TORONTO - For many, it was the start of a special year.
Twenty-six promising prospects gathered Monday for the NHL Players' Association's rookie showcase, a two-day event that will see them pose for photos used on Panini and Upper Deck trading cards and autograph other merchandise that will be sold during their rookie season.
Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the five players selected behind him in the 2011 draft were all invited — travel complications kept Devils prospect Adam Larsson, taken at No. 4, from making it — along with others who might be ready to make the leap to the NHL this year.
They include two members of the 2007 draft class (Montreal's Aaron Palushaj and Detroit's Brendan Smith), one undrafted player (Maple Leafs goaltender Jussi Rynnas) and a number of blue-chip prospects.
The trip isn't all about business. On Monday, the prospects had a session with EA Sports to get a sneak peek at the "NHL 12" video game and were also scheduled to attend a Blue Jays game at Rogers Centre.
After the event wraps up on Tuesday afternoon, the players will move on to rookie tournaments and training camps with their NHL teams. Here's a closer look at five who could make an impact during the regular season:
1. Gabriel Landeskog, LW, Colorado: Selected behind Nugent-Hopkins in the June draft, he appears more ready for prime time. The 18-year-old is physically mature at six feet and a little over 200 pounds and should be able to earn a spot on a rebuilding team. The power forward counts Jeff Skinner among his friends and would love to follow in the footsteps of the NHL's reigning rookie of the year.
2. Blake Geoffrion, LW, Nashville: The grandson of Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion got a good taste of life in the NHL last season, appearing in 20 regular-season games for the Predators and another 12 in the playoffs. He'll be able to draw on that experience while still being considered a rookie (a first-year player must appear in 25 regular season games to lose that status). Geoffrion is considered a good two-way player and should have his versatility put to use by coach Barry Trotz.
3. David Rundblad, D, Ottawa: A major rebuilding project is underway in the nation's capital and Rundblad could be one of the bright spots. Acquired in a trade from St. Louis, the former first-rounder already has three full seasons of pro hockey under his belt in Sweden. Rundblad is a mobile blue-liner who should see some time on the power play.
4. Brett Connolly, RW, Tampa Bay: The 19-year-old is a prospect the Lightning are excited about, especially after seeing him score 46 goals in 59 WHL games for Prince George last year. That was a strong performance following a season that saw him miss significant time with a hip injury. Connolly doesn't have a roster spot locked up with the Eastern Conference finalists, but could be a contributor if he makes the team.
5. Brendan Smith, D, Detroit: The biggest question is how much NHL action he'll see this season with an organization famous for giving young players all kinds of time to develop. The 22-year-old defenceman had a respectable 32 points in 63 games with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins last year and could help fill a void in Detroit following the retirement of Brian Rafalski. Smith is considered one of the organization's top prospects.
The other 21 attendees for the NHLPA's rookie showcase are: Jake Allen, St. Louis; Carter Ashton, Tampa Bay; Simon Despres, Pittsburgh; Cody Eakin, Washington; Ryan Ellis, Nashville; Tim Erixon, N.Y. Rangers; Justin Faulk, Carolina; Jake Gardiner and Jussi Rynnas, Toronto; Brandon Gormley, Phoenix; Adam Henrique, New Jersey; Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida; Zack Kassian, Buffalo; Carl Klingberg, Winnipeg; Marcus Kruger, Chicago; John Moore, Columbus; Greg Nemisz, Calgary; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton; Aaron Palushaj, Montreal; Ryan Strome, N.Y. Islanders; and Mika Zibanejad, Ottawa.