Where did the summer go? How many times have you turned to your significant other, work associate, or close friend and lamented the end of the season?
There is a silver lining though! I would argue the month of September is one of the most dynamic months on the sports calendar. Consider the Toronto Blue Jays are in the playoff hunt. American college football is already entering week three. For golf fans (like me!) the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup will be contested in the coming weeks. Canada’s men’s national Basketball team defeated Team USA to win bronze at the World Cup. And, of course, the NFL has concluded week one.
Which brings me to the NHL, where teams are preparing for the start of their rookie camps and tournaments.
This year, Penticton, B.C, is hosting rookies from the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks starting Friday. Meantime, the Buffalo Sabres are hosting the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins.
I will be attending prospect games in Traverse City, MI., where the Detroit Red Wings are hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Dallas Stars.
Rookie tournaments provide immense value. They give teams an opportunity to see how their prospects are trending and some of these players will be attending their first training camp. Others have already spent a year developing in the AHL or ECHL.
In most cases, prospects attended summer development camp in July. At those exit interviews the players would have received “homework” for the summer, identifying areas of improvement that they should pay attention to in the build up to training camp. Examples include, adding more core strength, working on their skating for more explosiveness and smoother edge work, and directing pucks on net quickly and accurately. Goalies might be tasked with working on their lateral push, tracking, and overall crease composure.
When they return to these prospect camps in September, it doesn’t take long to recognize the players who have been the most dedicated to their craft in the off-season.
All the players in rookie games have one goal in mind: to earn a promotion to “main camp” with the NHL roster.
It sounds simple enough, perform at a high level and you should be provided an opportunity. But the NHL is flush with different strategies. Off-season turnover within organizations can include new team presidents, GMs or an overhauled coaching staff, and every team has their own unique approach to how many players they want at their main training camp. Some might be eager to set a new tone with their group, while other might prefer a smaller camp that brings their core group together more quickly.
With all of this in mind, here are some of the prospects I’m looking forward to viewing this weekend in Traverse City:
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Adam Fantilli, 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, left shot forward
Third overall pick in 2023
The third overall selection from the most recent draft, Fantilli elected to turn pro after his freshman season at the University of Michigan. He’s an uber-competitive play driver. I’m interested to see how his combination of size, speed, and skill impact games at this event. Fantilli has the hockey IQ to be deployed in a variety of roles up and down the lineup. Last year he scored 30 goals and 36 assists at Michigan, but also provided Team Canada with some responsible checking minutes in a depth role at the World Junior Championship.
Dmitri Voronkov, 6-foot-4, 194 pounds, left shot forward
114th overall in 2019
I’m keen on the upside Voronkov brings to the Blue Jackets organization, four years after they used a fourth-round pick to get him.
Voronkov has been developing in the KHL and producing offence at even strength and on the power play. He plays the middle and has proven to be an average-plus defender in his zone and capable in the face-off circle. He’s difficult to defend and a decent threat off the rush offensively. His size and length give opponents all they can handle along the wall and out front the net.
Here’s a clip of one of his goals from last season, playing for AK Bars Kazan:
Other notable Blue Jackets prospects:
Columbus has been building through the draft. Some of their other high-end prospects suiting up in Traverse City include right shot defenceman David Jiricek (sixth overall 2022) and left shot defender Denton Mateychuk (12th overall 2022).
DETROIT RED WINGS
Nate Danielson, 6-foot-2, 187 pounds, right shot forward
Ninth overall in 2023
Danielson will be skating in his first pro camp after being selected ninth overall in Nashville and scoring 33 goals and 45 assists for the Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL) last season. I appreciate his effort in all three zones. Like Fantilli, Danielson can be deployed in a variety of roles and trusted to give maximum effort. The Red Wings are bringing a big and strong forward group to Traverse City, so I’m interested to see how much Danielson benefits from the extra space that’s created by his linemates.
Marco Kasper, 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, left shot forward
Eighth overall in 2022
Kasper came to North America at the end of his SHL season in 2022-23, where he played for Rogle. His offensive output increased marginally last year. Kasper is a responsible forward who can play the middle and the wing. He’s involved in the heavy lifting and isn’t shy about driving to the crease. I’m looking for him to define his game in Traverse City and give me an idea of his offensive upside.
Other notable Red Wings prospects:
Rookie games, and exhibition games in general, tend to range in defensive detail. Goalies are sometimes hung out to dry as new teammates learn systems. Sebastian Cossa is a massive goaltending prospect for Detroit, standing 6-foot-6 and 209 pounds. He spent most of his first-year pro season playing for the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL in 2022-23 and we’re looking for growth.
One of the biggest forward prospects in all of hockey will be suiting up for the Wings at this event. Elmer Soderblom was selected in the sixth round of the 2019 draft by Detroit and stands a staggering 6-foot-8, 248 pounds. Soderblom is still developing, but he got off to a nice start last season, scoring five goals and three assists in 21 NHL games and the same totals in 20 AHL games.
Logan Stankoven, 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, right shot forward
47th overall in 2021
To have an impact at the NHL level, skaters with Stankoven’s stature have to play with relentless compete, speed, tenacity, and skill. Stankoven is a proven scorer who has been used in all situations at the major junior level (WHL Kamloops) and with Team Canada at the WJC. He has a tool box that projects an NHLer who can play up and down the lineup. He’s a “big game” player who produced 10 goals and 20 assists in 14 playoff games last spring for Kamloops. It will be interesting to see how he impacts games this week.
Lian Bichsel, 6-foot-5, 216 pounds, left shot defenceman
18th overall in 2022
The Stars’ first round pick in 2022 is making the move to North America this season, coming from Leksands in Sweden. He’s a huge human, rangy, and he takes up a ton of space with his length and reach. He’s also not shy about the physical side of the game. Bichsel, in my opinion, has more to give offensively because he’s capable with the puck and moves well for a big man. Time will tell, as he adjusts to the smaller ice in North America.
Other notable Stars prospects:
The Stars’ first round pick in 2020, Mavrik Bourque, contributed at the AHL level with the Texas Stars last season (scoring 20 goals and 27 assists). Is he ready to challenge for an NHL roster spot? A productive tournament in Traverse City could provide him confidence heading into main camp with Dallas.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Dennis Hildeby, 6-foot-6, 234 pounds, left catch goalie
122nd overall in 2022
The Leafs selected Hildeby in the fourth round at the 2022 draft in Montreal, but he’s an older prospect who turned 22 in August. The obvious thing that stands out is his stature. Hildeby is a giant in the net. He came to North America at the end of his SHL season in Sweden last year and posted a 5.28 GAA and .849 save percentage in two games with the AHL Marlies. He only started 21 games for Farjestad before that, though, so ideally he would have played more games last season.
A still-developing prospect who will be tested on the smaller ice in North America, Hildeby’s lateral tracking has improved year over year and he appears quicker in all areas of his game. There is room in the Leafs’ pipeline for another in-house goalie prospect. It will be interesting to see how prepared Hildeby is for a full year in North America.
Easton Cowan, 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, left shot forward
28th overall in 2023
Toronto’s most recent first-rounder had a very productive second half last season and earned the trust of London Knights head coach Dale Hunter. Cowan produced nine goals and 12 assists in 20 playoff games. He plays with some sandpaper and ventures to the hard areas of the ice (along the wall and the deep slot/crease) to find pucks and create a distraction. He will be tested physically at his first rookie camp.
Other notable Leafs prospects:
Topi Niemela was selected by the Leafs in the third round of the 2020 draft and it’s safe to say Toronto is eager to see how prepared he is for rookie games and main camp. Ideally, he will push some veteran players in the coming weeks. Niemela’s offence fell off significantly last season (0.31 points per game compared to 0.66 the previous season). He’s a 5-foot-11, 170-pound defenceman who leans two-way/transitional defenceman on projection. I’m looking for him to establish himself on the power play in Traverse City.
Matthew Knies had a cup of coffee at the NHL level last spring and didn’t look out of place in the playoffs. There’s little doubt the Leafs are looking for Knies to establish himself early at training camp. I’m expecting Knies to assert himself physically and impact the games offensively at the tournament.
WHO WILL SURPRISE AND STEP UP?
There’s always a player or two who stands out positively and negatively at rookie tournaments. Last year I went to the rookie tournament in Buffalo and was impressed with how Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj asserted himself and played with physical presence.
Here’s my report on Xhekaj coming out of that event:
“A big, strong, physical defenceman who played with a presence. Leans two-way/shutdown/match-up defenceman on projection. Outlets well on his forehand side. Backhand puck play has room for improvement, especially under duress. As he matures, at the pro level, he will have to continue to identify his options and move pucks more quickly and efficiently. A throwback. Never backs down from a challenge. Gaps up with authority. Likely a bottom pairing NHL “D” when he hits his peak. Movement and IQ to be used at even strength and the penalty kill.”
I’m anxious to see who elevates their game and makes a statement this weekend in Traverse City. Stay tuned for further scouting reports from the event.