I have to admit that I don’t follow the progress of non-NHL players the way I did in the past. There was a time when there wasn’t a player who entered the league whose name I didn’t at least hear along the way. But with a 31, soon to be 32-team league, there are a handful of players who come into the league every season that leave me saying, “Who the heck is this guy?” That’s when I go to our prospect guru Ryan Kennedy and resident hockey nerd Matt Larkin. If they’re left scratching their heads, I’m onto something.
And here are a half dozen players who fall into that category this season:
Ilya Lyubushkin, Arizona: The 24-year-old defenseman who signed a one-year contract this summer found a spot on the Coyotes blueline when Jakub Chychrun went down with an injury training in the off-season. But there is reason to believe that Lyubshkin will still have a spot on the Coyotes’ roster once Chychrun returns. He brings a physical element that the Coyotes are lacking. The Coyotes haven’t scored a goal in their first two games this season and it’s unlikely Lyubshkin will contribute many, but he is adjusting well to the increased pace and the small ice.
Little-known fact: Lyubushkin had four assists for Russia at the 2014 World Junior Championship, which tied him for the lead among defensemen in that category.
Sheldon Dries, Colorado: With Sven Andrighetto and Vladislav Kamenev on injury reserve to start the season, they’re carrying only 12 forwards, which makes Dries’ ascension to the lineup all the more impressive. The undersized center who signed with the Avalanche as a free agent in the off-season won a spot in the lineup after playing on an American League deal for the Texas Stars last season. Dries went undrafted and played four years at Western Michigan University, three of which he was the captain. Dries opened the eyes of NHL scouts with his 2017-18 season in the AHL, which was capped by a 10-goal performance in the playoffs to lead the Texans to the league final.
Little known fact: Despite being 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Dries had back-to-back 100 penalty minute seasons in the USHL.
Libor Sulak, Detroit: The Red Wings made it abundantly clear that there were jobs to be taken on their roster and one of them went to the 24-year-old Sulak, who took advantage of a blueline that has been besieged by injuries to regulars Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley. Sulak played two games with the Grand Rapids Griffins late last season and impressed with his shot and puck-moving ability. He also had an impressive World Championship for the Czech Republic. He might not be around when the Red Wings get all their regular defensemen back, but one of the pleasant surprises for the Red Wings early is that a good number of their young kids, including Sulak, can play at the NHL level.
Little known fact: Sulak was on loan to the Pelicans of the Finnish League last season and finished second among defensemen in goals with nine.
Jacob MacDonald, Florida: Perhaps this report of Jacob MacDonald’s signing with the Florida Panthers over the summer best summed up his and Paul Thompson’s chances of being in the Panthers’ opening night lineup (please ignore the bad syntax): “After a horrific year in the AHL last season, Panthers GM Dale Tallon has added two pieces to the Springfield Thunderbirds roster…” Not only was MacDonald in the opening night lineup for the Panthers, he scored the first goal of his career. Not that he’s a stranger to creating offense, since he led all defensemen in goals (20) and points (55) on an AHL contract with the Binghamton Devils last season. After a four-year career at Cornell University, MacDonald worked his way from the ECHL, through the AHL and into the best league in the world.
Little-known fact: MacDonald was on both the ECHL’s all-rookie team (in 2014-15) and the AHL’s first all-star team (in 2017-18).
Mikhail Vorobyev, Philadelphia: Perhaps not a complete unknown, Vorobyev was actually drafted by the Flyers and had a fairly decent season with their LeHigh Valley farm team in 2017-18. He followed that up with a long and serious look in training camp, where he played in seven of the Flyers’ eight pre-season games and picked up two goals and five points and beating out Jordan Weal for the third-line center spot. He earned an assist in his NHL debut, then scored his first goal in his second game. A heads-up player with good vision and hockey sense, Vorobyev was the Flyers’ last cut in training camp last season.
Little-known fact: Vorobyev led all players in assists at the 2017 World Junior Championship in leading the Russians to a bronze medal.
Antti Suomela, San Jose: The Sharks signed the 24-year-old as a free agent after Suomela exploded for 21 goals and 60 points to lead the Finnish League in scoring last season. About a dozen teams expressed interest in Suomela, but he opted to sign with the Sharks on a one-year entry-level contract. Suomela was apparently championed in the organization by scout Shin Larsson, the same man who convinced the Sharks to draft Joonas Donskoi in 2010. Suomela has performance bonuses in his contract that could bump his $925,000 base salary to as high as $1.35 million.
Little-known fact: Suomela was the only player in the Finnish League to play more than 40 games a score at better than a point per game last season.