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.

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!

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!

Nine from California reach the NHL this season

Nine players with direct ties to California played in the NHL this season, and two – defensemen Brian Salcido (Anaheim) and Ray Macias (Colorado) – made their NHL debuts in 2009.

And there is an interesting connection between those two. Salcido’s father, Frank, has coached numerous youth hockey teams over the years in Southern California, and Macias’ mother, Helen, often served as his team manager with the LA Jr. Kings. The families are close, and both have plenty to celebrate this season.

Two other notable performances were by Anaheim rookie Bobby Ryan, who spent part of his early teen years in Southern California playing for the old El Segundo Regents and the Jr. Kings travel teams, and Islanders veteran Richard Park. Ryan led all NHL rookies in scoring (57) and goals (31) – both Ducks records – and is a favorite for the Calder Trophy, while Park scored a career-high 14 goals and wore an A most of the season on Long Island. Interestingly, both played major junior in the OHL.

Others in the league this season: Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios, who played Bantam and Midget hockey in San Diego; Toronto forward Ryan Hollweg, a product of the old Norwalk ice rink; Atlanta forward Brett Sterling, who played out of Pasadena; Dallas forward Landon Wilson, who played minor hockey in LA while his dad was a Kings assistant coach, and Dallas defenseman Garrett Stafford, who registered his first NHL points during his recall with the Stars. Stafford also played in LA against the Kings for the first time in early April.

For the complete rundown on the alumni’s seasons, visit calirubber.com

And thanks for making this month’s the highest yet for traffic (and we’re only half done!).

California alumni updates

This week’s California hockey alumni updates are up at 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

California hockey alumni report

Some highlights from this week’s California hockey alumni report that I write each week on www.calirubber.com include:

The influx of California players to the AHL. This includes Brett Sterling, Ray Macias and Matt Ford.

CJ Stretch has been named the WHL’s Player of the Week.

Brandon Richardson has been named the USHL’s Offensive Player of the Week.

Click here for more on what California hockey players were up to around North America last week!

Californians in the NHL and AHL in 08-09

The NHL and AHL seasons get in full swing later this week, and here is a list of players either born, trained or some combination thereof in the top two North American pro leagues.

NHL:

Atlanta – Left wing Brett Sterling made the club out of camp for the second season in a row.

Detroit – Defenseman Chris Chelios is back at age 46, but he’ll start the season on the injured list with a broken shin bone.

New York Islanders – Right wing Richard Park is in his second decade in the league with no signs of slowing down.

Toronto – Forward Ryan Hollweg has a new address this season after his trade from the New York Rangers.

The AHL ranks have expanded a bit from a year ago, but it would not surprise me in the least to see several of these players getting games in the NHL.

Grand Rapids – Defenseman Garrett Stafford is back even though he’s in Dallas’ organization instead of Detroit’s. The Wings are the primary affiliate of the Griffins. Stafford played his first NHL game last season for Detroit. He could get some more games if the Stars’ blue line experiences another run of injuries.

Grand Rapids – Forward Landon Wilson has several years of NHL experience and while he’ll bring experience to the Griffins, he can step in and help the Stars should injuries strike.

Iowa – Wing Bobby Ryan is in the AHL because of the Anaheim Ducks’ cap crunch, which is too bad after he had an outstanding camp.

Iowa – Defenseman Brian Salcido has a shot at getting his first NHL game this season. The Ducks’ carousel of veteran defenseman has the rapidly improving puck-mover in the minors … for now.

Lake Erie – Defenseman Raymond Macias is a likely fixture on the Monsters’ blue line after a good camp in Colorado.

Lowell – Forward Ryan Murphy is back with the Devils’ top farm team after going to camp in New Jersey.

Manchester – Forward Gabe Gauthier will be one of the Monarchs’ centerpieces this season, and given the parent club LA Kings’ youth movement, it would not be a surprise to see him get another NHL look at some point.

Springfield – Right wing Hans Benson spend has worked his way up to the AHL after stints in the CHL and ECHL. The Menlo Park-native brings plenty of toughness to the Falcons lineup and he played some preseason games for the Edmonton Oilers this year.

Toronto – Forward Robbie Earl was one of the Maple Leafs’ final roster cuts, and it’s a good bet he’ll be back up with the parent club this season, particularly if his defensive game rounds into form. Defense is a prerequisite to playing for new Leafs coach Ron Wilson.

***

You can find my weekly report on California Alumni in hockey each Tuesday at www.calirubber.com

Training camp winds down

Several updates for you about Californians still in NHL camps as the exhibition season reaches its final weekend, and there is an interesting subplot as to why one player might have been sent to the AHL despite having a very good camp.

In Atlanta, left wing Brett Sterling is one of 17 forwards remaining in Thrashers camp. The Thrashers play back-to-back games this weekend to wrap up their preseason, and if Sterling demonstrates the scoring touch he did earlier in camp, when he had a two-goal game vs. the St. Louis Blues, he has a good chance to stick. …

In Toronto, forwards Robbie Earl and Ryan Hollweg are among 15 remaining forwards in Leafs camp. …As of this morning, it appears defenseman Garrett Stafford and forward Landon Wilson remain in Dallas’ camp. Stafford is one of 12 blue liners on the Stars’ roster while Wilson is one of 17 forwards. … Forward Ryan Murphy remains on New Jersey’s camp roster. …

The Thrashers’ opponent this weekend, Nashville, returned defenseman Jonathon Blum (Rancho Santa Margarita) to his junior team, the Vancouver Giants this week. Blum, the Giants’ captain, got in his first NHL exhibitions during camp. …

The Kings also sent center Gabe Gauthier (Buena Park) to Manchester of the AHL this week. There is a decent chance Gauthier could be the Monarch’s captain this season. … Colorado returned defenseman Raymond Macias (Long Beach) to Lake Erie of the AHL. …

And the Ducks’ sticky salary cap situation might have factored into why defenseman Brian Salcido was assigned to Iowa of the AHL on Monday, and why forward Bobby Ryan, who was expected to be a top-six forward in Anaheim this season, might join him. Check out this story from the Orange County Register.

California hockey weekend update

Left wing Brett Sterling (Pasadena) scored two goals for Atlanta in the Thrashers’ 9-4 preseason loss to the St. Louis Blues on Friday night.

Weekend Notes

Defenseman Garrett Stafford (Los Angeles) assisted on Steve Ott’s third-period goal in the Dallas Stars’ 4-3 victory over St. Louis on Saturday. Stafford also played Sunday vs. the Chicago Blackhawks. … Defenseman Brian Salcido (Hermosa Beach) made his exhibition debut for the Anaheim Ducks on Friday in a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Salcido also played in Saturday’s 3-1 victory at Phoenix. … Ryan Hollweg (Downey) played and fought in both of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ games over the weekend. Hollweg, incidentally, is featured in a story on the Maple Leafs Web site.

Jonathon Blum makes his NHL preseason debut

Defenseman Jonathon Blum (Rancho Santa Margarita) made his NHL preseason debut for the Predators during Nashville’s 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night.

Blum, who in 2007 was the first California-born and trained hockey player to be drafted in the first round of the NHL’s Entry Draft, did not figure in the scoring. He was a Western Hockey League All-Star last season for the Vancouver Giants, and he has been named Vancouver’s captain for the upcoming season.

Brett Sterling (Pasadena) had an assist on the Thrashers’ first goal. Sterling, who played 13 games for the Thrashers last season, was a key component in the Chicago Wolves’ American Hockey League Calder Cup championship in June.