Prospects watch (continued)
Need a good laugh? Check out Phoenix ("maybe Quebec soon") forward Paul Bissonnette being pranked by Calgary's Mike Cammalleri prior to a recent BioSteel workout. Have to appreciate how long the Twitter legend keeps his cool while being vetted by an overly aggressive security guard.
Nail Yakupov was the marquee name when the Russians announced their Subway Super Series roster, but the NHL's first overall pick of 2012 might not be their most talked-about player when the games against the Canadian Hockey League's best get underway on Nov. 5.
That guy could be dynamic winger Alexander Khokhlachev. Boston's second-rounder of 2011 bolted from the OHL's Windsor Spitfires for the high-paying pastures of the KHL when his father, Igor, was named GM of Spartak Moscow during the offseason.
But the transition to the pro game hasn't gone smoothly for Koko, who has just one goal and two points to go with his minus-5 rating in 19 games and was scratched from Wednesday's match. Rumors of a potential retreat to the OHL have been swirling since the Spits dropped Juraj Bezuch to clear an import slot on their roster and claimed the rights to Khokhlachev on re-entry waivers earlier this month.
An official with a conference rival suggested (maybe only half-jokingly) that the claim was simply a face-saving move made by Windsor GM Warren Rychel to cover up for a bungled import draft -- Russian Vladimir Ionin didn't survive training camp, prompting a trade for Bezuch who had been waived over the summer by Lethbridge. Still, the official added, "if he's coming back, this would probably be the time."
The Spits were leading OHL's West Division entering the action of Oct. 25, but their popgun offense is averaging just 2.69 goals per game, worst in the conference. Adding an impact performer like Khokhlachev to their lineup alongside 2013 top prospect Kerby Rychel and Montreal pick Brady Vail would keep Windsor in the mix for the divisional title...or it might provide the Spits with a compelling trade chip as they prep for a bid to host the 2014 Memorial Cup.
It's been funny to see Oklahoma City mentioned by some pundits during the past few days as a possible post-lockout expansion destination for the NHL. It's certainly not the first time that the community has been eyed. In fact, it was considered a leading contender early in the Aughts when the turnstiles of the Central Hockey League's Blazers were spinning upwards of 10,000 times on some nights, a boffo number that suggested Oklahoma City was ready to support a team at the next level.
These days, OKC makes Phoenix seem like the promised land.
If it ever had a moment, that time has passed. The NBA was first to plant its flag in OKC soil, and the Thunder immediately became the local sports gorilla. But with the town's sporting dollars diverted to hoops, its love affair with minor league hockey was revealed to be a mirage fed primarily by thousands of freebie tickets.
Since arriving in 2010, the AHL Barons have been met with indifference, leaving Edmonton's top prospects playing in front of some of the smallest crowds in the minors.
Last season, the Barons ranked 26th in the 30-team league, averaging about 3,600 per game. Amazingly, the building emptied out for the playoffs. There were nights when the top team in the Western Conference couldn't draw 2,000 to the Cox Convention Center.
Still, you couldn't blame team management for thinking they might finally gain some traction in the market when the Oilers announced they'd be sending some of the game's best young players to OKC for the duration of the lockout. Maybe it's too early -- football's still being played, after all -- but it's not happening. Despite icing a lineup that features Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and AHL Player of the Week Justin Schultz, the Barons continue to play for friends-and-family crowds.
"It was just sad," said one league official who was in attendance for the team's third home game, on October 23. "Might have been 1,200 people in the building."
What makes that lowly estimate even more miserable is that the Barons have reportedly sold around 1,900 season tickets. Do the math. The diehards are showing up, but the local businesses who bought tickets can't seem to give them away.
Neverthless, there is some world-class talent on display. This could be a team that people will be talking about a decade down the road as one for the ages. But if the chance to watch this group -- soon to be augmented by Taylor Hall, who continues to practice but has yet to make his season debut after offseason surgery -- at a reasonable price can't capture the attention of OKC sports fans, you have to wonder whether this city has any appetite for the game.
Maybe now that it has had a taste of top-level sports, OKC is simply turning up its nose at anything of lesser quality. Wouldn't be the first time that has happened. Or maybe all this town wants, or needs, is a Single-A team with less finesse and more knuckle-draggers. And one that gives away plenty of tickets.
Nathan McKinnon is leading the QMJHL with 17 goals. Zach Furcale, the premier goaltending prospect for this year's draft, is tops in the league with 11 wins. But on Oct. 24 in Halifax, all eyes were on Jonathan Drouin, who returned to the lineup after losing six games to a shoulder injury. The flashy winger didn't disappoint, earning first star honors in a 6-2 win over Drummondville.
Regarded as a mid-first-rounder at the start of the season, Drouin is building a strong case as a top-10 pick -- maybe higher -- in what's stacking up to be a deep draft. He counted a shorthand tally among his four points in his return, running his totals to seven goals and 19 points in just eight games.
"He was fantastic," said an Eastern Conference scout who attended the game. "Wasn't tentative at all. He's so smart out there, always in the right place."
With the skillful playmaker back for the Mooseheads, the country's second-ranked team is the class of the Q. The win over the Voltigeurs made it 11 straight for Halifax, four shy of the franchise record. If they keep rolling, they'll have the chance to set a new mark on Friday, Nov. 9 when they visit Gatineau. That game will be carried in Canada on Sportsnet and is expected to be shown on the NHL Network in the U.S. But whether the streak's alive or not, it's a must-watch game for draft prospectors with the Big Three back in action.
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