Nine California prospects on THN’s radar

The Hockey News’ annual Future Watch issue (which features Kings prospect Brayden Schenn on the cover this year) is a must-read for those wondering what their team’s future looks like.

I also enjoy scouting it for Californians viewed as up-and-coming players by the magazine’s panel of experts. Each of the 30 teams’ top 10 prospects are profiled, but the real selling point is who are the top 50 overall prospects.

There are nine players with ties to California listed among the 300 (1o for each of the 30 teams) in the publication, and one — Beau Bennett, a 2010 first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the top 50. I have not gone back and compared how those number stack up to years past, but it would make for an interesting study.

Bennett, who just finished a strong freshman season at Denver University, was ranked No. 46 overall and the Penguins’ top prospect. Fellow 2010 first-round pick Emerson Etem was rated No. 57 overall and was slotted as the Anaheim Ducks’ second-best prospect.

Other prospects “ranked” by their respective teams included:

Calgary Flames — C Mitch Wahl was No. 8. Wahl struggled through an injury-plagued season, but with the Flames up against the salary cap and needing an infusion of youth, the former California Wave and LA Jr. Kings prospect should go into camp with some sort of shot at a roster spot next fall.

Colorado Avalanche — C Mark Olver was No. 8. A one-time Wave player, Olver had 40 points as a rookie in the AHL and also scored during a brief call-up to the Avs.

Nashville Predators — D Jonathon Blum was No. 2 (I did not count him in the overall totals because he is in the NHL to stay at this point).

New York Islanders — RW Rhett Rakhshani was No. 5. He tied for the rookie scoring lead in the AHL with 62 points, had four points in the AHL All-Star Game and made a two-game NHL appearance.

Minnesota Wild — C Casey Wellman was No. 4 and LW Jason Zucker was No. 6. Wellman also battled injuries but posted 35 points in 42 AHL games and played in 15 games for the Wild. He’s considered a strong bet to stick in Minnesota next season. Zucker might have been Denver University’s best player as a freshman, posting 45 points in 40 games, and he again shone at World Juniors.

Phoenix Coyotes — LW Viktor Tikhonov was No. 5. The former San Jose Jr. Shark seemed to find his game in the AHL this season, getting 33 points in 60 games. The Coyotes have said they rushed him to the NHL after being a first-round pick in 2008.

I’ll take a look at other players from California whose rights are owned by NHL teams in the next post.

A closing note: inclusion is no guarantee of anything. And the turnover of prospects is quite high year-to-year. Just a few years ago, one would have seen Brett Sterling, Brian Salcido and Gabe Gauthier among the Thrashers’, Ducks’ and Kings’ top prospects. Sterling signed with the Penguins last summer and has played some in Pittsburgh, Salcido played in Europe this past season and Gauthier suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and only played a few few ECHL and AHL games.

Advertisements

A happy homecoming for Blum

ThePostGame.com reached out to me earlier today to ask about Nashville Predators defenseman Jonathon Blum, and I was all too happy to oblige them.

How fun is it for Jonathon and his family and friends to have the opportunity to see him play in the NHL — in Anaheim — in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Has there been a California-born hockey player who has made a more seamless transition to the NHL than Jonathon? Blum, who is from Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County, put up eight points in 23 regular-season games and went plus-8 in Nashville’s second D pair. The one-time Jr. Duck (as well as California Wave) minor player added an assist in Game 1 against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night.

***

I’m going to go off topic just a bit here, but I have to wonder out loud (or on-screen as the case may be), how the skyrocketing gas prices are going to affect youth hockey in California.

Remember, many, many families have to drive a long, long way to rinks for practices and games multiple times per week. That already added up.

Factor in higher jet fuel costs, and traveling to tournaments gets even more expensive.

One of the common themes among the hundreds of people I’ve spoken to the hockey book is that cost containment is one of the keys to helping grow the game in the Golden State.

The recent spike in gas prices certainly won’t help.

***

Working on draft-related stories this week, and I’ve unearthed some information on many players with ties to the NHL that I will share here in the next few days. …

Plugging away on the book as well. Dedicating portions of three days per week now to work on it, and I’m more optimistic now about how it’s coming together than I have been in many months. Here’s hoping we can keep “old Mo” going!

Opportunity knocks, Blum, Martinez and Sterling answer

I wondered if this might be the season that a bunch of players with ties to California youth hockey finally broke through into the NHL. There were more than a dozen such players in the American Hockey League at the start of the season, and lo and behold, several have received call-ups, and a trio have made the most of it.

Defenseman Jonathon Blum made his NHL debut for the Nashville Predators in late February and has been so good the Predators traded away another defense prospect to make room for him in the lineup.

Through Sunday, Blum had played in 10 consecutive games, got his first NHL goal and was a respectable plus-1 for a team vying for a Western Conference playoff spot. You can read much more about Blum in a profile I wrote about him for California Rubber Magazine.

Blum, who was the No. 2 scorer for the Milwaukee Admirals, was the first California-born and -trained hockey player to be drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft (in 2007). Rest assured, the former California Wave ’89 player’s compelling story is part of the hockey book, Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds, that I continue to work on.

Another player who made the most of an opportunity, though he currently is back in the AHL, is forward  Brett Sterling. A prolific scorer at the collegiate and AHL levels (he was the A’s rookie of the year after a 97-point outburst in 2006-07), Sterling had five points — including three goals — in a seven-game call-up when the Penguins were decimated by injuries earlier this year. He played for the Pasadena Maple Leafs and the LA Jr. Kings before going into the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2000.

Those point totals exceeded Sterling’s output in 19 games with the Atlanta Thrashers over two seasons (07-08 and 08-09) and served notice to the NHL that his ability to score translates well on any level.

The third player, and the one who has demonstrated the most staying power is LA Kings defenseman Alec Martinez, who after a four-game audition last season, has played in 46 games and has 12 points (4 goals-8 assists). He consistently gets power-play time but he also boasts a plus-6 and at times has been paired with 2010 Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty.

Martinez played youth hockey in Northern California for three years — two seasons for the Santa Clara Blackhawks and another for the San Jose Jr. Sharks — before a job transfer brought his father back to the family’s Michigan home.

Three for the show … and more where they came from!

Etem tops California’s 2010 NHL Entry Draft prospects

In the May issue of California Rubber Hockey Magazine I identify 11 prospects who have good to reasonable chances of being selected during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft in late June.

As you likely know, this year’s draft will be the first one held in California (at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles), and it’s quite likely one of the state’s native sons will be picked in the top half of the first round, Long Beach’s Emerson Etem.

Various mock drafts have the powerful skater who scored a WHL-rookie-best 37 goals this season going anywhere from 8th to 15th. One intriguing prediction has the Anaheim Ducks selecting him with their first pick.

Etem is a solid 6-foot, 200 pounds and he was the first teen-ager allowed to train at TR Goodman‘s prestigious training center (popularized by star student Chris Chelios and now host to dozens of pro players). I spoke with Etem there last summer (click here to listen), and I came away impressed with his even-keeled and mature personality. I was equally impressed with what I observed during his workout – he has a non-stop motor and oozes athletic ability.

What it boils down to is an intense drive to succeed, and that’s why I think any team who selects Etem will not regret it for a minute. He has the drive and physical and personal maturity to thrive in the NHL much sooner than later.

How does this tie in with the hockey book? If Etem is selected in the first round (he’s NHL Central Scouting’s 8th-ranked North American skater), he’d be just the second Californian to be so honored. Rancho Santa Margarita’s Jonathon Blum, who recently finished a very good first pro season with Milwaukee in the AHL, was the first – going late in the first round to the Nashville Predators in 2007.

More progress reports on the book and on 2010 California prospects are on their way in the coming days.

California juniors tearing it up

This week I take a look at four junior leagues – the BCHL, NAHL, USHL and WHL – where the most California players are located this season.

And Californians figure prominently in all four playoff races.

In the BCHL, the Vernon Vipers have five Californians on their roster as they battle for the Doyle Cup. That includes defenseman Kyle Bigos of Upland and forward Cory Kane of Irvine, both of whom are 2009 NHL Entry Draft prospects.

In the NAHL, Californians figure prominently in all four Robertson Cup quarterfinals. Forward Soren Jonzzen of Mountain View had four points in two games for St. Louis. Fairbanks forward Austin Block of Thousand Oaks also had four points in two games. Block, the NAHL’s leading scorer, recently decommitted from Air Force and figures to attract a lot of attention from recruiters.

In the USHL, Indiana forward Brandon Richardson of San Clemente racked up 10 points in a five-game, first-round series. Matt Leitner of Los Alamitos had six points in Fargo’s first-round sweep of defending champion Omaha. Several defensemen – Jake Newton of Lincoln, Loren Barron of Indiana and Darren Rowe of Simi Valley also had excellent first rounds.

In the WHL West Finals, Vancouver and defenseman Jonathon Blum of Rancho Santa Margarita is squaring off with Kelowna and center Colin Long of Santa Ana. Both players were all-WHL selections and have been drafted by NHL teams.

For more alumni news, visit calirubber.com

Many California hockey alumni updates

My Alumni Report on http://www.calirubber.com this week spotlights several college and junior players from the state who are rising up the scoring charts in their respective leagues.

Chief among them are Ryan Lasch, Rhett Rakhshani, Chris Margott, Casey Wellman, Laura Veharanta and Kristi Kehoe in the NCAA; and NAHLers such as Austin Block and Bryon Paulazzo and USHLers such as Brandon Richardson and Matt Leitner.

I also take a closer look at just how much of an impact Californians are making in the WHL (huge). Not only are players such as Colin Long, CJ Stretch, Cameron Cepek and Jonathon Blum contributing points, but those for in particular are captains or assistant captains for their teams. And they are far from the only ones making waves in Canada, others include Mitch Wahl, Shane Harper and Tyler Maxwell.

You can read the Alumni Report here or hop over to http://www.calirubber.come

California hockey alumni report for week of Feb. 2

In this week’s California hockey Alumni Report on http://www.calirubber.com,  I detail the impact of a handful of freshman on the college hockey scene, among them UMass’ Casey Wellman, MIT’s Kameron Klauber and  Providence’s Laura Veharanta. Read more about them here.

One thing that is becoming clearer and clearer is that not only are male players making an impact in college and juniors, but the female players are making huge strides as well. They’re not just playing, but in many cases starring at their programs and gaining noteriety in their conferences and beyond.

Californians also continue to make inroads in the junior leagues as well. This week, Northridge’s Austin Block was selected as one of the NAHL’s players of the week, and a quick scan of the WHL scoring leaders shows three Californians in the top 20 (CJ Stretch of Irvine, Colin Long of Santa Ana and Jonathon Blum of Rancho Santa Margarita).