Young unheralded NHL prospects coming to crossroads of their pro careers

PENTICTON, B.C. – Justice Dundas is heading towards the end of the tunnel, but it remains to be seen whether there is a light.

The 19-year-old Richmond Hill, Ont., native is among many NHL prospects who have come to the Young Stars Classic tournament. But unlike many players here, he was not drafted and has no guarantee of a contract as he plays for a San Jose Sharks prospects squad against Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets hopefuls.

“Obviously, it’s getting to that time,” he said after a morning workout Friday. “My junior career is coming to the end, so this is really crunch time, trying to get a contract and, hopefully, get on to the next level. That’s my goal for the next two years. Hopefully, something works out.”

Dundas, a winger who finished up last season with the Oshawa Generals and expects to return to the OHL in the upcoming campaign, is among a number of young players at this tournament who are approaching the crossroads of their careers.

In his case, Dundas must find a new hockey home after his junior eligibility expires at the end of 2014-15. He will be 20 then and too old for junior.

“It keeps me on my toes and gets me going, definitely, because I have more to prove than some guys who have been drafted,” he said. He hopes reach the top again, like he did after he was chosen in the 12th round of the OHL draft by the Sarnia Sting and stuck before he was traded to Oshawa last season.

“It’s always tough,” said Dundas, an energy-line winger who produced nine points last season. “You don’t have that much time left in junior. I’ve just got to keep working hard and, hopefully, I’ll get a contract.”

Cain Franson, a 20-year-old winger who is on an amateur tryout with the Vancouver Canucks here, is taking the same approach. Unlike his older brother Cody, who plays defence for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the younger Franson was overlooked in the NHL draft. The Sicamous, B.C., native hopes to make a final impression before he heads back to the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, presumably, for his final year of junior.

“Everybody’s paths are different, and mine has been a little bit of a different path so far,” he said. “I think it’s going to make me a better player at the end of the day.”

Undrafted junior players are not the only ones here nearing the crossroads. Others who have been drafted and toiled in the minors or Europe are attempting to keep their pro careers alive as they face the end of entry-level NHL contracts and clubs, under increasing pressure to develop talent quickly, evaluate a new crop of draftees.

According to Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman, teams have a balancing act as they seek players who can help them win now and prepare for the future.

“Young players are the lifeblood of an organization now,” said Gilman. “And with the salary cap, it’s extremely important that you acquire good ones and you develop them as quickly as possible and get them into the lineup because, in essence, they serve as the indentured servants that allow you to provide cheap labour into your group as you deal with the organic things that happen in a player’s career—like salary arbitration, impending free agency where’s a player’s salary begins to rise dramatically.”

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Gilman believes that top players will always find their way to the NHL, no matter where they come from or when they were drafted. He points to the examples of Canucks undrafted defenceman Chris Tanev, a Rochester Institute of Technology product who played in the Stanley Cup finals as a rookie.

Gilman also cites the likes of late Detroit Red Wings draftees Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who are now superstars.

“It’s a combination of their own individual development and the support that we can provide for them to maximize their skill set and their efficiency,” said Gilman, adding teams must be patient and provide as much as possible.

But Todd Nelson, coach of the Oilers prospects team and the bench boss for their AHL farm club in Oklahoma City, said teams like Edmonton and Calgary, which are in rebuilding processes, can’t afford to be as patient as a perennial contender like Detroit does.

Undrafted players will always have a bigger hill to climb to the NHL than drafted players, he said, because organizations have invested in the players they have selected. Meanwhile, minor-leaguers must prove themselves quickly because of reduced NHL rosters and other factors in the post-lockout era.

“The biggest thing about guys on entry-level contracts is, they have to make an impact in the American Hockey League.…First year is always a tough year for every player,” he said. “But your second year, you start turning the corner. In your third player, you should be an impact player if you want to graduate (to the NHL). If you’re not, you’re going to be a minor-leaguer.”

Andrew Miller, an undrafted player who earned a one-year contract with the Oilers, does not believe young hopefuls are in danger of going undetected if they play, no matter where they play.

“The NHL scouting is unbelievable,” said Miller, a centre who has always battled negative perceptions about limited size and was signed after four seasons at Yale. “They have scouts come to every game. I don’t think too often NHL players fall through the cracks.…The best players rise to the top, no matter where that is. If you can prove yourself, you’ll get an opportunity to play.”

Despite the economic challenges in today’s NHL, he believes it is always up to the player to get the most out of himself.

“It’s all based on yourself and what you do for yourself and how you play,” he said.