One of the challenges in writing a feature like this is that players who seem to be making their way today are sent back to the AHL tomorrow, clearing space for a veteran returning from an injury, or in the case of Josh Leivo in Toronto, a suspension. No matter: I stand by my analysis on Leivo, and I am ready to wait for his next shot at permanence. Today, we take a look at the new Metropolitan Division, which looks a lot like the old Atlantic Division, plus Carolina and Washington from the old Southeast, as well as the transplanted Columbus squad, airlifted in from the Western Conference.
The most surprising player currently on the Carolina roster is definitely Mike Komisarek. Banished last year to the AHL by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fourth season of a five-year, big money deal, Toronto bought out his contract in the offseason. Even though GM Jim Rutherford gambled on him with a small money, one-year deal, the former Canadiens first round pick has spent most of the early going in the press box. However, we all should already be familiar with Komisarek. The true dark horse on the roster is young blueliner Brett Bellemore. A sixth round pick from 2007, the Windsor native made his NHL debut last season after amassing exactly 300 games of AHL experience. Playing on the second pairing with newcomer Ron Hainsey, while also chipping in on the penalty kill, the 25-year-old has been demonstrating a marked ability to influence the run of play, with a positive Corsi score in both seasons, including the highest mark among Cane defenders thus far. Demonstrative of his playing style, he is also the early runaway leader on Carolina in hits.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Although the Blue Jackets have a pair of rookies on the roster in Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner, both were fairly highly touted on their way up, with Murray owning the distinction of having been the second overall pick in his draft year. Without much to say about their backup goalie, Curtis McElhinney, the only remaining candidate of interest is nominal first pairing blueliner Dalton Prout. Playing most often with Jack Johnson, Prout has had a rough start to the season, with Corsi figures in the red, as well as negative two-way impact, which led to his being a healthy scratch for three straight games. He has since regained his spot in the lineup, at the expense of Nikita Nikitin. A sixth round pick in 2010, his third draft-eligible season, Prout was a defensive defenseman with Barrie in the OHL, and he has seen his meager scoring rate of approximately one point per five games remain steady since turning pro. Although his upside is limited, Prout has the potential to be a contributing stay-at-home defender, even if he has not shown much proclivity to use his big (6’3″, 219-pound) body to crash the opposition.
New Jersey Devils
File this one under “back from the dead.” Rostislav Olesz was a moderate bottom-six winger, able to contribute just enough offensively to not be among the worst draft busts of all time, considering he was once the seventh overall pick, by the Florida Panthers. Never topping 30 points in his six years with the team that introduced him to the NHL, he was persona non grata in Miami after Dale Tallon took over the club after the 2009-10 season. An injury-filled, ineffective follow-up with the Panthers saw Olesz shipped to the Blackhawks as the salary ballast in exchange for Florida picking up the contract of blueliner Brian Campbell. Chicago, better able to afford to bury dead (salary) weight, shipped the Czech native to Rockford of the AHL after only six games with the big club. Although he located his long-lost scoring touch in the bus league, the new CBA gave the Blackhawks the luxury of buying out his contract, which still had one year and $4.3 million remaining. Signed by the porous Devils to a make-good, one-year $700,000 deal, Olesz has found himself back in the NHL and contributing from the fourth line alongside the Stev(ph)es, Bernier and Gionta. He may lose his spot if and when Ryane Clowe returns from yet another concussion, but until then, the 28-year-old will attempt to prove to coach Pete DeBoer that he is worth the ice time.
New York Islanders
For an organization that has made a habit in recent years of scouring the waiver wire for extra talent (Brian Strait, Michael Grabner, Evgeni Nabokov, and Thomas Hickey, to name a few), this year’s opening roster is sadly bereft of surprises. The close relative to the surprise inclusion is the player who deserves more attention than he has received. Brock Nelson, while always well considered in prospect circles, was never the type of top prospect whose particulars could be uttered by hungover home team fanatics. A large man at 6’4″, the University of North Dakota alum plays a skill game, which can be partially evidenced by his record of one minor penalty for every four games at the AHL level, while scoring 52 points in 70 games, mostly as a 21-year-old. After debuting for the Isles in the playoffs last year (one game), Nelson has struggled to start his first full season in the NHL, putting up horrible possession numbers while playing on the fourth line with Peter Regin and P-M Bouchard. Special teams time has thus far been minimal. On the bright side, in his most recent game, after three straight from the press box, the former first round pick scored his first career goal, a snap shot from just outside the crease against Roberto Luongo.
New York Rangers
We are getting our first taste of Cameron Talbot, the replacement for the recently retired Martin Biron. Last night, he stopped 25 of 27 shots in his debut performance against Philadelphia. Then again, at age 26, and with no track record of success in the minor leagues, Talbot is unlikely to receive more than a dozen or so starts for the Rangers, as long as King Henrik can return to health quickly. The real man of the hour on Broadway is by no means a rookie, but deserves all of the attention he can muster. Dominic Moore is back in the NHL after sitting out a year following the loss of his wife to liver cancer. Among other pursuits during his time away from the game, Moore began a charity in his wife�s name , geared to helping families of those stricken with rare forms of cancer. On the ice, Moore is back with the Blueshirts (the team that drafted him in 2000) after journeying through the lineups of eight other teams; he has resumed his normal duties as a fourth line pivot and penalty-killing specialist. While his early season numbers (traditional and advanced) fail to impress, they are mitigated by both his heavily-defensive deployment (a speciality of head coach Alain Vigneault) and by some expected rust. I am willing to cut him some slack, at least until the Rangers goaltending stabilizes.
I don’t know why, but something about this Flyers organization gives me a big “Drunk Uncle” vibe. The disappointment of last season was somewhat understandable, with the team being forced to use 13 different blueliners, not counting big leaguers like Chris Pronger, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Matt Walker, who all missed the entire season with injuries. This season has just been a whole new level of bad. It is not even on the defense, as the Flyers have allowed three goals per game. Not great, but a far sight better than their 29th ranked offense, which has scored a silly 13 goals in nine games, working out to 1.44 goals per game. They are outshot by an average of 3.3 shots per game. One young forward who cannot be blamed for the offensive malaise is 24-year-old Austrian Michael Raffl, signed as a free agent out of Leksand in the Swedish second division where he had shown a solid scoring touch after tearing up the Austrian league for the previous two years. Since his recall from Adirondack, Raffl has put up the best Corsi marks on the team, getting mostly top-six minutes with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds, but he played alongside Claude Giroux and Vincent Lecavalier last night. For a team that has done a meager job at the draft, Raffl, if he can convert a few of his shots into goals, may yet be another undrafted success story in Philly, much like Matt Read two years ago.
As much as I harbor an unreasonable interest in Harry Zolnierczyk (the fact that I can spell his last name without checking is actually frightening), he only spent five calendar days with the Pens before being sent back to Wilkes-Barre, even though Beau Bennett and James Neal are still dealing with injuries. I also think Olli Maatta is a stud in training on defense. He was one of the more impressive players I witnessed at the London prospect tournament, a young marauder of a blueliner who has a keen instinct for getting involved in the offensive end but without sacrificing defensive awareness. He should be, and has been, sheltered at this young age, but the tools are there for him to be a future All-Star. So, I will instead draw some attention to poor, overshadowed Joe Vitale, a center on the depth chart behind both superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. As good as those two are, the Penguins still ice four centers per game, and for this year, and each of the last two, the St. Louis native was one of them. Playing mostly with Tanner Glass and Craig Adams, the former seventh round pick who spent a full four seasons at Northeastern has put up a reasonable Corsi rate in spite of starting close to 60% of his non-neutral zone faceoffs in his own end. We should not judge Vitale’s success on whether he can break his career high of four goals, but rather if he can gain Dan Bylsma’s trust enough to be a regular penalty killer.
Never drafted, Steve Oleksy spent nearly as much time in the ECHL as the AHL since leaving Lake Superior State before making his debut last year, shortly after his 27th birthday. Spending the plurality of his time this year on the third pairing with the equally obscure Nate Schmidt, the duo has been absolutely dominant in the possession game, both with relative Corsi marks above 20 (small sample size caveats and incredibly favorable shifts aside). Not overly large, Oleksy nonetheless plays a physical game, neither afraid of banging a body in the corner nor of blocking a shot in the slot. His upside is understandably low, but he epitomizes the spirit of this series: the NHL dream shall never die.
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.