Last night was the 2013 CHL Top Prospect's Game. Anyone who watches/covers/loves junior hockey has this game circled on their calendar. And for that matter, anyone who loves hockey in general should watch these games each year. ALWAYS one of the best and most entertaining games of the year.
The question is, how does the game affect the draft stock of its participants. The answer is sort of two fold. Does a bad performance cause your stock to plummet? Absolutely not. Professional scouts might see these players more times than you can count on two hands. One game isn't going to cause them to drastically alter their opinion (in a negative way). However, I do believe that a strong performance in this game CAN help a player's stock. For players who play well, it can be a "wow, this guy's so consistent and I love how he elevates his game against tough competition." Or, it can be a "wow, I didn't know that guy had that in him. I'm impressed." When evaluating the performances in these games, it's important to remember that they're playing with guys (for the most part) who they aren't familiar with. Chemistry is such a huge part of team sports. If you're not gelling with a linemate, or a defensive partner, it can have drastically negative effects on your play. It's obviously still fun to evaluate how certain individuals performed though.
Before I start breaking down the performances of OHL players, I just want to talk a bit about Seth Jones. I can honestly say that I haven't been this impressed with a draft eligible defenseman in quite some time. I think back to the times I saw Drew Doughty and Jay Bouwmeester play as juniors and I'd honestly put him on par with them...perhaps even above them. He controls the game at both ends of the ice in a way that makes him a special player. He was the best player on the ice in the game, and it wasn't even close. I do love Nathan MacKinnon, but if the NHL team who drafts first overall this year, doesn't take Jones, I think they should give their head a whack. What a truly amazing prospect.
On to some thoughts of individual performances (OHL players only).
Max Domi - London Knights
Definitely not the best game I've seen Domi play. Hopefully, those who were unimpressed by his performance do not consider that to be the norm (although I'm sure it triggers a ton of "he's overrated" chants on internet message boards). It just seemed like he was trying to do too much out there. Had a couple of bad turnovers in the offensive end, one that lead directly to a three on two rush the other way and nearly a goal for Team Cherry. There were a few bright spots, in particular a beautiful, partially blind, backhand pass to an open Bo Horvat for a wide open scoring chance in the slot. Even though Domi is an electric and explosive skater, I actually find him to be at his best when he slows the game down and takes his time in the offensive end.
Kerby Rychel - Windsor Spitfires
Offensively, it wasn't Rychel's best performance. He wasn't a huge factor in the offensive end. But, I was impressed with his increased intensity in his own end and in the neutral zone. He blocked a few shots, he won a few board battles. He even dropped the gloves with Ryan Hartman to stop him from running around hitting people. Those are the types of things he needs to do on a consistent basis in Windsor to really elevate his draft ranking. Everyone knows he can score goals, it's the intensity away from the puck (that he did show in this game IMO) that needs to be brought up to snuff.
Sean Monahan - Ottawa 67's
Not the best performance from Monahan either. He looked sluggish, and actually fairly invisible through the first two periods. Then he turned it on a bit in the third, making a few nice passes, forcing some turnovers in the offensive end. I felt like he seemed to lack chemistry with his linemates and that affected his game.
Chris Bigras - Owen Sound Attack
I thought he started off a little shaky. Couple near misplays/reads with the puck in the first period. But as the game went on, he got stronger and stronger. By the end, I thought he had one of the more impressive performances of a defenseman in the game. Team Cherry tried to put a lot of pressure on him, but he was able to skate the puck out of trouble a few times and start the breakout quickly. He also made a couple of very nice defensive plays in the third period. I'm sure he has to be proud of the fact that he got to be Seth Jones' partner for the game.
Bo Horvat - London Knights
I thought Horvat had a terrific game. He got a chance to show a wider audience why he's starting to rocket up the draft charts. He was effective in all areas of the game, from defending and winning battles in his own end, to creating offensive chances the other way. He had a couple of dynamite opportunities to get on the board, even showing off some nifty stick handling a few times. The one that really stuck out in this game, was how intelligent of a player he is in the neutral zone. He's going to rack up a ton of "takeaways" at the NHL level. He anticipates the breakout so effectively and gets his stick in there to break up passes. Those ol' school trapping New Jersey Devils' teams would have loved to have had Horvat.
Nikita Zadorov - London Knights
I thought he had a terrific game. Showed how much of a defensive beast he is. Such a hard guy to get around because he's so big and because his agility is great for a big guy. I absolutely loved the back and forth he had with Nathan MacKinnon in front of the net at one point. He hits, and he hits hard. Perfect example of that was on the 2nd goal for Team Orr. He stood up an attacker at the center line, forcing a turnover that resulted in Laurent Dauphin's goal. He does have to be careful to not go around looking for the hit though. At one point, he took himself out of the play to stand up a forward in the neutral zone and it caused a dangerous odd man rush the other way. Offensively, he was fairly quiet too. But defensively, he showed what he's made of.
Justin Bailey - Kitchener Rangers
He had a couple of good shifts, but other than that, I felt like he was a relative non factor. His bread and butter is being able to work in the slot offensively, and he just didn't get much of an opportunity to do that.
Spencer Martin - Mississauga Steelheads
He wasn't really tested all that much (with the majority of those 16 shots against him, coming from well outside), but Martin was solid none the less. He's had some trouble with controlling his rebounds this year (particularly on longer shots), but he did a good job this game of holding the puck and kicking pucks to the corners. He's a very athletic guy and he made a couple of great point blank saves, anticipating the play well and making himself as big as possible in the butterfly. I'm hoping he catches fire again in the 2nd half of the OHL season.
Jordan Subban - Belleville Bulls
Kind of a tale of two stories here. Offensively, I thought Subban was great. He was excellent and calm with the puck in his own zone, and transitioned the other way very quickly. He was also aggressive (but smart) about joining the attack and was one of the few Team Cherry defenseman able to create offensively on the night. Defensively, I thought he struggled a bit and showed why he's ranked a little bit lower down. He's just not strong enough or big enough to handle some of the larger forwards at this time. On the 2nd Team Orr goal by Laurent Dauphin, there was definite miscommunication between he and partner Eric Roy, as neither took Dauphin, allowing him to just walk into the slot and rip home a shot. Then, the 3rd Team Orr goal, he was soft on the forward entering the zone (Anthony Duclair), which allowed Duclair to get the puck to Nic Petan for a nice goal (although his partner Samuel Morin should have done a better job tying up his man too). Reminds me so much of IceDog defenseman Jesse Graham.
Zach Nastasiuk - Owen Sound Attack
Thought he (and his line of Ryan Kujawinski and Cole Cassels) had a solid game. They knew their role and played it to a tee. Zach Nasty (as Owen Sound fans affectionately call him) was a physical presence in the offensive end, and did well to force a few turnovers. He was also solid on the penalty kill. Basically what he does for the Attack on the nightly basis.
Jason Dickinson - Guelph Storm
I was disappointed with Dickinson in the game. He was pretty much a non factor. He's been playing some better hockey of late in Guelph, and had really amped up his physical consistency in the OHL. But in the Prospect's Game, he wasn't throwing his weight around and wasn't entirely involved in the play a whole lot. Definitely seen him much better.
Ryan Kujawinski - Kingston Frontenacs
Like Zach Nasty, Kujawinski was a factor physically and on the forecheck. He helped to generate some offensive chances thanks to hard work in the offensive zone. And, like Nastasiuk, he was also good on the penalty kill. Played it simple, and safe. And it worked for him. Hopefully he continues to ramp it up offensively with Kingston in the second half.
Cole Cassels - Oshawa Generals
A late add, I thought Cassels was the least effective player on his line (with Nastasiuk and Kujawinski). He had a few bad turnovers, in particular one in his own end where he blindly passed the puck up the middle, only to have it picked off and fired on net. The last couple of times I've seen him, even though I've generally been impressed, he's made some bad passes. Like the other two members of his line, he did a good job attacking in the offensive end and was responsible on the backcheck.
Stephen Harper - Erie Otters
Was really disappointed in Harper's performance. Based on my observations of him over the last two years, I've come to one conclusion. When he's playing physical and attacking hard, it translates to success offensively. It's like his offensive game receives life from laying the body. When he's not engaged physically, he's generally a non factor. That was the case in the Prospect's Game. He really wasn't noticeable, save for a lazy stick penalty (a trip in the neutral zone) during the third period. The last couple of times I'd seen him, it seemed he was turning his season around. But he totally came up flat in this affair.
Ryan Hartman - Plymouth Whalers
Hartman won the lottery and got to play with Nate MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. And he made sure that he took full advantage of it. One of the strongest performers in the game. He set the tone physically right off the bat, destroying Laurent Dauphin with a hit near the blueline. It was one of several gigantic hits he made on the night. But, he also created offense. He was right in there being disruptive on the forecheck and it seemed like every time he went after the puck along the wall, he came away with it. If there's one negative (perhaps), it's that he seemed a bit snake bitten. He was set up with a couple of tremendous scoring chances in close and just couldn't finish on them. But, hats off to Hartman for a strong performance. He's certainly been riding a high since returning from the WJC's. Look for it to continue into the second half.
Darnell Nurse - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
He was fantastic in the game. I just don't see how anyone can have this guy outside of the lottery right now. The thing I absolutely LOVE about Nurse is that he comes to play for big games. He's been tremendous at the Under 17's. At the Under 18's (both last year and this summer). And now at the Top Prospect's Game. He knows how to elevate his game when it counts. Defensively, he was fantastic. In particular, I loved how physical he was in front of the net. Because of his long reach, his aggressiveness and his skating ability, he's practically impossible to beat off the rush. Just ask Anthony Duclair who tried to take him outside in the third, and got driven off the puck and demolished into the boards. Offensively, he picked his spots well in jumping up into the rush and had a few scoring chances in the slot. I love Sean Monahan, but I'm going to be honest with you, I'm starting to become very close to putting Nurse at the top of my OHL draft list.
Anyone else watch the game and have some thoughts?