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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NHL 2015 rookie camps preview/player watch list- Eastern Conference

With rookies reporting to their NHL clubs for the annual rite of passage before the veterans show up next week to begin the real work of building towards that opening night roster next month, it’s time to take a look at some of the kids who will be competing in prospect tournaments this weekend and may one day contribute to the fortunes of their NHL clubs. Some of them might be doing that as early as this season.

I’m breaking the preview up into 2 parts- each by conference, starting in the East. There is no particular method to my madness other than to focus on players I have more personal and professional familiarity with. That might mean that certain highly-touted rookies don’t get a mention- that will be by design. I can’t cover every single prospect and some that are not highlighted might come off as snubs to some readers- that is not my intent.

This blog attempts to give you my insights based on what I observe and know, not what someone else writes about or observes unless I cite that particular source. If there is a particular player you want to see covered, let me know and I’ll hit up NHL guys I know who will have the firsthand knowledge of those individuals. Unlike other analysts out there who try to cover every player, league and geographic region in hockey, I simply don’t do that.

Thanks for reading- watch for the Western Conference watch list later this weekend.

Boston Bruins

Austin Czarnik, F- Small but speedy and offensively gifted forward was a nice free agent get for Boston last spring after captaining Miami University the previous two seasons and earning Hobey Baker finalist honors as a junior. The Michigander is not going to break on through to the NHL right away, but he could be an instant impact player offensively for Providence in the AHL.

Justin Hickman, F- Rugged power center was another undrafted pickup a year ago in January after shoulder surgery forced him out of his overage WHL campaign as captain of the Seattle Thunderbirds. He had a quietly solid development camp in July, but was not cleared to participate in the scrimmage to further protect that shoulder. A Boston team source expressed optimism that Hickman will surprise at his first Boston NHL camp (he previously attended Winnipeg Jets training camp) and with his heavy game and underrated scoring potential, watch for him to be another Providence youngster who is in line for an immediate role.

Eric Neiley, F- This Pennsylvania native and Dartmouth College product may have just average size and skating ability, but he once put up 40 points in just 10 games (due to injury) as a senior prep player at Phillips-Exeter. He’s a dangerous and creative player with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. If he can do enough to impress, there might be an NHL contract in the offing down the line.

Frank Vatrano, F- The former Boston Jr. Bruins standout missed out on some D1 hockey while working a transfer to UMass, but the wait was worth it as he fired home 18 goals in his only full season with the Minutemen before turning pro. Although short in stature and of stocky build, he worked hard to come to camp with a leaner frame. The end result: he’s quicker, more agile and still has a lethal stick, especially between the hash marks. He’s got 20-goal NHL upside in time if he can stay driven and develop his all-around game.

Linus Arnesson, D- The Swede came over late last season to finish out the year with Providence of the AHL, where he was solid if unspectacular. He’s got fine size and mobility, but isn’t going to wow you in any particular aspect of his game. He’s more of a defensively savvy blue liner who can move the puck out of trouble and does well in puck retrieval, but don’t expect him to join the rush much or put up many points. You win with guys like him, but he’ll benefit from time in the AHL before he’s ready for full-time NHL duty.

Zane McIntyre, G- McIntyre has won top goalie awards at every level from high school (Frank Brimsek- Minnesota), junior (USHL) and the NCAA (Mike Richter). Now, he is entering the pro ranks and it will be interesting to see what the Bruins will do with him in his first year. To maximize his playing time, the ECHL might be the best fit for him, but an excellent camp and exhibition season will make it tough on the brain trust. Depending on what happens with Jonas Gustavsson and his PTO, there probably isn’t enough net for all three of Malcolm Subban, Jeremy Smith and McIntyre, so this rookie tourney will be key to the 23-year-old making a good first impression.

(Good UND-produced video and segment on McIntyre at the 7:00 mark.)

Buffalo Sabres

Jack Eichel, F- The excitement is palpable, as the 2015 Hobey Baker winner and second overall pick left BU after just one year to turn pro. Unless something unforeseen occurs, Eichel is expected to play the season in Buffalo and will energize the town and team with his superb speed, hands and all-around game. Eichel is both skilled and mature enough to earn new coach Dan Bylsma’s trust, and although the vast majority of Sabres Nation was hoping for Connor McDavid, if there ever was a year to have the second pick in a draft, 2015 was it.

Justin Bailey, F- I’ve been tracking with interest this Buffalo native’s since his draft year (2013) when he impressed with his pure potential even if he was (and still is) a raw, developing prospect. The son of a former NFL player, Bailey was raised by his mother, Karen, who infused old school values into his upbringing. Bailey also benefited from being around members of the Sabres like Matthew Barnaby and Daniel Briere, who got to know the family and helped stoke his passion for hockey at a young age. Like Boston’s Ryan Donato, Bailey is living the dream of being a prospect for the team he grew up cheering for and having a personal connection to. With his 6-3 frame, and NHL-caliber tools, he has the makings of an eventual NHL power forward.

Carolina Hurricanes

Noah Hanifin, D- Carolina fans unfortunately will have to wait a little longer on Hanifin, who is not participating in the team’s annual venture to the Traverse City, Mich. Rookie tournament due to injury. Like Eichel, Hanifin left the Hockey East after just one season but several NHL scouts tell me they think he can play in the big show right away. We’ll see if he can put his nagging injury behind him in time to have a strong camp and preseason, but everything about Hanifin to date in his young career indicates he will do just that.

Brett Pesce, D- Former UNH standout and 2013 third-rounder is a rangy defender from New York who didn’t quite elevate his offense as expected, but was a solid contributor to the Wildcats in his three seasons at Durham. He’s a hard-nosed defender with size and underrated puck-moving skills who doesn’t give up real estate willingly and will likely become an effective shutdown presence in the NHL after some minor league apprenticing.

Sergey Tolchinsky, F- Speedy little Russian waterbug was passed over in the 2013 NHL entry draft despite putting up a fine season at Sault Ste. Marie with the Greyhounds, only to earn a free agent contact. He’s so skilled and dangerous, reminding of another little Russian named Sergei- Samsonov- who should have been a bigger NHL star than he was, but never really fully recovered his magical hands after wrist surgery. Filthy move at this summer’s development camp…

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

Sonny Milano, F- The Long Island product switched NCAA commitments from Notre Dame to Boston College, then jumped to the OHL with Plymouth last summer. After a solid first campaign there, he’s shown that his offensive ability is among the best in his peer group, but his overall game still might give his coaches fits at times. He’s a dynamic scorer, but must be more careful not to turn the puck over and guard against taking bad penalties.

Mike Paliotta, D- Chicago’s third-round selection in 2011 went on to captain the University of Vermont, which pulled an upset in the Hockey East quarterfinals last March over favored BC. Sent to the Buckeye State as part of the Brandon Saad trade this summer, Paliotta is a smart defender who isn’t all that flashy but makes good decisions with and away from the puck. He’ll boost the transition game after some time in the minors.

Detroit Red Wings

Dylan Larkin, F- The Wings’ top pick in 2014 left the Wolverines to turn pro and could very well be skating for the big club in October. Skilled and creative, Larkin can do a bit of everything as a plus-skater who is defensively responsible. Given how active and difficult he is to contain on the rush, he has the makings of a perennial All-Star and local that the Motown fans will really get behind.

Florida Panthers

Mike Matheson, D- When it comes to defensemen who are absolute naturals at moving the puck up the ice, Matheson is right up there with the best. The former Boston College star is a tremendous skater who generates top speed but also masters his edges for effortless lateral glide and shiftiness to avoid the forecheck. He can make the crisp outlet and loves to join the rush. He’s not a finished product by any means, but has improved his overall defensive play coming out of college. He was not a major point producer, but does those things for the transition game that the top teams use to great effect.

Colin Stevens, G- After backstopping Union to the 2014 NCAA championship this season was a step back for the New Yorker and former Boston Jr. Bruin. He signed with Florida last spring and with his live, athletic 6-2 frame, he’ll have time to grow into his body and develop at the minor league level. He’s a winner who can steal games for his team and will be a fine netminder in the AHL soon.

Montreal Canadiens

Nikita Scherbak, F- The Habs got excellent value with the big Russian horse out in Saskatoon (since traded to Everett) of the WHL last year. He’s added solid mass to his 6-2 frame, topping out at around 200 pounds entering the season but he’s a very good skater and talented forward who competes hard and brings with him many North American attributes. Like the Bruins with David Pastrnak in 2014, the Canadiens somehow ended up with a promising power forward who should not have been available to them that late in the opening round. Bruins fans will soon know this kid’s name and not in a good way.

New Jersey Devils

Pavel Zacha, F- The stats this last season with Sarnia weren’t much to write home about, but the Devils wasted no time in jumping on the uber-skilled Czech who will likely mature into a more productive player at the highest level. One NHL scout based in Ontario told me that he just oozed talent and potential every time he saw him but for some reason, it wasn’t clicking for him. The Devils desperately need a marketable, exciting young star and they appear to have it in Zacha. He seems to have the tools and right stuff to make the jump to the NHL right away.

New York Islanders

Mathew Barzal, F- I’ll admit it was a surprise to stand there in Sunrise and watch the Bruins make three consecutive picks at 13, 14 and 15 and not once call the undersized but electric Seattle forward’s name. When peeling back the onion a bit with team sources and those outside Boston familiar with him, we’ll chalk it up to concerns about some of the injuries he’s dealt with in the WHL and questions about the kind of fit. However, given how quickly the Isles traded (twice I would add) into the first round to grab Barzal at 16, this is going to be someone Bruins fans who follow the draft and prospects closer than the rank and file do, lament for years to come if he develops into a Claude Giroux-type star in Brooklyn.

Michael Dal Colle, F- He was a treat to watch in leading the Oshawa Generals to the 2015 Memorial Cup championship this season. The playmaking winger is so smart and productive- he’s got a great release and stealthily attacks defenses, getting into prime scoring areas or setting the table with effortless ease. He’s a major part of a dangerous group of forwards that will be coming up to take advantage of the presence of John Tavares in his prime (Speaking of Tavares, didn’t he used to skate for the Gennies? Sho ’nuff he did).

 New York Rangers

Brady Skjei, D- A major offensive threat he is not, but the big and fluid Minnesotan is going to be one of those dependable minute-munching 3-4 d-men who skate in the NHL for years. Coming out of the NTDP there was thought that he might develop more of a scoring punch, but the lack of that element should not sell him short as a premiere defensive player and character leader type who can move the puck and will be someone his coaches trust to send out and protect a lead late in the game. Those players are valuable, even if they don’t always get the respect they deserve.

Ottawa Senators

Matt O’Connor, G- Even with the breakthrough of Andrew “the Hamburglar” Hammond this past winter in Canada’s capital, the Sens went out and signed the best free agent goaltender available on the market. O’Connor’s misfortune in the third period of the NCAA title game loss to Providence aside, he’s got the size, athletic ability and maturity to rebound from BU coming up just short and develop into a solid pro. He doesn’t give shooters much net, and is a competitive gamer.

Philadelphia Flyers

Ivan Provorov, D- The Flyers got their man by standing pat and letting the Russian come to them last June. An interesting story as a kid who left Russia a few years ago and played minor hockey in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before jumping to the USHL and then north to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, Provorov was seen as the best defenseman available in the 2015 draft, ranked by some ahead of Hanifin. With his mobility, smarts and puck skills, he’s a prime candidate to shine in his first pro camp and make a tough decision on the Flyers brass to keep him or return him to junior- he’s poised, mature and polished for one so young.

Travis Konecny, F- Along with Barzal, the Ottawa 67’s captain was one that Bruins fans who follow the draft were hoping the team might jump on with one of three first-round picks. Although undersized and didn’t get off to a great start last season, the Flyers made a move to go and get him. If he gets his development back on track to where it was entering 2014-15, Philly fans will have a lot to cheer about with his speed, offensive upside and energy.

Travis Sanheim, D- Another WHL standout defender who rode the wave a year ago of a superb performance in the Under-18 championship tournament to a top-20 selection in 2014. The Calgary Hitman has all of the key tools NHL clubs want in a defender including a fearsome point drive. He parlayed his success into a spot on Canada’s gold medal WJC squad last winter and along with Provorov and Samuel Morin, might turn the defense position from an area of concern in Philly to one of strength if all three pan out as expected.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Daniel Sprong, F- Arguably one of the 2015 draft’s most pure talents on offense, Sprong’s 200-foot game was lacking and a big reason he fell into the second round. However, put a kid like him on the Penguins and you have the potential for it not to matter a whit because of how dangerous he is when the puck’s on his stick. I didn’t think he was a good fit for what Boston is doing, but he makes total sense in the Steel City. They don’t come much more flashy and slick than this Netherlands product.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tony DeAngelo, D- The tremendously skilled yet undersized offensive defenseman has gotten into trouble for his mouth in the past, but his 25 goals and 89 points in just 55 OHL games speak for themselves. The Philly-area native is a sublime skater with the vision and elite hockey IQ to push the offensive pace. Tampa rolled the dice a bit by grabbing him 20th overall a year ago, but he’s on the verge of paying that decision back in spades.

Adam Erne, F- 2013 second-rounder and Connecticut native was injured when his Quebec Remparts needed him most last spring, but when healthy, Erne has the offensive talent and big body to excel in puck possession. He plays a rugged style but needs to cut down on undisciplined penalties. When at his best, he’s dropping his shoulder and driving hard to the net- he’s a load to contain and is built for the modern NHL. Erne is the kind of player that will make an already difficult team to play against that much tougher.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner, F- This skilled and gritty gamer had a monster season in the OHL with the London Knights, leading the new-look Leafs front office to go with him fourth overall. There is a lot of pressure on him to get the Blue and White back on the road to respectability, but he didn’t average 2 points per game by accident. He plays with the kind of intelligence and all-around savvy that should see him thrive in that organization and embrace the enormous expectations that come with a player of his draft pedigree and background. He’s got some physical maturing ahead, but there’s a lot to like about him- winner.

Washington Capitals

Madison Bowey, D- The latest graduate from the Kelowna defenseman factory out in the WHL, Bowey has it all- size, skating, skill, shot and sense. He’s a poised puck mover who plays the game with some jam and has enough confidence to keep things simple. In hindsight, given how much Bowey’s development has taken off since the 2013 NHL draft, it’s hard to figure how the Caps got him in the second round.

Some words to the (Jake) Wise…

Central Catholic forward Jake Wise of North Andover, Mass. was born in Y2K. Yes, that’s right- the year 2000.

Okay, okay- that makes him just 2 years older than my daughter, which officially, finally makes me *feel* (speaking of feelings what the hell is up with RGIII saying today that he *feels* like the best QB in the NFL?)  old, given that I started covering hockey prospects for the New England Hockey Journal when Wise was just a couple of months old.  That also means he’s not NHL draft eligible until 2018.

Back in 2011- I thought 2015 was a lifetime away to be tracking Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin as NHL prospects as well, but their draft has come and gone. Before we know it, Wise will be grabbing headlines as the best New England-area forward to hit the streets since…Eichel. It’s deja vu all over again.

So- climb on board the Jake Wise bandwagon, folks. He’s talented scorer and a powerful skater. He has all the makings of a special player- one who will have an interesting trajectory to watch between now and 2018 alongside Oliver Wahlstrom and T.J. Walsh (more on them later).

I expect that we’ll see Wise at the U.S. National Team Development Program (he’s a Boston University recruit) in Plymouth, Mich. next season, but as we’ve seen in the past, a lot can happen between now and the draft when you’re 15. Like Eichel and Hanifin, let’s just hope Wise and the others keep on developing.

We just might be in for another milestone New England draft in three years…

 

 

Dog Days of Summer- Franson, WJC National Eval Camp & Ivan Hlinka

We’re at that point in the offseason where there simply isn’t a whole lot going on hockey-wise. The top free agents are signed and off the market, many of the 30 NHL teams’ personnel are taking what little time off they can before annual August events pull them back into rinks and onto the job for the 2015-16 season.

Here are a few notes to keep us all centered, especially as NFL training camps open up and the pending football season grabs a lot of the headlines (not touching Tom Brady or Deflategate, though folks- and many of you are probably glad for that).

Cody Franson to the Bruins would certainly bring a player with name recognition to the team, but I’m not sure it’s the right kind of move for the long term.

Now, we have both Franson and Don Sweeney admitting that the two sides are in talks (among others) and I know that back in 2005, he was high on Boston’s draft list- they contemplated taking him in the 2nd round (they went with flash in the pan Petr Kalus instead). Some of you may remember that coming out of the lockout, the ’05 lottery was a snake draft, meaning that the B’s had the 22nd selection of the first round, then the order reversed in the second, giving them 9th pick and then back to the original order in the 3rd and so on- like the fantasy drafts for those who are into that sort of thing. So, the B’s contemplated taking Franson as early as 39, and then were hoping he would fall to them with the 22nd pick of the 3rd round. They got close, but it didn’t happen and they ended up with Finnish bust Mikko Lehtonen (later traded to Minnesota as part of a package for Anton Khudobin) instead.

Getting back to Franson- he was in prime position to cash in as an unrestricted free agent at mid-season, having the best year offensively of his career, but when the wheels fell off in Toronto and he was moved to Nashville for a premium return, he was unable to get going on a playoff team. That’s a red flag, and he’s a cautionary tale for the cap era, giving teams pause in locking him up for term and value because depending on which version of Franson you get, it’s the kind of signing that can make or break a team trying to contend.

On the upside, he’s an effective power play performer and physical defender who uses his 6-5 frame and long reach well enough. On the downside, he’s not all that mobile (the B’s have enough issues with team speed, thanks) and is not the most instinctive of players. To me- he’s more of a complementary piece who looks good on paper but isn’t talented enough to be a real difference maker. Some would argue that his performance in Toronto means that he plays better on a poorer club than on a good one, but I need to take a deeper look at some analytics on this one.

Should the Bruins end up signing Franson, I’ll do just that, but for now- I think the team is better off preserving the some $4 million it has in cap space and maintaining some flexibility to make an in-stride course correction without being up against the cap ceiling, which is what signing Franson will entail.

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The annual Team USA National Junior Evaluation Camp will get underway next week, and it’s a pretty good group of players attending this year’s event in Lake Placid August 1-8.  A complete roster of the invites can be found here. 

The Bruins have two prospects attending: 2015 second-rounder Brandon Carlo and 2014 pick Anders Bjork. Carlo played for Team USA at the 2015 World Jr. tourney and acquitted himself well as a late ’96 who had just turned 18 when he played. Bjork made it to the national evaluation camp but was cut from the squad. My guess is that the savvy two-way forward who finished his first season at Notre Dame makes it this time around because of his speed and versatility, but he’ll have his work cut out for him.

Carlo is a lock after having made the last WJC entry and with his 6-5 and condor’s wingspan, USA will need him. He’s an intriguing prospect because of his pure size and mobility (contrast that to Franson for example). It’s going to be interesting to follow the Colorado native in 2016.

Also attending are New England favorites Noah Hanifin (Hurricanes) and Johnathan MacLeod (Lightning) on defense; Colin White (Senators), Erik Foley (Jets) and Conor Garland (Coyotes).  Connecticut native Chad Krys is a 2016 draft eligible and will also be in attendance. He is my top area native for the draft class going into the season as an effective two-way defender.

Several other high-profile Americans for 2016 are at the camp as well- Auston Matthews (who made the cut a year ago at 17) will attract a ton of attention, of course. Matthew Tkachuk is on the roster as well, and is taking his game north to the OHL and Dale Hunter’s London Knights this season.

The 2016 WJC takes place from December 26, 2015-January 5, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland.

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The Ivan Hlinka select tournament is the annual NHL draft’s 1st/2nd round primer and is happening from 10-18 August in Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia.

Here’s the USA roster for the Hlinka. Many will note that the National Team Development Program kids are not in this group, so this is a good place to explain why that is. The NTDP typically competes in the bulk of the Under-18 tournaments throughout the course of a season, but the Hlinka tourney is one time that USA Hockey takes a roster from all over the country with players that are not in the NTDP.

Bruins fans may not know that Zane McIntyre was USA’s goalie at the Hlinka tourney in August 2009. For him, it was his first real taste of international competition, and he used it as a springboard to greater success at the World Jr. A Challenge in the next couple of years after Boston took him in the 6th round in 2010. And of course- Johnny Gaudreau– anything but a household name in August of 2010, tore it up for USA and led them to a silver medal (along with the stellar goaltending of Harvard star Steve Michalek).

Canada owns the Hlinka because they can send their best under-18 players from the CHL without missing out on those who are often in the playoffs during the annual under-18 championship tournament each April. If you look at Canada’s roster for the Hlinka, it is literally a “who’s who” of top-60 picks for the next draft (and in some cases, the following year).

Once the Hlinka happens, the CHL is right around the corner and before you know it, summer is over and the 2015-16 hockey season is underway.

So, enjoy the dog days– boating, backyard barbeques and whatever you enjoy in the summer months, because winter is coming.

Final thoughts on the New England 2015 NHL draft class

Noah Hanifin of Norwood, Mass. goes 5th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Noah Hanifin of Norwood, Mass. goes 5th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Now, that the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is in the books, the real fun begins- we get to chart the progress and success of the 13 area natives taken from Massachusetts and New Hampshire (Mike Robinson), and we’ll see if anyone else from that group who wasn’t picked (Cam Askew, Brien Diffley and Casey Fitzgerald all could have gone but didn’t have their names called) makes their way to the NHL.

Back in 2011, I sat in the New England Sports Center rink in Marlborough, Mass. with my Red Line Report boss, Kyle Woodlief, and I remember us talking about Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin and how exciting the two then-14-year-old players were. Having been in the business much longer than I have, Woodlief was a voice of caution that day, reminding me that the critical years of development still lay ahead- and that sometimes the early risers plateau and others move to the forefront. As he and I arrived in Fort Lauderdale last month, we revisited that conversation and were glad that in the case of those two terrific players, both Eichel and Hanifin continued to be every bit the players we and every other scout who was watching them back then thought they could be. Now, we get to see if the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes will benefit from the enormous potential shown by both.

Kudos to the Ottawa Senators for grabbing Hanover’s Colin White 21st overall. He’s going to be an NHL player- he’s simply too smart and talented not to at least make it as a grinder eventually. But the real interesting question is whether he will get back to his scoring ways. He had a tough season- hampered by mononucleosis and nagging wrist and arm injuries, but as he got healthier at year’s end, he blew up at the Under-18 championship, even scoring the sudden death gold medal-winning goal for Team USA. He’s a terrific player and my bet is that he’s a natural scorer and will prove that in the next couple of years.

I like the Winnipeg Jets’ draft more and more with each passing day. They nabbed a high-end offensive talent in Kyle Connor after the Bruins passed on him three times (and the Isles grabbed Mathew Barzal at 16) and continued with value selections throughout the draft. But the player no one is surprised that I will key in on is Mansfield native Erik Foley, whom the Jets landed in the third round, 78th overall. Foley is your prototypical power forward who may not have ideal height, but is naturally strong and plays hard from the first faceoff until the final buzzer. He’s going to kill it for Nate Leaman at Providence College, the team he grew up cheering for as a lad. It’s a shame his favorite hometown Bruins didn’t have more time for him as well.

Mike Robinson was an interesting selection for the San Jose Sharks in the third round. The lone non-Massachusetts pick- from Bedford, N.H. by way of Lawrence Academy- has tremendous size and natural tools for the modern NHL goaltender, but we have not seen a New England high school/prep goalie taken earlier than that since Jonathan Quick was taken 72nd overall in 2005 out of Avon Old Farms. That pick turned out pretty darn well for the Kings, so if the UNH-bound Robinson delivers on his immense upside, Tim Burke and the Sharks will be sitting pretty.

I liked the value where the Blackhawks took defenseman Ryan Shea (final pick of 4th round), the Coyotes picked up Conor Garland, and the Hurricanes grabbed Luke Stevens. Those aren’t bad spots to take a chance on a trio of players who are all different, but bring some nice payoff on the long road. I was not bullish on Stevens, but you’ll hear no arguments on getting him in the fifth round. As far as natural tools go, he has some of the most impressive gifts of any player from the area. Garland is a great example of not giving up when passed over in the draft and he exploded this year to lead the Quebec League in scoring, the first time in 32 years an American has done that when some guy named Pat LaFontaine blew things up in that circuit.

There weren’t many surprises from the New England class, but mobile defender Patrick Holway to the Red Wings and big forward Pat Shea (no relation to Ryan) to the Panthers at 170 and 192 respectively is probably the closest thing. Both are South Shore natives, both are headed to the University of Maine, and both parlayed Central Scouting snubs into draft selections ahead of more than a few other listed guys who weren’t picked. It just goes to show you that NHL clubs do their own thing when it comes to the draft regardless of the more and more prolific public lists out there each passing year. If you can find either guy on one of those lists (Red Line included) be sure to let me know so I can give credit where due.

Ultimately, the draft is a dream first step to the reaching the NHL for the 211 players selected, but that’s all it is. You won’t find former and current NHL stars Adam Oates, Steve Thomas, Tyler Johnson or Torey Krug on any draft lists, and there are far more “can’t miss” players who do just that because other players develop into better pros after age 18. In my view- guys like Askew, Diffley and Fitzgerald should have had their names called, so don’t sleep on them. Throw in Robert ‘Bobo’ Carpenter as well, but all will have a chance to make it either in future drafts (except Diffley) or via free agency.

For every one of the 2015 selections- they can hang up or frame their draft jerseys, look at the photos and articles one last time and re-set their focus and personal goals: the work is only beginning.