Recent drafts heavy in players from major juniors have created a bountiful and intriguing group of prospects playing in the CHL for the Los Angeles Kings. The list of 12 include a forward leading his league in goals, a player that is turning heads as a leader, a defenseman keeping a level head amid lofty expectations and a goaltender striving to find his way back home.
With a nine-game romp through the early WHL schedule that yielded 17 goals, Oscar Moller become the surprise leader in goals scored for the league and is easily considered the most dangerous threat on the ice for the Chilliwack Bruins. The nine-game stretch produced three hat tricks, two of which were in back to back games, and eight multi-point games. How exceptional was Moller’s stretch? Moller is neck and neck in goals with uber-prospect John Tavares this season, including one more hat trick, and has surpassed Tavares’s career best stretch of total goals in five games with 12 to his nine. But Moller will not stay this hot forever. He should begin to come back down to Earth as the season wears on and teams begin to key on him. Until then, enjoy the ride, but do not become accustomed to the goal per game pace that he has exhibited early.
While Moller is drawing the headlines, Wayne Simmonds has quietly established himself as a top 20 scorer in the OHL. And he has done it with consistency, being held off the score sheet for Owen Sound only eight times in 27 games. But it has been his team leadership that most people are quick to talk about when speaking of Simmonds. While Owen Sound may not have much success in the standings early this season, you would not know it by the way the team battles, beginning with Simmonds. He has bulked up his formerly rail-thin frame which has allowed him to hold up better against physical competition and has donned the ‘A’ of an assistant captain while seeing extensive ice time on both the power play and the penalty kill. Still a raw talent, Simmonds is now on everyone’s radar as a potential star of the OHL by the end of the season.
Forwards Dwight King and Bryan Cameron have shown marked improvement from last season. King has already equaled his career high in goals (12) through only 29 games. He has taken on more of a goal-scoring role this season and will need to consistently find the back of the net for the remainder of the season as the opposition will now see him as less of a distributor and more of a finisher, and play defense him accordingly.
Like King, while more highly-touted prospects have made the headlines this season, Cameron has quietly shown solid improvement in his game. Belleville sits atop the standings as one of the best defensive teams in the league, due in no small part to the contributions of forwards like Cameron. In addition to an increase in his production this season, Cameron has improved his plus/minus to a +9 as the entire team has drastically reduced the number of scoring opportunities by the opposition and consequently the number goals against. Unlike King and Moller, where indicators point towards a likely drop in production as the season progresses, Cameron plays a steady style that is likely to continue to produce at his current pace until the end of the season.
Not to be outdone, Bud Holloway leads the Seattle Thunderbirds in goals (10) and points (21) through their first 24 games. But as the senior member of their group of forwards, Holloway has been relied upon by the team as the solid foundation in which they will build their season. Always considered an anchor for the Thunderbirds, he has begun to garner international attention. Holloway skated in both WHL games in the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge, scoring a goal and an assist in the second game. He is also being considered for a spot on the U-20 WJC roster for Team Canada. And after the intangible contributions that fellow Kings prospect Marc-Andre Cliche made in leading Team Canada to gold last season, Holloway has a very good chance of not only being named to the roster but also playing a significant role.
While Holloway is leading Seattle in points, Thomas Hickey is second on the team and first among defensemen. After becoming the surprise fourth overall selection of the 2007 Entry Draft, a number of expectations were heaped upon Hickey to justify the high selection by the Kings. But while Hickey has not shied away from skeptics, neither has he acknowledged any pressure. When in the draft his name was called was completely out of his hands. The only thing Hickey can do is go out and play his game every night. He has done just that as one of the best offensive defensemen in the WHL and showing an increased propensity to find the back of the net this season. He will almost assuredly be named to Team Canada for the U-20 WJC and is poised to continue his offensive production throughout the remainder of the Thunderbirds season.
Another offensive defenseman plying his trade in the WHL for the Kings is T.J. Fast. In his first full season with Tri-City after moving over from NCAA hockey, Fast has registered 15 points through 24 games. But his production has declined after jumping out to 13 points through the first 15 games. Despite the lack of production from their leading scorer on the blueline, Tri-City has continued to dice up the opposition as the best offensive team in the league. His play as a more well-rounded defenseman has taken a turn for the better and Fast has “quickly” become one of Tri-City’s most reliable players.
Josh Kidd was diagnosed with “osteitis pubis” in November, which is an inflammation of the tissue connecting the two bones that make up the pelvis, and will miss at least a month of action. Simply skating is made difficult with such an injury, but Kidd also plays a physical style on the blueline which would make it near impossible to continue with such an injury. Prior to the injury, Kidd had four points and was among the team leaders in penalty minutes. Rest until the inflammation goes down is the only rehabilitation for the injury.
After losing out to the over-abundance of defensemen in Manchester, Joe Ryan returned to Quebec of the QMJHL. With 12 points through his first 17 games, Ryan has found a little bit of touch distributing the puck. But Ryan will never be confused for Sergei Zubov and his points are more of a surprise than an expectation. More importantly, he is developing his positioning and his skating ability this season with Quebec. Likewise, there are a number of aspects that Matt Fillier needs to improve on if he is to have any significant impact outside of the QMJHL. If nothing else, Fillier is a physical middle-weight from the left wing position that will bring intangibles more than skill to the rink. Both his goal and assist production is off from last season as he has settled into the physical role.
After beginning the season with a 3-1 record, 1.66 goals-against average and a save percentage of .931 in the month of September, Linden Rowat has cooled off considerably and fallen back into the rest of the pack of WHL goaltenders. However, he continues to be the starting netminder for Regina with a respectable .903 save percentage. He will likely continue to receive the bulk of the starts in net, but do not expect any spectacular numbers from Rowat this season as the Pats defense has proved to be average at best.
The volumes of discussion on whether to keep Jonathan Bernier on the Kings roster coming out of training camp could have filled a library. Everyone in and out of the organization rendered their opinion on how best to handle the development of the young prospect in net for the Kings. Acknowledging that there was little else for Bernier to prove in major junior hockey, Dean Lombardi and Marc Crawford broke camp with Bernier on the roster and in net for the Kings season opener in London. After turning in a stellar performance, it appeared that Bernier’s home was clearly in Los Angeles. But the goals-against began to mount as the Kings defense forgot how to stop the opposition and flat-out rolled over in front of Bernier. While there was little for Bernier to prove in major junior, there was even less to learn from the onslaught and he was returned to Lewiston through no fault of his own.
Even before taking the ice for Lewiston in his first game back in major juniors, the talk turned to whether Bernier would experience the proverbial let-down of falling from the highest level of his profession back to the developmental leagues. And Bernier appeared to do just that. Almost as if attempting to make a statement that he no longer belongs in the QMJHL, Bernier was over-aggressive to start the season with Lewiston, often playing much higher on the crease challenging the shooter, and over-extending himself with his lateral movements, making the net an easy target on a rebound. Quite simply, he was attempting to do too much and barely resembled the calm and technically sound netminder of last season. However, he has slowly rediscovered the style that made him successful and gradually reduced his goals-against average to 3.04 after a season high of nearly 4.00 goals-against. While Bernier’s home may eventually be in Los Angeles, he must remember the directions that led him there in the first place.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.