Here is a look at a few of the players who made a significant impact at the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Calgary.
“As Advertised” Award…To the player(s) who delivered an elite performance when we expected them to deliver an elite performance.
Sam Reinhart, Kootenay Ice
While he wasn’t recognized as the Player of the Game for Team Cherry, there is little doubt that Sam Reinhart was THE best player on the ice. PERIOD!
When Team Cherry needed a lift, it was Reinhart who was there to create offensive opportunities. He was poised and patient with the puck in an environment when many players feel the heat and begin to squeeze their sticks a little too tightly. Reinhart began the night skating between Michael Dal Colle and Ivan Barbashev, but the coaching decision to insert Nikolay Goldobin on the wing in the third period changed the dynamics of the game. Goldobin figured in the scoring twice as Team Cherry tied the game, and his penalty shot attempt off the goal post was simply a cruel denial for his side.
Reinhart finished with a goal and an assist on the night. For the 17-year-old member of the Kootenay Ice, who said all the right things during the week about his drop from #1 to #4 in the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings, his performance was absolute vindication.
Aaron Ekblad, Barrie Colts
Clearly the guy everyone around him looks up to, Aaron Ekblad brings that unique and valuable blend of maturity and skill that will easily enable him to fit in nicely with any professional team fortunate to select him in June.
If there is a larger than life persona among the draft-eligible class this season, it is Ekblad, a very composed, intelligent speaker that oozes leadership skills. His two-point night for Team Orr came on the heels of a five-point outing against the Kingston Frontenancs just prior to heading out west to Calgary for the Top Prospects Game festivities.
It’s impressive to produce an excellent performance on a one-off basis when a player is among the best of his class in the country, but it’s certainly another thing to do it when it is expected by all. We expected Ekblad to be outstanding, and he was indeed outstanding.
“IMPORT-ant Contributions” Award…To the CHL Imports who leave their homes and families to develop and achieve excellence in North America.
Nikolay Goldobin, Sarnia Sting
The beneficiary of a shrewd coaching decision late in the second period, Russian import Nikolay Goldobin pretty much stole the show in the game’s third period with a consistent offensive push that helped Team Cherry climb into a 3-3 tie after being down two goals.
While it didn’t hurt him to have an opportunity to be creative alongside Reinhart, Goldobin is an explosive skater with obvious scoring instincts. His wrap-around tally displayed this trait well enough, along with his charge to the net that later resulted in a penalty shot.
Considered a “game breaker” by his OHL team, Goldobin took full advantage of the opportunity to embed his image into the minds of scouts and general managers.
Julius Honka, Swift Current Broncos
The WHL’s leading scorer among defenseman may have played a supporting role on the backend with Team Finland during its gold medal run at the World Juniors in Sweden, but Julius Honka left no doubt that his offensive skills make him a prominent contributor in the CHL.
Honka had instant chemistry with Ekblad on the power play for Team Orr, making a formidable pair of right handed shooting d-men available to quarterback proceedings with the man advantage. Honka is not physically dominant, but he deftly spins off checks and keeps the puck moving with efficiency.
He will take home a souvenir of sorts from Calgary, in the form of some dental work and a few stitches suffered from a high stick early in the third period, but he also leaves with two assists in a little over 40 minutes of work.
“Not On My Watch” Award…To the goaltenders charged with holding the fort in a game where skills, not systems, are generally the priority.
Mason McDonald, Charlottetown Islanders
If not for Mason McDonald’s early excellence, this game may have been out of reach for Team Orr before the first intermission. Team Cherry fired 14 shots at McDonald in the period, at least a half-dozen of which were quality chances. He even appeared to “will” the goal posts to stand tall with him.
The lanky, athletic goaltender with a cool, piercing stare, catches with his right hand. During 30 minutes of play, McDonald was able to make initial stops and corral rebounds. He moved laterally with quickness that is not always evident in big goalies.
His first period performance enabled his teammates to create an offensive push, one that required him to turn aside only two shots in his ten minutes of play during the second stanza. The only shot that beat him on this night, a laser by Dal Colle, had to be, and was, perfect.
Ty Edmonds, Prince George Cougars
He was overshadowed in the first period by McDonald, as he faced only seven shots from Team Orr. Yet by the time Ty Edmonds left the game midway through the second period, he’d faced 17 shots on the night.
Team Orr fired 10 shots at Edmonds in the first half of the second period. The only puck that eluded him didn’t even reach the back of the net. Edmonds is the top-ranked WHL goalie by Central Scouting and made an account of himself in Calgary that is certain to keep scouts curious and informed during the second half of the season. Edmonds is an intelligent youngster, an agile keeper with the kind of size that bodes well for his future.
Like McDonald, the goal posts were his friendly ally, as well. All told, Edmonds was very good as he kept the puck in front of him for the better part of 30 minutes.
“Chip Off the Old Block” Award…To the player who most emulated the performances we have seen in the past from a parent in the NHL.
Brendan Lemieux, Barrie Colts
Among the players in Calgary with so-called “NHL pedigree”, Brendan Lemieux’s father leads the way with a total of four Stanley Cup rings.
That is Claude Lemieux, whose pesky ways helped four different teams win the Stanley cup, including the Montreal Canadiens (1986), the New Jersey Devils (1995; 2000) and the Colorado Avalanche (1996).
It will be an enormous act for him to follow, but Brendan is already carrying himself on the ice in much the same fashion that his father did. Throughout the first two periods in particular in Calgary, Brendan skilfully took up residence in front of the Team Cherry net. His efforts resulted in the game’s opening goal when Honka’s one-timer deflected off his body and squirted past Edmonds in the Team Cherry net.
Ekblad, who knows Lemieux well, put it best during the three-day event when he confirmed that “as a team mate you love him, but as an opponent you don’t”.
Lights, Camera, Action…To the player(s) that handled the media with professionalism and panache.
Leon Draisaitl, Prince Albert Raiders
Watching the best juniors in the land handle what can be excruciatingly tedious media demands makes the effort of Leon Draisaitl a pleasure to watch. The German forward vaulted into the #2 spot on the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings, which made him a target throughout the Top Prospects Game festivities.
His command of the English language is exemplary. Much like he did at the World Junior Championship in Sweden, the well-spoken 18-year-old efficiently handled questions with multiple microphones and cameras just inches from his face. He is a thoughtful and tremendously composed speaker.
On the ice, he makes his physical presence felt. And on this night, when his quick shot from the face-off circle in the second period rang off the goal post, the puck found its way to Ekblad and led to Team Orr opening the scoring.
Jake Virtanen, Calgary Hitmen
Perhaps the pressure of being the most prominent player from the home team played a role in Jake Virtanen seemingly squeezing his stick a bit too tightly during the game. But let there be no doubt that his performance over the days leading up to the tilt was a display of maturity and professionalism as a representative for the Hitmen. It can’t be easy being “the local guy” under the microscope amid the finest junior players in the country, but Virtanen handled the media’s every demand with smiles and grace.
Virtanen came to Calgary as a highly-touted 16-year-old after the Hitmen selected him first overall at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Since his arrival, he has done just about everything asked of him on the ice in his two full seasons, becoming one of the top power forwards in the league.
His versatility up front, the ability to play the off-wing, is an attribute that will keep him prominent among the scouting fraternity. Hockey Canada has him firmly on the radar for upcoming international competitions, and with Virtanen’s skill and motivation, the Hitmen appear loaded for a deep playoff run this season.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51