PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 06: Philadelphia Flyers Winger Taylor Leier (58) looks for a pass December 06, 2016, (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

As I sit in Notre Dame’s beautiful Compton Family Ice Complex, watching the Fighting Irish take on the Providence Friars, I am reminded of the annual rush for NHL teams to sign the best of the NCAA world’s undrafted free agents. Last year, in this very arena, I watched Jimmy Vesey stake an early claim to the Hobey Baker Award as well as an NHL deal with the New York Rangers. There don’t look to be many highly sought-after players this year from either of these two teams, unless undersized Irish blueliner Jordan Gross leaves school early, but I am reminded of another of last year’s UFA class. One of the finalists behind Vesey for college hockey’s highest honor was St. Cloud State offensive defenseman Ethan Prow (Pittsburgh, UFA, 2016 – D, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)).

Not the most stand-out player on the Baby Pens as a rookie professional, Prow is at least proving he belongs, which not every NCAA grad can, whether drafted into affiliated hockey, or brought in as a free agent. Prow’s appeal to NHL teams was his smoothness. He brought a nice combination of skating, puck skills and sound hockey sense to the ice. His shot was somewhat lackluster and his physical game was negligible. I can safely report that Prow has learned how to bring those same attributes to the ice in the AHL. He can skate well for this level and plays the puck calmly and efficiently. He is still comfortable carrying the puck from his own zone into the offensive end. He is not the primary offensive weapon for WBS, but he is seeing some time on the penalty kill, hinting that development of his off-puck game has been a critical element of his first year in the system.

In addition to bringing the same attributes that earned him the praise of scouts with the Huskies, Prow has added a small physical edge to his game. He has not grown, per se, listed at 6-0”, 185, but he knows when smaller players are on the ice. He will not hesitate to take on those smaller players and show them who is bigger. He will use his body against other average sized players as well, but not as aggressively. When it comes to crease battles, he is still mostly ineffectual. In summary, his physical game has gone from negligible to relatively insignificant. Baby steps. Not to worry, though. He wasn’t signed to bring brawn to the Penguins blueline. He was signed as a puckmover with offensive instincts and so far, so good.

22 September 2015: New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Graves (58) warms up before an NHL preseason game

22 September 2015: New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Graves (58) warms up before an NHL preseason game

Ryan Graves (New York Rangers, 4/110, 2013 – D, Hartford (AHL))

A few weeks ago, in this space, we discussed Arizona’s towering blueline prospect Kyle Wood. The conclusion there (not that there really is a conclusion when discussing prospects. Only expected conclusions yet to be determined.) was that Wood had everything necessary to be a strong defender in the NHL other than skating prowess. So here, in the Rangers system, we have Graves, a defender cut from much the same cloth.

Now Graves did not have nearly the same offensive impact in his first year in AHL Hartford as Wood is having now with Tucson. But he was impressive. He is massive (6-4”, 220), plays a smart game and has a gigantic slapshot. I am talking mask-cracking. He had decent offensive totals as a rookie, but not enough to pave a path to Broadway. Now, almost as important as the inherent traits a player brings to his game in the ice, I look for improvement. It will almost never be linear, but it must be present. Graves is showing that. Last year, he put up 21 points in 74 games for the Wolf Pack. He has 22 in his first 49 this year.

Graves is still not a great skater, but plays a style of game that is suitable for relatively slower blueliners. He relies on a quicker partner to blaze a trail and then he comes up in support. In his own zone, he sticks to a smaller zone for coverage. He actually can get up to a good top speed if he has a long race, but the acceleration is not there for him to be relied upon as a puck carrier most of the time. As such, he will be forced to chip the puck off the glass when a clean outlet pass is not available to him as he will struggle to clear a packed defensive zone on his feet. His trailing tendency also comes to the fore on offense, where he can join the rush from behind and take advantage of drop passes to endanger the life and limbs of opponents. Still only 21 years of age, Graves has time yet to make his mark. His skating, while a hindrance, is not at the level of deal breaking. He is simply a player in search (in need) of a specific role to play. The rest of his game is present enough for him to find it eventually.

Andrew Peeke (Columbus, 2/34, 2016 – D, Notre Dame (Hockey East))

Sticking to the blueline for now, in Andrew Peeke, the Blue Jackets have drafted a potential shut down defender. Listed at 6-3”, 210, the Florida native plays a very heavy game. When he lines an opponent up for a hit, that opponent will be going down. These are not the explosive, highlight-reel open ice jobs, but more subtle pancakes.

Drafted in the second round last summer out of the USHL’s Green Bay program, Peeke has been enjoying a strong freshman year with the Irish, even contributing a slightly surprising amount of offense, with 13 points through 31 games. He is not used much for his puck skills, playing often with a more seasoned and naturally talented offensive blueliner in Jordan Gross, but he can contribute when the opportunity arises. For example, although he isn’t much for pinching, he can step nicely into a shot. Standing by the blueline, whether he lets off a wrister or a slapshot, they have impressive heft and velocity and can be trouble for defenses.

His specialty is in his own end, however. Even without hitting opponents, Peeke makes his presence felt. He keeps decent gaps – although I would like to see him use his stick more aggressively – and he is well-schooled at clogging lanes, getting in the way of countless passes and shots. He still needs at least two more years in South Bend, where ideally his offensive game will have a chance to develop, but there is a lot to like with Peeke.

Joshua Ho-Sang (New York Islanders, 1/28, 2014 – RW, Bridgeport (AHL))

In his first year in the professional ranks, former first rounder Joshua Ho-Sang is no stranger to controversy, much of it at least partially of his own making. The young Sound Tiger has long held a reputation from playing by his own rules, which referred to both his mind-boggling creativity on the ice, as well as his all too frequent disciplinary concerns off of it. The Islanders famously got a taste of the latter when he slept in on one of his first days at rookie camp in the summer of 2015 and was immediately cut from camp.

After a slow start to his rookie pro season, Ho-Sang is letting the Isles organization in on his on-ice wizardry as well. As I write these words, Ho-Sang has just put up seven points in his two games this weekend, bringing his season totals to a respectable 32 in 44 games. As with his time in junior hockey, Ho-Sang is earing most of his points through playmaking instead of finishing. He is a very aggressive player. Between his creativity with the puck and his high end speed, he can be absolutely electrifying to watch. On the downside to this on-ice powers is a tendency to take too many risks. There is a fine line to be drawn between confidence and over-confidence and Ho-Sang flits back and forth across that line.

While he should definitely spend the rest of this season in the AHL with Bridgeport, Ho-Sang is the type of player who could certainly benefit from the change in coaches in Brooklyn. Current interim head coach Doug Weight represents the best case scenario for what Ho-Sang’s NHL career could look like. It requires some taming and a lot of patience, but if his recent play is any indication, he is now on the right path.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 06: Philadelphia Flyers Winger Taylor Leier (58) looks for a pass December 06, 2016, (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 06: Philadelphia Flyers Winger Taylor Leier (58) looks for a pass December 06, 2016, (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

Taylor Leier (Philadelphia Flyers, 4/117, 2012 – LW, Lehigh Valley (AHL))

While the ethos of the Broad Street Bullies is obsolete, it may be fair to say that work ethic is a close relative. That is why, even though all of the brightest lights of the Flyers system (especially with Konency in the NHL) are blueliners, I will use this space this week to write about Taylor Leier, a tireless winger who is most known for his work in his own zone. The one-time (surprise) member of a Team Canada entry at the WJC, Leier is a power forward in a small forward’s body.

He is aggressive in all three zones, and effective in each. Now in his third year in the AHL, with NHL stints in the last two of those, Leier is starting to gain in confidence and impact in the offensive end. From 31 points in 73 games as a rookie, he improved to 49 points in 71 games last year. This year, he has 28 points in 34 AHL games, a pace that would have led to 57-58 points in 70 games, had he not had a 10 game trial with the Flyers in December.

In spite of the slow and steady increase in his offensive production, Leier is what he is. A  reasonable bottom six energy line winger who can produce a modicum of offense. Beyond his utility in defensive situations, including heavy usage on the PK, he shows good offensive zone vision and some playmaking touch. With left wingers Chris VandeVelde and Pierre Edouard Bellamare both slated for unrestricted free agency after this season, Leier has earned an opportunity to stake his claim to a full time NHL role.

Blake Coleman (New Jersey Devils, 3/75, 2011 – C, Albany (AHL))

For an uninspiring system, it is only fair that we talk about an uninspiring prospect. Coleman’s name has been bandied about for a long time by Devils’ fans, but this is really his first full year of professional action, at age 25. The former third round pick out of Plano, Texas took his full four years at Miami before turning pro, only to miss all but 14 games as rookie due to injury. 33 points in 46 games this year has been impressive enough that he earned his first NHL call-up, a five game stretch in mid-January.

The Texan (hockey writers only get so many chances to call players “The Texan”) is a tad undersized, but plays a feisty game. What he lacks in strength (which also manifests itself in a subpar shot), he makes up for in energy and aggression. He is often used the primary forechecker, applying pressure on opponents across 200 feet of ice. That said, unlike Leier above, Coleman does not play as a miniature power forward. He is more aptly referred to as a pest. He does have some offensively redeeming qualities as well. His AHL scoring exploits are largely the product of a good pair of mitts. He can maintain possession of the puck under pressure and can help his teammates make plays.

Coleman is a late bloomer. In another system, he would probably be completely under the radar. In a thin Devils’ system, he sticks out. The Albany Devils are one of the better teams in the North Division of the AHL, but the majority of their contributors (outside of the netminders) are either not prospects at all, or lesser prospects than Coleman. If the Devils decide to sell off pieces before the deadline, Coleman should get more NHL experience before the season is out.

Chandler Stephenson (Washington Capitals, 3/77, 2012 – C, Hershey (AHL))

In preparing for this article, I did not set out intending to find smallish forwards with low upside, but safe, dependable and energetic games. It just sort of worked out that way. The AHL rarely has young players with cathedral ceilings for too long. They either get called up right away (if they aren’t placed in the NHL right out of amateur hockey), or they have very notable flaws, like Joshua Ho-Sang, profiled above.

Stephenson is either a strange case, or a sign of my own growth as a player evaluator. Perhaps both. His numbers between this year and last are practically identical, yet I see  different, far more attractive player. Last season, I saw a defensive forward who did nothing especially well and profiled as an up-and-down guy. He had 28 points in 46 regular season games with Hershey and nothing in a nine game trial with the Capitals. In the AHL postseason, he added six points in 17 games. This year is more of the same in the points department. He has 30 points in 49 games for the Bears in addition to three games, no points, in the NHL.

So what has changed? I see now that he is not only a defensively responsible forward, but one that constantly makes smart, understated decisions on the ice. He is the type of player that has announcers gushing about “the little things”. Whether it is knowing when to get rid of the puck, or to hold on to it for another half second to prevent a quick break by the opponent or allow a teammate to shake free on the far side. Also, like the cheesy 80s movie where the nerdy girl takes off her glasses and the protagonist suddenly realizes that she is pretty, the shackles have been taken off, or I was blinded by the defensiveness, but Stephenson can skate. I mean, he can fly out there. A smart player with hot wheels will always get chances in the NHL. If the Capitals decide not to bring back Daniel Winnik next year, Stephenson should be ready to compete for that spot.

David Cotton (Carolina Hurricanes, 6/169, 2015 – C, Boston College (Hockey East))

Another Texan! Drafted out of a Boston area prep school Cotton was essentially a project pick. Huge with some puck skill, but prep players are notoriously difficult to project due to the uneven (being kind) level of competition in the high school ranks. Cotton spent the following year with Waterloo of the USHL and I was not impressed over a few viewings. Despite being one of the bigger players on the ice, he had a relatively low impact for the Black Hawks, with only 30 points in 48 games and only two assist over nine playoffs contests.

So I was a little bit surprised by how well he came out of the games as a freshman for Boston College, scoring at a higher rate against better competition. Perhaps he just missed Massachusetts? Reviewing my notes from last year, I don’t think I missed anything from Cotton. He was a rough skater and rarely drove play. What is different this year is that he is now in a position where what he can do is able to be utilized. The big Texan has really good hands, softer that you might expect just looking at him, and can make skill plays with the puck, whether that is stickhandling through traffic or receiving difficult passes and turning those into scoring opportunities in a blink. Away from the puck, he is also making use of what he has, using his large frame to clog lanes or tie up (and take down) opponents.

I am not ready to say that this project has paid off. For one thing, I want to see that his skating has truly improved. He is still only a freshman and will need at least two more full seasons with BC to have a good idea of the type of player he will become, but I am ready to say that I was too low on him next year. No longer an afterthought, Cotton is now one to watch in the Hurricanes’ system.

 

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