With 40 of the top junior players from the Canadian Hockey League venturing to Canada’s West Coast paradise, also known as Vancouver, for the 2016 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, there is a hope that this annual All-Star game of sorts will capture plenty of attention from hockey fans in British Columbia’s lower mainland.
Team Cherry faces off against Team Orr on Thursday night. For many of the players and coaches, the trip to Vancouver will present some challenges. For those acclimated to Eastern Standard Time, the three-hour time change will make for some longer days.
On Day One of the event, the players met at the Pacific Coliseum, the home rink for the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. The facility, while somewhat long-in-the-tooth, has hosted an IIHF World Junior Championship and a Memorial Cup, along with figure skating and short track speedskating events during the 2010 Winter Olympics. It was the original home of the Vancouver Canucks when the then expansion team entered the NHL prior to the 1970-71 season.
In 2005, Vancouver hosted the CHL Top Prospects Game in record fashion as 16,331 fans packed the Pacific Coliseum, which will be a tough act to follow. That game saw hometown favorite Gilbert Brule score the only hat trick ever recorded in the event’s history.
The primary motivator for the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game is to bring together the players that NHL teams want to showcase during their draft year. As such, NHL Central Scouting released its annual Midterm Rankings just prior to the festivities in Vancouver, with Matthew Tkachuk of the OHL’s London Knights topping the list of North American skaters. Julien Gauthier of the Val d’Or Foreurs is the top-ranked QMJHL player (fourth) in the rankings, while Jake Bean of the Calgary Hitmen is the top-ranked WHL skater at 13th overall. All three will be in Vancouver.
Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr addressed the rankings and upcoming draft in Vancouver where he spoke about the group eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft that will take place in Buffalo, New York.
“Well, there’s always elite players at the top end of the draft, that never changes,” Marr said. “This year, from our mid-season rankings in talking with the NHL clubs, it was real hard to find a difference from about number eight to number 28. They’re very interchangeable at this stage so the second half of the season is going to be very important.
“I think on the whole (this draft class) is considered to be a little lean as you get deeper into the draft, but this is where the teams will be able to find those diamonds in the rough, those little gems where they’ve got someone who really knows a player well will step up to bat. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of late round picks make it to the NHL one day.”
When asked about the impact of a great or poor performance at the Top Prospects Game, Marr downplayed the notion that one game will make a huge difference.
“I listened to the coaches talk to the players earlier,” Marr said. “They said this game never hurts anyone, just the fact they’ve been selected is good. But someone will make a play or be Player of the Game and just be that difference maker that will stand out and the teams will remember that. But one tournament or one event will not change the big picture when it comes to the draft.”
The players spent much of Day One with an array of off- and on-ice testing, which is very rigorous. As Marr said, it is all a part of the preparation.
“The NHL teams had asked for the testing, so there’s an on-ice and off-ice component,” he said. “They get the results and it’s just part of the information package that they have on the players.
“A lot of the time there’s surprises, you’ll think a player is a little heavy-footed off the get-go, but then you look at his scores. They’ve done this testing, they have fun with it, They’re all competitive, so they all want to beat out their buddy, beat out their linemate, they want the bragging rights.”
When asked about the modern-day prospects competing at this event compared to those of a couple decades ago, Marr noted that so much has changed, especially in how the players approach the game now.
“What jumps out at me is how well prepared these young players are these days,” Marr said. “They know more about conditioning, about nutrition. They have a clear picture of what’s ahead of them. There’s a lot more focus. They have all this exposure to the training. They’re better athletes.”
Come game time, the teams will be led by a host of former National Hockey League players.
Behind the bench for Team Cherry will be the star of Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner, Don Cherry. Joining Cherry as assistant coaches will be Brian Kilrea and Bert O’Brien, who coached together with the Ottawa 67’s; former NHL player Brian Sutter; and current Sportsnet analyst and former NHL player, Colby Armstrong.
The Team Orr coaching staff is led by Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr. Orr will be joined by former NHL goaltender Glen Hanlon, and by another Sportsnet analyst and former NHL player, Todd Warriner.
News & Notes…A total of 20 players from the OHL have been named to the rosters, while there are 12 players from the WHL and seven from the QMJHL…Eight teams have more than one player attending, led by the Mississauga Steelheads with four. The London Knights, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Windsor Spitfires and Moose Jaw Warriors will have three players each in attendance… Six players in attendance also played in the 2015 CCM/USA All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo, including Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat (Erie Otters), Logan Brown (Windsor Spitfires), Max Jones (London Knights), along with Jack Kopacka and Tim Gettinger of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds…Last year in St. Catharines, Ontario, Team Orr defeated Team Cherry, 6-0.
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