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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Here come the little guys- 2011 edition (Part 1)

Last season, we did a post highlighting some of the key players under 6-feet tall available in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. One of them was Ryan Spooner, who as most Bruins fans know, has developed into one of the more popular prospects in Boston's system after the team took him 45th overall.

In keeping with the spirit of championing the skilled small guy, here is the list of players who are worth following for the 2011 draft. It is not a comprehensive list, but more of a swag and attempt to capture some of the better little guys who have the skills and attitude to make themselves into players at the highest level. Those are the players that NHL clubs are willing to spend draft picks on, even if some of them tend to go later than their talent level/skills package would otherwise dictate.

We're going to break this up into several posts so we don't give the short-shrift to it. And yes, we know that we owe another goaltender review in the near future too, so consider this a downpayment.

Ryan Murphy, D Kitchener (OHL) 5-10, 176- The best of this year's small men, this dynamic defender has been a hot topic among Bruins fans who care enough about the draft to pay attention throughout the year. We saw him live in January and were blown away by his wheels and puckhandling ability. There is absolutely no denying that this kid has the requisite skill level to be an NHL player one day, and his defensive positioning is fine. The concerns that come from NHL scouts about Murphy is whether he will physically be able to match up against the big, powerful forwards he's sure to go up against and whether he'll be a regular rotation 'D' or more of a specialist. His coach, Steve Spott, needs absolutely no convincing that it will be the former for Murphy, so we think he'll be a top-10 pick come June. He's so skilled and has high character/is a good teammate. The only thing working against him is his 5-10 frame (listed at 5-11, but he's shorter- trust us) and lack of strength. Everything else about him is absolutely NHL caliber, and if you talk about players with upside in this draft, Murphy stands out as one of the best at any position.

Alex Khokhlachev, C Windsor (OHL) 5-10, 172- This uber-skilled Russian left the Mother Land for North America and the OHL this season and it is going to work in his favor at the draft. Had he remained overseas, he would have fallen down in the draft simply because of signability concerns and a lack of viewing, but being in the spotlight means teams have a solid read. Like many smallish Russians, he's a tremendous skater who can burn defenders with his jets or use his slippery lateral agility to pull guys out of position as he blows by them. His stickhandling is outstanding, and with his nose for the net, he can bury the puck from just about anywhere on the ice. His 34 goals and 70 points is third on the Spitfires in scoring behind Ryan Ellis and Zack Kassian, and he made a seamless transition from Europe to North America. His defense is suspect and there isn't much of a physical element to this guy, but in terms of pure offensive skills and ability to score, he's right up there with the best.

Shane Prince, LW Ottawa (OHL) 5-10, 185- One of B2011DW's favorite players from this class, Prince is the third of a trifecta of small, but very offensively gifted players in the OHL. He was at one point leading the OHL in scoring until a shoulder injury in January forced him out of the lineup several different times, derailing his efforts. Through 57 games, he has 25 goals, 63 assists and 88 points. He's shattered his previous season-best of 30 points last year, split between Kitchener and Ottawa. He's blazing fast with terrific offensive instincts and soft hands. A playmaking winger who is an underrated finisher, there is so much to like in this Rochester, NY-area (Spencerport to be exact) native's game. He isn't as highly rated in other sources, but we feel that Prince is an accomplished enough two-way player that he's worth spending a first-round pick on. He's another player with a great deal of upside and has everything going for him- good attitude, strong family with very good bloodlines (father played junior hockey, younger sister Olivia is an accomplished gymnast) and a very good work ethic. Like Spooner last year, if Prince slips into the second round, the team that gets him could have a steal on their hands.

Sven Bartschi, LW Portland (WHL) 5-10, 183- Yet another highly skilled small player, his 81 points (30 goals) are tied with Ryan Johansen for the team lead in scoring. The Langenthal, Switzerland native is a finesse winger with excellent wheels and a killer shot. He's a dangerous offensive player that scouts really like despite his undersized frame and lack of strength. We weren't all that impressed with Bartschi at the WJC, where he looked much more like a perimeter player who didn't get himself greasy. That said, we've not seen him in the WHL, and he's obviously doing something right. We also talked to several NHL scouts about him in Buffalo, and B2011DW is in the minority when it comes to Bartschi: he's going to go higher than we would take him, and he's a good kid, so there isn't much you can go wrong with given his speed, quick stick and penchant for putting up points. So long as your team can live with his tendency to avoid contact and not drive to the net as much as he could, he's got a high ceiling.

Rocco Grimaldi, C U.S. NTDP (USHL) 5-6, 161- Let it be said right now: B2011DW loves this guy, and we have for some time. He's the smallest of the legitimate draft prospects in class, but boy, can this kid ever play! He might have rockets attached to his skates given the way he flies all over the ice and his hands are just sublime. He takes the puck to the net and great things follow whenever he does. The passion and energy that he plays with is infectious, and you can't help but root for him. The inevitable comparisons to Brian Gionta are legitimate, and time and time again, we've seen small guys with elite skating and puck skills turn out to be fine NHL players. Put Grimaldi in this category as well. All he's done is score in bunches, and for such a small guy, his 11-12-23 line in 19 USHL games this season is simply outstanding. The size is obviously going to drop him, but we're honestly not sure how far, simply because he's such a game-breaker. Watch for him to tear it up for North Dakota immediately upon arriving in Grand Forks, and Grimaldi will be worth waiting for down the road for the NHL team who rolls the dice on him.

Daniel Catenacci, LW Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 5-10, 180- The 2009 OHL draft's top pick had a strong Ivan Hlinka tourney in August and has taken off from there, more than doubling his production from a year ago with the Greyhounds and making himself into a legitimate top-60 selection in June. The son of Murphy's coach for the York-Simcoe Express (Maurice Catenacci) is another super-skilled waterbug of a player who has excellent speed, super balance on his edges and quick hands. He also plays with a real edge as evidenced by his 105 penalty minutes this season. His 26-42-68 stats line on a weak team is a pretty good accomplishment and you have to give the guy credit for overcoming the disappointment being associated with him as the OHL's top bantam pick by having a strong draft year to convince scouts of his worthiness as an NHL prospect.

Adam Clendening, D Boston University (HE) 5-11, 187- We won't say a great deal about upstate NY native and former U.S. NTDP standout given that you can read the in-depth scouting report we recently published on him right here. He grew up a Bruins fan despite being in the middle of Buffalo Sabres country because his dad was a lifelong Boston booster after getting to know old B's junior players from Niagara Falls like Derek Sanderson, Don Awrey and Bernie Parent to name a few. Clendening's lack of size and speed will work against him, but he has an excellent touch on the puck and is a very heady player.

Mike St. Croix, C Edmonton (WHL) 5-11, 163- This highly talented pivot was a polarizing player among scouts because while nobody doubted his high-end puck skills and offensive hockey sense, he began the season playing so indifferently in his own end. Reports out of the west say that he picked things up considerably a month in, and has quietly positioned himself to be a solid first-round pick with 26 goals and 72 points for the Oil Kings, second to Dylan Wruck (74 points) and even smaller skill player (5-8) for them (we'll address Wruck in Pt. 2 coming soon). B2011DW has been slow to come around on St. Croix because we heard he was such a "dog" (NHL scout's words) in the defensive zone. But, to the youngster's credit, he's not only continued scoring at an impressive clip, he's shown more diligence and a willingness to stick his nose in and play hard.

Phillip Danault, LW Victoriaville (QMJHL) 5-11, 165- The highly skilled forward works very hard for his chances and is a coach's dream. He's one of those guys who never stops moving his feet and creates chances because he outworks everyone else on the ice. He's put up some nice production with 21 goals, 63 points in 61 games this season and we're sure NHL teams like him because of his hustle and intelligence. That said, he's not very strong and is going to require a lot of time and patience to develop to the point that he can be an active contributor in the NHL. Another member of the 2011 gold medal Ivan Hlinka squad, he's a feel-good story for Victoriaville: his father is the team's PA announcer and young Phillip grew up bleeding the black and gold of les Tigres. Like Grimaldi, he's someone you pull for because he's good for hockey, but Danault is nowhere near as talented as the Californian.

Thats a wrap on part 1. We will return with capsules on Tobias Rieder, Shane McColgan, Matt Nieto, Colten St. Clair, Alan Quine and Victor Arvidsson among others.

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