The Journey digs into twelve prospect storylines heading into training camp and the start of the 2016 NHL season. For Part One of this series, click here.
1. How does the Blackhawks blueline shake out?
Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell are locks. Likely Trevor van Riemsdyk can be included in that group, as well. Michal Rozsival was re-signed for one year to many Hawks fans dismay.
So where do Erik Gustafsson, Michal Kempny, and Ville Pokka fit? All three are ready, or close to NHL ready, but there isn’t a lot of room at the inn.
Gustafsson likely has the leg up due to his 41 games played for the Blackhawks last season, and he posted 14 assists and was a willing shot blocker. Kempny will spend his first season in North America after spending nearly 300 games in European professional leagues. He is on a two-way contract, meaning he could potentially spend time in both the AHL and NHL. That leaves Pokka, who has had back-to-back terrific years for Rockford. Sometimes it’s a numbers game, which seems to be squeezing Pokka out at this point.
2. Is Oliver Bjorkstrand a darkhorse for the Calder?
Fresh off an AHL rookie season that included a Calder Cup Championship with the Lake Erie Monsters, Bjorkstrand will likely see many more than the 12 games he played at the NHL level last year.
Columbus’s top-nine forwards are widely interchangeable, and Coach John Tortorella will have the luxury of riding hot players and lines throughout the season. Bjorkstrand will likely find himself in a favorable scoring situation in the Blue Jackets middle-six forward group at even-strength and potentially on the second power-play unit. Depending on his deployment, Bjorkstrand could have an outside shot to hit 50 points.
3. Does Ryan Pulock walk right into a top power-play spot?
Selected with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft, Pulock has spent the better part of the last two seasons with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
In his 15 regular season games at the NHL level last season, Pulock was awarded an average of 1:12 minutes of power-play time. Once the playoffs started, his power-play deployment rose to nearly two minutes per game, though. All in all, Pulock finished the season with seven points in 21 games.
Clearly Nick Leddy will be on the No. 1 unit, and the team will need to replace the nearly two minutes per game that Marek Zidlicky played on the power play last season. Pulock looks like the leading candidate to take a good amount of that time.
4. How many games does Anthony Mantha play for the Red Wings this year?
In his 122 games played in the AHL, Mantha has posted 78 points, showcasing much of the talent that projects him as a top-six forward at the NHL level. Although many prospects have the issue of building the strength needed to compete with NHL players, Mantha does not have that problem. At 6’5” and nearly 220 pounds, the winger has an NHL ready frame.
The fact that the Red Wings have five forwards participating in the World Cup and currently have injuries to Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen, offers Mantha the unique opportunity to stand out at training camp. He will likely split time between the AHL and NHL and will directly battle Pulkkinen and Jurco for ice time. He has the highest upside of the group.
5. Matt Puempel vs. Ryan Dzingel vs. Nick Paul?
All three spent time with the Senators in 2015-16 with Dzingel appearing in 30 games, Puempel in 26, and Paul in 24. All three are best suited on the left side of the ice, and have spent developmental time in the AHL with the Senators affiliate in Binghamton.
Likely they will battle each other for ice time at the NHL level over the next few seasons until they can carve out roles for themselves.
Paul is the most likely to spend time at the AHL level this season given his age (21) and the shake out of Ottawa’s roster, but he has the highest ceiling as a fantasy asset, projecting as a scoring, multi-category player. Puempel has to clear waivers in order to be sent down, but may need to change his game more suited to a bottom-six role in order to stick for the long term. Dzingel could prove to be a diamond in the rough for the Senators, considering he was drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 draft. In his 30 games for the Sens last season he posted nine points and 54 shots on goal in very limited ice time.
6. What will Nikita Zaitsev’s deployment be in Toronto?
After signing him to an entry-level deal in May, its clear that Toronto brass believes Nikita Zaitsev can step right in and be an integral piece of the future for the rebuilding Leafs.
Zaitsev has been raved about at the World Cup by Mike Babcock and others, and rightfully so. He likely will fill a role alongside Morgan Rielly in the Leafs top pairing and will get his fair share of ice time in all situations.
By now, he might not be considered a sleeper, but he may be available later in the draft then other first pairing defensemen just because he's a lesser known commodity. You can do worse then selecting a player who will likely play between 20 and 25 minutes a night with first power-play pairing upside.
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