As I was pounding down a delicious shawarma pita in Jerusalem last week - not the first and not the last one that I scarfed down on my trip - but a stone's throw from the Western Wall, something funny happened.
Out of the noise of tourists, shop owners, sizzling food and hungry cats, there emerged one distinctive sentence, one that rang to the heavens and back:
The NHL lockout just ended!
For three months, I'd had nothing to do with myself. Baseball season was over (R.I.P, 2012 New York Mets), football season was a disaster (R.I.P., Mark Sanchez's career), but where the Rangers and the NHL should have stepped in to fill the void, there was: nothing. But now, at this moment, in the land of my forefathers, my prayers had been heard - and I hadn't even done any praying!
And so I came back from the motherland a new man. Yes, I got my religion back, and it's on NHL ice again this Saturday.
We'll get back to the normal format next week, but for this week, let's discuss the youngsters who're ready to make an impact in this abbreviated season.
First, though, allow me to direct you to Google, which yesterday celebrated the 116th birthday of Frank Zamboni with an entertaining little Google Doodle. Go clean up some snow, then come back.
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, STL - The 16th pick in the 2010 draft comes to St. Louis with much hype and fanfare after a thoroughly impressive career as a youngster in the KHL, including a point per game in his 31 contests with St. Petersburg this year. He'll start off on the Blues' second line with Andy McDonald and Alexander Steen, giving the spectacularly talented young Russian competent offensive linemates to help him do some damage. To be clear, though Tarasenko has Alex Ovechkin-like talent (if not his size), don't expect an Ovechkin-esque breakout; rookie Ovi starred for an awful Capitals team with no first-line talent, while Tarasenko will be just one of many talented pieces for St. Louis.
Justin Schultz, D, EDM - I've long regarded Schultz's offensive upside highly, and so do the Oilers, who signed him as an unrestricted free agent after he de-registered from the University of Wisconsin. Tough luck for the Ducks, who originally drafted him back in 2008. They've got to be kicking themselves over the incredible performance Schultz put on in the AHL during the lockout - an astounding 48 points in 34 games, numbers you simply don't see from defensemen in any pro league these days. Schultz will instantly step into the uber-talented Oilers power play unit along with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. It may seem bold to say this, but he could legitimately put up the best rookie season by a defenseman since Brian Leetch in '88-'89.
Damien Brunner, RW, DET - Fifty-seven points in just 33 games in the Swiss League? Someone give this man a contract. Oh, wait, that's what the Wings already did with Brunner, who'd starred in Switzerland for three years before pounding out those enormous numbers this season alongside new teammate Henrik Zetterberg. The speedy winger is entering a wonderful situation in Detroit, joining a high-octane offense on a perennially winning team and possibly playing on the first line with Zetter and Pavel Datsyuk. Sold yet?
Nail Yakupov, C, EDM - Yep, I finally got around to the first overall pick in the draft. Yakupov played well in the KHL this year, though he didn't blow anyone away, delivering 18 points in 22 games with a minus-4 rating. The major question with Yakupov will be how much opportunity he gets to score with the Oilers' first line and top power-play unit all sewn up to start the season. Of course, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have both struggled with injuries already in their short careers, so Yakupov is sure to get periods of opportunity. Either way, even with only 15-16 minutes of ice time per game, he should put on a promising offensive performance to the tune of about 30-35 points - health permitting, of course.
Sven Baertschi, LW, CGY - Baertschi found the net three times in his five-game trial with Calgary last year, showing offensive promise that has to have Flames fans excited, particularly considering Jarome Iginla's advanced age. The 20-year-old Swiss winger won't be an instant answer, but hey, Iginla's still around to shoulder the load and give him a year to develop while experiencing NHL action. Baertschi will start off on Calgary's second line with fellow young buck Mikael Backlund centering and Michael Cammalleri on the opposite wing, and if Cammalleri can find his game again, that's going to be a dangerous trio.
Jonathan Huberdeau, C, FLA - Huberdeau got in one final partial season in juniors this year, racking up 45 points in 30 games. The third overall pick in 2011 isn't expected to jump in as a savior, but he's an impressive two-way player who can bring the Panthers the scoring spark they lack. Huberdeau's slick stickhandling and great ice vision should bring with them instant impact at the NHL level. As long as the coaches are happy with his work at the face-off dot, it should only be a matter of time until he seizes the top-line center role from Stephen Weiss, whose skillset is better suited to a complementary role.
David Rundblad, D, PHO - A brutal 30-game NHL debut docked Rundblad's stock significantly last year; a 50-point man in Sweden the season before, he put together just seven in 30 games (with a minus-12 rating) between the Senators and the Coyotes. In the minors with AHL Portland, things didn't go much better - he put up better scoring totals with 16 points, but still posted a minus-18 rating in 30 games. It was a different story during the lockout, though, as Rundblad worked on his defensive responsibility in Portland and saw dividends: he still scored plenty (23 points in 32 games) and finished with a plus-2 rating. Given the Coyotes' relatively unimpressive defensive corps, there's plenty of room for Rundblad to find himself a top-four role if he can continue to be relied upon in his own zone. If given the ice time, the points will come - he just won't be able to help himself.
Braden Holtby, G, WAS - The sneaky fantasy hockey player's goalie pick, Holtby's no sleeper after his impressive performance in the 2012 postseason. He's only played in 21 NHL games, but in them, he's delivered a star-worthy line (2.02 GAA, .929 save percentage) and proven himself spotlight-friendly. With only the oft-injured, never-impressive Michal Neuvirth behind him, Holtby's a virtual lock for 75 percent of the Caps' time in goal, and there's still plenty of talent in front of him. Even an underperforming Washington team made it to the second round of the playoffs last year, and they didn't have Holtby between the pipes. My bold prediction: he's a top-five netminder this year.
The Future to Come
Every week in this space, I'll feature one amateur player making his mark in college or juniors.
This week's player is Alex Galchenyuk, the Canadiens' 2012 first-round pick, third overall. Almost certain to see a five-game stint with the Habs this year, the young centerman will likely head back to the OHL's Sarnia Sting, where he's ripped off 27 goals and 61 points in just 33 games this season. Word out of Montreal's camp is glowing, and while it's possible that he'll end up sticking around beyond the short audition, at just 18 years old, the Habs are likely going to want to give the kid more time to develop. A knee injury shortened his '11-'12 season to two games, so he's barely even played 100 contests in juniors. The temptation will be strong, but expect the Habs to be pragmatic. And don't worry about the Russian Factor - he may have the name of his father, Soviet hockey player Alexander Galchenyuk, but the son was born in Milwaukee and honed his craft in the OHL, not Russian juniors.
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.