Friday, January 19, 2007

Calgary Hitmen Team Update

Calgary is in the playoff hunt, but has not really solidified its spot. Thus at the trading deadline, the team looked for some help. Surprisingly to me, they obtained only D-men. I think one stay-at-home tough guy and one sniper would have been the way I would have gone, but we shall see how the addition of 2 big tough guys will work out.

Of course, Calgary is not short of talent, either up front or along the blueline. With 4 NHL draft selections (all forwards) and three hot 2007 eligibles (including 2 blueliners), at first glance one wonders why the team just has not seemed to put it all together on a consistent basis yet.

Then you look at the list of games missed by key players. Aha, there it is. It has been absences of key players that has severely hurt the team. It is nice for a team to have players go to the WJCs, and to have them flying all over in their draft year, but boy oh boy has it hurt Calgary. Then there the injuries. Center Brodie Dupont has been producing until recently (he has a nagging back problem); Fredrik Pettersson took quite a long break playing for Swededn in the World Juniors; Robin Figrin has been suffering from the symptoms of a concussion for more than a month; Karl Alzner was with the Canadian team at the WJCs and then took off for the Top Prospects Game; Alex Plante also was at the Top Prospects Game; so was Brett Sonne. What a rotten picture for the team. All that talent and it doesn't make it to the ice every night. Things should change now, as players begin to consistently be where the Hitman are playing. Then we shall see how good (or not) this team really is.

Besides that rant, I want to make just a couple of rookie mentions. Because of the 3 top prospects for this draft, a couple of other players have been playing under the radar. Defenceman Michael Stone is one of them. Stone is an excellent rookie. He can see the ice very well, and knows just where his players are. He definitely needs some work on his game (including his shot), but Stone (who is already a ranked player according to ISS) is a player to watch over the next 12 months.

Another rookie who has impressed is freshman netminder Martin Jones. With a 2.91 GAA and .883 save percentage in the 10 games he has played, he looks a little like a diamond in the very rough, but he has some real potential. Dan Spence probably has another year of junior hockey ahead of him (which unless he is traded will not give Jones much of a chance), but hopefully something can be worked out to get Jones on the ice more next season.

Finally, my choice for best player thus far on the team--Ryan White. White, the property of the Montreal Canadiens, puts up points almost every night (including tonight). With 60 points thus far (into the third period) in 47 games, White has really come into his own this season. Plus he has cut down on the unnecessary penalties. It is a possibility that he will he stick with Montreal next fall and not be back with the Hitmen, so catch him now. He is fun to watch.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Calgary Signs Leland Irving to NHL Contract

After selecting Leland Irving in the first round (26th overall) in the 2006 NHL draft last summer, the Calgary Flames announced today that they have signed the Everett Silvertips netmnder to an entry level contract. Irving is currently first in the WHL in GAA (1.57) and in Save Percentage (.937). He was the backup goaltender for Team Canada during the WJCs last month.

Top Prospects Game Review

Although the CHL has publicized it, and so has the NHL, no one really cares who won the Top Prospects Game. The question is how did the guys do individually and with the line they were playing with?

First of all, NHL Central Scouting's number 1 North American skater had the flu. Angelo Esposito played anyway and was completely ineffective. Was it a gutty thing to do, sure, but it actually might have hurt him not to sit it out, as others are attracting attention. It is a shame about Esposito, because in some scouts' eyes his stock has fallen. It was a real chance for him to shine against his peers, and he did not. Being so soon after the WJCs, where Esposito did not make the Canadian team, is not good.

One skater from each of the 3 leagues stood out last night. In the Q, it was without question, winger Ruslan Bashkirov. Bashkirov, with 2 goals and 5 shots on the night, is a twin (both he and his brother Roman are ranked for this coming NHL draft). Playing in his first season in the Q, Ruslan has 39 points in 43 games with the host city's team, the Quebec Remparts. While being in his CHL "hometown" probably really helped Ruslan's game last night, he looked like a rising star.

On his line was the controversial Akim Aliu. It is hard for me to understand why whistleblowers are held in such low esteem (you have to know me to understand why I don't get it), but it seems that Aliu is forever paying for putting an end to some of the garbage that went on in Windsor early last season. He is supposedly not liked by teammates and some teams don't want to draft him because of all that went on. But here's the thing, the joke will be on them, because this guy is the real deal. He is big, nasty, can play with and without the puck, and wants to win. With 2 assists last night, the OHL Sudbury Wolves winger was one of the best players on the ice. He should be a mid to late first rounder by the time everyone wakes up to his skills come June. I sincerely hope that he will start to be forgiven, and some team takes a chance on him. They will not be sorry.

The third skater to show excellent skills is Oscar Moller. I honestly have not understood why NHL Central Scouting has rated this WHL Chilliwack Bruins player so low thus far. Currently ranked 35th among North American skaters, that would put him somewhere at the end of the second round, early third round. But Moller is a late first round/ early second round calibre player. On a first year, very poor WHL team, Moller (37 points in 44 games, -4 plus/minus) on one of the worst teams in the league. ISS is closer to fact in its ranking of Moller, i.e., 34th among all skaters.

Other players who will be getting more attention from scouts include on the Team "Rouge", Zach Hamill, who had one assist on the night, and looked very good on face-offs. The WHL Everett Silvertips centre is the team's leading scorer (52 points in 42 games, +6 plus/minus with 52 PIM) and alternate captain. Logan MacMillan, who played on a line with Hamill, also looked very good. With one goal, and excellent positioning and on-ice vision, the Halifax Mooseheads forward should get more attention from scouts. Way down at #92 in North America on Central Scouting's list, MacMillan is more properly ranked at # 62 overall (NA and Europe) by ISS. And finally, one of the better players on the red team was Eric Doyle. One of the more surprising WHL deadline trades had Doyle going from Everett to Swift Current. It is unfortunate when any good player goes from a top team to one that will not be really competing for the league championship, but Doyle has taken it well. Last night, the big winger had 2 assists (okay, one was nothing, it was an empty net goal), and looked very good playing alongside Bashkirov and Aliu.

On the White Team, Bryan Cameron had no points, but the OHL Belleville Bulls center sure can win face-offs. In the team's losing effort, Cameron won 11 of 14 FOs.

That is not to say that the defencemen were invisible in this contest. To the contrary, several were excellent on the ice. Jon Blum and Karl Alzner both looked good, even though their team was never really in the game. But the blueliner that looked the best was the big D-man John Negrin. Not known for his offensive prowess, Negrin had an assist last night, but more importantly, he looked formidable on the ice, in his own zone. Look for him to move up in the ratings too.

As far the netminders go, Trevor Cann, everyone's choice as top CHL goaltender this year had an absolutely horrible game. On the brighter side, Tyson Sexsmith (Vancouver Giants, 1.93 GAA, .914 sv %) showed that his WHL numbers are not a fluke. So did the OHL Plymouth Whalers' Jeremy Smith, the rookie netminder who has a 2.43 GAA and .925 save percentage. Smith gave up 1 goal and Sexsmith none in their approximately 30 minutes of play .

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Update from Top Prospects Skills Competition

Since my sources have not been available to give me any further info yet, I thought that I would reprint what has been published by the QMJHL. It is as follows:

Fans got an opportunity to see breakaways, the hardest shot contest, the most accurate shooter, as well as the CHL’s fastest skater on display. Then, the prospects played two ten-minute periods of exciting three-on-three hockey.

Keven Veilleux of Victoriaville and Keaton Ellerby of Kamloops tied for the hardest shot with blasts reaching 95.6 miles per hour. In the tie-breaker, Ellerby bested Veilleux with a shot that reached 94.2 miles per hour. Akim Aliu of the Sudbury Wolves was the swiftest skater. His lap around the ice was timed at 14.828 seconds. The most accurate player was Patrick Kane of the London Knights as he needed only five attempts to demolish the four targets. As for the breakaways, Team Burns/Bergeron bested Team Bowman/Demers 6-5 and also won the three-on-three 11-5.

Earlier today, NHL Central Scouting conducted their skill testing. Keven Veilleux of the Victoriaville Tigres registered the hardest shot, enabling him to earn the Al MacInnis hardest shot award. Bryan Cameron of the Belleville Bulls was the fastest skater therefore earning him the Bobby Orr fastest skater award, while Patrick Kane of the London Knights demonstrated the greatest agility to take home the Joe Sakic agility award.

Top Prospects Game Tonight

I have no info yet on how each player did in the skills competition either yesterday morning or last night (yesterday morning the prospects performed separately for the scouts in attendance; last night the other skills competition was open to the public). Unfortunately I have been unable to get to Quebec City and cannot report first hand. I did want to remind everyone that the game will take place tonight, be broadcast live on Rogers Sportnet (and RDS), and mention a couple of changes announced over the last 2 days.

Forty 17 and 18 year olds will take the ice tonight, and they will be divided into two teams. Extra celebrity judges were named on Monday (after great fanfare accompanied the original announcement). Now, on one bench will be Scotty Bowman, Jacques Demers, and Patrick Roy. On the other, Pat Burns, Michel Bergeron, and Benoit Groulx. It will be Roy and Grouolx that will do the actual coachinig tonight, but what a coaching combination on each side.

The CHL also announced 4 replacement players yesterday. Because of injuries Spenser Machacek has been replaced by Stefan Legein, Olivier Fortier replaced by Nick Spaling, Maxime Tanguay by David Perron, and Zack Torquato by Bryan Cameron. Again no Justin McRae (maybe yesterday, it was a matter of being able to get to Quebec City in time for the beginning of the morning skills competition).

More on the game (and any other info I can find out) tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

London Knights Team Update

London has the knack of picking great players in the OHL priority draft and then convincing them to come play with the Knights. By doing so, the team also is able to convince others to sign. Just this past year alone, the names include David Meckler, Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner, and Philip McRae. With the star studded roster, it comes as no surprise that the team is in first place in the MidWest Division. What s surprising, frankly, is that as of tonight, they are not the best team in the OHL. The Barrie Colts, who have played the same number of games as the Knights, are ahead by one point. The difference between the 2 teams is that London's roster is filled with player after player who will be outstanding at the next level. Barrie has a very talented team that is the sum of its parts. In London, it is the parts that are important. Right now, London is ranked 6th overall in the CHL Top 10 Rankings (Barrie is ranked 4th), and they have maintained that position for several weeks. The only question I have about the Knights though is whether the team can hold it together as a team when its deep in the playoffs. Sometimes it is the team with the slightly less talented staff that plays so well together that makes it all the way. We shall see.

With the Top Prospects festivities opening tonight in Quebec City, lets start this review of the players by talking about Sam Gagner and Pat Kane. Both are in Quebec City and on the mind of all the scouts that will sit in the stands. After his recent performance in the World Junior Championships, Kane has eclipsed Ganger in some folks minds, but Gagner is definitely a star prospect. The other thing to remember is that Gagner is almost a complete year younger than Kane. Because of the NHL drafting system, both are eligible in the same year, but Kane is born in November of 1988 and Gagner in August of 1989. That extra time can make a big difference, and when you evaluate potential it must be taken into account. In my mind, both are potential NHL stars, but against the tide, I still think that Gagner has the bigger upside.

What can I say about Sergei Kostitsyn? I have always thought this kid could really play and wind up at least as good a scorer as his brother. My shouts were falling on deaf ears, but now, as he has produced so prolifically this season, there are rumours that my feelings might be true. No question that he is aided by his great teammates (and when you look at his stats, many of his goals and assists have come when the game is not in question). But, he played extremely well when he had no support in the WJCs. He is a stud, and should make a great transition to professional hockey next year. In the meantime, he has really worked on his coverage in his own zone, which was suspect to say the least. We shall see how he will fare in the long run.

Two rookie forwards have to be mentioned when you are talking about the Knights. First, David Meckler, who was snatched from the US College (Yale) ranks after last season. Meckler, who is a Los Angeles Kings (5th round, 134 overall, 2006) prospect, has played 43 games this season with London, and has 22 goals and 22 assists. Although Meckler had his best month in October, and only has one goal thus far this month, he still is a big offensive threat. The second rookie has been less obviously contributing. Philip McRae, a top prospect for the 2008 draft, was also stolen away from a US program. McRae was a part of the U-17 US Development Team last season and decided to sign with London (who had drafted him in the first round of last summer's Priority Draft). McRae got off to a slow start, but he now has 5 points in the last month, and appears to have gotten comfortable with this level of play. Watch for a big increase in production as the regular season draws to a close, and for a major surge forward in the 07/08 year.

On defence, the addition of Kevin Montgomery (who left Ohio State University in early December to join the team) made the Knights an even better team on the blue line. Montgomery is just the power play quarterback that the Knights needed. Definitely an offensive blueliner, Montgomery also can get back into his own zone very well. London is a great fit for Montgomery, who did not do well in the NCAAs (17 games, 5 points, but the stats do not even begin to show the oil and water fit between Montgomery and Ohio State). The coaching staff will really work with him, and I expect that he will develop greatly over the next year. It may turn out that the Colorado Avalanche got a steal with Montgomery, who was available in the fourth round of the NHL draft (#110 overall).

Also on the blueline, Cory Syvret was sent to Guelph in exchange for Trevor Solomon, plus what is most important, 2 priority draft selections--a 4th round pick in the 2007 Priority Draft and 3rd round selection in 2008. Solomon may prove to be an asset to the team as the playoffs wear on, but it is the draft picks that are coveted.

In goal, Steve Mason is showing why he was selected by Columbus in the 3rd round of the 2006 draft (# 69 overall). After languishing behind number # 1 netminder Adam Dennis last season, Mason took over the role with authority this past September. Goaltender of the Month in November, Mason was asked to attend the Canadian WJC Selection Camp in Calgary in December and then did not really stand a chance to get selected as one of the 2 team netminders because of a concussion. He has returned to the London lineup, and Sunday had one of the best games of his career. He faced 34 shots and allowed only 1 goal against Windsor. Granted the Spitfires are one of the worst teams in the league, but Mason looked on top of his game.

Behind Mason is another excellent prospect in Stephane Cesar. Cesar came over the QMJHL this season and has responded to every time he has been called upon to play (except the 12/15 game against Windsor, oddly enough). He has been between the pipes for wins against Guelph and Saginaw, with a 2.68 GAA and .911 save percentage in 5 games. Cesar should get more chances to play over the next 2 months, but he needs more than that to develop further. Like Mason, Cesar is a 1988 birthdate, and will not get enough games in to be ready for professional play after next season absent a trade. London is probably licking its lips over what they will be able to get for Cesar in the fall.

Monday, January 15, 2007

WHL Team Updates-Brandon Wheat Kings

Good morning. I got some complaints that I am only focusing on the OHL, so here is my first WHL team update. The updates will be done alphabetically, of course.

The Brandon Wheat Kings are enjoying one of their best seasons in recent memory. Solidly in first place in the East Division, Brandon leads a very weak group of teams. It may not do as well when time comes to play teams in the other divisions of the league. Mindful of that fact, Brandon wanted to increase their power up front, and at the trade deadline last Wednesday, Brandon traded its captain, overager Teegan Moore plus a second round selection in the 2007 Bantam Draft for winger Robert Klinkhammer. Klinkhammer is also an overager, but has much more firepower than Moore. Klinkhammer had no points in his weekend debut with Brandon, but during his tenure in Portland this season, the 6'3", 212 forward had 42 points in 37 games. The addition of Klinkhammer should make Brandon much more competitive deeper into the playoffs.

Mark Derlago, a 3-year veteran of the Wheaties, was named the new captain of the team late last week. Derlago is another WHL overager having a great year. In 45 games thus far, Derlago has 49 points, a +5 plus/minus and only 24 PIM. Other Wheat Kings veterans are also having good years. Cody Burki (COL, 2nd Rd, 59 overall, 2006)is on course to have his best WHL season yet, as is Andrew Clark, who was not drafted last year, but should get a second look this spring.

Two import draft selections have contributed to the team as well. Juraj Simek (VAN, 6th Rd, 167 overall, 2006) is one of the rookie scoring leaders in the league (41 points in 35 games). While contributing to a lesser extent, Daniel Bartek (who is NHL draft eligible this summer) has exhibited some real talent and should be considered a possible mid to late round pick this summer.

Defenceman Dustin Kohn (NYI, 2nd Rd, 48 overall, 2005), who had a very disappointing season in 2005-06, seems to be back this season. With 35 points in 36 games and a +12 plus/minus, Kohn appears to have regained his form in time to begin his professional career next fall.

Also on track is goaltender Tyler Plante, who has played 34 games for the Wheaties. His 2.81 GAA and .909 save percentage is a bit deceiving, in that since the Christmas break Plante has raised his game. Allowing only 9 goals against in the last 5 games, he seems to really have benefited from the time off. Now recovering from a strep throat, which kept him out of the last 2 games this past weekend, Plante is expected back between the pipes in Wednesday's game against Moose Jaw.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Kitchener Rangers Team Update

There were 2 really big trades in the OHL this past week, and Kitchener was the recipient of one of them. The Rangers traded for the controversial dynamo Steve Downie, hoping that he will give the team the energy it needs over the next 2-3 months. Currently, the Rangers are second in the Midwest Division of the Western Conference. Only 3 points out of the lead in the OHL, Kitchener is looking for Downie to put them over the top. As Downie will almost certainly be playing in Philadelphia next season (either with the NHL or AHL team), the Rangers have rented him for the next few months and to get to the Memorial Cup. But is it worth it? There is no question that Downie will help, and that almost all of the Rangers will be back next season, But Kitchener had to give up Yves Bastien (a very good sophomore winger who has an outside chance of being drafted by an NHL team either this summer or next), plus three second round picks (2 this year and one next). In my opinion, this price was way too high. As after next season, Kitchener's skill level will decrease precipitously. The three draft selections that Kitchener gave up would certainly have helped restock the team with top notch players. In my opinion, the price was way too steep, but I do understand the temptation.

Besides the prolific Downie (who already has 2 points in 2 games with the Rangers), the team has centers Nick Spaling (eligible for the 2007 NHL draft) and Justin Azevedo (who was overlooked by NHL teams because of his short stature). Also on the team is winger Matt Halischuk, who has taken a giant leap forward in his development this year. With 51 points in 43 games, with a +5 plus/minus, Halischuk is turning NHL scouts' heads.

On defence, Yannick Weber is also on everybody's radar for this coming NHL draft. Speedy with good on-ice vision, Weber should be a mid round draft selection, and may surprise and go even higher. When you combine the skill of Weber with that of Jakub Kindl, Kitchener is scary from the blueline. With youngsters Steve Tarasuk and Robert Bortuzzo coming along well, and the toughness of Matt Pepe and Dan Gyenes, the Rangers have the best defencive corps in the OHL.

Whether it is enough under the pressure of the playoffs, and whether netminder John Murray will hold up in post-season, are questions that can't be answered yet. Murray played extremely well during the USHL playoffs last spring (which earned him a New York Rangers tryout), but the pressure of the CHL playoffs is at another level.