Below is a look at a few of the players who made a significant impact at the 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Thursday in Vancouver, B.C.. In that game, Team Orr defeated Team Cherry by a 3-2 count.
“As Advertised” Award…To the player(s) who delivered elite performances when we expected them to deliver elite performances.
Michael McLeod, Mississauga Steelheads
If there was any doubt about the motor, Michael McLeod put those to rest with a gutsy performance on game night for Team Cherry. A speed merchant who checks in at 6’2” and 188 pounds, McLeod forced the play in the attacking zone every time he was on the ice.
Playing alongside Tim Gettinger (Sault Ste. Marie – OHL) and Alex DeBrincat (Erie – OHL), the all-OHL line was persistent throughout the evening. With a little more polish and some good fortune around the Team Orr goal, this line could have changed the outcome of the game. McLeod was rewarded for his efforts with his team’s Player of the Game award and earned high praise from coach Don Cherry.
Matthew Tkachuk, London Knights
Coming into the game, Matthew Tkachuk was ranked as the number one prospect among North American skaters. He has been prominent throughout the current major junior season, playing in USA Hockey’s All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo early on before playing an important role with Team USA in its bronze medal performance at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland.
The son of former NHL player Keith Tkachuk, the youngster is a load at 6’1” and 200 pounds. He is an instigator, a bully, a chippy and physically intimidating forward who plays so close to the edge, he can’t help but cross the line on occasion. There is assuredly a place for these attributes in today’s NHL, and Tkachuk will bring intensity to the ice in good measure. Opposing defensemen and goaltenders have their hands full each and every time they face the Knights. Tkachuk is who we think he is.
Jakob Chychrun, Sarnia Sting
The presence of Jakob Chychrun during the TPG festivities was somewhat reminiscent of Aaron Ekblad (FLA) in Calgary a couple of years ago. Chycrun, born in Boca Raton, Florida, is a dominating physical specimen, checking in at 6’2” and 205 pounds. The son of former NHL player Jeff Chychrun, Jakob stood out during the event as a leader and was named team captain for Team Cherry.
Some will suggest his performance in the game was not outstanding, but he was put in a position where he played tough minutes and often played in his own end with the pest-like Tkachuk in his face near the goal crease. The two OHL stars seemed to battle each other throughout the game, creating plenty of activity and entertainment away from the puck.
“IMPORT-ant Contributions” Award…To the CHL Imports who leave their homes and families to develop and achieve excellence in North America.
Libor Hajek, Saskatoon Blades
Libor Hajek, from the Czech Republic, arrived in Vancouver amid little fanfare and produced an efficient, workmanlike performance for Team Orr. Paired with Finnish import Olli Juolevi (London – OHL), Hajek was a steadying presence at both ends of the ice. He chipped in with an assist on Team Orr’s first goal of the night.
Hajek was the second overall selection at the 2015 CHL Import Draft and has made a huge impression so far this season in the WHL, so much so that the Blades have been able to move a couple defensemen to help bolster other areas of their roster. Hajek has played in big games for his home country at international competitions, so he is not intimidated by facing high-end opposition. Hajek is ranked 26th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
“Not On My Watch” Award…To the goaltenders charged with holding the fort in a game where skills, not systems, are generally the priority.
Evan Fitzpatrick, Sherbrooke Phoenix
It has been storied for many years, the penchant for Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall to throw up prior to tending the pipes during his NHL career. Hall, inducted in 1975, suggests it was all a reaction to the pressure he felt.
For Evan Fitzpatrick, he spent much of game day performing in much the same fashion as Hall, although food-poisoning and not the pressure to perform was the apparent culprit. It was a heckuva way for the native of St.John’s, Newfoundland to spend his 18th birthday.
Come game time, Fitzpatrick got the start for Team Cherry and gave them a chance to win. He was certainly at this best, making 17 saves without giving up a goal in 31 minutes of play. He held Team Cherry in the game, especially during a busy first period. Ranked second overall among North American goalies by NHL Central Scouting, the 6’3” Fitzpatrick loomed large all night and emerged as the only one among the four goalies who did not surrender a goal.
“Minority Report” Award…For the players that represented the league that sent the fewest number of players to the Top Prospects Game.
Pascal Laberge and Pierre-Luc Dubois (QMJHL)
Of the 40 players in attendance at the TPG, only eight represented QMJHL teams. The numbers fluctuate from year to year, but on this occasion, it was a pair of players from the “Q” who turned in the most memorable performances on the night.
Pascal Laberge (Victoriaville – QMJHL) scored twice for Team Orr and added an assist. Pierre-Luc Dubois (Gatineau – QMJHL) scored the game winner and added two helpers. After the game, the two friends and linemates admitted they had played together on many occasions back home in U16, U17 and U18 camps. That chemistry was the difference on this night.
Dubois was, simply put, the best player on the ice. He bullied his way into the attacking zone all game long and gave opposing defenders fits. Laberge, who has bounced back this season from a broken hand on two occasions, was outstanding, pulling the trigger twice in true goal-scorer fashion. In fairness, their linemate Jack Kopacka (Sault Ste. Marie – OHL) was also terrific on the night, but the QMJHL duo was dynamic.
“Day Dream Believer” Award…For the game’s only player faced with lugging around “exceptional player” status.
Sean Day, Mississauga Steelheads
Sean Day arrived in the OHL amid much fanfare, but by all accounts has failed to deliver on high promise so far. But there appears to be lots to like about the amicable 6’2”, 224-pounder who calls Rochester, Michigan his home.
Day was solid in the TPG, but for one instance when Dubois danced around him at the Team Cherry blueline and created a scoring chance. Scouts wanted badly to see Day among the best in his age class and his performance had to confirm that he indeed belongs in first round discussions. The knock on Day relates to consistency, an attribute that plagues many aspiring prospects, but the defenseman has been under the microscope since, ahem, “Day One” in the OHL.
Day will surpass the 200-game mark in the OHL later this season and will arrive at the NHL Draft in Buffalo with three full seasons of major junior under his belt. Whether or not he sneaks into the first round at the NHL Draft or not remains to be seen, but it is apparent he will lug along a full tool box to the NHL organization that calls his name.
“Lights, Camera, Action” Award…To the player(s) that handled the media with professionalism and panache.
Ty Ronning, Vancouver Giants
Thrust into the limelight as a late addition to the Team Cherry roster as a sub for injured Giants teammate Tyler Benson, Ty Ronning was sought after throughout the event by local media clinging to the hope that the local boy could make good. And Ronning didn’t disappoint.
Ranked 82nd overall among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in their midterm rankings, Ronning was on the outside looking in when the original rosters were announced for the Top Prospects Game just over a month ago. While at the TPG festivities, he dutifully stood before the microphones and cameras, giving a very good account of his hopes for a noteworthy performance in the game itself.
The diminutive forward, the son of former NHL forward Cliff Ronning, played alongside Sam Steel (Regina – WHL) and Vitalii Abramov (Gatineau – QMJHL) to form the most consistent trio of the night for Team Cherry. Ronning brought the house down just three minutes into the affair when he chipped a rebound past Team Orr goaltender Carter Hart (Everett – WHL) to open the scoring. Indeed, Ronning was not at all out of place at any point during the TPG proceedings.
“No Really, I Was There” Award…For a top notch performance that in some quarters may have gone unnoticed.
Jordan Kyrou, Sarnia Sting
Jordan Kyrou may exist to some degree in the large shadow cast by his Sarnia Sting teammate Jakob Chychrun, but he left a mark that cannot be erased at the TPG in Vancouver.
Kyrou hit the score sheet twice, collecting assists on both Team Cherry goals. Early in the game, with his linemates having left the ice on the fly, he was stuck along the boards across from the bench at the end of a shift where he was able to corral the puck and dish off to Ronning. It was a heads-up play that led to Team Cherry establishing the early lead.
After Team Orr had taken a 2-1 lead in the third frame, Kyrou took a pass from Max Jones (London – OHL) at the Team Orr blueline and made a dizzying cross-ice pass to Logan Brown (Windsor – OHL). Brown fired a laser just beneath the bar and inside the post on Team Orr goaltender Dylan Wells (Peterborough – OHL). It was a highlight reel goal, from start to finish.
Had Team Orr not buried the game winner just 11 seconds later, the Kyrou-to-Brown tally would have probably gotten much more play.
“Messin’ With The Media” Award…For creative line management and defense pairings.
Talk about a contradiction!
Media hoards spent a couple of days in the bowels of Pacific Coliseum working the event, while being fed a steady diet of coffee and donuts by organizers. Then prior to puck drop, the lineup sheets included a defensive pairing for Team Orr that read as “Green/Bean”.
With all the talk about these elite players and their cumulative preparations, including a high level commitment to nutrition and fitness, the pairing of these came across as perhaps a subtle jibe at a few of the portly media wags in attendance. However, good humor ruled the day.
Luke Green (St. John’s – QMJHL), the former number one pick at the 2014 QMJHL Entry Draft, and Jake Bean (Calgary – WHL), who was never drafted but listed out of the Calgary Edge Academy by the attentive Hitmen, were probably the top performing pairing for Team Orr. Green and Bean handled most of the power play unit assignments together, though they did see some time with other partners on the night. The pairing played behind the Dubois/Laberge/Kopacka trio for much of the evening, forming Team Orr’s most effective unit.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51