As part of Hockey Prospectus’ expanded prospect coverage for the 2014-15 season, I will be visiting OHL and AHL rinks throughout the year looking for the next big thing. We are all aware of the great McDavid and the energizing Eichel, but the future of the NHL has a great deal more names and games for us to learn and enjoy. In watching some of these young men live and talking to NHL scouts and front office types, I hope to make you more aware of a few of them. Each month I will publish a list of a few names who have caught my eye. Some will be big time prospects and others with more speculative futures. Nonetheless, each is a name to remember.
C Sam Carrick, Toronto Marlies (6-0”, 207, 22 years old, 5th round, 2010)
Now in his third year as a pro, Carrick, the eldest of three hockey playing brothers, has begun to turn heads and earned his NHL debut this past Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks. Carrick’s stats do not tell the full story, as his level of play should generate more goals at the AHL level, but his game is about more than just offense anyway. Not huge, Carrick nevertheless has a pro-sized frame and moves around the ice in a slightly predatory way, looking to hit and not afraid of being hit in turn – this includes hitting without the gloves. He can skate up ice with the puck with solid average speed and displays strong vision in the offensive zone, as he is able to find seams to get the puck to an open teammate and generate a good scoring chance. That said, the Marlies have been luckless during Carrick’s shifts thus far, only scoring once with him on the ice through seven games according to tracking done by Gus Katsaros of McKeen’s (@KatsHockey). Carrick plays a chippy, energy style game, which was evident in his NHL debut. Even though he was only granted four minutes and change of ice time, he managed to both draw a penalty and take one of his own while also making waves courtesy of a crunching body check in the corner. The former fifth round pick has generally been an afterthought in prospect circles, having spent most of his first professional season in the ECHL, but he has a ceiling of a third line two-way contributor who can play both center and wing, while his floor is as an energy fourth liner and he looks to be there now. Carrick should receive a few more chances throughout November as Leafs’ winger Joffrey Lupul recovers from a broken bone in his hand.
RW Nicklas Jensen, Utica Comets (6-3”, 202, 21 years old, 1st round, 2011)
Like Carrick above, Jensen is a big man who can play a big man’s game. Now in his third professional season, Jensen was drafted out of the OHL, but spent most of his post draft year back in Sweden, playing for AIK Solna as a 19 year old against adults. He impressed by scoring 17 goals in 50 games. His production was eerily similar in his first full season in the AHL, with 15 goals in 54 games with Utica, totals he supplemented during a 17 game cameo with the parent Canucks (17-3-3-6). While his time in Vancouver was sheltered in the extreme, starting a full two third of his non-neutral zone even strength shifts in the offensive end and against depth line players, the Canucks’ organization is pushing him more in the AHL. Jensen looks very effective on the penalty kill, with an active stick aiding him in coverage. On one memorable sequence, the Danish winger stole the puck off a winger in the slot of his own zone, showed plus acceleration to burst out in a rush into the other end and fired a smart wrist shot that beat the opposition netminder, only to ring off the cross bar. Jensen profiles as a potential top six winger with 20-25 goal upside with slight improvements to his hands and finishing skills. At worst, he should be able to slot into a bottom six role without much fuss. His speed/size combo would be a good asset in the rough Pacific Division. Expect him to mount a serious run at a full time job by next season.
C Mikhail Grigorenko, Rochester Americans (6-3”, 200, 20 years old, 1st round, 2012)
Perhaps no player in recent years was more hurt by the NHL-CHL agreement which stipulates that any player drafted or signed out of the CHL must play there or in the NHL until said player is either 20 years old or has accrued four years of service for their club team. This rule prevents most teenagers from learning in the professional ranks as the CHL drafted players are ineligible to play in the AHL. The Sabres under Darcy Regier were hesitant to return the tall Russian pivot to Quebec of the QMJHL due to his simply being a man among boys. On two separate occasions, Grigorenko spent beyond his allowed seven games with the Sabres before the team relented and returned him to the ‘Q’. He proved the Sabres correct in being too good for Junior hockey as he scored 45 goals in 58 games over the two seasons. That said, he also proved that he was not yet ready for regular NHL duty, with only 8 points in 43 NHL games and poor possession metrics. While his frame is large, he does not yet put it to good use and he cannot make up for it with his feet as his skating prowess is average at best. Finally, this year the Sabres can assign him to the AHL without worry and through nine games, the former 12th overall pick has seven points, showing that his offensive skills can play as a professional. His size currently comes to fruition mostly in terms of his stick reach. He hands are quicker than his feet and he demonstrates the patience needed to make a play that isn’t necessarily obvious. For example, I witnessed him collect a puck just outside the blue paint with his back to the goalie. Grigorenko hesitated as the goalie lunged and he then spun around and calmly slid the puck in for a goal that looked easier than it was once the netminder was immobilized. While the rangy player is better than much of the dreck currently trotted out in Buffalo, the Sabres would be wise to finally take advantage of the lack of pressure afforded by the AHL development ground and let the future top six center learn from his successes in addition to his failures.
D Mark Pysyk, Rochester Americans (6-1”, 193, 22 years old, 1st round, 2010)
Unlike Grigorenko, his teammate with Rochester, Mark Pysyk has already demonstrated that he can play in the NHL, if not quite to the level envisioned when he was drafted out of the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL, or to the point where he is forcing the hands of the Buffalo braintrust, as he is beginning the current season back on the farm in spite of playing 44 games up with the big club last year. As he lacks great brawn, his defensive game is most effective when he has an active and aggressive stick, a trait he has shown repeatedly. Pysyk is very mobile from the backend, able to push the puck forward both on his feet and with smart passes to open wingers. The Albertan can already be slotted in as a second pairing defender with Buffalo, although with other teams, he would be slotted in as a bottom pairing, or seventh defenseman. As such, Buffalo has little to lose by giving him more development time in Rochester as the philosophies of the previous regime have prevented him from playing a full season in the AHL.
D Vince Dunn, Niagara Ice Dogs (6-0”, 185, 18 years old, 2015 draft eligible)
An offensive defenseman, Dunn debuted in the OHL as a 17 year old blueliner and put up decent numbers with a mediocre Ice Dogs squad. Dunn has come a long way since starting out as a sixth round pick in the OHL Priority Selection Draft in 2012. His OHL rookie season saw him enter his draft year with a ‘B’ rating from Central Scouting, which signifies second or third round value. The common refrain from prospect watchers is that his game with the puck is far different than his game without, where he looks below grade at best. As one senior scout mentioned to me, that while Dunn can find seams and exploit them, “Defensively he is weak physically, and has displayed a weakness in coverage, battles and can get beat to inside (lack of strength) and outside (puck watching)”. That said, I feel there is potential for his game without the puck to improve due to his mobility. He can maintain position between his man and his net when backchecking and his coaches at Niagara trust him to handle penalty kill situations with a strong reactive stick ready to sweep away loose pucks. Pat of his downside may be coaching-related. Niagara is a team with plenty of talented players on the roster, but who are simply unable to put it all together to play a cohesive team game. The portions of the game in which Dunn excels – namely his skating and his offensive instincts, cannot be taught. The portions in which he struggles – in coverage, and some decision-making issues (he had a number of brutal pinch decisions in a recent viewing) – can often be taught if the student is willing. The disparity of his games with and without the puck is reminiscent of Jake Gardiner, although Dunn’s ceiling is not quite so high. Still, the raw material should be worth a third rounder and maybe higher if he shows enough improvement in his off-puck game as his draft year progresses.
D Rasmus Andersson, Barrie Colts (6-0”, 210, 18 years old, 2015 draft eligible)
Another ‘B’-rated 2015 prospect per the CSS preseason rankings, Andersson is a first year player in North America. Barrie selected him in the first round of last summer’s CHL Import Draft from Malmo in the Allsvenskan, where Andersson was playing with adults for the past two seasons. Not overly tall, the Swedish teenager is stocky and his wide frame portends the ability to pack on more weight as he matures. From a hockey playing family, both father Peter and older brother Calle were drafted by the Rangers with the father playing 47 games between the 92-93 – 93-94 seasons with the Rangers and Panthers. Rasmus has it in him to be the best NHL player at the family table although he is not yet there. With only 16 CHL games under his belt, he is not yet acclimated to the North American rink or game. As a senior scout pointed out, even Niklas Kronwall, one of the NHL’s most feared checkers, barely knew how to take out his man when he first came over from Sweden. So far, the young Andersson has shown a proclivity for joining the rush and the fearlessness to play it deep in the opposition end. He has enough strength to maintain puck possession during board battles, although it should be reminded that he is thicker than many of his competitors in the OHL. I have yet to see him display an overly physical game. The right shooting blueliner can make a strong exit pass and showed calmness and adequate mobility when covering an elite forward, such as when he was the last man between St. Louis first rounder Robby Fabbri and the Barrie net. Andersson did not bite on any of Fabbri’s stick feints and nullified the scoring chance. He also has a strong point shot, which created Barrie’s second goal of this particular game. For the remainder of his draft year, Andersson should focus on learning the game in North America and balancing his decision making in terms of when to join the rush and when to stay back. So far though, the total package is enticing enough to have some team bite by the middle of the second round.