Young stars shine at prospect tourneys

Elias Lindholm was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and may be ready for the NHL this season. Bill Wippert/Getty Images

As the NHL convened across North America for a slew of prospect tournaments, Insider's hockey writers followed suit, attending tourneys in Michigan, Florida and Ontario to get a glimpse of some of the league's future stars. Below are their notes from a weekend of prospect observation.

Notes from Traverse City

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- There were plenty of excuses lined up for Elias Lindholm if he was rusty in his return to the ice on Sunday when the Carolina Hurricanes played the Buffalo Sabres. He hasn't played a game since March. He's recovering from a bruised shoulder, suffered during a Hurricanes summer development camp. He's still adjusting to the smaller ice.

So GM Jim Rutherford kept his expectations in check while watching the No. 5 overall pick from the 2013 NHL draft from his spot above the ice at the NHL Prospect Tournament in northern Michigan. He didn't need to.

"I was surprised he played as well as he did," Rutherford said when we chatted after the game. "I was looking for a guy trying to get through the game and get his timing. The second and third period, his skill level really showed and his vision. He was really good with the puck. He moved the puck to the open guys all the time."

Rutherford's conclusion? "I was very, very pleased," he said.

The Hurricanes believe Lindholm is talented enough right now to play in the NHL in 2013, although the injury set back his summer workout plans during an offseason that is already a challenge for high draft picks. A top prospect's draft year can be a whirlwind -- from the draft combine to the draft, then the demands that come with being a player expected to help turn around a franchise. Lindholm said he's been managing it all, and even worked in some vacation time in Miami, but admits it's been a grind.

"The summer has been up and down," he said following Sunday's game, a 7-4 loss to the Sabres. "I wanted more hours in the gym. It is what it is. I think I'll just [make] the best of the situation."

If he continues to impress Carolina's decision-makers in training camp, he will likely end up playing on a line with Jeff Skinner, a scenario Rutherford prefers. The mix of Lindholm's vision along with Skinner's scoring ability balances out the Hurricanes' forward group. That's the ideal.

But considering that he's an 18-year-old switching to the North American game while coming off a shoulder injury, it may not necessarily play out that way. If Lindholm isn't ready for the NHL following training camp, there's going to be a tough decision to make. He hasn't ruled out returning to Sweden, while Carolina would prefer he plays closer to Raleigh if he isn't in the NHL, since the anticipation would be that he won't stay in the AHL for long.

"We'll see. We will have a discussion if I get sent down to the minors what is best for me," Lindholm said. "Maybe it's best for me to go back to Sweden and play another year. Maybe it's better to get used to the small rink and play in the minors. We will see."

More on the Hurricanes

The Hurricanes are still waiting for final word on the CT scan of defenseman Joni Pitkanen's broken heel. The expectation is that he'll miss camp and the start of the regular season, which opens up an opportunity on the Hurricanes' blue line for prospect Ryan Murphy. Through three games in Traverse City, Murphy leads all defensemen in the tournament with six points, registering three of his assists on the power play.

"His upside is his offense. He can certainly help our power play," Rutherford said. Although offense has never been the problem for Murphy.

"The key for him is being paired with the right partner and we've got a couple guys that suit that," Rutherford added. "The thing he needs to work on is the defensive side of the game. He's a smart enough player to figure that out."

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres are the defending champs of the Traverse City tournament, and with their 7-4 win over the Hurricanes on Sunday, advanced to another championship game. Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons have both looked good for the Sabres, but that's to be expected. The play of 2013 third-rounder Nicholas Baptiste, who scored again on Sunday, has drawn notice.

He leads the tournament with seven points, and has four goals in three games.

"He's got skill and he's pertinacious," said Sabres GM Darcy Regier when we spoke after the win.

The Sabres play the Red Wings on Monday night in the championship game, with two consecutive strong showings in this competitive tournament a positive signal that the rebuild is going well in Buffalo. Regier continues to collect young talent, knowing full well that not every high-end prospect turns into a high-end NHL player.

"They're not going to all work out, but you need enough numbers that do turn out," he said. "It sure isn't an exact science. They're kids."