With 40 of the top draft-eligible prospects playing at the same time, the Canadian Hockey League Top Prospects Game is an oasis of talent for travel-weary junior scouts.
Chris Edwards, the senior North American scout for NHL Central Scouting, said having the top players in the CHL in one place all at once is a welcome relief from making long trips through dismal weather to see “maybe two or three guys.”
The trip for Halifax for Wednesday’s game should be worth it for any scout. Edwards says he would be surprised if anybody in the game went undrafted.
But Kyle Woodlief, the chief scout for Red Line Report, a Lake Placid, N.Y., based scouting service that sells to all 30 NHL teams, said a top prospects game presents a challenge for scouts.
Woodlief said a normal CHL game can offer at most six or seven players worth watching. That means the prospect game creates a more frenetic pace for a scribbling scout.
“They’re all players of interest,” Woodlief said. “The vast majority of players are in Red Line’s top three rounds.”
Woodlief said he and another Red Line scout will each watch a team and then swap after each period.
Edwards said NHL Central Scouting will have five scouts at the game and most NHL teams will have at least two scouts.
“Some of the teams will actually hold their meetings around this event, so they might bring in everybody,” said Edwards, who is based in Belleville, Ont., and has been with the NHL for 23 years.
Traditionally, the Top Prospects Game has the intensity of an all-star contest, but that has changed.
Winnipeg’s Madison Bowey, who plays for the Kelowna of the Western Hockey League, saw the difference last year when the Rockets hosted it.
“It’s a battle out there on the ice and I’m ready for it,” said the defenceman, who is ranked 22nd among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
Bowey, who will suit up for Team Orr, said players are aware that dozens of scouts will be watching every move. But he says players have to prepare for this like any other game.
Most Players can expect less ice time than they get with their club teams. Woodlief says the coaches in this game usually roll four lines of forwards and three pairs of defencemen.
Kingston Frontenacs forward Ryan Kujawinski says players need to force themselves to “stay in it mentally and be ready for every shift.”
It’s an adjustment, but the players need to try to make an impression on every shift.
“I think I need to be a bit more physical and finish every check,” said the native of Iroquois Falls, Ont., who will suit up for Team Cherry. “I think there’s going to be a lot of emotion out there and it’s going to be a pretty physical game.”
There have been fights in the prospect game in recent years, something that was unheard of in earlier editions of the game.
“The intensity is pretty high and these guys know that there are NHL general managers in the crowd,” Edwards said.
Woodlief, who is in his 20th season of running Red Line, says the game still tends to favour skill players rather than more physical prospects such as Ryan Hartman of the Plymouth Whalers.
Woodlief described the Chicago native as “a really nasty, physical aggressive player who challenges everybody at every moment.”
Hartman helped the United States win gold at the world junior championship and relishes the opportunity to bring his style to a game featuring so much talent.
“I’m just going to stick with my game and do what I do best and showcase myself,” said Hartman, who will no doubt endear himself to his coach, Don Cherry.
“I’ll block a shot whenever I have to and make hits,” Hartman said.
“If you can show that you can have a good game and play against top-end guys like this, it could really make a difference.”
The game provides a golden opportunity for skilled players who are on veteran-laden clubs a chance to shine with some better talent than they’re used to working with. This game could help a player such as Jason Dickinson of the Guelph Storm.
“He’s a guy who doesn’t get to play with a lot of skilled guys on his line in Guelph,” Woodlief said. “He’s a super-skilled player.”
Seth Jones is fresh off a gold-medal winning performance at the world junior tournament that helped the Portland Winter Hawks defenceman take over the top spot in among Central Scouting’s ranking of North American skaters.
“I’m not really looking at that kind of stuff,” Jones said. “Just because my team won the gold medal doesn’t mean I separated myself from the pack.”
Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads are the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked skaters and they had disparate world junior performances.
“Drouin showed that he’s just a special kid,” Woodlief said. “The fact that he fit in so seamlessly on the top line tells you all you need to know about his skill level.”
As for MacKinnon, he was thrust into the unfamiliar role of checker and Woodlief is willing to cut him some slack.
MacKinnon, who will play on Team Cherry with Drouin against Jones who is on Team Orr, says it will be a “competitive game” but there is no extra motivation to change the rankings.
He doesn’t think his performance at the world juniors leaves him with something to prove.
“My role was a checking role,” MacKinnon said. “The world juniors isn’t a showcase for individuals.”
Jones says he looks forward to playing against the best of the best.
“That’s when the most competitive hockey comes out in you,” said the six-foot-three blueliner.
Both Edwards and Woodlief support scrapping the skills competition, which has been removed from the event this year. They say it was mostly a fan event that didn’t help scouts. This year, there were two open practices at Halifax Metro Centre.