NHL 2015 rookie camps/player watch list- Western Conference

Back with part 2 of the rookie camp player watch list, going out West. As mentioned before- these are players I’m familiar with- either through scouting them or interviewing them in their respective draft years. I don’t claim to have a monopoly of knowledge, but share these observations a time when they are getting a chance to compete with and among their peers- before the veterans show up and camps formally begin next week.

Anaheim Ducks

Brandon Montour, D- Former UMass defender left after just one season but has live wheels and impressive puck moving ability. He was drafted in 2014 as a third-year draft eligible out of Waterloo of the USHL and may have been that league’s best d-man in 2013-14. He’s 21 and ready to handle the physical demands and rigors of pro hockey after just one season in the Hockey East.

Nick Ritchie, F- Massive power forward has bigger upside than his older brother Brett after being drafted out of the Peterborough Petes of the OHL in 2014. Tremendous core strength means he generates power few can match when he decides to drive the net and works up the speed to take the puck straight in. Gets some real torque on his shot and hides his release point well. Effort level and intensity comes and goes- if the light ever comes on for him he could be a force. People said the same things about Ryan Getzlaf back in 2003, after all.

Arizona Coyotes

Nick Merkley, F- What a gamer! Although undersized and lacking a top gear, he’s an elite passer and finds ways to generate offense as evidenced by his great WHL playoff and Memorial Cup run last spring. He was a steal for the Desert Dogs with the final pick of the opening round, a player who was projected to go anywhere from the around the top-15-20 picks but slid down to 30. To get Dylan Strome and Merkley in the same round and with Max Domi ready to take his game to the big show, Arizona is building some serious firepower up front.

Calgary Flames

Rasmus Andersson, D- Talented Swede was Calgary’s top selection (after trading three picks to Boston for Dougie Hamilton) in the second round, just after the B’s opted for Jeremy Lauzon, and he’s an interesting prospect. A superb power play presence and puck mover, he uses his vision and soft hands to distribute with the added time and space. His skating- especially the transitions and lateral movement- is an area that needs improvement, but he was a productive player in his first OHL season.

Jon Gillies, G- A Scouting Post favorite, he went out on top at Providence College, playing a huge role in his school’s first ever NCAA title last April and will likely spend the year with the Stockton Heat of the AHL. With his huge frame, he doesn’t allow much daylight in the net and he’s a competitive battler. Scouts have knocked him for not being an elite athlete, but when you look at his numbers- they don’t lie.

Chicago Blackhawks

Graham Knott, F- Excellent physical tools are brought into question when it comes to the hockey sense and overall competitiveness. If he develops a little more “want to”, Knott certainly has the talent to be an NHL regular and Chicago will have done it again by landing a quality forward without a top-round selection, but several NHL scouts questioned his ability to process and decisions at times when he was with Niagara of the OHL this past season.

Colorado Avalanche

Conner Bleackley, F- I liked the Red Deer Rebels captain as an option for the B’s in the 2014 draft’s first round, but Colorado grabbed him earlier (not that it would have mattered, as David Pastrnak was Boston’s guy all along). Scuttlebutt with scouts I spoke to at the 2015 NHL draft is that Bleackley was not ready to go for his first pro camp and his play suffered last season. This is a key opportunity for him to put a better foot forward and justify the team’s faith in him- he’s a leader so don’t count him out on that score.

Dallas Stars

Jason Dickinson, F- The player chosen by Dallas with the pick Jim Nill got from Boston in the 2013 trade deadline deal for Jaromir Jagr, Dickinson hasn’t put up eye-popping numbers in the OHL, but has been pretty consistent as a scorer over the past year. Knocks on him entering his NHL draft was a lack of intensity and a tendency to go long stretches at Guelph without doing much and then scoring in bunches. Felt he was a reach at the end of the 1st round, but there’s no doubt he has the skating and tools to justify that pick going forward.

Cole Ully, F- Undersized and underweight at 18, Ully has always had the speed and “want to” coming out of the rugged WHL with the Kamloops Blazers. He’s the anti-Dickinson if you will- a kid who has the skating and shot if not the more ideal pro size but has a non-stop motor and a knack for finding the net in key situations. He’s gotten stronger and added more mass to his light frame, but he’s always going to be challenged in the rougher areas of the ice, where his compete and grit will give him a chance to win puck battles. Speaking of battles, he’s not afraid to drop the gloves to defend teammates- he’s willing to earn respect the hard way.

Edmonton Oilers

Leon Draisaitl, F- In hindsight, Draisaitl wasn’t ready for prime time when he began the 2014-15 NHL season in Edmonton, but the experience has made him a much better player and he was in beast mode during the WHL playoffs with Kelowna. He’s the sturm to McDavid’s drang, and these two are going to give the Oilers a wicked 1-2 punch up the middle for years to come, giving the rest of the league much turmoil and emotional heartache to face as they mature into stars.

Connor McDavid, F- What more can you say about McDavid that has not been mentioned already? I’ll just share an observation of him from Sunrise on draft weekend. The day after going 1st overall, he was back in the building doing some kind of promotional events, and I happened to be walking into the BB&T Center with him. He eschewed the attention and almost seemed embarrassed by it. A few minutes later- he was quietly by himself taking a breather from what he knows will be the bright lights and attention that will follow him for the duration of a long NHL career. I thought that touch of humility- not coming off like he is bigger than the game or his team- was a good sign that the NHL’s next big thing deserves the spotlight, even if he doesn’t really want it.

Los Angeles Kings

Valentin Zykov, F- The rich get a little richer with this plum of a forward that Red Line projected in the first round in 2013 (26th), but slid down to the Kings at the 37th selection. He’s got a thick, pro-style build and can really skate and shoot the puck. He’s expected to be a big-time contributor to the AHL’s Ontario Reign. He missed the WJC last year due to injury, but is on a mission to prove himself and don’t be surprised if he sees some NHL action at some point this season- legitimate top-six scoring potential as a left wing in my view after splitting the year between Baie-Comeau and Gatineau of the QMJHL.

Minnesota Wild

Mike Reilly, D- The former Columbus prospect out of Shattuck St. Mary’s in 2011 declined to sign with the Blue Jackets and inked a deal with his home team Wild, where he makes his pro debut this season and might do enough to earn an NHL job coming out of camp. Although not blessed with a lot of size, he’s a premier puck mover with his mobility and vision as his 36 helpers in 39 games with the Golden Gophers attest.

Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr had this to say about Reilly in the always excellent Russo’s Rants blog by Minneapolis Star Tribue Wild beat writer Mike Russo:

He’s highly competitive,” Flahr said of Reilly. “His bread and butter is going to be his offense, but he needs to learn to take care of his own end, and I thought he did that, especially later in the game. Early I thought he was pressing a bit trying to do too much, which is totally normal in these things.”

Flahr said when Reilly began to settle down his play influenced the game.

“He made a lot of things happen for the back-end, and generated a lot of chances because of his mobility, and ability to get up ice and make plays,” Flahr said.

 

Nashville Predators

Juuse Saros, G- Little goalie that could is a rarity in this day and age- a sub-6-footer between the pipes vying for NHL time among the freakishly athletic redwoods that are in vogue. Gritty little competitor just stops the puck and has some Tim Thomas (on the ice) compete in his game. He gets his pads down fast and brings a never-say-die mentality to every scoring chance. I was a big fan in his draft year and believe he’ll reach the NHL despite the lack of size. I love this guy and if they don’t already, Preds fans will too.

 

St. Louis Blues 

Robby Fabbri, F- Boy, the Blues got themselves some terrific value with Fabbri a year ago at 21, when scouting lists like Red Line had him ranked in the top-10. He was part of Canada’s WJC gold medal-winning team, but missed the medal games due to a high ankle sprain after making an impact during the round robin portion. He’s a tremendous competitor who doesn’t seem bothered by his diminutive size, although some point to the injuries he’s had as indicators of what lies ahead as he moves into the more rugged pro ranks. Me? I love heart-and-soul guys who go out and get it done- he’s one of those types and more.

Tommy Vannelli, D- 20-year-old Minnesotan who left his home state to play in the WHL with the Medicine Hat Tigers is a truly gorgeous skater who can rev it up in his own end and push the offensive pace whenever he leads the rush. He’s always been rangy and aggressive- grabbing the puck and going with it- scoring a respectable 35 points in 44 games, a chunk lost to injury. He’s a talented player who only appears to be scratching the surface of his potential but will be given time to continue to grow and develop and won’t be rushed.

San Jose Sharks

Pat McNally, D- Former Vancouver pick in 2010 was a defense partner for fellow New Yorkers and Boston prospect Rob O’Gara at Milton Academy in 2010-11, and his riverboat gambler ways are what drew me to O’Gara in the first place- as he often found himself covering for McNally. When moving forward McNally has always been a threat, charging up the ice and in prep- he used his wheels and feared shot to score a lot of goals. His all-around game, however, has been more of a work in progress and he remains a project with some upside. We’ll see if the Sharks can harness his potential going forward, as this swashbuckler won’t get away with doing some of the things he did at lower levels now that he’s a pro.

Timo Meier, F- Boston was reportedly about to draft its first Swiss player in team history with Meier, whose heavy style and scoring chops would have been a fine fit. The Sharks beat them to the punch, grabbing the QMJHL standout inside the top-10 and Meier will probably become a reliable and dependable scorer for them in time.

Vancouver Canucks

Jake Virtanen, F- When Jim Benning left Boston to take the reins as Vancouver GM a year ago, it wasn’t a big surprise that he used his first draft choice on the big and skilled forward who has a natural knack for scoring goals. He took a step back in 2015 with Calgary of the WHL after being the sixth overall selection- only tallying 21 goals and barely registering a point-per-game. With more expected, watch for the 19-year-old to rebound this year with his speed and shot.

Winnipeg Jets

Nikolaj Ehlers, F- Wow, what a player! This top-10 selection in 2014 is an absolute stud who is going to make the rising Jets even faster and more dangerous offensively than they already are, which is saying a hell of a lot. You don’t want to overuse the word “special” to describe too many prospects but that’s what this Great Dane is. Turn him loose and as Mr. T used to say- pity the poor fool who lets Ehlers get a step on him…goodbye!

Nic Petan, F- The “Rainmaker” was a steal in the 2013’s second round and was such a consistent scorer for the Portland Winterhawks, registering 300 regular season points in the last three WHL seasons with playoff years of 28, 28, and 28 points in just 59 total games. Although smallish, he’s explosive and such a deft stickhandler and creative presence that he’s always a threat on each and every shift. The guy just knows how to find the back of the net, as evidenced by his 2015 WJC performance for Team Canada. Be afraid, goalies- be very afraid…

Eric Comrie, G- This stud goalie prospect fell a bit in 2013 because he suffered a serious injury, but he put together a great follow-on campaign with the Tri-City Americans in 2013-14, then looked pretty strong in a handful of AHL games when his junior season ended last spring. With his fluid athleticism and near-flawless technique, he’ll be pushing for quality NHL starts before too long.

InGoal Magazine publishes top 50 goalie prospects article: Subban, McIntyre in top-10

Gothberg Hamilton dev camp

Greg Balloch and the staff of InGoal magazine published a top-50 list of the best goaltending prospects in the world last week and you can read the entire thing here:

Top 50 NHL Goaltending Prospects for 2015-2016

The criteria for establishing the listed players as prospects are the following:

1) Must be 25 years old or younger,
2) Have only played 10 games or less in the NHL, and
3) Must be drafted or signed by a professional club.

The last part is key- because there are a few undrafted/unsigned guys out there you could certainly make a case for, but not for this exercise.

Not surprisingly, Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets tops the ranking. This former UMass-Lowell star posted a very good rookie season with the St. John IceCaps last season, leaving a big hole on the RiverHawks’ roster after two seasons and a Mike Richter award in 2014. He and former Bruins prospect Mike Hutchinson are going to be two huge goalies in the Jets crease who both give shooters very little to shoot at, but Hellebuyck’s upside appears to be enormous (no pun intended).

I admit it- I was a tad surprised that Malcolm Subban was No. 2 overall on the list…not because I don’t think he doesn’t deserve to be there (he does), but because every time I say something about him on Twitter, I usually get several tweets from people “in the know” who tell me Zane McIntyre has surpassed him on the B’s prospect depth chart. I don’t bring this up to slight Zane- as you will see, he’s featured prominently on the list as well.

But seriously, folks- Subban is one of the best pure athletes in all of hockey. This is a critical year for him, because his first two AHL campaigns have brought him to a bit of a crossroads- more was expected of him last year, but journeyman pro Jeremy Smith cut into the planned playing time for Subban by performing more consistently. As my friend Mick Colageo of the Bedford Standard-Times points out- Providence bench boss Bruce Cassidy said late last year that Smith had a “B” game when his “A’ game wasn’t working…and that’s why Smith got the nod in the playoffs for the one-and-done P-Bruins.

On Subban, InGoal asserts:

“It looks as if Malcolm Subban will have a legitimate opportunity for an NHL job next season. Based on his back-to-back .920+ save percentage seasons with Providence of the AHL, he’s ready.”

The save percentage totals are solid, no question. Where Subban has gotten into difficulty is with sustaining high level performances without mediocrity and poor starts slipping into the mix. He can be dominant one night, barely average the next. And that’s where Cassidy’s comment about Subban needing to develop his “B” game (read: playing just well enough to give the team a chance) comes in.

You can criticize Subban for his inability to seize the starting job in Providence to date, but that ignores the fact that Niklas Svedberg and Smith posted strong seasons to earn the bulk of the starts, as opposed to Subban playing poorly. Make no mistake, though- this is the year for him to take charge of the crease (assuming he’s not playing in Boston) and assert himself. He’s far too talented not to do that in my view.

The article reminds us that Subban did not even start playing the position until an advanced age (13), which is why his athletic ability is so important. When he was drafted 24th overall in 2012, to say that his technique was a work in progress was couching it in pretty generous terms. I was an outspoken critic of Subban’s in his draft year (and at some humble pie at the draft because I was so sure the Bruins *wouldn’t* draft him) because I felt that if he wasn’t the younger brother of a certain NHL defenseman and (since) Norris Trophy winner, he would not have gotten the attention he did.

In hindsight- I was unfair to the middle Subban brother, who has worked to refine his technique and certainly has the tools to thrive in the NHL one day. It’s a shame that he had such an ignominious debut against St. Louis last season, but you know the old saying about that which does not kill you…

Zane McIntyre checks in at the ninth spot. I probably would have him a couple places earlier than that, but that’s a quibble as there are some accomplished netminders from 3-8 on the list. Here’s the meat of the assessment:

“Still only 22 years of age, McIntyre is deserving of elite prospect status. Every part of his game has been developed; He is a very well-rounded goaltender. Even his puckhandling skills are above-average, although he does get caught being headstrong at times. The Bruins already have Malcolm Subban and Tuukka Rask at the NHL level, so they will continue to be stacked in the minors if McIntyre handles most of the load with Providence in the AHL. If they sign a veteran to back up Rask, or go with Jeremy Smith out of camp, an AHL duo of Subban and McIntyre would be incredible to watch. The only thing that can be questioned about McIntyre is his ability to track a pro-level shot. A slow-and-steady approach to his development should give him plenty of time to figure it out, even if he struggles at first.”

Well, close enough…he’s two days away from turning 23 so there’s that, but the Bruins chose him in the sixth round five+ years ago knowing he was a long-term project and they’ve carefully cultivated and developed him since then.

I can’t say enough about how far he’s come from that gangly, raw goalie I saw at Bruins development camp right after Tyler Seguin came to town. Like Subban, McIntyre (who went by the last name Gothberg back then) had holes in his technique that he’s worked hard to address, namely in his lateral movement- opening up holes that the more adept shooters were able to exploit by being patient and waiting for those openings. He’s become a far more composed goaltender, although his style is still reminiscent of Tim Thomas in the way that he’ll battle hard and extend himself to get any piece of his equipment on a shot as opposed to the more mechanical and fundamental of butterfly goalies who square up and maximize their economy of movement.

I maintain that what McIntyre brings to the table best is his mental toughness- he’s the rare player who has thrived alternately as a backup in junior and the NCAA as well as a starter. When you look at his statistics going back to his first USHL season with the Fargo Force in 2010-11, he’s been remarkably consistent, whether playing a full workload or getting into games on occasion. He earned that league’s top goaltending honor in 2011-12, and then had to work his way back up with the University of North Dakota in 2012-13. By the following year, he won the battle for No. 1 and in 2014-15, he played every game on the schedule, winning honors as the top NCAA goalie and finishing as one of three finalists (to Jack Eichel) for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s premier player.

All of this is not to say that I believe it makes sense for him to be the Boston backup this season. McIntyre has said that is his goal and I know he believes that with all of his heart. Hey- anything is possible…but would opening and closing the door for the Bruins skaters to the tune of 60+ games of Tuukka Rask next season be in McIntyre’s best interest?

I get it- people are excited about him and understandably so. But this is a player with a grand total of 0 minutes of pro experience at any level let alone the NHL. So- rather than push for the shiny new toy, doesn’t it make sense to allow him the opportunity to play his way into a comfort level starting with the AHL and see how he does?

I still rank Subban ahead of McIntyre on the Boston depth chart, but it’s extremely close. In fact, the gap between them has closed so significantly that I would not at all be surprised if when the dust settles, McIntyre ends up being the longer term option. But for now, Subban’s pure ability/projected ceiling and the fact that he’s entering his third pro season gives him the slight nod over the Minnesota native who once won the Frank Brimsek Award as the top high school goalie in the Land of 10,000 Lakes- Mr. Zero’s home state.

At 38, Boston’s newest prospect in net checks in- a pretty solid debut. Daniel Vladar went in the third round, 75th overall, and while I felt they could have gone with someone else there (I was higher on Matej Tomek who went at the end of the round to Philly), there is no denying that this Redwood in net has some impressive albeit eventual, very eventual potential.

“You can’t teach size” is a common saying, and the 6-foot-6 Vladar is a perfect example of why it is used. His massive 84-inch wingspan turned heads at the NHL combine, which led to him rising to 75th overall in this year’s draft. While he is still a long term investment, Bruins fans won’t have to wait very long to see him in North America. He’s slated to play for the Chicago Steel of the USHL in 2015-2016, and will work one-on-one with their new assistant coach, the recently retired Peter Mannino.”

Other goalies of note on the list-

3. Ilya Samsonov, Capitals- Yep. If you’re not going to have many picks in a draft, get yourself someone with All-Star potential and that’s precisely what the Caps did. Of course- with Braden Holtby playing so well, they have nothing but time to bring the big, smooth Russian along at a leisurely pace. My guess is he’ll be knocking at the door to the Verizon Center before too long.

4. Eric Comrie, Jets- Between Comrie (a value pick in 2013 because of injuries) and Hellebuyck, once again the Jets are building one hell of an organization. They were on the cover of the 2015 THN Future Watch for good reason and then went out and had another hellacious draft in Sunrise. They have premium talent at every position and this fundamentally superb player who is on track after getting a hip issue in his draft year under control is a legit stopper.

10. Jon Gillies, Flames- Man, what a gamer. One of my favorite New England-area prospects of all was so good when he had to be last spring, leading the PC Friars to their first-ever NCAA championship.  He’s so big, but was knocked for his overall athleticism in his draft year. To be honest- he’s such a competitor that it’s never really been something I think prevents him from being a success, but it’s a whole new shooting match in the pros, so it will be interesting to see how he develops now that he’s signed and in Calgary’s farm system. I wouldn’t bet against him.

12. Thatcher Demko, Canucks- A wonky hip complicated matters for the talented Californian who soldiered through it in the midst of a disappointing year for Boston College- no Beanpot, no Hockey East title, a quick exit in the NCAA tourney. Demko is another prototype big guy who takes away a lot of net and finds ways to make the big save. A project player several years away, but a good one for Vancouver.

18. Alex Nedeljkovic, Hurricanes- The American playing in the OHL goes against the grain in terms of possessing average-to-below-average size for the position by today’s standards, but he’s a stopper who thrives when under pressure. I liked him a lot in the 2014 U18 championship run to get USA back on the gold medal platform, and he’s got some long-term upside in Carolina.

28. Colin Stevens, Panthers- Undrafted free agent led Union to the 2014 NCAA championship and I was impressed with him when watching him years ago with the Boston Jr. Bruins. The New York native has always brought an impressive mix of size, quickness and the ability to steal games. Winner.

46. Matej Tomek, Flyers- I got in to see him multiple times live in the NAHL last year and I personally feel that the Slovak and heir apparent to McIntyre’s vacated crease in Grand Forks would have been a better choice for the Bruins than Czech rival Vladar. Nothing against Darth Vladar- I didn’t see him other than on film at the U18 (and he didn’t have the greatest performance there) But in my mind- Tomek is the sleeper- underrated and underappreciated, but Flyers fans will soon be like the people at Cheers- they’re going to know his name.

Daniel "Darth" Vladar- 3rd round, 75th overall in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Daniel “Darth” Vladar- 3rd round, 75th overall in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)