The Coming Thing
by Andrew Fiorentino, RotoWire Writer
Can we talk about Jeff Skinner a little? Let's talk about Jeff Skinner. When you play in Carolina, it's easy to fly under the radar, and that's precisely what Skinner has been doing despite holding a dominant lead in NHL rookie scoring, compiling 36 points to Logan Couture's 28.
Where other early-season success stories have hit the rookie wall, Skinner's been at his best of late, pumping seven goals home and adding three assists over eight January games. Only superstar Eric Staal has more points for the 'Canes, and the much-hyped No. 1 and 2 picks in this past draft, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, have only seven points more than Skinner ... combined.
Skinner went seventh overall, and every player taken ahead of him but Hall and Seguin is back in juniors. Meanwhile, he's on pace for a 67-point season, has played two positions (left wing and his natural center) quite competently, and has a plus-2 rating despite playing for a mediocre Hurricanes team. It's his offensive skill added to Staal's explosiveness and goalie Cam Ward's steadiness that has the 'Canes just one point out of a playoff spot.
Skinner represents the best-case scenario for almost all rookies, with the exception being first overall pick types like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who each exploded for 100 points in their rookie seasons. If you expect even your shiniest prospects to come up full time and start pulling a point per game, you're sure to be disappointed. But if I had to pick one player from this last draft class for a real breakout - by which I mean a 90-plus-point season - next year, I'd take Skinner over both Hall and Seguin.
By the way, for the first time in three tries, things are going according to plan and this column is being published on Monday, as the hockey gods intended. Expect it on Mondays going forward.
Brett MacLean, LW, PHO - The coming thing is here. I wrote about MacLean in my first column, when he was sent down, and now he's back! He scored six points in six games after being returned to the AHL, avoiding the let-down that you see with a lot of prospects after they get their first taste of NHL action. With Wojtek Wolski having been shipped out of town, there's an opening on the wing in Phoenix, meaning MacLean could be here to stay this time. He's already got his first goal under his belt, too, which is nice.
Jared Spurgeon, D, MIN - Spurgeon is the anti-MacLean, an offensively talented defenseman who has shown absolutely nothing on the NHL level - no points in 17 games. He only had nine in 23 in the AHL, too. Don't let that fool you; Spurgeon has skill, as evidenced by his 139 points from the blue line over his last three junior seasons, including double-digit goals twice. He also just turned 21 in November. The problem is that Spurgeon lacks NHL size at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds. We all know already of my love for small forwards with talent, but small defensemen are another story; where smallness can help you navigate through traffic as a forward, as a defenseman, a big part of your job is to create traffic, and Spurgeon is always going to have a problem with that. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any defensemen his size who have had significant NHL success (and fantasy value in particular), but if you can, let's hear it in the comments.
Mikkel Boedker, LW, PHO - Boedker has a heavy amount of NHL experience despite being 21 years old, as he played 78 games in '08-'09 and another 14 the next year despite there being little to no evidence that he was ready at the ages of 19 and 20. The eighth overall pick in '08, he's only now coming into his own as the kind of big-time playmaker that he's capable of being. For the first time since juniors, he came close to posting a point per game, racking up 31 in 35 for San Antonio of the AHL this year. He picked up an assist in his first game back, then was scratched for the next one, so it's hard to know what to expect from Boedker. I think he'll be sent back to the AHL to further refine his game. He's a big-time sleeper for next year, as Phoenix's young talent is really starting to come of age.
Corey Locke, C, OTT - If you're Corey Locke, you've got to start wondering just how much you've got to tear it up before you get a real shot in the NHL. No longer a prospect at age 26, Locke is leading the AHL in points with 55 in just 38 games. It's nothing new for him; he racked up 85 points in the AHL last year, 79 the year before, and 72 the year before that. Once upon a time (in '02-'03), he tore up the OHL for 63 goals and 151 points in 66 games. Despite all that, he's now with his fourth organization already, and he's played in just seven NHL games. But does a guy who's shown his scoring capability deserve the "career AHLer" tag? Well, he's seeing less than 10 minutes a game and is likely headed back down soon, so apparently he does.
Philip McRae, C, STL - McRae, the son of one-time Blues depth player Basil McRae, has followed in his father's footsteps through the same farm system and now the same NHL team. A second-round selection in 2008, McRae hasn't done a whole lot to justify his draft position, never really tearing up juniors or the AHL; he had 22 points in 37 games before being called up. He has NHL size at 6-2, but could stand to add 10-20 pounds of muscle, as he currently lacks the speed to play a finesse game and the strength to play a power game. I don't really understand why he was called up at this point unless it's just to give him a taste of the big leagues to help his development.
Zac Dalpe, C, CAR - The young Dalpe stagnated a bit in his first taste of the NHL, saw his ice time reduced significantly, and ended up being sent back to Charlotte for more seasoning. There, in a much bigger role, he continued to show his offensive skill, picking up two points in two games to give him 25 in 25 this year. Carolina's doing this right; he's 21 and he didn't play his way onto the top two lines, so they're best served getting him heavy game action in the minors. Although I wouldn't rule out a return to the NHL sometime this season, particularly if the 'Canes are hit with injuries, don't expect Dalpe to make a real impact until next year.
Dustin Jeffrey, C, PIT - Like clockwork, Jeffrey was returned to the AHL once more, where he promptly picked up four points in two games to give him 41 in 37 on the year. The outlook remains the same as last week: He'll contribute when he gets the chance.
Jim O'Brien, C, OTT - The Sens' first-round pick, 29th overall, in 2007, O'Brien has improved a lot this year over last season's horrendous 17-point showing in the AHL. He's got 30 in 40, giving his prospect star a little bit of its luster back. Scoreless in his three-game big-league stint, he heads back to the AHL to continue to develop. Ideally, he'll turn into a solid NHL power forward and penalty killer; if I had to guess, the offensive side of his game will come later rather than sooner at the NHL level, but he could have a Dustin Byfuglien-type bust-out one day if he's converted to full-time defenseman.
Robin Lehner, G, OTT - The Islanders ruined Lehner's perfection in his first NHL start, as he stopped just 20 of 24 shots, but got enough offensive support to win. He was then sent down to the AHL to get consistent work, while non-prospect Mike Brodeur was recalled to back up Brian Elliott. The Sens are best served allowing the big kid to play out this season and at the very least the beginning of next season in the AHL so he can continue to improve his technique.
James Reimer, G, TOR - The 22-year-old Reimer got some run over the first half of this month thanks to J.S. Giguere's groin injury, and he played exceptionally well, going 4-2-0 with a .931 save percentage and 2.36 GAA. Reimer has had success in the AHL this year and last, posting .920 and .925 save percentages, respectively. With Giguere back, look for Reimer to get heavy work in the AHL for the rest of the season. He'll likely be the backup in the NHL next year.
Matt Hackett, G, MIN - Here's a name to file away (or to own in keeper leagues). The 20-year-old Hackett, a third-round pick in '09, is a tremendous talent and perhaps will be Niklas Backstrom's successor one day. He was dominant in his final year of juniors, putting up a .925 save percentage despite facing an average of more than 30 shots per game. Hackett's in the midst of a solid first pro year, posting a 2.52 GAA and .912 save percentage in 24 games for Houston of the AHL. His brief time in the NHL involved no game action.
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 freshman T.J. Tynan of Notre Dame. Tynan is the only freshman in all of college hockey to crack the top 20 in scoring; he's tied for third with 15 goals and 18 assists over 26 games. Just 18 years old, Tynan spent last season with Des Moines of the USHL, compiling 72 points in 60 games, and appears to be ready to take his game to the next level. College freshmen who put up a point per game are RARE, and I'd expect Tynan to be drafted in the first round this year. He's another smaller guy, but at his age, he could easily still grow another inch or two. Keep him on your radar.
Our junior prospect of the week is Tyler Toffoli, an 18-year-old who's spent this season absolutely dominating the OHL. With 41 goals in 44 games, he leads the league by 10, and the only player particularly close to his 79 points is teammate Shane Prince (76 points), who's been lucky enough to feed Toffoli the puck all year. How he didn't get on Canada's WJC team is a mystery to me. Taken by the Kings in the second round in 2010, Toffoli is among the best NHL prospects that no one knows about. Los Angeles has a potential superstar on its hands.
If you have any players you'd like me to discuss in next week's column, please direct all inquiries here, or feel free to discuss them in the comments.