Things that fellow out of my notebook …
One: There was much gallows’ humour in the corners of the rink where NHL scouts were lurking this week. Not about this year’s draft class, which they regard as decent enough. No, the scouts were rolling their eyes and cursing their luck about the next big assignment on their calendars: the world under-18s.
Every spring it gives the scouts their best chance to measure the draft-eligibles, the best from the U.S. under-18 program and European national teams along with a quickly cobbled-together unit from Canada drawn from CHL teams not in the second round of the playoffs. The tournament has been in Belarus and Russia the last couple of years, neither a short hop. They’re dreading this year’s trip, a much shorter hop next month. The destination: the Atlantis of the Dakotas, Fargo. Not to make sport of the natural disaster that’s unfolding in Fargo. That’s tragic stuff. The comic stuff is that USA Hockey does not have a contingency plan in the event that Fargo is unable to host the event.
The word out of Hockey Canada’s offices is that there’s no fallback option. The event is being organized by USA Hockey and obviously those in the home office in Colorado Springs believe in the power of prayer. It’s almost as if they’re presuming that when the waters of the Red River subside it will just be business as usual … might even save them flooding the rink for the opener. It’s mind-bogglingly short-sighted. The most important tournament of the draft-eligibles’ year could end up an orphan. It should be easy enough for USA Hockey to come up with an option: Grand Forks where a successful world under-20s was staged a few years back and the base of the U.S. development program in Ann Arbor would just head a list of host cities that could rush to organize a tournament.
For now, though, USA Hockey shrugs and scouts are scrambling to make sure that their hotel reservations are for rooms on at least the second floor. In putting together the Canadian team, the coaches will be looking for the right combination of scorers and paddler.
One-A: The under-agers who are likely to get invitations to the under-18s: Kingston defenceman Eric Gudbranson and Prince George forward Brett Connolly are the likeliest bets. Forward John McFarland of Sudbury is also a good bet if the Bulls hold serve in the Eastern Conference.
Two: I was out at St Mike’s Majors’ 7-3 win over Barrie in Mississauga in Game 3 of their opening-round series this week and if I tell you that 100 NHL scouts and executives were in attendance it’s not hyperbole, just rounding down to the nearest century. It’s that time of year. It seemed like every NHL franchise was represented and scouts from respective clubs sat in clusters of three and four. At least five of the Maple Leafs’ scouts and execs made the commute.
Now if you look at NHL Central Scouting’s mid-season list you might wonder exactly why they had gathered there: Neither the Majors nor the Colts had a player in the top 10 North American skaters. Or in the top 20. The only one in the top 100 was Barrie’s Alex Hutchings at No. 48. It sure seemed like scouting overkill. Yeah, it was a chance for clubs to grab a peak at a number of their previously drafted players.
The Boston Bruins could have liked what they saw from their third-rounder from the 2008 draft Barrie goaltender Michael Hutchinson — he had almost single-handedly knocked off Brampton last spring but he had nothing against the Majors giving up three Charmin-soft goals on nine shots.
On the other hand, Colorado’s contingent had to like what St Mike’s defenceman Cameron Gaunce has to offer — a plus-four, sound play and hockey sense from the Avalanche’s 2008 second-rounder.
A couple of undrafted players with interesting backstories did interest scouts. One I’ve discussed here not long ago. William Wallén was the subject of this column. NHL Central Scouting didn’t even list Wallén among is 200+ top North American skaters but that easily explained. Back in mid-winter it didn’t look like he’d ever play another game. Wallén was on teams’ lists of players of interest at the start of the season. Same goes for Central. After the long layoff he’s looking more and more like a player-small but highly skilled and not scared. The OHL playoffs are a chance for him to show his stuff and he’s guaranteed a few more shots-the Colts avoided a four-game sweep with an overtime win in Barrie last night. Wallen was skedded to join the Swedish team at the under-18s in Fargo but unless the Majors collapse (and the flood subsides) that’s not going to happen.
A big reason that the Colts were able to extend the series is another player of interest to the scouts, winger Darren Archibald, who roofed a shot for the winning goal five minutes into overtime last night. Archibald’s a February ’90 birthday, undrafted last year when he was still playing Junior A in Stouffville. In fact he didn’t even make the Colts in a try-out back in the fall of 2007. He scored 23 goals in his first trip through the ‘O’ and might seem a bit raw. Then again, he’s 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds-size and toughness buy an organization’s patience. The overtime goal was his fourth of the post-season. I suspect he won’t pass through the draft this time.
Three: A few NHL scouts I know were lamenting the one-sidedness of series throughout the OHL. “Just a lot of bad, one-sided games,” one said. “You don’t really get a good sense of what the good teams and the best players can do.” True enough. The CHL has turned into Texas Hold’em-teams are folding their hands, even fairly decent ones, at the deadline. Could Guelph have made a series against Saginaw is they’d held onto goaltender Thomas McCollum instead of dealing him at the deadline to Brampton? Maybe … but the prevailing management philosophy throughout the CHL is the there’s no value in second-place. Unless you are contending for a championship, pitch your cards in and wait until next year. While the NHL’s opening-round series are maybe the best couple of weeks of the season, the launch of CHL post-season hardly compares. In the ‘O’, maybe Sudbury can force a seventh game against Belleville (just to be playing Game 6 registers as a small miracle) and maybe Ottawa and Niagara will beat each other up to a one-game takes all, but, as far as the scouts go, the second round can’t start soon enough.