Fighting for Their Shot: NHL Hopefuls Using Prospect Tourneys to Get Noticed
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Over the past six days, NHL rookies and prospects have participated in a number of games across North America at separate prospect tournaments in Oshawa, Penticton and Traverse City.
Seventeen of the thirty NHL clubs are represented at these tournaments, and players of all kinds, from first-round draft picks to fourth-line goons, are in attendance. They're all trying to stand out from their peers, especially those who went undrafted and have completed their junior eligibility, and are essentially playing for their last shot at a minor league or entry-level contract somewhere.
With over 50 fights through Tuesday's games, muckers, grinders and fighters are leaving it all on the ice, and this has some bloggers up in arms about the prevalence of fighting in a "meaningless" prospect tournament.
But the reality is that these tournaments are anything but meaningless, and year after year prove to be great jumping-off points for young players ready to make the transition from junior to pro. Showing a willingness to battle goes a long way, and using the 2008 Traverse City tournament as an example, players who drop the gloves seem to get noticed more often than not.
Bruising winger Anthony Peluso led all players in Traverse City with three fighting majors in 2008, coming off an OHL season split between Erie and Sault St. Marie, where he accumulated 21 points and 124 penalty minutes. Not a bad season for a tough guy on whom the Blues took a chance in the sixth round in 2007. Two years later Peluso is still in the Blues organization coming off his first full AHL season (62 games, seven points and 102 PIM) with Peoria.
Dale Weise and Brandon Mashinter each had a fight apiece in the tournament, and three years later found themselves in NHL uniforms making their debut in "the show." Mashinter participated in the tournament as an invite for Columbus and was later signed to an entry-level deal by San Jose following his junior career.
Mashinter saw time in 13 games last season for the Sharks, going scoreless with 17 penalty minutes. Weise was a 2008 fourth round pick by the Rangers and began his first season in Hartford after Traverse City. He played 19 games for the Rangers in 2010-2011, also going scoreless with 19 penalty minutes.
Sixteen other players recorded at least one fighting major in the tournament, and twelve of them played at the professional "AA" level or higher in 2010-2011:
AHL: Devin DiDiomete and Justin Soryal (Connecticut), Mark Cundari and Brett Sonne (Peoria), Luke Gazdic (Texas) and David Urquhart (Hamilton)
ECHL: Joe Ryan (Bakersfield), Dannick Pauquette (Gwinett), Myles Stoesz (Trenton),and Jordan Foreman (Stockton)
CHL: Tysen Dowzak and Matt McCue (Dayton)
Brennan Sonne, Bryce Swan and Ryan Graham completed their junior careers and went to Canadian University where all three continued playing hockey, and Brady Leavold retired after playing in just 4 professional games in 2009/10 (two in the ECHL with Bakersfield and two in Holland with Tillburg)
Out of that group, only DiDiomete (Calgary, seventh round, 2006), Gazdic (Dallas, seventh round, 2007), Brett Sonne (St. Louis, third round, 2007), Pauquette (Atlanta, third round, 2008), Stoesz (Atlanta, seventh round, 2007) and Ryan (Los Angeles, second round, 2006) were drafted, and neither DiDiomete or Ryan received offers from their draft rights holders. They instead attended Traverse City as invites for the Blue Jackets and Red Wings, respectively.
DiDiomete later was the center of some controversy, he was offered an AHL deal by Columbus but the Rangers swooped in and offered a NHL deal before he could sign. DiDiomete of course took the better contract, and spent the next three seasons in the Rangers' system.
While fighting isn't a sure-fire way to make the show anymore, it certainly didn't hurt these players' chances, and probably helped many of them secure contracts, especially those who didn't have the luxury of being drafted onto the NHL's radar.
Weise and Mashinter have proven to fit the mold of the coveted new-NHL power forward, showing ability to put up a healthy amount of points combined with a willingness to play physical and fight night in and night out at the AHL level. Both should stick around a while in camp this year with Mashinter a good candidate for a bottom-six role in San Jose, after the Sharks let most of their grit (Ben Eager, Jamal Mayers, Scott Nichol) walk this summer.
Justin Soryal has improved as a player the past few seasons in Hartford, and now finds himself at the top of a shallow toughness depth chart in the Hurricanes' system on a two-way contract. This year presents a good chance for his first taste of NHL action, though Nicolas Blanchard will also compete for the fourth-line enforcer spot in Carolina.
Luke Gazdic has climbed to the top of the fighting mountain in the AHL and after an impressive 17-point, 18-fight season, could see his first recall of the year to a Stars team that's not afraid to mix it up.
With this years tournaments coming to an end, time will tell if this year's crop of tough guys such as Jamie Devane, Randy McNaught, Dalton Smith, Cody Beach and others will be able to continue to punch their way to their pro hockey and NHL dreams.
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