Practice has been over for a half an hour, and the dressing room is largely empty. Most of the New York Islanders have already showered and changed into their civvies, strictly adhering to the NHL off-day dress code of sweat pants and backward ball caps. Some are already on their way out of the rink. A lot of them take the Long Island Rail Road home from the team’s practice facility in Syosset, N.Y., and it’s on a schedule. Welcome to the real world, fellas.
As the dressing room empties, Kyle Okposo remains slumped in his stall, still in full equipment, save for the Islanders cap replacing his helmet. His legs are splayed, his fingers intertwined as they rest on his chest. He’s in no rush to move along. In fact, he looks as though he’s getting ready to go out and take another twirl. Perhaps it’s because he has a two-year-old and a newborn at home and realizes the chaos that awaits him. Or it could be that this is where he feels most comfortable. He speaks easily and relaxed, not the least bit ill at ease or scripted. Finally, a member of the training staff stands in front of him with the bin full of practice sweaters, hoping he’ll take the hint. “Oh, sorry,” Okposo says, peeling off his sweater. “I’m kind of in La-La Land here.”
Surely, the Matthews residence in Scottsdale, Arizona is a lovely abode. But when Auston Matthews was growing up, he tended not to stay within its walls for very long, even through the Xbox era. That’s because there were always sports to play outdoors. The neighborhood was full of kids up for games of football, soccer and basketball, while organized hockey and baseball went year-round thanks to summer hockey all-star tournaments and Arizona’s perfect ballpark climate.
Auston’s father, Brian, must shoulder some of the blame for this as well, however. A college pitcher who went on to play semi-pro, he loved to challenge his son in the batter’s box. And the right-handed Brian had more than just fastballs in his arsenal against the left-batting Auston. Brian hurled sinkers and filthy stuff fathers don’t typically give sons. “I was throwing everything at him, mixing it up,” Brian said. “He never knew what was coming. But his hand-eye co-ordination was uncanny.”
Auston was a catcher and a hard-hitting one at that. Coaches told him there was more money to be made on the diamond than the ice rink, but the Arizona Kid wasn’t having it. When time constraints forced him to choose between sports at 13, baseball lost out handily. “Auston was a better baseball player than he was a hockey player, but the game wasn’t fast enough for him,” said his mom, Ema. “He needed motion.”
We’re only as good as our scouts. In the pages of THN’s Draft Preview, we break down every nugget of relevant info we can find on prospects, from their amateur stats to their bodily measurements, but nothing matters more than our scouting reports.
Scouting is a grind. The NHL’s bird dogs freeze their toes in rinks all over the northern hemisphere studying kids to learn their strengths and weaknesses. But it’s also a passion and an art form. What are the secrets of the trade? What are the most important things to seek in a draft-hopeful kid? And what are the red flags? Is the travel as horrible as it’s rumored to be? We assembled a panel of experts with decades of experience in the business to find out.
When it comes to the NHL draft, there has never been a better year for Finland than 2002, when Kari Lehtonen went second overall to the Atlanta Thrashers and Joni Pitkanen was taken at No. 4 by the Philadelphia Flyers.
Until this year, that is. The Tiny Country That Could™ has never had a No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and it won’t this year, either, but there’s an excellent chance it will have the No. 2 and 3 picks in Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi. Or is that Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine? They’re different players, but there’s almost nothing to choose between them when it comes to projecting them as NHL players. “You’re really splitting hairs here,” one scout said. “Scouts just keep going back and forth on them because it’s so close.”
As was the case in 2002, it was good times for young players in Finland. At that time, the Finns were in the middle of a four-year run in which they won a silver and three bronze medals in the World Junior Championship. This year, the Finns won gold for the second time in three years, taking the latter one in large part because of the efforts of Laine and Puljujarvi. Both were named to the all-tournament team, but Puljujarvi took home MVP and top-forward honors with five goals and 17 points in seven games to win the tournament scoring title. Laine finished third with seven goals and 13 points.
Here’s how they stack up in the key areas:
Even the man who discovered Pavel Datsyuk has no idea where ‘The Magic Man’ was playing during the 1995-96 season. That’s because Hakan Andersson never even laid eyes on Datsyuk until two years after that.
If you’re ever looking for more proof that drafting young athletes is the most inexact science in the world, consider Datsyuk. Then look at the 1996 NHL draft. It’s generally regarded as one of the weakest ever. To be sure, it has its share of first-round clunkers. But its status would have been enhanced had people thought to scout a skinny 18-year-old kid in Yekaterinburg, a city on the border of Asia where Czar Nicholas II and his family were slaughtered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Editor’s Note: Former NHLer Tom Lysiak passed away on Monday following a battle with leukemia. He was 63. Former THN Atlanta Thrashers correspondent John Manasso profiled Lysiak during his battle for a feature in the Dream Teams special issue released in September 2015. Here is the feature in its entirety.
BY JOHN MANASSO
Tommy Lysiak was recovering from a bone marrow transplant earlier this year when a nurse at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital made a suggestion. She wanted him to walk two miles a day to aid in his recovery after undergoing leukemia treatment. Part of her pitch was it shouldn’t be that hard for Lysiak since he used to be an athlete.
Lysiak, the Atlanta Flame and Chicago Blackhawk forward who finished second in Calder Trophy voting in 1974, took exception. “No, you’re mistaking me for an athlete – I played hockey,” Lysiak told her. “I wasn’t really an athlete. I didn’t work out. I didn’t go to camp in shape. Camp was meant to get into shape.”
Ben Prentiss sees it all the time. Parents come in to his Connecticut gym and expect him to put their child on a path to becoming Jonathan Quick, Max Pacioretty, Kevin Shattenkirk or any of the other NHL stars he trains during the off-season. What they don’t know is that comparatively little training for his high-profile clients involves hockey. In the summer, his guys don’t even hit the ice until late July or early August.
Hockey may be a year-round job for NHL players, but it shouldn’t be for kids. It actually hurts their development in two ways: it decreases their overall athleticism, and it increases the likelihood of typical hockey injuries like torn labrums, hip impingements and groin problems. “That’s a big, big, big problem now,” Prentiss said. “These kids, who are 12 to 15, they’re playing 70 games a year…All they do is play hockey. They don’t get their feet out of skates, they play too many games and they develop an overuse injury.”
Before Mikko Rantanen even got drafted, before he knew which players he would be competing against for a job, he maintained that his goal for 2015-16 was to play in the NHL. And after the powerful right winger was taken 10th overall by the Colorado Avalanche, he did just that – for a handful of games, at least.
Rantanen, the brightest prospect in Colorado’s system and Future Watch’s No. 5 prospect overall, made the Avalanche out of camp and played the first six games of the season. The strapping young Finn didn’t register a point and never eclipsed 11 minutes of ice time in any given game, but it’s tough to consider his assignment to the AHL as a disappointment, especially given how Rantanen has performed ever since. “It was an experience for him to dip his toe in the water,” said David Oliver, Colorado’s director of player development. “With ice time comes confidence, and for his development curve we wanted to get him to the AHL to play those big minutes.”