Shots in the dark
Under-the-radar players to watch in training camp
Posted: Wednesday September 12, 2007 3:14PM; Updated: Thursday September 13, 2007 2:13PM
No surprise, really, but I failed for the 26th consecutive year to finagle an invitation to an NHL training camp. Rather than succumb to bitterness, I merely did what I do every year at this time: scour camp rosters to see who was lucky enough to get the call. Most of these guys aren't any more likely to suit up in the NHL than I am, but there are always a few surprises on the lists. I'm talking about the where's-he-been guys, the last-chancers, the longshots, the dark horses and the no-names who could be big names before too long if things go their way.
Here are 15 players that caught my eye.
Jonas Hiller (Ducks): The 25-year-old established himself as the top goalie in Switzerland last season while leading Davos to the league title and starting for the Swiss side at the World Championships, where he posted a 2.51 GAA and a .910 save percentage. Signed to a one-year deal last May as a failsafe option in the event that J-S Giguere was lost to free agency, Hiller could bid for the Ducks' backup gig and make the more experienced Ilya Bryzgalov expendable.
Tobias Enstrom (Thrashers): An illustration of the value of good scouting, Enstrom is an eighth-rounder from 2003 with a legitimate shot at grabbing one of the open slots on Atlanta's blueline. The 23-year-old Swede is undersized at 5-9, 175, but has the puck-moving skills and ability to read plays that make him ideal for the new NHL. The transition to smaller rinks hasn't been easy for him in rookie camp, but he's clearly one to watch as the veterans come in this week.
Jamison Orr (Bruins): Anytime you get a kid with that last name in a Bruins sweater, it's bound to raise eyebrows. The 21-year-old is no relation to the all-time great, but he is the younger brother of Boston short-timer Colton Orr, a cement-fisted roustabout many fans regret losing to the Rangers. At 6-3, 220, Jamison plays the same type of game, earning 214 PiMs in 40 games with Melfort of the Saskatchewan Junior League last season. The fact that he's playing in the SJHL at 21 suggests he has no real shot at attaching himself to Boston's roster, but fighters have a way of making an impression.
Brandon Sutter (Hurricanes): The 11th pick of this year's draft won himself a lot of fans -- me included -- with his ferocious performance at the Super Series. Sutter was a consistent physical presence, virtually unbeatable in the faceoff circle, and displayed better hands than advertised in front of the net. But the 18-year-old center made his biggest impression on the penalty-kill, where he befuddled Russian attackers with his tenacity. With a lot of filling out to do, he's likely best served by another year in juniors. But a strong camp could earn him a spot on the opening day roster, at least for a 10-game look-see.
Jack Skille (Blackhawks): All eyes will be on the Hawks' two most recent first- rounders, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but watch out for Skille. The 2005 first-rounder has an NHL-ready body, a booming shot and the physical instincts to become an elite power forward. There are probably two forward spots available after Kane and Toews. Troy Brouwer's likely to get a long look after a big year in Norfolk, but Skille could snatch the job away from him.
Jarolsav Hlinka (Avalanche): Colorado inked the 30-year-old Czech veteran after a monster season with Sparta (19 goals, 57 points in 46 games). The top two center spots are locked down by Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny, but Hlinka is clearly in the team's plans.
Jakub Kindl (Red Wings): Of the prospects in Detroit's camp, Igor Grigorenko will get most of the attention but Kindl, the 19th pick in 2005, may offer the most intrigue. A gifted offensive blueliner with a nice physical edge to his game, he was one of Detroit's final cuts last fall. With six established vets already in the lineup, he's a longshot to break camp with the Wings, but one team official suggests that Kindl will get a very long look.
Andrew Cogliano (Oilers): Loaded on the blueline with nine NHL-ready defenders, the Oilers prompted speculation that one or more could be dealt for a top-six forward before the season. If that doesn't happen, the team likely will turn to Cogliano to provide some jump to their offense. The 2005 first-rounder passed on his final two years of college eligibility to sign with the Oilers this summer after scoring 24 goals (50 points) in 38 games as a center with the Michigan Wolverines.
Cory Murphy (Panthers): The undersized, 5-10, 185-pound defender has been one of the most consistent weapons in Europe over the last six seasons. The Panthers hope this 29-year-old Canadian can bring the same offensive prowess to their blueline that he did with HIFK Helsinki last season, when he averaged more than a point per game. If Murphy proves capable of handling physical play, a top-four job isn't out of the question.
Oliver Setzinger (Predators): With Steve Sullivan out for three months, this Austrian winger should get a long look. Taken by the Preds in the third round of the 2001 draft, he's scored 58 goals over the past two seasons with Vienna and is said to have great puck instincts.
Sasha Pokuluk (Capitals): The Caps passed on a number of prospects who were held in wider esteem to take this 6-5, 230-pound blueliner 14th overall in 2005. So far the returns have been unimpressive. Pokulok lost all but 17 games last season to a pair of concussions that derailed his pro debut. The time off allowed him to get past the ill effects and he made a strong impression at rookie camp. He still has a lot to prove, however, as the Caps have loaded up on high-end blueline prospects. Pokuluk needs to establish himself after falling behind Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz and possibly Josh Godfrey on the depth chart.
Jari Viuhkola (Devils): The Devils signed the 27-year-old Finnish center to help them get over the loss of Scott Gomez. Viuhkola's slick hands and willingness to play in the hard areas make him a solid bet to nab a roster spot.
Brian Lee (Senators): The Sens need to start grooming the player they hope will eventually replace Wade Redden, their blueline leader who could leave as a UFA after this season. Luke Richardson was brought in to fill the back end of the blueline corps, but a strong showing in camp by Lee could relegate the veteran to an insurance role.
Francois Bouchard (Capitals): The leading scorer in the QMJHL last season (and the brother of Minnesota's Pierre-Marc Bouchard) was a revelation in rookie camp, and has some team officials openly pondering the possibility of a job with Washington's forward corps this fall. With veterans Chris Clark and Viktor Kozlov ahead of Bouchard, it won't be easy, but GM George McPhee has left the door open for his stickhandling wizardry.
Alexei Smirnov (Canucks): Apparently the Ducks weren't always such astute prospect prognosticators. Their first-round pick in 2000 (12th overall), is trying to work his way back onto the NHL map after spending 2005-06 in Russia and last season in the ECHL. His size is earning him the chance. Every team is looking for a 6-5, 230-pound center, but it'll be Smirnov's effort, the element that's kept him from a job, that determines whether he sticks with Vancouver in what could be his final shot.