Top Prospects, Top Pressure

By Jeff Bromley
The sixth annual CHL Top Prospects game took place this past week and it didn’t fail to live up to it’s accrued billing of the showcase of top major junior players on the continent. Trouble is, it’s only one game. Take it or leave it, this game can have a major impact on where and when a player is taken in the NHL Draft come June in Sunrise, Fla. That’s of course not to say that NHL scouts haven’t done their homework and seen each and every player a couple dozen times but in a nationally televised game against your brethren who are fighting for the betterment of their own draft status, the game does take on new meaning in the eyes of scouts and players alike.

Forty 2001 draft eligible players, two teams, celebrity Coaches Don Cherry and Bobby Orr patrolling behind the bench, this game isn’t any All-Star extravaganza, it’s a stage in which to showcase your skills as a player. Think one game can’t make a difference? Think again. Last year’s prospect game is a clear example. Calgary Hitmen goaltender Brent Krahn going into the game in the draft rankings was ranked highest among goalies, save for number one pick overall Rick DiPietro who didn’t declare his eligibility until after the final rankings were released. But in the overall scheme of the things it wasn’t expected that Krahn would be picked until well into the first round, if at all. An outstanding performance at the 2000 edition of the Top Prospects game in Toronto changed all that. Krahn ended up being taken ninth overall by his hometown Calgary Flames. A surprise to some but to others not surprising at all considering his play with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen and most notably, his play in the Top Prospects game.

Being candid though, it is thought that at this stage of the game NHL scouts have pretty well made up their mind on a player and his abilities, where he fits in the rankings and at what stage of development that player is at. So on the flip side if a player has a bad game or isn’t particularly noticeable at the Top Prospects game, it isn’t going to necessarily damage his draft rankings, but then again it might, being such a highly publicized game. For seventeen year old netminder Dan Blackburn of the Kootenay ICE the opposite is in effect. Unlike Krahn, after last season’s phenomenal rookie campaign in which Blackburn carried the ICE to their first ever WHL title, an appearance in the Memorial Cup, WHL and CHL rookie of the year honors and the first ever sixteen year old rookie to be named WHL Playoff MVP, expectations for Blackburn’s draft year were high. Ranked as high as fourth overall by Central Scouting, Blackburn’s season has had it’s definite ups and downs. Battling through most of the middle of the season with a nagging groin injury and struggling to regain the form of last season, the Canmore, Alta. native has slipped in the rankings of late. For Blackburn, a Top Prospects game like Krahn had last year could vault him right back to the top. A mediocre game could have scouts confirming Blackburn’s slide in the rankings.

The game also has the opportunity to unearth and expose potential unknowns to the spotlight. Case in point, Brandon Wheat Kings right winger Jordan Tootoo. Listed at 5’9″ 182lbs. The Rankin Inlet, Nunavet native has the chance to show a national audience that once again size in today’s game doesn’t always matter. Winning both the fastest skater and hardest shot competitions of the skills portion of the Top Prospects showcase, by making an impact in the Top Prospects game the Pit Bull of a player can greatly improve on his 96th overall mid season ranking and convince scouts and NHL G.M.’s that lack of size doesn’t always cancel out heart and determination

Some may call the Prospects game a cattle call of talent and denounce its merits but as a developmental league of hockey talent for the professional leagues, the CHL has started a tradition of showcasing it’s talent not only to NHL brass and scouts but also to a national T.V. audience. The importance of that one game, be it from an aspiring player or a league exposure standpoint can now not be overlooked. They say that one game cannot make a difference, but on a stage this big it will definitely make an impact.