With pre-season scheduled to get underway Sept. 19, teams still face many questions heading into the regular season.
And while some of the league's elite just need to fill out their third or fourth line, other teams are desperate for a young talent, or rebuilding a core of young players for the days to come. Nashville Predators prospect Ryan Ellis had a good quote at the NHLPA Rookie Showcase earlier this week.
"I think it's all different circumstances," Ellis told TSN
. "I think if you walk into the right team, the right opportunity, you're golden."
Ellis was drafted 11th overall by the Predators in 2009, but has spent the last two years back in junior with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League. During that time, he has dominated the OHL and captured just about every championship he could. He is the only player in OHL history to win both a Memorial Cup and OHL title in addition to World Under-17, World Under-18, Ivan Hlinka, and World Junior Championship Gold. He also captained Team Canada to silver in a heartbreaking loss to Russia in last years World Juniors.
But the Predators generally take their time developing players and especially defencemen. Rookie Jonathan Blum will get his first crack at a full season in the NHL this year after spending five seasons in junior and the AHL before becoming a big part of Nashville's defence-corps late in the season and through the playoffs.
With the departure of Cody Franson, there might be room for a young player like Ellis to step in, but it will depend entirely on how he performs throughout the Preds' training camp.
Ellis, who turned 20 last January, cannot return to junior and will likely see some time in Milwaukee before he's called up to the big club. He played seven games in the Admirals playoff run last year, scoring a goal and an assist, but the knock has always been on Ellis' size.
Listed at 5'9 and 176 lbs, he is considered small in stature for an NHL-ready defenceman, but his vision and shot enabled him to score 101 points in the OHL last year, and he can quarter back a power play, which can be huge asset to any team.
And while Ellis and others compete for the second or third time to crack the pro-roster, other rookies who were just drafted back in June have a much better chance of stepping right into an NHL locker room.
Though the Edmonton Oilers have been low-key about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
' future with the club this year, it seems almost inevitable that the 18-year-old will get a chance to play like teammate Taylor Hall did last year, also a former 1st overall pick. If Nugent-Hopkins can use his speed and intelligence to overcome his disadvantage in size, he can certainly fit into a role on a young Oilers team that seems just a couple of years away from contending for a championship.
Perhaps the safest bet to jump into a NHL job this year is Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog
, who has been all but guaranteed a spot on the roster. Landeskog was the 2nd overall pick in this year's draft behind Nugent-Hopkins, and because of his size and maturity is widely considered the most NHL-ready prospect from the 2011 draft. Landeskog's junior team, the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, even went as far as dropping him from their roster for the upcoming season in anticipation that he would be making the rebuilding Avalanche.
Moving down the draft list, 3rd overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau
was drafted by the Florida Panthers fresh off his Memorial Cup win with the Saint John Sea Sogs. Though the Panthers are also in a bit of a rebuilding (or revamping, depending on how you look at it) phase, it's tough to determine where Huberdeau fits into a roster full of generously paid veterans. With the additions of forwards Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall and Tomas Fleischmann, the Panthers' top 6 will be mostly filled out, and it seems doubtful that Huberdeau will be brought in to fill a checking line role.
The Quebec-native will have every chance to make an impression on the Panthers brass during training camp, but perhaps a trip back to junior would benefit the young scorer even more. Huberdeau would be an integral part of the Canadian National Junior team if he's not in the NHL this season, and the defending Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs could certainly use the sniper as they get ready for another strong year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Two other 2011 first rounders who might be able to make the NHL in their first year are Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson
, who was taken fourth overall by New Jersey, and Ryan Strome
, who was taken fifth by the New York Islanders.
The Devils are relatively deep on the back end, but Larsson is a top talent and it would almost be a shame to see him spend a year in the AHL. Larsson has spent the past two years in the Swedish Elite League, so he's had a taste of professional hockey and that was a big reason why he was the first defenceman picked in the draft. With that said, he may not fit into the Devils top 4 and might have to start the year in Albany to prove he is NHL-ready.
The same goes for Strome, who is a skilled forward but is coming into a young dressing room that has been in a rebuild for a few years now. If Strome can find a place with the likes of John Tavares, Nino Neiderreiter, Matt Moulson, and Michael Grabner, he might fit into the young core that the Islanders are trying to establish. However if Strome doesn't make an impact right away in training camp, he might find himself back in the OHL with the Niagara Ice Dogs for another year.
Pre-season officially starts Sept. 19 as Florida takes on Nashville, in a game that might see both Ellis and Huberdeau against each other. After two weeks, the NHL regular season will get underway Oct. 6 with the Boston Bruins raising their championship banner in their first home game of the year.