The Coming Thing
by Andrew Fiorentino, RotoWire Writer
Unless you're one of the hottest prospects, it can be hard to stick in the NHL, and this week's group is a great example of that. Several of these kids have sniffed the NHL before, and some of them will likely see the AHL again before they find a permanent role on the big team. The only thing you can do with prospects is exercise patience; top-six forward roles are hard to come by in the world's top hockey league, as is being a top-four defenseman or a No. 1 goalie.
Even when the most talented youngsters, like Jordan Eberle, find themselves in those roles, it can take time. The 20-year-old Eberle had just a nominally fantasy-relevant 23 points in 37 games before being hurt this year. It takes time to figure things out. Look at Marian Hossa: one point in seven games as an 18-year-old, then a promising-but-still-not-fantasy-worthy 30 points in 60 games as a 19-year-old, then a fairly fantasy-useful 56 at age 20, and then he blew up into the stud we've known for the past decade.
So be patient and know that even some of the most talented prospects are gonna ride the AHL shuttle back and forth for a while.
Mikael Backlund, C, CGY - Backlund, a first-round pick in 2007, appears here after returning from being sent down to the AHL for one whole game. Despite being just 21 years old, this is the third season in which he's played an NHL game; the question is why. Although he has a load of potential, his development has been sorely stunted by the aggressive way the Flames have promoted him. The only real scoring Backlund has done has been in international play and in Swedish juniors. He recorded just 32 points in 54 AHL games last year, which apparently was enough to earn him a promotion, and he has just nine points in 34 NHL games this year. The Flames are going nowhere, so they need to give Backlund serious minutes either in the AHL or NHL to keep his development on track.
Kevin Poulin, G, NYI - Last week I featured Nathan Lawson here, noting the likelihood that he would be pushed aside, and in that interim Poulin has done his best to prove me right. After a spectacular 14 games in the AHL this year (10-4-0, 2.13 GAA, .931 save percentage), Poulin was recalled with Rick DiPietro hurting (again) to be Lawson's backup. Lawson lasted just five minutes in Poulin's first NHL game, and on came the kid, stopping all 19 shots he faced in relief. That was good enough to earn Poulin a start in Colorado against one of the league's best offenses, and after a couple early goals, he held on to stop 34 of 37 and win in overtime. He may end up back in the minors when Rick DiPietro (groin) returns, but since DP is seemingly made out of paper-mâché and Lawson is rocking a 4.01 GAA through four games, Poulin is the only one of the three I'd own in a yearly league, never mind a keeper.
Dan Sexton, RW, ANA - Sexton is the kind of guy who could find himself shuttling from the NHL to the AHL for a couple more years before he sticks. The undrafted kid out of Bowling Green State has already been up and down and up this year, potting a very nice 15 points in 14 games in the AHL, but just five in 20 in the NHL, playing a depth role. Very small and slender at 5-10, 170, Sexton has pretty good offensive ability, including a fine shot, but if you're that small, you've got to be fast, and he's not very fast. Nonetheless, assuming he doesn't run afoul of Zdeno Chara and get stepped on, Sexton has a bright future as a solid NHLer.
Philip Larsen, D, DAL - A smallish defender from Denmark, Larsen has some offensive skills, but they haven't been on display too much this year, as he has no goals in 34 games between the AHL and NHL. He did have 13 assists for the AHL's Texas Stars in 29 games, but that's a marginal contribution for a fantasy defenseman. On the bright side, he's only been 21 for a month and he's fired off 11 shots on goal in his five NHL games this year, a promising number for a blueliner.
Anton Khudobin, G, MIN - Khudobin returns to the NHL as a reserve for a couple days after last year's impressive two-game cup of coffee. He owns enviable NHL numbers: 2-0-0, 0.86 GAA, .979 save percentage. This year, the Kazakh played entirely for Houston of the AHL, posting a 2.58 GA and .911 save percentage. Though he's a little small, Khudobin has the skill set of an NHL netminder; unfortunately, he's still blocked by Jose Theodore and Niklas Backstrom. It's Backstrom's short-term injury that got Khudobin called up, and he's not likely to see any playing time right now.
Dustin Jeffrey, C, PIT - Jeffrey is another youngster who's still trying to establish himself in the NHL. Just 22, Jeffrey played a total of 15 NHL games the past two seasons; he's played in four so far this year. A 71-point scorer in the AHL last season, Jeffrey has racked up 37 in 35 there in this campaign. He's also got one very nice goal in the NHL, and proving that timing is everything, it was featured on "24/7." He's got the size and grit to stick, but it's hard to get ice time as a center for the Penguins these days. A high scorer since his days in juniors, Jeffrey will be a very solid power forward when he's able to find consistent work.
Robin Lehner, G, OTT - The 19-year-old Lehner saw 10 shots over two relief appearances in October and stopped all of them, so he's perfect in the NHL. Not bad for a kid who can't drink yet. At 6-3, 220, he's already a hulk in goal, and at his age he's still got a little growing to do. Lehner's appeared in just 11 AHL games this year, as he's had a couple stints with the Sens as well as a leave of absence for the WJC, and has held his own with a 2.72 GAA and .911 save percentage. His latest NHL appearance was just to be an emergency goalie with Pascal Leclaire hurting - but with Brian Elliott showcasing his maddening inconsistency and Leclaire doing his best Rick DiPietro impression, Lehner could be competing for the starting job as soon as next year. Sens fans can rejoice; he's the coming thing.
Linus Klasen, LW, NAS - Back to the AHL goes Klasen after a three-game stint. Everything I wrote last week remains true, but like most small forward prospects, he has work to do on his defense.
Michael Del Zotto, D, NYR - Del Zotto could get his chance to return to the NHL with the Rangers finally shipping out perennial disappointment Michal Roszival yesterday, but expect New York to give Ryan McDonagh at least a few games to see what they have in him. After an extremely impressive season as a 19-year-old, Del Zotto was expected to develop further this year, but instead he slumped badly and found himself demoted. On the bright side, he's got two assists in three games since being sent down, and he's just 20 years old. He'll get some time in Connecticut to get his fundamentals together, but I figure he'll be back by February.
The Future to Come
Every week in this space, I'll feature one college player and one junior player who are making their mark.
This week's college prospect is 20-year-old Justin Schultz, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin and the Ducks' second-round pick in '08. He plays alongside Jake Gardiner, the Ducks' first-round pick in '08, on the Badgers' first defense unit, and this kid has been absolutely killing it. Schultz is one of only three underclassmen in the top 10 in points in the NCAA, and the only defenseman in the top 20. He is having simply a spectacular season, ranking seventh in college scoring with 13 goals and 17 assists in 24 games. The Badgers have 14 games left; if Schultz maintains his current pace, he'll score 20 goals and it'll be hard not to put him in the top 10 NHL prospects next year.
Our junior prospect of the week is 17-year-old center Jonathan Huberdeau of the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs. Huberdeau has taken off in his second major junior season, piling up 65 points in 40 games so far. This seems like a natural progression after his truly impressive performance in the playoffs last year, when he scored 11 goals and 18 points in 21 games at the tender age of 16. At 6-1, 155, he's got the height and you figure he'll grow another inch or two, but he obviously still needs to fill out with more muscle. Considering he's not old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes in the United States until June, I'd say he has some time to do that. Huberdeau could very possibly be a top-10 pick in next year's draft, as kids his age simply don't tear up juniors like this very often. He's scoring at a higher pace than Sean Couturier, who's supposed to be the No. 1 overall pick next year, and is second in QMJHL scoring only to Philip-Michael Devos, who's nearly three years older than him.
If you have any questions you'd like me to address in next week's column, direct them here. The response to my first column in the comments was terrific, and I'll be checking in here to address comments every week.