep leagues with bench room, with Getzlaf you could end up with a pleasant surprise over the final half of the season.

Andrej Meszaros, Defense, Ottawa Senators

As my SportsBlurb.com colleague John Franco notes this week, Slovakian native Andrej Meszaros has flown under the radar this year, both in the league overall and on a team otherwise chock full of megastars. I’d noted Meszaros three weeks ago as someone to keep an eye on but I feel he warrants a longer look. In a seemingly historic year for rookies, his is a name you don’t often hear but he stacks up against any of the bigger name rookies in terms of talent. He was the youngest player to play in the 2002 World Juniors in the Czech Republic, and created a buzz in Slovakia as their top NHL prospect which culminated in him being selected by Ottawa in the first round of the 2004 draft.

Thus far in his first pro season Meszaros hasn’t exactly lit up the scoresheet, but for a defenseman – and especially a rookie blueliner – his point totals are very respectable. To date he’s totaled 17 points, but has come on strong as the season has progressed – in December he scored nine points in 14 games. The good news is that he has long been projected by scouts to be an offensive defenseman, and I would expect the points to come in time for him. He recently went through a streak of 13 games in which he scored a point in 11 of those – I see this consistency as a great sign of his overall game.

Meszaros projects to be a top defenseman for years to come and has wisely worked on the defensive aspects of his game first, most notably reflected in his fantastic +26 rating thus far, which as of January 11th is second in the league and tops among all defensemen. While I wouldn’t expect him to end up in the top 20 for defense scoring, I do expect him to improve on his point total in the second half as he becomes more confident in his abilities on the highest stage. Andrei Meszaros is absolutely recommended for all keeper leagues (and especially all combination stat leagues) as he could develop into one of the top 10 overall defensemen in the entire league by next season.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

05 January 2006

WJC I - B. Campbell, Ekman, Cammalleri

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The Winter Olympics start late next month in Turin, Italy. Once again the hockey event will be played by professionals, which has happened since Nagano in 1998, and inevitably after the tournament begins, someone you know will complain. Perhaps even you will complain. People will complain about how they miss the “good old days” of the Olympics when they used to be for amateurs (except, you know, those countries that always used pros).

For all those pining for this brand of international hockey – it’s not gone. And in fact it happens every single year in a tournament lauded by those who watch it, attended in record numbers in certain hockey hotbeds, and is utterly and completely ignored in the United States. It’s the World Junior Championships, and is held every winter for two weeks after Christmas. It matches the very best players in the world under the age of 20 against each other in a short and exciting tournament for the considerable honor of national hockey pride. This year the tournament is being held in British Columbia, Canada, and was completely sold out eight months in advance.

Of course if you’re living in the good old USA, you have a better chance of seeing the world championship of mud-wrestling superstars playing poker than merely a tournament pitting the next crop of NHL superstars against each other. Even the usually great Center Ice package deigns to show merely a handful of games (USA games only, of course), which is better than nothing, but it’s not enough - this tournament gets a horrible treatment from the American sporting world. Go ahead and ask the next 20 people you talk to about the World Juniors and I’d be surprised if any of them have even heard of it.

Many times in history the World Juniors have been a platform for teenagers to shine on the world stage for the first time. The 1978 tournament in Montreal welcomed a young Wayne Gretzky for the first time, and it took him a total of one game to register his first hat trick. He ended up leading the entire tournament in scoring that year with 17 points in six games (Canada took the Bronze that year as the Soviet Union won their fifth consecutive tournament, on the way to seven straight). The 1988 tournament first all-star team consisted of forwards Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Fedorov, and Theoren Fleury. In 1993, Peter Forsberg gave the world a glimpse of what the Quebec Nordiques were soon to see when he obliterated the previous record and scored 31 points in seven games. Last year’s first all star team at the World Juniors included two players we have profiled here: Dion Phaneuf and Jeff Carter, as well as rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin and Bruins regular Patrice Bergeron. Carter and Phaneuf made the first all star team two years in a row. And, in 2004, Sidney Crosby became the youngest player in World Juniors history to score a goal. At age 16. I once scored a killer goal against my friend Brian at age 16. In a parking lot. Using a tennis ball. The World Junior Championships are the equivalent of taking the very best college football players playing in this week’s bowl games, and forming an elite group of eight teams, then letting them play an elimination tournament. You think that wouldn’t interest a few people in this country?

This week’s spotlight shines on a few players who have used a successful World Junior Championships to put them on the hockey map, and are seeing some success in this NHL season…

Brian Campbell, Defense, Buffalo Sabres

I’ve held off on Campbell for a few weeks, as I had seen a lot of inconsistency in his play, but his continued production is now warranting a profile. Brian Campbell came out of the Ontario Hockey League known as an outstanding offensive threat from the blue line. Even though in his final season playing with the Ottawa 67s he won the “most outstanding defenseman” trophy for the league, there was never a doubt that his game was generating points – in 1999 he led his team with 87 points in 62 games, with 12 more in nine playoff games. His elite play earned him a spot on the Canadian World Junior team and in helping the Canadians to a silver medal finish in Winnipeg he earned first-team all star honors. Campbell’s final award that year was being named Canadian Hockey League player of the year.

Upon completion of his junior eligibility he joined the Sabres’ farm team in Rochester and rode the I-90 shuffle between Rochester and Buffalo for the better part of three years before becoming somewhat of a regular in the 2002-2003 season. Campbell’s two previous full seasons in Buffalo could hardly be considered successes, both with the team failing to make the playoffs and Campbell scoring a total of 30 points in 118 games.

This year started off as more of the same, with only two points in his first eight games. The turning point seems to be when coach Lindy Ruff revamped the Sabres’ power play and installed Campbell as a key component. They caught fire and since late November the Buffalo power play has consistently been in the top five in the league. Since the beginning of November, Campbell has notched 15 points on the power play and 21 overall in just 29 games. If you are in a points-only league, Brian Campbell is a worthy addition and one that may have slipped below the radar in many leagues due to his slow start. If you’re in a combination league, take this into consideration – Campbell will get the majority of his points on the power play and at this point is below-average at even strength. One major caveat with Campbell is his horrible -12 efficiency rating. Campbell is a relatively small defenseman – listed at less than six feet and 190 pounds – and often is caught in his own zone when faced with an aggressive forechecking team.

Nils Ekman, Winger, San Jose Sharks

Ekman was a key component of the 1996 silver medal Swedish team at the World Juniors in Boston. He was a decent scorer in the Finnish league, leading his team his first season with 24 goals in 50 games. Since coming to North America, however, Ekman has been notable in that he’s been the property of four different organizations in total, first being drafted by Calgary and finally two years ago being dealt to San Jose after two partial seasons with the Lightning. In 2003-2004 Ekman put together a surprisingly tremendous season – finally getting the chance to play a full slate of games, he potted 22 goals (including four shorthanded) and 55 points while adding a fantastic +30 rating, good for fifth in the league. Expectations were fairly high heading into this season for Ekman.

Yet from a statistical point of view, after two and a half months his season was a disaster: in 29 games he was a -2 with only 9 points; only once getting points in consecutive games and that being in early October. So after starting off the season so poorly, what’s given ol’ Nils the kick in the knickers to put him in the scoring column in four consecutive games? Playing with Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo on the top line – it may be as simple as that.

I wouldn’t expect huge total numbers from Ekman no matter what – he’ll be 30 this year which makes it not extremely likely for him to suddenly transform into an elite scorer. However, as we’ve pointed out many times in this column, your production is often tied dramatically to your linemates. If he continues to play with the Sharks’ two best players, he will get points, as he’s shown a scoring touch in the past. Ekman’s low season totals thus far will keep him off most teams’ radars so if he’s available he’d be worth grabbing now in hopes that he remains on that top line.

Mike Cammalleri, Center, Los Angeles Kings

Mike Cammalleri has shown a scoring touch at every level – a suburban Toronto native, he starred at the University of Michigan, scoring 52 goals in his final 70 games there. He missed time his final year to star in the World Juniors in Pardubice, Czech Republic where he became a(nother) silver medal winner. Cammalleri led the entire tournament in scoring in 2002 with 11 points in seven games for the snake-bitten Canadian program.

Cammalleri is suddenly emerging as a potential force in the NHL, and is likely another example of how last year’s lockout actually helped the development of a number of young players (see also Jason Spezza, Thomas Vanek, and Eric Staal among others). After parts of two seasons with the Kings, Cammalleri spent all of last year with the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ affiliate in the American Hockey League, where he led the league in goals with 46 and was second in points with 109.

This year – which will doubtless end up being his first full year in the NHL – he has already surpassed his previous career NHL point totals. As of Wednesday he has 15 goals and 29 points in 40 games, and has been extremely productive in the past few weeks with nine points in the past seven games; only once in that span has he failed to register a point. The Kings have shaken up their lines a bit and Cammalleri has found himself playing with a host of linemates, but most notably he’s had time with Pavol Demitra which immediately makes him more valuable. In his last game against Dallas he registered a season-high of just under 23 minutes of ice time, including starting the overtime period, proving that the coaching staff has great faith in him. Mike Cammalleri has a great future in the NHL and by season’s end may be considered one of the better young centers in the league.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.