Bursting Bubbles: the top five unexpected pre-season heroes

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The NHL pre-season is a perfect opportunity for players on the outside looking in to outperform expectations. Here are a few bubble players who delivered impressive efforts in the first few days of exhibition play.

Alex Belzile|David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Talk about an impressive week.

Even though he was held without a point in a 5-4 shootout victory for the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, right winger Alex Belzile was one of the team’s best players with a 90.9 Corsi for percentage and an expected goals for of 99 percent. For the uninitiated, even though Belzile didn’t score, he and his line absolutely controlled the puck when they were on. You can’t do much better than that, especially for a guy destined to return to the AHL.

But is he? Belzile had a goal and an assist in his pre-season debut earlier in the week and has genuinely been one of Montreal’s best players in September. He’s coming off a career season in the AHL, leading the Laval Rocket with 19 goals and 54 points after being a fringe AHLer for years. The two-way deal he signed at the age of 27 in May was his first NHL deal during his eight-year pro career, so he’s finally being rewarded for his hard work.

It’s a feel-good story you can really latch on to, and he’s done everything in his power to warrant staying up. But Montreal has a solid group of bottom-six forwards, meaning even if he made the opening-night roster, staying up with the big club long-term would be a challenge. Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal and Matthew Peca have NHL experience, but can you deny Belzile of a roster spot right now?

The best part about the pre-season is that it gives us a chance to see rookies and other borderline NHLers in action, playing more prominent roles than they’d likely get during the regular season. Let’s take a look at the bubble guys – the long shots to play regular roles in the NHL this season – having strong pre-season efforts, even in a small sample size:

Tomas Jurco, LW, 26 (Edmonton – 2 points)
Once a budding young prospect in the Detroit system, Jurco never really found his game in the NHL and bounced around the NHL and AHL for a handful of years. He didn’t sign a deal until January last season and spent a month with AHL Springfield before joining Charlotte on their Calder Cup run. Now he’s Oilers property, and with two points through two games and a expected goals rate of 0.62 – the second-best among players with at least 20 minutes of ice time so far – he’s making the most of his opportunity. Jurco has done enough early on to stick around for opening night on Oct. 2, but he needs to make sure he stays consistent to remain in the NHL.

Patrick Russell, RW, 26 (Edmonton – 2 points)
Like Jurco, Russell has put himself on the map early in the going in Oil Country. Yes, with three games played, he has had more opportunities than most thus far, but he leads all players with 12 shots and has a respectable 0.63 expected-goals rate. A strong, big-bodied forward with a powerful shot, Russell is a good example of a hardworking veteran with something to prove and he’s not wasting his opportunities, coming out as one of Edmonton’s better players in all three games he’s been in. It’s still going to be an upward battle for Russell, who has slowly become a more effective offensive contributor in the AHL, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start the season as the 13th forward for Edmonton.

Lukas Jasek, RW, 22 (Vancouver – 2 points)
Canucks fans have been very high on Jasek’s play early on, even if it’s unlikely he’ll get an opportunity to make the team out of camp. Jasek was rewarded for his hard work on Thursday with a power-play goal after a couple of close chances. He’s an undersized but smart winger with great speed and tenacity, and he can be a sparkplug player in call-up situations, but he still needs a couple years in AHL Utica before having a realistic chance at making the team. He’s not a complete player and you wouldn’t want him defending your zone late in a game, but this is a confident player playing great hockey right now and that can’t be ignored.

Manuel Wiederer, C, 22 (San Jose – 2 points)
With back-to-back 16-point seasons in the AHL, Wiederer surely isn’t your typical offensive forward. But his return to hockey after a seven-month absence due to a knee injury was successful, with Wiederer, the Sharks’ fifth-round pick in 2016 (150th overall) finding the back of the net twice. It’s impressive given his linemates were Lean Bergmann and Jayden Halbgewachs, but also because Wiederer was the one generating the scoring chances for the line. Wiederer has the skill set and smarts to be a solid bottom-six forward, but he’s still a few years away from a legitimate NHL chance, especially after missing significant time last season.

Andrew MacDonald, D, 33 (Calgary – o points)
McDonald will try to do everything in his power to erase the memory of his dreadful tenure in Philadelphia, filled with injuries, inconsistency and overall poor play. He could only muster a tryout deal with Calgary this summer, but has he done enough to warrant a closer look? He’s been good through two games with the Flames, and while he hasn’t recorded a point, he has held his own and can be a veteran depth option on a team that looks ready to pass over the reigns to a handful of youngsters. It’s a small sample size, but his 39:01 of 5-on-5 ice time through two games is the most among all defensemen and is it safe to say he’s been solid in his own zone? With Juuso Valimaki out indefinitely with an ACL injury, MacDonald might actually have a realistic shot at a roster spot come October.

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