Scout’s Perch: NHL Draft observations from the road

By Josh Deitell

Connor McDavid - Erie Otters

Photo: Erie Otters phenom forward Connor McDavid has been one of the few bright spots for an Erie club that is in rebuilding mode (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Thoughts accumulated on a two-week trip that took me through eight states and four provinces. Lots of snow and lots of coffee.

1. Two sets of attendance numbers: 6,306, 7,128, 9,288, 12,083, 11,855; 12,453, 13,014, 13,391, 13,578, 13,605. The first are the season lows from 2011-12 for five different NHL teams; the second are the season highs for the 2012-13 Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. There are very few NHL arenas that can match the atmosphere of Colisée Pepsi, and the plans for the New Quebec City Ampitheatre look good. An NHL team in Quebec is good for hockey.

2. Speaking of the Remparts, how about their handling of Anthony Duclair [2013] and Adam Erne [2013]? The two were suspended on January 19th, a day after Quebec was routed 11-2 by Halifax, at the apparent request of a group of veterans on the team who believed the two were not falling in line. They were told they would not play on Sunday the 20th. Then, they played on Sunday the 20th. A half-day suspension seems a tad rushed for a motivational tactic, but maybe it worked. Stats aren’t everything, but in the four games before the “suspension” – Erne: one point, -6 rating; Duclair: zero points, -3 rating. In the four games since – Erne: four points, +1 rating; Duclair: one point, +3 rating. Interesting to note that both players have no-trade clauses.

3. Duclair is boom or bust in a big way. Pure offensive forward with dynamic hands and fantastic puck skills, but his overall game needs a lot of work. Think Alex Semin. Seems like the type of player a team like Detroit will try to round out.

4. Erne is near the opposite end of the spectrum: Complete, hardworking, honest. He forechecks, backchecks, and takes the body. He’s a strong skater that protects the puck well and combines those two skills to bull by defenders along the boards. The knock is offensive upside at the next level. He scores a lot on simple plays (one-timers from the slot, garbage goals from hard work, second-chance opportunities, etc). Simple tends to translate better than flash. The suspension is puzzling, he plays with a lot of heart.

5. Should Seth Jones be selected first overall in 2013, it would be the fourth notch in the belt of a U.S. National Team Development Program that has graduated first overall picks Rick DiPietro, Erik Johnson, and Patrick Kane since the turn of the millennium. Based on the way things have been going for the last few months, I would actually be surprised if Nathan MacKinnon regained the top spot.

6. On the horizon for the NTDP is Jack Eichel, who is leading the Under-17 team in scoring with 26 points in 31 games and is eligible in 2015. The Chelmsford, MA native is developing into quite a power forward, and showed outstanding poise and skill in games against top USHL clubs Dubuque and Sioux Falls over the weekend. With a combination of skill, speed, and strength, he went through and around players two, three, and four years his elder. He thinks the game on an elite level. I think Connor McDavid is the undisputed favorite for first overall in that draft class right now, but it’ll be interesting to see how the next couple years play out.

7. Some other notable young Americans to keep on eye on from the U-17 team: Jack Glover [2014], D – lanky, aggressive two-way defenseman that should be a force as he bulks up; Sonny Milano [2014], LW – shifty finesse playmaker, gifted with great hands but needs to add grit; Ryan MacInnis [2014], C – big, strong two-way center who’s still filling out (Al’s kid); Joe Wegwerth [2014], RW – massive physical forward with some upside, think Kyle Clifford.

8. Tough sledding for the Windsor Spitfires, who traded good futures for top junior defenseman Slater Koekkoek as part of an attempt to bulk up for a shot at the playoffs, only to see the Tampa Bay Lightning first round pick shut down for shoulder surgery after just two games with the team. The Spits gave up eight goals to both Sudbury and Plymouth in losses this past weekend, but still sit only six points back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and are 4-2-0-1 since adding Koekkoek, Remy Giftopoulos, and Alex Aleardi at the trade deadline. Saginaw, the eighth place club, is on the upswing with a 9-1-0-0 record in its last ten.

9. If the Spits do displace someone, it could be Sarnia, who sit sixth in the Western Conference and are 7-7-0-0 since Alex Galchenyuk left for the NHL. The Sting have had a lot of players step up this season to cover the huge hit they took up front, losing the services of Nail Yakupov, Ryan Spooner, Ludvig Rensfeldt, Brett Thompson, and a number of other top forwards before this season, but one has to wonder if the beat will go on for much longer. They’re a resilient club, that’s for sure. A lot of credit goes to Reid Boucher, who leads the OHL in goals by a fair margin with 40 in 48 games, but how about youngsters Nikolay Goldobin and Anthony DeAngelo? The two 2014-eligibles have admirably shouldered a heavy load this season and give the Sting something to build around in the coming years. Windsor and Sarnia face off for a crucial game on February 15th.

10. One team already looking forward to next season is Erie, who are in the most awkward stage of a rebuild. They have their keystone star player in Connor McDavid, but now they have to surround him with some depth. Stephen Harper [2013] looked like a legitimate prospect in the Dustin Brown mold early in the season, but his inconsistency is troubling. In two viewings lately, he completely lacked a physical presence and looked like he was just going through the motions. The Otters’ defense is an absolute mess and has been getting bailed out by Oscar Dansk all season. The Otters’ renovated arena is scheduled to be ready for the start of the 2013 season, but will the team be ready?

11. While it’s improbable that the USHL will graduate six first rounders this year as they did in 2012, it looks like it’ll be another good year for the league as far as depth is concerned. The 2013 USHL Top Prospects Game took place in Muskegon, MI on January 23rd and there was no shortage of talent on hand. Eamon McAdam [2013] stole the show. The athletic goaltender made a highlight reel save (see below) and a number of other nice stops, but I was most impressed with his communication. He was very vocal in barking out relevant orders and warnings to his teammates, which shows a lot of maturity and a good understanding of the game.

12. John Hayden [2013] was the lone NTDP player who participated and his complete game was on display with a goal, scrap, and a number of hits. He’s as safe a pick as they come. Dominates some shifts with grit and skill and even when he doesn’t have his offensive game, can still be valuable with physical play and defense. Gotta love the way his game is evolving. The only question now is, how high does he rise?

13. Northeastern recruit Jason Cotton [2013] played a nice checking game and scored a second-period marker. His stat line with Tri-City this season: 30 games played, zero goals, two assists. No better time to get off the schneid than with a crowd full of scouts watching.

14. I thought Gustav Olofsson [2013] was the best defender in attendance. The Swedish defenseman plays a prototypical new-NHL game with smooth skating, strong physical play, and some upside offensively. He’s projecting as a late second rounder at this point, which I think is good value. Even if his puck skills don’t translate, I think he’ll still be a nice pro defenseman. Has the size at 6’2” to be a two-way force.

15. Is there a more polarizing prospect in this draft class than Taylor Cammarata [2013]? You could argue that he has one of the highest offensive IQ's in the draft class, silky smooth hands, and is noticeable on every shift. Or you could argue that he’s undersized (5’7, 168), has trouble against bigger players, and doesn’t play a complete game. A player of similar stature who had success in the USHL was Johnny Gaudreau, who posted 72 points in 60 games as a 17-year-old. He wasn’t taken very seriously as a prospect until his breakout year with Boston College in 2011-12 and has converted the rest of his doubters with his 2012-13 play. Cammarata had 69 points in 60 games in 2011-12, but unlike “Johnny Hockey”, he did it as a 16-year-old. This year he’s leading the league with 57 points in 34 games. His explosiveness is hard to ignore, but it might take him a couple more years to gain legitimacy.

16. This year’s draft should be a nice bounce-back for the QMJHL after seeing just one player drafted in the first round in 2012. Six “Q” players should go in the first 30 picks, including potential first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon and teammate Jonathan Drouin, who is nipping at his heels. I can’t imagine either of them dropping out of the top three. Two of the other potential first rounders are big, high upside talents Anthony Mantha and Frédérik Gauthier, the others are the aforementioned Erne and shifty spark plug winger Valentin Zykov.

17. Gauthier was a relatively unknown entity before September. He played Midget AAA during the 2011-12 season with the aim of making the jump to the USHL in 2012-13 and Harvard University in 2013-14. As these things go, he changed his mind, and suddenly he’s a go-to forward on one of the top teams in the “Q” in Rimouski. Not often do you find 6’5”, 210-pound centers that can skate and play the whole rink. His stick is Chara-like, allowing him outstanding puck protection skills and the ability to cover a lot of ice defensively. Very raw in execution at times, but the IQ is there. What’s not to like?

18. Mantha’s also a hulk (6’4, 190 lbs.) but plays a much different style. He flashes dominance with shifts of outstanding puck control and protection but runs hot and cold with his effort. His biggest asset is his shot, based on a zesty combination of stick/body control and technique. He gets deceptive power and placement on pucks, giving his shots the kind of unpredictability that drives goalies crazy. I saw Craig Button of TSN compare him to James Neal. I think that’s an apt comparison as far as the way Mantha plays right now, but when he got mad at the end of Val d’Or’s 5-1 loss to Blainville-Boisbriand last week and absolutely trucked two players with nasty hits, I got the feeling that there’s more to give. Could be Ryane Clowe with an elite shot. Scary thought.

19. This could be the first year since 2004 that the OHL doesn’t have a player selected in the first three picks of the draft. In fact, they might not have one in the top five. They’ve not had less than eight first rounders since 2009, but even that year had Tavares and Duchene in the top three. The depth is still there but there’s no bonafide superstar talent in Ontario this year, and it could be the worst first round the league has had in a long time. I think it’s an aberration rather than an indication of any kind of major changing of the guard, as the 2014 OHL class looks very strong and they have the top prospect for 2015 in Connor McDavid.

20. Elite talent aside, the OHL is bringing five first-round caliber picks that are very safe bets to have success as professionals. Sean Monahan from the Ottawa 67's plays every inch of the ice, but he’s had a hard time showing his talent this season on a weak club, particularly now that they’ve traded away most of their top players to rebuild. Chris Bigras of Owen Sound is one of my favorite players in this draft class. Safe, steady, and skilled. Plays a very restrained game, taking care of his end first, but flashes offensive upside. I’m interested to see what happens if someone loosens the chain on him a little. Ryan Hartman from Plymouth can shoot, pass, hit, fight, and play defense. He’s one of the best draft-aged penalty killers I’ve ever seen. Kerby Rychel from Windsor plays a similar game to Hartman, without the same quickness but with more strength. Works his tail off night in night out, and the skating keeps improving. Bo Horvat from London has jumped Max Domi on a lot of lists. He’s good at everything, and this year has shown that he might end up being great at everything when it’s all said and done.

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.