The Niagara IceDogs 2008-09 season came to an end last night following the teams' 5-2 loss to Belleville in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi finals. The team fought hard throughout these playoffs, and there is no doubt in my mind that the coaching staff and management have to be happy with the effort level, considering that in my opinion, the team overachieved this season.
The core of this team is still very young, with a vast majority of them eligible for the draft this year. You have to expect that over the next couple of years, this team has a very good shot at being a very good hockey team.
Let's take a look at my final report on the team this season...
Jeremy Smith - Drafted by Nashville in 2007/54th
With the season over, and Smith already signed by Nashville, you have to think he could be headed to the AHL or ECHL sometime soon. I wish him nothing but success at the professional level, and I expect him to find it. He was absolutely sensational after coming over from Plymouth at midseason. Without him, I'm not even sure the Dogs make the playoffs, let alone advance to round 2. He was great throughout the playoffs too. Smith is just a solid technical goaltender. He comes out and plays the angles very well. He directs rebounds into the corner with ease and always seem to have control of the game. He is athletic and anticipates the play well, and has a very good glove hand. One thing that Smith does incredibly well and deserves attention, is his ability to make the saves through traffic. I think that speaks volumes of his technical ability. At the next level, professional goaltenders are to be expected to fight through screens and he does this among the best that I've seen at this level. He makes himself so large in net. The only thing I can say that Smith might need to work on, is letting the play come to him a bit more. In that, I mean that teams catch him cheating a lot. He'll really cheat for the glove save and they'll expose him down low, or vice versa. He can also get caught flopping, again as teams try to force him into cheating on the play. With Chet Pickard also graduating next year (more than likely), and Mark Dekanich already in the AHL, you have to wonder if Smith plays next season in the AHL, or the ECHL. Either way, I wish him the best. He's a solid prospect.
Mark Visentin - 2010 NHL Draft Eligible
This year was a great learning experience for Visentin. He got a lot of playing time at the start of the season before Smith's arrival. He won gold as a member of Team Ontario at the Under 17 World Hockey Challenge. And he was able to learn the ropes from a savvy veteran like Smith. When he did play, Visentin did look overmatched. He is relatively solid technically, but he wasn't able to react to the play quick enough, and he was prone to letting in some really bad goals, perhaps due to nerves ot lack of focus. But he was one of 2 92 born goaltenders in the O this year, so you have to give him some credit. I think the Dogs are going to look for big things from him next season with Smith all but gone and no one else really to take his place. I do expect Niagara to bring in a veteran, perhaps overager to help Visentin next year too.
Alex Pietrangelo - Drafted by St. Louis in 2008/4th
I think it's obvious that Petro has talent. He's an effortless skater who brings the puck up with ease. He is aggressive in attacking the offensive zone and is great at creating offense. When he returned from St. Louis, I found that he was struggling a bit defensively, perhaps maybe due to a lack of confidence with his demotion. However, after the WJC's, he came back a different player. He was a dominant force at both ends of the ice and was crucial in leading the charge into the playoffs. In the playoffs, I think it was a bit of a different story though. I actually think he struggled a bit in the playoffs. To me, it looked like he was trying to do too much. He was turning the puck over a lot, especially coming out of his own zone, as he attempted to force the breakout. Defensively, some games, he was absent. Whether that was because the team was trailing and the coaching staff told him to be aggressive, remains to be seen. But at times, I found him to be running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I think that he also showed a different side of himself in the playoffs. He was very physical, but in some not good ways as he was taking some bad penalties out of frustration. Alex Pietrangelo is a great talent and player, but I don't think he is ready for the big time, and by keeping him for those 8 games, the Blues did more harm than good to him. Next season, they are going to be faced with a tough decision. In my mind, he hasn't progressed enough to handle the NHL. He'd be much better off returning to Niagara, playing and leading an up and coming hockey team. However, it remains to be seen if that is what will happen.
Drew Schiestel - Drafted by Buffalo in 2007/59th
Schiestel is another guy who had an up and down season. He started the year off very well IMO. He was playing outstanding hockey. But when Pietrangelo returned, he definitely lost a step. I'm not sure whether that was because he was no longer in the spotlight, or for another reason. Throughout the middle part of the season and towards the end, he struggled on a lot of nights. With defensive zone coverage and with turnovers in both ends. He always has been a terrific skater, but I found him to be too reserved. He would get through everyone on the rush, enter the offensive zone, and then simply dump the puck in. Rather than carry it in and create offensively. He became too timid. However, in the playoffs, I felt like he played some of the best hockey I've ever seen him play. He was absolutely better than Pietrangelp in the playoffs, in my opinion. He played inspired hockey at both ends of the ice. He used his speed to enter the offensive zone and to lead the offensive attack, following through with his rushes and creating offense, unlike earlier in the season. He played hard defensively and played very physical, but smart physical. He really stepped it up. He's currently unsigned by the Sabres, but if they saw him play in the playoffs, they'd be crazy not to give him a contract.
Mathew Maione - 2009 NHL Draft Eligible
If this guy wasn't so injury prone, he could be quite the player for the Dogs. He's a tremendous skater from the backend. He is smart with the puck and can run the point on the powerplay. Defensively, he's solid one on one and in zone coverage. He isn't afraid to go into the corners, despite being undersized at 5'10. The guy battles hard and he has skill. At the end of the regular season, he was playing absolutely tremendous hockey. However, in the playoffs, it was pretty clear he was playing hurt, as he wasn't playing much. While I don't think he has any chance of getting drafted this year, he's a guy who could take big steps and one day earn a contract, if he can stay healthy and get some confidence.
Alex Friesen, Andrew Agozzino, Matt Sisca, and Chris DeSousa - 2009 NHL Draft Eligible
You might wonder why I chose to lump these guys together. It's not a slight at them, it just has to do with what a lot of people tell me when they watch the Dogs play. The thing I hear most is that people can't tell the difference between these four guys when they play. To an extent, I can see why. They are all undersized, they all are relatively quick and have no trouble entering the danger areas. They also all relatively skilled. However, I do think that they bring different things to the ice. Alex Friesen is probably the best skater of the bunch, and is a great forechecker. He works hard for everything he gets. If he had a slightly better skill set and slightly better hands, he would have been a point per game player this season. He did play incredibly well in the playoffs though and showed that he does have the ability to start generating offense on a more consistent basis. Andrew Agozzino was solid all season for the Dogs. He is well rounded, can skate, can score, plays both ways. He also had a very strong playoffs. I know that he's been relatively frustrated with the lack of attention he has been receiving for the draft, but to an extent I can see why. He is undersized, and he doesn't really have a standout quality. He is talented offensively, but is he talented enough to play on a scoring line. And he is a hard worker who can play both ways, but is he a good enough forechecker and mucker to play a 3rd line role. That being said, I would still be surprised if he isn't at least a late round pick. Matt Sisca might be the most skilled of any of them, but is also the smallest and the softest. I think that one day, he will be the leading scorer for the Dogs, perhaps as early as next season. However, I'm not sure I like the prospects of him getting drafted. Chris DeSousa has the best chance of the four of getting drafted in my opinion. He is undersized, but he's also the best at getting the most out of his size. He has good lower body strength and is good in working the corners. He uses his speed to his advantage and he has one heck of a shot that he gets off very quickly. On top of that, he's a quality pest who isn't afraid to drop the mitts or lower the boom with an open ice hit. If I were to rank them in order of how I think scouts view them for the draft I'd say 1) DeSousa, 2) Agozzino, 3) Friesen, 4) Sisca.
Andrew Shaw - 2009 NHL Draft Eligible
This fan favourite is a treat to watch. He works hard every shift, he forechecks incredibly hard, he isn't afraid of anyone. On top of that, I actually think he's a very skilled hockey player who just wasn't given enough ice time this year to show it. In the playoffs, when Marco Insam went down, Shaw began to see consistent shifts with the top 6, and he showed flashes of brilliance. He's a great playmaker and he has a nose for the net. I think he has some things going for him that could get him drafted. One, he's one of the youngest players eligible for the draft. Two, he's still a beanpole, so once he gets stronger, he's going to become even more effective with the type of game he likes to play. Three, he's going to see more ice time next year and should vastly improve his numbers. And four, he's a bit of an enforcer prospect who could profile as an NHL pest. I really hope someone takes a chance on this kid on draft day. I don't think they'll be disappointed in the long run.
Freddie Hamilton - 2010 NHL Draft Eligible
Hamilton was solid all year long for the Dogs. He plays both ways and you can tell that he has good hockey sense. His lack of strength really held him back from contributing more offensively this season, as well as his average skating, in particular his acceleration. With a summer to get stronger and faster, Hamilton should be ready to be a solid offensive contributor for the Dogs next season. I also see him as a future captain of the Dogs, you can tell he has the leadership capabilities in him. I think that should he progress next season, he'll be an NHL draft pick in 2010.