Prospect Profile: Carson McMillan

I’ll just give it to you straight: The Houston Aeros lack a certain offensive sparkle this season. Not quite the Bondo gray of last year, but not much better. It’s clear, anyway, that scoring will have to come from everyone for the team to even have a prayer of moving out of the division basement.

Carson McMillan - Photo by Chris Jerina (click photo for more from Chris)

And one guy who has stepped it up so far this season is sophomore winger Carson McMillan. He’s racked up 2 goals and 3 assists in 10 games, which maybe isn’t all that mind-blowing until you realize he only had 8 points in 56 games last year.

Can I get an ‘AMEN’?

Carson was in the same draft class (but 2 rounds behind) Cody Almond, who looked great almost from the start last season and earned a call-up to Minnesota as a result. Even when Almond wasn’t getting on the score sheet, his hockey sense was evident, and in comparison, McMillan seemed a little lackluster.

He often struck me as being a half-step behind at times, aggressive but not particularly smart about it, and prone to the occasional bad penalty. He had come out of Juniors so highly touted, earning more than a point per game in his final year with the Calgary Hitmen, what I was seeing each night for the Aeros just didn’t jive.

But it’s amazing what a year can do for a guy. His positioning is good, he’s not taking untimely penalties, he’s faster and more in-the-play. And it’s showing on the stats sheet as he is in a three-way tie for leading scorer on the team (which, admittedly, isn’t saying a whole lot).

He’s scored in the last two Aeros games and I got to see the most recent one. It was a 2 on 1 with center Warren Peters, who carried the puck in and dished it at the last second over to McMillan, who one-timed it in the net before Texas Stars goalie Richard Bachman could make it across.

After the game, he was quick to deflect credit:

“The goal tonight was all Warren Peters. He made a heck of a fake on the defense and on the goalie and gave me a wide open net, and I thanked him about a hundred times after the goal.”

Sure, but if I had a dollar for every time a couple of Aeros have been in that same situation and the pass was mishandled or overskated or otherwise not capitalized on, I could buy myself some seats on the glass at the X.

So credit where it’s due. The Aeros need someone who can finish, and McMillan finished. Here’s to a lot more of that this season, because this team is going to need it.

And if the Wild can get some decent production out of him, along with the toughness he’s already brought, that’s a big win for a 7th rounder.

The Aeros, the Rookies, and the Clean Slate

Here in a nearly empty Toyota Center, where the Houston Aeros just lost 4-0 to the division leading Chicago Wolves, crews are cleaning the stands and media folks are wrapping up their duties.

The stark contrast of the quiet arena and a clean sheet of ice after the chaos of the game seems to symbolically wipe the slate clean, even after an ugly loss. Only slightly better is before the game, before the gates open, before the music starts, when there’s nothing but fresh ice and the inherent promise that every hockey game holds.

However, at this point in the season, it’s more like, “How will the Aeros lose tonight?” They are firmly at the bottom of the division, 11 points out of playoff contention and only three wins since Valentine’s Day. They’re a fraction below .500, which is really the only marker left to aim for, other than personal goals, like next year‘s contract.

Still, since falling realistically out of contention a few weeks ago, the games have stayed close and interesting. In fact, the predictable answer to the question above was, “By giving up a lead late in the game, and losing in overtime or the shoot out.”

But even that small pleasure seems to have gotten an early start on the off-season, as the team is now losing by greater margins.

All that was left to celebrate tonight was the third period, which featured the professional debut of Wild 2009 6th round draft pick, goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

The game was already 4-0 by the end of the second with Wade Dubielewicz in goal. So, why not let the kid play, right?

As exciting as it is to get that first taste of what a player drafted a year ago can do, when he stepped on to the ice and headed to the wrong net, well, it seemed like an inauspicious start.

But the baby-faced rookie from Saskatoon took a u-turn, headed to the correct net, and after a few reassuring pad taps from his new teammates, spent his first 2 minutes as a pro goalie killing off an Aeros penalty against the best team in the division. He would kill another one later and was officially credited with 4 saves, though it seemed like more.

Part of that low count is somewhat attributable to his good rebound control, and he exhibited a great deal of confidence playing the puck, cutting down opportunities for the Wolves.

He’s a big goalie at 6’4”, 200 lbs and defends his crease accordingly. He also takes up a lot of space, particularly down low where having a little extra leg to extend proved valuable.

There’s certainly an element of needing to get up to the speed of the pros, but without question, there’s huge value in getting this kind of experience to go back to Red Deer with next year and look forward to a pro career in 2011-2012. Further, given Dubielewicz’s weak play of late and Anton Khudobin’s call-up to the Wild for the remainder of the season, it’s likely this won’t be his last time between the pipes during the final two weeks of the Aeros season.

Defenseman Marco Scandella also played, presumably kicking off his professional career in the Wild organization and likely developing his game in Houston next season. Without question, he made his physical presence known, including a solid hit in the first period that resulted in a fight. He didn’t hesitate to answer the bell and held his own in what was mostly a violent hug.

He played well, had 2 shots on goal, and was the only defenseman to not have a negative +/- for the game.

So, as the season fades away, sometimes not quickly enough on nights like this, the quiet post-game sheet of ice–and the fresh enthusiasm of a couple of kids embarking on a dream–reminds us of coming days when the slate will be clean and the season full of promise again.

Darcy Kuemper - Photo by Jason Villanueva

Cody Almond

One guy I’ve been impressed with since he first set foot on Aeros ice is Wild prospect Cody Almond.

He hasn’t gotten much attention because he’s shown up only once on the score sheet (before last night), but I’m telling you, the kid has the goods.

It took me a few years before I understood, or at least created my own understanding, of what “hockey sense” is, but watching Almond for a few games clarified it for me.

He just does the little things right. Every game, at least twice, I say to my colleagues on press row, “Did you see that? Did you see what Almond did there?” Just a handful of games into his pro career (because of a broken wrist early in the season), he’s showing a level of sophistication above and beyond your average rookie.

And last night in the Aeros 6-2 victory over Milwaukee, he finally put that together with the offensive skill he showed in junior and earned his first pro goal and an added assist. I had to send a “stop the presses” email to my editor, as the article was set to run today and Almond had tripled his points!

But if you’d been watching him closely like I have, you knew it was coming. So I talked to coach Kevin Constantine about him and his assessment was pretty glowing. He, too, knew it was coming.

The best part of writing this story was the look on Almond’s face when I told him that KC was very happy with his progress and promised he’d play in the NHL. Now, that’s a fun message to deliver.

Anyway, without further ado, click here to read the piece at Pro Hockey News.

Here are some cool pics of him from this week’s games in the mid-west, courtesy of Chris Jerina:

AlmondGoal_Jerina

Almond pots one 5-hole on rookie goalie Chet Pickard

Almond - Jerina

Goal celebration with linemate Matt Kassian

AlmondinPursuit_jerina

Almond stalks an opponent in Rockford

All Photos by Chris Jerina

Madsen Out

Wild’s 2007 fourth round draft pick Morten Madsen has called it quits and headed for Sweden for the remainder of the final year of his 3 year entry level contract with the Wild.

My colleague, Andrew Ferraro, over at The Third Intermission provided some analysis this morning.

Madsen had been a scratch in most, if not all, of regular season play thus far, so I suppose my spidey-sense should have tingled that something was up. As Andrew alluded, it’s not entirely a surprise.

He was pretty slick in the shootout though, so that part of his game will certainly be missed, as I suspect this Aeros team is going to be participating in their fair share of them this year.

Postcard from Houston: Aeros season underway

I made a promise to take good care of Colton Gillies when he got sent down from the Wild (tear in his eye, according to Mike Russo)… and the kid went and got his nose broken in a collision on Saturday night in Manitoba, only the second game of the season.

So, maybe we shouldn’t plan on any kids billeting at my house, eh?

He’s a tough cookie though and will be fine, though I’m sure will be sporting a birdcage for a while once play resumes on Friday for the home opener in Houston.

But Gillies’ story, combined with Craig Weller and Andy Hilbert being waived down to Houston, has really changed the complexion of this team at the eleventh hour.  The Aeros went from possibly having 3-4 rookie forwards to now having 3-4 forwards with NHL experience bumping guys who had impressed in camp off the bottom of the roster.

Even coach Kevin Constantine freely admits, he just doesn’t know what he has at forward yet, but says the defense might be the best he’s had in Houston, and goaltending is solid.

But if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a Wild fan and want to know how the prospects are doing down here, so here’s a run down:

DSC_0098 Falk hit cscJustin Falk: We’ve seen him the most thus far, since he was in Houston all last season and while I know he’ll land on his feet, he’s rusty to start the season. He had two huge turnovers right in front of the net Friday night and just doesn’t seem to have the noggin clicking at full game speed yet. But he was far and away the most improved player on the Aeros roster last season, so I’m not the least bit worried that he’ll find his game quickly.

In fact, the lanky stay-at-home defenseman scored his first professional goal on Saturday with a deflection off his leg into the net.

< Justin Falk – Photo by Fred Trask

Anton Khudobin: Anton had an excellent camp and played 60  NHL minutes in pre-season. He also got the start in the Aeros first pre-season game, but only played half a game of pre-season. Wade Dubielewicz played the full second pre-season game and was the starter for the Aeros first regular season game last Friday.

But with back-to-back games and not having done enough to force Constantine to play him again Saturday, Dubielewicz backed up Khudobin, who allowed only two goals on 25 shots and secured the first goal of the season.

There was potentially (and still might be eventually) a goalie dilemma, as Barry Brust is in the mix, too, but re-injured the foot that cut his season in half last year. But until he’s healthy, Khudobin and Dubielewicz are the tenders in Houston.

Carson McMillan: I haven’t seen a lot of him yet, but I’ll be honest, he looked out of place in the pre-season game against the Texas Stars, and he hasn’t played in either of the regular season games yet.

You always hate to judge a guy coming out of juniors too quickly. It took Falk half the season, maybe more, to look comfortable last year. So, let’s just keep an eye on him as the season moves forward.

Cody Almond: I don’t believe he’s played at all. He came down late after recuperating from an injury sustained during the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and has yet to get in a game for Houston. So again, he’s a guy we’ll have to touch base on later.

Maxim Noreau: Max seems to have picked up right where he left off. Crazy knack for scoring off shots from the high slot. I would expect him to continue to be one of the top scoring defensemen in the AHL this year, both even strength and on the power play.

Clayton Stoner: A guy whose expiration date is rapidly approaching, but is just a rock for Houston and never seems to get his due at the next level. But he plays, and always has played, with a ton of grit and tenacity.

He was even better last season wearing the captain’s ‘C’ and would quietly take the team on his shoulders at times when they lacked focus. And this season, he’s been no different. Hitting, fighting, and defending as well as ever.

Petr Kalus: I’d forgotten how fast he is during his year back in Europe. He’s fast and he’s got great hands and he plays a (sometimes excessively) gritty game, but he’s still got no finish.

I’m hoping, however, that like usual, when I write something about a guy, he goes out and does the exact opposite next game. Petr, if you get a hat trick on Friday, you so owe me.

Danny Irmen: It feels like Irms has been playing for Houston for 10 years. He’s just such a reliable, hard-working, responsible player, I think his contribution is overlooked. The question has always been his speed at the NHL level, but all I can tell you is how he is in the AHL. And he’s just steady eddie down here. I don’t see that changing, in either direction.

DSC_0122 MK MF cscMatt Kassian: There’s plenty off toughness in Houston, but Kassian is the heavyweight and could fill Derek Boogaard’s sizable shoes when his contract is up this season (not to say that he will). He’s not so big that guys wouldn’t fight him, but he’s taken on some pretty bad dudes in the AHL and never embarrassed himself. I think the key for him will be getting the big body and feet moving fast enough for the NHL.

< Matt Kassian – Photo by Fred Trask

Brandon Rogers: Brandon was a free agent signing who looked to be an emerging talent on the blue line when he was signed summer before last, but he had a rough year statistically and will look for a bounce back this season.

He’s a smart player with good passing and he can rack up the assists. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him with Noreau among the top scoring defensemen this season.

So, there are your prospects I’d consider prominent, but if you want a more broad view of the Aeros on the whole, what their season is shaping up like, at least on paper, check out my article at ProHockeyNews.com.