A year ago I wrote a training camp blog about five players I was eager to watch try and make their teams. Not necessarily because there were great, untold stories behind any of them, but because my fantasy pool team needed at least one of them to graduate.
Well, here we are 369 days later and there’s a new batch of NHL hopefuls I’m looking to for the future of my franchise. Our league, the CEHL, is full of friendly and furious rivalries, and the winner is awarded the Smitty Cup – an imaginary chalice with very real competition. I’m still quite a long way from winning that bit of bragging ammunition, but if two of the players on this year’s list can graduate again – like Jonathan Ericsson and Michel Frolik did last season – then my competition better brace themselves in the near future…though I’m sure they will tell you otherwise.
Anssi Salmela, Atlanta
If this 25-year-old offensive rearguard doesn’t make Atlanta out of camp I’ll be shocked. The Devils brought Salmela to North America last season and he played 17 games with them, but spent most of his time in the American League.
After scoring 24 points in 38 games with Lowell, the Devils used him as a trade chit to acquire Niclas Havelid for a playoff run. Salmela went to Atlanta to round out an emerging defense corps and registered three points in nine games. He may only play on the third pairing and second power play unit, but he’ll be given an opportunity to show what he’s made of.
Michal Neuvirth, Washington
One of the more interesting training camp goalie battles will have a long-term effect on Alex Ovechkin’s team. Jose Theodore is the 33-year-old veteran with a $4.5 million cap hit for one more season; Semyon Varlamov is the rookie sensation and playoff savior from a season ago who has Caps fans confident in a Cup run; and Neuvirth is a fresh-faced 21-year-old kid who won AHL playoff MVP honors last season.
It should make for some interesting theatre and even though Neuvirth’s a long shot to make, he has a chance.
Daniel Larsson, Detroit
The Wings have great Swedes at forward and defense, so how about in net? Larsson is a third-rounder from 2006 who made the trip to North America last season after playing two years with Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League.
He put up good numbers across the pond (2.29 GAA, .921 SP in his final season) and had a 2.76 GAA and .907 SP in 40 games for Grand Rapids, splitting time with Jimmy Howard. While the Wings wait to see if Howard can find a consistent game, they also brought in Dan Cloutier for a training camp tryout, so the odds of Larsson sticking this season appear slim.
However, if Larsson can at least be given an opportunity play as the undisputed No. 1 in Grand Rapids for a year it’ll be a step forward in his development at a time when another goalie, Thomas McCollum, is gradually making his way up the depth chart.
Brian Boyle, Rangers
He’s a huge project – literally and figuratively. The 6-foot-7, 244-pound former Los Angeles first round pick was dealt to Broadway on draft day for a third round selection, so that tells you how much the Kings’ evaluation of him dipped in the past year.
The Rangers aren’t exactly known for developing players and at this point Boyle is a long shot to make it, even though center Brandon Dubinsky is still unsigned. Power forwards notoriously take a longer time to develop into impact players and Boyle is about as powerful as you can get, so maybe there is still time for him.
The Kings liked him enough last season to give him an opportunity in 28 games, so perhaps the Rangers like him enough to give him the same chance.
Justin Azevedo, Los Angeles
He’s 5-foot-7 and his foot speed has been a concern. When you combine that drawback with the promising 36 points in 49 AHL games he posted last season, the first thought that comes to mind is “career minor-leaguer.” As the young, rebuilding Kings get more mature, there will be fewer and fewer spots available to this wave of prospects, so Azevedo’s window to show he has something special is about as large as he is.
But you never know, especially with the Kings, who granted opening day roster spots to rookies Oscar Moller and Wayne Simmonds last year – though no one is going to confuse those two with Azevedo.
It’d be a surprise if more than two on this list made the NHL out of camp this year, but without projects like these to keep an eye on, NHL training camps would be as exciting as an NFL pre-season game.
Wish me luck, folks.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.