Hockey is back! Okay, I'll acknowledge that it's only back in the sense that a bunch of teenagers operating at 75-percent capacity are playing in exhibition matches. But I'll take it!
A number of countries hold evaluation camps at the start of August as a way to get most of their best under-20 talents together and make their first impressions as each country begins to form a roster for the 2016 World Junior Championships in December.
Two Rangers prospects made took part in the opening games yesterday. The standout of the day was 2014 second-round pick and the fifth overall prospect in the Rangers' system (according to me). Brandon Halverson. The U.S. split their camp into two teams; Team White and Team Blue. Halverson, as part of Team Blue, subbed in for Lightning prospect Kris Oldham at the halfway point of the United States' game against Sweden, Halverson made 18 saves on 19 shots faced. Here are some of his best saves.
None of these saves are great displays of athleticism or desperation, but that's the point, essentially. Jonathan Quick recently wrote a great piece for The Players' Tribune in which he said that "In the NHL, 90 percent of the save happens before the player shoots the puck." In each of these saves, Halverson has to make minimal effort after the puck is shot because he's already anticipated where the puck would be going and is in position to make the save. It's a big improvement from when the Rangers drafted him, as he was prone to overshooting his angles and relying too much on athleticism. Now, he's not so much trying to stop the puck as just letting the puck come to him.
Alas, Halverson was finally beat towards the end of the game, though through no fault of his own. Rasmus Asplund, a projected first-round pick in the 2016 draft, slipped past 2015 fifth overall pick Noah Hanifin and received a pass for a breakaway, which he put through Halverson's five-hole.
Halverson was one of the standouts for the U.S.'s Blue Team in the 5-2 loss to Sweden. In fact, Halverson might have been the team's top player. Halverson enters the 2015-2016 cycle as the slight favorite over Alex Nedeljkovic for the U.S.'s starting goaltending gig at the World Junior Championships, and this performance won't make anyone think otherwise.
Aleksi Saarela, drafted by the Rangers in the third round this past June and my 13th-rated prospect in the Rangers' organization, also played yesterday for Finland in their 5-2 loss to the USA's White Team. It was a somewhat inconsistent but ultimately satisfactory performance from Saarela. Early in the game, he made a great play at center ice to backhand a pass to to an in-stride Patrik Laine while taking a hit. Laine buried the ensuing chance, giving Finland a quick 1-0 lead and Saarela a primary assist.
Saarela had an active first period, but alternated in the next two periods between some quiet shifts and some solid ones. In the second period, he did draw a tripping penalty from 2015 eight overall pick Zach Werenski after beating the US through the middle of the offensive zone.
I want to see a more consistency from Saarela in terms of making plays during the entire length of the game, but given the circumstances it was a good first game from Saarela. He formed a nice partnership with top 2016 draft eligibles Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujärvi. Saarela will be battling for a top-six spot on Finland's WJC team and could even push Julius Nätttinen for the team's first-line center role.
Finally, Sonny Milano is not a New York Rangers' prospect, but he is a native of Massapequa, New York, and this shorthanded goal for the USA's White Team' is just too good to ignore.
Both Halverson and Saarela will play once again today, and in fact the two will face each other, as Finland goes up against the US Blue Team.