I had a full weekend of hockey viewing in three states covering 12 games between Thursday and Sunday and putting over 800 miles on the rental car.
Friday night featured a great Stuart/Corkery tourney semifinal game between Avon Old Farms and Noble & Greenough. The action was fast-paced, as both teams brought a lot of effort and intensity. Both goaltenders were peppered, and it was ultimately Avon's Josh Dionne who got the edge in play over Gene Lane (who was also excellent, particularly when Nobles tied it early in the third and he kept it tied despite a steady blitz from Avon throughout the period). Ultimately, Mark Naclerio's goal with less than 1:30 to play in regulation stood up as the winner in Avon's 5-4 upset over the No. 3 seed, but it was a terrific game.
It was anticlimactic, in fact, because the Avon-NMH final tilt was played with not as high a tempo, nor was it as dramatic a finish, with the Winged Beavers overcoming a 1-0 lead after the first period to gradually put the screws to NMH in a 4-1 victory.
I got the chance to go down on the ice while the Avon players and their fanatical supporters were celebrating their victory and it was a nice experience. Even though we're talking about a high school level championship here, there is an electricity that you cannot describe when you witness that kind of thing firsthand and get to live vicariously through the players themselves. I thought that kids like Dionne, Mike Pereira, Quinn Smith and Connor Doyle in particular exhibited a lot of grace and class in the win, which is a reflection of their coach John Gardner, who's been at it there at Avon for 35 years (and has 8 prep titles since the tourney began 29 years ago to show for it).
I also took in three games in the EJHL's first round of the playoffs, viewing the Boston Jr. Bruins win over the Bay State Breakers, the South Shore Kings handily beat the Green Mountain Glades and the NH Jr. Monarchs cruise against the NY Apple Core.
Here are some quick observations on some of the top draft-eligible talents from New England for June's NHL lottery. First, I'll come right out and say it: there are NO Chris Kreiders in this draft class. Because the region had not produced a player of Kreider's skill and NHL upside in quite a while, he jumped out at me every time I saw him. I got no such feeling from anyone I saw this past weekend. This is not to say that there aren't any good players, and in fact, this class overall may be deeper than the 2009 New England group as a whole. But, Kreider was a clear-cut, surefire NHL 1st-round pick, and I don't see that from any of these kids.
Charlie Coyle and Kevin Hayes are the best of the bunch, but even those two are longshots for the first round (though that's not to say that some team may gamble on one or the other from 25-30, but I wouldn't put money on it) and will most likely go in the second round somewhere. I'd had Hayes slightly ahead of Coyle for most of the season, but after this weekend, I have to put Coyle at the top of New England's draft class. The margin between the two is still razor thin, but Hayes had an opportunity to make a statement against Avon, and just didn't get it done.
Charlie Coyle, RW South Shore Kings (EJHL)- Big (6-2, 207), skilled scorer plays a strong all-around game. He can skate well, shoot hard, set up, finish the play and bang bodies. He even played the point on the power play and did it effectively. Some forwards on the point you watch and say to yourself- that guy would be much better off down low and in front of the net, but Coyle was very good at keeping the puck in along the blue line and distributing/shooting from the point. Coyle didn't score any points (and also injured his ankle so don't know whether he'll play this weekend) but was still effective, taking the body and getting involved in some good scoring chances that didn't find the back of the net. He doesn't have true elite ability, and hence is projected in the second-round, but he has a lot of upside and should develop into something at Boston University. He's Tony Amonte's cousin, so he has some good bloodlines to boot.
Kevin Hayes, C/LW Noble & Greenough (USHSE)- Superb size (6-3, 200) and may grow another 1-2 inches and will add 30 or more pounds by the time he completely matures. Very good skater (better than Coyle). First few steps are only OK, but he can really move once he gets up to speed and is a master of his edges, with rapid change of direction and the ability to stickhandle at full gallop. He'll blow by defenders with speed, or by going through with inside-outside moves. Very good shooter and passer. All the offensive tools are there- I think he's more skilled than older brother, Jimmy, but not as physical or gritty. Just didn't take control in the semifinal game...held onto the puck too long at times, or at others, was out on the perimeter and took low percentage shots from the outside or put passes into high traffic areas, failing to generate high-quality scoring chances. He's a good kid and hard worker, but he didn't help himself much on a night when lots of NHL scouts were in the building. Like Coyle, he's got the bloodlines too- Keith Tkachuk and Tom Fitzgerald are cousins of his.
Brian Billett, G NH Jr. Monarchs (EJHL)- This kid may be the most underrated goalie in the entire 2010 draft class. His tall and lean, so he needs to add mass and strength, but he's very quick and plays a very positionally sound game. He's got a low crouch, which makes him susceptible to shots upstairs, but doesn't beat himself with mental errors or by overplaying the puck. He's extremely calm and poised, and his numbers don't lie: 21-2-3 in 25 games with a 1.92 GAA and .943 save percentage (with 2 shutouts). I honestly don't understand why he's not higher on more teams' lists, although one scout told me that because nobody's sure when he's going to Boston College, and because they have a glut of young goalies who could cut into his playing time, that's a reason he's lower than he should be. I will say this: back in 2003-04, I heard the same things about Cory Schneider, and he played his way onto the Eagles and became their top guy in no time. Billett is fully capable of doing the same, so don't be surprised if the rumors of him having to spend two years in the USHL turn out to be false and he grabs a spot on Jerry York's team sooner than later.
Mike Pereira, LW Avon Old Farms (USHSE)- The smartest thing this big-time player did was leave South Kent School for AOF. All he did was put the team on his back and lead them to the prep title, scoring 64 points in 29 games, with six of those points coming in the last two games. He's not all that big, and will need to get stronger, but he's a very good skater with quick burst and top speed. I watched him blow by defenders with good feet and mobility all weekend. He's got the soft hands and vision to set up the play and finish it off. He buried a beauty of a goal in the semifinal against Nobles because he exploded into the slot, fought off a check and picked up a rebound. Toot Cahoon is going to love him at UMass. Some guys just have the ability to take their game to another level when their team's back is against the wall. AOF was only the seventh-seeded team in the tournament and they ran the table, thanks in large part to Pereira's brilliance (that line he played on with Quinn Smith and KJ Tiefenworth pretty much had their way with everyone they played).
And, I would also mention fab goalie Martin Ouellette here, but I already dedicated an entire post to him, so I'll urge you to read that if you haven't already.
These are the guys from New England, who in my mind, are pretty sure bets to be drafted in June. There are others, but I'll save them for when we get closer to the event.
Next year, Michael Paliotta, a defenseman on the US NTDP Under-17 team from Westport, Conn. is one guy I'm told with solid 1st-round potential, but the '93 birthdates aren't a great crop on the whole. The '94s are, at least for now, considerably better, so we may have to wait until 2012 before the region produces some legitimate draft buzz. Watch Paliotta, though- he can apparently do everything well and barring a major setback should be the guy to watch in 2010-11.