With USA's recent run of success both at the Under-17 Vladimir Dzurilla tournament and in the Under-18 Five Nations Cup played in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic, traditionally viewed as the tuneup before April's Under-18 Championship tournament, we'll look at some of the key American players eligible for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft just a few months away.
The interesting thing about USA's performance in going 4-0 at the Five Nations last week/over the weekend is that this year's team is not considered as strong as their 2010 counterparts. A year ago, the Americans dropped a game to Russia in Belarus, finishing 3-1, but this season's squad went undefeated. Of course, last year's Team USA then returned to Belarus to capture gold at the 2010 Under-18s, so the 2011 club will have the same expectations.
Here's a look at some of the forwards, with the defensemen and goalies to follow in a later post.
Tyler Biggs, RW-- Power forward prospect is Team USA's top draft prospect given his excellent hands, strength and nasty edge to his game. His lack of elite puck skills and an uneven intensity from game to game is what is holding him back from being a surefire top-10 selection, but he could still manage to find that range if he continues to play well this season given his physical gifts and the ability to dominate when he's on top of things. He can do it all, from scoring to fighting and intimidating, and he's got natural bloodlines (his father, Don Biggs, was an AHL and IHL star back in the day). At 6-2 and about 210 pounds, he's going to grow even more into his sizeable frame. His heavy, hard shot with a lightning release strikes fear into goaltenders at this level and is one of his best attributes. With 5 goals in 14 USHL games this season, he's proving himself against older, more experienced competition. He doesn't, however, handle the puck all that well, and his hockey sense/creativity is a question mark. The Ohio native is taking his game to Oxford and Miami University next season and will make the Redhawks a formidable draw.
NHL scout's take: "Power forwards like Biggs sell themselves because they have all the physical attributes that others simply don't possess and never will. I've seen him more involved this season and he's playing with some real confidence. He needs to pick up a step, but this guy is such a competitor and he'll do all the things you want in a player of his type like go hard to the net and pay the price physically. He's a nasty fighter, too. If he can continue the consistent play, then I think you could see him go off the board pretty early."
Rocco Grimaldi, C-- This pocket-sized dynamo is a draft underdog because of his small size even though he's arguably one of the top-five most skilled/talented available players in the class. He plays the game like a wild stallion, firing his 5-6, 165-pound frame up and down the ice like he was shot out of a cannon. Outstanding on his edges, he can make high-speed turns to shake defenders and rip through seams in opposing defenses. For such a small guy, he has an excellent shot that he can wire to any spot in the 4 x 6 cage from just about anywhere in the offensive zone, and he sees the ice extremely well. The North Dakota recruit lit up international hockey powers Sweden (hat trick) and Russia (two goals) in the first two games of the Five Nations, and is primed for a big spring run. The size will always be a hurdle, and some have expressed concern for whether he can fight through the traffic he's going to face at the highest level. That said, given his desire and leadership, he's the kind of gamble an NHL team should gladly make.
NHL scout's take: "The kid is such a dynamic, noticeable player whenever he's out there. You can see how competitive he is and how much he wants the puck on his stick, and I don't think the skill is in doubt at all. Where I worry a bit is in those games against the bigger, more effective checking teams where he tends to be kept to the outside and isn't as effective. But the thing with players like Grimaldi is that if they have the will and work ethic to make themselves into a player, then they usually succeed."
Adam Reid, LW-- Scouts love Reid's size (6-3, 205) and two-way game. A good straight-line skater who could stand to improve his first-step quickness, Reid has an active stick and is a heady, instinctive player. Another solid recruit in Greg Cronin's dynasty-building effort at Northeastern, Reid has some of the best raw upside of any NTDP player this season. Like Grimaldi, who is a fellow Californian, Reid has a pretty good net presence and has shown the ability to finish plays in close. Although he has a lot of physical developing to do, keep an eye on him going forward.
NHL scout's take: "To my view, Reid has come a long way from where he was a year ago. He's got that prototypical size you want, although the strength isn't there yet. He's more of a all-around forward than an offensive presence like Grimaldi or even Biggs. But, I like his intelligence and he sees the ice pretty well. I think his development curve is on the uptick and he's one of those intriguing guys who doesn't have big numbers now, but could have the potential to really take off as he matures in the next few years."
J.T. Miller, C-- A bit of a riddle this season because skill and potential-wise, Miller is right there with Biggs in terms of being the best NHL prospect the team has to offer at forward. Unfortunately, the Ohio native and former Pittsburgh Hornets standout has had a tough time living up to expectations this season. At 6-1, and approaching 200 pounds, he's got the nice size at the center position that teams love, and he has all the tools to be a scoring presence including solid skating technique and a long stride, very good stickhandling skills and a nice array of shots. Miller has the vision to make pinpoint passes, and is a fine puck distributor. He'll also initiate contact and while he's not a physical force on the level of Biggs, will hold his own when the checking increases. He's one of those players who won't have a consensus going into the draft, but could have a few teams who like him enough that he'll come off the board higher than expected.
NHL scout's take: "I expected bigger things from Miller from what I've seen, to be honest. You can tell that he has the talent, but at the end of the day, when the game is over and I'm looking back at what I saw, he's left me wanting more. He's one of those guys who can take charge of the flow of a game, but doesn't always do so. But, if you're looking at talent alone, Miller is definitely one of the better guys on that club and seems to put in the requisite work. It's just not coming together for him as much as you would expect."
Reid Boucher, LW-- Lack of size (5-9) is a bugaboo for Boucher, but he proved at the 5 Nations that he can definitely be a going concern up front for USA. Michigander has been right up there with Grimaldi this season as a player who gets it done offensively and creates a major challenge for opposing defenses with his quickness and ability to exploit soft areas in the o-zone. Currently committed to Michigan State, he's going to give the Spartans a nice option up front.
NHL scout's take: "I guess you could call him a 'poor man's Rocco Grimaldi' in that he's not quite as skilled, is a little bigger but still does a real good job in the offensive zone. I'd say Boucher is underrated; he's got all the qualities you look for except the size. I like his finish and tenacity; he's got a great nose for the net and fights hard for loose pucks. He's a project player for a team with some depth and patience to let him develop."
Cole Bardreau, C-- Big man trapped in a small man's body. Plays a sandpaper game with a lot of courage and fire. New Yorker is going to Cornell, and should be a very good NCAA player. How he projects in the NHL is something that is still up for debate, however. He's got a decent skill level, but is not elite, lacking the stickhandling and powerful shot of his smaller teammates like Grimaldi and Boucher. Still, he's a character guy and the kind of player you win with because he works hard in all zones and isn't afraid to stick his nose in. Like many smaller agitating types involved in the dirty areas of the ice, he's going to take his share of lumps and suffer the bumps and bruises that result.
NHL scout's take: I really like his intensity and courage, but wonder about the upside. He's a good player and when he competes, plays bigger than his size. But, I don't know if he's skilled enough to be able to do it in the NHL as effectively as he can at this level."
Zac Larraza, LW-- One of the bigger (6-2 frame) and most purely talented of the USA forwards, Larraza has yet to put it all together. He skates extremely well for such a tall kid, with a long, fluid stride and the ability to get off the mark quickly from a stop. Denver University recruit has the hands and finishing skills, but may not see the ice all that well and has trouble in terms of trying to do too much on his own. Definitely another raw, project pick who will need time and patience.
Blake Pietila, LW-- Another small, speed guy in this group of undersized skill forwards. Although only about 5-10, he's of stocky build and relishes physical contact. Not ultra-skilled in the hands department, he does move well and generate chances with his feet and head. Going to Northern Michigan University next season where he could join B's prospect and NTDP grad Justin Florek.