At long last, our national nightmare is over.
While I’m one to prefer the major junior and collegiate side of the game compared to the professional ranks, I have to admit it’s certainly nice to see that the NHL will be resuming play Saturday night.
Although questions do remain about what the impact will be in certain non-traditional hockey markets over yet another work stoppage, I think it’s safe to say that most everybody is ready to welcome the biggest names in the sport back to the ice with open arms.
Plus, there already are a bunch of storylines prior the season getting underway, with most of them seemingly involving the continuing three-ring circus that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
However, what I’m most excited about as the games get underway this weekend is the amount of exciting young talent that will have a chance to make a major impact over the shortened 48-game schedule.
Now perhaps it’s because I follow the other levels of hockey a lot more than I had in the past, but I can’t recall seeing the amount of potential future stars that can be a force in the NHL, not just now but in the years to come.
One of those players who already has made his presence felt in the N.Y. Rangers’ lineup is former Boston College star forward Chris Kreider—expected by many to carry over his stellar post-season play into his first full year in the show.
Then there’s the case of Brandon Saad, who surprised many in 2011 by making the Chicago Blackhawks out of training camp despite being a second-round pick.
After just two games, Saad returned to the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, where he put up 76 points in 44 games and often looked like a men amongst boys in the major junior ranks.
Although it’s probably unlikely that Saad will be able to make it on a talented Blackhawks’ roster this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Kreider a year ago, he makes his presence felt come playoff time.
While the hype around those two players is pretty big when it comes to those who follow the prospect side of things, both Saad and Kreider have nothing on Edmonton Oilers’ blueliner Justin Schultz.
Having spurned a contract offer by the team that drafted him (the Anaheim Ducks) while he played collegiately for the University of Wisconsin, the Oilers were able to sign the defenceman back in June in a much-ballyhooed sweepstakes.
While many did think that Schultz was talented, not many could have expected him to actually lead the AHL in scoring for most of the year with the Oklahoma City Barons, where he had 48 points in 34 games prior to the end of the lockout.
And now that he’s on a Oilers’ team that features Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who he played with during the lockout in the AHL), one only can imagine what he might be able to do in the years to come.
Speaking of the Oilers, I can’t go any further without mentioning my favourite prospect in all of hockey, Nail Yakupov.
If you’ve read this column over the last two years, or have stumbled across my ramblings on Twitter, you probably already are aware of my continuing high praise of the Russian forward who was drafted first overall by Edmonton last June.
It’s safe to say that I’ve never been more excited to see a first-year player enter the NHL since when my favourite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin enter the big leagues in back-to-back seasons.
However, Yakupov actually is not my pick to win the Calder Trophy this season, which is awarded to the NHL’s top rookie. That honour, in my opinion, will go to another talented Russian forward in St. Louis Blues’ forward Vladimir Tarasenko.
The 21-year-old right-winger played in the KHL for the last two seasons—and put up solid numbers against players who were much older than him.
But what impressed me most was his play at the 2011 world juniors in Buffalo, where he had 11 points in seven games and was a key part in Russia’s comeback victory over Canada in the gold-medal game.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I easily fall for any Russian player, but Tarasenko’s skill and style of play impressed me all tournament long and I really think he’ll be a force in years to come.
When I think about it, I probably could go on and on about many of the future stars that are about to make it to the big leagues, with players like Alex Galchenyuk and Mikael Granlund coming to mind.
And heck, I haven’t even had a chance to discuss the fact that a friend and I soon will be starting campaigns for the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators to “free” their top goaltending prospects in Jacob Markstrom and Robin Lehner.
However, when it comes down to it, there is a chance that most of the top prospects in the game today will never live up to the hype that surrounds them.
As baseball writer Jason Parks aptly says in his online column, “Prospects Will Break Your Heart.”
At long last, our national nightmare is over.