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Battling to make the Big Leagues

As we draw closer to the start of the 2011-12 National Hockey League season, many of the teams have already made cuts to their respective rosters. NHL General Managers face the reality of icing a squad that can not only perform on the ice, but also comply with the salary cap and its restrictions off of it.

Due to the nature of the salary cap world, NHL teams are now forced to uncover and turn-up prospects that will fill spots on their rosters at a younger age, and for less money. As a direct result, we see on a yearly basis those players that are making the jump from Junior to their respective National Hockey League teams.They provide a cost-effective solution to filling those holes in the lineups.

The Ontario Hockey League season is underway without some impact players who are still with their “parent” clubs in an effort to make the impression necessary to stick it out in the show.

Barrie Colts forward Mark Scheifele is turning heads in Winnipeg with his stellar play thus far through exhibition contests. Barring some miraculous turn of events, not only should he sign an entry-level contract prior to Tuesday’s deadline, but also get the nine-game tryout to kick of the inaugural season of the reincarnated Winnipeg Jets franchise.

On the west coast, Devante Smith-Pelly of the Mississauga Majors is making a similar impact in Orange County. The Ducks are thrilled with his play and have yet to announce whether or not he will go back to junior. My guess is that he will get the same look as Scheifele does in Winnipeg.

Erik Gudbranson was a foregone conclusion to be a member of the 2010-2011 Florida Panthers. Unfortunately for the Panthers he went back to the Kingston Frontenacs due to a contract dispute. This year, with a contract already signed, it is extremely unlikely that this Gudbranson will wear the familiar black and yellow in Kingston anymore.

Heading to Long Island, it has yet to be determined whether the Niagara Ice Dogs will be the lucky recipients of Ryan Strome, or whether he will suit up for the Islanders through the duration of the season. His offensive instincts and skill have been “wowing” the Islanders and their fans, both of whom have been salivating over the thought of a Strome-Tavares combination since draft day.

The Chicago Blackhawks have also been extremely interested in Brandon Saad of the Saginaw Spirit. After a solid rookie camp, he has followed through with a stellar training camp and thus rapidly bumping him up the Hawks depth chart. On a young team like the Hawks, Saad is a nice piece to move forward with whether in Saginaw, or in the American League’s Rockford Ice Hogs.

One of the more notable names still with his NHL club is that of Kitchener Rangers defenseman Ryan Murphy. The Carolina Hurricanes finished their final pre-season contest on Saturday night and Murphy is still listed on their roster. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Hurricanes have kept a Kitchener Ranger from returning to junior. Only a year ago, Jeff Skinner stayed up with the big club and never looked back en route to a Calder trophy performance. Could lightning strike twice for Carolina?

There have been some notable names sent back from their NHL clubs last week getting off to hot starts in their OHL returns.

Tyler Toffoli has continued his production from last season putting up six points in just three games since his return from the Los Angeles Kings. Toffoli attended Canada’s summer evaluation camp for the World Junior Hockey Championships and should be a shoe-in for the team if he produces like he did last year.

Nicklas Jensen was returned to Oshawa on Friday and then proceeded to score a goal and add two assists against Erie on Saturday. The Danish forward is looking to build off of a nearly point-a-game rookie season in the OHL on an Oshawa team that has more experience. He will be counted on to carry his share of the load up front.

Without the players listed as still being with their NHL clubs, it has been an entertaining start to the 2011-12 season. In the event that they return to junior, their impact on each team will be felt as a result of the level of competition that they have been experiencing. One thing is for sure, with or without them, it is going to be an exciting year to be a fan of the OHL. But in the meantime, I wish the best of luck to each of them in their battles to make the big leagues.

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