Morris: How former Irish hockey players are doing professionally
The Observer | Wednesday, October 12, 2022
With the NHL season getting underway last week, all 32 clubs have solidified their rosters for the upcoming year. Among these, there are 26 former Notre Dame players looking to make an impact, whether it is at the highest level or some other professional league, such as the AHL. Some have been doing it for a decade, some just signed their first big, lucrative contract and others are just scratching the surface of their potential.
Group 1: The Returning Stars
Anders Lee and Kyle Palmieri (NYI), Bryan Rust (PIT) Cal Petersen (LA)
The four names above are without a doubt the best active Notre Dame alums in the NHL. Anders Lee is a former 40-goal scorer with three other years of at least 28 goals under his belt, including the 2021-22 season. His teammate, Kyle Palmieri, saw less success last season, but has a history of excellence with five consecutive seasons of 24 goals or more from 2015-16 to 2019-20. Bryan Rust is arguably the best alum from Notre Dame currently, having just produced 58 points in 60 games on the Pittsburgh Penguins first line, alongside superstar Sidney Crosby. Rust, age 30, recently signed a six-year contract extension to stay with the Penguins for the rest of his prime. The right winger already has two Stanley Cup championships under his belt and will look for his third this upcoming year. The last big-name Irish alum is goaltender Cal Petersen, who started his Los Angeles Kings career strong with a .924 save percentage (SVP) in his first eleven NHL games. He should bounce back after a down year in 2021-22 to reclaim the crease in LA.
Group 2: The Key Depth Pieces
Anders Bjork, Vinnie Hinostroza and Riley Sheahan (BUF), Jake Evans (MTL) Andrew Peeke (CBJ)
This second tier of players is comprised of five ex-Fighting Irish who officially made their team’s NHL roster but will not litter the scoresheet with goals every other night. Anders Bjork, a fifth-round draft pick in 2014, has struggled to find consistent success at the NHL level, but will nonetheless compete for a role in the bottom six on the playoff-hopeful Buffalo Sabres. Vinnie Hinostroza is a lock to play every game when healthy for Buffalo. He has been skating on the team’s third line during training camp and will open the season there. Riley Sheahan will start the year on the Injured Reserve (IR), but when he returns, will be an important depth center for a team whose penalty kill ranked 23rd out of 32 teams last year. Jake Evans will have an expanded role with the lowly Montreal Canadiens this upcoming year, which should help him surpass his current career-high of 29 points. He may even be able to reach his total from his senior year at Notre Dame when he scored 46 points in just 40 games. Andrew Peeke will also see an expanded role in 2022-23 on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ blue line. Peeke signed a three-year contract extension with the Jackets on Sept. 28, which kicks in at the conclusion of the 2023 playoffs. Peeke is known for his defensive prowess, with 191 hits and 169 blocked shots in 2021-22.
Group 3: The Potential Call-Ups
Steven Fogarty (MIN), Dennis Gilbert (CGY), Robbie Russo (NJ), Alex Steeves (TOR) T.J. Tynan (LA)
Everyone in this group has played multiple NHL games in their career at some point, but they will all be starting the 2022-23 campaign on their respective teams’ minor league affiliate. Steven Fogarty has spent time with the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres across his professional career after four years with Notre Dame (2012-16). He is under contract with the Minnesota Wild for 2023. Dennis Gilbert signed with the Calgary Flames this offseason after two successful years in the Colorado Avalanche pipeline. His 21 NHL games played in 2019-20 suggest he is certainly a viable option for the Flames to summon if they need extra depth on their back end. Robbie Russo is among the oldest of the group at 29 years old and has not played an NHL game since 2016-17. However, he had a productive year with the Utica Comets last year and will resume play with them once again in 2022-23 despite being under contract with the New Jersey Devils. Alex Steeves was a dark horse to make the Toronto Maple Leafs’ roster this year but failed to do so. He had an exceptional run with the Fighting Irish in 2020-21 with 32 points in 29 games, and at just 22 years old, has all the potential to become an everyday NHLer soon. T.J. Tynan dominated the AHL last year with 98 points in 62 games, good for the best point-per-game ratio in the league among qualified skaters. He could provide excellent depth scoring for the Kings in a pinch.
Group 4: The Colorado Avalanche Draft Picks
Cal Burke and Nate Clurman (COL), Cam Morrison (FLA) Jordan Gross (NSH)
The Colorado Avalanche just won the Stanley Cup, probably thanks to all the ND alums they consistently draft. The four players in this list are just a few examples of excellent scouting on the Avalanche’s part. Cal Burke spent four years at Notre Dame — one as the captain, in 2019-20 — and will look to build off his 26-point season for the Colorado Eagles of the AHL. Nate Clurman was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and battled to make the Eagles’ roster, but was sent down to the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) to open the season. Cam Morrison is a former second round pick who donned the green and gold from 2016-17 through 2019-20. He is slated to begin the year with the Florida Everblades, the Florida Panthers’ ECHL affiliate. Jordan Gross led all defensemen in points in the AHL last season with 65 in 61 games. He inked a deal with the Nashville Predators during the offseason and will look to continue his success there — and perhaps earn an NHL call-up.
Group 5: The AHLers
Cale Morris (CHI), Bobby Nardella (WSH), Mike O’Leary (MIN) Colin Theisen (ARZ)
This group is for players who were instrumental to the Fighting Irish during their college tenure but will likely never make the biggest stage. Even so, AHL players earn six figures and get to play hockey as a job. Cale Morris is a goalie who will aim to win the minor league starting job for the Chicago Wolves. Bobby Nardella, a former alternate captain at ND, is a defenseman under contract for the Washington Capitals for the upcoming year. Mike O’Leary spent the last two years in the Rangers’ organization before signing with the Minnesota Wild this offseason, where he will compete for top-six minutes on the Iowa Wild. Colin Theisen has the best chance to make the NHL out of anyone in this group, especially if he can build off his AHL stat line of 11 points in 18 games during his brief stint in 2021-22.
Group 6: The U23 Prospects
Max Ellis and Graham Slaggert (TOR), Spencer Stastney (NSH)
The last group is full of recent departures whose futures are unknown given their youth. Max Ellis, age 22, scored 16 goals in 39 games for the Irish during last year’s successful season before agreeing to terms with the Toronto Maple Leafs. This year will be a big one for Ellis, who will look to take another leap forward in his development. Graham Slaggert, best known for his overtime goal scored against North Dakota in the NCAA Tournament, a game in which he had two points, will play for the Toronto Marlies in 2022-23. Defenseman Spencer Stastney is coming off a very solid season at Notre Dame as a two-way player, defined by his 27 points and +18 rating. He is on track to suit up for the Milwaukee Admirals this year, Nashville’s minor league affiliate.
Contact Charlie at [email protected].