I circle a handful of dates on the hockey calendar every season. Given Buffalo’s lack of success over the last few seasons, the trade deadline, draft and UFA day are usually high on my list.
However, there were a pair of games on the 2014-15 calendar that I had circled very early on. The first was the All-American Prospects game which featured Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin gracing the First Niagara Center Ice and the second was last night’s CHL Top Prospects Game.
I’ve grown more and more interested in the draft process and prospects in general over the last five or six years and the Top Prospects game is always a big event as the season rolls along. When I found out it was going to be hosted just up the QEW in St. Catharines, I knew I’d be making the trip.
The event itself is very cool. Very cool. You’re watching a collection of 40 of the best players in junior hockey, all of whom will have their name called at some point during the NHL Draft in a small, intimate venue. The Meridian Centre itself is a gleaming 5,300 seat venue that serves as a perfect junior hockey arena. There is one concourse and only one level of seats (not counting the suites) so there isn’t a bad seat in the house. With the event drawing every amateur scout, assistant GM and general manager from around the NHL, the event also happens to be who’s who of NHL executives.
Within a five or ten minute window I bought a beer next to Bill Guerin, almost ran into Kris Draper and settled into my seat a few rows behind Don Maloney, Darcy Regier and the rest of the Coyotes contingent. Other familiar faces milling in or around my section included Donald Audette Kevin Cheveldayoff and Fred Braithwaite. While I’m not easily star struck, it really made for a surreal environment when it was all said and done.
The game itself was terrific. Team Orr rolled over Team Cherry by a score of 6-0 on the back of a line centered by Connor McDavid with Timo Meier and Travis Konecny. Konecny took home player of the game honors as he potted two goals and added an assist to the Team Orr effort. Meier had a goal and two helpers while McDavid chipped in with an assist.
McDavid wasn’t a whirling dervish of offense on the evening, but he still flashed the electric explosiveness and skill that has him locked on the top of every draft board. It took him only 30 seconds to take the puck on an end-to-end rush for a scoring chance. 30 seconds.
He had another impressive individual effort later in the game and added a nifty assist on Meier’s first period goal.
One thing I took away from the game, especially one so loaded with talent, was the difficulty of keeping track of all of the players I was looking forward to seeing. Between McDavid, Meier, Lawson Crouse, Mitchell Marner, Ivan Provorov, Dylan Strome and others all playing simultaneously made it easy to miss a strong or weak shift for certain players.
For example, I found myself watching quite a bit of Provorov throughout the evening as he demonstrated his strong skating and adept puck skills throughout the night. However, I didn’t get a chance to keep as close of an eye on Matt Spencer, Matt Carlo or even Jeremy Roy.
This was a general trend for my viewing through the night as there was always a player or two of interest on the ice at the same time.
One player I found it easy to keep an eye on was Liam Herbst who was the second goaltender in for Team Orr and was a late injury replacement for Mackenzie Blackwood. Herbst faced the lion’s share of work between the four goaltenders in the game but he managed to maintain a shutout throughout his 30 minutes of play.
Herbst demonstrated very strong, fluid and precise movement through the night and flashed a few highlight reel stops throughout. This included a lengthy third period powerplay that helped preserve the shutout for Team Orr while Team Cherry controlled the play for almost the entire two minutes.
There were a number of players who I planned to keep a keen eye on throughout the game and this is what I took away from each.
- Ivan Provorov: He was quite impressive throughout the evening. He has terrific puck skills and fits perfectly in the role of a quality, puck-moving defenseman. While he’s floating around the 10-12 neighborhood in current draft rankings, there’s a strong possibility that he’ll go inside the top-10 depending how the first few picks play out.
- Lawson Crouse: Since I hadn’t had a chance to see Crouse in person and there has been so much conversation about his draft stock, he’s probably the player I watched with the most interest. He did some things well and some things not so well. Nothing he did really struck me as outstanding and he just looked like another player out there. He plays a smart game and you can certainly tell where scouts get their infatuation with him, especially on an intangible level.
My main takeaway from Crouse is that while his size and ceiling are intoxicating, I’m not sure I can see him as a top-five talent. At least not yet. Eric and I spent quite a bit of time talking about Crouse during out impromptu podcast during the second intermission last night.
- Mitchell Marner: Marner was probably the other player I was watching with a close eye. His numbers have be eye-popping and he has been flying up draft boards almost as fast as Crouse. I felt that Marner’s first two periods were lacking for the most part and he even made a couple questionable plays in the defensive zone. But he was a game driving force in the third period, particularly on Team Cherry’s late power play. Somewhat ironically, while Crouse has question marks due to his lack of production, I have to wonder if Marner’s offensive explosion is causing fans, media and scouts alike to gloss over some of his shortcomings.
- Evgeny Svechnikov: Svechnikov didn’t do anything overly outstanding but he played a simple, effective north-south game last night. He was very involved physically and I came away impressed with his size and effectiveness in the physical game.
- Brendan Guhle: While I didn’t watch Guhle closely, he made a handful a clever defensive plays and was effective in the situations that I picked up on. He appeared to have a solid game, nothing spectacular, but solid.
- Timo Meier: Meier was good. He was very good. He’s been receiving quite a bit of praise recently and his three–point evening certainly helped to corroborate the praise he’s been receiving lately. He’s creeping up on a career PPG pace in the QMJHL and has piled up 56 points (25+31) in just 37 games this year.
I’m fairly confident that the Sabres will be working to trade their two later first round picks to move up in the round. I’d be very pleased if Meier was their target for that trade.