As NHL training camp nears, rookie prospect games are being played at hockey rinks. With the return of Fall on deck, summer will give way to autumn. That means the end of baseball for both the Yankees and Mets. Yes. I have given up on the Yankees. It also means we get to be tormented by the Jets and Giants. It’s gonna be a long NFL season.
The good news is hockey is coming back. It’ll be starting a bit later, but camps are upcoming along with the batch of six to seven preseason games. Two too many for my taste. Fantasy Hockey Leagues return with drafts. I’m in a keeper league. I look pretty set on my five players. The draft will come before the new season begins. Online like most these days.
The real excitement around this time for fans is being able to keep track of their team’s top prospects in these Rookie Prospect Tournaments. For example, the Devils competed in a three team one hosted by the Sabres at their practice facility. The Bruins were also in it. So, Devil fans got an early glance at young players including Dawson Mercer, Alexander Holtz, Kevin Bahl and Nolan Foote. I believe they split the pair.
While that took place, the Rangers got to see a few of their younger players in a two-game series hosted by the Flyers over the weekend. After losing the first game 6-3 to a good Philadelphia roster that features Cam York, Tyson Foerster, Morgan Frost, Wade Allison and Samuel Ersson, the Rangers team bounced back on Sunday with a 3-2 win to gain a split. After playing ’19-20 for the Flint Firebirds
Among the notables who played for the Kid Blueshirts were Zac Jones, Morgan Barron, Tarmo Reunanen, Nils Lundkvist, Will Cuylle, Lauri Pajuniemi, Dylan Garand, Matthew Robertson, Braden Schneider and recent first round pick Brennan Othmann. Following a loss in which both Barron and the underrated Pajuniemi scored, it was some of those key players who contributed to the one-goal win yesterday at the Flyers practice facility in Voorhes, New Jersey.
In a good comeback, the Rangers’ rookie prospects used a pair of power play goals from Cuylle to respond. A gritty forward who got into a few games for the Wolf Pack during a COVID shortened AHL season, he tipped in both of his goals off good low shots from Jones. Jones stood out as the team’s best player in the game. He was very noticeable throughout and superb running the point on the power play. He tallied two assists.
Another Blueshirt who had a strong game was goalie Dylan Garand. He came on in the second half of the game. When the Flyers made a push at even strength, Garand was there to make some big saves to prevent them from getting on the scoreboard. He’s kind of the forgotten guy in the team’s system. A fourth round pick selected 103rd in the 2020 NHL Draft by the Rangers, the 19-year old from Victoria, British Columbia spent 18 games in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Kamloops Blazers where he posted a 15-3-0 record with a 2.15 GAA, .921 save percentage and three shutouts. Garand also got into two games for Hartford prior. It had to help his development. Obviously, with Igor Shesterkin the top guy in the Big Apple with Alex Georgiev backing up, there’s plenty of time for Garand to continue to develop.
In the third period of a tie hockey game thanks to the two Cuylle power play goals that brought them back following a two-goal Flyers first period, Nils Lundkvist made headlines when he picked a good time to get his first goal. On a Flyers’ defensive breakdown, he took a feed, skated in and ripped a wrist shot from 20 feet past the Philadelphia goalie for the go-ahead tally. It held up as the winner. Obviously, Lundkvist is the favorite to grab the third spot on the right side behind Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba. He’s here to provide the offense Tony DeAngelo once did which can aid Fox. A good skater with skill, Lundkvist produced well back home in Sweden. Now, his job is to make the Rangers out of camp. If he can, he’ll provide another good skating D who can quickly transition from defense to offense. He could also play power play. It was a nice introduction.
Other players who looked good were Reunanen and recent first round pick Othmann. The latter definitely was effective on the power play where he was featured at the right circle as a trigger. Obviously, he’ll go back to juniors and get more experience in what hopefully will be a more normal season up north. After playing ’19-20 with the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), he spent ’21 in the Swiss League where he put up seven goals and nine assists for 16 points with 64 penalty minutes in 34 games for Olten EHC. That was enough for the Rangers to take him. I’ll be curious to see if he stays long enough to take part in a preseason game.
The only reason for preseason is to see the younger prospects who could be part of the future. That’s the excitement. Of course, the more established NHL players need three games to get into game shape. The only thing you worry about are injuries. You want a healthy NHL roster entering a new season. Especially with it expected to be a full 82-game schedule. The fun starts on October 13.
Congratulations to Travis Zajac on an outstanding NHL career. To think the Devils took him right after the Rangers moved up to take Lauri Korpikoski. The thing is Korpikoski was a solid NHL player who became a good checking forward that was effective on the penalty kill. The Rangers weren’t very patient with him. The Devils were rewarded after Zajac spent some time at North Dakota, which also produced former Devil Zach Parise. He left the Wild for the Islanders, who also will have Zdeno Chara back where he started before a misguided Mike Milbury dealt him away along with the first round pick that became Jason Spezza for Alexei Yashin. Bill Muckalt was also in the trade.
Zajac spent almost his whole career in New Jersey. He once centered the ZZ Pop Line that featured Parise, him and Jamie Langenbrunner. It was a productive line. Eventually, Zajac became a two-way center who could go up against top scoring lines and kill penalties. He also was solid in the face-off circle. He got one more crack at the playoffs when Lou Lamoriello acquired him to help the Islanders make a second consecutive appearance in the Final Four. But in the rematch, they lost to the Lightning in seven games. Tampa repeated. Their toughest challenge were those Isles.
In a nice touch, the Devils signed Zajac to a one-day contract so he could retire a New Jersey Devil. Please refer to Hasan’s piece on Zajac for more on a good player who for a long time, didn’t miss many games. He appeared in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final they lost to the Kings. Good luck to him in retirement.