The new NHL season has brought with it new players emerging on the tail ends of rosters everywhere. Now that we have had a few weeks to let some of the lingering roster battles play out, Zamboni Tracks will take some time to introduce you to some of the new players on the NHL scene, division by division. We will start with the newly-formed Atlantic Division.
Not much has changed from the squad that was seconds away from forcing a decisive Game 7 against Chicago in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, instead succumbing in a decisive Game 6. The big exception to that status quo was the blockbuster trade with Dallas that saw one-time wunderkind Tyler Seguin shipped to Texas, along with Rich Peverley, for Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith (as well as other prospects not yet in the NHL). The Bruins also notably lost one free agent winger in Nathan Horton (to Columbus) while bringing in future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla. Instead of looking at the new backup goalie, Chad Johnson, who has yet to even play, we will focus on pint-sized defenseman Torey Krug. A finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a student athlete at Michigan State, Krug emerged in last year’s playoffs, scoring four times in 15 games for the Bruins, after playing in only three previous NHL contests. At the time, Boston suffered a bit of an injury stack, depriving them of the services of Wade Redden and Andrew Ference, and they were not fully trusting in rookie Dougie Hamilton. Krug was given highly-sheltered minutes, as befitting his stature and seniority then, and the same is true now. Teaming up most often with Adam McQuaid on the third pairing, Krug has nonetheless maintained his utility to the Bruins as a member in good standing of their first power play unit, where he has scored once and added an assist to a unit that has otherwise floundered in the early goings. Considering the lack of NHL-ready blue line depth waiting in Providence, expect Krug to last the season in Beantown.
In Corey Pronman’s Top 100 prospects, published in Hockey Prospectus 2013-14, no fewer than six Sabres (Grigorenko, Ristolainen, Zadorov, Armia, Girgensons, Compher) were listed. Of those six, the first five at least officially opened the season on the Sabres roster, although many expect Armia to be demoted as soon as he recovers from a broken hand suffered in the preseason. Not entirely surprising for a team that has accumulated only three points in their first 10 games, those five are not the only rookies on the roster. Not only did goaltender Matt Hackett join them for two days, but forward Johan Larsson and defenseman Mark Pysyk both made the roster. Larsson has only received middling minutes thus far, but Pysyk, the Sabres’ first round pick in the halcyon days of 2010, has already etched out a key role in the Buffalo rearguard, averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game through the first 10 contests, including ample time on both special teams units. Playing primarily with Christian Ehrhoff at even strength, the duo has been something of a bright light on an otherwise dull team, with the best possession numbers on the squad. Not a physical defenseman, Pysyk will earn his keep through his exceptional mobility, which includes both skating prowess and puck moving.
Detroit Red Wings
The easy pick here would have been Danny DeKeyser, signed late last season as a college free agent and inserted directly into the blue line rotation, which included the playoffs before a broken thumb ended his season. As much as I would prefer to discuss a player like Luke Glendening, a depth line forward who has worked his way up from the ECHL in less than one full calendar year, he has already been sent back to his hometown AHL team in Grand Rapids. So DeKeyser it is. Splitting his even strength time with Jakub Kindl and Kyle Quincey, “DDK” has also staked out a spot on Detroit’s second penalty killing unit. Known as a solid defensive (although not quite stay-at-home) blueliner when he was signed, expect him to earn some time on the power play as long as Niklas Kronwall is sidelined with a concussion.
As poor as the Panthers were last season, it should come as no surprise that the amount of roster turnover they have undergone between then and now has been staggering. Now that Nick Bjugstad is recovered from a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for the first five games, he and second overall pick (the reward for last season’s misery) Aleksander Barkov are the only two rookies on the squad. That said, they are by no means the only two players not to have spent much time last year in the NHL. The jury is still very much out on the question of whether the return of Tim Thomas to the ice will end in joy or sorrow, so we will instead focus on the return from Europe of fourth line right winger Jesse Winchester. The Colgate grad spent four seasons with the Ottawa Senators, who signed him as a free agent out of college, playing bottom line minutes and doing a good job with puck possession, even if he never topped 18 points in a full season. After his contract expired following the 2011-12 season, the lockout ended any hopes of a late camp invite, and Winchester spent last season, such as it was, in Finland. Considered a dark horse to make the Panthers out of camp this year, he has secured a familiar role on the fourth line, where he has thus far succeeded in keeping the puck away from his own netminder, even though three quarters of his non-neutral zone faceoffs have come in his own end. He has also established residency in Kevin Dineen’s penalty kill.
As Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu fight for the right to play on the third defensive pairing for Montreal, a third rookie, Michael Bournival, has begun to make waves after alternating the first few games between the fourth line and the pressbox. Playing primarily with Travis Moen and Ryan White, Bournival has been extremely sheltered thus far, starting over 80% of his non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive end. Considering the favorable starting point, as well as the limited time allotted to him, we can at least commend his willingness to fire the puck on the opposing goalie. His shooting proclivity prorates to just over 15 shots per 60 minutes at even strength, a figure that is sure to drop once he sees more ice time. Considering that he has recently been advised that he can find permanent residency in Montreal, we are soon to find out how a regular role affects his production.
Around six weeks ago, I joined Hockey Prospectus brethren Timo Seppa and Corey Pronman in London, Ontario to witness a day of action at the prospect tournament featuring entries from Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Ottawa. The highlight of the day, without question, was witnessing Jean-Gabriel Pageau manhandling the Blackhawks in the afternoon game, scoring twice and looking like an elite finisher in the process. It should not have come as much of a surprise, considering the hat trick he scored in the playoffs against Montreal last year. In stark contrast to the others on this list, Pageau has struggled to start this season, spending last Saturday’s game against the Oilers in the pressbox, as his spot on the roster was taken by injury call-up Derek Grant. After playing over 13 minutes in each of the first three games, his playing time has since dwindled, with his three games prior to sitting out all including single digits of ice time, including a meager 3:02 against Anaheim, in which he somehow posted a -2 rating in those limited minutes. Although his possession numbers have been atrocious thus far, it is somewhat mitigated by having started most shifts hemmed deeply in his own zone, although against mediocre competition. Pageau is better than he has shown thus far in this young season, if not quite as dominant as he was against a squad of AHL hopefuls in early September. He will need to show some more ability to push the play forward if he does not want Grant to permanently usurp him.
Tampa Bay Lightning
From the team that features superstar little man Martin St. Louis, and the one that introduced us all to Cory Conacher, we are now making our acquaintance with the next little big man from the Lightning organization, center Tyler Johnson. A rare hockey find from the state of Washington, Johnson was a standout performer with his hometown WHL squad of Spokane, although his stature (5’9″, currently listed at 182 pounds) prevented him from being drafted. Signed by Tampa after a 115-point overage season, Johnson scored at nearly a point per game pace across two AHL seasons, establishing a good rapport with current Tampa coach Jon Cooper along the way. A strong cameo last year (six points in 14 games) paved the way for him to win a roster spot this season, and his scoring touch (four points through his first eight games) will ensure that he keeps a grip on that spot. Increased ice time (from 14-15 minutes in his first few games to 17-19 minutes in his last two) indicate that he has the trust of his coach. His third line, with Johnson skating in between Teddy Purcell and Ondrej Palat (himself a good candidate for this article), has given far more depth to the Tampa attack, preventing the opposition from keying in too much on St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Did I mention that Johnson has also been taking regular shifts on both the power play and the penalty kill? Yeah, he’s a keeper.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Where to begin? Faced with a series of early season injuries (Kulemin, Fraser, McLaren) and one long suspension (Clarkson), the Leafs fourth line has more closely resembled that of the AHL Marlies in the early going. I originally thought of devoting this space to Troy Bodie, the son-in-law of team president Tim Leiweke, who has seen his first NHL action since 2010-11. Although he has provided some energy with his solid skating in his very limited playing time, his recent relegation to the pressbox may be presaging a demotion upon the end of Clarkson’s mandated unpaid vacation. Instead, we will take a few moments to ponder the nascent career of Josh Leivo. Playing third line minutes with the defensively-responsible duo of Dave Bolland and Jay McClement, the 20-year-old has made a strong early impression since being recalled from the AHL in his first season as a professional. On a team that is among the worst in the league at puck possession, the former third round pick has at least held his own, with his raw numbers mitigated in part by playing against strong competition and from a starting point that has more often than not been in his own zone. A big scorer in the junior ranks, Leivo has already shown that some of that may be ready to translate at the NHL level. Although more AHL seasoning may be best for his development, he has thus far looked strong enough to achieve his growth at the game’s highest level.
Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.