NHL Training camps have opened up and there are many up-and-coming American prospects competing for roster spots. Some are taking part in their first pro camps, while others are looking to build upon previous experience in an effort to improve their standing within an organization. It’s tense times for some, but for others it’s just a chance to gain a little experience before heading back to Junior or the AHL.
This year’s crop of American prospects is pretty deep and distinguished. Find out which players I’ll be watching closely throughout this intriguing preseason…
Craig Smith — Nashville Predators — There might be no American prospect that will receive more attention this off-season than Smith. After his brilliant performance with the U.S. Men’s National Team at the IIHF World Championship, the buzz around Smith grew. Then a six-goal performance at the prospect tourney in Florida brought on a frenzy. Smith had to be coaxed away from going back to Wisconsin by Nashville after initially deciding to go back to Madison for his Junior campaign. There is little doubt that Smith will be a Predator when the NHL regular season begins. Hard to believe he was passed over twice in the NHL Draft before the Preds took a stab with a fourth-round choice in 2009. Friend of the blog, Corey Pronman ranked Smith at No. 51 on his Top 100 NHL Prospects list for Hockey Prospectus.
Kyle Palmieri — Anaheim Ducks — The 2009 first-round pick will likely be given a shot to make the Ducks opening-night roster. A former standout for the National Team Development Program and University of Notre Dame, Palmieri played most of last year with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in Portland, where he posted an impressive 51 points in 62 games. Palmieri got in 11 games including one playoff contest with the big club in 2010-11. Pronman ranked Palmieri 50th among his Top 100. Despite Teemu Selanne’s return to the Ducks, there are still a few open roster spots Palmieri could grab.
Jeremy Morin — Chicago Blackhawks — With his natural goal-scoring ability and improved skating, Morin is perhaps one of the best American prospects in the game right now. In fact, Pronman listed him at No. 31, second highest among all Americans (Jon Merrill is first at No. 28). However, the reason to watch Morin has very little to do with his ability and everything to do with his health. On Saturday, Morin practiced for the first time since sustaining a concussion in January, however has not been cleared for contact. Losing that much time can’t help development, but Morin sure looked like an NHLer in his nine games with the Blackhawks in the first half of last season. With his setback, it is likely he’ll end up in Rockford to start the season but would probably be tops on the list of players to call up, as long as he’s at full strength.
Emerson Etem — Anaheim Ducks — Etem will probably get a long look in camp, but it is likely he’ll head back to the Medicine Hat Tigers for 2011-12. Despite that assumption, Etem will have an opportunity to boost his already high expectations after an 80-point campaign in the Hat last season. As a candidate for the 2012 U.S. National Junior Team, the folks at USA Hockey probably wouldn’t mind seeing him in a Tigers uniform come October. Pronman listed Etem at No. 75 on his Top 100 prospects list.
Justin Faulk — Carolina Hurricanes — After signing a pro contract after just one season of college hockey, Faulk has continually turned heads. It will be tough, but the defenseman that helped Minnesota Duluth win its first national title has a great shot at cracking the opening night lineup for the Canes. GM Jim Rutherford told NHL.com’s Mike Morreale that Faulk has an “outside shot” at making the roster. The thing about Faulk, though, is that he just keeps surpassing expectations. He was part of the vaunted NTDP D corps that included first rounders Jarred Tinordi and Derek Forbort, and second rounders Jon Merrill, Adam Clendening and Stephen Johns, which led to Faulk getting overlooked a bit. The Canes surprised people by selecting Faulk 37th overall in 2010, but the defenseman has continually proven that Carolina made a savvy call. Should Faulk make the Canes roster out of camp, it could be a big blow to the 2012 U.S. National Junior Team. If he’s not available for the WJC, it’s a definite void on what could be a superb defensive unit for Dean Blais. Pronman listed Faulk at No. 72.
Andy Miele — Phoenix Coyotes — After capturing the Hobey Baker as college hockey’s best player, Miele was a hot commodity. His utterly ridiculous 71-point campaign for Miami University made him a sought after free agent and Phoenix won the bidding war. The Yotes are obviously high on Miele and with some available roster spots, it’s likely he’s on the big club to start the season. Though he lacks size, he’s got a great motor and appears to be ready for the pro game. Pronman lists him as No. 95 on the Top 100. How he adapts to the NHL will be interesting to watch and it all starts this preseason.
Jake Gardiner — Toronto Maple Leafs — Gardiner was a point-per-game defenseman at the University of Wisconsin last year, which was good enough for Toronto to get him under contract after his junior campaign. In fact, the Leafs traded for the youngster. As a former first rounder of the Anaheim Ducks, there’s no doubt Gardiner has the talent. Everyone marvels at his skating, which is essentially pro-ready. However, since it’s first NHL camp, it’s going to be interesting to watch Gardiner and how he handles the physical aspects, which is where many feel he needs work. More than likely, he’ll spend a year with the Marlies in the AHL, but he’s not terribly far off. Pronman listed Gardiner at No. 87 on his list.
Others of note:
John Moore — Columbus Blue Jackets — Like any first-round pick, Moore is a highly-anticipated player for the Jackets fan base. Moore had a two-game cup of coffee with Columbus last year to get a feel for the NHL game. It’s uncertain whether or not he is part of the plans for this season and more likely is headed back to the AHL. However, as a first-rounder he’s going to get plenty of time to prove his readiness in camp. Pronman listed him at No. 56 on his Top 100.
Mark Mitera — Montreal Canadiens — Though his development was derailed by a devastating knee injury during his senior year at Michigan, Mitera is a former Ducks first rounder that may not have lived up to potential, but has maintained a solid game. He has the chops to be an NHL defenseman with great size and strength, but will there be a spot available for him on the Habs blue line? If there is, he’s got a chance to be there.
Tyler Johnson — Tampa Bay Lightning — After going undrafted, Johnson signed with Tampa in the off-season after a truly remarkable four-year run with the Spokane Chiefs. Last year, he posted 115 points. Dogged by concerns about his size, Johnson has continually proven he has the talent and the work ethic to make something of himself in this game. He’s aged out of the WHL, but the Lightning were smart to snap him up and get him in their pipeline. He’ll have a great chance to test himself in his first camp under contract.
Jack Campbell — Dallas Stars — The Stars have expressed Campbell is heading back to Windsor, but he has a chance to gain some confidence in training camp. Campbell struggled during the Traverse City prospects tournament, as he did last season. As a first-round goalie, he will be scrutinized for much of his career, but can get some positive momentum for his 20-year-old season, with a good showing in pro camp. Pronman listed Campbell as his No. 3 goalie prospect.
Aaron Ness — New York Islanders — There were many an eyebrow raised when Ness signed a pro contract with the Islanders upon the conclusion of his junior season with the University of Minnesota. Many wondered if he was ready for the pro game, including me. Most of us are still wondering. He won’t be cracking the Islanders lineup this year, maybe not even next, but this is his first NHL camp and it will be interesting to see where his game is at after a 13-game stint in the AHL and a full off-season under his belt to bulk up.