Taking a look at key Western Conference prospects Toffoli, Pirri, Connauton and Raanta
We're deep into August and the NFL pre-season is in full swing. For us that is a sure sign that the start of another hockey campaign is just around the corner. Training camps for the NHL get under way in less than a month and even sooner than that we will all be experiecing serious bouts of draft madness. Let's take a look at some prospects who are primed to take the next step in their careers.
To say that the King's Toffoli had a great season in 2012-13 would be putting it mildly. Toffoli put his impressive offensive skill set on full display with L.A.'s AHL affiliate Manchester Monarchs, where his performance earned him the AHL Rookie of the Year award. He followed that up with 10 regular season games and 12 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, picking up five and six points respectively. His playoff performance was impressive for a prospect with just 69 total games at the pro level. To step in and handle the pressure of the playoffs and excel bodes well for him going forward. Toffoli's ability to play either wing will be an asset for both the King's and fantasy owners as he could possibly move to the left wing to fill one of the open spots following the departure of Dustin Penner and Simon Gagne. He may start out playing a bottom six role, but don't look for that to last long, especially if he does move to the left side. There's every reason to believe he will be seeing time on the Richards line, and the odd shift or game with Kopitar. If Toffoli lands a spot in the top-six fantasy owners can realistically expect 40-50 points from him this season.
With Dave Bolland now plying his trade in Toronto, the Blackhawk's are looking for somebody to step up and take over the second-line center spot. This could be the chance for Pirri to step up and stake his claim now. Pirri has been considered one of the front-runners for the spot for a while now and looks every bit the part. This past season he led the AHL in scoring with 75 points in 76 games. That said the job won't be handed to him. There are several candidates vying for it - veteran Michal Handzus, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and even Brandon Saad, who has been a winger during his brief NHL career, is said to have first crack at it. Even if Pirri doesn't come away with the job in camp look for him to see plenty of time in Chicago this season. Obviously his best, and really only chance barring injuries, at a top-six role would be as the second line center. He could still make an impact as the center on the third line though. Depending on how the competition for the second center plays out Pirri could finish as high as 40-45 points, or as low as 25. Watch this closely during training camp to see how Pirri fares and slide him up or down draft boards accordingly.
The new era of Stars hockey is about to get under way and it will feature some new faces from down the road in Cedar Park. Connauton came over from the Canucks as part of the Derek Roy trade and went straight to work showing his new bosses what he's made of. After the trade, the talented rearguard racked up six points in the final nine regular season games, and then led the team in scoring in the Calder Cup playoffs, tallying two goals and three assists in nine playoff contests. Combine those regular season numbers with the Texas Stars with his work in Chicago and he finished with 31 points in 69 games, essentially mirroring his numbers from the season before. Connauton continues to make strides in his play without the puck and with three years of pro experience under his belt he looks poised to battle Jordie Benn and Aaron Rome for the one of the final two spots on defense in Big D. If he wins the job he could reasonably be counted on for roughly 20 points with a decent amount of PIM.
Unlike the three prospects noted above, Raanta is an unknown quantity on this side of the pond. The resume he has assembled back home in his native Finland however has been quite impressive. Raanta bucks the trend of gargantuan netminders (standing just six feet even) but it hasn't hampered him. He has played in top Finnish league (SM-Liiga) for the last four seasons and over that time his games played has steadily risen from 15 up to last year's 45, all the while his Goals-Against and Save Percentage have improved along with the heavier workloads. This past season saw him finish the regular season with a GAA of 1.85 and SV% of .943 and five shutouts as the cherry on the sundae. He backstopped Assat to the finals and amassed a 1.33 GAA and .955 SV% in 16 playoff games. He won't make the Blackhawks out of camp, but with his pro experience in Finland he should win the starting job in Rockford and then would be only one Khabibulin injury away from seeing time in the NHL as Crawford's backup. And if Ray Emery can succeed in that role, Raanta should as well.
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