When Jason Spezza went down with back problems last season, Mike Hoffman seemed a step closer to the NHL. The Senators brass had been hinting for over a season that they thought his game was nearly ready to take the next step- a very big one -to the NHL. Yet, by stroke of grotesque luck, Hoffman was injured that very weekend, eventually finding himself sidelined for eight weeks with a collarbone injury. He eventually made a recovery, received a call, and played three games with the Senators. Then, in his third game, against the Bruins, Hoffman was hurt again. He didn't return to the NHL for the rest of the season.
In a few short games, Hoffman showed tantalizing flashes of what he can do. In two and a half seasons of AHL hockey, he showed the organization the entire package. Hoffman is a smooth skating forward who shoots the puck as well as he passes it. His quickness and release made him into a veritable weapon on Binghamton, where he notched a twenty-goal season during their low-flying 2011-2012 campaign. He spent a fair amount of time manning the point on the powerplay under Kurt Kleinendorst and was a valued player this past year for Luke Richardson, as well.
The most encouraging numbers for Hoffman was that he has shown consistent, clear development over the past few seasons- first posting 25 points through 76 games in 2010/2011, then 49 in 76 in 2011/2012 and finally 28 in 41 this past year, and was on track for another twenty-goal campaign. Hoffman has accomplished about all there is for him in the AHL: he has won a Calder Cup, and grown into a dependable top-line player. One can't help but wonder what, if anything, he really has left to accomplish in the AHL. All of that, coupled with a seemingly fleeting opportunity must have made his injury last year a very infuriating one. Of course, adversity is something Hoffman has had to endure more than a few times in his short career.
To lift from my previous bio of Hoffman:
Hoffman's is no familiar tale- for a player in his third season of professional hockey and on the cusp of making the NHL, the Kitchener native has faced more than his fair share of obstacles.
Hoffman spent one season with the Kitchener Rangers. Then, he was cut. He was signed by the Gatineau Olympiques and then traded to Drummondville. The whirlwind wasn't done there. He was passed over in his first year of draft eligibility. By his second, he had shown an offensive dynamism: increasing his point total from 48 to 94. The Senators took a flyer on Hoffman, betting that his rise to relative prominence was a sign of things to come. It was. Dealt to the Saint John Sea Dogs before the start of the QMJHL 2009/2010 season, Hoffman would go on to be the MVP of Quebec Major Junior Hockey.
In January of 2012, we had Hoffman at nineteen on this list. This past January, he sat at fifteen. Now, he finds himself leapfrogging another four spots, to land at eleventh. Hoffman's ascendancy in the organization- from being a once passed-over draft eligible junior player who jumped from squad to squad, to a verifiable top-six prospect in the system- is a testament to the player and the development system in place. The Senators have take their time with Hoffman (injuries have, on occasion, forced them to more than they otherwise would have liked) and now are prepared to see if he is truly capable of paying dividends.
Pierre Dorion put it best in this article ranking the Senators' top ten prospects:
"I think he's in the mix to fight for a spot on the team," Dorion said. "It's unfortunate that he got injured last year, but he showed against one of the better teams in the League [the Boston Bruins] that he can be a force with his speed and his forechecking ability and his ability to get on the puck. I think he showed he's got the promise to be an NHL player.
"He's done his two years in the AHL now and we're looking for him to take the next step to the NHL. I think this camp will be a big indication of where Mike Hoffman's career is going to go down the road."
How awkward. The NHL put him as seventh and we had him in a lowly eleven. I hope we end up with egg on our collective face.
Since Hoffman is looking to compete for a spot out of this camp, it is worthwhile to look at how he might find one. He will be in it tough to earn a job. Ideally, Hoffman fits as a top-six player. Yet, with his fluid skating and speed, one could also see him in a competent third line role in MacLean's system. Hoffman signed a one-year, two-way deal this past offseason. It would seem to be a make-it-or-break-it year for both player and organization. If he doesn't crack a roster spot, Hoffman might be just as interested in moving on for new opportunities as the Senators might be to give other prospects a shot. But right now, things look good. Finally, after a junior career with its fair share of ebbs and flows, followed by several years riding the bus, Mike Hoffman is going to get his chance. Just watch that collarbone.