NHL opportunities knocking

NHL.com (whether knowingly or not) highlighted two California hockey players who forever will be linked by their draft year (2010), their round (first) and their backgrounds playing for the now-defunct LA Hockey Club.

Forward Beau Bennett, taken 20th overall in ’10, is making a strong push to remain in the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, according the league’s website. Unfortunately, the story did not make the California connection, though plenty of other ones have.

NHL.com also weighed in on Emerson Etem‘s growing role with the Ducks, and make no mistake, it is growing. Interesting to read NHL Network analysts Kevin Weekes‘ take on working out with Etem when Etem was just 13. The accolades Etem receives for his work ethic are justified (as I’ve witnessed those workouts in Venice), as are the ones about his upbeat attitude.

That is something else Bennett and Etem, share – phenomenal, team-first attitudes and a truly grateful outlook for all the sport has given them (and undoubtedly will give them).

But they’ve got company from California this season.

In the past month, two defenseman have made their debuts and both will be profiled in the upcoming issue of California Rubber Magazine.

Matt Tennyson made his first NHL appearance on April 1 and has played three games, picking up two assists. Though he played just a few seasons for the San Jose Jr. Sharks growing up, his family now calls California home. Tennyson was part of a large group of players I affectionately termed the Cali-mazooans, who played for Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. That group included Brett Beebe, Garrett Haar, Chase Balisy, Dennis Brown, Robert Francis and J.J. Crew. Tennyson signed with the Sharks last spring and has spent most of this season in the AHL.

And lastly but not least is defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, whom I spoke to this week for a story. As with the other three, Ruhwedel was a delight to speak with. Unlike the other three, Ruhwedel jumped directly from college to the NHL through a whirlwind of events last week.

Consider that last Thursday (April 10), he was playing in the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh against eventual champion Yale. Less than 36 hours later, the smooth-skating defenseman was on his way to Buffalo for a physical, to sign his contract, get his gear and play in an afternoon game, which the Sabres won.

All of this for a player who spent exactly one season playing AAA hockey in California (for the Jr. Kings) and only a handful playing AA growing up in San Diego county.

This is the first time the state has had four players make NHL debuts in a single season, to say nothing of the fact that 40 percent of said season was lost due to a lockout.

Congratulations to these four!

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NHL debut candidates from California

They’re halfway through NHL training camps — already! It’s been just three days, and I see three candidates from California to possibly make their NHL debuts in the near future, and a fourth prospect with ties to the state to be in a team’s lineup come this weekend.

1. Wing Beau Bennett spent some time in Penguins practice on a line with All-Stars Evgeni Malkin and James Neal on Tuesday. Bennett, a former LA Jr. King and LA Select who is in his first pro season after two NCAA seasons at Denver University, led Pittsburgh’s AHL club (Scranton-Wilkes Barre) in scoring with 24 points in 30 games. It’s a not a stretch at all that he will be in the Penguins’ lineup on opening night, and I have no doubt he will play several NHL games this season

2. Defenseman Matt Tennyson is in camp with the San Jose Sharks after a making a strong showing during his first pro season, ranking near the top of the Worcester (AHL) scoring list all season. Tennyson, who played two seasons for the Jr. Sharks before heading off to Juniors, spent the past three seasons at Western Michigan University with several other Californians before leaving school to sign with the Sharks as a free agent. If he doesn’t make the opening night roster he almost surely will be the first D-man called up.

3. Wing Emerson Etem also is in camp with the Anaheim Ducks. His skating and scoring touch give him a chance to be with the club at some point this season, though his first pro season, after an absolutely dominant WHL campaign a year ago, has been sluggish at times. The Ducks have three forward openings to fill with younger players and/or veteran free agents, and Etem (like Bennett a 2010 first-round pick) certainly is in the mix. The guess (emphasis on guess) is that he will play up at some point this year but not at the start of the season.

Honorable mention goes to Bennett’s DU teammate, Jason Zucker, who made his debut with the Minnesota Wild last season. He has been off to a strong start with the AHL Houston Aeros, leading them in scoring for much of the season. With the Wild perpetually searching for more offense, he’s in a good position to start the season with them. But Minnesota is loaded with prospects, and it might decide he needs a bit more seasoning in the A before bringing him up.

Bennett signs, Etem to AHL, Lasch to Team USA

Just another routine day for hockey in California …

Many people believe Friday the 13th is somehow hexed, but you’d have a hard time convincing fans of hockey in the state of that. Two huge pieces of news broke today about prospects from the state to go with another newsworthy note from a few days ago.

  • The Pittsburgh Penguins signed forward Beau Bennett, who to this point is the highest-drafted California-born and -trained hockey player (20th overall in 2010). Bennett just finished his sophomore season at Denver University. His campaign was shortened by what turned out to be season-ending wrist surgery in December. His contract takes effect beginning next season (and hopefully there will be a next season given the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players expires this summer). He is a former LA Jr. Kings and LA Selects players.
  • Anaheim Ducks prospect Emerson Etem, who was drafted nine spots behind Bennett in the 2010 Entry Draft at Staples Center, will make his AHL debut tonight for the Syracuse Crunch. Etem absolutely tore up the Western Hockey League this season, scoring a league-best 61 goals among his 107 points. Etem was a former Selects teammate of Bennett’s and also played for the Long Beach Jr. Ice Dogs.
  • And Ryan Lasch, who set St. Cloud State’s career scoring record two seasons ago before heading off to Europe to play professionally, was the only non-NHL player selected to represent Team USA at the upcoming World Championships. Lasch, who played for the SouthCoast Sabres, Westminster Wave and Long Beach Jr. Ice Dogs, had 62 points in 59 games in Finland’s top pro league this past season. It’s fair to ask if this might open doors for him to eventually play in the NHL given his strong track record of offensive production. … One of Lasch’s teammates on Team USA will be Ducks forward Bobby Ryan, who played for the Jr. Kings for a few seasons in the early 2000s.

And if that weren’t enough, the LA Kings try to take two in a row from the “beloved” Canucks in Vancouver tonight.

A sort of homecoming …

Just learned that two players from California and a third with a strong connection to the state will be in Anaheim and Los Angeles this week playing in NHL preseason games for the Phoenix Coyotes.

Center Colin Long (Santa Ana), a fourth-round pick of the Coyotes in 2008, will head back to the O.C. on Tuesday night and then head north to L.A. on Wednesday. Long finished his Western Hockey League career with stellar seasons of 100 and 91 points in 2007-08 and 08-09 before suffering through an injury-plagued rookie pro season in San Antonio (AHL). He had a respectable 37 points in 50 games for Las Vegas of the ECHL a season ago.

Forward Ryan Hollweg (Downey), a veteran of 228 NHL games who has spent much of the past two seasons in the AHL, also will dress for the Coyotes. Like Long, he played in the WHL.

The third is forward Brett Hextall, who is in camp with the Coyotes after three seasons at North Dakota. His father, Ron, is the Kings’ assistant general manager.

California’s three-headed AHL Monster

This is a follow-up to my post earlier this week on Californians who have made the most of their NHL call-ups. That wasn’t a comprehensive list, only a few of the notables. Several others have played NHL games this season, and even more are thriving in the American Hockey League this season.

Let’s take a closer look at three more players with California ties who are playing for the Lake Erie Monsters, the top farm team of the Colorado Avalanche, this season.

Defenseman Raymond Macias of Long Beach had 13 points through 38 games, and he has battled through a few injuries. Ray played six games for the Avs at the end of the 2008-09 season. He’s a steady two-way defenseman, and with the Avalanche rebuilding, perhaps he will get another shot. Ray also might be one of the few players whose mother is more well-known in California hockey circles than he is. Helen Alex is a longtime team manager for the LA Jr. Kings, and has had a huge impact on hundreds of players’ careers through her caring ways.

Rookie Mark Olver spent a season with the California Wave, and teamed with, among others, Huntington Beach’s Rhett Rakhshani, to help the 88 birth year win a Bantam AAA national title in 2003. Through 58 games, the forward led the team in goals with 23 and had 40 points.

The third Monster has what I consider one of the more compelling stories of a pro from California.

Forward Matt Ford of West Hills has worked his way into a steady gig in the AHL and has 32 points, including 20 goals, through 63 games. That’s good, but how he got there is the impressive part to me.

Matt — whose father still can be found tending goal at rinks throughout Southern California — and his good buddy Brian Salcido , a one-time Ducks prospect, attended Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep in Minnesota, where they won a national title with a guy named Crosby on their team (as well as a King named Jack Johnson and a Sabre named Drew Stafford).

Matt then won a national championship in 2006 with the Wisconsin Badgers (which as a native Cheesehead I need to personally thank him for). In between he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks and never really given a look. He pressed on and stayed in school all four years (by the way, that’s a great idea kids).

Matt started his pro career with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL and played well enough to win All-Star Game MVP honors in 2009. He had a couple of cups of coffee with the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack (a NY Rangers farm team) and a warmer with the Monsters later that season.

He got a camp invite from the Vancouver Canucks that summer, but found himself back in Charlotte however briefly before sticking with the Monsters last season, when he put up 27 points in 43 games.

His 20 goals this season are two off his pro high (21 of which were scored in the ECHL) in 2008-09. Matt is a study in perseverance and hard work, and he’s just one call away from the NHL.

California’s All-Stars

One update I would be remiss in delaying any further is about the various All-Stars and Olympians with ties to the state of California.

This week, a Californian was selected to start in the ECHL’s All-Star Game, which will be held in the beautiful new arena in Ontario. He is defenseman Zach Tarkir of Fresno. Ironically, he’s done so well this season that he’s been called up to Lake Erie of the AHL. There he is a teammate of Matt Ford of West Hills, who was the MVP of last season’s ECHL All-Star Game, and Ray Macias of Long Beach. Ray made his NHL debut with the Colorado Avalanche last season.

And Pasadena’s Brett Sterling was selected to his third AHL All-Star Game in four seasons. The Chicago Wolves wing is back to his high-scoring ways this season. And he also has been an All-Star MVP as well as the AHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2007.

These are no small feats!

Congratulations to Zach and Brett!

California alumni updates

This week’s California hockey alumni updates are up at http://www.calirubber.com

Among the highlights are:

How Californians Austin Block, Michael Juola and Mark Pustin have propelled Fairbanks to the top of the NAHL’s West Division. Story here

Pasadena’s Brett Sterling has picked up his scoring pace for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. Story here