When your team is usually near the top of the standings, it’s hard to bring youngsters into the fold. It’s also hard to find blue-chip prospects when you’re drafting so low, but lately San Jose’s fortunes have begun to turn in the rookie department.
By Michael Musalem
If you didn’t already know, the Detroit Red Wings are pretty good at sniffing out elite talent at the draft. In the case of first-rounder Anthony Mantha, the Original Six franchise may have just done it again.
Selected 20th overall in 2013, Mantha was far from a household name in the hockey community until the following December, when he was chosen to represent Canada at the World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. The Longueuil, Que., native would go on to lead Canada in scoring with 11 points while being named to the tournament all-star team. And for a young unknown like Mantha, that was huge.
“It helped me a lot,” Mantha said. “It started off the year before when I had a good season. Then I came in last year and had a great first half, so when I went up the world juniors my confidence level was already way higher. From there I just kept pushing, and it went great.”
The Val-d’Or alum heads into Wings camp this September with the goal of making the team outright, and according to a May interview with The Hockey News, GM Ken Holland wants to give Mantha every opportunity to do just that.
“We’re going to give him a real chance in camp,” Holland said. “We’d be pretty stupid if we just gave him two exhibition games and then sent him to Grand Rapids.”
While the state of Wisconsin has produced numerous excellent NHLers in recent years, from Phil Kessel and Ryan Suter to Joe Pavelski, it’s a rarity to see a player drafted straight from the dairy state’s high school ranks.
Long the domain of Minnesota, high school hockey in the Midwest was turned on its head at the 2014 draft when defenseman Matt Berkovitz of the Ashwaubenon Jaguars was selected 123rd overall by Anaheim. Later on in the fifth round, three Minnesota products went in a row when Luc Snuggerud, Tyler Nanne and Miguel Fiddler heard their names called. But for once, Wisconsin high school held the bragging rights, even if Berkovitz didn’t intend on using them.
“I don’t try to hold it over anyone,” he said. “I’m just happy to be picked.”
Sounds like “Midwest nice” is alive and well in the youngster. And it’s fine that Berkovitz doesn’t want to ruffle feathers off the ice, because he’s sure to make an impact on it in the future. During the season, one NHL scout told me that the Jaguars star reminded him of Ryan Suter thanks to the way he skates without wasting motion. Like Suter before him, Berkovitz has committed to the University of Wisconsin, but first the youngster plans on suiting up in the United States League for the Chicago Steel.
Berkovitz could have joined the Steel this past season, but felt the timing wasn’t quite right.
“I don’t think I was mature enough,” he said. “I didn’t like my situation there as much as I thought I would, so I thought the Elite League in Minnesota, with Team Wisconsin, was a good league to prove myself in. I wanted to dominate there before moving on to the USHL.”
The Upper Midwest High School Elite League takes place before the regular high school season and features all-star teams from around Minnesota, Shattuck St-Mary’s prep school and a few other entries, including Team Wisconsin, where Berkovitz led his squad’s defense corps with 13 points in 21 games.
“I’m a reliable two-way defenseman who can move the puck well,” he said. “I can play solid defensively and create a lot of offense.”
Needless to day, Berkovitz wouldn’t have been waiting until the fifth round of the draft if he was a finished product – the youngster does need to get stronger, in scouts’ minds. But he does have a good 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame to build on and that skating acumen is hard to teach. Chicago missed the USHL playoffs this past season, but will return young scoring ace Robby Jackson (2015 draft) and 2014 Blackhawks pick Freddy Olofsson, a left winger originally from Sweden.
After that, he’ll head back to his home state of Wisconsin to play for a Badgers program that has churned out NHL defensemen over the years, from Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz to Ryan McDonagh and of course, Ryan Suter.
The 2015 draft has been hyped for quite some time now and the crazy thing is, the season hasn’t even started yet.
Potentially franchise-changing names lie at the top with Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin, but it’s also shaping up to be a deep draft.
Here’s a look at 10 players to watch for, but also keep in mind University of Michigan commit Zach Werenski, Chicoutimi’s Nicolas Roy and Ottawa’s Travis Konecny.
1. CONNOR MCDAVID
C, 6-0, 185 LBS, Erie (OHL), 56-28-71-99-20
Can create offense within the blink of an eye. Has been a phenom for years already.
2. JACK EICHEL
C, 6-1, 191 LBS, U.S. NTDP (USHL), 53-38-49-87-28
Big, fast and talented, the Boston University commit will keep McDavid on his toes.
3. NOAH HANIFIN
D, 6-2, 201 LBS, U.S. NTDP (USHL), 45-8-24-32-34
All-around force would be No. 1 in most draft years. Quebec or Boston College next.
4. OLIVER KYLINGTON
D, 6-0, 174 LBS, Farjestad (Swe.), 32-2-4-6-6
Incredibly fast skater was too valuable to send to under-18s. Farjestad needed him in playoffs.
5. MATT BARZAL
C, 5-11, 171 LBS, Seattle (WHL), 59-14-40-54-20
Brilliant playmaker skates well and made an impact for Canada at the under-18s.
6. PAVEL ZACHA
LW, 6-3, 201 LBS, Liberec (Cze.), 38-4-4-8-10
Incredibly, played most of the season against men. Power forward can wire the puck, too.
7. COLIN WHITE
C, 6-0, 179 LBS, U.S. NTDP (USHL), 47-33-30-63-81
Boston College commit is a complete player and leader who can really motor.
8. DYLAN STROME
C, 6-2, 178 LBS, Erie (OHL), 60-10-29-39-11
Great frame, excellent hockey IQ. He’ll produce even more once older Otters move on.
9. KYLE CONNOR
C, 6-1, 170 LBS, Youngstown (USHL), 56-31-43-74-12
Michigan commit is a preternatural scorer. Ranked second in league. Dazzled at under-18s.
10. DANIEL SPRONG
RW, 5-10, 177 LBS, Charlottetown (QMJHL), 67-30-38-68-20
Potent shot, strong on his skates and whip-smart. Sprong was a force for the Islanders.
FAVORITE FOR 2016: It’s not easy to fly under the radar when you play for Team USA’s National Team Development Program, but an early season injury had some folks missing out on Auston Matthews. Luckily, he did his best to jog their memories by putting a big stamp on 2013-14 at the world under-18s.
The Arizona native rang up seven points in seven games en route to the gold medal. Only Jack Eichel and Sonny Milano beat him among Americans. And Matthews did it from the third line.
“He’s unbelievable,” said one scout. “Smooth skating, incredibly skilled two-way guy. You notice him every time he’s on the ice.”
A late-born 1997, Matthews is one of the few major NTDPers yet to make a college commitment, making him a hot commodity coming out of his star turn in Finland.
TOP STUD IN 2017: Famous bloodlines continue to dot the prospect map and one name to watch for is big right winger Nolan Patrick of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.The nephew of former NHLer-turned-coach James Patrick, Nolan is already 6-foot-3, even though he doesn’t turn 16 until September. He was taken fourth overall in the 2013 bantam draft. He has already played 12 games (including the playoffs) for the Wheaties and prides himself on playmaking.
“I have pretty good vision out there,” he said. “I try to use that to my advantage.”
And when he needs advice, Uncle James is always available.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a phone call that wasn’t about hockey,” Nolan said.
It’s just a matter of time before the first Australian drafted by an NHL team gets a chance to play in the big league. Nathan Walker was selected 89th overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2014 draft and Friday signed a three-year entry-level contract.
“He’s probably still a couple of years away, but he’s on the right track,” said Capitals director, amateur scouting Ross Mahoney. “He’s one determined guy, I’ll tell you that. He’s had an incredible journey so far.”
Walker, 20, was born in Cardiff, Wales, and was two when his family moved to Sydney, Australia. Though hockey is a bottom rung sport in Australia, Walker became fascinated with the game at the age of six watching Hollywood movies Mystery, Alaska and The Mighty Ducks.
North American audiences haven’t seen much of Esa Lindell and if you ask the Swedes, they would have preferred not to have seen him at all this year.
Lindell, an offensive defenseman, scored thirty seconds into the gold medal game at the world juniors in Malmo, staking underdog Finland to a lead in a hotly-contested match that they would never trail.
Hard to believe one of the top defensemen taken in the 2014 draft was playing center just a couple years ago, but that’s the story with Marcus Pettersson. Taken 38th overall by Anaheim, the lanky Swede was just the seventh D-man drafted in his class, yet scouts have been swarming him all year thanks to his upside.
Minor ripples were made the other day when a Michigan news outlet reported that center Tye Felhaber was unlikely to report to the Saginaw Spirit, the Ontario League team that drafted the talented youngster 10th overall in the spring.
As I found out in talking to insiders, Felhaber didn’t just decide this; the team had quietly known for some time. But since it’s officially out there now, Felhaber becomes the third top-10 pick from the 2014 OHL draft to express reticence in joining the franchise that selected him.