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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.