2016 NHL Draft Bruins 1st round: Mixed bag

Where to start?

You spend an entire season watching players and investing your time and energy in them. You trust your instincts and you check your various lists and rankings, second-guessing yourself and wondering if you have it right. And to be completely honest, you go into it knowing that the various NHL scouts who represent their teams will likely take a completely different route than the one you have envisioned for them.

Such is the case with the Boston Bruins and the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

The Bruins, to the surprise of few, made Boston University defenseman Charlie McAvoy the team’s top selection at 14th overall in the 1st round, adding an extremely talented two-way defender to the mix. Those who follow this blog will know that I had Dante Fabbro rated slightly higher, but at this point, it is six one way, half dozen the other. McAvoy was the right pick for a team desperately in need of some skill, aggressive offense, and swagger. He’s a Long Island, N.Y. kid who should have been a senior in high school this season and instead was turning heads for one of the most storied NCAA programs with his aggressive offensive mindset and an ability to push the pace and generate offense from the blue line. In short, McAvoy is exactly what the doctor ordered as a player who was a different player (in a good way) from the one who began the season in November to the one we saw in March.

Talk to McAvoy for more than a minute and it’s hard not to like the kid. He’s honest, engaging and let’s face it- when you watch the way he skates and control the play, what does it matter that he grew up in New York loving all of those hated sports teams if you are a proud Bostonian/New Englander? He’s already embraced the Boston tradition and although he admits to being a NY Giants fan, it is clear that McAvoy knows the score and is drinking the Olde Towne Kool Aide.

All of this is just window dressing, however.

The kid can flat-out play. He’s only 6-feet in height, but he’s a thick 205 pounds already and I expect him to maybe play one more season at BU before he’s ready to turn pro. He skates so well, and moves the puck like a seasoned pro already. This blog beat the drum on Fabbro, but in all honesty- the margin between the two right-shooting defensemen was razor-thin and McAvoy is a solid selection at 14.

The Bruins then had a chance to make another splash at 29, with the 1st-round pick acquired from San Jose for Martin Jones last offseason, and here’s where things went off the rails from conventional thought

Center Trent Frederic ended up being the second of the B’s 1st-round selections. No- it was Frederic at 29… Really?

When I heard Boston owner Charles Jacobs announce “From the U.S. National Team…” I was thinking left-shooting D Ryan Lindgren or RW Joey Anderson (both of whom are Minnesota products)…Frederic was not on the radar in the 1st round. I saw him at the Under-18s in Grand Forks last April and I’m still trying to figure this one out- bear with me.

Let’s start out with the good, shall we? He’s a big kid- 6-foot-2, and 205 pounds. He’s heavy on the puck- a centerman from St. Louis who can grind it out and patterns his own game after Blues captain David Backes. He skates well enough and after talking to BU coach David Quinn,  who tried hard to recruit Frederic to the Terriers only to lose him to the University of Wisconsin, he said that the 29th overall pick is a “sleeper” who is an “athlete” and might end up being a better pro player than an amateur. It’s hard to doubt Quinn, who knows his hockey and is destined to be an NHL coach soon (assuming that’s what he wants out of life). Frederic has some nice NHL-caliber measurables and comes out of the storied U.S. National Team program in a record-breaking year for top-30 selections.

Having said that…the Bruins took this guy in the first round? Is it at least possible they could have waited and gotten Frederic later on?

I guess we’ll never know and the beauty of scouting is that you feel passionate about certain players and therefore, a player like Frederic, who by all accounts is a leader and quality young man, end up being someone taken well earlier than where the public lists have him.

I don’t know, though. I was struck by his gregariousness and the fact that Toronto president Brendan Shanahan went out of his way to embrace Frederic and congratulate him on his selection.

Unfortunately, I was also at the Under-18 Championship in Grand Forks, N.D. and I’m pretty sure I can name at least 30 players there I had ahead of Frederic in terms of how I would project them for the NHL. That doesn’t mean I’m right here, but I never even entertained him as a first-round option in 2016.

I guess it comes down to this question: Are you good with selecting a 4th line center with maybe 3rd line upside in the first round? If you are, then Frederic’s intangibles make him more than worth that standing. However, when you get down to it, he simply wasn’t projected there, and the NHL scouting community (at least multiple sources I have) did not react favorably to the pick.

Quinn thinks that Frederic has what it takes to go on to have NHL success, and if you’re a fan of Chris Kelly, then there’s something to be said for that. Unfortunately, with other players available along the lines of Wade Allison, Alex DeBrincat, Markus Niemelainen, Kale Clague, Adam Mascherin, Vitali Abramov, Carl Grundstrom, Boris Katchouk, Will Bitten, Rasmus Asplund, Lindgren, Anderson, and many others- Frederic simply doesn’t seem to make much sense. It’s one of those picks that makes you wonder if the B’s were bidding against themselves, and there’s no shaking the questions here.

I like Frederic based on the brief interaction I had with him tonight- He seems honest and straightforward- I want to like him as a Bruins prospect. But, I can’t get past the feeling that the Bruins outsmarted themselves here. A good personality and rock solid character does not an NHL player make.

I guess we’ll find out what Day 2 has in store, but after the buzz of McAvoy at 14, it’s hard to see what the impetus was behind a guy whose ranking by my own scouting service was 112.

Maybe Quinn is right and Frederic is that sleeper who will end up being the better pro in the long run, but it sure seems as if 29 was much too early to invest on a player who is as of today the definition of a “safe” center with a limited NHL ceiling.

The jury will be out for a while here, but in the wake of a nice value with McAvoy, Frederic does nothing but beg more questions…and that’s not exactly how Bruins fans wanted to draw things up.

I’ll be back with more later on Saturday, and we’ll see where the rest of this draft adventure leads…

 

 

 

TSP founder on Days of Y’Orr podcast- B’s prospects, 2016 draft

Greg Ezell and Bree Mellen hosted the Days of Y’Orr “Optional Skate” show- that award-winning Boston Bruins blog’s  flagship podcast.

We were on for about an hour and focused on myriad topics- a recap of Boston’s 1st 4 picks last June: Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn and Brandon Carlo. Against my better judgment, we also went down the road of Alex Khokhlachev…I just call it like I see it with Koko, and try to be as fair in my assessment as possible. We also talked goalies- Zane McIntyre, Malcolm Subban and Daniel Vladar.

When we transitioned to the 2016 draft- talked Dante Fabbro and Charlie McAvoy, plus Kieffer Bellows and a few others like Markus Niemelainen. Erie Otters 50-goal man and mighty mite Alex DeBrincat also gets some love because he’s just a pure shooter with killer instinct despite being only 5-7, and I close out with some capology talk and why the Winnipeg Jets are going to be making some real noise in the next few years.

Besides, any time I can make a Warrant “Cherry Pie” reference, it’s a good day on radio- give us that No. 1 single, Bruins!

Thanks again to the DOY gang for having me on!

Mapping out the Boston Bruins 2016 draft strategy

This post will attempt to look at what the Boston Bruins might aim to do come June 24-25 in Buffalo, as they currently have three picks in the top-50, with four more in rounds 5-7. This analysis is based on my knowledge of the draft picks combined with 16 years of covering the Bruins and their draft efforts/prospects for the New England Hockey Journal.

I. The Bruins’ draft philosophy

The Big Bad Bruins.

That’s been embedded in the team’s DNA for decades and you can see it in many of their picks and trades going well back into the 1970s. In 1986, GM Harry Sinden succeeded in bringing a talented but underachieving young former top-10 pick three years earlier in Cam Neely to Boston, and created a franchise icon.

Now, Neely is the embattled team president, receiving far more criticism and the questioning of his abilities as an executive than he ever did when he was patrolling the right wing, firing home 395 goals and 500+ points in a Hall of Fame career and endearing him to the Boston faithful with his throwback, blue collar style. His career ended far sooner than it should have, and the team spent much of the next decade looking for the NHL’s next big power forward (and they pretty much found him in 2006).

Those Big Bad Bruins days are long gone, and although the 2011 Stanley Cup champion was the closest thing the city had to those beloved teams from a bygone era. But through the decades, the organization has sought to identify and draft bigger, rugged skill players who can not only impact the game physically, but provide an offensive boost. Some of those picks were successful:

Al Secord, Gord Kluzak, Glen Murray, Kyle McLaren and  Milan Lucic come to mind, but far more players didn’t meet with the hoped for success: Brian Curran, Nevin Markwart, Shayne Stevenson, Matt Alvey, Joel Prpic, Johnathan Aitken, Kyle Wanvig, Darren McLachlan, Tommy Cross, Anthony Camara and Cody Payne are just some names. Others rumored to be in Boston’s wheelhouse but who weren’t available to be drafted such as Zack Kassian will go down as blessings in disguise that the team couldn’t waste an early first-rounder on.

Boston has tended to spend more time looking for the power forward or two-way D with an edge than the smaller, faster, skill forward or pure offensive defenseman who can excel at moving pucks up the ice and getting back to retrieve them. The B’s also prioritize smart, character types who can thrive in coach Claude Julien’s demanding system. This at times draws jeers for the tendency to see pure offensive or skill players overlooked, but that doesn’t account for the selections of David Pastrnak or Ryan Donato in 2014 with the team’s first two selections. Both are not only offensively-gifted skill guys but also have the head and heart for the game.

In fact, up until last year,  the Bruins seemed to be a best player available or “BPA” team, but when they drafted Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn with three consecutive first-round selections in the middle of the order, at least two of those players looked more like needs-based picks as opposed to taking the players whom many felt represented the top values on the board.

With two consecutive non-playoff finishes in the books, the B’s are under intense scrutiny this time around, and one cannot say with any degree of certainty that they will adopt a BPA mantra in a few weeks. However, BPA can appear to be a luxury when a team has as many holes and needs as the Bruins appear to entering the 2016-17 season.

II. Team needs

D-fense! (clap clap clap) D-fense! (clap clap clap)

It’s no secret that Boston’s team defense cost them a playoff spot this season and possibly more, as the case can be made that with a better than average core on the back end, the B’s might have been good enough to make a run at the conference championship.

The reality is- we’ll never know, because the D was so overmatched, especially down the stretch, that the implosion that saw the team miss the postseason in such spectacularly poor fashion, was, looking back on it, entirely predictable.

GM Don Sweeney played more than 1,000 NHL games at the position for Boston and Dallas, so he knows his defense needs a lot of work. We’ll toss out the whole Kevan Miller extension in this article because frankly- I refuse to believe he’s going to keep both Miller and Adam McQuaid on their current deals. The Miller extension had to be an opening move to trade McQuaid (plus Dennis Seidenberg and/or Joe Morrow, perhaps?) and begin more of a rebuilding of the back end than a re-tool as sold last summer when Colin Miller and Matt Irwin were brought in. In order to do it, Sweeney not only needs at least 1-2 capable veterans (and not the 5/6/7 variety either) and at least 1 youngster, maybe 2 from within the organization to come in and nail down a regular spot at a lower cap hit. Of course- to do that, he’s got to move some older, less productive guys out of the organization to free up the space. Easier said than done, and if the defense of June 2016 looks largely unchanged in September 2016, then the front office will have earned the sharp criticism. I’m pretty confident there will be changes, though- what remains to be seen is what those are.

When it comes to defenders, right-shooting D are more of a pressing need than guys who pass and fire from the left. Who’s to say that RHD will be a need in a couple of years from now in Boston, but as of today- watch for the B’s to look at spending some early draft capital on shoring that side of the ice up.

In addition to defense, Neely said the team needs to get heavier on the right side of the forward lineup. As a former RW and the preeminent power forward of his time, that makes sense. There are a few intriguing options in the draft, but nobody who can come in and contribute right away. Heck, even after his 45-goal season, I’d say that Senyshyn is still a few years and a more rounded effort in three zones from being ready to play for the Big B’s. That’s not a knock on the kid, but not everyone can be a Pastrnak and precociously show up as a rookie ready to go as he did after being the 25th overall pick in 2014.

The team could also stand to keep looking for skilled centers– there isn’t much room at the inn now, and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Donato, Ryan Fitzgerald even Cameron Hughes who was a nice under-the-radar pick in the sixth round last year, look promising at the position. However, landing a big and talented pivot on a longer-term timeline makes sense for Boston at this point, given that Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are both on the wrong side of 30.

With the selection of Daniel Vladar a year ago, goaltending isn’t a need, but watch for the B’s to seek value in the latter rounds. Zane McIntyre had a disappointing rookie pro year after so much promise, but this will be a bounce back year for him. Vladar is already under contract, so there’s another spot for a longer-term project in net the way McIntyre was six years ago.

With plenty of needs to go around, don’t expect Boston to get too picky, either. Of course, depending on who is available at 14, BPA and need could meet at the nexus, but for now- it looks like the B’s will try to grab the top-rated player on their board when their turn comes, regardless of position. And at least given the current projections at 14, it looks like either one of a pair of right-shooting defenders with Boston connections could end up pulling on the spoked-B in primetime.

III. Wither Dante or Charlie?

Dante Fabbro or Charlie McAvoy? McAvoy or Fabbro?

We don’t know for certain, but it seems that one if not both could be available to them. While I won’t go out on a limb to say definitively that it will be one or the other, this section will explain to you precisely why Fabbro and McAvoy make sense as value picks where Boston is currently sitting.

We’ll start with McAvoy- he’s more familiar to Boston hockey fans, having just completed his freshman season at Boston University, where he started out as a 17-year-old frosh. His start was a slow one, aided in part by his needed to shed a little unwanted weight, but by the time the calendar flipped to 2016, the Long Island (Long Beach, N.Y.) native was looking every bit the hot prospect he was expected to be entering the season.  (Highlights posted by the Draft Analyst)

The first thing about McAvoy is that he pushes the pace. He’s got an explosive first few steps and he loves to grab the puck and just go. For any fan that has seen the Bruins hemmed into their own zone, going with the D-to-D passes in the face of ferocious forechecking pressure, this is welcome news. If you’ve seen Torey Krug skate the puck out of trouble on the left side, McAvoy represents someone who can do the same thing on the right.

The best thing about McAvoy can get him into trouble at times, as he likes to pinch and gamble. I’ve seen him skate the puck all the way to the back of the net, fail to pick up the back side pressure and turn the puck over before his forward can rotate back to cover, leading to an odd-man rush the other way. A lot of that is just coaching and experience, but his decision-making will need to improve at the next level.

McAvoy only had three goals last season, but he’s got a good shot- he can get it off in stride or generate power from a stationary position and by the end of the year he was shooting with more authority. Watch for him to jump to double digits next season with the added role and confidence as a sophomore.

Here are more highlights thanks to NHL prospects posting on YouTube:

Now- as for Fabbro, he’s headed to BU in the fall, where he and McAvoy will form a pretty dangerous 1-2 punch from the right side for coach David Quinn and Co., and will likely be deployed on separate PP units to spread the wealth.

Fabbro isn’t as flashy offensively as McAvoy is but he’s more cerebral. His hockey IQ is among the highest of any player I saw this past season, and he has the kind of panoramic vision to rapidly survey the ice, read the play and move the puck to the right spot. When you look at how much Boston’s transition game has foundered of late, Fabbro’s skill at getting the play up the ice quickly would be like manna from heaven.

Impressive highlights of Fabbro from the U18s last April (bigwhite06):

He’s taller than McAvoy is but not as thick through the core. He’s not as dangerous with the big shot, but he’s got a sneaky-quick wrist shot that he uses to good effect and it comes off the blade of his stick in a blur.

What I really like about Fabbro is his personality- there’s a healthy swagger there of a born leader who knows he’s good, but will put in the work and gut out an injury to help his team win. Here’s another highlight package on Fabbro by NHL Prospects:

These two are very close and you pretty much have to flip a coin between them. Having live scouted both, it is hard to imagine that teams seriously considering one or the other see a wide gulf between them- they’re extremely close in terms of what they bring to the table and that all-important “upside” when it comes to defenders in this day and age of the NHL. In the end, their combine interviews, coupled with whether both are on the board when Boston picks, may be the deciding factor if one or the other gets the call.

The good news for Boston fans is that if both are off the board at 14 (and that’s entirely possible), then that means a couple of pretty good players who weren’t projected to be available at 14 going into the draft will be sitting there for the B’s. Assuming, of course, that they want them.

IV. What about Jakob?

So, the Jakob Chychrun question and the desire for the Bruins to move up to get him has reared its head again.

Let me be clear: I like him as a player. I’m not sure I like him anywhere near as much as I did after watching him on film as an OHL rookie and earlier in the season.

After watching Chychrun at the U18s in April, I was left wanting more and wondering about his hockey IQ. I see a player with major league tools (size, skating, passing, shot), but to borrow an old cliche here- not sure about the toolbox (vision, instincts, read-react, judgment and decision-making under pressure).

The problem I see see with Chychrun right now on Twitter and other places is that he’s still living off of an older reputation and I don’t see that public perception has caught up to the fact that a shaky 2nd half and OHL playoffs followed by a mediocre U18 tourney has him trending downwards. Now, that’s all relative…it’s hard to imagine that he’ll fall far in the draft past a team like Buffalo at eight, for example, but if he does- you’ll immediately see the various fanbases clamoring for their teams to move up decisively to nab Chychrun.

He’s a good player and you can’t teach his size, skating or natural ability. But, is he the potential franchise cornerstone he was being hyped up to be back in October or November? I’m not sure about that.

If you want a classic case of a player who will instantly represent a “win” for the team that drafts him, especially if he goes anywhere after pick 5 or 6, then Chychrun is the guy. But, if I had to bank on JC being the player in the NHL at his peak that we thought he was even six months ago, I’m not betting the farm. If I’m wrong, so be it- but then he will have realized his immense potential and that’s good news. However, Chychrun might end up being just another serviceable NHL D- if you need a major hit on the blue line, that doesn’t get it done.

Fabbro was his D partner on Team Canada and outplayed him by a wide margin. McAvoy thrived in a tough competition level as a 17-18-YO freshman, and some scouts look at him and believe he would have put up some big points in the OHL this year. We can’t prove it, but the gap between Chychrun and those two isn’t as big as fans might think.

V. Okay, enough about pick 14…how about the others?

The B’s watched their second first-rounder (acquired last summer from San Jose for SCF goalie Martin Jones) go from 18 to 29 or 30. That’s a game-changer for Boston.

They could certainly hold onto the pick and make it near the end of the draft’s primetime event on Friday night, but that would leave them with just one selection between 30 and 135 on Day 2.

Assuming Sweeney doesn’t try and move that SJS 1st for NHL help on D, there’s a possibility he could also trade back into the early 2nd, to give him a pick somewhere around 31-35 and 49, while picking up an extra 4th-rounder in the process to narrow the gap.

I know what you’re thinking right now…you’re thinking- why, oh why did he trade the 3rd- and 4th-round picks in 2016 for John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak (to say nothing of Brett Connolly– acquired by Sweeney’s predecessor for 2nds in ’15 in ’16)? I don’t have a good answer- it didn’t work the way he wanted to, so the criticism here is valid and warranted if the B’s do end up moving the 29 or 30 for an extra 2nd and 4th. Rant away. But when you’re finished, stop a moment to consider the B’s history with second-round picks and maybe it’s not so bad after all?

If the B’s hold onto the late 1st, I like the potential for another big, swift-skating D there in Finland’s Markus Niemelainen. He was the nails at the U18s, even if he didn’t put up big offensive numbers and I find him criminally underrated by Central and other lists that have him in the 50’s and 60’s. He played for a gong show of a club in Saginaw this year, but he’s so nimble and quick for such a big man, and you can see that there might be some real untapped offensive potential with him. Of course- if Boston likes him and thinks they can get him in the early 2nd, they might move that 1st for more assets.

Another skilled 2-way D worth following is WHL guy Lucas Johansen, younger brother of Nashville C Ryan Johansen. The Kelowna Rockets rearguard can really skate and pass- he’s more of a finesse, positional defender versus a classic player who brings a physical edge in going both ways, but when it comes to wheels and head, he’s got 1st-round tools.

Another rising player, but one to consider up front is Tri-City Storm RW and Clark Cup playoff MVP Wade Allison.

If Chychrun is still enjoying the positive wave of goodwill and hype based on last season and the early part of 2015-16, then Allison is the opposite- he got virtually no buzz until he went off in the season’s second half and vaulted up the various lists and rankings. The earliest you’ll probably find him in public is in the 40s-low 50’s, but I could see him breaking into the late 1st or at least off the boards in the first few picks of the second round. Look at this guy go…video compliments of Storm Hockey:

Allison is a powerful skater who drives the net, excels in puck possession, has the kind of heavy shot that terrorizes goalies and brings a solid, workman-like mentality to the rink every day. Oh, and remember what I said earlier about Neely’s comment about getting heavier on the right wing. Just sayin’… MVP! MVP! MVP! (Great interview, too)

Alex DeBrincat won’t get picked by Boston late, but if they’re serious about liking Johnny Gaudreau back in 2011 as was reported last season, then there’s no reason for them not to take this dangerous scorer even with the very small size. DeBrincat is simply deadly and worth a first-round pick, even though he might slip to the second.

At 49, the B’s could see some value with U.S. NTDP captain Ryan Lindgren, who is a personal favorite as a jack-of-all-trades who might just be a master of some- like winning. He’s not exceptional, but is so polished, smart, competitive and underrated…he deserves more attention than he gets. If someone like a Filip Hronek or Taylor Raddysh falls to the bottom third of the second round, Boston might see the value there. Hronek impressed against men in the Czech Extraliga this year and is PP ace with  skill and brains- he’s just real light and reedy in his build- a lot of maturing and off-ice work ahead. Raddysh is one of those on-again, off-again big wingers who is a bit of an enigma, but if he can pick up a step and add some consistency, could be a horse (remember- mission: get heavier on RW!)

After that, unless the B’s acquire an extra pick, they have a loooongg wait.

In the 5th round, you’re looking at dark horses and sleepers- you could see a few overagers- 1996 and 1997-born guys. I wrote about a few of them in the June issue of the New England Hockey Journal- you should check it out. http://www.hockeyjournal.com

VI. Can we just wrap it up? Please?

So, there it is. My first real comprehensive take on the Boston draft and its potential for this blog.

It sets the foundation for what I hope is some quality discussion and research.

One thing I will leave you with (if you’re even still reading and there’s a quiz on Twitter btw) is this: avoid groupthink. Just because I’m high on Fabbro or McAvoy doesn’t mean I’m right. Research the players- seek different angles and opinions and don’t be so quick to form the foundation of your views based on what others are telling you.

I realize that resources are often scarce and viewings of these players few and far between, but if you want to be prepared for what lies ahead when Boston makes that first critical pick in Buffalo, you owe it to yourself to arm yourself with the knowledge to be a critical thinker in the debates that are sure to follow, especially if the B’s pass on a “higher” profile player to grab their guy. Following the other lemmings who are convinced that player a or player b should be drafted at that spot over whomever the Bruins choose is not critical thinking. At least, not if you haven’t done some honest work yourself to form that opinion instead of just hopping on the bandwagon.

Ultimately- whether the B’s grab a popular choice or not- whether perceived as good or not so good- we’re still not going to know if they were successful. Resist the urge to claim victory or defeat and adopt the kind of patience that will be required as the Bruins attempt to build a winning jigsaw puzzle for more sustained success beyond 2017.

 

 

 

 

Observations on several 2016 NHL draft hopefuls

Watched Canada-USA on 26 December in its entirety and then went back to do iso work on several of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft candidates in action to see how they looked.

A couple of points/caveats up front:

  1. I am not in Finland, so all of my analysis is based on film study.
  2. While helpful, video analysis is not as effective as a live viewing given the limitations you have in terms of not being able to see much of the play away from the puck.
  3. I will not weigh in on players with specifics about their game if I don’t see them at least on film/video. As USA-Canada was the only game I watched, I cannot provide insights on Finland-Belarus, Sweden-Switzerland or Russia-Czech Republic.

USA

Auston Matthews, C (Zurich)- The horse. The expected No. 1 overall pick in Buffalo next June has been playing pro hockey in Switzerland this season. He did not have a dominating game, but you could see his impressive natural gifts on display: his natural strength and ability to protect the puck and establish an effective cycle. He goal was vintage Matthews- he was lurking around the goal crease, and when Zach Werenski’s shot squeaked through Mason McDonald’s pads and sat near the goal line behind him, Matthews finished it off. Matthews is a powerful skater who generates good speed and demonstrates command of his edges as he works through traffic in the neutral zone and drives the net in the offensive zone. He has superior vision and he made several good passes during game action that didn’t bear fruit but showed off his deft touch with the puck and offensive IQ. He assisted on Werenski’s power play goal to make it 2-1 in the third period.

Matthew Tkachuk, LW (London- OHL)- He registered a secondary assist on the Werenski and Matthews goals (2 helpers for the game) and didn’t look out of place on the top USA line. He’s an impressive specimen, but a different player than his dad was, showing a little more creativity and shake n’ bake than the straight-ahead force of nature Keith was in his prime. The younger Tkachuk protects the puck well and spends the majority of his time in the dirty areas, banging bodies and creating space. I thought Canada did a pretty good job of preventing him from creating the kind of net-front presence and havoc-wreaking he’s been known for with the Knights this season, but you could certainly see why he’s projected as a top-3/5 pick come June. It will be interesting to see if he can impose his will on Sweden tomorrow- it will be a tough test.

Matt Tkachuk

Charlie McAvoy, RD (BU- NCAA)- Quiet game from the BU freshman who isn’t all that tall, but thickly built and strong for someone who just celebrated his 18th birthday on the 21st of this month. You can see how he skates with his head up and advances the puck effectively and with confidence. He made a couple of nifty outlets and lead passes through the neutral zone, but wasn’t all that noticeable throughout the game. Sometimes, when it comes to defensemen, that’s not such a bad thing. He’s a good forwards/backwards skater in a straight line, but his footwork could stand to get more fluid, as he can get caught flat-footed when play rapidly reverses direction and he’s not as smooth in his transitions/pivots. I like this kid- he’s got swagger and brings the kind of mobility, vision, intelligence and puck skills that are so important to the modern NHL defenseman.

Chad Krys, LD (USA U18- USHL)- Tough showing for the Connecticut product and son of former Bruins prospect Mark Krys. I’ve long admired his offensive ability- skating, puck skills, vision and instincts are first-rate, but defense is holding him back and it showed yesterday. He got caught too deep in the offensive end on the Mathew Barzal jailbreak goal and spent a good amount of time (when he was out there) puck watching. He’s an April 1998-born player, so he’s young and has plenty of time to figure things out. Yesterday won’t go into the rolls of his best games, but he’s a superb four-way skater with smooth acceleration, quick, crisp transitions and a separation/recovery gear when he’s in the open ice. He’ll make the wrong read or bad pinch- that goes with the territory and I suspect Ron Wilson will shelter him given his youth, but there’s some impressive raw material for the BU recruit for an NHL team willing to be patient.

Canada

Julien Gauthier, RW (Val-d’Or- QMJHL)- Massive man child (6-4, 221) oozes potential with his impressive skating and shot for one so big. The Foreurs winger strikes me as more of a complementary player who needs skilled playmakers on his line to make it work, but someone will jump on him early. You could see his skating- a long, powerful stride- on display yesterday as he was generating speed off the rush. He started the Barzal goal play by blocking a Louis Belpedio shot and then charging up the ice with USA backpedaling. He got the secondary assist- getting the puck to Rourke Chartier– and showed an adeptness at recognizing the situation when Belpedio had the puck and closing quickly– putting his body in front of the shot and then taking off up the ice. Those are the kinds of plays that will have NHL clubs knocking on his door real soon.

Thoughts on Central Scouting’s 2016 NHL Entry Draft watch list

We’re still a couple of months away from Central Scouting’s annual midseason rankings, but the NHL’s amateur talent evaluation staff released the watch list they put out every year as the new season gets underway.

In this particular iteration, the CSS does not rank the players, but organizes the players by league/competition level and assigns each an A, B or C grade. Players with ‘A’ grades are expected first-round selections next June. ‘B’ players are expected draft selections and the ‘C’ players are on the bubble but have a shot- hence the use of the “players to watch” to describe the list.

But enough with the administrativa…here are some thoughts on a few of the players on the list I have some knowledge about through live and online viewing, not to mention discussions with NHL scouting sources. This is by no means a comprehensive list- my position with Red Line Report limits my ability to go into exhaustive detail, but my hope is to give the readership a good starting point for further research.

Vitaly Abramov, LW Gatineau (QMJHL) 5-9, 172 (B)- Little but electrifying winger brings pure speed and dynamic puckhandling and creativity to the table. Impressive start and he’ll likely rise as the year goes on because of his upside.

Kieffer Bellows, LW U.S. NTDP (USHL) 6-0, 196 (A)- Son of former NHL 50-goal man Brian Bellows is a Boston University recruit and native Minnesotan with a knack for finding the back of the net. He’s a good skater but has the scorer’s instincts, hands and heavy shot to finish off chances.

Tyler Benson, LW Vancouver (WHL) 6-0, 200 (A)- Injuries slowed his start as he has yet to get in on the regular season with the Giants, but this edgy scoring winger has the tools and pro attributes to be an early pick and eventual NHL star. He was impressive in helping Canada to yet another gold medal at the August Ivan Hlinka tourney in Europe.

Jakob Chychrun, D Sarnia (OHL) 6-2, 215 (A)- Wonderful talent/skill with the head and maturity to be an instant impact defender and eventual franchise cornerstone. His first goal of the season exploded off his stick, shattering the the shaft, but the puck rocketed into the net top shelf. With his ability to skate, move the puck and play a smart game, he’ll be the first defender off the board in June and will challenge Auston Matthews for top billing.

Alex DeBrincat, RW Erie (OHL) 5-7, 165 (A)- Late ’97 Michigander lit it up to the tune of 51 goals and 100+ points a year ago riding shotgun with Connor McDavid. He impressed by amping up the production when McDavid was lost for a month with a hand injury, so there is reason to believe the small but fast and highly dangerous scoring wing can do it again.

Timmy Gettinger, LW Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 6-5, 206 (B)- Massive winger isn’t fancy but he just goes to the net and unleashes a cannon shot that can beat goalies cleanly or uses his hand-eye coordination to deflect pucks into the net. Gettinger was one of the few bright spots on Team USA’s Ivan Hlinka entry this past summer. He’s a bit raw at this stage, but you can’t argue with the physical attributes.

Olli Juolevi, D London (OHL) 6-3, 180 (A)- High-end Finnish talent from the back end left home for North America and is an impressive package of skating, passing, shot and offensive instincts. He alternately impressed and provided scouts with plenty of areas to address in the first weekend of OHL games, but there is no arguing that he has unlimited potential. He’ll have to work on the little things like his reads, pinches and making the right decisions under pressure, but he’s going to rack up some points for the powerhouse Knights this season.

Luke Kunin, C University of Wisconsin (Big Ten) 5-11, 193 (A)- Missouri native who grew up skating with Tkachuk showed off the impressive chemistry the two have together when he blasted a top shelf shot past Evan Sarthou just seconds into the All-American Prospects Game last week. Has the skating and shot of a prolific scorer and the Badgers will welcome him with open arms after a tough season in 2015.

Charles McAvoy, D Boston University (HEA) 6-0, 208 (A)- Heady defender can do it all- he pushes the pace with his skating and runs the PP like a seasoned veteran. The Long Island native might not possess ideal size, but his brain and skill level will allow him to make a rapid transition with the Terriers as a freshman.

Jesse Puljujarvi, RW Karpat (Finland) 6-4, 205 (A)- Finnish power forward will be a coveted draft commodity for his size, smarts and polish. A guy as big as he is- essentially a linebacker on skates- should not be as quick and nimble while making it look so effortless. He, Matthews and Chychrun in my view are at the head of the 2016 class.

Matthew Tkachuk, LW London (OHL) 6-1, 200 (A)- I must admit, my man-crush on Keith’s oldest son might be a tad disturbing, but this is a kid who can just flat-out get things done. You hate to compare him to his old man, but it’s inevitable, and while he might not have Keith’s pure size and power (yet) he’s every bit as smart, instinctive and driven. Beyond the uncanny physical resemblance to his dad, Tkachuk is a different player, but every bit as coveted in the modern NHL for his ability to provide offense and be effective in the faceoff circle (even though he’s a winger). Tkachuk was a force in the AAPG and racked up 6 points in his first two OHL games as an encore. The scary thing is- had his linemates been a little more on the ball, he might have scored 10+ last weekend. He’s active and engaged around the net and is only going to get better now that Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak are back with the Knights. Just in time for Halloween- the OHL had best be ready for a horror show.

Matt Tkachuk

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015 All-American Prospects Game notebook: NHL sons Tkachuk, McInnis lead hit parade

Had a chance to watch last night’s All-American Prospects Game played at First Niagara Center in Buffalo (broadcast on NHL Network for those like me who couldn’t be there in person) and the United States has some impressive talent coming into the draft next June 24-25 (in the same building, by the way).

The game, which began as a tradition in 2012 by USA Hockey as a model on the CHL’s highly successful Top Prospects Game played every January for the past 15 years or so, featured a teams coached by former NHLers Jeremy Roenick and Derek Plante. Plante’s blue shirts came from behind to win it late thanks to a goal from Massachusetts product Luke McInnis (son of former NHL and Bruins forward Marty McInnis) in a 6-4 contest.

Based on what I have seen so far (and it’s admittedly early) if the Bruins end up with two early picks in 2016, it’s hard to envision a better scenario for them than coming away with Sarnia Sting defenseman Jakob Chychrun and London Knights winger Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk blew the doors off of observers early last month with his showing at Team USA World Jr. National Evaluation Camp at Lake Placid, and he continued his tremendous play in the AAPG last night. He’s not the same kind of pure power forward that his dad was, but with a 6-1 frame, he’s big enough to get in there and is reportedly weighing in at around 200 pounds these days. The eldest Tkachuk son just might have better skills and offensive hockey sense than his old man, though- and that’s saying a hell of a lot. We’ll see how it goes, but expect him to leave a trail of destruction in the OHL this year. B’s will need both picks in the top-five, possibly even top-three to make this scenario work, and there is a lot of hockey to be played between now and next June.

And now- here are the notes on some (not all) players:

Team Roenick

Matthew Tkachuk, LW- He made an immediate impression with an assist on St. Louis minor hockey teammate Luke Kunin’s goal in the opening moments. Tkachuk is a good skater who has tremendous anticipation and ability to read the unfolding play in front of him. He plays has that killer instinct that all great scorers must have- he goes down into the trenches out in front of the net and finds ways to get his stick on pucks. Tkachuk takes pucks straight to the net and uses his body and skill to protect the puck and maintain possession against an aggressive defense. He might bear quite a physical resemblance to his father at the same age, but Matt is a different player, and fans should be careful not to make direct comparisons between the two at this stage of the younger Tkachuk’s development. He’s got some high-end hands and hockey sense, so he looks like the  real McCoy. He’ll be in one of the premier hockey programs in the world this season at London, a year after posting 36 goals and 96 points at the U.S. NTDP. Tkachuk scored a goal in the second period last night from his knees after taking an initial shot from inside the left faceoff circle and losing his balance. The puck squirted back out to him on the rebound and he put it in- not a highlight reel score, but a goal scorer’s tally for sure. 10 seconds later, the same line broke back into the zone and Tkachuk fed Kunin with a quick go feed at the offensive blue line for Kunin’s second goal of the night to make it 4-3.

Luke Kunin, RW- Had a fine game, scoring right off the bat with a bar-down, under-the-crossbar beauty from the right circle over Evan Sarthou’s shoulder after breaking in. He showed some terrific chemistry with friend and minor mate Tkachuk and will be a kid to watch this season at the University of Wisconsin.

Griffin Luce, D- Big defenseman is the grandson of former Buffalo Sabres great Don Luce and his dad, Scott, heads the Florida Panthers’ player development and amateur scouting staff. A dual citizen (he was born in Ontario but claims Williamsville, N.Y. as his home), at one point Luce looked like he might be evolving into a dominant blue line presence a couple of years back at Salisbury School. After a year at the NTDP, the University of Michigan recruit looks like a solid defense-first, shutdown player but does not project as much of an offensive threat at the higher levels. He’s big and physical- needs to improve his skating transitions and direction changes.

Chad Krys, D- I just really like this kid’s refined offensive game and skating. He doesn’t possess ideal size at a shade under 6-foot and has to work on his positional play overall, but when it comes to vision and feel for the flow of a contest, Krys is a legitimate threat to make something happen on every shift.

Team Plante

Max Jones, LW- Son of former NHLer Brad Jones drove the net hard on his first goal, a wicked shot and finish on a jailbreak play. Jones and Tkachuk are mates on the Knights in the OHL this season and the two of them are going to give opponents fits. With his 6-2 size, he’s still filling out, but Jones is a gritty and skilled player who can do a little bit of everything. He tied the game at four goals apiece with about 6 minutes remaining in the third period on a bad-angle snipe through the shortside post that beat Stephen Dhillon.

Luke McInnis, D- The undersized but speedy defenseman from Hingham, Mass. left Dexter Southfield to skate in the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms this season. Like his dad, he can really skate (and as is the case with Tkachuk- he looks just like him when the two dads were on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team together). The Boston College recruit scored the winning goal with less than 2 minutes remaining and earned MVP honors, though I think other players made better cases to take top honors. His NHL caliber wheels allow him to motor up the ice to be an offensive threat. He’s a project player who will need a lot of time to mature physically while refining his game- he was beaten pretty cleanly by Kunin on a move in the second period because he allowed the Roenick forward to close on him too fast with the puck and opened himself up to Kunin put the puck through his skates and then zip around him. He later prevented a goal in the third frame when Roenick D Sam Rossini took a shot that leaked through behind goalie Ryan Edquist, but McInnis made the poised play to secure the puck and get the whistle. These things will have to come along gradually for McInnis, but he’s a smart, industrious player with the raw tools to develop.

Kieffer Bellows, LW- Another NHL scion, he scored an empty-net goal to seal the victory, but had some great chances generated with linemate Clayton Keller. A Minnesota native from his father’s North Stars connections, the apple did not fall far from the tree, as the younger Bellows shows the same kind of wicked shot and finishing skills. A Boston University recruit, Bellows could terrorize the Hockey East in short order next year after another season in the USHL. He was that league’s rookie of the year after setting the record for most goals by a 16-year-old in 2014-15. His empty netter happened on a nice athletic play- he leaped over a sliding Chad Krys at the blueline while Team Plante was shorthanded and on a 6-on-4 disadvantage, and then while falling to the ice, shot the puck down the ice and into the open cage. Pure athletic and competitive hustle play right there.

Clayton Keller, C- Although he’s smallish, this pivot has outstanding skills and creativity. He played a good game, generating scoring chances from broken plays and using his speed and quick stick to create headaches for Team Roenick. Keller has first-round skill, but it remains to be seen if he can stay healthy and productive over the course of the year with the NTDP U18 team to remain there. He’s another good get for BU, so he and Bellows will be able to keep a good thing going when they get to Comm Ave.

J.D. Greenway, D- Jordan’s younger brother made a memorable play when he grabbed the puck at the blue line, beat a defender down low with some good footwork (10-to-2) to open up some space for himself and then finding a breaking Trent Frederic at the right circle for the quick-strike. He’s not quite as massive as his older sibling, but he has enough in the way of size and NHL-caliber measurables that he’ll be someone to watch as the season goes on.

Logan Brown, C- Former long-time NHL defenseman Jeff Brown’s son had a relatively quiet game save for his wicked one-timer goal in the second period off a William Knierim feed. The younger Brown was cut from Team Canada’s Under-18 team that won gold at the Ivan Hlinka tourney this past August, so he might leverage his dual citizenship to pursue an international track with USA Hockey- we’ll see what happens. At 6-6, he’s huge and a load to handle when he’s going to the net, but he also goes stretches where he’s a little passive and doesn’t use his tremendous physical gifts enough.

Charlie McAvoy, D- Was not really impressed with McAvoy’s play for much of the night, but he came up big when needed, skating through the zone and around the back of the net before finding a wide-open McInnis out high for the winning power play goal. Right before that, he fumbled the puck at the blue line and struggled to make the play against the fore checker. The BU freshman is extremely talented and smart, but this wasn’t really his night. It happens.

Final thoughts on the New York players from the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Jordan Greenway (Canton, N.Y.), 50th overall selection, 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Jordan Greenway (Canton, N.Y.), 50th overall selection, 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

I posted previously some thoughts about the 13 players drafted out of New England (Massachusetts and New Hampshire), so I thought I would cover the five prospects taken from the Empire State in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. The numbers tell the story- with just five area natives taken out of the 211 total selections and none before pick 50 when the Minnesota Wild chose power winger Jordan Greenway who grew up near Potsdam in Canton, N.Y. before leaving in middle school to play for Shattuck St. Mary’s in the state of the NHL club that drafted him. Overall, it was a down year for New York with no players from New Jersey getting the call, a first since New York Hockey Journal covered its first NHL draft in 2011.

The player I actually had rated higher than Greenway is playmaking forward Jeremy Bracco, whom the Toronto Maple Leafs got terrific value with at 61st overall- the last pick of the second round. Bracco had solid first-round talent, but working against him was size, a lack of dynamic speed and according to some NHL scouts, he didn’t make the best impression during interviews. From my perspective, I didn’t see that– Bracco was extremely accommodating in terms of the pre-draft interviews and work I did with him. What is undeniable is his high-end hockey IQ, vision and creativity- he finished his career at the U.S. National Team Development Program as one of the all-time assists and points leaders in two years there. Bracco is a good fit for Toronto and what they’re doing there as someone who can dish the puck and has the kind of flair in his game and personality to be able to handle the increased scrutiny of that hockey market.

Jeremy Bracco (Freeport, N.Y.), 61st overall selection, 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Jeremy Bracco (Freeport, N.Y.), 61st overall selection, 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Getting back to Greenway- one NHL scout told me that he was easily a top-15 talent, and I have to say that having covered a lot of hockey players in my career, there aren’t many with the sheer size the 18-year-old has at a listed 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. Some kids look big in their gear but smaller when they take it off, others look bigger out of their gear than with it on. In Greenway’s case- he looked massive on the ice, and he’s just as much of a force of nature when dressed in his suit and wearing his Wild jersey at the BB & T Center.

Two things more than any probably conspired to make Greenway’s wait a little longer at the draft: he did not have the kind of consistent performance over the course of 2014-15 that was expected of him after showing a lot from a year ago with the NTDP. When a player brings so much in terms of the size and skating package, you naturally want to see him assert himself and at the very least, generate offense commensurate with his skill level. It just didn’t happen enough for him this year, and that hurt his stock a bit going in. Compare that to the kind of offensive season fellow Wild first pick (and fellow New Yorker) Alex Tuch had a year ago and you begin to understand the disparity. In addition to the disappointing season, there were whispers about Greenway’s conduct off the ice. In fairness to the kid- I’m not going to repeat or substantiate any of those allegations from NHL circles, but it does at least begin to explain how someone with such pure potential dropped down to 50. At Boston University, Greenway will have a chance to learn from the experience and elevate his game in order to make all the teams that passed on him regret doing so.

The reigning Stanley Cup champs grabbed two-way defenseman Dennis Gilbert from Buffalo at the end of the third round, another solid value and typical pick of the NHL’s modern dynasty that has endured as a three-time champion in six seasons because of a great core and smart drafting to keep a solid supporting cast in place even when pricey contracts force pieces to find work elsewhere. Gilbert may be the latest in one of those smart picks by the Blackhawks, as he has a solid, tall frame (6-2, 201); he can skate very well for his size and has the vision and puck skills to move the play forward with authority and quarterback his club when on the man advantage. Although raw, Gilbert showed a lot playing in the Windy City’s USHL entry the Chicago Steel this past season, having a particularly strong second half. He’ll be able to develop gradually in the ‘Hawks’ system, starting at Notre Dame in the fall.

Another Western New York kid who had his name called last month was big defender Joseph Cecconi, who made a positive impression with the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks. At 6-2, 205 he has size and is a pretty good skater in a straight line, though will need to improve his lateral mobility and pivots/transitions as he continues to develop. Cecconi relishes playing a defense-first style and impressed some people in the playoffs last spring when he battled Kyle Connor hard and effectively neutralized the league’s top scorer and Winnipeg’s top pick. As a fifth-round selection (133rd) of the Dallas Stars, Cecconi is a good value and the University of Michigan-bound player is in a good spot to take his time. He’s been knocked for not playing with enough urgency/pace at times.

Finally, Steve Ruggiero was the area’s last pick, coming late in the sixth round. He had a bunch of family and friends in attendance and I happened to be taking a break from the action nearby in the stands eating a box lunch when his name was called and their section erupted. To me, Ruggiero’s selection underscores what this sport is all about. These kids-  and so few of them at this stage are left to seriously pursue a dream of playing pro hockey- put in so much work over the years to even get themselves in position to be drafted. Their families pay enormous costs to support the hockey lifestyle and give up a normal life (along with their player) to have a chance at one day reaching the NHL, so it was nice to see Ruggiero’s faith that by coming to Florida he would not sit there all day only to be passed over.

A rugged, mobile stay-at-home defenseman with character, the Anaheim Ducks got more solid value at 178 overall, and he looks to be another one of those good character types that Nate Leaman and his staff have done so well to stockpile down at Providence College.

Steven Ruggiero (Kings Park, N.Y.) 178th selection in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Steven Ruggiero (Kings Park, N.Y.) 178th selection in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

All in all- not a great draft haul for New York, but there might be a rebound next season when talented defensemen Charlie McAvoy, Griffin Luce (son of Florida Panthers head of player development Scott Luce) and forward Luke Kirwan are eligible. Kirwan took a step back in the OHL this past season, but the toolsy winger could appeal to teams early if he can get back on track in 2016.