HALIFAX, N.S. — The semifinal loss to Seth Jones and the Americans at the world juniors still lingers for Nathan MacKinnon, but the Canadian forward insists it won’t be used as motivation at the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
MacKinnon and Jones will reprise their roles as adversaries on Team Cherry and Team Orr in the annual showcase of the Canadian Hockey League’s top stars. Jones was rated first among North American skaters for the upcoming draft by the NHL’s Central Scouting on Tuesday, ahead of MacKinnon who came in second.
As intriguing as this matchup will be for fans and scouts in attendance, the battle to be drafted first-overall by an NHL team and the drama it creates isn’t something the prospects are relishing.
“I know some people are trying to bring that out, kind of a racehorse type of thing, but I’m not really looking into that too much,” Jones said. “Any time you can play against great players it’s great motivation and competition’s going to be high.”
“I don’t think, no matter who you play, you should change your game,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously, you have to adjust and adapt to what they’re giving you and take that, but that’s just having more tools in your toolbox and being able to take what they give and exploit that.”
There is still some jet lag for MacKinnon, Jones and Jonathan Drouin, who each played in the world juniors in Russia. MacKinnon and Drouin will be at home in Halifax while Jones’ trip had him head to Dallas upon returning from Russia, before joining his club team in Portland in advance of this game.
“Just try to stay away from those middle seats on the plane,” the 6-foot-4 Jones kidded. “That’s my top priority.”
Jones is leaving his mark everywhere he plays. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, young Seth is a big part of the Portland Winterhawks and made an impact during Team USA’s gold medal win in Russia.
“I thought he really helped USA win a couple close games and definitely a tough guy to play against,” MacKinnon said of Jones. “He’s good at both ends of the ice. He’s capable of creating offence and shutting down the other team’s top line.”
MacKinnon has long since had the “next one” label placed upon him. The similarities to Sidney Crosby are striking, from their shared hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S., to both of them attending and playing for Shattuck St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota, to even sharing the same agent. The similarities, however, don’t extend to the way they play the game, in spite of both being talented offensive forwards.
Jones can expect to see lots of MacKinnon and his Halifax teammate, Drouin.
“They’re both quick and shifty with the puck,” Jones said. “You just have to take their time and space away as quick as possible. … They’re still probably going to make plays even if you do that, especially with them (playing) on the same line.
“It’s a dynamic duo and it will be tough to handle.”
Two years ago, Drouin remembers watching Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Two weeks ago, he was his teammate on Canada’s world junior team, saying that Nugent-Hopkins is “probably the best player I’ve ever played with.”
Now it’s Drouin’s turn in front of his club team’s fans at the Halifax Metro Centre.
“A lot of memories,” he said of watching this event. “There are a lot of great players (who) play in those games and it’s good to see that.”
Drouin’s Team Cherry will go up against some talented forwards on Team Orr. Among them is London Knights star, Max Domi. The son of former NHL pugilist, Tie, Max is the 23rd ranked skater from Central Scouting and sixth in the OHL in scoring with 60 points in 43 games.
The final player from the Mooseheads’ trio of young stars is goaltender Zachary Fucale. The product of Rosemere, Que. was rated first among North Americans by Central Scouting and is looking forward to facing more shots than he’s used to seeing behind a stacked Mooseheads team in league play.
“If I get two shots or 45, the job is the same — I have to stop them all,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be a lot of fun, especially with all the talent that’s out here.”
Fucale will split time with Edmonton Oil Kings backup, Tristan Jarry, the third-ranked goaltender. Philippe Desrosiers replaces the injured Eric Comrie on Team Orr and will form the duo with Mississauga’s Spencer Martin.
“Especially in a big opportunity like this, I love to get a lot of action and showcase my skills as much as I can,” Martin said. “I’m just going to play the game I play back in Mississauga. Nothing changes and continue to show what I’ve been doing there.”
There may be fewer NHL GMs in the stands this year considering the timing with the beginning of training camp, but there will be a large collection of scouts in attendance. The game will feature the intensity of a playoff game as players will look to show the scouts why they’re most deserving of their draft selections this summer.
“It’s not just about one game,” Jones explains. “You might do something spectacular or you might score a hat trick or make a big hit and they like seeing stuff like that, but I think they’re looking for more consistency. The NHL schedule is 82 games and they’re looking for a player who knows how to play that schedule and play at the best of their abilities every night.”
“The year that stands out the most was Taylor Hall versus Tyler Seguin (in 2010),” Team Orr forward Anthony Duclair says. “Every year I try to get a glimpse of it and see how it goes because I knew one day I would be participating in this event.”