Sunday, February 7, 2010
Thoughts on Niagara from the Weekend
The Niagara IceDogs are in the home stretch. There are 15 games left in the 2009-10 OHL regular reason and the team currently sits 5 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Dogs are chasing the Brampton Battalion, Sudbury Wolves, and Oshawa Generals who are all 5 or 6 points ahead of them. Perhaps this team, in a rebuilding season, has deserved a slightly better fate thus far. The team plays hard and on any given night can beat any team in this league, (see their victories over London, Mississauga, Plymouth, and Kitchener this year). But they lack the top end talent to be able to string together consistent performances at both ends of the ice.
I caught the team's Thursday night game against the London Knights on t.v., however traveled to St. Catharines for their Saturday night affair against the Windsor Spitfires. This weekend was no truer example of the team's aforementioned consistency issues. On Thursday, the Dogs played outstanding defensive hockey and got under the skin of the visiting Knights, defeating them by a score of 2-1. However on Saturday, the team looked completely over matched against the Spitfires, falling 5-2 and getting out-shot 47-21.
If anything, the team's ability to occasionally play at a high level speaks volumes to the bright future this team has. As early as next season this team could compete for home ice advantage in the OHL playoffs. Young players like Freddie and Dougie Hamilton, Mark Visentin, and Ryan Strome will be a year older, stronger, and wiser. While players like Alex Friesen and Andrew Agozzino will be inching towards their final years in the league and should become more dominant offensive forces. And let's not forget the bevy of high end draft selections the Dogs have in the next few years. If anything, the fluctuation in performance by the team this year could be a good thing. After all, it's something all young teams go through. The players can identify the things they need to do night in and night out to make this team consistently competitive.
Let's take a look at some individual performances from the Dogs top end prospects this weekend.
Alex Friesen (2010, but 1991 born)
After getting past over last year, Friesen has become a much better player this season. He's still a speedy energy forward, but he's much more adept at handling the puck and as a result he's seen his offensive performance greatly increase. Friesen has become a very capable two way forward who uses his speed to forecheck hard and to generally get under the skin of the opposition. He's even added a physical element to his game this year which shows NHL scouts that this part of his game could develop more if need be. He absolutely laid out Taylor Hall on Saturday on the penalty kill. Hall came flying around the net with the puck and Friesen met him just as he passed it off. Hall sat out a few shifts and was visibly shaken up. Offensively, he had a mediocre weekend, with only an assist on the first Niagara goal on Saturday, but he brings much more to the ice than that. I think he's got a serious chance of being drafted this year in the later rounds. His progression this year bodes well for the type of offensive leaps forward we could see next year and he looks to be developing into a quality NHL checking line prospect.
Andrew Agozzino (2010, but 1991 born)
The new Dogs captain had a strong weekend. He played a solid game on Thursday against the Knights, but was held scoreless. On Saturday he scored the Dogs only 2 goals against Windsor. The first was off a nice redirect in front of the net, the second on a wrap around that caught Windsor goaltender Philip Grubauer off guard. Agozzino has played well all season and is coming off a record breaking performance at this years OHL All Star Game. I've heard a lot of fans hoping he gets drafted this season after getting passed over last year. Quite frankly, I'm just not sure it happens. As good as Agozzino has been this year, was he really any worse last year when NHL teams balked at him (much to my surprise)? Andrew Agozzino is the same player he was last year. Lots of heart, goal scoring ability, developing two way play, tenacity, but with the size and explosiveness concerns that scared away NHL teams. More than likely, Agozzino develops into a similar player as Saginaw's captain Tyler Murovich. Undersized and a solid OHL player, but a borderline NHL prospect. I'd love for him to prove me wrong though since few have earned it more.
Reggie Traccitto (Overage Free Agent)
Traccitto has been one of the most improved players in the league this season. He's emerged as the Dogs top defender and currently sits tied with London's Steve Tarasuk for goals scored from the blueline (with 15). Previously his career high in goals was 4. Traccitto's best asset is definitely his big shot from the point (who'd have guessed?). He does a great job of getting it off in traffic, especially on the one timer. While he was held goalless over the weekend, he did hit a post against Windsor off a one timer. Traccitto has also greatly improved his discipline. Previously he had a hard time controlling his emotions and was prone to taking stupid or lazy penalties in the defensive zone. He's taken great steps forward in that department and has actually turned into a very solid OHL defender. He lays it all on the line when he's on the ice, blocks shots, dives to get pucks out of the zone and does a good job in defensive zone coverage. The question remains, is Traccitto an NHL prospect? I'd say no, but I think he could easily play in the ECHL or perhaps even the AHL next season and find some success. The biggest thing that will likely hold him back is his lack of role at the next level. He's not quick or mobile enough to be a puck moving defenseman. He's not a good enough playmaker or distributor to be considered a serious offensive defenseman. And he's just not big enough to be a shut down type of guy. But you have to give props for the type of improvement he's made this year.
Freddie Hamilton (2010)
I just can't put my finger on Freddie Hamilton. He doesn't dazzle you or do anything that makes you say wow, yet we've got to consider him a serious prospect for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Often with players like Hamilton whom you say, "I don't really notice him until he puts two in the back of the net," it's a matter of having strong hockey sense. Hamilton just knows where to be on the ice, whether it be a goal scoring situation or a back checking assignment. On Thursday he scored both Niagara goals in the 2-1 victory. The first was off a rebound in front of the net which he comfortably put home. The second was off a nice wrister top shelf on a 2 on 1. On Saturday, he was much less noticeable and it's just a matter of stringing together consistent offensive performances. I think the question moving forward is, is Hamilton a winger or a center. He has the strong defensive tendencies you like to see in your center ice man and he's looked comfortable at the position before. However, I'd argue he's looked better offensively on the wing this season, simplifying the game and allowing him to go hard to the net for loose pucks. The big next step for Hamilton is increasing his strength and ability to carry the puck. I think his future lies in being a responsible two way winger who has the hands and hockey sense to be a quality goal scorer. If he can add that element of being strong with the puck and being able to carry it to the net, it'd make him an even stronger...and more obvious offensive contributor.
Ryan Strome (2011)
The big piece of the Pietrangelo trade, Strome has a lot of pressure on his shoulders going forward. In Barrie, I was always impressed with him, despite the lack of ice time he was receiving. He showed both an ability to carry the puck and elusive skating ability. But in Niagara, I've been underwhelmed with his performance with increased ice time. He was invisible all weekend and seems lost at times in the offensive zone. No reason to panic yet as he'll get every chance to improve going into next season.
Matt Petgrave (2010)
I continue to be impressed with Petgrave and I struggle to wonder why we don't hear his name more often in discussion for the 2010 NHL Draft. He's not the biggest, but he's a real battler. He played a lot against Nazem Kadri and Taylor Hall this weekend and did a pretty admirable job. Against the Knights and Kadri, he had a fantastic game and really frustrated Kadri specifically with his mirroring job. He got Kadri to take a couple of undisciplined penalties against him and generally got under his skin. Offensively he was great in that game too and brought the puck up ice very effectively. He earned an assist on the Freddie Hamilton 2 on 1 goal by starting the breakout quickly and joining the rush with Hamilton on the odd man rush. Against Windsor, he had a bit of a tougher game. He took some undisciplined penalties and had a few bad turnovers as he tried to force action up ice against a tough Windsor forecheck. Considering he's got good mobility, a high intensity level, and developing puck rushing ability, I have trouble believing Petgrave isn't receiving some form of attention from NHL scouts. He could definitely be a dark horse on draft day and looks to at least be a great find by the IceDogs as a future top 4 defenseman as they move forward.
Dougie Hamilton (2011)
Only played the game against London on Thursday, sitting out the battle against Windsor on Saturday. Played a solid game against the Knights, which has been the average for Hamilton this year. He's a serious NHL prospect moving forward with great size, improving offensive capabilities and the potential to become a physical shut down defender. He's right in there with a group of about 6 or 7 really solid defenders from the OHL in the 1993 birth group that could end up being first round picks in 2011.
Mark Visentin (2010)
The feeling seems to be that Visentin has become the top available goaltender from the OHL for this year's NHL draft. While slightly sluggish to that conception, I've come around to this belief as well. The improvement he's made this season from last is tremendous and really speaks volumes about his work ethic. Visentin is very positionally sound, finds pucks through traffic, controls his rebounds and does pretty much everything you ask a strong butterfly goaltender to do. On Thursday he was tremendous against London, keeping Niagara ahead as London pressed for a tie in the third period. I really like how he follows the play and seems able to read and predict pass and shot attempts. On Saturday, he was less effective. It seems like he was fighting the puck a bit and had a few shots squeak through his equipment. He also had trouble handling the puck and gave it away nearly every time he tried to do something with it. Marty Turco he is not, and this is something he'll need to improve upon moving forward...even if puckhandling ability in goaltenders has decreased in value since the inception of the trapezoid. Moving forward it's all about consistency for Visentin and being able to be a wall night in and night out. With his work ethic, I have no doubt he'll get there and develop into a top goaltender in this league. The really interesting thing will happen at the Under 18's, where he'll have a shot at cracking Team Canada's roster. Calvin Pickard of the WHL seems like a lock to be the starting goaltender of that team, since his team is already out of the playoff race, but Visentin could very well be his back up, or even surprisingly press him for playing time. With a strong finish to the season, Visentin could very well be a top 60 NHL Draft selection.
Anyone else with thoughts about the IceDogs and their weekend, or about the season thus far in general?