PENTICTON, B.C. -- Some of these players I was seeing live for the first time, while others I have watched several times before; some household names and high picks and some under-the-radar prospects. All in all, I came away presently surprised with quite a few individuals, but these are some players that stood out for me.
Johnny Gaudreau -- We’ve all heard the hype and seen the highlights of 'Johnny Hockey' even earning himself highlight-of-the-night honours on TSN. This weekend was no exception for the former Boston College star .. possesses calculated offensive instincts with an ability to think that split second ahead of defenders .. dynamic puck skills showing strong control in tight areas, constant heads-up play makes him difficult to read when looking to shoot or set up teammates .. sneaks around the ice without the puck, sliding into scoring areas undetected to create scoring chances with a pro-level shot .. slippery and elusive, yet shies away from physical contact leading to impromptu turnovers to avoid big hits .. glued at the hip to Sam Bennett all weekend, the pair certainly have the individual games that seem to complement each other with some obvious chemistry .. his skill could put him into the NHL especially as the Flames need offence although he will likely require some AHL seasoning as well.
Sam Bennett -- Bennett’s game takes him all over the rink, strong in all three zones during the rookie tournament and didn’t look at all over-matched or out of place .. skating is the highlight of his game for me, pivoting, edging and balance are elite level .. controls the puck at high speeds, shifts weight effectively and maintains momentum while sliding past defenders .. very effective when skates are heal-to-heal with head up and body open, creating deception and un-telegraphed moves .. doesn’t shy away from physical play, throws hits and plays well through contact and in high-traffic areas .. constantly buzzing around the oppositions crease .. performs well with high emotions or when making up for mistakes - as in after taking a penalty - as he seems to become a more effective and assertive player when he has chip on his shoulder .. is Bennett too good for the CHL - yes, quite possibly .. add in some World Junior games and physical strengthening and it could be a very good year outside the NHL, however it sounds like the Flames will give him every chance to make it.
Keegan Kanzig -- When people see a defensemen at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds - they will always turn heads based on size alone .. since my first viewings of Kanzig two years ago, his game has grown in leaps and bounds .. initially, what was seen was a lanky defender with poor balance and a choppy skating stride .. this weekend I saw was a much stronger player, far more balanced and stable on his skates with a punishing physical game, an active stick and a useful reach that broke up passes and clogged lanes .. everyone seemed to be gunning for Kanzig clearly the biggest guy on the ice, looking to prove themselves and impress management .. never seemed fazed or ready to back down from a challenge dropping the gloves with several players throughout the weekend .. not a defensive scorer, his offensive game still has the potential to grow as his shot from the point has improved in velocity and release .. will likely anchor the defence on what should be a very good Victoria Royals team although he is still a few years away .. worked his way from a fringe prospect to being a meaningful piece of the Flames pipeline.
Hunter Shinkaruk -- Easily one of the bright spots for a Canucks team that faired pretty poorly over the weekend .. played like he was out to prove his doubters wrong by asserting himself as a threat to score and driving himself into high traffic and punishing areas .. his injury (hip) issues look to be behind him now as the last time I viewed Shinkaruk was about a month before his surgery and he was labouring and slow .. this weekend, his quickness had fully returned as was evident in his first 3-4 strides .. protected the puck well in the opposition zone and by using his body effectively to shield off defenders and battle into high-percentage scoring areas .. showed a knack for driving to the net and not always looking for the pretty finish .. going to the tough areas drew some distain from opposing defenders but Shinkaruk was up for the challenge, standing up for himself and his teammates .. will need to continue this aggressive approach in order to be an effective scorer at the pro level and be able to compete for space on the ice .. Canucks management pointed to Shinkaruk as a bright spot on a team in need of offence and, after this weekend, cracking the opening day roster is not out of the question.
Jordan Subban -- Never a crushing physical presence, the steady and cerebral game of Subban doesn’t exhibit incredible flash - yet his intelligent play will nevertheless take him places .. makes smart plays and rarely panics when making a quick decision .. assertive play with quick puck movement helps avoid dangerous situations, such as when keeping pucks in at the offensive blueline .. looks to think one move ahead .. in an era where skilled defenders are becoming fashionable, Subban is a growing asset in zone exits, possessing a very good first pass and the ability to carry the puck out or jump into the play to force pucks deep and help keep the offense turning .. angles off players well with good gap control and keeps an active stick when defending .. looks to be stronger and more stable leaning on defenders with his smaller frame albeit has bulked up to around 185 pounds .. likely bound for another year leading Belleville in the OHL.
Bogdan Yakimov -- A center with pro level experience (33 KHL games) that skates at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds will always attract my attention and Yakimov was no exception .. a big body who works well down low and on the cycle, fights off defenders and guards the puck with his thick frame is certainly something the Oilers could use more of .. possesses a pro-level release that springs nicely off his stick and hits the net accurately .. at times Yakimov looked like a man against boys as he muscled his way around the offensive zone with players bouncing off of him .. showed some chemistry with fellow Russian Vladimir Tkachev as the duo were a driving force that pinned opposing defences in their own zone .. the biggest area of improvement required for Yakimov has to be his skating .. acceleration is average at best and he doesn’t appear fluid on his skates, stride looks choppy .. however once he has a head of steam his momentum carries and he can find a fast top gear - though it just takes a while to get there and sometimes he arrives late .. Oilers fans should be cautiously optimistic about Yakimov, he certainly showed dominance at times against fellow youngsters and does have some pro-level tools .. let's see how he fares against stronger NHLers - though his 12 pts in 33 KHL games as a 19-year-old could forecast some success.
Vladimir Tkachev -- Small but mighty, after a few minutes of seeing Tkachev move around the ice you are wondering why no one took a flyer on this kid in the 2014 draft .. everyone else's mistake might be the Oilers gain .. dramatically undersized at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, this kid is a wiz with the puck and possesses soft hands and natural talents that can't be taught .. a driving offensive force who carries the puck at high speeds and always appears in control, shifty and hard to track .. Tkachev is elusive but drives the play in more of a north-south style of game .. doesn’t rely just on his speed but also uses patience as he has the ability to slow the game down, handle the puck and look for options to open up .. crisp and accurate passing and a whipping wrist shot that can surprise coming from such a small frame .. his quickness is a big asset taking only a few strides to break up to full speed .. doesn’t play very well against the wall or when standing still because he’s so light he is easily separated from the puck .. his success came when staying in constant motion and making the opposing defenders chase .. opens up space for teammates by attracting attention .. made a couple of aggressive backchecks over the weekend that showed a commitment to defence, and proved in a productive 20-game QMJHL debut last season that he’s willing to learn the North American game .. undrafted signee cost the Oilers nothing and injected more high-end skill into their system .. will attend main camp but can he keep it up against pros is the big question.
Darnell Nurse -- An active defender whose head is constantly on a pivot .. Nurse didn’t disappoint at either end of the rink, clogging lanes and using efficient body position, often with one hand on his stick .. creates an active presence and makes forwards question whether they have time and space .. controlled gaps very well, utilizing a wide stance that creates stability .. compact leg movements show good acceleration in both forward and reverse strides .. commands attention at the offensive blueline, if given time and space, and can work the puck to open forwards or put it on net with a quick wrist shot or hard slapshot .. his windup speed could use a little work or Nurse may find himself hitting shot blocker more than the net .. gap control and a punishing physical game are both assets .. closes quickly on players and makes them pay when they come into his space, although he needs to find the point of aggression without crossing the line .. Nurse is too good for the OHL so he’s another guy who will be given every chance to make the big club.
Nikolaj Ehlers -- Boasting an extremely high-end skill level, Ehlers dazzled the highlight reel at the Young Stars with a few amazing goals .. there is no denying his elite speed and acceleration - and that Ehlers would quickly become one of the fastest skaters in the league if he stepped into the NHL this season .. can beat any defender to the outside and then uses strong edge work to cut inside displaying good balance and precise blade control .. handles the puck very well at high speeds showing strong control in open ice or in tight spaces .. his shot has a minimal windup and rockets off his stick in a deceptive manner than can fool goalies from a distance or in close .. once you realize he's shooting the puck - it's often already in the back of the net .. frequently a one-man show on offence, Ehlers could utilize his teammates more instead of trying to skate past everyone in his way .. noticed a few instances he would attempt to skate around multiple defenders only to run out of room and leave open teammates waiting for passes, thus resulting in a turnover .. his speed has a knack for drawing defenders and making them chase him out of their position, however he must learn to create scoring chances for others as well .. not many top-nine spots available in Winnipeg - so will have to battle Nic Petan and Adam Lowry to make the Jets.
Josh Morrissey -- Although scoring and games played was the big talk for Morrissey from the past year, it was his skating ability that shone brightest this past weekend .. shows a clean smooth stride going both forward and reverse .. closes on players quickly - minimizing their time and space .. displays a knack for counter-attacking and in using his skating or passing prowess to relieve pressure .. at points during games I had to go looking for Morrissey on the ice, not because he’s not contributing but because he was rarely found out of position .. not afraid to push the pace or jump into the play - and kept his game a little on the safe side, which showed a dedication to a team game and developing as a complete player .. should be able to collect points at the next level with his sharp passing skills, quick wrist shot and accurate slapshot .. with little left to prove at the WHL level, the questions is whether Morrissey can withstand the rigors of the more physical pro game .. if so, maybe the Jets have another rookie contributor on the backend like they did last year.
As always thanks for reading..
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