Everybody has a different motivation at this point in the NHL season. Some teams are playing for a playoff spot, while others who are long out of it are playing for pride. Some are playing for home-ice advantage, whereas the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning are still within reach of history.
From a player’s perspective there are other considerations. An ageing veteran could be giving it his all before retiring, or trying to play at a level that will make someone want to keep him around for another season. Other players may be playing for a contract, trying to hit a bonus or set a new career high.
Others, mostly younger players, are still just trying to get their foot in the door. This time of season brings lots of player call-ups either due to injury or because the team wants to give an up-and-comer a chance to show just where they are in their development. This is a chance for a player to make a name for themselves in the organization and get a leg up on the competition they’ll see in next fall’s training camp. In many cases, this is an opportunity to show you belong in the NHL full-time next October.
With that, we go around the league and highlight how some of these young late-season call-ups are doing.
CONNOR CLIFTON, BOSTON BRUINS
Injuries have opened the door for Clifton to get a look in Boston, but it’ll be hard for him to stick with the team next season unless someone is moved out or is forced to miss time again. Right now Clifton is in the lineup with Torey Krug, Matt Grzelcyk and Kevan Miller out, but they’re each signed through next season. Zdeno Chara has the only expiring contract on Boston’s blue line and it’s expected he’ll re-up again.
Clifton had a nine-game call-up earlier in the season, but since returning in March he’s played four games and his ice time has risen to above 18 minutes his past two outings. Coach Bruce Cassidy wasted no time challenging the player, matching him against Matt Duchene’s line on his off-side last Saturday.
“The conversation was, ‘Can you play left defence? If you want to play in the National Hockey League you’re going to have to, basically tonight.’ And he nodded his head, and off he went, so I give him credit,” Cassidy told WEEI. “It’s not easy. You know, you’re playing against Duchene’s line. It’s a good line, and you’re playing on your off-side, and you haven’t played a lot of games. So, he’s going to earn some trust with the coaches, and I think he’s going to earn some respect from the players.”
A fifth-round pick in 2013, this is just Clifton’s second season of pro hockey out of Quinnipiac University. The five-foot-11, 174-pound defenceman scored 13 points in 54 AHL games last season and has doubled that point total in 2018-19.
Top three in Corsi differential for defensemen.
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) March 16, 2019
ALEXANDER NYLANDER, BUFFALO SABRES
This is the third year in a row Nylander has got a late-season call-up, but this is the first time it’s happened before April. His points per game have risen each year in the AHL, from 0.43 as a rookie in 2016-17 to 0.63 this season. He’s not among the best at his age in the AHL, but this progress is at least pointing the 21-year-old in the right direction.
“He’s taking advantage of the opportunity,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley told the Times-Herald’s Bill Hoppe. “Each and every game he seems to get better. His linemates are helping him out, they play a fast game. He’s just getting more confident down low, in the corner. He’s driving on cycles, he’s making plays up ice and he’s using his speed.
“I really like his shot mentality last game. Coming off the wing, he was thinking about shot entering the offensive zone. He’s got to continue to shoot pucks.”
Nylander has topped out at 12 goals in 49 AHL games this season and got his first NHL tally in 2018-19 five games into his call-up and against brother William Nylander’s Maple Leafs. Alex has three points now in his past two games.
Given the Sabres are struggling on offence just as much as they have in recent seasons, it’ll be hard for them to not at least give Nylander a look in October. Since the Sabres had a 10-game winning streak end Nov. 29, they rank 27th in the NHL in goals. He’ll likely return to Rochester for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 21, 2019
JOEL L’ESPERANCE, DALLAS STARS
An undrafted signing out of Michigan Tech, L’Esperance earned this call-up by torching the AHL in his first full season as a pro. In 50 games he scored 29 goals, which is still just two off the league lead even though he hasn’t played a game there since Feb. 24.
Dallas has been in a desperate search for secondary scoring all season and split up Jamie Benn from Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov to try and get it. Even that hasn’t completely solved the problem. The hope was that L’Esperance would complement the proven pro, but he’s only managed one goal (and no assists) in 15 games, mostly from the second line.
Other young Stars such as Valeri Nichushkin (0 goals) and Denis Gurianov (four points in 21 games) haven’t done much to solidify their spots, so the opportunity is there for L’Esperance.
TARO HIROSE, DETROIT RED WINGS
Never drafted, 22-year-old Hirose just wrapped up his college career with Michigan State by scoring 50 points in 36 games, which tied him as the top scorer in all of the NCAA. He was one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, and then signed with the Red Wings when his season came to a close.
At this point in the rebuild, Detroit is still looking for as many young and skilled players as they can get, so Hirose was put right into the lineup to show what he’s got. In two games his ice time went from 13:44 to 16:12 and he’s recorded a couple of primary assists already.
“He’s a smart player,” linemate Thomas Vanek told the Detroit Free Press. “Playing with him is actually really easy. The poise he has — it’s fun. It’s fun to play with a guy like that who thinks the game at a high level. He’s not afraid to make plays. He can hold onto pucks. I’m really impressed so far with him.”
JOSH CURRIE AND JOSEPH GAMBARDELLA, EDMONTON OILERS
There’s a big feeling out process going on in Edmonton these days, from finding their next GM all the way to figuring out which cheap players with enough skill should stick on next year’s team.
Neither Currie (26) nor Gambardella (25) are as young as most others on this list, but both have low-level contracts and are still controllable next season. While Currie is carrying a $687,500 cap hit through 2019-20, Gambardella is a pending RFA coming off a $725,500 cap hit. And though they are close in age and would both be considered late-bloomers if they ever stuck in the NHL, their roads to this point are very different.
Currie was never drafted, but left the QMJHL in 2013 and spent the following two-plus seasons in the ECHL. His past four have been in the AHL, where he’s been about a 20-goal scorer. With 24 goals and 37 points in 49 games, he was having his best AHL season to date before getting called up in February. He scored his first goal in his third NHL game, and has added another plus three assists in the 12 games since.
“I love to chip in offensively, everyone wants to,” he told the Edmonton Sun. “But I need to be responsible on the walls, good in all three zones and I think I’ve done that so far.
“You have to be good in your own zone in this league if you want to stay. If you’re a bottom six guy you have to be responsible. I kind of pride myself in being good in the defensive zone, but I love being in on the offence as well.”
Gambardella is only in his second pro season after moving on from UMass-Lowell and went from 19 points in 50 AHL games last season to 27 goals and 45 points in 48 games this season. He’s been called up a couple of times to the Oilers, seeing four games in March, but the most he’s played in one game is 8:46.
Neither player will be a big producer or the missing link if they do stick around next season, but both have the potential to be hungry, do-anything players to help fill out the bottom six.
SAMUEL MONTEMBEAULT, FLORIDA PANTHERS
Goaltending has been the Panthers’ biggest issue this season — even with average netminding they may have been able to make the playoffs. And though they won’t head into next season with Montembeault as the No. 1 if they really expect to get back into the mix, his late-season play is making it more likely that James Reimer is a goner.
A third-round pick in 2015, Montembeault got his NHL break on March 2 and got his first win six nights later in a 25-save victory over the Minnesota Wild. He played six games in a row for Florida, winning four of them and allowing more than three goals in none. Montembeault wasn’t an AHL standout, posting .896 and .901 save percentages the past two seasons. He was never an award winner in the QMJHL and only once finished in the top five in save percentage.
But he’s showing why he might be a decent candidate to be a No. 3 goalie next season. If the Panthers do go big into the goalie market this summer and explore signing UFA Sergei Bobrovsky, they’ll have to do something with Reimer or Roberto Luongo. It’s always possible the latter would retire, either due to injury or outright, but if he doesn’t, Reimer becomes a buyout candidate. He has a $3.2 million cap hit for another two seasons which, if bought out, would give the Panthers an extra $2.4 million in cap space for next season. They’d get a $191,667 credit the year after, but would lose $658,333 in space for the following two seasons.
MATT ROY AND CARL GRUNDSTROM, LOS ANGELES KINGS
It can be hard to get a read on a young defenceman like the 24-year-old Roy when the team around him has been so thoroughly outplayed all season. He’s been a minus player three of the past four games and his 46.8 CF% is dreadful, though similar to what Drew Doughty is at for the season — albeit against top competition. Roy has earned more ice time as his call-up has gone on, seeing more than 19 minutes in three March games and getting paired with Alec Martinez.
A seventh-rounder from 2015, Roy’s 29 points in 45 games and 0.64 points per game rate is 17th-best among all AHL defencemen who’ve played at least half the season. He’ll be an RFA this summer, though not an expensive re-sign, and there could be two or three blue-line spots up for grabs in 2019-20, depending on how things unfold this summer.
“It’s good that they’re getting NHL games in, but to come to a team that’s in last place, (there’s) no direction right now,” Doughty told the Los Angeles Times of the youngsters who’re getting a late-season look. “Obviously we’re playing for something, but we’re playing for nothing, and it’s tough for these guys.”
Grundstrom is one of the pieces returned to Los Angeles in the Jake Muzzin trade and he’s getting his shot on the west coast far quicker than he would have in Toronto. We broke down what the Kings were getting in Grundstrom at the time of the deal: his strong-on-the-corners style fits into the Kings’ mold, while also giving them some goal scoring upside.
So far we’re seeing that come to fruition as Grundstrom has two goals in his first six NHL games. He’s earned a little time on the power play, is on the second line, and though the sample size is still very small, Los Angeles is getting a whopping 76.6 per cent of the high danger chances when he’s on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick. Things are happening offensively for Los Angeles when Grundstrom is out there and he’s provided a bit of a shot in the arm. Only two full-time Kings forwards are above 50 per cent in high danger chances this season.
Skater xG rates
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) March 20, 2019
MICHAEL MCLEOD AND JOHN QUENNEVILLE, NEW JERSEY DEVILS
A couple of recent Devils first-round picks are trying to show why they should be full-timers next October with some late-season opportunity for the injury-riddled team.
The more urgent of the two might be Quenneville, who was the 30th overall pick in the 2014 draft and had already seen 14 NHL games in second-half call-ups the past two seasons. By per game averages, his AHL production has been pretty good and he approached a point per game this season, but that hasn’t yet translated into NHL numbers. He’s actually had three different call-ups this season for a combined 18 games and finally scored his first of the season Wednesday in his hometown of Edmonton.
McLeod is the more highly touted prospect, going 12th overall in 2016, but so far the reviews have been mixed. Mostly used in the bottom-six, McLeod’s on-ice numbers haven’t been all that impressive, as the Devils have gotten just 40.5 per cent of the 5-on-5 scoring chances when he’s on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick. But he has also been a little unlucky as his team has converted on only 1.54 per cent of their shots when he’s on the ice. This is a factor as to why he’s been quiet on the score sheet, with just one assist posted in his 18 games so far.
The Devils are absolutely hammered by injuries right now, which has opened up room for McLeod to get a look. If the team wants only to use him as a centre it might be hard for him to crack next season’s roster that should feature Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha and Travis Zajac down the middle. It might be better to keep McLeod in the AHL for a second full season first.
ERIK BRANNSTROM AND VITALI ABRAMOV, OTTAWA SENATORS
These were the two big prospects picked up by the Senators at the deadline and though Abramov is more of a project with a good base of skills they hope will lead to NHL production, Brannstrom is the blue chip, can’t-miss player. If he whiffs, Ottawa’s whole rebuild plan will take a big hit.
“To win a Stanley Cup, I believe you have to have four or five superstar types all around the same young age — in their mid-20s, at the most — and a very, very hot top-flight goalie,” owner Eugene Melnyk said Thursday on the FAN 590 in Toronto.
The Senators are banking on Brannstrom being one of those four or five players and, along with Thomas Chabot, is a good start to what looks like a dynamic top of the defence corps down the road. Brannstrom’s been up and down twice with the Senators already, but doesn’t have a point yet in two games. The 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Brannstrom may be a top 10 pick if it was conducted again.
Abramov had a very successful junior career in the QMJHL, winning rookie of the year in his first season and being named MVP in his second. But there’s a reason he slipped to the third round of the NHL Draft. Not only is he on the small side at five-foot-nine, 172 pounds, his skating has been a bit of a weakness at the pro level and something that needs to improve. But since he played most of his junior career right in Ottawa’s backyard in Gatineau, GM Pierre Dorion should know the player rather well. He got into his first game Thursday night and was minus-3 against Calgary in 13:52 of ice.
PHILIPPE MYERS, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Myers was never drafted and actually went to Calgary for a tryout, but was let go by the team without a contract. The Philadelphia Flyers saw something worth investing in, though, and he became mainstream among Canadian hockey fans in 2016 when he cracked the WJC roster. A big, lanky defenceman, Myers could be yet another exciting young blue-liner on a team that already boasts Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim, who himself has taken a critical step up in 2018-19.
Flyers interim coach Scott Gordon knows Myers well because the two were together in AHL Lehigh before Dave Hakstol was fired earlier in the season and Gordon was moved up. It’s yet to be determined if Gordon will return to the same NHL job next season, but he’s seen the growth in Myers’ game.
“I would say, by the middle of November, I felt like Phil was ready to play up here in Philly and would do a good job,” Gordon told NHL.com. “He just had to wait for his opportunity, but I felt pretty confident. The consistency in terms of the things we worked on his first year was definitely at that next level to where I thought he’d be ready when the call came.”
TEDDY BLUEGER, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
The Penguins are always looking for cheap contributors to complement their big players, and GM Jim Rutherford has made various attempts over the past two years to acquire a third line centre — from Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard last season, to Jared McCann this season. The latest to get a shot in that role is Blueger, a second-rounder from the 2012 draft who’s just now getting his opportunity.
He’s had a couple call-ups this season and has shown well across 21 games, recording four goals and seven points. The Penguins have scored 61 per cent of the 5-on-5 goals when he’s been on the ice and he seems to have some chemistry with Phil Kessel over the brief period they’ve shared a line. If that continues, Blueger would be a good bet to crack the team out of camp next fall.