5 European prospects ready for the NHL

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Each offseason there are veterans who fade away, only to be replaced by up-and-coming prospects the following October. Call it the NHL’s version of the Circle of Life—only with ice and without Elton John. Neate Sager broke down the five most likely prospects from the CHL that are most likely ready to make the jump to the NHL. The prospects he lists include Brett Connolly (Lightning), Nino Niederreiter (Islanders), Erik Gudbranson (Panthers), Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets), and Gabriel Landeskog (Avalanche). In all, there are four players from the 2010 Draft and another from the recent 2011 Draft that was held in Minneapolis.

But there are more prospects chomping at the bit to make the NHL than just those who play in the Ontario, Western, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues. Here we’ll list the five players who are most ready to make the jump to full-time NHL hockey next season.

5. Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings (Slovakia)
The 19-year-old Slovakian would already be an NHL regular if it weren’t for the organization that has been developing him over the last few years. It’s hard to believe the talented left winger has already spent two seasons in the AHL with the Red Wings affiliate in Grand Rapids. Last year, he impressed management enough to for a 9-game call-up to fill-in while the Wings dealt with injury problems. The talented winger has put in a lot of work to become more responsible on the defensive side of the puck—it should pay off with a full season with the NHL club this season.

4. David Rundblad, Ottawa Senators (Sweden)
Rundblad is talented enough to make the jump to the NHL and the Ottawa Senators have a spot for him. Their blueline isn’t exactly the deepest in the league and with low expectations for the season, the team can afford to deal with the unavoidable growing pains of a rookie defenseman. At this point in his development, he’ll be able to score points from the backend, but he’s going to give up his fair share of chances against as well. The bottom line is that he’s a productive player who’s ready to show what he can do in the best league in the world. He had 50 points in 55 games in the Swedish Elite League last season against grown men. Not bad for a 20-year-old. Not bad at all.

3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes (Sweden)
Last season was Ekman-Larsson’s first year in North America—and honestly the Coyotes seemed like they didn’t know what to do with him. The former 6th overall pick played in 48 games in the NHL and could have hung in there for the rest of the season if the Coyotes were desperate. But if Phoenix wanted to develop him properly, he should have spent the majority of the season with San Antonio. Instead, he played half the season with Phoenix, spent 15 games with San Antonio in the AHL, and spent the rest of the time in Jobing.com Arena’s press box. He had flashes of brilliance and he had flashes of “rookie defensemanitis.” With another year under his belt, time to put on added muscle, and a summer to learn from his 2010-11 season, he should be ready to stick with the big club for the entire 82 game season. He has all the makings of a very good defenseman—but just like almost every other blueliner, it’ll just take some time.

2. Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils (Sweden)
Yet another Swede, yet another defenseman. Larsson’s the newest of the blueliner wave from the Scandinavian country and is this year’s title holder of “the next Lidstrom.” Each year a great defensive prospect gets the unfair label and each year it’s passed onto someone else. Larsson has all the makings of a player who will be able to step into the New Jersey Devils lineup this season—but it’s probably a bit premature to start calling him the next Lidstrom when Nicklas has more Norris Trophies than Larsson has career games played.

Back home in Sweden, Larsson has played on the same Skelleftea team as Rundblad for the last two years. Obviously, he hasn’t had the same breakout offensive season that Rundblad had last year, but scouts say that his defensive play is already better than his highly-touted teammate.  The Devils look like they’ll have a spot for him on their blueline and he’s already told people that he wants to play in the NHL.

1. Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild (Finland)
He might not be the best rookie next season, but he’ll certainly be the most exciting. He was almost a point-per-game player with HIFK Helsinki in highly competitive SM-liiga. What he lacks in stature (he’s 5’10”), he makes up for with unbelievable talent and on-ice awareness. His biggest obstacle will be trying to play center against the much bigger players of North America. But even if the Wild have to move him to wing, he’s the type of player who will be able to help the Wild immediately on the scoreboard. Considering they were 26th in the league in scoring, they could use all the help they can get.

Honorary Mention: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues (Russia)
Tarasenko didn’t officially make the list because he’s told Blues management that he’s staying in Russia for the 2011-12 season. Anyone who saw Tarasenko play in the World Junior Championships for Team Russia should be fully aware of just how good this winger can be. Even though he’s only 19-years-old, he already has three full seasons under his belt in the KHL. In 122 career games, he’s managed 29 goals and 24 assists for Novosibirsk Siber. Perhaps more impressively, he’s managed to be a plus player in each of his three seasons with his club. The 16th overall pick in the 2010 Draft is already a two-way player showed incredible toughness and leadership in the WJC when he returned from a rib injury in the 2nd period of the Gold Medal game to score the game-tying goal and set up the game-winning goal for Team Russia. He’s ready—and the Blues could use the additional fire power. If he changes his mind, he immediately jumps to #1 on this list.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.