Dominic Tiano: How USHL rule changes could affect Canadian junior hockey

ushlEditor’s note- The Scouting Post contributor Dominic Tiano is back with a thoughtful piece on the second and third-order effects of the recent announcement by the USHL to modify its import roster player rules. Dom’s instincts and conclusions are sound- one more example of the forward thinking that has brought the USHL into prominence under Commissioner Bob Fallen’s stewardship.

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Earlier this week, the United States Hockey League announced several rule changes, but there are a couple that I will look at and the possible effects on every level of junior hockey in Canada.

The first is the USHL Import rule, and this change that takes effect next season:

·         Canadian Imports: Applicable only to the Tier 1 USHL, the USA Hockey Board of Directors granted the USHL permission to roster up to two Canadian-born citizens as non-imports. Presently, each USHL team is allowed up to four (4) import roster positions on their 23-man rosters.  This rule change would allow USHL teams to carry a maximum of six (6) imports as long as the two extra import players are Canadian.

 On the surface, this rule change allows USHL teams to add two extra Canadians to their rosters. I’ve always been in favor of more options or opportunities for players to choose from when deciding which path is best for them. But could this have an impact on junior hockey throughout Canada?

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Getting to know Charlie McAvoy

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By the time the Boston Bruins and owner Charles Jacobs stepped up to the podium at First Niagara Center in Buffalo to announce the team’s first draft choice with the 14th overall selection last Friday, it was all but fait accompli that one of Boston University defenseman Charlie McAvoy or Boston University recruit defender Dante Fabbro out of Penticton was going to be the name called.

Both were available, both were right-shot defensemen, both represented not only what many would consider the top talent available at that spot, but were also filled a clear organizational need for the B’s.

He stumbled over the words, but the younger Jacobs, who was born in Buffalo as the son of Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs- CEO of the Western N.Y. Delaware North Corporation- called McAvoy’s name and after a season of frustration and an epic meltdown over the last 30 days of a year in which the B’s had largely overachieved before crashing to earth in March and early April, Boston had their man.

“Charlie’s one of those players who can do a little bit of everything,” one NHL scout for an Eastern Conference team told the Scouting Post in Buffalo before the draft. “Some are talking top-10 for him, and I could see that. He has the talent for it. More realistically, I see him going around 15-20, but that’s not a knock on him. He’s got that wide body and a natural knack for getting up in the play. With his skating he can push it at both ends, and that’s so important in the NHL these days. He’s also a bit of a character, too. He totally rocked our interview…we’re not in a position to get him, but we all kind of looked at each other when he left and thought, that’s a good kid right there.”

McAvoy is a nice fit in Boston with his blue collar roots. He grew up on Long Island the son of a plumber and fireman who was a natural at hockey but came from a large family, and finances did not permit him to continue playing the sport at the higher levels. A staunch NY Rangers fan, hockey remained his favorite after moving onto other sports like football and baseball, but he vowed to do what it took to allow his son to stay in hockey if that’s what Charlie desired.

That desire took McAvoy through the Long Island Gulls and New Jersey Rockets minor hockey programs before he landed a spot with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Team USA moved to Plymouth, Mich. before the start of the 2015-16 hockey season). While there, he emerged as a legitimate first-round NHL option, and carried that potential forward to fruition in his very own Empire State on June 24, 2016.

Born on December 21, 1997, the younger McAvoy missed the Rangers’ first and only Stanley Cup victory since 1940 by three-plus years. He was a Broadway Blueshirts fanatic whose first favorite player was Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch. To this day, Leetch remains the player he most tries to emulate in his playing style. At the rate he’s going, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that McAvoy could develop into a successful NHL star with similar attributes.

“I’m at a loss for words; it’s an unbelievable feeling and I’m so happy to be a part of this,” McAvoy said after the selection and he made his way into the bowels of the arena to meet the press for the first time as a member of the Boston Bruins. “I’ve gotten close with (the Bruins) this year and I’m sure my friends at home are happy, but I’m kind of cutting the ties with New York sports. Boston’s an unbelievable city and it’s a great place with great people and I’m happy to be staying there.”

Although not tall, McAvoy has a thick, strong build. His BU coach, David Quinn, spoke to the Scouting Post (TSP) after the selection briefly and credited the newest Boston first-rounder with putting in a lot of weight room work to get himself into better game shape after arriving, and said that the 18-year-old made significant progress as a player in all facets from the beginning of the 2015-16 season until the end. He also talked of Charlie’s “magnetic personality” and that players want to spend time with him.

“That was something that I worked on a lot- the defensive side of the puck,” McAvoy said. “It was something I needed to grow in and get better in and I feel like I made great strides throughout the year.”

McAvoy is a natural offensive talent. In his own words, he sees himself as a threat to be effective at both ends.

“I’m a two-way defenseman,” said McAvoy. “I can play the offensive side of the puck and that’s something I like to do, but I’ve grown a lot on the defensive side of the game.”

During a pre-draft podcast, TSP likened McAvoy to one of the pirates of old who liked to set his hair on fire before plundering a hapless vessel. He’s a classic push-the-pace, aggressive defender who likes to lead the rush and has the skating and puck skills to carry the puck out of his end on his own and can make all of the key outlet passing and long leads. There are times where his riverboat gambler mentality will get him out of position, but McAvoy has the natural hockey sense to learn from that and with continued strong coaching at BU by Quinn, Albie O’Connell and Scott Young– he’s sure to get better with his reads and decisions.

His defense partner, former BU captain and future Bruin Matt Grzelcyk, had left-seat ride with McAvoy all year, watching the 17-year-old arrive on campus last summer to complete his academic requirements so he could play in the NCAA while other peers remained in high school. That maturity and self-discipline to see it through impressed Grzelcyk enough, but it was McAvoy’s poise and ability that elevated him as the season went on.

EDIT- I managed to exchange texts with Grzelcyk and this is what he has to say about his former teammate and fellow Bruins prospect:

“Playing with Charlie was an awesome experience,” Grzelcyk, who just concluded an outstanding four-year career at BU (two years as captain) after being a third-round pick by his hometown B’s in 2012, said. “Even though he was the youngest player in college hockey last year he was mature both on and off the ice as soon as he stepped foot on campus.

“He’s a great skater who’s tough to knock of the puck and was able to add a bit of an edge to his game; in my opinion, it made his impact on the game even greater. Over the course of the year, I believe he was best when he was able to simplify his game and allow his skill to take over. He was an unbelievable D partner to have, and an even better teammate. I could not be happier to see him picked by the Bruins.”

Now, with his first collegiate season under his belt (he scored three goals, but added an impressive 22 assists in 37 games, which was more than Noah Hanifin had a year ago), he’s looking to kick things up a notch on Commonwealth Ave, after the Terriers took a disappointing step back last year.

“I was joking with (Don) Sweeney, I said- Grizzy and JFK- they can’t get rid of me now,” he said. “They’re unbelievable players and great people. It’s going to be exciting to go through all this stuff with them.”

McAvoy’s national team coach, Don Granato, who left the NTDP to join his brother Tony as an assistant with the University of Wisconsin, talked to TSP about his former defenseman and said that McAvoy has one of those even-keeled yet outgoing personalities- teammates just gravitate to him because of who he is and how he conducts himself. He’s a 1st-round talent and a 1st-round person, he said, citing that McAvoy is one of the most loyal players of any he has coached in his career. “Anything we told him, he soaked up like a sponge,” said Granato. “He wanted to get better, and that kind of loyalty and dedication in a player is something that helps you go the extra mile as a coach.”

That loyalty might have been part of a small theater of the absurd that cropped up Friday night when someone got ahold of a tweet that McAvoy sent in May, 2013 at age 15. For those who might have been under a rock at that time, the Bruins were in the second round of the playoffs against McAvoy’s Rangers and had just taken a 3-0 series lead (they would win it in five games on their way to the Stanley Cup final against Chicago). The die-hard Broadway Blueshirts-supporting teen sent out a tweet expressing his hatred for all things Bruins. It’s a sad commentary when people are so thin-skinned and petty that more than three years later, some were actually holding that against him. If you’re one of those people- do yourself a favor- look in the mirror and give your head a shake. You need some perspective in life, and shame on TSN and any other media outlets who picked up on a teenager’s tweet and made it a circus sideshow on the biggest night of his young life.

“Not necessarily,” was McAvoy’s attempt at diplomacy when a reporter asked him point blank if he “hated” all Boston sports teams growing up (he even chuckled before responding). “You grow up- kinda- I guess you’re taught not to like them (Boston sports) because of the rivalry but I’ve got a Red Sox hat now, so that’s the first step and I’ve got this Bruins jersey, so that’s pretty cool. I’ll just keep growing.”

He then demonstrated what his coaches and teammates talk about when they say what a good, fun guy he is to have in the room, showing one last bastion of loyalty to his New York Giants:

“I don’t know if I can be a Pats fan,” he quipped with perfect comedic timing, drawing an instant reaction from the Boston media (pro tip- we thought it was funny). “But we’ll see. Give it a little a time.”

The Bruins, for their part, could have opted for the more defensively-polished and serious Fabbro. TSP was not shy in saying that Fabbro was the higher-rated option, but at the same time- the margin between the two was razor thin. The British Columbia-bred Fabbro went 17th overall to the Nashville Predators, and will join McAvoy at BU next season. We said it all along- if the Bruins had a choice between the two, it was win-win either way. McAvoy has a higher offensive upside, but Fabbro was a little better defensively. Both are winners, so if you felt like you were sold on Fabbro over McAvoy, just consider that perhaps playing in Boston’s back yard tipped the scales.

With four first-round picks either at BU or headed there next year (Clayton Keller, McAvoy, Fabbro and Kieffer Bellows), McAvoy said that they all got together for lunch on Friday before the draft and that he can’t wait to get going again. Assuming everyone arrives on schedule (there is talk of Keller perhaps playing in the OHL, as the Windsor Spitfires own his major junior rights), the Terriers are poised to be the beasts of the Hockey East.

“I’m excited to be Charlie’s teammate and excited about joining that BU tradition,” Fabbro told TSP before the draft. “Coach Quinn and Albie and everyone has built something special and I’m just looking forward to being a part of it and doing what I can to help the Terriers win.”

As for the Bruins, they admitted to having a tough choice between the two players, and in hindsight- it might have been easier had one or the other come off the board before 14. In the end, they simply liked McAvoy a little more, and Bruins chief scout Keith Gretzky made mention that playing well against guys as much as six years older than McAvoy was one of many factors that tilted the B’s towards him.

“We’re excited with the skill set and the upside he has as as player with and without the puck,” Sweeney told assembled reporters Friday night. “He’s a multi-tool player; we feel like he has offensive upside that will continue to get better. You know, he steps into the college game and you can track where he was in the first half of the season, second half and understand that he got acclimated.

“People had spoken about him maybe to try to do a little too much at times, and he’s playing against guys that are four or five years older in some cases and really handled himself very well. He’s a very physical player at times- we’d actually need to back him off, but it’s another very good quality he has. He can puck-separate; he finds the middle of the ice and as a matter of fact, ‘JFK’ spoke highly of that in terms of a centerman wants the puck, and he wants it in motion when he’s going up ice and I think today, it’s paramount for defensemen to be able to establish more than one option; be able to recognize it, be able to execute it and I think Charlie does it well.”

In the end, McAvoy’s selection infused some excitement at a time the team needed it. He’s headed back to BU for at least one more season, but with his advanced strength and physical maturity, don’t be surprised to see the Bruins bring him out as early as next spring when his season ends. It wouldn’t constitute the impossible to see him turn pro sooner than that depending on how he looks at the B’s development camp the week of July 11, but having him return to school for one more NCAA campaign looks more realistic at this stage. If he takes the anticipated step forward, Boston won’t wait long to get him into their system and see if he can contribute to the NHL roster sooner rather than later.

Even with the optimistic outlook, however, McAvoy knows that the work is only beginning and that he can’t afford to take anything for granted. He’s got some work to do conditioning-wise and one can only imagine that noted Boston strength coach John Whitesides is eagerly awaiting the chance to sink his teeth into McAvoy and tease even more performance out of the youngster’s impressive natural physical package.

“You can’t get caught up in it because this is one day,” he said of the excitement of being a first-round NHL draft pick. “I’m going to enjoy this with my family and my friends but I’ll be at school Monday and I’ll be working out in the morning and I’ll be back in class and that’s really where it all starts: growing and continuing to grow, and getting ready to play in the NHL every single day.”

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Draft Day 2016 is here

Landed in Buffalo yesterday and made it to the hotel- staying down in the Allentown district which is not that close to the First Niagara Center, but is a good place to be in terms of having some places to go for good eats and times.

Saw my good friend Lawrence G, who works at the NHL Network- at the famous Anchor Bar, and managed to run into Wade Allison (he’s got the look of a prototypical RW) of all people in my travels (along with Tri-City Storm Clark Cup-winning coach Bill Muckalt). I can’t say it enough- nobody does the draft like the NHL does, with the players and hockey people past, present and future all in one spot. If you’re a fan and have never gone to one, you should consider making the trip to Chicago next year- seeing the players picked is only one aspect. You never know when you might turn around at a bar and have a Hockey Hall of Famer sitting next to you. It’s always a neat experience, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since I attended my first NHL draft as a hockey analyst.

As for the Bruins, I am intrigued at the negative reactions last night and today of the Boston Celtics draft. The Celts had three first-rounders and after not being able to make rumored trades to move the No. 3 overall choice- went with Cal’s Jaylon Brown, which was not a popular choice because he was “only” considered the 5th-10th best player. Never mind that the Celtics loved him…never mind that we have yet to see him or his draft peers play a single minute in the NBA. This is how it works, so now it’s Don Sweeney and his staff’s turn in Buffalo.

I am as guilty of anyone as being a part of the conditioning factor in play here. Readers of the blog understand where I am firmly positoned on players like Dante Fabbro and Charlie McAvoy.  Because I’ve been passionate in extolling their virtues, there is a very real possibility of distinct disappointment if the B’s don’t end up with one or the other. If Michael McLeod is the pick, for example, resist the urge to blast the decision and look into him first. A critical tweet takes seconds to write, so what is a few minutes to see the varying views on a player before letting rip? However, this is reality and what we deal with in the modern information age- most fans don’t have the time or resources to see these players themselves. They don’t have an opportunity to interact with them. I’m sold on Fabbro because of my own firsthand observations, but I could end up being dead wrong, and the B’s might not see it the same way. Or, I (and many others) might have him exactly right and he’ll go on to have long success in the NHL whether in Boston or elsewhere. At the end of the day- I challenge you, the reader to do as much research as you can. Don’t settle on just one view but seek out the dissent, measure the evidence and draw your own conclusions. I still have people tweeting me about Kyle Connor a year later…which underscores that the debate from 2015 is far from settled.

It’s the draft- no matter what happens, we won’t truly know who “won” or “lost” for years, but the excitement of opening those presents in the form of the players your favorite team selects are largely dependent on the pre-draft shaping that has gone on for months and even several years. Just enjoy it for what it is- I know I will!

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There is not a lot of buzz on trades, but don’t be surprised if the Bruins are in on something. With impending UFAs Alex Goligoski and Keith Yandle (Milton, Mass.) off the market, watch for Boston to re-visit Kevin Shattenkirk. He’s also trying to get something done with Loui Eriksson’s camp, but that doesn’t appear to be on track to bear fruit. If he could convince a team to give him a 4th-round pick (he might need to sweeten the pot), that would be the best way to salvage the situation, but it appears that we will soon just have Joe Morrow and Jimmy Hayes in Boston to show for Tyler Seguin. Ouch.

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Reminder- I’m going on TSN 690 (Montreal) today with Kyle Woodlief live from 11-noon broadcasting with host Tony Marinaro- tune in to get about an hour of draft talk and if you have any questions, fire them our way. You can listen to it live on the internet.

Woodlief and I were talking last night about QMJHL D-man Samuel Girard (39th on our final list)- Kyle believes he’s by far the most skilled defender in the entire draft and that there might be maybe 20 D in the NHL more skilled than he is. The problem? “You can fit him in your pocket,” said Woodlief. He believes Girard will fall to the late 3rd or 4th round because of that, which is a shame. Only 6 NHL teams even bothered to interview him at the Combine, which is sometimes the way these things go, but if Johnny Gaudreau taught us anything- it is that perhaps you should believe in the big man trapped in a small man’s body before going for players with known flaws because of size alone.

Okay- that’s it for now.

Enjoy the draft and follow my Twitter account for updates and insights all day- I’ll try to post a wave-top level look at Boston’s top pick on here tonight, but the more in-depth stuff will hit Monday night.

 

Final 1st-round mock draft and Bruins draft preview (audio)

Well, NHL Entry Draft time is upon us…I can hardly believe that I will be flying to Buffalo, N.Y. in the morning and that by this time Friday night, Bruins fans will know who the next big hopeful will be.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but rather than write an excessively long post here, I’ll take the advice of a recent blog critic who didn’t like the length of my Bruins draft strategy piece and break it down for you in about 15 minutes. He’s out of luck on the bolded names, though- sorry pal. As Kenny Loggins once crooned- I’ll meet you halfway. I’m sharing my thoughts on where the Bruins are heading into the draft, and where I think they’re going, and not just in round 1. Keep in mind this is just one person’s opinion, and lots of things can happen between now and pick No. 14 in the First Niagara Center.

Here’s the audio:

I am not going to weigh in on internet rumors surrounding Jimmy Vesey. Look, until he either signs with the Buffalo Sabres or he doesn’t and becomes an unrestricted free agent on August 15, I’m going to do my level best to stay above the fray. Because of my relationship with him and members of his family going back to his prep school days, that’s precisely *why* I’m not going to get into the middle of what is flying around. I give full credit to the Sabres for stepping up and getting his rights- that puts them in the driver’s seat, at least for the next some-odd 60 days, and Tim Murray will either convince him to forego the chance to pick his destination, or Vesey will stay the course. My thinking- and it’s just my own intuition here- is that he’s come a full four years since Nashville drafted him in Pittsburgh. What is less than two months more at this point? But if Murray and Sabres owner Terry Pegula (and don’t forget Jack Eichel) make a convincing enough pitch, there’s not much stopping him from ending the soap opera.

But, if you’re looking for me to repeat things flying around various message boards- that’s not happening.

Now, onto the mock draft:

1- Toronto- Auston Matthews, C; The Leafs get their man- Arizona native’s the wire-to-wire No. 1 overall selection and with good reason.

2- Winnipeg- Patrik Laine, LW; The first big winners of the NHL’s new lotto jackpot system cash in with this pure shooter who turns goal scoring into an art form.

3- Columbus- Jesse Puljujarvi, RW; GM Jarmo Kekalainen pounces on this Finnish horse who isn’t quite the threat his countryman is, but isn’t that far off, either.

4. Edmonton- Matt Tkachuk, LW; On a team whose GM once saw firsthand what Milan Lucic could do, the Oilers grab a high-end power forward with serious bloodlines.

5- Vancouver- Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW; The Canucks need help everywhere, so Jim Benning can’t go wrong here with as complete a two-way threat as there is in this class.

6- Calgary- Logan Brown, C; Described by my pal Reed Duthie (who calls Hamilton Bulldogs games) as an “aircraft carrier with feet”, this massive center is also highly skilled, meaning- he’s off the board in the blink of an eye.

7- Arizona- Olli Juolevi, D; Is this Finnish version of the old Val Kilmer movie ‘Real Genius’ the first defender off the board in Buffalo? Very possible.

8.- Buffalo- Jakob Chychrun, D; After making a splash with the Vesey trade, the Sabres fire more shots across the bow, picking up this big name at 8, but his hockey IQ has raised some doubts.

9- Montreal- Alex Nylander, RW; The Canadiens seek skill and scoring, so why not grab the player who might have absolutely been the most talented player in the OHL draft class, even if he doesn’t always bring it.

10- Colorado- Mikhail Sergachev, D; The Avalanche land a big talent that has scouts divided on his overall defensive awareness, but may be at the top end of the skill factor in the OHL.

11- New Jersey- Tyson Jost, LW-C; Ray Shero blinks- he can’t believe Jost is on the board here, and after landing Pavel Zacha a year ago, grabs another potential elite forward bound for North Dakota in the spirit of one Zach Parise 13 years ago.

12- Ottawa- Michael McLeod C; The Senators are betting that McLeod’s blend of size, skating and smarts propels him to stardom up the middle, even with questions about his NHL upside.

13- Carolina- Clayton Keller, C; Small but dynamic center has major league potential as an uber-dangerous playmaker.

14- Boston- Dante Fabbro, D; Knowing what the Bruins tend to value in their players and what they need at this stage, this defender is right up their alley at 14.

15- Minnesota- Luke Kunin, C; St. Louis native did a great job as a freshman on a poor team- the sky’s the limit and the Wild can’t resist.

16- Detroit- Charlie McAvoy, D; A player who could just as easily go to Boston two picks earlier, if he’s still on the board here the Wings pounce.

17- Nashville- Jake Bean, D; The Predators know Bean has a high-end skill set and grab him with outstanding value at 17 where others had him projected inside the top-10.

18- Philadelphia- Kieffer Bellows, LW; Passed up by his hometown Wild, Bellows doesn’t have much time to dwell  on it & makes sense as a fit in Philly with his deadly release and penchant for filling the net.

19- NY Islanders- Riley Tufte, RW; Big, massive, skates well, tremendous long-term promise and the Isles struck gold with Brock Nelson in Minnesota before, so why not take a big payoff project here?

20- Arizona via NYR- Julien Gauthier, RW Major concerns about hockey sense and a tepid second half after tearing it up early in the season mean that the Val d’Or standout slides, but he’s solid value here.

21- Carolina via LAK- Max Jones, LW; Speedy power forward has some nasty play that has gone over the line, but if the Hurricanes can harness that raw aggression- he could be one of those role guys you win with.

22- Winnipeg via CHI- Logan Stanley, D; When you pick Laine at 2, you can afford to take on more of a project player with your bonus 1st-rounder, and with Stanley’s size, skating and snarl- he looks like a solid bet to play even if he tops out as a mid-tier shutdown D.

23- Florida-German Rubtsov, C; The Russian forward in class is someone worth jumping on in the early 20’s and Dale Tallon does just that.

24- Anaheim-Tage Thompson, RW; Huge but raw with an upside that some in the NHL scouting community feels is too legit to quit, the UConn Husky becomes a part of the West Coast quack attack.

25- Dallas- Dennis Cholowski, D; It sure looks like the late-surging BCHL two-way defender is bound to land in the 1st round, and he looks like a good fit for the resurgent Stars under Jim Nill.

26- Washington- Pascal Laberge, C; Speedy and skilled, the Capitals need to find secondary scoring behind Ovechkin and Backstrom- this Victoriaville Tigre brings that in spades.

27- Tampa Bay- Brett Howden, C; Some say he looks a lot like his older brother, but this Howden seems to have more killer instinct and finish around the net. Stevie Y. will take it.

28- St. Louis- Lucas Johansen, D; With Kevin Shattenkirk likely to leave via trade, the Blues will look to infuse more offensive talent and potential with this latest product of the Kelowna D machine.

29- Boston via SJS- Markus Niemelainen, D; The B’s could go with a forward with their second pick like a surprise 1st-rounder in Wade Allison here, but if they add another 6-5 D who can really skate, this Finn will complement the right-shooting Brandon Carlo nicely at some point.

30- Anaheim via Toronto via PIT- Boris Katchouk, LW; Anaheim grabbed the big RW earlier, now they get the gritty, in-your-face and underrated Soo Greyhounds scorer at the end of the round after giving up Frederik Andersen to the Leafs. (Thanks to the readers who pointed out my mistake)

Alex DeBrincat drops out of the 1st round, but he won’t last long in the 2nd.

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Okay- that’s it. I’m off to Buffalo.

Reminder- if you want breaking NHL draft news, picks, analysis and hot takes (or is it “taeks?”) give me a follow on Twitter: @kluedeke29 I might be able to get some Periscope action going as well, so look for that.

Will be on TSN 690 with my Red Line Report boss, Kyle Woodlief, with host Tony Marinaro this Friday, June 24, from 11-noon (Eastern) live from First Niagara Center to talk draft, draft and nothing but draft.

Will do some deeper dives on the draft at the blog in the coming days, but this is pretty much it until the big event, and even then- will just hit the wave tops, but keep checking in- I might have some Easter Eggs and surprises for you.

Vesey to Sabres and other pre-draft notes

 

It probably was not all that surprising about the news that broke Monday about the Buffalo Sabres and GM Tim Murray acquiring Jimmy Vesey’s rights from Nashville for one of three third-round picks that rebuilding team has in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

Why is it not a surprise? Well, for one thing- Predators GM David Poile “burned the boats” with Vesey when he went public and essentially told everyone the kid lied to him. That was impulsive and shortsighted, as all that did was guarantee 100 percent that Vesey had no chance of coming around and agreeing to terms with the team that spent a third-round pick on him in 2012, only to see him declare his option to leverage free agency (per the CBA) four years later. We figured from the get-go that someone would try to trade for Vesey’s exclusive negotiating rights at some point, so, as Murray himself said- Why not Buffalo?

The Vesey matter is made more complex by the human element in the case. At arm’s length, there seems to be no smoking gun, no clear reason for his walking away from Nashville. Although it’s a small market team, the Predators are on the rise, and Music City is a neat place to play hockey in. There was talk that Vesey was turned off by the Nashville organization’s pressure sales pitch, and that he didn’t want to play for them right away, but preferred to finish out his semester at Harvard and then look at signing. As of now, that’s all that is- talk. We’ve heard what the team thinks, and Vesey himself has declined to weigh in on it, so as of now all we know is- by virtue of Monday’s trade, Buffalo now jumps into the ring as the one team that can negotiate with him between now and the August 15 deadline, and if he signs, then it will be a third-round pick well spent for them.

Vesey’s camp (agent Peter Fish) issued a statement Monday, saying that the player still intends to pursue free agency. Murray, who never met a microphone he didn’t like (and I don’t mean that as a slight- he’s long been one of the most open sources of information out there) has been open about his intent to leverage Vesey’s connection to 2015 Hobey Baker Award winner and second overall pick Jack Eichel to try and sway the 2016 Hobey recipient to put aside the free agency designs and ink an ELC with the Sabres.

This does not mean Boston is out of the Vesey sweeps, however- they just have a tougher hill to climb.  I’ve seen on the internet in at least one location that I called Vesey to the Bruins as a “sure thing.” That gentleman is clearly mistaken, and should perhaps focus his efforts on some reading comprehension skills enhancement. The Bruins were clearly in the mix for a Vesey landing spot because he’s a North Reading kid and dreamed of playing for Boston, but that does not mean that when he opted out of Nashville that the Bruins and Vesey coming together was fait accompli. I think folks should pay better attention to things and not misrepresent clear positions on internet message boards and articles, but that’s just me.

Next move belongs to Murray and the Sabres and we’ll see where it all leads- he has a little less than 60 days to make inroads and land his big fish.

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We’re just a few days from the big event in Buffalo- the Scouting Post (TSP) will be there, but much of the coverage I provide will be via Twitter, as I do not plan to do extensive blog posts from the event. You can expect a couple of wave top assessments, but the more in-depth coverage will come next week after I can interview sources at the draft and provide a more comprehensive analysis of what the Bruins did or did not accomplish. For breaking news and quick hits- I encourage you to follow my Twitter account- @kluedeke29 and I will keep things up to date as the draft rolls on.

On another note- my boss at Red Line Report Kyle Woodlief- and yours truly will be broadcasting with Tony Marinaro, hockey radio host with TSN 690 out of Montreal from the First Niagara Center in Buffalo on Friday. We’ll spend about an hour on the air with Tony from 11-noon on draft day, so if you can tune in- you’ll get your fill of pre-draft talk with the Red Line guys.

***

I’ve seen apples and oranges talk about Chilliwack D Dennis Cholowski and Dante Fabbro recently and I’m honestly not sure what the point is here. Cholowski is a meteoric riser in the second half after a strong finish and yes- his Chiefs did knock off Fabbro and Tyson Jost’s Penticton Vees in the BCHL playoffs. It’s fine to be high on Cholowski- he’s a solid first-round candidate and has some impressive tools, but what I don’t get is this urge to play the “Cholowski is better than Fabbro” game I’ve seen out there in a couple of spots.

First of all- if Cholowski gets drafted ahead of Fabbro, I’ll buy you a beer. It’s not happening. Secondly- the world does not have to be a zero sum existence- it is possible that both players are going to be very good. They bring different things to the table, but I’ll defer to other NHL scouts who saw both Cholowski and Fabbro at the World Jr. A Challenge and think that the latter was the far more impactful player.  Are there differences of opinion out there? Absolutely. And it is possible that Cholowski could eventually be the better player than Fabbro is at the NHL level.

But that doesn’t mean he’s done enough to be considered a viable option at the 10-15 range. Fabbro is no sure thing either, but one guy was the BCHL’s top defenseman and the other guy wasn’t. Let’s not make more of this than it is- both D look like nice options going forward, and anyone can make a case of one over the other, but unless things change on Friday, Fabbro is trending to be selected ahead of Cholowski. I’m curious to see if the whisper campaign out there to elevate him is agenda-driven or not, but for now- I’m sticking to my guns. I have Fabbro rated higher than the other guy, but believe both are first-rounders and have nice long-term potential in the NHL on the back end.

So- just to be clear. I like Fabbro. I like Cholowski. They’re both good. There is absolutely no need to tear down one to build up the other. But realistically, one guy is going to get drafted in the top-20 and one probably a little outside that range. I have to think both guys appeal to the Bruins, but in all likelihood- they’ll only have a shot at one of them. As things stand right now- that player is Fabbro in my view.

***

As suspected Julien Gauthier is getting a lot of attention in Boston circles and I don’t really get it.

He’s huge, he skates well and has soft hands. He also doesn’t think the game well at all- the hockey IQ is a major, major question mark. When are folks going to realize that toolsy players without the toolbox constitute needless risks? Let some other team jump on Gauthier, but  to me- he’s not going to be the best player available in the top-15 when Boston’s turn comes.

Gauthier had a blistering start and made hay at the WJC, but once again- people are focused on the past and are not paying attention to how the player trended over the second half. There are major question marks surrounding this guy, and as said before- I believe that right-shooting defensemen will constitute not only best value at 14 but also fill a need for the Bruins. That’s a two-for-one deal, and I’m not sure Gauthier  makes much sense that early- fans are still living in the past of about six months on this guy.

The B’s can wait a bit and grab a winger like Wade Allison, Cameron Morrison or Taylor Raddysh maybe even a Timmy Gettinger or Brett Murray and boost the depth and size/heavy-on-the-puck play on the wings without spending a top-15 selection on someone with real concerns about how well he sees the ice and processes the game/has the creativity to be a scorer at the next level.

That doesn’t mean Gauthier will be a failure, but I do believe he’s another one of those guys benefiting from past accomplishments, but doesn’t have a lot of buzz or the confidence of NHL clubs coming into the draft. We’ll soon find out.

***

For some late-round value, I like Minnesota forward Jack Walker– he scored 36 goals for the Victoria Royals this season as a 1996-born guy previously passed up. He’s a converted forward who played D up until a few years ago, but can skate, pass and shoot. I’m told the B’s were sniffing around him in the WHL rinks this year and it makes sense- he’s a guy who represents a more pro-ready proposition to enter the system and be closer to contributing than most other 18-year-olds available from the 1998-birth year pool.

***

That’s all for now…I’m going to post one more mock draft and do a final Bruins draft projection audio file tonight and then it’s off to Buffalo. Remember- follow me on Twitter because there won’t be a lot of blog posts on here between Friday and Monday beyond a few quick-hitters to recap the players Boston grabs.

 

 

‘Fab’ D Fabbro rides draft wave into Buffalo

(Video courtesy of Seer Video posted on YouTube)

As we inch closer to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, taking place in Buffalo on June 24-25, one name hockey fans (and draftniks in particular) are hearing a lot these days is that of Dante Fabbro.

 

The Vancouver-area native just wrapped up a stellar season in the BCHL with the Penticton Vees, where he was named that league’s top defender. The two-way threat posted 14 goals and 67 points in just 45 games, more than doubling his production from a season ago. Fabbro, who turns 18 in a few days, carried that success over to the 2016 World Under-18 Championship tournament in April, posting eight helpers in seven games and earning recognition as arguably the top defenseman in that high-level competition in Grand Forks, N.D.

 

“Obviously, the U-18 tournament wasn’t what we expected from the outcome,” the Boston University-bound Fabbro told the Scouting Post from his British Columbia home this week. “I think going into that tournament, I definitely wanted to prove myself from a player standpoint just to play against those CHL guys to see how they compared, so I thought the experience was pretty cool- playing against the top players there and then moving out- it’s the summer here, and I haven’t skated all that much- on the ice a couple of times, but I’ve been working out a lot and obviously, my focus was on the (NHL) combine to excel in that.”

 

Fabbro participated in the NHL’s formal “get to know you” event, held in Buffalo, where the higher-ranked draft prospects on Central Scouting’s rankings congregate to conduct interviews with teams over multiple days and then do fitness testing to measure just about every aspect of their athletic ability to include a medical evaluation.

 

“I talked to quite a few teams there,” he said. “It was pretty crazy but I think it was a unique experience in a sense that not a lot of kids get to enjoy that experience and see that kind of thing. It was good to go through that with and be around other guys I know and have played with and will be playing with or against next year made things a lot easier for sure.”

 

It was an eye-opening experience for him, meeting up with the various NHL staffs and seeing how the teams operate, his first taste of what could come for him. Ultimately, Fabbro doesn’t feel like there are all that many differences in the style and methods each club employ as part of the combine interview process, but was impressed at the level of professionalism and preparation he witnessed from the staffs he interacted with.

 

“The biggest thing I learned going through those interviews is that you just have to be yourself because they can see right through you and they know if you’re not being yourself,” he said. “You are who you are and they’re either going to like you or they’re not going to like you, so at the end of the day you gotta keep a cool head and be humble about the whole experience and learn from it. If they have advice, you should take it to heart and use it to get better, obviously continue from there.”

 

He continues to forge a close bond with Vees teammate and University of North Dakota recruit Tyson Jost, who like Fabbro, had an outstanding U-18 tourney and has likely parlayed that strong performance and a 100+-point season in the BCHL into top-10 draft billing.

 

“We had something to prove and that was our mindset going into the thing,” Fabbro said, hinting at his awareness of talk on the Internet mostly that because he and Jost are coming out of the BCHL, they somehow should be graded lower than other major junior or NCAA prospects in the draft. “Pretty much we were on a mission not only to prove ourselves but to show the BCHL isn’t just a league for players not to develop or who can’t play in the CHL, but they can develop anywhere because you have good coaches and players around you.”

 

That drive has caught the notice of observers around hockey and the NHL, regardless of where he’s played over the past several years.

 

“His compete is so impressive,” said a Western Conference team NHL scout recently when asked about Fabbro. “Set the talent and hockey sense aside for a second…some players talk about working hard and being consistent, he goes out and proves it every night.”

 

Fabbro is not exactly what you would call “big” by modern NHL standards- he’s hovering around 6-foot and perhaps a more generous 6-foot-1, but  with an athletic build that has room to pack on more muscle as he physically matures. He’s not undersized, but that fact sometimes can get lost in the sauce a bit as the NHL is starting to trend up towards bigger, more mobile defenders along the likes of last year’s second-round B’s pick Brandon Carlo, or 2016 prospect Jakob Chychrun, both of whom stand about 6-5 but move extremely well.

 

“Fabbro’s not small by any stretch,” said one NHL scout who is based in B.C. and has followed the former eighth overall WHL bantam draft pick of the Seattle Thunderbirds closely for several years. “I would say he has more of a compact build, so while he’s not got that height and long reach and the natural physical strength that goes with, he compensates nicely because he’s such a phenomenally smart player. The way he processes the game is remarkable; he’s easily one of the most intelligent and decisive players I’ve seen at any level, and that poise and calm, especially in the face of a ferocious forecheck, is something you just can’t coach in a player. They either have that knack and the ability to see the ice and make the instinctive plays or they don’t. When it comes to escapability and just being able to transition the puck up the ice effortlessly, there aren’t many players who can do it better than he does it.”

 

For his part, Fabbro is pretty self-aware of what he does better than anything when it comes to hockey.

 

“The biggest thing for me is definitely my hockey IQ and the ability to see the ice, make passes under pressure. That’s how I’ve developed my game over the past couple of years, so I know there’s a lot of things I still need to learn and get better at but hockey IQ comes naturally to me and making the simple plays. I might make too simple a play sometimes and but it all goes back to the vision, IQ and being able to escape pressure.”

 

By the same token, there is room for improvement, and Fabbro has identified a couple of specific focus areas he’s going to address in the offseason.

 

“I’ve got to improve my speed,” he said in an answer that certainly surprised the Scouting Post because he shows off some pretty deft skating and footwork already. “I felt I lacked a little bit in my pivoting (and transitions). Obviously, my separation speed is good at skating up the ice, but hockey’s a game of time and space, so you have to put in the work to get better every day and be that much quicker and faster on the puck.

 

“So, I’ve been doing a lot of off-ice work this summer, and I’m about to get back into my on-ice training and try to get every last ounce of the workouts in and making them benefit before the draft and I head to Boston for summer school. I’m just making sure that I can prove myself not only as a player but as a human being as well. ”

 

Whether he ends up as a player who is even available to the Bruins when they pick at 14, and if he would be the player GM Don Sweeney and chief amateur scout Keith Gretzky call to the stage to put on the spoked-B and Boston draft cap, Fabbro will soon be known to area hockey fans as he prepares to join an impressive cast of characters on Commonwealth Avenue under head coach David Quinn.

 

“It was one of those things where it felt right, and in talking to Coach Quinn and (associate head coach) Albie (O’Connell) they seemed like genuine and trustworthy people who are building something special there,” Fabbro said. “I’m lucky to have a chance to play for and grow under guys like that for however long it takes me to make pro. I’m pretty appreciative of what they’ve done for me so far and I’m looking forward to the summer work and then obviously, the season ahead.

 

“Another thing in my decision was the recruits coming in- it’s a pretty high class of players coming in, plus the players already there. The big thing for me in deciding on BU was the knowledge that it would be a challenge to remain in any position in a lineup like that, and to be surrounded by such good players and coaches can only be positive for my own development. You’re always going to have that challenge no matter where you play, and there’s always going to be someone better than you, so you want to try and beat them at whatever you can.”

 

And, having grown up outside of one of Canada’s biggest and most beautiful cities, there was something about Boston that drew him in, even if it meant being thousands of miles away from friends and family.

 

“What’s not to love about Boston? It’s a college town, it’s a sports city- there’s Fenway Park right around the corner, there’s TD Garden…it’s a place that I just connected with right away on my visit and is definitely the whole package for sure.”

 

There’s an old adage that talks about players having tools (size, skating, shot- all the physical attributes you need to play in the NHL) but no toolbox (hockey sense, ability to think the game), so in Fabbro’s case, he’s blessed with both. There is little doubt that if he were a couple of inches taller and had perhaps opted to play in the WHL, he’d be in the discussion with Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine for top billing. Having said that, Fabbro isn’t concerned about the various opinions about his projections and where he might or might not go in the draft and what is long-term potential in the NHL is at present.

 

“I think the biggest thing for me is that I’m not someone to take any crap but I’m pretty subtle in how I go about things and I think before I act,” he said. “I’m not someone who is going to act out or put my team in a tough spot, and I try to approach most situations like that by making sure I control what I can. I’m a pretty relaxed guy but when the competition starts, I ramp it up and I am how you see me. When people get to know me, I speak a little bit but I’m there for my team and that competitiveness shows.”

 

It’s more proof at a player who is mature beyond his years and grounded. However, at the end of the day- what gets you to the NHL and keeps you there is ability. Fabbro has the building blocks, but he also appears to possess the drive and want to that could propel him to big league success one day.

 

“There’s still lots of work ahead of us,” he said of himself and Jost, but in reality, was speaking for every member of the 2016 NHL draft class. “The big thing with us is that we’re dedicated and obviously want to get results. We’re striving for more every day and we continue to get better.”

 

The Dante Fabbro file

 

Height/Wt (RLR): 6-0, 190; Shoots: Right

Born: June 20, 1998 in

2015-16 club: Penticton Vees (BCHL)

Minor hockey program: Burnaby Winter Hockey Club

Favorite NHL team growing up: Vancouver Canucks

NHL player he most tries to emulate: Duncan Keith

 

Scouting report: Elite hockey sense, some of the best of any player in the 2016 draft: panoramic vision allows him to survey entire ice surface, instantly process and activate at right times. Pushes the pace with quick feet and effortless skating. Quick hands and a knack for delivering on-target passes at any range. Driven and competitive…a leader…mature and poised. Not overly physical but smart defensively and knows how to angle opponents away from skating lanes. Has everything you want in a top NHL defender except for ideal size. Working to add mass to his frame and increase power on shot along with pivots and transitions.

 

Quotable:Dante Fabbro is probably fifth on the list for many teams, but we love his off-the-charts hockey sense and character. For that reason, we think he’s the safest bet of the bunch to be an intelligent two-way contributor who plays 10-12 years and eats huge minutes while playing on both special teams. He almost never makes a mistake or a bad decision, has great positioning, and has tremendous vision and passing skills. He lacks a dangerous point shot, though.”- Kyle Woodlief, USA Today June 15, 2016

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.

 

 

 

 

Red Line Report 2016 draft guide is out

June is finally here and in addition to the Pittsburgh Penguins being up 3 games to 1 in the Stanley Cup Final series against the San Jose Sharks, it means that the NHL Entry Draft is about 2 weeks away.

TSP founder’s note- Truth in lending- going to plug a product here, and for those who might not be aware, I am a member of the staff that produced it, so this is not an objective product review. As long as you’re okay with that, read on…

The 2016 draft previews and guides are out. Red Line Report’s 22nd annual draft issue arrived in mail boxes yesterday (or today if you’re further away from Lake Placid) and you can also order it on pdf at a $50 fee.

Why so expensive?

Well, for one- Red Line Report is an independent hockey scouting service founded by professionals and designed for professionals. There are no bells and whistles- no photos, statistics or any of the eye candy that you want in a classic magazine format publication. What you are paying for is hard information and scouting reports, insider notes and analysis on players that RLR scouts (all of whom have proven hockey backgrounds either as players or analysts) have all seen *live* in multiple viewings.

Back in the mid-1990s, several smart hockey men (one of whom is a D1 NCAA hockey head coach) realized that there was no existing professional journal for hockey insiders, and thus Red Line was born- with an idea of providing hard news and notes on players and prospects that might be of interest to various team executives, staffers and coaches. The original RLR did not exist in the format that it does today, but by 1997, it was becoming increasingly more of a deeper dive into NHL draft prospects than what the public typically saw from the annual Hockey News draft preview issues published every spring since 1984.

When Nashville Predators scout Kyle Woodlief left his position in 1998, he had previously done work for Red Line before his NHL scouting job and saw an opportunity to bring his vision to life. Woodlief purchased the publication and immediately set about shaping RLR into the NHL’s unofficial 31st team- running his staff like an NHL team does and building an annual amateur player ranking very similarly to the way the 30 pro hockey clubs do.

As such, RLR never, ever uses our inside knowledge to put players on our list where we think they *might* get drafted- we rank the players from top to bottom based on how we see it, and that’s why a player like Boston University defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who very well could be a top-10 selection in Buffalo and should fall no lower than 15-18 in a few weeks, is currently ranked just outside our first round. This is nothing against McAvoy, who has the makings of a good player, we’re just not convinced he’s better than the 30-odd players we have ranked ahead of him. Sometimes we’re spot on, and other times- not so much. But you can say that about 100% of the NHL teams out there and every individual who has claimed to be a draft analyst- no one has a perfect track record…that’s just not how the world works.

In the near two decades that Woodlief has owned RLR, he’s helped more than 10 of his staffers land scouting jobs with NHL teams. All 30 NHL clubs currently subscribe to Red Line’s professional season-long service along with myriad junior, NCAA and other pro clubs. When it comes to independent scouting, RLR is the recognized standard. That is not to say the other draft publications aren’t, but I’ll let them make their own cases to the marketplace. I know the people involved, and there is mutual respect there.

So, what are you getting for your $50?

For starters- the Red Line business model is simple: less is more.

Our draft guide is just 32 pages because we know that there is such a thing as paralysis by analysis. If you want more product, then there are other options out there worth exploring, but we won’t expand our guide to compete, because we believe in our approach- largely unaltered since 1999.

Inside, you get our draft list of players from 1 (Auston Matthews) to 312 (Julien Tessier). Yes, we know there are only 211 draft spots (2014 1st-rounder Conner Bleakley’s re-entry means that Phoenix gets a 2nd-round comp pick for him after acquiring his rights but not signing him by June 1), but we see a lot of players, so there is no harm in building a more robust base list, which helps teams with a perspective as they finalize their own lists.

Of those 312 listed players in RLR, we do in-depth scouting reports on the top-116. These scouting reports are typically around 120 words a pop, so you’re not going to get a lot of repetitive language to describe how crisply a player’s edging contributes to his game. We know your time is precious, so we get to the point and cover the gamut of what a player does and what we think he can be at the pro level one day. Every profile comes with an NHL projection of what kind of contribution we think he’ll make (if he makes it) and an NHL player comparison.

Also in the guide-

— 2 mock drafts in which Kyle and yours truly attempt to determine what the 2016 first round will look like. These mocks are very different from our own list because in it, we *are* using our inside info in certain spots to predict what teams will draft whom where. For example- McAvoy is a top-20 pick in both.

— A comprehensive team needs analysis to assist you with what we think each NHL club is lacking and how some of those needs might factor into their draft strategy.

— A European free agent roundup. Some players on our list have already been signed to NHL deals and we list them out. Other European vets are available, so it gives you the reader a head start should your favorite NHL team snap one up between now and the September start of training camp.

— The 2017 NHL draft top-67. This is how we see things some 400 days before next year’s draft and a lot can change. In our 2015 draft guide, here’s what our top-5 looked like:

1- Auston Matthews

2- Jakob Chychrun

3- Jesse Puljujarvi

4- Logan Brown

5- Jake Bean

One year later, all five of those guys are in the running for top-10 selections, with Matthews a cinch to be No. 1 overall and Puljujarvi very likely going 3rd. Truth in lending- we whiffed on Patrik Laine, who was 48 in June 2015- that had much more to do with a lack of work ethic and maturity last year, but he proved us all wrong and is a firm No. 2 on our 2016 draft guide list. Oh, and B’s fans- we had Dante Fabbro at 7th overall a year ago (and he’s pretty close to that ranking in June 2016), so don’t let anyone tell you he wasn’t highly regarded coming into the season- that’s bunk.

— Finally, our draft guide has its annual “special categories and awards” section, where we rank the most underrated, overrated, best and worst skaters, scorers…best character guys, toughest, and then those who we find lacking for one reason or another. When you hear people (agents?) complain about RLR, this is usually at the crux of the matter, but this is something that is as much a part of the draft guide as jelly is with peanut butter on a sandwich.

So…that’s the pitch.

$50 is a lot to spend on any publication and our product is not for everyone. But again- if you are a hard core hockey and draft enthusiast, and you want what the pros use (true story- sat next to Blues scout and HHOFer Al MacInnis on a flight to Pittsburgh and when I introduced myself as a RLR staffer, he pulled out our draft guide), then it’s a good investment. (Yes, tooting the own horn here, but it’s an honest statement- NHL guys read RLR)

You can order the guide (sans subscription) a la carte at the aforementioned price by going to http://www.redlinereport.com or by simply calling Kyle at 518-523-4289 and placing your order. If the year-long subscription interests you, there are several options you can choose from. And when you get Mr. Woodlief on the phone, tell him Kirk sent you. I won’t get anything more than a boot in the backside when the staff meets up in Buffalo for the draft, but at least he’ll know I’m working for a living.

***

Up next on the blog- will do a Boston Bruins draft strategy analysis for you, whereby I will attempt to break down the team’s philosophy and what I believe they need and how that all dovetails into what they will do in Buffalo.

 

 

 

PODCAST: Lauzon & DeBrusk Memorial Cup update and 2016 NHL Draft observations

It’s a nice Sunday afternoon…USA fell to Russia for the bronze medal (but Frankie Vatrano netted both USA goals in a 7-2 loss, so there’s that) and Canada captured goal with a rousing win over Finland, denying the Finns the international hockey sweep of World Jr., Under-18 and Men’s World championship in 2016. But, as Meatloaf used to say- “Two outta three ain’t bad!”

I did an audio podcast on the Memorial Cup, which has two Bruins prospects competing for Jr. hockey’s ultimate prize.

In it, I discuss Jeremy Lauzon’s triumphant return to action with the Quebec League champ Rouyn-Noranda Huskies after taking a skate to the neck during the QMJHL playoffs. I also talk about Jake DeBrusk and go on a bit of a rant defending him to the critics. I’m probably doing a little Bill “Thou Doth Protest Too Much” Shakespeare here, but some things just need to be said. With Boston’s goal-scoring woes, it’s surprising the level of criticism he gets from the team’s own fans, many of whom haven’t seen him much outside the occasional highlight. Well, with the Memorial Cup games on NHL Network, you can get an idea. Right, wrong or indifferent- just calling it like I see it.

I touched on how dominant the London Knights have been, even making a Hrkac Circus reference. One thing I didn’t mention in the context of Tyler Parsons’ play this year (he’s a 2016 NHL draft eligible btw) is that even if you get the puck and transition it the other way, without icing it, you have to face him. Fighting Sioux opponents had to go up against none other than Eddie Belfour in net during that magical championship season.

If you manage to make it through my self-indulgence with DeBrusk, I do a Jakob Chychrun-Dante Fabbro analysis of their performance as a D pairing at the World Under-18 tourney last month. Windsor Spitfires star D Mikhail Sergachev also gets a mention, and I share one example of his sublime skill set and hockey IQ for your listening pleasure. I also talk about 2017 draft eligible Eeli Tolvanen (and yes- he played for Sioux City of the USHL this year).

With the bulk of my draft work done for Red Line Report and New England Hockey Journal, I can now devote more time to the blog. Thanks for hanging in there…

Here’s the 30-minute audio file: