The road to the NHL isn’t always a straight one, often times winding down paths that have been less traveled. Two WHL veterans have taken different routes towards redemption after not hearing their name called at the NHL Draft.
Looking back to last season, the Prince Albert Raiders made it to the WHL playoffs, only to lose to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings. One Raider in particular, Reid Gardiner, was trending towards a potential selection. Ranked 29th by NHL Central Scouting, he was projected as a second- or third-round pick.
The NHL Draft came and went, and Gardiner was not selected.
“I was shocked more than anything, upset and obviously disappointed,” Gardiner told Hockey’s Future. “I felt sorry for myself for a day-and-a-half and then got right back at it. I leaned on my support system and stayed positive.”
It didn’t take long before Gardiner was offered an opportunity to attend the Minnesota Wild’s development camp. Like most players in his situation, he was eager to soak in the experience.
“I learned to be a professional every day, the higher level was good for me,” Gardiner lamented. “It’s what they do for a living, so you see how hard you have to focus every day.”
Now in his third season with Prince Albert, Gardiner has improved his point production in each consecutive season. As part of that process, he was quick to deflect that success towards his linemates.
“The whole team has been there for me, but I’ve been playing well with Simon Stransky who has the best hands I’ve seen for a guy his age,” Gardiner stated emphatically. He also pointed out the contributions from Austin Glover, who was part of a trade that saw Winnipeg Jets prospect Josh Morrissey depart for Kelowna.
On the ice, Gardiner has looked more confident with the puck, which has led to him leading the Raiders in scoring. Another solid season has caught the attention of NHL Central Scouting as Gardiner was ranked 104th in their midterm rankings. But make no mistake, Gardiner isn’t focused on the draft rankings.
“I’ve been focused daily, especially in the gym, to work on strength in my legs to become a better skater,” the forward from Humboldt, SK said. “I didn’t want to put pressure on myself, so I’ve been going about my business and have been enjoying the game.”
The Prince Albert Raiders did not qualify for the playoffs this season, but Gardiner acknowledged the translation in his game to become a more mature player, saying “It’s been a big step to become a leader on and off the ice, helping the younger players and changing the culture to restore the pride that we’ve had in past years.”
Kelowna Rockets forward Tyson Baillie shared an experience that mirrors what Gardiner went through.
“I was disappointed and angry, but remembered that there’s always next year and there’s time to improve my game,” Baillie shared in describing the disappointment of not hearing his name called last summer.
In a refreshing way, Baillie knew that he had to work on his skating in the offseason. “It’s my biggest downfall, but I’ve come a long ways. I’m passionate about it now, same with the defensive zone.”
All was not lost for him, as Baillie was afforded an opportunity to join the San Jose Sharks camp this summer, receiving a first hand look at life in the NHL. “It was a good experience to see the facility and skate with older guys,” said Baillie.
Consistently ranked near the top of the BMO/CHL Top 10 Rankings, the Kelowna Rockets are positioned for a deep playoff run. Baillie pointed to the contributions from Gage Quinney and Dillon Dube, a trio that has been together all season.
“We’ve been on a line for a while now, and learning from a guy like (Leon) Draisaitl has been good,” Baillie stated. “He’s quiet in the room, but you pick up on things just from watching him play.”
While Baillie admittedly doesn’t pay attention to any of the media rankings, he embraced the underdog role after being named to the Subway Super Series roster. “That was nice,” Baillie said with a hint of reassurance, “to catch a break like that and prove some people wrong.”
Baillie recently competed in his 250th WHL game, and also reached the 200-point milestone. Those accomplishments are certainly noteworthy, so too is his dedication to his craft on the ice. He was quick to credit his teammates, saying “great passes from my teammates have made things happen, and a new focus on going hard to the net and getting into the dirty areas, as well.”
On a team loaded with expectations, Baillie has stayed grounded.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned not to get caught up in all of the rankings and media attention,” Baillie acknowledged. “We’re a great team and struggling a little bit right now, but I know we’ll figure it out before the playoffs.”
Other players to watch
Pius Suter, Left Wing – Guelph Storm
5’11”, 170 pounds, Wallisellen, Switzerland
One calendar year may not seem like a significant period of time in the hockey world, but for Guelph Storm forward Pius Suter, one year was all it took for him to rise to relevance.
One of the deepest junior hockey teams in recent memory, the 2013-14 Guelph squad was chalk full of talent. Buried on the depth chart, Suter embraced a bottom-six role as a valuable two-way forward. Often seeing difficult minutes in a defensive role, Suter earned a reputation as a defensively responsible center who made goal prevention a priority. What we didn’t get to see from Suter, though, was his offensive ability. After posting 24 points in 66 games, Suter has become a go-to player this season. In 61 games this season, Suter put up an impressive 43-goal, 29-assist campaign that has put him on the NHL radar’s.
Suter played six games with Switzerland at this year’s U20 World Junior Championship, potting two goals in the tournament. His willingness to battle against any level of competition placed in front of him is admirable, and just may result in NHL interest in this June’s draft.
Vladimir Tkachev, Left Wing – Quebec Remparts
5’8”, 160 pounds, Omsk, Russia
It has been a whirlwind year for Vladimir Tkachev. The Edmonton Oilers signed Tkachev to an entry-level contract, but that deal was nixed by the NHL after eligibility concerns. He returned to Moncton following the debacle and has been electric when he hits the ice.
The season has not been without challenges for Tkachev, however. He injured his shoulder in November and missed nearly a month recovering. Then, in December, he was traded to the Quebec Remparts just before being cut from the Russian World Junior team.
When he makes it onto the ice, though, the young man affectionately referred to as “Vladdy Hockey” has put on a show. With Quebec, Tkachev put up 12 goals and 21 assists in 33 games. With the playoffs on the horizon, the Remparts will look to Tkachev to stay hot in order to get by Cape Breton.
Tkachev has seen his draft stock slip a little bit, as he is now ranked 121st among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s midterm list. With 29 other teams now in on the action, June’s draft will carry a bit of intrigue for Tkachev.
Matt O’Connor, Goaltender – Boston University
6’6”, 205 pounds, Toronto, Ontario
One of the hottest commodities in the college free agent market is Boston University goaltender, Matt O’Connor. After claiming a Hockey East title thanks in part to the play of Jack Eichel, conversation in Boston is slowly trending back towards O’Connor.
Perhaps unfairly labeled as just an average goaltender who relies on his size during his draft year, O’Connor is now a polished 23-year-old trending towards his first professional contract. The late-bloomer is 22-3-4 with Boston, posting a 2.12 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. He has allowed two goals or less in 21 of 29 appearances this season, having been one of the more reliable goaltenders in NCAA hockey.
With as many as 15 NHL teams having already made their interest known, it will only be a matter of time before O’Connor has a new home for next season.
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