We're checking back in with another installment of player recaps for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft from the USHL, CJHL and EJHL for regular season.
It is a down year for most of the Jr. A and Tier 2 leagues this year according to multiple NHL and independent sources we've talked to, but there is still talent to be had. Nobody's going to make an immediate impact, but teams looking for developmental projects with some upside can find some guys as long as they are willing to be patient and accept some risk.
We polled several NHL scouts with junior knowledge as well as Red Line Report's Max Giese, who has the pulse on the USHL and NCAA in the midwest.
"Overall it's a pretty bad year," Giese told B2011DW of the USHL draft crop. "The top guys let you down a bit this year and there were not many pleasant surprises, either. People were saying a few years ago that the '93s were not a great class as a whole, and based on what I've seen from them in the USHL, those thoughts are on the mark."
So, with that in mind- here is the Jr. A/Tier 2 review for 2011:
1. Tyler Biggs, RW U.S. NTDP (USHL)- In the minds of several of our panel, Biggs is the best player to come out of the USHL and all of Jr. A/Tier 2 this season. Much of the discussion around the son of former minor league star Don Biggs has centered around the fact that he's being projected as more of a third-line player in the NHL. At 6-2, 210 the younger Biggs has the size and plays with a real aggressive mean streak and chip on his shoulder. He sleepwalks at times, which has been a drawback, but has pretty quick hands and a powerful shot. When he's on his game, Biggs is a hitter and throws his body around in intimidating fashion. His skating's not an issue, but the real concern teams have on him is with his hockey sense; he's not very creative and pretty much just drives the puck to the net but doesn't see the ice all that well and isn't able to get much done on his own.
The questions about his creativity are what lead Biggs to be seen as a 3rd/4th-line kind of checker/banger at the NHL level. But with just 7 goals and 11 points in 20 USHL games this year with the Under-18 team, the Miami University (OH) recruit is a bit of a wildcard- he could be a Milan Lucic kind of guy, or he might end up being Mike Brown. That's where Biggs will require a leap of faith for an NHL team to take him earlier. You might see a similar effect to Adam Clendening, where a team with several picks in each of the first two rounds gambles on a player like Biggs, whereas a club with just one in the 1st or 2nd shies away from him because they don't think they can afford to spend the pick on a guy who may just be lower-end grinder. It's all going to come down to how an NHL team views Biggs- if that staff sees a bigger picture upside with him, he could be a top-15 pick, but it's going to take a team really believing in him to do that because the conventional wisdom just doesn't see him achieving true power forward status.
2. Scott Mayfield, D Youngstown (USHL)- It has been a confounding year for the St. Louis native and Denver University recruit who wowed NHL scouts at the Research & Development Camp last August by forming a massive but mobile shutdown pairing with Mike McKee. At 6-4, 200 pounds Mayfield has size and skating ability plus good puck skills and above average hockey sense going for him. He also plays a physical, hard-nosed game and is a pretty complete two-way defenseman when on his game. Unfortunately, he's playing on one of the worst USHL teams in Youngstown and hasn't gotten much help in terms of development this season, which has ultimately hurt his stock a bit after posting just 6 goals and 13 points in 45 games with the Phantoms this season after an impressive 10-12-22 campaign as a rookie last year.
"He came to the USHL as a late-bloomer needing some coaching and development and didn't get it," said one scout commenting on the Youngstown situation. "On top of that, they had him playing about 30 minutes a night, so he was gassed and prone to making mistakes. He just doesn't have much help on that team." The good news for Mayfield is that by going to DU, he will be on one of the top NCAA programs in terms of developing and preparing its players for the pro hockey ranks. Coach George Gwozdecky is one of the most respected coaches among NHL teams in that regard.
Giese has seen a lot of Mayfield going back to last season and had this to say about him: "He's definitely number one in the USHL (in my opinion) and has got by far the most upside of any of the kids," Giese told B2011DW. "He's massive, is an excellent skater, moves the puck pretty good and plays with some real physical aggression. If you're an NHL team and are thinking big picture, he's still a first-round pick and when he gets to a new location, he could be one of those players people are going to look back on and wonder why he went lower in the draft, which is the way things look for him right now."
USHL Radio Show interviews Mayfield back in November.
3. J.T. Miller, C U.S. NTDP (USHL)- Disappointing season for a player who has all the physical tools and skills to be a high-end NHL prospect, but who probably lacks the pure hockey sense to ever be the sum of his very impressive parts. Another Ohio native like Biggs, Miller is 6-1, 198 pounds with room to fill out and add strength to his lean but athletic frame. He's a very good skater with acceleration and agility, as well as that second gear that allows him to gain separation in the open ice. Miller is also a slick puckhandler who can make an array of moves to shake defenders or open up space for him on the ice. Some reports have him possessing solid vision and sense, but other scouts disagree, feeling that he's too talented a player to not have had more production and success given his high-end talent level. It's a difference of opinion, and likely the NHL team that pounces on Miller is going to be on the side of those who feel his instincts are fine. Still, with just 3 goals and 15 points in 21 USHL games this year, Miller is only fourth on his team in scoring. As some of the critics have said- he may not be much more than a 3rd-liner in the NHL.
4. Rocco Grimaldi, U.S. NTDP (USHL)- The U.S. team's top scorer and pure talent is an exciting player to watch and plays with so much passion and energy its hard not to root for him. He had a terrific Five Nations performance in February and in 23 USHL games this season has 12 goals and 25 points, which is pretty good considering he is just 5-6 and about 160. Where the concerns come in are tied to how he projects in the NHL. Few doubt that he's going to be an impactful and productive NCAA player right off the bat because his speed, hands and hockey IQ are all top caliber. But the worry is that he doesn't appear to have any more growing to do or weight/mass to add on his tiny frame, meaning that he's likely going to have to play in the pros at 160-170 pounds. That's tough for NHL clubs, even with they love a player's skill, to bite the bullet on, especially with so much at stake in terms of fewer picks in a seven-round draft and the salary cap making organization building from within so much more important than it used to be when teams could cover draft mistakes with cash.
Make no mistake- Grimaldi has the skill to be an NHL player, and with his heart, he probably will be one someday. But, he is still a risk of a player when you're talking about taking him in the top-15 or 20. "To me what he did in Europe is not a big surprise," Giese said of Grimaldi. "That's where he thrives- on the wider ice surface, playing other skill teams like Sweden and Russia. When you're scouting him, you're not projecting him as an international player, but in the NHL, so the questions you have to answer are: will he find a way in the NHL?"
Jerome at NHL Draft Video has this shootout goal from Grimaldi for us.
5. John Gibson, G U.S. NTDP (USHL)- This Pittsburgh native and University of Michigan recruit (after he broke verbal commitment with Ohio State) will battle Samu Perhonen for top goalie honors for this class in our view. At 6-3, 185 he's got the ideal size and athleticism for the position. He's lean, but guys like Tuukka Rask have proven that speed and power need not be sacrificed for mass. Scouts like his poise and competitiveness. He's similar to Dallas first-rounder Jack Campbell in terms of mental makeup and work ethic. We covered Gibson and the goalie class pretty extensively, so there isn't much else to say about Gibson other than he's the cream of the USHL crop as far as goalies go, and could carry that over to the entire 2011 class. But, because teams are figuring out more and more that high picks need not be invested in goalies, Gibson could fall into the second round. In 17 USHL games, he is 9-4-3 with a 2.38 GAA and .926 save percentage. He was excellent at the Five Nations in February and if USA is going to win an unprecedented (for USA Hockey) third consecutive gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship next month, Gibson will have to steal the show like Campbell did a year ago in Belarus. Tall order, but he has the potential to do it.
6. Seth Ambroz, RW Omaha (USHL)- Along with Victor Rask and Shane McColgan, Ambroz is one of the 2011 draft's most disappointing players. A manchild who emerged several years ago as a physically dominant power winger with high upside as a scorer simply has not progressed and in fact, has regressed in the eyes of many scouts, including Giese. At 6-3, 211 the feeling is that he's already reached his physical peak and isn't going to grow more or get much stronger than he already is. His skating is a major red flag, as he not only lacks first step quickness, but doesn't get up to speed all that well and is constantly trailing the play. He has tremendous hands and a wicked release and powerful shot, but lacks the creativity and sense to get into position to use it as much as he should.
He may have size, but scouts are concerned that he hasn't used it much this season, which is a huge drawback to a player like him given what was expected. There's also an issue of work ethic, which has been said in more than one circle- over the summers, Ambroz has passed on offers to do some elite level developmental work in favor of staying home in Minnesota. If he were an elite product, that would be one thing, but he's got some real holes in his game and putting in the work would have sent the right message to NHL teams. Someone is going to take him pretty high because of the prodigious size and potential upside, but with just 21 goals and 40 points in 51 games for Omaha, so much more was expected. If Ambroz ends up being a bust, it won't come as a surprise for many folks who have followed him. Overrated if anyone is talking about him in the top-30. Probably doesn't even become a legitimate value pick until the mid-3rd round or so.
Jerome has a compilation vid on Ambroz from late last season when he was being viewed as a 1st rounder. Good stuff
7. Mike Paliotta, D U.S. NTDP (USHL)- We really like and respect Paliotta here at B2011DW after watching him two years ago at Choate, but his stock has fallen off a bit this season after he was being projected as a potential first-round pick coming into the campaign. He's big and mobile; at about 6-4, 195 he's got to get stronger and will be an even better skater when he can generate more power in his long, fluid stride. He's solid in his own end and has the look of a strong positional defender at the very least when you factor in his mobility and decent footwork. He's only an average passer and simply hasn't taken that anticipated in the offensive aspects of his game to justify a first-round selection. The second round could also be in jeopardy for him much like what happened with Penguins farmhand and former BU Terrier Brian Strait in 2006- a player who was seen as a solid top-60 pick, but fell to the early third round because of concerns about the offensive upside and a lack of production during his draft year, which incidentally, was also in Ann Arbor with the NTDP. In 24 USHL games, Paliotta has just 4 assists. He's a solid, intelligent kid and is headed to University of Vermont next fall, but the concerns about his puck skills and vision/instincts are going to drop him in our estimation.
8. Destry Straight, C Coquitlam (BCHL)- The first non-USHLer comes to us by way of the BCHL, the league that produced last year's first-rounder Beau Bennett for Pittsburgh. Boston College recruit has nice height (6-1) and hockey skills, but is very slender and not all that strong. He's got a lot of work to do off the ice and is a long-term investment kind of player for whichever team drafts him. He was productive for the Express this season with 26 goals and 67 points in 59 games. The West Vancouver native brings good hands and creativity to the mix as an effective playmaker who is always around the puck, but does not play a very physical game at all mainly because he's a stringbean right now who is physically underdeveloped. He brings some interesting potential to the mix even if he is on the long road to pro hockey.
9. Colten St. Clair, C Fargo (USHL)- Although not very big at 5-11, 190 pounds, St. Clair is strong on his skates and has the ability to get up under bigger guys who try to take runs at him to stay on his feet. He plays a physical style and shows off a good energy level. Ryan Clark, a hockey writer who covers the Fargo Force said that St. Clair has shown some good potential in flashes, but he is still a work in progress overall. Scouts we've talked to are only lukewarm on St. Clair, however and see him as more of a defensive player with limited NHL upside. The Arizona native has the look of a guy who will be a solid NCAA player and journeyman pro in the minor leagues, but simply does not possess the high-end skill set to be a long-term NHL player. At the same time, his effort and energy level is an asset and he could work hard enough to surprise. Longshot, but worth putting in the top-10 for now. Battled injuries this season- tallied 11 goals and 25 points in 39 games playing on the same team as Bruins prospect "the great" Zane Gothberg.
10. Evan Rodrigues, C Georgetown (OJHL)- Skilled little guy who has some real speed and hands, scoring 21 goals and 54 points for the Raiders this season in just 37 games. He's creative and always looking to score, but at 5-10, 170 is not strong and scouts we've talked to consider him to be a pretty soft player. Another undersized player who has missed time to injuries this season, his production in the OJHL is certainly a quality aspect to him- he tallied 20 goals and 51 points last season (in 56 games), so his developmental curve has been on an upward path. Intriguing late-round option and someone could jump up to take him as early as the 4th round.
11. Reid Boucher, LW U.S. NTDP (USHL)- Another small guy who just knows how to put the puck in the net. Led all scorers at the Five Nations in February. Different from Grimaldi in that he lacks Rocco's explosiveness and dynamic element, but uses his quickness, agility and killer instinct to bury chances in close. Has a very quick stick and is able to fight off defenders to get his lumber on the puck and get it on net in tight quarters. High compete level and just doesn't quit on a play even though he's smaller than most of the guys he's going up against. Low center of gravity makes him difficult to knock off stride and he keeps his feet moving. Going to Michigan State and should be a popular and productive player there for the Spartans. Scored 14 goals and 20 points in 24 USHL contests for the Under-18 team this season. As a Sep. 8, 1993 birthdate, one of the youngest players in the 2011 draft.
12. Connor Murphy, D U.S. NTDP (USHL)- If not for a back injury that kept him out for most of the year, Murphy would likely be higher on this list. At 6-3, 200 pounds, and with his NHL bloodlines, he's got plenty of the right attributes NHL teams love, even if he didn't get many games in. He played a very good Ivan Hlinka tourney in August, showing off good skating ability, a powerful shot and good defense in terms of exhibiting proper gap control, an active stick and taking the body. His hockey sense is a bit of a question at this point. He isn't the best player under pressure and in the face of an aggressive forecheck. His durability is also an issue; last season a spleen injury kept him out for extended action (2 games in USHL with Under-17 team) and this season, he only managed 9 total USHL games, but has scored 3 goals and 4 points for the Under-18 squad. He played in the Five Nations and acquitted himself well after being on the shelf for so long. This is the kind of player who is going to go off the board earlier than anticipated because even with the injury concerns, he simply has too much going for him in terms of physical attributes and upside.
13. Robbie Russo, D U.S. NTDP (USHL)-Smallish (5-11, 190) two-way defender is popular on some lists, but we're not among them. Too many of our sources question Russo's overall upside and inability to get much done offensively. As much as you hate to bang on a guy, he just does absolutely nothing for us as someone who lacks the size, speed and creativity to be the guy he's being hyped as: a puck mover with two-way potential in the NHL. He'll go to Notre Dame and perhaps elevate his pro potential there, but this season has been a wash, with just 6 assists in 24 USHL games with the Under-18 team.
14. Matthew Peca, LW Pembroke (CJHL)- Dynamic and hustling little bugger is only 5-9, 165 pounds but plays with a lot of energy and hustle. He scored 26 goals and 72 points for the Pembroke Lumber Kings at a much lower level than most draft prospects, but with his wheels, hockey sense and attitude is one of those guys you root for to achieve an NHL spot one day despite being a longshot. Red Line Report lauded him for his vision and soft hands. Made a name for himself at the World Jr. A Challenge. He was 110th on RLR's March rankings, and given that his coach, Sheldon Keefe, has said that plenty of NHL scouts have come out to see him this season, he should get picked up at some point. He is not related to former NHL player Michael Peca, but plays a similar style. Going to Quinnipiac for college next season and watch for him to be a successful player there given his all-around game and high compete levels.
15. Brennan Serville, D Stouffville (OJHL)- Good-sized defender at 6-3, 180 plays a pretty simple, no-frills game. Uses his body and reach to keep opponents away from the prime scoring areas of the ice. Nothing flashy, just rugged and honest. A good, not great skater; decent enough footwork, and not lumbering or awkward in his movements. Suffered an -ahem- gruesome lower body/groin injury from an errant skate blade at the World Jr. A Challenge and missed a lot of action there because of it but is OK (whew!). He's a University of Michigan recruit and should remind Wolverines fans a lot of former UM defender Mark Mitera. Was originally drafted in the OHL by the Sudbury Wolves but appears pretty committed to going the NCAA route. The Pickering, Ontario native had 3 goals and 30 points in 36 games with the Spirit this season, with a 1-8-9 line in 16 postseason games.
16. Charles Orzetti, LW New Jersey Hitmen (EJHL)- Gigantic winger (6-4, 220) from New Jersey is all raw potential and intriguing potential at this point. The Feb. 1992 birthdate and former Delbarton School standout missed all of last season with an injury and therefore was not drafted, but after 10 goals and 22 points in 29 games in the EJHL, he might get a very late look. Yale recruit is not much of a skater, but plays with an edge and has good hands in close. If he can pick up a few steps and continue playing a hard-nosed, physical game, he has potential as a lower-line player who brings toughness to the mix for his NHL club.
17. Brian Billett, G N.H. Jr. Monarchs (EJHL)- If you followed read B2010DW last season, you know how much we loved Billett. Much to our chagrin, the 6-1 netminder from Maine by way of Florida and South Carolina (his dad was in the Navy) was passed over in the draft after leading the Monarchs to the 2010 EJHL title, and the national Tier II Jr. championship in 2009. Well, he did it again this season- capturing another EJHL championship for the Monarchs and will go to Boston College, whose season ended on a crushing note to Colorado College last night. He's a butterfly goalie who manages to stay calm and composed in big games. This season, he went 19-2-1 with a 1.93 GAA and .930 save percentage. In the playoffs he was even better, going 6-0 with a 1.66 GAA and .950 save percentage. If we were on an NHL staff he would have been picked in 2010, so the question is- will some team step up to grab him. It isn't like he's a small guy a la John Muse and since 2009, he's gone 40-4-4 for Sean Tremblays powerhouse Monarchs, but the thing is- despite not seeing a lot of shots, he still makes the big stops and keeps his save percentage above 93 percent- that's remarkable for a team that doesn't give up a lot of scoring opportunities. He's a solid citizen and deserves a chance- we're still believers.