Brian Gionta was drafted 82nd overall in 1998. Nathan Gerbe lasted until the 142nd selection in 2005. Martin St-Louis wasn’t drafted at all. Rocco Grimaldi isn’t bigger than any of those NHLers, but his impressive play this season means he’s bound to hear his name called during the first round at the draft.
The 5-foot-6, 161-pound center for Team USA was the star attraction for the national team development program this season. In 50 games, the pint-sized producer threw up 34 goals and 62 points, including 13 markers on the power play and five game-winners, leading his team in each of those categories.
“In terms of offensive scoring opportunities and being a catalyst, he was a guy we could count on every night for a big goal,” said NTDP coach Ron Rolston. “He’s got dynamic speed and quickness. When he gets out of the blocks, he can be gone on you.”
This year, there’s a host of small players vying for attention at the 2011 draft, but Grimaldi is way ahead of the pack. One of the separating elements is the Team USA pivot isn’t afraid to mix it up along the boards and has a lot of strength in his compact frame. That has served him well in both the United States League and when the NTDP has played college teams, where players are often several years older and much bigger than the under-18s from Ann Arbor, Mich.
And while comparisons to other diminutive NHLers are inevitable, Grimaldi doesn’t see himself in that mold.
“I don’t want to be a carbon copy of someone,” he said. “I try to look at elements from different players: Sidney Crosby’s all-around game, Pavel Datsyuk’s hands and the leadership and defensive level of Ryan Kesler and Mike Richards.”
Growing up in Anaheim, Grimaldi came up through the California Wave program, which helped the state leap onto hockey’s grassroots map.
“It was good when we were younger,” Grimaldi said. “It was the age group one up from me that got it going and I was able to play up with them sometimes.”
That crew included 2010 first-rounders Beau Bennett and Emerson Etem, plus second-rounder Jason Zucker. But at age 12, Grimaldi moved to Michigan to play for an even more famous program, Detroit’s Little Caesar’s. That organization is owned by Red Wings head honcho Mike Illitch, which probably didn’t hurt the Californian’s decision to fly east.
“I’ve been a Red Wings fan all my life,” Grimaldi said. “I just love watching them; I love how they play puck possession.”
Another thing Grimaldi and his favorite NHL team have in common is professionalism.
“He’s very determined, very focused,” Rolston said. “Whether it’s in practice or weight training, he conducts himself like a pro.”
The coach noted his star pivot has been vocal this season, coming out of his shell more so than during his first year in the program. But Grimaldi’s enduring trait remains his workmanlike attitude and his low-key manner means he’s more likely to spend a night in than out when Team USA travels internationally.
The last sojourn ended as many have for the national team, with a gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship in Germany. Team USA bested Canada in the semifinal (after losing to the Canucks in a pre-tournament exhibition game) and that’s when Grimaldi’s height became a hot topic.
“The Canadians tried to chirp me,” he said. “I thought that was pretty funny.”
But that’s been Grimaldi’s story his whole life: proving to scouts and doubters that his big game is not restricted by his small frame.
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