The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has brought an end to the 2019-20 hockey season across the globe, as we know it. With the abrupt conclusion of nearly every league, several NHL affiliated prospects around the world will have played the final game their respective amateur, collegiate or European squad.
This week’s announcement by the CHL that the 2020 Memorial Cup in Kelowna will not go forward for the first time in its 100+ year history means that 19 and 20-year-old players from across Canada will have played their final game of Major Junior. In addition, the NCAA has been clear for over a week now that the Frozen Four tournament will not take place. More than a handful of collegiate freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors have already moved forward with signing professional contracts that will prevent them from returning to play in the NCAA. Finally, with the better late than never cancellation of the Gagarin Cup playoffs in the KHL, all European leagues have been frozen as well, and players from various leagues have begun to express interest in coming to North America for the fall.
NCAA signings seem to get a fair amount of press because there is a definitive event that signals a player will be taking a shot at becoming a pro. European players transitions also seem to be covered quite well because they’re typically event-related in the sense that they occur when the player signs an ELC (In some cases, European players with a professional contract in North America will be loaned back to their European club) – you’ll likely see quite a bit of press dedicated to the Jesse Ylonen contract. Contrastly, for CHL players, the transition from major junior to the professional circuit just sort of happens… and it happens in droves. Thus, the coverage on a player-by-player basis isn’t always as available, and it’s why today, that is our focus.
With each unique change, growing pains are inevitable. Every year, however, some players seem to adjust better and quicker than others. It’s not always indicative of how each player will develop long term, but it’s important to know what kind of expectations are appropriate to burden our prospects with, even if it’s just in a fantasy hockey regard.
Cole Fonstad, Montreal Canadiens
The soon-to-be 20-year-old remains unsigned by the Montreal Canadiens despite posting a pretty impressive 74 points through 60 WHL contests this year. The former fifth-round draft-pick was traded from Prince Albert to Everett early in the season and handled the transition well, continuing his greater than point per game clip throughout the remainder of the year. By March, Fonstad led the ‘Tips in assists with 52 and the team, overall, in points per game. It would be a massive surprise to see him hold out on the Canadiens and would mean that he intends on attempting to take the path of underdeveloped Stars prospect Adam Mascherin. Likewise, it would be surprising to see the Habs not offer Fonstad an NHL contract by the time the draft comes around.
If and when he does indeed sign, Fonstad is likely bound for the AHL. Despite a positive conclusion to his junior career, the lefty is still lacking in some of the 200-foot aspects of the game which are required by an effective modern-day NHL forward, at least one who isn’t in the 90th percentile of overall skill.
Ty Smith, New Jersey Devils
The assistant captain of the gold medal-winning Canadians at the 2020 World Junior Championships was one of the Devils’ last cuts prior to the beginning of the 2019-20 NHL campaign. In fact, for many, it was a foregone conclusion that Smith would’ve been on the opening night roster in New Jersey last October.
After concluding his final year of major junior by captaining the Spokane Cheifs to a middle-of-the-pack finish, that sentiment is likely to carry forward a year. The Devils experienced a definite recession despite retaining assets like Taylor Hall (to start the year) and PK Subban, and could use some fresh faces in the dressing room to help turn the ship back in the right direction. With only four other NHL-calibre defensemen under contract for the 2020-21 campaign, Smith’s name is all but pencilled in for opening night in Newark. That being said, the other three defenders in New Jersey each have a history of being reliable powerplay assets, meaning that for the first few years, Smith will be forced to earn most of his production at 5-on-5, much like this year’s version of Adam Fox.
Jett Woo, Vancouver Canucks
After discussion an NHL team that underwent a recession this year, it seems coincidental to touch on a prospect who underwent a recession this year. The Winnipeg native was traded from Moose Jaw to Calgary at the WHL’s 2019 Bantam Draft and failed to replicate the offensive success he’d previously enjoyed on strong teams in Moose Jaw. The 19-year-old regressed in both goals and assists despite owning a more or equally relied upon role in Cow Town.
It would be surprising to see Woo debut in Vancouver after the struggles he’s had in Calgary, but with two pending UFA’s on the blueline, the Canucks might consider Woo as a cheaper replacement-level option that they can bring along slowly in a depth role. Either way, it’s unlikely that he becomes a fantasy asset anytime soon.
Akil Thomas, LA Kings
After battling through a mid-season trade in his final year of OHL competition, Akil Thomas is bound for California. The golden-goal scoring centerman at this years’ World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic has proven to be an extremely valuable player at the OHL level for several years now and is certainly ready to take the next step. Despite being cast as a depth forward at the holiday tournament, Thomas brings a set of skills to the Kings depth chart that may other of that team’s forward wouldn’t have.
Thomas has proven to be an effective player in all situations, throughout his tenure with Niagara, as well as with Peterborough after the trade. While it might seem like a long shot, I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see Thomas get a shot with the Kings in early October. If it doesn’t work out immediately, a year with the Ontario Reign would hardly be considered a negative. The opportunity to play in the AHL would mean that his transition to the pro’s could come a little more gradually, offering him some extra time to perfect the types of systems that he’s expected to play in and retain his killer offensive instinct.
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Toronto Maple Leafs
The ultra-skilled Russian who was selected by the Leafs in June of 2018 will make his long-anticipated professional debut next fall. After being hyped by Dubas’ supporters since his selection at 76th overall, SDA will likely begin his professional career as a Toronto Marlie. The development curve for the former third-round draft-pick was never anticipated to be a quick one, and there’s still no indication that there have been any changes to that expectation.
It’s worth noting that the 5-11 forward has already had a taste of what it’s like to play against professional-level competition. After the Pete’s bowed out of the OHL playoffs last spring, SDR joined the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers in rounding out their regular season, and into the beginning of their Kelly Cup-winning playoff run. During his stint with the Growlers, he demonstrated an impressive level of poise, despite his reputation as a head-down skilled player. With plenty of time to prove himself to Leafs’ brass, it wouldn’t be career-defining to see him back in the ECHL at some point as a rookie, and contrastly, it would be a great sign for his development if he could manage even 30 points with the Marlies through a full slate of games.
Ty Dellandrea, Dallas Stars
The former first-round draft-pick and Team Canada assistant captain is coming off of a positive year in which he continued to be one of the major factors in the Flint Firebirds revival. Since being drafted, Dellandrea’s offense has widely been considered to be burdened by a lack of supporting cast in Flint, a sentiment that was partially lost this year, thanks to the help of Russian forward Evgeni Oksentyuk. The duo combined for nearly 150-points and thrust Flint into contention for one of the top-10 teams in Canada throughout the year.
Dellandrea seems to be poised for a bit of a bubble season, as NHL roster odds go. With Corey Perry likely being the only Star forward to walk this offseason, it seems a little unlikely that there will be an opportune roster slot for which to place the young centerman. That being said, it would be a crime not to at least give him an opportunity to prove everyone wrong by making an early impact. While he won’t be restricted by a 9-game or even 45-game limit, Dellandrea will have to show some indication of being an effective middle-six forward if he hopes to stick in Dallas past November.
Alex Khovanov, Minnesota Wild
After posting nearly two points per game in his third season with the Moncton Wildcats, Russian forward Alex Khovanov is in place to challenge the Minnesota Wild brass with a very difficult decision in the fall. Khovanov has had an immense amount of success wherever he’s played and his broad, mature skillset makes his pending professional debut all the more interesting.
While Khovanov has experienced a certain level of offensive success due to his comparative physical strength in the Q, he also possesses a set of skills that could help him to make an immediate impact wherever he ends up. If he does begin the year with the Iowa Wild, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him outgrow that assignment within a few months (which is why I have a feeling that Bill Guerin might see that as his first option). On the other side of that coin, however, the Wild are in a position to open up two or more slots in their top-six, a void that could provide an immediate opportunity to other Wild forwards and opening up a subsequent opportunity for Khovanov.
In the end, I believe the AHL will be his eventual landing spot, an assignment that I would hope does not turn him away from the organization immediately.
Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Anaheim Ducks
The Halifax Moosehead captain turned Moncton Wildcat might be the most disappointed of all graduating CHLers. The 20-year-old had been traded to perhaps one of the most competitive teams in Canada before the season coming to an abrupt end. His intelligent style of play often made his contributions seem almost lucky at the junior level, however, the consistency and skill that he also possesses to back up his intelligence make him a dual-threat.
Unfortunately, while Groulx would likely be capable of taking on any range of assignments for the Ducks, the team simply won’t have a slot available for him. His outside chance of making the immediate jump to the NHL will likely hinge on the Ducks moving some of their forward depth out the door in order to bolster their defense, which has been their Achilles heel in a struggling season.
In the case that such a transaction does not come to fruition, Groulx will have an excellent opportunity with the San Diego Gulls in which he should be expected to perform quite well on both sides of the puck – a 50 point rookie campaign in the AHL should not be out of the question.
Gabriel Fortier, Tampa Bay Lightning
After spending the entirety of his major junior career with the remote Baie-Comeau Drakkar, the Lighting’s first pick from the 2018 draft was traded to… you guessed it, the Moncton Wildcats. Throughout his time with Baie-Comeau, Fortier was known for being a reliable player on both sides of the puck a trait that carried over to his tenure with the Wildcats. Unfortunately, since being drafted, Fortier’s offensive growth has been slow, and while he’s shown signs of growth foundationally, he hasn’t been able to put it all together.
With a logjam of players in the Lightning system, Fortier likely has a few years grinding it out in the AHL ahead of him. The Crunch have proven to be an excellent spot to foster the development of players who play the Lightning style, and Fortier should be no exception, although, there doesn’t appear to be a short term path to the NHL for the gradually developing forward.