The 15th annual Canadian Hockey League (major junior) Top Prospects Game was held at the WFCU Centre in Windsor, Ontario last night, and Team Cherry upended Team Orr by a 4-2 score, giving the former Bruins coach and bombastic hockey analyst just his fourth win in the 11th head-to-head matchup with Bobby Orr, the Hall of Fame defenseman and greatest hockey player of all time.
There is so much to say about this game. It had a little bit of everything: speed, skill, excellent goaltending, big hits, fighting...you name it. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was even interviewed during the first intermission, and he pointed out that while you don't want to put all of your stock in a player based on this game, it does serve to provide an emphasis for reevaluation of baseline opinions to this juncture of the season.
Case in point for me was the play of Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Mark Pysyk of Team Orr (white) who was a top WHL bantam draft pick in 2007 (the team's first-ever selection) and has the size and skills to be an outstanding NHLer. Unfortunately for him, he's struggled this season and his stock has fallen in some circles, even though his talent is undeniable. Pysyk, who was paired with top-five aspirant Brandon Gormley to form the game's best defensive duo in my humble opinion, played an excellent game. This leads me to believe that if Pysyk is playing with the right partner and in the right situation, he can be the kind of ideal No. 2/3 player that every NHL team needs on its blue line. If you're a scout who saw him in Edmonton and he didn't impress, you probably want to see him a few more times now based on his steady, heady play last night. And he's not the only one.
Here are some of the players who really stood out last night for me and who I think bolstered the Class of 2010's projection as a deep draft:
Nino Niederreiter, RW Team Orr: Like a Swiss Army Knife, Niederreiter is a quality product who is versatile, adaptive and something to possess. If you weren't impressed with him after his performance in the WJC, and given his excellence with Portland of the WHL this season, there's no way you left last night's game not buzzing about how good this kid is. He got things started on Tuesday night at the skills competition, when he roofed a puck during the breakaway competition...with just one hand on his stick! The smile on his face after the play told you how much he loves this game. He followed that up with the game's first goal- positioned in front of the net for Jeff Skinner's pass and just squeaking it through Calvin Pickard's five-hole. Niederreiter plays in all areas of the ice, and while he may not be an explosive skater, he seems to get to wherever he needs to go. He's can play a finesse or gritty game, and I think some of Portland linemate Brad Ross's abrasive style is rubbing off on him. He's well spoken and has the kind of exuberance for hockey that will have NHL teams drooling because his on-ice acumen is not in doubt. Write this down: Niederreiter is going to be selected inside the top-10 in L.A.
Tyler Seguin, C Team Orr: I think that Seguin got the edge on Taylor Hall in this one, to be honest. He was a going concern all night: an excellent skater with slippery elusiveness who plays like his head is on a swivel. The straw stirring the drink on a line with John McFarland and Tyler Toffoli, they generated some quality scoring chances and gave Team Cherry's defenders fits all night. People held their breath when Seguin collided with Ross in the first period and left the ice favoring his knee, but he returned and played well. If not for goaltending heroics by Pickard and Maxime Clermont, this line could have lit up the scoreboard last night, and throughout it all, Seguin was the driving force behind their play. Seguin is going to make some NHL team very happy.
Jeff Skinner, LW Team Orr: Skinner debunked the idea that he's the 47th-ranked North American skater last night. Nuff ced! Riddle me this, Batman: How does a player, who is leading the OHL in goals with 35, fall that low? Answer: He doesn't. Even with the concern about size (5-10, 190) and top-end speed, Skinner is one of those players who has the natural gift for putting the puck in the net. He's done it at every level. He was the top goal-getter at the Ivan Hlinka tourney in August. Oh, and he was a figure skater as a youngster, meaning that while he may not be a blazer speed-wise, he's very agile and balanced with a very low center of gravity. On Niederreiter's goal, Skinner outworked two Cherry opponents in the corner, digging the puck out and finding the open man in front. He then tipped Gormley's point shot for the only other goal his team scored. No way does Skinner fall past 30, let alone to 60-something, which is where he'd be projected when you factor in the goalies and Europeans if he stays at 47. Central needs to move him up on their final rankings, and I think you'll see them do just that.
Brandon Gormley, D Team Orr: If the Bruins miss out on Cam Fowler, but land Gormley, there won't be too many sad faces in Beantown. The top midget pick of the QMJHL draft two years ago looks every bit the two-way defenseman he's been described as. He's smooth, pivots well and plays the point the way you want: with steady hands, fluid lateral movement and hard point shot. His blast got tipped by Skinner because it was low and accurate. Quick release- not a lot of wasted movement or windup. I thought Gormley was a terrific matchup with Pysyk- the two played extremely well together all night. The Moncton Wildcat is a stud, and even though I was disappointed not to see Eric Gudbranson on the ice last night (though he was behind the bench with Don Cherry helping out and said that he's back skating with Kingston and should return to action soon), Gormley only solidified what I have heard about him from NHL and independent scouts.
Dylan McIlrath, D Team Orr: Big, nasty meat-and-potatoes blue liner justified some of the early buzz that has seen him dubbed the 'Monster from Winnipeg' by the good folks in Moose Jaw. He's a solid skater who pivots and turns his hips well. He's not a very good puck mover, but seems comfortable in the role of a tough, physical shutdown D who likes to fight. He dropped the gloves with WHL rival Alex Petrovic, and although his Red Deer opponent deserves credit for coming on at the end, McIlrath handled him pretty easily. He also stood up to Galiev on one play, who came at McIrath with speed and then pirhouetted in a 360-degree move that did not fool the defender one iota. McIlrath then simply checked Galiev to the ice and retrieved the puck. I think that given McIlrath's sheer toughness and ability to play a little hockey, he'll go somewhere between 20-30. People hoping he drops into the 2nd can do just that, but hope is not a method, and I have two words for you about that: Mark Fistric (look him up). Based on what I saw last night and have been hearing all season, McIlrath looks like twice the player Fistric was at the same age.
Emerson Etem, C Team Cherry: The skilled L.A. native helped his cause last night with a beautiful short-handed goal that saw his speed, vision and NHL-caliber release on full display as he rocketed through Team Orr in the neutral zone and let loose with a heavy wrister from the left circle that beat Louis Domingue high to the glove side. The Medicine Hat Tiger already has 31 goals in the WHL and although he's not the biggest player and could stand to work on his intensity and work ethic, he's still going to go high in this draft as well...book it.
Stanislav Galiev, LW Team Cherry: The skilled Russian who plays for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL was pure eye candy last night, but he lacked finish. He has speed to burn and like many undersized Russians, is able to stickhandle inside a phone booth, leaving defenders often flat-footed with a dazzling array of moves at speed. His best chance to score came in the first period when Orr goalie Mark Visentin got caught turning to his left when the puck hopped out to Galiev alone with nothing but net. He was unable to bury it, but he was buzzing the Team Orr net all night. He showed scouts his high-end skill level last night, but the question remains: can he capitalize on his chances or is he going to be one of those players who always looks great, but at the end of the night, doesn't make much of an impact on the scoresheet?
Taylor Hall, LW, Team Cherry: This wasn't Hall's greatest performance, but he was no slouch, either. Like many top players with his kind of ability, you knew it was only a matter of time before he broke through, and that occurred on Team Cherry's winning goal, when he zoomed up the ice and fed Ryan Spooner for a beautiful short-handed marker on the backhand. Hall had also made the play on what looked like an Austin Watson goal in the second, breaking in on goalie Domingue after gaining body position on the Orr defender. Domingue made the save and Watson put the puck, sitting there tantalyzingly in the crease facing the open net, off the post and wide. The ref called it a goal, but it was overturned upon review. But, that aside, Hall was held in check for much of the night, as he wasn't able to beat the second and often third man on him to gain open ice and separation. Still, with the game on the line, Hall chose that moment to make it happen and he did. That's what clutch players do, and while Seguin may have gained a slight edge in overall play, Hall showed why most feel he is the prize of the draft.
Devante Smith-Pelly, LW Team Cherry: I didn't know much about the Missisauga St. Mikes' forward prior to last night, but I do now! What an inspired, workmanlike performance from a player who was there because of injuries to others, but did not look out of place at all. Although not big by hockey standards, he initiated contact all night and came out on the winning end because of his fire-hydrant like build and ability to use leverage against bigger opponents. He was involved offensively and looks like he's going to be a solid NHL role player in time. I'd spend a second-round pick on this guy if I were calling the shots.
Cam Fowler, D Team Cherry: Like the WJC, Fowler wasn't dominant by any stretch, but displayed his plus-skating ability all night and made the right plays/decisions throughout. Fowler's performance was the anti-Galiev in that few will remember any plays that stand out from Fowler (other than that quick pivot, turn and blast around the back of his own net that the Sportsnet broadcasters were raving about), but at the end of the night, he was on the winning side.
Calvin Pickard, Maxime Clermont and Mark Visentin: Team Cherry definitely had the edge in goaltending on paper and the final score bore that out. But, all three of these goalies (with Visentin playing for Orr) were outstanding. Pickard, who will battle USA hero Jack Campbell for top billing among netminders in the draft's 1st round, was under siege early, making tough saves against John McFarland, Niederreiter, Seguin and Toffoli look easy, which is the mark of any good goaltender. Like his older brother, Chet (Nashville's second pick in '08- 1st round), he's a technician who uses a compact stance and demonstrates smooth economy of motion. He surrendered only the Niederreiter goal, one he just missed getting his pads togther to maintain what was a near-perfect performance.
Visentin was the lowest-ranked of the four in net, but along with Pickard, played the best, stopping all 19 shots he faced. He got lucky on the Galiev chance, but took up a lot of net and had very good pad control, calmly turning aside everything he faced down low with ease. He was poised and rock solid in the net, looking like a first-round pick (though he almost certainly won't be). The Niagara Ice Dogs netminder definitely helped his stock in what is shaping up to be a very good goalie crop.
Clermont, who was expected to be a 1st-round pick before the season, showed off his atleticism and raw ability, giving up only the Skinner tip that he had no chance on. He showed off an acrobatic style with very fast reflexes, as evidenced by the save he made on Owen Sound forward Joey Hishon, who can score some goals (even though he's been injured with a broken foot most of the year).
All in all, this goalie class looks good, and this trio underscored that by keeping the score low in what is many times more of an offensive spectacle than what we saw last night. For anyone who watched the game, it is obvious that the score could have been much higher if not for the play of the guys between the nets. These guys are good.
Well, that's a wrap on the 2010 Top Prospects Game. There are other guys I could talk about, but this post is long, and most people probably stopped reading five minutes ago. But, I was glad for the chance to see these guys, and I saw flashes from a lot of other players. It's just one game, but the baseline has now been established. How it all plays out between now and June 25 is why we all follow the amateur game.
Thanks for reading!
I'm going to do a feature on Portland's "Fab Four" of Niederreiter, Ross, Ryan Johansen and Troy Rutkowski soon. They are a compelling story in themselves and have all combined to make the Winterhawks a critical destination for all NHL scouts working the Dub.