The hockey world is abuzz with the dirty hit controversy of the week, Milan Lucic's open-ice pasting of Ryan Miller on Saturday. That one's gonna hurt for a while - the first-period knockdown left Miller with a concussion, but he wasn't removed from the game until the start of the third period (with a "sore neck"), and now he's out indefinitely.
Anyway, forget the hit. Dirty or not (incidentally, I say it's not, and I have no stake in the matter), it really doesn't matter. Hits like that will continue to happen in the NHL because it's a league of big guys moving fast, and sometimes when you're moving quickly and focusing intently on one thing, other things are going on that you just don't notice in time.
The real question we should be asking ourselves: Why did Ryan Miller stay in this game? For all the considerable noise that's been made about the NFL's handling of concussions, they seem to have a pretty solid system down pat. But hockey is a different sport and it engenders a different mentality. Hockey players are like boxers - you get beat up, you get stitched up, you go back out there. Despite the impact concussions have made on the game over the last couple decades, this is a culture that's difficult to overcome. The NHL just put in a new concussion protocol back in March, but the rule that "players suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the game and sent to a quiet place free from distraction so they can be examined by the on-site team physician" seems a bit open to interpretation. What amounts to reasonable suspicion of a concussion is apparently negotiable.
Of course, it could be that the Sabres are just playing up a bit of whiplash to get the league to come down on Lucic. You never know.
So yeah, that's some non-prospect-related moralizing for you. Gotta mix it up to keep you on your toes. But just so you can't say you didn't get any fantasy value out of this: Hey, look, 23-year-old Jhonas Enroth is the Sabres' starting goalie for now! He's 6-0-0 in his six starts with a .942 save percentage, so take note.
Vyacheslav Voynov, D, LOS - My boy Slava's back again with Alec Martinez (upper body) sidelined. He almost played his way into a permanent spot in the Kings' blue line rotation while Drew Doughty was hurt, putting up an impressive three-point game before being sent down, and it seems that if there was ever a moment for Voynov to seize, it's now. If he's productive once again, it's going to be nigh-impossible to send him away when Martinez (who isn't without offensive upside himself) returns to the ice. Things went a bit slowly for Voynov back in the AHL (three points in eight games), but that's not worth worrying about.
Brendan Smith, D, DET - With his five-game suspension for a preseason hit finally over and some AHL time under his belt, Smith is back. He collected just five assists in 11 games with Grand Rapids, but the 22-year-old Ontario native has got better scoring pedigree than that, having racked 52 points in his final college season along with a 12-goal, 32-point effort in the AHL last year.
Darcy Kuemper, G, MIN - Kuemper gets a brief reprieve from the hockey gulag of the ECHL, where he was plopped to get more regular work than he would have with AHL Houston, as fellow prospect Matt Hackett is the starter there. A sixth-round selection in '09, Kuemper has developed into a top-flight goalie prospect. He won the goalie quadruple crown in the WHL last year, leading the league in wins, GAA, save percentage and shutouts. He's been playing with the Ontario Reign in the ECHL, where he's put up a .941 save percentage and 1.47 GAA in four games so far this year. Kuemper is an excellent long-term prospect, but he's a short-timer with the Wild while Josh Harding is banged up again.
Andrei Loktionov, C, LOS - Yet another of the Kings' fine prospects, Loktionov showed off his flashy playmaking skills in the AHL last year (23 assists among 31 points in 34 games) and it's been more of the same so far this season, as he's tallied three goals and 11 assists in 17 contests. He got 19 games of NHL experience in last year, collecting four goals and three assists, and he's about to get a load more with the Kings, who have struggled to find secondary scoring and found themselves with an open spot when Dustin Penner got hurt. The early word is that Loktionov will skate on the second line with Mike Richards and Dustin Brown, which is very promising.
Philip Larsen, D, DAL - That offensive ability that scouts have long promised would materialize for Larsen finally has this year, as he's broken out with 10 points (one goal, nine assists) in 10 games with AHL Texas so far this year. That's nearly half of last season's 21-point output in less than a fifth of the games. The 21-year-old Dane gets his shot thanks to an Alex Goligoski hand injury. He'll have to earn his way and he may not have seen the last of the AHL, but Larsen has the potential to grow into a potent two-way defenseman.
Evgeny Dadonov, RW, FLA - The flashy Russian winger struggled in AHL San Antonio (only four points in nine games), but there's still plenty of potential here for the 22-year-old, and with Scottie Upshall hurt, Dadonov's getting another shot to stick. In his season debut Sunday, he converted 9:22 of ice time into this gorgeous goal. You see the high-end speed, you see the great shot - all he's got to do is find ways to express those assets with consistency.
Vladimir Zharkov, RW, NJD - Zharkov already has some 80 games of NHL experience behind him, although the returns have been meager - just 14 total points. His oft-praised two-way game really hasn't translated to the NHL yet, and as he approaches his 24th birthday (it's in January), Zharkov is starting to shed his prospect status. Six points (just one goal) in nine AHL games aren't going to make anyone stand up and take notice of the Russian winger, so as you'd expect, the Devils have deployed him as a fourth-liner in his two NHL games so far this year.
Eric Tangradi, C, PIT - Tangradi's looked stronger than ever before for AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (I always liked the sound of "Scranton/Wilkes-Barre" better, but I guess that's beside the point), collecting seven goals and five assists for a point-per-game pace through 12 contests. Despite Pens coach Dan Bylsma saying that Tangradi would get a shot on the power play after they called him up this past weekend, he only saw 1:29 of ice time with the man advantage Friday and Saturday combined, and just 17:13 of total ice time. What the 22-year-old Tangradi has working for him, though, is that he's essentially Pittsburgh's top prospect, so if anyone from the AHL is going to get a legit shot to stick in the lineup, it's him. Still, Sidney Crosby and Tyler Kennedy loom on the horizon, and they're going to want their roster spots back.
T.J. Brodie, D, CGY - With Anton Babchuk out, the 21-year-old Brodie's getting his chances on the back end of Calgary's defensive rotation as the Flames look to generate some offense from a team that desperately could use it. The last-place Flames have been outscored 42-35 this year and are tied with Anaheim for the second-fewest goals in the NHL. Brodie was serviceable offensively for AHL Abbotsford last year, tallying 34 points in 68 games, but he had just three in 12 this season before his call-up. He'll need to show more than that to stick. In his two games so far, Brodie's ice time has been fairly limited, as he's averaged just 13:15, and he's played primarily a defensive role (no points, no shots, three hits, five blocked shots).
Allen York, G, CLM - A tall, rangy goalie, York improved steadily over his three seasons with Rochester Polytechnic Institute, putting up a .924 save percentage in his final college campaign. A sixth-round pick way back in '07, York is still just 22, and yet he was thrust into the role of backup to Steve Mason (not an exactly a cakey job) with a whole four games of professional experience behind him. As you'd expect from an inexperienced goalie on a horrendous team, he struggled in his limited exposure (3.52 GAA, .878 save percentage in four games), so it's good that Curtis Sanford got healthy enough for the Jackets to ship York back to AHL Springfield, where he's already gotten into two games and stopped 39 of 43 shots. He's far from a top prospect and he's got Mason as well as (once healthy) Mark Dekanich ahead of him both short- and long-term.
Paul Postma, D, WPG - Postma got just a three-game cup of coffee with Winnipeg, which is three times as many games as he played with Atlanta last year, so clearly he's coming up in the world. He remains an excellent - and under-the-radar - offensive defenseman prospect. The 22-year-old native of Red Deer has eight points in 10 games so far for Winnipeg's AHL affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps.
Cam Atkinson, RW, CLM - With the Jackets getting healthy, Atkinson got shipped back to Columbus with only one game to show for this call-up. The undersized 22-year-old has a goal in two games since his send-down. As I've discussed in this space before, Atkinson is a talented kid, but he's not going to hold onto an NHL roster spot until he gains the strength to forecheck and backcheck at an NHL level.
Roman Josi, D, NAS - Josi just made his return to the ice from an upper-body injury that kept him out for the start of the season. The Swiss import is coming off a very impressive North American debut last season in which he collected 40 points in 69 games for AHL Milwaukee. He's got a pair of assists in two games since his return, so Josi appears to be picking up where he left off. Unfortunately for him, the Preds are quite deep with young defensemen, so the 21-year-old will have to earn his way up the ladder the slow way. Megaprospect Ryan Ellis likely has the inside track on the first call-up, should injuries strike in Nashville.
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 Kyle Rau, yet another dominant player for college hockey's dominant University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. The freshman winger was named Minnesota Mr. Hockey for the 2010-'11 season after utterly dominating at the high school level, averaging well more than two points per game and following that with a big end run for the USHL's Sioux Falls Stampede (10 points in 11 regular-season games, then turning it up to the tune of 12 in 10 in the playoffs). He was taken by the Panthers in the third round of this year's draft and sent off to college, presumably with the hope that he'll gain a little size (at age 19, he's listed at 5-8, 158) and strength as he grows older. Playing alongside Nick Bjugstad (his predecessor as Mr. Hockey), Rau has continued to rack up points at the college level, scoring eight goals and adding seven assists through just 12 games for the top team in the nation. It's easy to compare undersized players to Martin St. Louis, and I've certainly done it here, but Rau could be the rare little guy to duplicate the degree of success that St. Louis had in college.
Our junior prospect of the week is... well, let's make it two: Alex and Allain Saulnier of the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats. Let me know if you've heard this one before: They're twins, one plays center, the other plays wing, and they're lighting it up together. But why take it from me? I'll let their coach, Moncton's Danny Flynn, tell you about them: "The knock on them used to be they were small and slow," said Flynn. "They're not that small anymore. If you watch their puck races, they're not that slow anymore. ... Alex and Allain are going to be the kind of guys that everybody's always going to tell them no and they have to keep proving people wrong. They've been doing that at every level. All you can hope is they keep answering the critics, keep improving their game and down the road they'll get their due." Alex has stood out particularly, as he's coming off an 85-point season and is fifth in the league in scoring this year with 35 points in 25 games. Allain, consistently second-best, needs to do a little more, as he's got a good-but-not-overly-remarkable 27 points in 25 games thus far. Still, like Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, they do their best work together. It's long-forgotten now that they're stars, but the Sedins didn't truly break out at the NHL level until they were 25 years old. The Saulniers are just 19, but despite being eligible for the draft this year, neither of them was taken. They'll have another shot in the 2012 draft, and you can only hope that some team will be smart enough to snag both of them.
Something to ask? Something to say? Prospects you're dying to hear about? You can contact me here.