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.

***

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.

Scouting Post 2016 NHL Draft Podcast Pt. 2: Tiano & Duthie forge on

Thanks for the overwhelming interest in part 1 of the 2016 NHL draft OHL-centric podcast featuring Dominic Tiano and Reed Duthie!

Here is the second hour:

Tiano’s OHL Writers blog is a key source in the evaluation of NHL draft-eligible talent coming out of the CHL’s Ontario major junior circuit. Duthie is the play-by-play announcer for the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs home broadcasts. Both bring a lot of knowledge and passion for the sport.

In hour 2, we pick up where technology left off, completing the thought process on Saginaw D Markus Niemelainen. Then, listen to Reed and Dom square off over defenseman Sean Day, as they engage in a “great debate” over whether the toolsy player who was granted exceptional status at age 15 is worth spending a top-60 selection on given his disappointing season and other concerns about his long-term NHL upside.

We also get into some of the underrated, undersized guys like Alex DeBrincat, Adam Mascherin and Will Bitten…the duo talk about players like Nathan Bastian, Taylor Raddysh and we also go further down the line on interesting risers like Guelph Storm forward Givani Smith and London speedster Cliff Pu (Puuuuuuuuu!).

Oh, yeah- and we circle back on London Knights power forward Max Jones– a bit of a controversial figure as you will hear from Reed and Dom. But, I neglected to have him in the 1st-round talk in hour 1- that was a mistake, because that’s where he’s almost assuredly expected to go this week.

There’s that and much, much more, as we tack on some time at the end of the 60 minutes to make up for what was lost in the first hour. You don’t have to be a Boston Bruins fan to get into the action here- as Dom feels that this is one of the strongest OHL draft classes in quite some time. Chances are- your favorite team will end up with one or more of them.

I have a few more posts this week before the draft, but for now- enjoy.

 

 

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!

Back from Grand Forks…U-18 Championship top-10

The blog has gone quiet for some time and apologies for that.

My schedule at the Under-18 hockey championship tourney was not conducive to posting each day, but quite a bit has happened since then, so I have some catching up to do. I’ll weigh in on the two after-season press conferences in Boston in a bit, but I need to gather my thoughts, as I want to make sure that I am neither playing to the crowd or opening myself up to the various trolls who aren’t interested in a thoughtful discussion.

For the past week, I’ve been focused on the future of the NHL, watching the 2016 IIHF World Under-18s at the gorgeous Ralph Engelstad Arena, home of the 2016 NCAA champion University of North Dakota Fighting (Sioux) Hawks. It’s a true hockey cathedral and even though the tourney was not well-attended, we enjoyed being in a beautiful facility nonetheless.

So before I switch gears and post about the state of the Bruins, here are some thoughts on the top players at the U-18s. I am not listing any of the 2017-eligible players who performed admirably in Grand Forks- and there were quite a few! These are the players I had the most time for (in order) and aren’t necessarily the “top” or “sexy” names everyone else is talking about:

1. Dante Fabbro, D Canada- Legit two-way defender with some major upside at the next level. I cannot state enough how much I liked Fabbro’s performance in the four preliminary round games- he did a little bit of everything.
2. Tyson Jost, C Canada- The yin to Fabbro’s yang- exciting, dynamic, dangerous. He just might have played his way into the top-10.
3. Clayton Keller, C USA- I’ll admit it- late to the party on this kid, but he’s a player. Speedy, uber-smart and a dynamic playmaker. There was a lot of NHL buzz on the Illinois native and BU recruit coming in, but it’s warranted.
4. Markus Niemelainen, D Finland- Huge at 6-5 and a superb skater. Size and wheels alone isn’t a reason to take this Finn (the only 2016 draft eligible on a squad of seven D- all late ’98 or ’99-born guys) but his potential late-blooming offensive potential could push it over the edge. Anyone who has him ranked well out of the first-round is missing the boat on him in my view.
5. Kieffer Bellows, LW USA- The son of former NHL 500-goal, 1000-point man Brian Bellows has a ferocious shot, but when he’s playing physical and with a burr up under his saddle as he did here, he’s a force.
6. Logan Brown, C USA- The 6-foot-6 son of Ottawa 67’s coach and NHL D Jeff Brown (btw- he’s nowhere near 6-6 in height) is a heck of a prospect in terms of his pure talent and physical attributes. He doesn’t look like he’s working all that hard and then boom! He’s got a pair of nifty assists on creative plays after you didn’t think he was accomplishing much. He could go off the board much higher than expected, but right now is tracking at/around 15th overall.
7. Mikhail Sergachev, D Russia- Absolutely recognize (and love) the skill: skating, passing/puck skills are first rate. However, Sergachev didn’t assert himself or take control much in this one beyond a few impressive flashes. It may have had to do with the younger team around him, but he was good in this one, not great.
8. Jakob Chychrun, D Canada- See Sergachev. Chychrun has been so highly-rated for so long that it might be nitpicking at this point. He’s got great tools, but kept waiting for him to take charge of games and he never did. That distinction belonged to Fabbro, his defense partner.
9. Ryan Lindgren, D USA- He might be average-sized and lacking in a high-end skill set that jumps out at you, but boy- is this guy ever smart and driven! Team USA captain did nothing but make plays throughout the preliminary round, and it’s not tough to see why he has the ‘C’. He’s going to be a fine value pick in June.
10. Evan Fitzpatrick, G Canada- I didn’t want to like this guy based on some things I had seen during his QMJHL season with Sherbrooke, but man- he was dialed in. Especially against the Finns, when he had a memorable stop in the second period against Otto Somppi.

Honorable mention:
Boris Katchouk, RW Canada- Not fancy, but just plays the game in straight lines and is effective. Made an immediate splash in his 1st game (of two in the opening round) against Slovakia.

Alex Nylander, LW Sweden- Love the talent, but need more consistency, especially against the better foes.

Livio Stadler, D Switzlerland- Smallish defender is smart and gritty. Some may not see any NHL upside but as a late project pick, a team could do far worse than the Swiss captain.

Mareks Mitens, G Latvia “Mittens”- Nearly presided over an epic upset of the Swedes, and if nothing else- gave us an entire game’s worth of entertainment as the Legend of Mittens grew with each save.

Brett Howden, LW Canada- All he did was snipe goals and create opportunistic offense. His three-zone game didn’t stand out, but around the net, he was deadly.

Samuel Solensky, C Slovakia- Small but energetic and creative forward hustles and plays hard. He was not up to the task vs. Canada, so he’ll remain a mid-round project instead of raising his draft profile significantly.

Limited viewing (1 game):

Jesse Puljujarvi, LW Finland- He looked a little tired and not 100%, but his big-time potential emerged when the Finns were skating with the man advantage. He’s a load- not hard to understand why he’s considered a top-three draft prospect.

 

TSP SPD Podcast: Bruins road trip update, Frank Vatrano & 4 guys for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft

Hi, gang-  been a little under the weather, but feeling improved, so I cut a podcast early this morning in time for your St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Focus is on the Boston Bruins during their West Coast road swing after dropping the first game to San Jose by a 3-2 score. Things get no easier with matches against L.A. and Anaheim. They go back east and get a little time at home before going to the Big Apple and Madison Square Garden to play the NY Rangers next week. This is a pivotal six points up for grabs.

We also go into Frank Vatrano and the fantastic season he’s having. The Springfield Rifle has 31 goals in 31 AHL games and while B’s fans are clamoring to get him on the big roster and playing again, I attempt to explain why that hasn’t happened yet. Hint- it’s not always a simple talent swap between Vatrano and Jimmy Hayes and/or Brett Connolly.

Finally- I close out the 40-minute podcast with some thoughts on four players I think are on Boston’s 2016 draft watch list: three defensemen and one impressive forward. It’s still difficult to narrow the focus, but I think if the B’s could get any one of these guys let alone two with their multiple first-round picks, they’ll be in good shape. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out who I’m talking about, though.

So, thanks for listening and I do promise to get these posted over at iTunes so you can download and listen to them on other formats. I’ll carve out time to do that and post a notice on the blog. As always- appreciate the support and feedback.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day and enjoy the podcast!

Canada wins 8th consecutive Ivan Hlinka gold- final thoughts on 1st major pre-2016 NHL draft tourney

Canada did precisely what they set out to do this month in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, capturing their 8th straight Ivan Hlinka tournament. Think about that- the 2008 gold medal-winning roster in the current streak featured Taylor Hall and Matt Duchene on it, and every year since has boasted a who’s who of top NHL draft picks who have gone on to become some of the best players in the league since (Tyler Seguin was a beast in the 2009 Hlinka and Dougie Hamilton stepped up raised his profile as a legit top-10 selection in the 2010 tournament, and Nathan MacKinnon set the all-time points mark with 11 in 5 games in 2012 for example).
Why is Canada so dominant? The answer is pretty simple- because they can take the very best players from the CHL after they get together each August in Calgary for an Under-18 camp around the same time that the WJC/Under-20 camp is ongoing. This year- a pair of high-profile Canadians in forward Logan Brown (son of former NHLer Jeff Brown) and defenseman Sean Day– did not make the cut and were left at home (no Jakob Chychrun either- but he has Canada-U.S. dual citizenship and has yet to determine which country he will represent internationally- as does Brown for that matter).

 

Not surprisingly, Canada didn’t miss a beat- running the table and edging Russia in a close semi-final match (2-1) before bringing the house against Sweden for the gold in a 7-3 final that aside from a couple of quick garbage time goals by Alex Nylander (son of Michael, brother of Leafs prospect William) and William Fallstrom at garbage time- wasn’t that close. Canada rules this tournament because they can bring their top talent without having to lose players to the CHL playoffs the way they do in April- when the U.S. NTDP flips the script and brings their best U18 players, guys who have spent the better part of the previous two seasons together building chemistry, learning the systems and playing against older talent in the USHL and NCAA. USA does not send the NTDP to the Hlinka- instead putting together a team of the top players from the June Select 17 USA Hockey Festival.

The nice thing about the Hlinka is- it serves as the harbinger of the new hockey season and the next NHL draft. For example, Canada boasted 11 players in Red Line Report’s top-40 projected picks for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft published in the June 2015 Draft Guide. Of those- six were in the top-15. An additional five first-round projections from the USA, Russia, Finland and Sweden all skated in the tournament as well. Now, there will be plenty of movement on the rankings between now and next June when the players actually come off the board in Buffalo, but it gives you an idea about the importance of the Hlinka as a draft-eligible showcase. Late ’97-born players did not participate, and higher-end guys like Jesse Puljujarvi for Finland skated at Lake Placid earlier this month as part of the USA National Jr. Eval Camp- you can look him up in earlier blog posts.

So with that in mind- here are my thoughts on some of the players after streaming and watching some (not all) of the key Hlinka games online.

Canada

Dante Fabbro, D Penticton Vees (BCHL)- One word to describe this right-shot (the only one on the CAN roster) d-man: smooth. He exhibited poise with and without the puck on the blueline- making good decisions in the gold medal game and rifling the puck in from the point. He didn’t get any points, but the talent is clearly there. It’s no surprise that he’s a solid early first-round projection, but the fact that he’s playing in the BCHL and not the WHL is.

Tyson Jost, LW Penticton Vees (BCHL)- Fabbro’s BCHL teammate and Vees’ captain was a little buzzsaw in that final game- playing with a lot of energy and cashing in on a nice goal that he picked his own rebound up on. Not sure what Penticton is selling up there, but it must be good to have two top NHL draft prospects skating for them. Jost has average size, but he’s fast and skilled. For more on where these two might end up in 2016-17, check out Mike Chambers’ Avs blog post in the Denver Post from June:

2016 top NHL prospects looking at Denver; Jost and Fabbro among Canada’s top 1998-born players

Sam Steel, C Regina Pats (WHL)- I really like this kid. He moves in straight lines, takes pucks directly to the net and plays with a burr under his saddle. Another average-sized Albertan like Jost, he had a nice body of work before the WHL and scored 54 points in 61 games for the Pats as a rookie. Watch for him to make a big jump this season production-wise.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW Cape Breton (QMJHL)- Big-bodied forward who looked it in the final game, powering through traffic and making plays in the offensive end. His dad was a longtime minor leaguer and fourth-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1989 (the same year they drafted Mats Sundin first overall, btw).

Michael McLeod, C Mississauga (OHL)- Big pivot showed some promise here. I like the way he handles the puck in tight spaces and he was always around the net- protecting it and creating space for his linemates. Looks like a pretty solid third-line center with upside to be more if he can pick up a step or two.

Sweden

Jacob Cederholm, D HV71 (Sweden Jr)- At 6-3, he’s a big, mobile defender who will likely get bigger and more powerful as he physically matures. Was impressed with his play, though Sweden didn’t have much to show for in a game dominated by the Canadians. Looks like a future mobile shutdown horse for whichever team gets him, but there isn’t much of an offensive element emerging from him at present.

Alex Nylander, LW AIK Allsvenskan)- Have to admit- not a fan. Skilled? Absolutely. Too much time on the perimeter, didn’t like the body language. He can skate through a maze of players, but didn’t seem all that inclined to use his teammates. Hoping it was just one game, because he’s unquestionably talented but looked soft, lacking in heart in this one. Sweden needed a better showing from one of the top players on its roster.

William Fallstrom, C/LW Djurgårdens IF (Sweden Jr)- Brother of former Bruins prospect Alex Fallstrom is a University of Minnesota recruit and plays an opposite style to his older sibling. Fallstrom caught my attention with his speed, quickness and willingness to compete/take pucks into traffic. I liked him in a limited viewing and thought- he can’t be Alex Fallstrom’s bro because he’s such a different forward. Wrong, Kirk!

Finland

Markus Niemelainen, D Saginaw Spirit (OHL)- Huge (6-5) rearguard will be a well-known draft commodity in the OHL next season, and he looks to have a North American-style of game already. Looks like his footwork will need to get better, but has a long, fluid stride which serves him well in open ice.

USA

Timmy Gettinger, LW Soo Greyhounds (OHL)- Zach Senyshyn’s OHL teammate is from Ohio and has a lot of raw NHL tools- 6-5 frame, pushing 220 pounds and the ability to drive to the net at will when going up against his peers at this stage. He was the lone bright spot in a decisive loss to Finland- going straight in and deflecting a centering pass home. He’s not a high-end skater, but is rangy and doesn’t need a significant speed boost- just has to improve his first few steps and lateral agility.

Kailer Yamamoto, C/RW  Spokane Chiefs (WHL)- Late ’98 (2017 NHL draft eligible) is a talented little pivot who is small (5-8) but dynamic. It showed here, as he posted 4g and 7 points in four games. He’s got terrific hands, quickness and is a creative table setter and finisher. After 57 points as a rookie with the Chiefs, bigger things expected of him going forward. Scouts will have two more years to dissect and his game, unfortunately.

John Leonard, LW Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)- One of my personal faves coming out of Springfield Cathedral of D1 Mass high school didn’t make much of an impact, but he no doubt gained an appreciation for what awaits him in the USHL after making the jump this year from high school hockey where he pretty much had his way at that level. NHL scouts will appreciate that he’s taking himself out of the comfort zone to challenge himself in that league in his draft season, and I think the UMass Minutemen have themselves a future key contributor in the hometown Amherst son.

There were many more players out there- but I think this gives you a good taste of the Hlinka and is a solid starting point in August. So much more to be done between now and next June (a little under 2 years from now in Yamamoto’s case).

Hlinka horror show- USA smoked by Finland in U18 action

So, I got back from the mini-vacation in time to watch (online) the Team USA Under-18 selects squad get smoked by Finland today in their first game of the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. The final score was 5-1, but it could have been far worse.

This game was over after 20 minutes, as the Finns took advantage of sloppy, undisciplined play by the Americans and a poor performance in net from Niagara Ice Dogs goalie Stephen Dhillon. Dhillon, a dual citizen from Fort Erie, Ontario (his hometown is listed as Buffalo, N.Y.) has excellent size and athletic ability, but it wasn’t his day. Granted, he didn’t get much help from a team that took a series of undisciplined penalties (William Knierim’s slashing call to give Finland a 4-0 lead in the first period was the worst of them), but after being beaten on a deflection to open the scoring, he was fighting the puck and just couldn’t get his game on track. He was on the bench to start the second period, giving way to Dayton Rasmussen. All in all- a forgettable 20 minutes for Dhillon.

This is a talented Team USA squad, so we should have seen a much better performance from them than we did. Riley Tufte is a gi-normous forward at 6-foot-5 with some skill and is currently projected inside Red Line Report’s top-30 entering the season. He couldn’t get much going. Saw flashes of speed and offense from small but plucky New Yorker Christopher Berger. I liked what I saw at times from Massachusetts fave John Leonard, but there wasn’t a whole lot of positives to draw from. Patrick Harper, the other New Englander- a Boston University recruit and Avon Old Farms prep product- had a quiet gam as well.  He’s under 5-10 and speedy, but  the Finns did a nice job of slowing the USA offense through the neutral zone, and Harper never really got untracked.

USA’s lone goal happened when OHL (Sault Ste Marie) forward by way of Ohio forward Timmy Gettinger went to the net and perfectly redirected Ben Lown’s cross-ice feed past netminder Severi Isokangas (who made all the stops he had to, including a nice break in by Leonard during the 1st that could have gotten the Americans back in it).

Give full credit to the Finns- all they did was put the puck on net early and good things happened. The Robin Salo (late ’98- eligible for 2017 NHL draft) point blast to make it 3-0 was an absolute bomb that scorched in under the crossbar and sent the water bottle flying. They capitalized on the extra time and space the USA penalties gave them, and nobody could seem to get things going. Otto Makinen earned player of the game honors and showed off a fine release, while defenseman Markus Niemelainen played with poise- he’s a fluid skater who kept things simple.

Team USA takes on Russia tomorrow. The Hlinka tourney is pretty much an annual showcase of Canada’s  major junior power, as they take the best draft eligibles (or younger) from around the CHL- they basically ice the team they wish they could send to the April Under-18 championship, when many of their top talents are committed to the playoffs in their respective CHL leagues. If you want to know who the bulk of the first-round picks coming out of the OHL, QMJHL or WHL are- just pay attention to this tournament and you’ll get a nice preview of what is in store for the 2016 NHL draft before the 2015-16 major junior season kicks off.

The Americans, who send their best players from the U18 squad of the NTDP to the spring championship tourney, have won every U18 gold medal save one since 2009 (Canada prevented USA’s drive for five in a row in 2013), but in the Ivan Hlinka, the U.S. sends a select team chosen from the annual Select 17 USA Festival. They’ve won the silver medal a few times over the past few years going back to 2011, but no one can ever get past that Canadian juggernaut.

I don’t think 2015 will be any different.

Random thoughts on the 2016 NHL Entry Draft

Auston Matthews vs Jakob Chychrun. Center vs. Defenseman. Arizona offensive wunderkind with Mexican roots vs. Florida-born Ontario product and son of a former NHLer. Both bring a lot to the table in terms of potential and there is a lot left to play out before the draft. Just like 2013 when Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones came into the season with a lot of hype, you could see a similar dynamic play out. If Matthews ends up in Switzerland it would be a fascinating side story to the normal draft race and I don’t think too many NHL scouts would complain about having to go over there to see him. Matthews’ great uncle, Wes, played in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins in 1966, so the high-end athletic ability runs in the family.

As is the case every year, you get a good dose of bloodlines with each draft class. Some of the big names coming down the pike this year: Logan Brown (Windsor Spitfires), Kieffer Bellows (playing in Sioux Falls of the USHL), Matthew Tkachuk (London Knights), and Alex Nylander (AIK) are all sons of NHL players and very good ones at that. Jeff Chychrun was not a high-end player but he was tough and gritty- his son brings some of his dad’s toughness but some top-level skill at the defense position as well.

In Kieffer Bellows’ case- the apple has not fallen far from the tree. The BU-bound center scored 33 goals in the USHL as a 16-year-old which is a remarkable feat when you consider how much older and stronger so many of the guys in that league are. His dad, Brian, was the second overall pick in the 1982 NHL draft, going to the Minnesota North Stars behind Gord Kluzak when the North Stars gave Harry Sinden a couple of journeymen not to take the elder Bellows. In retrospect, Scott Stevens was the real gem of that draft class, taken fifth overall by the Washington Capitals, but Bellows scored 55 goals in 1990, won a Stanley Cup with Montreal three years later, and finished his NHL career with 485 goals and 1,022 points. No pressure or anything, kid!

This could be the year of the Finns, as Jesse Puljujarvi is up near the top of the draft class as a power forward with legitimate skill and scoring ability to go with good size. Defensemen Olli Juolevi and Markus Niemelainen begin the year with 1st-round promise as well.

I’m going to keep an eye on Mississauga defenseman Sean Day this season mainly because a friend of mine who knows his OHL hockey told me I should going back to last year. Day has put up nice numbers so far and seems to have the requisite tools to be the first-round prospect many see him as going into 2015-16.

It’s not as strong a year in New England, but that’s to be expected after Massachusetts saw three players come off the board in the top-21 selections and 13 overall. U.S. NTDP two-way defenseman Chad Krys of Connecticut is the top ranked area native for the preseason. His dad, Mark, was a Boston Bruins draft pick who played at Boston University and the AHL’s Providence Bruins but never cracked an NHL roster. I also like John Leonard, the lone area representative of the USA Under-18 select squad that will play in the annual Ivan Hlinka tourney in Slovakia to make some mid-round noise this year with Green Bay of the USHL. He’s leaving Springfield, Mass. power Cathedral High and it’s a good move for the UMass recruit to play at a higher level of competition. The August Hlinka, along with USA WJC camp at Lake Placid is always the harbingers of the new season for me, and they’re right around the corner.

Until then, smoke ’em if you got ’em and enjoy the hot summer days and nights.