One-game viewing is the bane of NHL scouts, but four trips start to give them a clearer picture of players of interest. I did a quick survey of members of the scouting fraternity just as they were about to don their party hats and venture out into the Montreal night for New Year’s Eve festivities.
Here follows some random observations from them based on their viewing of play in the exhibitions and the preliminary round.
(Note: Opinions expressed about already drafted players come from sources not attached to the organizations that own said players’ rights.)
1) Jack Eichel was better earlier this season than he has been in this tournament. “A couple of times against Canada he lost his compass and was out there too long, one shift probably 90 seconds,” a scouting director said. “He can be a lot better than he has been here. They’ve given him a hell of a player in [Alex] Tuch to play with. He has to pick it up.”
2) Asked about a comparable to Tuch, a Minnesota pick last June, two scouts automatically and independently mentioned the same name: James van Riemsdyk. "Same body, same ability to get things done in traffic, same scoring ability," one said.
3) Connor McDavid has raised his level of play with each and every game in Montreal. "I really liked his game [against the U.S.]," said a scout who had seen him three times earlier this season before McDavid broke a hand in November. "His hands are still catching up to his feet. His timing isn't going to be there just like he left it [before the injury]. He's a dimensional skater, haven't really seen anything like it."
"I watch him and try to figure out how he generates the speed that he does. He's not a muscled-up kid ... doesn't even look that athletic, not like Eichel. But three or four times in any game you see a defenceman look like he has him locked up and McDavid is by him. Hard to do at any level, but he's doing it against the best 19-year-olds in the world."
4) Leafs fans have criticized the team for drafting Frederik Gauthier, the big Rimouski centre who's in his second trip with the Canadian under-20s. He has some backers among scouts from other organizations, though. "I think he'll play a lot of years in the league," one veteran scout said. "He doesn't do all things well and he might only ever be a 15-goal scorer on a third line but he'll be hard to play against, good on faceoffs and tough on the cycle ... what he is on this team is what you can see him doing at the next level."
5) Scouts generally have a very high opinion of Robby Fabbri, higher than you might think given that he was passed over 20 times before St Louis nabbed him. "Teams are just scared about him getting injured [when he moves up to the NHL]," one scout said after last night's Canada-U.S. tilt.
"What makes him effective in junior is his ability to go into the traffic. He has great hockey sense and no fear. He can get away with it in junior, but how long can someone his size [maybe 5-10, maybe 170 pounds] get away with it against bigger players. So maybe he gets hurt at the next level or he realizes he can't play the same way without getting hurt—either way it could make him a less effective player."
6) Talked with six scouts after the game. All of them think Sweden-Finland, a first-seed vs. a fourth-seed, is a coin flip in the quarters. "The Finns just play [the Swedes] so tough," said one scout expressing the consensus opinion. "The Finns are a really young team, just trying to figure out the tournament."
7) One scout talked about Shea Theodore's play. "He wasn't as good in the U.S. game as he was against Finland. What always sticks out for me about him—he has this strange skating style. Really wide stance and low [chasing the puck back into the zone]. Really sort of busy looking—not a guy you'd say that there's no wasted motion or that he's smooth. Still he gets there."
8) Every scout I spoke to was puzzled by coach Benoit Groulx's decision to go with goalie Eric Comrie against the Americans instead of Zach Fucale. "Comrie was good when he had to be early on in the [U.S.] game but you've gone from looking like you have a No. 1 to a question," a scout said. "That's fine if you're looking at a 68-game schedule or something like that, but in a short tournament, one loss and you're done, you want some clarity. You don't want to complicate things."
9) Lawson Crouse is making a strong case to solidify a spot in the top 10 in this year's draft. "I really like his game, but I know that he'll be long gone by the time our pick comes up," said a scout for a team that will miss out on the lottery. "You look at what Rick Nash did as a draft eligible in this tournament [in 2002] and he barely played. A lot of draft-eligibles don't look physically ready. Crouse is playing a physically tough role up front and he looks like a 19-year-old."