By Kirk Luedeke
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The Boston Bruins sent a contingent of young players to South Florida to participate in a rookie tournament against similar rookies from the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators hockey clubs Sep. 6-8.
The games won’t count in the standings, but ask any player about how things change when taking the ice against an opponent who isn’t wearing a spoked-B in an intra-squad scrimmage setting, and you’ll hear the same thing: these things matter.
The B’s last played in a rookie tournament back in 2009 in Kitchener, Ontario, then faced the New York Islanders in a two-game series in Boston a year later. Prior to the 2011-12 season, the setting shifted to the Isles’ home rink in Uniondale, but last year’s lockout scrubbed Boston’s plans to participate in the annual prospects tourney hosted by the Panthers.
With the three-game set beginning Friday for the B’s against the Tampa futures (game time is 2:00 p.m.), this will serve as a good measuring stick for both player and the organization’s brass that will see where the Boston prospects stack up against their peers on three other NHL clubs.
For more experienced players like AHL top rookie scorer Ryan Spooner, 2010 second-rounder Jared Knight and Zach Trotman on defense, the expectations will be a little higher, but jobs in Boston aren’t on the line here. The rookie tournament is about opportunity and the players having a chance to make a positive impression on their organization’s leadership before the veteran camp begins next week.
The New England Hockey Journal broke down the B’s rookie roster for you here, but here is a quick snapshot of some of the top competition they’ll be facing.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Jonathan Drouin, C/LW - Until Nathan MacKinnon put on a performance for the ages in last May’s Memorial Cup, his Halifax Mooseheads teammate was considered in some circles to be the better player heading to the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Drouin is a virtuoso on offense: he possesses elite hockey skills and instincts with the rare ability to control the tempo and flow of a hockey game. He is the future top center for Tampa and the thought of him setting the table for one Steven Stamkos has the ‘Bolts dreaming of better days and smooth sailing ahead for a team that has underachieved since winning the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Adam Erne (North Branford, Conn.), LW - The burly power forward who was projected as a top-30 selection last June slipped into the early second round, but Erne made a positive impression at Team USA’s World Jr. national evaluation camp last month in Lake Placid. A powerful skater who takes the puck hard to the net and does just about everything well, when Erne is on top of his game, he is every bit the blue chip prospect scouts projected him to be years ago. There is no questioning Erne's talent, so if the Lightning can keep his motor revving on high, he could end up being one of the bigger steals of the 2013 NHL draft class.
Vladislav Namestnikov, C - Knight and Seth Griffith’s London Knights teammate is a skilled scoring forward who has a dynamic, game-breaking element with his speed and quick hands. The son of a former NHL and minor league defenseman Evgeny Namestnikov, the younger Namestnikov spent much of his youth in North America and therefore has a different perspective from many of his Russian peers who were born and raised in their native country. Namestnikov played last season for the Calder Cup runner-up Syracuse Crunch, and although he was challenged by adjustment issues and injuries, it won’t be long before Namestnikov is plying his trade in the NHL.
Slater Koekkoek, D -The Bruins were rumored to be enamored of the rugged, two-way OHL star defender in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, but the Lightning pounced early, making the former Peterborough Pete (later traded to Windsor) a top-10 selection. With excellent four-way mobility, vision, superb passing ability and a nasty but measured edge, Koekkoek’s potential is questioned only by some of the long-term injuries he’s suffered in junior. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be an anchor and go-to blue liner on the Lightning for the next decade at least.
Dylan Blujus, D - Another d-man out of the OHL to follow Koekkoek in the same draft year (40th overall), this Buffalo-area native is related to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski by marriage (Blujus' sister is married to Gronk's brother, Dan). This athletic, shutdown defender with the North Bay Battalion is quick and smart for his 6-foot-3 size. His coach, Stan Butler, feels that Blujus can bring more to the mix offensively, but thus far, the Western New Yorker has put up modest point totals and might be more of a conservative, stay-at-home type who plays a hard-nosed but honest game at the highest level.
Andrej Sustr, D - One of the most sought-after college free agents last spring out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Sustr has an excellent combination of size, speed and offensive upside. The native of Plzen in the CzechRepublic did not look out of place in the AHL during Syracuse’s run to the championship series before falling to Grand Rapids. With fine footwork and a booming shot, Sustr has the earmarks of an intriguing prospect who might not be long in making an impact with the big club.
Finnish phenom Aleksander Barkov, last June’s third overall selection behind Drouin, unfortunately will not be playing because he is still recovering from shoulder surgery.
Nick Bjugstad, C - At 6-foot-6, the former University of Minnesota star and 2010 first-rounder has some of the most impressive long-term potential if he can put it all together. A talented, instinctive pivot who is still growing into his huge frame, Bjugstad carries the weight of high expectations in his first full season after coming out of school early to sign a NHL contract last spring.
Vince Trocheck, C - The Pittsburgh native and OHL 50-goal man and MVP from a year ago (split between Saginaw and Plymouth) may not possess ideal size for the NHL at a shade under 6-feet, but he does bring a gritty, competitive attitude along with a coveted ability to score clutch goals. The third-rounder from the 2011 NHL draft brings a Bruins-type of character and mentality to the mix, and could develop into a star ahead of other, more celebrated players picked ahead of him two years ago. If there is one “little engine that could” type of prospect who bears watching, Trocheck is it.
Quinton Howden, LW - The 25th overall pick was the third of three first-rounders in 2010 (Erik Gudbranson- 3rd, Bjugstad- 19th). This former Moose Jaw Warriors scoring winger had a disappointing first pro season. An outstanding skater for his big 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame, Howden put up modest scoring totals in the AHL and then struggled to find a niche in limited duty with the Panthers (scoreless in 18 games). Bigger things are expected of Howden this season, and he has the speed/talent to raise his production a notch, be it in the AHL with San Antonio, or in Florida’s bottom-six somewhere.
Alex Petrovic, D - The former Red Deer Rebels standout is on this list primarily for his connection to the Bruins and a key trade that helped secure Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup championship. Petrovic was acquired in the early second round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft with the pick Peter Chiarelli sent to Florida for Dennis Seidenberg and Matt Bartkowski at the 2010 trade deadline. So far, that deal has been lopsided in the B’s favor, but if Petrovic develops into a solid middle-pairing NHL d-man, the Panthers will take it.
Seth Jones, D - We’ll go on record as saying that with no disrespect intended to MacKinnon, Drouin or Barkov, Jones should have been the top overall pick in Newark last June. Having said that, Jones slipped to the fourth spot in the draft and Nashville pounced. This big, fluid and highly skilled defender has all the makings of a franchise defenseman and cornerstone. Much ado has been made over his NBA dad, Popeye Jones, but the driving force behind Jones’ development into one of the best hockey prospects in the world is his mother, Amy. Just a few months ago, Jones was going up against Drouin in the Memorial Cup, now NHL fans in South Florida get a nice encore treat to see the two compete against each other again. The younger Jones is the complete package and a generational talent…and you’ll all see him in the NHL this year.
Filip Forsberg, F - This celebrated Swede slipped down to the Washington Capitals in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft at 11th overall (after he was projected by many to be a top-three pick), and less than a year later, they flipped him to the Predators in a curious trade for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Forsberg is a pure scorer who was named the top junior player in Sweden and brings speed, creativity and a slick set of hands to the mix. Only Caps GM George McPhee and his hockey ops staff can say why the team gave up on Forsberg so soon and for a pair of players whose value in the trade can be deemed questionable at best, so it will be interesting to see how the highly-touted scorer evolves with his new team.
Austin Watson, F - The Michigander and Jared Knight’s former London teammate and close pal was Nashville’s first-rounder in 2010 and still has interesting NHL potential power forward potential even if his development has been slower than expected. At 6-foot-3, 201 pounds he brings an impressive physical package with offensive upside coming off a 20-goal rookie season in the AHL with Milwaukee. Watson also made his Nashville debut, scoring one goal in six NHL games with the Predators.
Joonas Rask, F - Tuukka’s little brother is here, and no—he’s not a goalie. He’s smaller than his older brother, but quick and opportunistic. After being skipped in two drafts the Predators took a chance with him in the final round of 2010 and he came over late last season, posting his first NHL point after a 1 goal, 1 assist splash in his first AHL game.
Magnus Hellberg, G - Big, but raw goaltender could one day push Pekka Rinne for playing time in the Nashville nets. After a sensational debut in North America a year ago with Milwaukee the sky could be the limit for the 6-foot-5 puckstopper who went to Nashville two years ago with the 38th overall pick and plays a composed, technically sound game.