When Daniel Cleary was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 1997 NHL Draft, it was a slight disappointment for the top-projected prospect, but a tremendous high for hockey in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Cleary, a native of Carbonear, NL, played his junior hockey for the Belleville Bulls of the OHL. When he broke into the NHL in the following two years, he represented the lone Newfoundlander in the league. Now nearing retirement, Cleary, the first Newfoundlander to have his name etched into Lord Stanley’s Cup, is one of six players in the NHL from the island province better known as “The Rock”.
And there’s more on the way.
Last year, the Carolina Hurricanes selected Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward Clark Bishop in the fifth round of the draft, and this year, it’s Nathan Noel’s turn. Unlike Bishop, who has a reputation for being a strong two-way player with an edge, Noel is a dynamic, offensively-gifted center. He grew up in Newfoundland’s capital, St. John’s, before moving to Minnesota after bantam to attend the prestigious Shattuck’s St. Mary’s prep school – the alma matter of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.
“Obviously, you look up to all the NHL guys (from Newfoundland) right now,” said Noel prior to a mid-January meeting between his team, the Saint John Sea Dogs, and the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
“There’s a lot of guys there now and it’s getting better every year for Newfoundland. The level of competition is there and I don’t think we get overlooked anymore.”
As an island, there was once a belief within the province that players in Newfoundland were often slighted due to their location. True or not, it’s simply not the case right now. In his draft year, nine players from the province were selected by QMJHL teams. Noel was chosen third overall by the Sea Dogs in the 2013 QMJHL Entry Draft. After earning plenty of ice-time as a 16-year-old rookie on a bad team, he is now leading the second-place Sea Dogs in scoring with 37 points in 43 games. He’s also centering the team’s top line with Spencer Smallman and Adam Marsh.
“He’s got breakaway speed and handles the puck real well,” said Sea Dogs assistant coach, Greg Leland, before adding a caveat that all 17-year-olds are accustomed to hearing – “but his play away from the puck and defensive play has to improve.”
In his rookie season, the 6’0, 168-pound pivot recorded 39 points in 63 games, even earning ample power play time on a team that finished 19-44-5. His offensive production has been expected this season, given increased ice-time and a plethora of new wingers to play with. The Sea Dogs brought in a number of players from outside the QMJHL protected areas this season, dipping into Ontario to bring in free agents Justice Dundas and Mitchell Dempsey. Noel’s linemate, Marsh, hails from Chicago.
Despite the additional help up front, the team has placed a lot of responsibility in the hands of Noel.
“It’s a bigger jump this year and I have a bigger role on the team,” Noel commented. “Last year, you could kind of take games off, but this year, if you don’t play your best game you’ll know it in the room and the coach will let you hear about it.”
A lot of those problems come down to defensive responsibility and Noel’s ability to keep his feet moving while making smart plays in his own end. Leland recognizes it’s a process and players take time to adjust and learn the finer points of the game. He can also see the small improvements daily in Noel’s defensive-zone play, an area of his game that the Newfoundlander feels has come a long way since his time spent at Shattuck St. Mary’s. There, he was taught the nuances of defensive hockey by a pair of well-respected coaches – John LaFontaine (the brother of former NHL great, Pat) and Tom Ward, a coach who has appeared behind the bench for the United States’ World Junior team in recent years.
“They were really defensive coaches and I’m an offensive player so they really helped develop my defensive game,” Noel said.
One way in which Noel has made life easier for both himself and his teammates in their own end is with his face-off success rate. Last year, his first in the league, Noel won 49.1 per cent of the 869 face-offs he took; this year, already having taken 631 face-offs, he has a success rate of 53.2 and has been above 50 percent every month this season.
It’s an aspect of his game that he expects will only get better.
“It’s just will and a lot of technique,” he said of his developing skill. “You need to find out how to beat other players during the game. A lot goes into it; it’s not just going in head first and trying to win the draw.”
Because of his deficiencies – his diminutive stature being perhaps the biggest worry – Noel isn’t a slam-dunk first round prospect, nor is he guaranteed to go in the second round, at least at this point in the season. He will be selected, however, that’s close to a given – and more than a few teammates will likely join him, as the Sea Dogs have several players projected to go in the 2015 draft.
Defensemen Thomas Chabot and Jakub Zboril and forward Samuel Dove-McFalls are among those Sea Dogs’ players that should hear their names called at the 2015 NHL Draft. Chabot and Zboril, right now, have the best chance of being selected in the first round, and while Noel admitted the draft-eligible players look at the rankings, it carries no weight on the ice.
“The rankings can change every day and you don’t really talk about it. One day you can be first round and the next you can be third round. That’s what you have to realize and put that in the back of your mind and just play hockey. It’s not going to change the player you are.”
There are some who feel Noel is underperforming this season or not yet living up to the hype he carried coming out of Shattuck St. Mary’s, and while Leland acknowledges he could add more offensively, it’s all about staying within the structure of the team – and most importantly, being patient.
“Every coach wants their players to improve more rapidly than they do,” said the assistant coach. “We just have to be patient with them, and as long as they want to improve and are willing to put in the time and effort, they will.”
And since mid-December, tangible results of Noel’s work ethic have shown up in the box scores. After going through a stretch where he recorded just five points in 14 games, Noel has since picked up 12 points in his last 10 games, setting himself up for a strong second-half of the season. In addition, Noel also took part in the 2015 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game as a member of the winning squad, Team Orr. Noel scored a goal in that game.
“I feel more comfortable,” said Noel. “I want to finish strong and into the playoffs; every game this time of the year means more, and you just want to get better every game.”
If he continues to do so, he could significantly cut down the time he has to wait to hear his name called in Florida, at the NHL Draft.
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