The reality of the junior hockey system is that, fairly or not, some teams have it easier than others when it comes to attracting talent.
For the most part, save for Lindrosian dramatics, NHL players sign with the team that drafts them. Such is not always the case in junior hockey, where young players frequently use the leverage available to them to line their talents up with a team of their choosing.
I can understand both sides of the debate. While I do think that it is an absolute honor for a player to be so wanted by a major junior team that they commit a high draft choice to said player, and do truly believe that honor should be repaid with the player’s commitment whenever possible, there are a great number of variables that must be considered when dealing with players as young as 14 years of age.
Take Nathan MacKinnon for example. The Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native was following hometown hero Sidney Crosby’s career path to a T, establishing himself as a promising prospect in eastern Canada before moving stateside to Shattuck-St. Mary’s to refine his game until his QMJHL draft day.
But where Crosby left home to become a hero in the small, Francophone community of Rimouski, MacKinnon shunned a similar city just across the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Baie-Comeau Drakkar selected MacKinnon first overall in the 2011 QMJHL Draft despite concerns about whether or not he would report, and when it became certain that he would not play for the team, his rights were dealt to the Halifax Mooseheads, who had long coveted the local talent. He has become vilified in Baie-Comeau, where many fans will likely never forget what they consider to be a slap in the face from a talent whose star power could have helped the team rise to prominence.
What does MacKinnon rejecting the Drakkar say about him, both as a person and a player? Absolutely nothing except conjecture. To definitively say anything negative or positive about him based on that situation alone oversimplifies his decision, which is one many young hockey players and their families struggle with every year.
I will candidly say that when I first heard about his refusal to report, I considered it a classless move. However, I have come to realize that because the consistently high operational standards of professional hockey (relative to junior, at least) are sometimes absent from the game’s amateur counterpart, the decision for young players is not so simple.
I want to note here that this is not meant to be a championing of Halifax or a knock on Baie-Comeau but rather a look at the Canadian Hockey League as a whole.
Take London of the OHL for example. Their arena, Budweiser Gardens, is essentially a miniature NHL venue, seating 9,100 and complete with pro-style locker rooms and training facilities. The Knights have consistently developed top talent, to the tune of five first overall picks (the most of any team in the world) and nine total first round selections since the turn of the millennium. From top to bottom, London is an upper echelon CHL organization in the modern era, alongside other big market junior teams like Kitchener, Windsor, and Quebec, amongst others. In the WHL, Edmonton and Calgary play in the same NHL arenas as the local big league teams and afford their players many of the same amenities.
Imagine you’re a 14- or 15-year-old already on the radar of NHL scouts. You know that the few years you play in junior hockey will go a long way towards preparing you for future professional success. If you had the choice of playing thousands of miles from home in an arena in dire need of renovations to the locker room and training facilities for a team that struggles to draw 1,000 fans on some nights living with billets in a city where people may or may not speak your language, or a franchise with none of those issues that has proven itself as a capable feeder to higher levels of hockey, what would you choose?
When I put it that way, it seems like I am trying to say the decision is straightforward, but that also implies that there is a decision to be made. Should the player even have a choice? Does he deserve one? Should players just play where they are drafted, regardless of the team? I tend to think so for the NHL, but I am not so sure when it comes to junior anymore.
Factor in the sometimes strong opinions of family and advisors, along with any other voices that a young man respects, and maybe a player that age who ostensibly makes a decision about his future is not really making a choice of his own at all. Anyone who has been to enough youth hockey games knows how forceful some parents can be.
In those cases, should a player be faulted for not being more adamant about his own desires? Even if a player musters the courage to do so, can he really make a sound decision about what is best for his future? Every player matures differently, both on the ice and mentally. For every Connor McDavid of the world who can handle the rigors of the OHL at 15 years old, there are substantially more who are petrified by the idea of leaving their support group of friends and family behind to pursue an uncertain dream. Will throwing those baby birds out of the nest toughen them up or break them? If that process would break them, are they just not cut out for a career in hockey? Every player is so unique that it is impossible to say.
Most 14- and 15-year-olds are busy with high school. Maybe they are already considering where they will go to university. They have options, and certain universities are better than others. Is that really so different? It is ironic to me that many who would never think to fault a student for aspiring to receive the best education possible in the most advanced facilities would vilify a young hockey player for doing the exact same thing.
On a less serious note, here are some brief reports on a selection of OHL players from the Barrie Colts, London Knights, Kingston Frontenacs, Soo Greyhounds, Erie Otters, and Kitchener Rangers. As always please keep that in mind that these are only brief snapshots from one- or two-game viewings.
Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie Colts (OHL) [2014 eligible)
Ekblad is a presence. He possesses the size (6’4”, 213) and skill combination ideal in a number one defenseman. Long stick is a major attribute. He used it intelligently in all three zones, particularly in holding the line and in 1-on-1 situations. His poke-check ability in particular was excellent but he relied on it too much, letting numerous players get by him on the rush without challenging them physically. He showed a tendency to reach for the puck instead of closing the gap to play the body. Part of his tentativeness may have had to do with his backwards skating, which was awkward against speed, putting his timing and gap control off. Moving forward, he showed a long, powerful stride and the confidence to carry the puck, but his decision making with the biscuit was a little rushed overall. His hands are not the quickest but he used his reach well to evade forecheckers, enabling him to go end-to-end a few times. Great shot from the point, gets a lot of torque from his stick. Overall I would have liked to see more of a killer instinct and a little more agility in all aspects of his game. It is possible that he has peaked physically, or is at least close to doing so, which means he will really need to work on consistently improving as the players around him continue to get bigger and stronger. If he continues to grow, he might lose more of his speed and his skating could become an issue. Obviously he has a lot of development time left, so I am not weighing his play as a 16-year-old too heavily.
Max Domi, C, London Knights (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Obviously there’s the name association, but the only attribute the younger Domi seems to have inherited from his father is his tenacity. That is not a knock on either player. Max is intense and hardworking. He demanded the puck on almost every shift and showed no qualms in taking the puck to the net with reckless abandon despite his moderate stature. Showed the ability to lead a rush and an affinity for being the creative force behind an attack. His hands in tight were outstanding and he did great work along the boards and behind the net. Very strong on his edges and showed the ability to bounce off some checks, but had a tendency to challenge opponents physically regardless of their size with and without the puck which led to him getting knocked clean off his feet a few times. More evasiveness would make him more effective at maintaining possession and save him from future injury. His straight line skating was choppy and inefficient. He could get up to a good speed, but it took him a lot of effort to do so. Had some shifts were he was great defensively and others where his positioning was off but showed a consistently good effort. I look forward to watching him again soon for a better idea of whether or not his skating will hamper him as a professional. The skill, sense, and work ethic are there.
Bo Horvat, LW/C, London Knights (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Horvat is not an elite talent but he played such a strong overall game that it’s easy to imagine him having success as a pro. He did the little things very well, such as winning 50/50 board battles and checking efficiently in the neutral zone. Was very shifty around the net and in tight, flashing great hands and quick stops/starts. Good skater with an efficient stride, got to speed quickly and backchecked hard. Carried the puck with confidence. Showed good puck protection skills and the willingness to take the puck to the net. Does not project as a star but I could not really find any glaring weaknesses to his play.
Remi Elie, LW, London Knights (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Elie is skating in a fairly limited role for London, but I was impressed with his tempo and physicality. In his best shift of the night he threw four consecutive hits, and then drew a retaliatory penalty when he kept on his gloves and took a punch in the scrum that ensued. Was a menace on the forecheck with his speed and checking ability. Great energy player. Rarely carried the puck but flashed some skill when he did. I think he is a candidate to break out offensively and establish himself as a quality three-zone talent at some point if given the opportunity.
Ryan Kujawinski, C, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Kujawinski is a coach’s dream. More than capable at both ends of the ice, he played a fundamentally sound, responsible game. Backchecked hard to help his defense and did good work along the boards and in coverage in front of his net. Did not leave his zone until the puck was out unless he was the guy carrying the mail. Skated well for his size and was hard to knock off the puck through the neutral zone and along the boards. Was not afraid to play the body or take a hit, spun off contact well. Went hard to the net with and without the puck and unlike many young players who skate past the cage, he stopped in front and parked there to provide a distraction or tip opportunity. Worked well on the power-play, dishing well-placed, receivable passes and cycling with confident puck protection work. Good shot with a quick release. Main knocks are that he took a few shifts off and had some trouble with neutral zone coverage. Not elite at anything but great at a lot of things. Reminded me a lot of Martin Hanzal.
Roland McKeown, D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) [2014 eligible]
I really like this player. Was drafted 2nd overall in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection after Connor McDavid and he has already established himself as a key cog for the Frontenacs. Played big minutes including penalty kill and power-play time. His skating was outstanding. Very agile with quick starts/stops, good gap control and poise against the rush. Was smart about when to jump up and join the attack and got back into position quickly. Defensive coverage was good for the most part, had some trouble keeping track of his man in some more complicated cycle situations. Was good about getting his stick and body in passing lanes and was aggressive along the boards and in front. Some risk to his passing across the middle in his own zone and with the man advantage. When his team fell behind, he started trying to do too much on his own. Good size, great tools, and great two-way sense overall. Borderline rover, will spend much of his time in the OHL learning to simplify. It is early but I would peg him as a first round talent.
Darnell Nurse, D, Soo Greyhounds (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Nurse is a raw talent with a lot of upside. He’s tall and strong but still fairly skinny. Drew the ire of the hometown fans with his chippy play. Perilously tightropes the line between nasty and dirty in front of his net and along the boards in his own zone, like when he tackled a player into his goaltender and crosschecked another headfirst into the boards. Definitely difficult to play against. Somehow he escaped the night with only one penalty, I counted four occasions where he could have received one. Positioning was good overall but he did get lost a few times. Worst lapse was a giveaway on the PK that led to a goal. Good defending one-on-one and steps up well to play the body when given the opportunity. Offensive game is still a little rough around the edges but he flashed good skill. Showed a hard slapshot that he liked to one-time off the draw and a good low wrister for rebounds. Had a few great pinches to jump into the attack, one of which led to him scoring the game-tying goal from the slot. Made a couple great stretch passes and played the point well on the power-play. Puck-rushing ability was a little awkward, he was mostly unsuccessful carrying the biscuit up ice. Rare to see a player with such good two-way ability and a physical edge. Discipline, discipline, discipline. Can he maintain his aggressiveness if he tones down the cheap stuff?
Sergei Tolchinsky, RW, Soo Greyhounds (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Really exciting player. This kid is slick. Listed at a slight 5’7, 160. He looks it. Got absolutely leveled on multiple occasions but showed great determination to pop back up. Fought through a lot of checks where I thought he’d get outmuscled and showed the ability to make smart plays while engaged physically. Great offensive awareness overall. Was a menace along the boards with lightning quick hands and very creative decision making. Was not afraid to go to the corners or take the puck to the net. Was tough to check on the rush as he got to speed quickly and evaded contact well at full flight. Showed fantastic playmaking ability with some impressive dangles and good awareness of his teammates in outnumbered attack situations. Pass arsenal included well-placed drop passes and saucers into space for his teammates to skate onto. Flashed a great wrist shot with a quick release. Forechecked aggressively with good positioning. Backchecked hard, read the play well and utilized his stick to pickpocket or intercept passes when possible. Size is the major question mark but he showed the shiftiness, work ethic, and skill necessary to succeed as undersized player.
Stephen Harper, LW, Erie Otters (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Saw two very different games from Harper. The first night, he was a high energy force in the mold of Dustin Brown. Forechecked hard and played the body with frequency in all zones, doing damage with hard hits. Skated well and played with a lot of intensity. Showed skills as a triggerman in the offensive zone with a quick slapshot. Liked to set up in the slot on the power-play. Did great work along the boards in all three zones and showed fantastic determination to win battles where he had no right to be coming out with the puck. The second night, he didn’t have the same energy. Was lost in coverage and slow getting to pucks. Flashed good hands on a filthy toe drag move and scored a goal off a power-play one-timer. But, aside from a few select shifts, he was uninvolved. Interested to see which player shows up next time I see Erie play.
Justin Bailey, RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL) [2013 eligible]
Bailey is an interesting prospect. He’s strong with a good frame but looks very thin. Very awkward stride. Gets from A to B but it’s not pretty. Showed great hands and offensive awareness. Specifically he was very good at carrying the puck in the neutral zone and creating space for himself and teammates. Protected the puck well. Flashed a quick wrister and a good backhand shot. Arsenal of dangles made him dangerous in outnumbered or one-on-one situations. Poised on the rush. Reminded me of Wayne Simmonds for a lot of reasons, minus the physicality. A project for sure, but a breakout candidate. He’s playing behind a lot of quality offensive players in Kitchener so he may have to wait a bit for his chance.
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 eligible primarily for the 2013 NHL Draft. Follow Josh on Twitter via @jdeitell.