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.

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Pacific District leftovers … Jr. Kings 16U edition

Congratulations to the Los Angeles Jr. Kings on winning the Midget 16U and 18U teams for winning Pacific District regional titles in El Segundo, and to the LA Selects for winning the Bantam and Pee Wee districts in Simi Valley.

Since I spent the better part of three days watching tournament play at the Toyota Sports Center, I’ll focus on the 16s and 18s in this and the next post post.The Jr. Kings’ two Midget AAA teams certainly took different paths to earning their banners.

The 16s, coached by Louis Pacella and Steven Cohen, rolled through their bracket, ultimately going 5-0 with a remarkable 25-3 goal differential. They featured the division’s top three scorers in Ryan Siroky (10 points), Taylor Maruya and Keanu Yamamoto (9 points apiece) and the top two goaltenders in Gavin Nieto and Tyler Caronia.

That doesn’t take into account forward Nolan Stevens, a ’96 who has been invited to the USNTDP’s final 40 camp, defenseman Riley Alferd, who has played in the USHL already, and forward Garrett Gamez, who turned down an opportunity to play in the USHL this season. And as impressive as the goaltending was, remember that top goalie Thatcher Demko has been in the USHL since late last fall and became the youngest player in the history of the top Jr. A league in the United States to pitch a shutout.

The 16s had a clear speed advantage in every game, particularly against a tired Alaska Wolves team in the final (the Wolves had gone four overtimes vs. the LA Selects the night before). Using that to their advantage was part of the plan, Yamamoto told me afterward.

“It’s something we talked about and we worked hard to exploit,” the winger said.

The Jr. Kings also excelled on special teams, and with the speed and top-end skill on the roster it’s not difficult to see why.

“Coach has a great system for special teams, and we have focused on that in practice,” said Maruya, who was the recipient of one of the classier moves I’ve observed after the game.

Maruya was the team’s only returning player from a season ago and his spent his hockey life in the Jr. Kings organization. When the captains were called up to receive the banner and trophy, captain Ryan Siroky and assistant Michael Damien insisted Maruya, also an assistant, go up alone to pick up the hardware (and software, as it were).

“It was a great experience for me,” Maruya said. “It meant a great deal to me to hold that banner.”

Pacella told me that the team dedicates a game to each player and that Sunday’s was dedicated to Maruya.

“He’s been loyal to this club when he could have jumped elsewhere many times,” the coach said. “I’m really happy for him.”

Pacella will be making his sixth consecutive trip to the USA Hockey Nationals, but his first with the Jr. Kings after five in a row with LA Hockey/LA Selects.

“This was incredibly special,” he said after the championship game. “This was a team we put together on the fly. We had one returning Jr. King. A lot of work went into finding the right players. There is no ego on this team and a great work ethic. They wanted to make Nationals the goal, and they accomplished it.”

Next up is Nationals, and this is a team that could do some damage there.

***

A few more personal observations on this team. I had seen some of these players before, notably Siroky, Alferd and Gamez. I knew Stevens was very good. Maruya and Yamamoto were eye-openers to me. Yamamoto’s speed, agility and stickhandling were extremely impressive, as was his ability to read the play. Maruya brought more speed and displayed plenty of finishing skill, but he also played with an edge. The defense core, headed by Alferd and Damien, was solid.

Maruya wasn’t the only longtime Jr. King rewarded with a trip to Nationals. Manager Terry Bain, who has been involved with the club for several years, will make her first trip as well.

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.

California Midget Hockey

So much for the restful offseason, at least for the Midget hockey ranks in California.

Several developments have taken place that will profoundly affect the 2009-10 season.

This starts with the Jr. Kings, who participated in the Tier I Elite Hockey League this past season at the 18U level. Their 16U team will join the league this coming season. This adds a travel burden, but the pay off, and Jr. Kings coaches told me this all season, is their teams will play five games guaranteed in three days, and play them against a quality caliber of competition. Those are important distinctions because most tournaments only guarantee three or four games, and unless it’s an elite tournament, it’s tough to anticipate what level of competition you’re going to face.

Shortly thereafter, the LA Selects 18s and 16s were invited to join the Tier I Elite league. This makes sense given that program’s track record of success and the desire to cluster teams geographically. What I will be interested to see is how they match up at 18s because the Selects are typically so strong at Bantam and 16U that most of their best players move on at 16. But it can only help hockey in Southern California to have two teams in that league. The Jr. Kings played host to the Detroit division in a showcase event last December, and it featured some terrific hockey.

This past week, the Southern California Titans and San Jose Jr. Sharks announced they were joining the new North American Prospects Hockey League at the 18 and 16 Tier I levels. That league includes 20 programs from all over the country. Just like the Tier I EHL, the NAPHL will have showcase weekends, though not nearly as many to start. One of those will be in San Jose in February, just before the state tournament.

The new league is part of the NAHL junior circuit, which battles the perception it is inferior to the USHL. In theory, this could give NAHL teams a distinct recruiting advantage with some programs. Really, it gives Jr. A hockey a bit more of a foothold in a state where the trend of late has been to have top-end prospects head to the WHL.

The fifth 18UAAA team last season was the California Wave, and I wondered aloud over the weekend – what about the Wave? That question was answered Sunday night when the Jr. Kings announced a partnership with the Wave at the 18U Tier I and Bantam Tier II levels for the 2009-10 season.

I have a few more questions – what about beyond next season? Could it become a permanent merger? Team managers I’ve spoken with recently expect numbers to be down in travel hockey because of the economy.

My other question is what about the “mid majors”, programs like the California Stars, OC Hockey Club, Tri Valley Blue Devils, California Heat, San Diego Jr. Gulls? All have had very good AA and AAA squads, though not at every age level every year. How do they fit into this new midget world order?

Stay tuned.

11 California teams at Nationals

A total of 11 California youth hockey teams have advanced to the USA Hockey National Championships, to be held at various locations April 1-5.

I have been unable to confirm if this is a record, but it is close if it isn’t.

The teams are:

Tier I

18U Midget – LA Jr. Kings

Bantam – LA Selects

Pee Wee – LA Selects

Tier II

18 U Midget – Tri Valley Blue Devils

16U Midget – California Heat

Bantam – LA Hockey Club

Pee Wee – San Jose Jr. Sharks

Girls/Women’s

12U -Anaheim Lady Ducks

14U – Anaheim Lady Ducks

19U – LA Selects

Women’s C – San Jose Lady Sharks

Congratulations to all of these teams and their families!

California hockey musings

As some of you might know, I have devoted a significant amount of time to covering various angles of hockey in California as web editor for http://www.calirubber.com and through contributing articles to its sister publication, California Rubber magazine.

It’s been a rewarding experience in many ways, and it has complemented my work on Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds quite well.

A few things to watch for on the local hockey scene:

First, while LA Jr. Kings forward Shane McColgan will be making his WHL debut this week with the Kelowna Rockets, he might not be the only Midget player from the state heading to the Great White North this winter. LA Selects 16U goaltender Brendan Jensen could also get a game with Vancouver of the WHL. For more on that, click here. And another of the state’s AAA teams, the San Jose Jr. Sharks 18U squad, lost its top scorer – Gage Emerson – to Motor City of the NAHL recently.

I hope the McColgan family has a good travel agent. He went from LA to Pittsburgh for a Midwest Elite League showcase event and then on to Kelowna, British Columbia, where he will travel with the Rockets for two games this week before returning to LA. I’ll have more on his debut in January’s California Rubber magazine.

A couple of other big events worth mentioning – the Jr. Kings are hosting a MWEHL Showcase on Dec. 27-29 at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, and all five powerhouse Detroit midget programs are playing in it. If you’re in the area, this is an excellent way to see some very good hockey and some of the stars of tomorrow.

And if you’re curious about what’s around the corner in elite hockey, be sure to head down to Glacial Garden in Lakewood over President’s Day Weekend for the 95s tournament that the LA Selects are hosting. Top teams from all over North America are heading west for that. And congratulations to Sandy Gasseau, Rick Kelly and Bill Comrie and the boys for winning their division at the Silver Stick tournament in Whitby, Ontario, recently. That is a huge accomplishment, but we should be getting used to that by now from the Selects. The 95 team formed the backbone of last season’s Pee Wee AAA national champions.

Keep your head up and your stick on the ice.