Here we are, two weeks away from the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs and I can't stop thinking back six months to the biggest and best gathering of prospects in Traverse City, Mich.
Eight NHL teams (Atlanta, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, the Rangers, St. Louis and Tampa Bay) - and one somewhat naive production crew from the NHL Network - came together in this stunning tourist town for a week of intense competition and a preview of some of this year's top rookies.
As a network, it was our first exposure to this annual event that dates back about 10 years and also serves as a warmup act to the start of Red Wings’ training camp.
From a broadcasting standpoint, getting acclimated to rosters that feature anywhere from 40 to 90 players with many unfamiliar names was a challenge. The easy part was recognizing who had a legitimate shot of making the jump to their respective big club this season.
The unknown was how big of an impact any of them would really have.
In previous years the tournament has showcased the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk. History will show the 2008 event provided the locals and our viewing audience with the most formidable one-off gathering of future NHLers including Zach Bogosian, Jakub Voracek, James Neal, Cal Clutterbuck, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie.
To date, 19 players from this year’s Traverse Tournament have played at least a game in the NHL this year. As of Monday, five of those 19 were among the top 20 rookie scorers and four were in the top 11.
Bogosian will be an absolute force; Voracek is already responsible and productive; Neal trails only Bobby Ryan in rookie goals; Clutterbuck has set an NHL record for hits in a season; Berglund is the most prolific power play threat in this year's Calder class.
And then there's Oshie.
During one of our tournament broadcasts St. Louis’ president of hockey operations, John Davidson, joined us for an entire period to give us an overview of the organization’s prospects.
I'll never forget how passionate he was when describing Oshie, who was expected to make the Blues after three consistent, productive years at the University of North Dakota.
"He's tireless," said Davidson glowingly. "He just never stops working."
Well, here we are with less than two weeks to go in the regular season and the dogged Blues have worked their way through an unimaginable spate of injuries. They jumped from last place in their conference to having a very realistic shot at being the team neither San Jose nor Detroit would want to face in the first round of the post-season.
After a perfect week, capped off by a home and home sweep of the Blue Jackets, St. Louis goaltender Chris Mason shared his thoughts on the kid who is now a fan favorite at home and often reviled on the road.
"He doesn't stop working,” Mason told the Belleville News-Democrat about Oshie. “He's a prime example of what this team's all about. He never quits."
Something tells me Dustin Brown, Roberto Luongo and Rick Nash might say the same thing, only adding a few expletives if asked for an honest assessment of this emerging St. Louis star.
Late in the most recent Blues-Kings clash, Oshie absolutely destroyed Brown, himself one of the game’s best hitters.
Oshie followed that performance up two nights later with a highlight reel goal against Luongo that served as a lesson in patience.
And in back-to-back games versus Columbus, the Mt. Vernon, Wash., native proved size isn’t an impediment when he bowled over Rick Nash (who is six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier) not once, but twice in shocking fashion.
Oshie is clearly not alone in bringing the Blues to where they are, but he will have teams wondering in the future - if they aren’t already - how they let him fall to 24th overall in the 2005 draft.
Brian Duff is a host of On The Fly on the NHL Network. Like his minor hockey days (playing goalie, defense and forward) his broadcasting career has been all over the map. In radio and TV from Medicine Hat to Edmonton, Toronto to Ottawa and back, Brian has been with the NHL Network since 2007 and has been covering the game for nearly 15 years. Read more of his THN.com Blog HERE.