This week in unexpected NHL events: The Calgary Flames, beset by injuries to their forwards, have recalled Sven Baertschi from the WHL's Portland Winterhawks on an emergency basis. Baertschi will take to the ice Friday night in his first professional action, and it looks like he'll lace ‘em up with Tom Kostopoulos and Greg Nemisz on Calgary's third line. The No. 7 prospect on RotoWire's soon-to-be-updated Top 100 (ETA: next week), all Baertschi has done for Portland this year is rip off 33 goals and 61 assists for 94 points in just 47 games.
The juniors-to-NHL midseason jump is an unusual one, but at least Baertschi's got a coach in Brent Sutter who's been through the same deal. The 19-year-old native of Switzerland has the maturity to handle the transition, and as importantly, he's got the talent. Fans may complain, but Sutter is doing the right thing treating him with kid gloves - it's best to put him on the third line to start so he can adjust to the speed of the game, the competition level and the sheer size differential. Even in a depth role, though, last year's 13th overall pick is probably going to play 10-12 minutes, maybe with some second-unit power-play time, and he could quite reasonably make an instant impact.
Friday night's Flames-Jets game already had all the buzz it needed with Winnipeg flying into Calgary for the first time since '96. Now it's got an added bonus: the birth of a star.
Gustav Nyquist, C, DET - The Swedish star-to-be has bounced up and down between the NHL and AHL a few times, but his performance in the minors hasn't suffered at all, as he's still pulling a point per game with 19 goals and 35 assists in 53 contests for AHL Grand Rapids. He has just an assist in five games of with Detroit, but has averaged less than eight minutes. He'll skate with Danny Cleary and Justin Abdelkader in a depth role for the Wings again. Eventually, the 22-year-old will get his shot - I suspect it would come sooner if he were a first-round pick rather than a fourth-rounder.
Dustin Tokarski, G, TAM - Tokarski took a loss in his first NHL game of the year Thursday, but he played decently enough, stopping 29 of 32. The 2008 fifth-rounder has had a mediocre season statistically for AHL Norfolk - that .907 save percentage isn't impressing anyone - but the team as a whole has been excellent, so Tokarski has a sparkling 27-11-0 record. Once upon a time, the 22-year-old Saskatchewanian was a big star for the WHL's Spokane Chiefs, and he sure has done a lot of winning in his career, so there are worse guys (like, for example, Dwayne ROoloson and the now-injured Mathieu Garon) whom the Lightning could be rolling out.
Matt Hackett, G, MIN - Hackett's now played in four consecutive games for Minnesota - two starts, two relief appearances - to mixed results. After an impressive game against Colorado on Sunday, he started against the Avs again Tuesday and gave up four goals in a loss, but otherwise Hackett has been everything the Wild could ask of him while Nicklas Backstrom has been banged up. Now Josh Harding is banged up (again), too, so Hackett's got a line on more playing time in the short term. He's been a boon to AHL Houston all year, posting a .917 save percentage and 2.41 GAA.
David Rundblad, D, PHO - Rundblad was called back up on Saturday, and he's played in four games since for Phoenix, recording an assist and a minus-2 rating. The Swedish defenseman is insanely talented, but he's still having trouble on the defensive end, and that's translated to a lack of opportunities on the offensive end. Fortunately, he's got one of the better two-way defensemen in the league to learn from in the person of Keith Yandle.
Simon Despres, D, PIT - The Pens' 2009 first-rounder has impressed with his size and strength at both the NHL and AHL levels, but has flopped points-wise. At 20 years old, he has a long way to go on both ends of the rink, so don't expect much for now. The NHL defenseman's learning curve is not an easy one.
Brandon Manning, D, PHI - The undrafted Manning scored 21 goals and 53 points - not to mention 29 PIM - in 53 games last year for the Chilliwack Bruins of the WHL, which was enough to earn him a pro deal with the Flyers, who can always be counted on to sign a gritty player with scoring potential. The AHL hasn't treated Manning as kindly, as he has just nine points in 32 games, but the 21-year-old does has collected a load of PIM - 75 of ‘em. There's some upside here, but Manning likely projects as a third-pairing defenseman who'll mix it up and occasionally find the net. To reach even that potential, though, he's another guy who needs to put work into his defense.
Carter Ashton, RW, TOR - It only took three AHL games before Ashton got called up to the Leafs, who skated him for 9:30 Wednesday, time enough for the big-bodied forward to lay five hits, but no shots on goal or points. The 20-year-old Winnipeg native still needs to develop his game, but he's certainly got the size and grit to succeed in the future.
Greg Nemisz, C, CGY - At 21, Nemisz still hasn't quite developed into the big, tough center the Flames thought they were taking with the 25th overall pick in '08, but his game has been slowly coming along. Nemisz still needs to add muscle, and with 25 points in 41 AHL games this year, he's unlikely to provide much offense except by association with Baertschi.
Linus Omark, LW, EDM - The undersized Swede was modestly productive in the NHL last year, totaling a respectable 27 points in 51 games as a rookie, but a broken ankle has limited him to just 18 AHL games this year. They've been productive games, as he's managed 16 points, continuing a trend of scoring in the minors (he had 31 points in 27 AHL games last year). Omark was making noises about returning to Europe, but he's here and he's been in the lineup for the last two games. Big ice time saw him make an impact Thursday against Montreal, as he skated more than 18 minutes and scored his first goal of the year.
Michael Hutchinson, G, BOS - Hutchinson, stuck in the unenviable position of being buried behind Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, had a glimmer of opportunity (Rask's injury) snatched from him when the Bruins signed Marty Turco to back up Thomas while Rask is shelved for the rest of the regular season. Despite an ugly 6-11-0 record in 18 games for AHL Providence, Hutch has played well - the '08 third-rounder has a shiny .920 save percentage. He came up the hard way, working his way through the ECHL back to the AHL this year, but the lanky goalie is going to need to maintain that success in the long term to have any hope of cracking Boston's rotation.
Braden Holtby, G, WAS - Holtby has seen NHL action just once this year, a five-goal disaster against San Jose back on Feb. 13, as this call-up didn't result in any ice time. The 22-year-old has had a tough year this season following last year's studly performances both in the AHL and NHL, but he did shut out the Binghamton Senators in his last outing back on Saturday. Holtby will need to keep putting up solid performances like that, as consistency has been a big issue for him this season.
Justin Peters, G, CAR - It's been a long season, and I'd almost forgotten that Brian Boucher was even in the NHL anymore, but indeed, Boucher has returned from the injured list, forcing Peters back to the minors, where his .920 save percentage says that he doesn't have much left to prove. Peters has been terrific as Cam Ward's backup, too, putting up a .931 save percentage over seven games. I think the ‘Canes may have better players in the minors than they do on the big team.
The Future to Come
Our prospect of the week is goaltender Connor Knapp, a sixth-round pick by the Sabres in '09 and a senior at Miami University of Ohio (yeah, that's two Miami of Ohio players in as many weeks). All Knapp has done this year in his 20 starts for Miami is lead the nation in goals-against average with a sparkling 1.53 figure to go with a Tim Thomas-like .939 save percentage. In his last 13 games, Knapp has twice as many shutouts (four) as games in which he's allowed two-plus goals. He's accomplished this despite ceding half the team's starts to the other side of the Miami goalie tandem, fellow senior Cody Reichard, who's had a much worse season (.898 save percentage). The 21-year-old Knapp, a native of York, N.Y., fills the net mouth with his body - at 6-6, 225, he fits the mold of the bigger netminders NHL clubs seem to be looking for these days - and after four years of starting in college, he's grown into the star-caliber calm and poise that he'll need for the next level. His next test comes this weekend in the CCHA playoffs against Michigan State, and you can be sure that the powers in Buffalo will be watching.
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