It's a great time of year. The CHL is now a month into the season, the new NCAA campaign has kicked off plus the AHL is underway and so there are lots of things to look at at various levels.
Who's hot and who's not? Which 2011 eligible players are rising or falling? Are there free agents worth keeping an eye on?
This could take a while, I'll try to be brief.
- What a difference a week can make. Not long ago while taking part in a live chat on Yahoo! Sports I was asked who my picks would be for surprise and disappointments in terms of teams and their early performances this year. My surprise pick was the Prince Albert Raiders who had won three straight and were sitting near the top of the East Division. Since then reality has struck the Raiders and they've now dropped 5 of their last 6 games.
My pick for disappointing team was Medicine Hat who despite my first place prediction, was floundering in the Central Division basement. However, back-to-back games against Edmonton might have been just what the doctor ordered as the Tigers scored 13 goals in the 2-game sweep led by Oiler prospect Tyler Pitlick who picked up 6 points.
- The Oil Kings are struggling at the gate. Announced crowds have been in the 2500-3500 range but actual butts in the seats (aside from opening night) I'd estimate to be closer to 1500. I'm no marketing wizard but in my humble opinion the team should be talking up the opposition just as much as the home side in their radio and print ads. Last Friday's game against Medicine Hat meant there were 4 Edmonton Oilers prospects on the ice but in the radio spot I heard promoting the game there was no mention of Pitlick or Tyler Bunz or (heaven forbid), other NHL team properties coming in that night: Jace Coyle (DAL), Linden Vey (LA), Emerson Etem (ANH) or Sebastian Owuya (ATL).
There is a lot of star power in the WHL but in a NHL market, casual fans need to be force fed reasons why they should show up to a junior game, especially when the home team has been less than good over the last three years.
- Speaking of the Oil Kings, goaltending has been a disappointment so far. Cam Lanigan has struggled and Laurent Brossoit hasn't grasped the opportunities when he's had them. Before Sunday night's tilt in Swift Current, it had been four games since Edmonton's starter had finished the night on the ice instead of on the bench.
- The Prince George Cougars are a completely different team this year. Obviously having Brett Connolly back and healthy is a huge factor but a plethora of transactions this year have made them tougher to play against and have given them more depth too. Sena Acolatse has been terrific for the Cougars and rookie Martin Marincin is 3rd in league scoring for both defencemen and rookies with 10 points in 10 games.
- Edmonton-born Mark McNeill has made a name for himself in the first month of the year with the Prince Albert Raiders. A hot start included a 9-game scoring streak where he collected 13 points but he's gone a bit cold as of late. He's minus-2 over the last 6 games and has been held off the score sheet in the Raiders' last two outings. Still, the 6'2, 210 lbs center is one to watch this year.
- Portland has the top two scoring 2011 eligible prospects and like last year, one is a Swiss import. Sven Bartschi isn't as big as Nino Niederreiter but he's piling up the points at an even better pace - he's got 18 through 11 games. Yet he's second on the team in scoring as Ty Rattie (above) is absolutely on fire right now. The Airdrie native has 21 points and has earned 13 of them in his last 5 games! With speed and skill, the only thing average about this guy is his frame - 6'1, 170 lbs. Rattie was in our 2011 spotlight just a couple of weeks ago.
- Speaking of having a hot hand, Ryan Howse (CGY) is sizzling right now. The Flames get knocked a lot for not having much coming down the pipe but the Chilliwack Bruin might be giving critics a reason to reconsider. Howse has 17 points in 9 games and leads the WHL with 14 goals. He's on pace for 112 goals right now which is pretty unrealistic, but it sure makes that 50-mark plateau look very reachable.
- It's really, really early but here are some 2013 guys that have caught our eye already: Prince George defenceman Joshua Smith and Medicine Hat forward Hunter Shinkaruk - both late '94 birthdates. Tri-City's Connor Rankin is another who is putting up solid numbers already but I haven't seen him in person just yet.
- First off, essential reading for OHL news and updates is Brock Otten's OHL Prospects. Brock jumped out of the gate this week and released his own top 30 OHL prospects for the 2011 NHL Draft and it's an interesting read. Check it out.
- I found it very curious that the Kingston Frontenacs have named Taylor Doherty as their new captain, especially since last year's captain Erik Gudbranson (above), just returned to the team a week ago from Florida Panthers camp. The timing of it all just seems... weird. (Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
- 2011 eligible Ryan Strome leads the OHL in scoring with 20 points. I'd never heard of the guy and was feeling embarrassed until I notice that Brock Otten (see link above) was feeling the same way - and he gets to see and cover the league first hand. One to watch for sure.
- I'm still impressed by the Kitchener Rangers. They were my pre-season pick to win the OHL... and then I doubled back on that when news came out that they'd be losing Jeremy Morin (CHI), John Moore (CLB) and Jeff Skinner (CAR). That's a lot of power to lose but the Rangers are nothing less than competitive and aside from their current slide, had been playing well this year.
- A sure-fire recipe for success: score more goals and stop more pucks than everyone else. It's working for Owen Sound who lead the OHL with 45 goals for and 21 goals against. Even more impressive considering half the league has played at least one game more than they have.
- Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts continue to roll. After 12 games and 11 wins, Quebec's only blemish is a shootout loss to Val d'Or in the second game of the schedule. Since then, the netminding duo of Louis Domingue (PHX) and Jimmy Appleby (2011) have been perfect. The team's top scorers Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and Joël Champagne have been at or near the top in league scoring all year.
- Saint John is to the 2011 NHL Draft as the Portland Winterhawks were to 2010. There are no less than 5 guys to keep tabs on this year and that number might grow still. In case you're wondering... Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Tesink, Zack Phillips, Tomas Jurco and Nathan Beaulieu are the guys on my list.
- Kirill Kabanov left Moncton and everyone's first instinct was to roll their eyes and mutter insults. But considering the way last year ended plus the bad press he got during Islanders camp... he's kind of brought it on himself hasn't he? Turns out Kabanov had to attend family matters back in Russia and was expected back in time for the Wildcats' next game and that made everyone take a look at themselves and ask 'maybe we should give guys the benefit of the doubt?'. Then you notice that he's still not returned and missed Moncton's games on both Friday and Sunday... and that he's not listed on Moncton's roster on their own website...
- Something I've always found humorous: The Mooseheads are based in Halifax but the Moosehead Brewery is in Saint John. Saint John is also the home base for Irving, a major oil and lumber company that happens to own the Moncton Wildcats. A look at Saint John's team website shows that the "founding partners" are Alpine Lager and Irivng. Alpine is a brand of beer made by, you guessed it... Moosehead.
- Sean Couturier is obviously the marquee prospect out of the Q for the 2011 NHL Draft. It was interesting to read then that his agent, Gilles Lupien, has evoked a media boycott until the World Junior camp in December. I guess it's a good thing we got to him first.
- Rocco Grimaldi is one of the early stories in the USHL; he leads the league with 10 points in 4 games with the US-NTDP. The National program always churns out quality players and Grimaldi is another one. It will be interesting to see where he goes in the draft because as the stereotype goes, if he was 3 inches taller, he'd be a top-5 pick. The native California, raised in Michigan, is just 5'6 and 165 lbs soaking wet but like Nathan Gerbe before him, he's got the talent and the fire to make it despite his size. We talked to Grimaldi back in September. The fact that he's going to North Dakota will draw instant comparisons to former Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Duncan who is about the same size. Unfortunately, Duncan is now playing in Austria.
- Seth Ambroz was on the show in early September and is projected to be the first USHL player chosen in June. He's off to a slower start than I expected, at least production wise, but the big forward is still one to watch... a read about as he's the first of our crop of 2011 Guest Bloggers.
- The name out of the USHL that I'm hearing more and more lately is that of a big defenceman that plays for Youngstown named Scott Mayfield. The 6'4, 200 lb blueliner hails from St. Louis and is committed to Denver for his NCAA tenure. The Phantoms are still pretty new to the league (joined last year) but having a big name prospect on the team will help put them on the hockey map.
- every year I bring his name up and it's become a bit of a running joke on the show. However, two weeks into the new year and un-drafted Carter Camper leads the NCAA in scoring with 9 points after 4 games. He's tied with Rich Purslow from Nebraska-Omaha and Justin Fontaine of Duluth (who was just on the show last week). What do all 3 guys have in common aside from their production? All three are seniors and all three are free agents.
- If there is a forgotten Oiler prospect out there it has to be Maine forward Robby Dee. He fell so far off the radar a few years ago that he stopped getting invited to prospect camp in the summer. Even last year's breakout career year of 25 points in 33 games didn't seem to register with the Oilers - development coach Mike Sillinger hadn't even seen Dee play when we spoke to him last January. In case anyone cares, Dee already has 5 points in 4 games this year with the Black Bears. He was Edmonton's 3rd round pick in 2005. (Photo: Kevin Johnson)
- Interesting stats for former Canmore Eagle goalie Sam Brittain (FLA). He's a freshman at Denver this year and has played two games. He's got an impressive .951 sv% and 1.46 GAA... and yet he's somehow winless. Chalk that up to Denver's sputtering offence more than anything else.
- Last year the U20 team from Sweden played 3 exhibition games against CIS teams in advance of the World Junior Championship in Saskatoon. This year they will take on Merrimack College (Nov 2) and Massachusetts (Nov 6) as they get ready for the 2011 WJC in Buffalo.
- Oklahoma City finally got a positive result, a 4-3 win over Lake Erie on Saturday, and then followed that up with a sound 8-2 thrashing of the Houston Aeros on Sunday. Bryan Pitton was in net for OKC against Houston and stopped 29 of 31 shots in the victory and he also picked up an assist which puts him ahead of Phil Cornet, Alex Plante, Johan Motin and Greg Stewart when it comes to offensive production. (Photo: Steven Christy)
- Luke Adam leads all rookies in scoring with 9 points. He was a 2nd round pick of the Buffalo Sabres back in 2008, the same year the club snagged Tyler Meyers and Tyler Ennis.
- Jacob Markstrom has been on the ice for every minute of the 5 games Rochester has played so far. He's 3-2 with a .901 SV% and 3.01 GAA.
- Anaheim sent Luca Sbisa down to Syracuse on Saturday. He played in two games for the Ducks, had no points, and will now join the Crunch in the AHL.
- The Rockford IceHogs were glad to receive Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks on the weekend. Leddy started the year with the Hawks, had a goal, but will hone his game on the farm as most expected the 19-year-old would after an average NCAA season with the Golden Gophers.
This n' That
- The AJHL's leading scorer right now is 19-year-old rookie Matt Montesano who is also an import, originally from Massachusetts. He's listed at 6'1 and 175 lbs, with 22 points in 15 games. Sounds like there has to be a story in there somewhere doesn't it?
- NHL Central Scouting is set to release their 'Watch List' on Monday. I expect Camrose defenceman Sam Jardine to be at or near the top for the AJHL. He's committed to Ohio State and talked about that and the season when he was on The Pipeline Show in early October. (Photo: Pro Sports Photography/AJHL)
- The Camrose Kodiaks are the 2011 RBC Cup hosts but thus far are pretty much in the middle of the AJHL standings. I wonder how soon the Kodiaks start making changes to make sure they're are competitive by the end of the year.