Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Here come the little guys

In recent years, the Bruins have focused more on drafting forwards with size and skill. Joe Colborne, Max Sauve, Jordan Caron and Tyler Randell are examples of this Boston trend, but it doesn't mean that they'll ignore smaller skilled players, either. Kris Versteeg was a fifth-round pick by the Bruins who panned out as a solid NHL player...just not for them. Brock Bradford, on the other hand, was not signed and now plays in the Colorado Avalanche system with their Lake Erie AHL affiliate. And of course, don't forget about Phil Kessel, thanks to whom so much of the buzz this blog is capitalizing on is repsonsible for.

The Bruins have shown a willingness to draft undersized players, and the post-lockout NHL is a place where said players can succeed and flourish so long as they have the skills to do so. Here is a quick look at some of the draft's better talents who all stand 5-foot-10 or shorter. The B's will likely use second-round picks or later when determining value and deciding whether to opt for a smaller prospect, but anything can happen. These are names you should at least be familiar with come draft day. If Boston doesn't grab them, somebody will!

Vladimir Tarasenko, RW Novosibirsk (KHL) 5-10, 175

On pure talent alone, Tarasenko is a top-five pick in this draft. He's an explosive skater who goes 0-60 in about 2-3 strides, has magical hands and the ability to dictate the offensive tempo everytime he takes a shift. Ten years ago, he'd be considered a lock for No. 3 or 4 honors in this class, but because of challenges in signing Russian players and even keeping them in North America and happy with their situation, fewer NHL teams are willing to accept risk with early 1st-rounders anymore.

Mikael Granlund, C HIFK Helsinki (Finland SM-Liiga) 5-10, 178

A mediocre World Jr. Championship (Under-20) tourney for the smallish but uber-skilled Finn dropped his stock a bit, but it's getting back up there largely on the strength of his 30 points in 31 games (nine goals) playing against men in his country's highest pro league at 17. When you compare him to other players from Finland and what they were doing at the same age, he's in the upper stratosphere. An OK skater (he lacks blazing speed), he nonetheless has terrific hands, vision and hockey sense. In fact, his on-ice IQ is right up there with the very best and I would say it compares to Washington Capitals all-star Nicklas Backstrom. At this stage, Granlund is a sublime passer, but he's showing that he can finish with aplomb as well.

Jeff Skinner, C Kitchener Rangers (OHL) 5-10, 197

I've made no bones about how impressed I am with Skinner and his potential simply because he's about as pure a goalscorer as they come, but he lacks the dynamic speed, size and game-breaking physical dimensions that most of the top scoring forwards in every draft come with. Skinner has 41 goals in 55 games with the Rangers this season, but he's small and a little on the slow side. Still, he was a former figure skater, so he has tremendous balance and is pretty shifty as a result. He also has the Midas touch with his shot (it's also very accurate- he can wire it just about anywhere in that 4 x 6 cage at will) and knows where to be on the ice. His compete level is uneven, so that's something he needs to work on, otherwise, he might be considered a solid top-10 candidate. The NHL's Central Scouting Service made an egregious error having Skinner 47th on their midseason rankings, and I expect he'll be closer to 30 on their final list, as you simply cannot ignore his production. I would say that if Skinner drops anywhere past 15th overall, whoever gets him has a steal on their hands.

Joey Hishon, C Owen Sound Attack (OHL) 5-10, 178

Hard-luck pivot has missed a lot of games this season due to a broken foot. After scoring 37 goals and 81 points last season as a 16-17 year-old, Hishon had high expectations coming into this year, and although the two months on the shelf haven't helped, if he can stay healthy and productive the rest of the way, he could be a solid 1st-round pick. Superb skater who is as elusive as he is fast, he has the kind of puckhandling skills which make him a threat to score in all situations. Needs to get stronger, but if he slides into the second-round, he's likely a solid value pick anywhere because of his dynamic upside.

Ryan Spooner, C Peterborough Petes (OHL) 5-10, 177

Another super-fast, game-breaking scorer from the Ontario League, Spooner showed what he is capable of in the CHL Top Prospects Game, when he finished off a 2-on-1 break with Taylor Hall. Spooner has excellent speed and always keeps his feet moving, which is sure to earn him high marks from scouts. He may not quite have Skinner's natural touch around the net, but he's got the wheels and intensity to make NHL teams forget about his small, light frame. He hasn't had a lot of help in Peterborough this year scoring-wise, but he's shown to have the kind of character and ability to come through despite increased checking pressure that makes him a player to watch, especially if he slips out of Round One. Author's Note- A broken collarbone suffered by Spooner in January will probably impact his draft status negatively. With him out for the most crucial period of time for a team trying to make the OHL playoffs means that Spooner will likely end up becoming a nice value pick for a good team that otherwise would not have had a shot at him were he playing and contributing to the Petes' playoff run. Bad break for Spooner and Peterborough, because the kid has the goods. 2/19/10

Jason Zucker, C U.S. NTDP U-18 (USHL) 5-10, 175

The World Jr. standout from Team USA will probably become the first native Nevadan (born and trained) to be drafted in June. Where he shakes out is still open to debate, but some teams have him pushing late 1st/early 2nd boundaries. He's got a nice jump in his stride and plays a high-energy style of two-way hockey. Zucker also showed a scoring touch as his team's youngest player in Saskatoon. He's committed to University of Denver next season, and is very much a work in progress, but is one to watch for his skill and tenacity.

Jordan Weal, C Regina Pats (WHL) 5-8, 165

He is generously listed at 5-8, but is probably closer to 5-6. Although he has 26 goals and 80 points in 60 games with the Pats this year, some scouts aren't sure that his production will translate in the pros. He's not a bad skater, but he's not a burner either, which, at his size, is a concern. He's got outstanding vision and hockey sense, but his overall skill level is above average, which will evoke comparisons to Zach Hamill, who was a productive player in the Dub, but has yet to do it in the pros after being Boston's top pick (eighth overall) three years ago. Author's Note- I am not comparing the playing styles of Hamill and Weal, merely observing that both put up very good offensive numbers in the WHL, but lack the kind of high-end speed/skills teams look for in smaller players. You have to like Weal's feistiness and spunk, but it will take quite a leap of faith for any team to draft him high. At mid-second round, his value starts to increase, however. Anywhere before that, and he's a risk.

Teemu Pulkkinen, RW Jokerit (Finland Jr.) 5-10, 172

A severe wrist injury dropped Pulkkinen's stock, but he's back in action and recently did very well for Team Finland at the Six Nations Tournament in Belarus. Not a fast skater by any means, he is a lot like Skinner in that he knows where he needs to go on the ice and can really find the back of the net with his pro-release and offensive instincts. His stock is rising now that he's showing no real ill effects of the surgery, but to put it in perspective, he's scoring in the junior leagues (although he did get 12 games in with the senior team- 1 goal), while his countryman Granlund is doing it against men to a very high level. As good as Pulkkinen's upside is, that should guive you an idea where Granlund grades out.

Michael Bournival, C Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL) 5-10, 180

Another honest player who works hard and is productive, but lacks the speed and high-end skills that would make NHL clubs want to take an early chance on him. Similar to Patrice Bergeron in his draft year, however. Doesn't get a lot of attention, but earns high praise for his work ethic and hockey sense. If he can pick up an extra couple of steps, it could give him more of a shot to succeed at the next level, albeit it in more of a tertiary role. He may not have Bergeron's soft hands, however.

Christian Thomas, RW Oshawa Generals (OHL) 5-9, 171

Son of former NHL 40-goal man (and 421 for his career) Steve Thomas, he's a chip off the old block in the scoring department, having lit the lamp 30 times in 52 contests this season. Like Skinner and Weal, he's not a burner, but just knows where to go and be to make things happen offensively. Has a powerful shot that he gets a lot of torque on despite his lack of stature. Real soft hands and finish in close. Quietly becoming a prospect, but the lack of size and high-end skills will limit the pre-draft buzz on him. Could be a steal anywhere after the third round.

Brandon Hynes, RW Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL) 5-8, 170

Diminutive Newfie is a one-way offensive force who can really put the puck in the net. His lack of diligence in his own end will drop him at the draft, as he's too one-dimensional to be considered a legitimate top-two round candidate given his size limitations. Still, he's tallied 38 goals in 58 games for les Tigres, and was recently named the QMJHL's Offensive Player of the Week. Like Thomas, he can generate a lot of power on his shot, and he gets it off quickly. He also tends to play a perimeter game and doesn't go into traffic all that much.

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