Scout’s Perch: Thompson, Santini play out a tale of two games

By Josh Deitell

Keaton Thompson - U.S. NTDP U-18

Photo: U.S. NTDP defenseman Keaton Thompson, shown here competing at the All-American Prospects Game last month, is a potential first round pick for the 2013 NHL Draft (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

What a difference a day can make.

I had the fortune of taking in the U.S. NTDP U-18 team’s first two games against college teams for this 2012-13 season, facing off against the University of Wisconsin and the University of Notre Dame back-to-back on the nights of October 6th and 7th.

Steve Santini, a two-way defenseman for the U.S. NTDP U-18 team, was downright scary to watch. Scary intimidating when he connected with a few monster hits that left a mark on men up to five years his elder. Scarier still when he missed, leaving his teammates to contend with outnumbered attacks while he struggled to rejoin the play.

I came away from the Wisconsin game thinking of Santini as a loose cannon. The most accurate projection I could come up with was Garnet Exelby.

Keaton Thompson, another two-way blueliner for the squad, absolutely blew me away. Looking back at my notes from the game, there are certain adjectives that I wrote repeatedly in describing him: Poised. Intelligent. Cerebral. Safe. Smooth.

Thompson was the only NTDP player who impressed me on every shift. His footwork and reactions were outstanding. He looked mechanical in the best possible way, on autopilot and a step ahead of everyone else.

In the face of an aggressive Badgers checking, Thompson was calm beyond his years with perfect outlet passes, puck-rushing ability, and fantastic decision-making at the offensive blueline. I found myself looking for flaws on every shift and coming up empty-handed.

The next evening at Notre Dame, something changed.

The notes associated with Thompson’s night: Frazzled. Exposed. Poor decisions. Fighting the puck. Giveaway. Poor decisions. Giveaway. Poor decisions.

Thompson’s perfect passes off and around the boards in the defensive zone became failed clearances and turnovers. His sound positioning against outnumbered attacks became overly aggressive and ineffective. He was constantly being pushed off the puck along the boards and had trouble keeping track of his man off the rush and defending the cycle. Imagine Jay Bouwmeester on a really bad night. All the tools in the world, beyond frustrating in execution.

On one instance, he went to play a puck that was being rimmed around the defensive boards and tried a quick outlet pass through the high slot that went directly to a Notre Dame stick, leading to a golden scoring opportunity. It was difficult to watch. One of the scouts standing behind me groaned. “No, no, no,” he chastised. “Can’t do that.”

I looked over my notes from the Wisconsin game where I wrote the words “Lidström, Jr.” next to his name and wondered how a player’s entire game could change so drastically in 24 hours. Is it possible that the Wisconsin game was the best game Thompson has ever played? Was the Notre Dame game the worst? Where on his spectrum of ability do those two appearances fall?

The biggest irony? The NTDP’s best defenseman on the night was Santini.

I watched in awe as he passed up opportunities to run a guy through the boards in favor of the safe play, not once taking himself out of the play to make contact. His checking along the boards and in front was fantastic, playing a mean and gritty game without over-committing himself.

Best of all, the offensive game he showed flashes of against Wisconsin really came to the fore.  He showed the ability to lead a rush, outlet the puck, and work well with a power-play. The name Zach Bogosian floated through my head.

The only conclusion that I can really make about either player is that I really need to see them play a few more times.

I’ve always firmly believed that a one-game sample, while informative, is much too limited. Now I believe that about a two-game sample, and I’m sure the number will continue to grow.

Quick notes on some players from the games who are eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft:

JT Compher, C, NTDP
Tyler Motte, LW, NTDP
Hudson Fasching, RW, NTDP

These three were being rolled as the NTDP’s top line and played most of their even strength minutes together in the two contests. They had a hard time creating scoring chances or sustaining offensive pressure until the third period of the Notre Dame game, when they started to impress individually and as a unit.

Compher is a dependable two-way forward. Though he had his struggles offensively, he showed good effort on the back-check, great wheels, and some willingness to play the body. He flashed some nifty hands and a good wrist shot.

Motte showed great wheels, but that was the only glowing positive for me. He was overly aggressive in coverage and had some issues with positioning.

Fasching tried to play a power game, but had some trouble imposing himself. It will take some time for him to adjust to college competition, as he was getting pushed off the puck in situations where I’m sure he’s used to being the stronger man. With added strength and improved skating, I can imagine him being a force.

Will Butcher, D, NTDP

Butcher seemed to improve on every shift through the two games. He plays a well-rounded two-way game with good outlet and power-play passing, the ability to rush the puck, and surprising grit along the boards. Against Notre Dame he was downright nasty to play against at times.

Trevor Hamilton, D, NTDP
Clint Lewis, D, NTDP

This pairing played a relatively quiet game against Wisconsin but showed great defensive awareness and chemistry against Notre Dame. I thought they were the team’s best tandem for the latter game. Hamilton in particular played a great game at both ends of the ice. Both are very sound two-way players.

Anthony Louis, LW, NTDP

Louis showed a lot of skill, speed, and determination. He played an evasive game overall but was not a perimeter player, taking the puck to the net with intensity on numerous occasions. Great forechecker. At times he tried to do too much and did not properly utilize his linemates, limiting his effectiveness.

Ryan Fitzgerald, C, NTDP

Was impressed with Fitzgerald’s quickness and defensive play. Had some good touch with the puck. He was called up for the weekend to fill a spot due to injury and did not look out of place. He’s a quality EJHL talent and a name to remember for the draft next summer.

Shane Eiserman, LW, NTDP

Eiserman has some filling out to do but played a strong two-way game. Crashed the net and showed good puck protection skills in addition to penalty-killing and forechecking ability.

Thatcher Demko, G, NTDP

Demko held Notre Dame to one goal on 26 shots. He followed the puck well in traffic and showed good rebound control as well as athleticism and side-to-side quickness. Reactions were a little slow on one-time shots but he made the saves.

Morgan Zulinick, LW, Wisconsin

Zulinick was passed over in his first year of eligibility after an explosive 2011-12 season with Salmon Arm of the BCHL but now has a chance to showcase his talents on a bigger stage. He scored a flashy breakaway goal and showed great puck skills. Recent academic issues have seen him demoted off the team’s scoring lines for the time being, but he was skating in a second line role against the NTDP and looked the part.

Scout's Perch will be a regular feature over the course of the 2012-13 season with Josh Deitell providing his observations from the road as he scouts various players for the 2013 NHL Draft.