C Mike McLeod (Mississauga, OHL): if this kid could finish, he’d be our top-ranked forward, ahead of the Matthews’ and Laines of the draft world. McLeod put forth an exceptional performance, delivering difficult passes off super-charged rushes and using his NHL build to lean on smaller defenders for takeaways. Time and again, the Mississauga Steelhead pivot successfully breached Team Orr’s feeble attempts to obstruct his zone entries. He was simply too big, too fast, too strong, and too in control to be stopped. McLeod is an excellent playmaker, and it showed in Vancouver.
LW Vitalii Abramov (Gatineau, QMJHL): The undersized Russian was too much to handle for Team Orr, as they couldn’t gauge his intentions throughout the evening. His footwork and stickhandling are among the best of his draft class, and he dangled defensemen who are otherwise reliable. What stood out most was his escapability, as he continuosly found ways to either sneak away from being pinned, or changed directions heading into an obstacle. That being said, his egregious turnover in the defensive zone led to Pierre-Luc Dubois’ game winner, so it wasn’t exactly a night to remember for Abramov.
RW Alexander Nylander (Mississauga, OHL): Superstar athletes, especially those “born gifted” types, can sometimes look effortless when creating a Rembrandt. And yes, we classify Nylander as a star, albeit an amateur one. In the Top Prospects Game, the shot-happy Swede acquiesced to a more pass-centric strategy, as he used his keen vision and stickhandling to consistently find the open man from a static positions along the wall and from the corners. It seemed as if Nylander had no desire to shoot the puck — a stark contrast from last month’s World Juniors. Trust us; we mean this in a good way. Nylander’s pinpoint accuracy with his passes, and the situations he used them simply accentuated how fantastic a prospect he is.
C Pierre-Luc Dubois (Cape Breton, QMJHL): Hockey fans and draft junkies got a glimpse of what Dubois has been doing all season, even dating as far back as the Ivan Hlinka when he played on Canada’s top line. His blend of power, quickness and skill is certainly noteworthy, and he’s making a habit of providing big plays with a little more zest than your average highlight. He was tenacious on the forecheck, causing turnovers from using the body or simply placing his stick in the right position. With a goal and two assists on the night – the goal a give-and-go thing of beauty with Pascal Laberge – we felt he was clearly the game’s top performer. Lastly, he took and won three straight defensive zone draws in the game’s final minutes.
RW Pascal Laberge (Victoriaville, QMJHL): Laberge earned his two goals and an assist, schooling a flat-footed Alex DeBrincat with a drag-and-shoot on his first goal, then attacking a parting of the seas in the Team Cherry zone and finishing with a shot through Zach Sawchenko’s wickets. He also executed a textbook give-and-go feed with Dubois for his easy tap-in game winner, and was a responsible in-your-face checker with his stick in the right place. He has the look of a Sean Coutourier-type checker in that he can be developed and likely succeed at the highest level as a two-way type.
LW Max Jones (London, OHL): Hard remembering if he was this fast in the beginning of of season (or ever, for that matter). Jones was flying all night, pressuring puck carriers and using his mammoth wingspan to get in the way of ticketed passes. He drove the net and wasted little time firing shots off. Jones also strung together a series of consecutive strong shifts, which is what he’s been doing in London the past two months. His lackluster start to the season is clearly a thing of the past, but he needs the kind of expanded role he’ll never get with the Knights.
C Will Bitten (Flint, OHL): Such a clever and seemingly-undervalued puck possessor, with elite speed to boot. Bitten used his quickness to gain the outside edge on a few occasions, but cut his advances short in order to gain time and space while seeking a better option (or two). He displayed immediate chemistry during cycles with relatively foreign linemates, and didn’t rush a thing. His speed and tenacity may give off the impression of chaos, but take our word when we say it’s controlled. Bitten has a soft touch and his accurate lead passes catch his puck supporters in stride.
RW Alex DeBrincat (Erie, OHL): A handful of turnovers and the lack of multiple scoring chances made his night relatively disappointing. He still has such soft hands, and can really handle a hard pass. It hasn’t been the greatest of winters for him, but we’re not going to bet against him. We’re speculating in stating the WJC shoulder injury may still bother him.
LW Matt Tkachuk (London, OHL): His elite playmaking skills were on display, as was his strength and puck control. On one occasion, he corraled a loose puck and burst past Cychrun, forcing him to take a penalty. He worked well with Nylander and Brett Howden, but that line combination became redundant all three were constantly looking to pass to the points or behind the net. I guess we may have to accept that the only time Tkachuk will use his elite shot with regularity is if Auston Matthews is his center.
RW Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia, OHL): Kyrou had two assists on the night but could have had a few more. It was good to see him shoot the puck as well, as he used his speed and quick thinking to track loose pucks. He’s been up and down this season, but you saw in Vancouver how he can still produce with a reduced role.
LHD Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia, OHL): The fact that Chychrun, a defenseman, didn’t register a point, was a -2 and took a minor penalty doesn’t tell the entire story. Would we have liked our No. 2 ranked draft prospect to pile up the points and provide highlight-reel moves? No, because that’s not why we rank him so high. We saw a cerebral Chychrun on Thursday night, communicating, reading plays before they developed, and displaying a three-zone calmness rarely seen in a draft-eligible defenseman. And though he inexcusably tried to force a pass or two, we thought he did a decent job finding openings and attacking them. On one occasion, he entered the zone clean, alley-ooped a soft dump-in to the near corner, then snuck into the left circle for a shot that deflected off the crossbar. One sequence summed up what sets him apart from the rest: in the 2nd period, during what turned out to be nearly a two-minute shift, he had a risky outlet pass picked off cleanly inside his own blue line, but reacted fast enough with proper stick positioning to deflect the diagonal pass to an open cutter. That same shift, he caught up to Taylor Raddysh to rub him out in the far corner, but was guilty of puck gazing towards the back of the net, allowing an open Raddysh to get a clean look from the low slot, which Chychrun ended up smothering. The point is not to have young defenseman play mistake-free hockey. What’s important is reacting properly to their own mistakes regardless of frequency, and no draft-eligible defenseman does that better than Chychrun.
LHD Sean Day (Mississauga, OHL): A lot of the pre-game talk involved prospects like Day who haven’t had the best of draft seasons, and how imperitive it was to start turning things around. His subsequent performance at the Top Prospects Game was far from legendary, but he displayed a confidence rarely seen from him while with Mississauga. Day was paired with Kelowna blueliner Lucas Johansen, and in terms of performance, we thought Day was in the upper half of a very talented group of defensemen. His passes were crisp, like the three-zone stretch pass which would have sprung Ty Ronning for a breakaway had he handled it cleanly. Or his 150-footer to Logan Brown which sprung Abramov for a chance. Day also showed capability of handling a forecheck, and took the hit to make a clean play.
LHD Jake Bean (Calgary, WHL): Bean started off strong in all three zones, dictating play with his head up and properly positioning himself during board play. There was one instance where he was puck gazing for a second or two after a scrum in the near corner, thus allowing Vitalii Abramov to slip past him towards the net with a sizeable gap between them. Luckilly for Bean, a centering pass never materialized. In the second period, Bean’s Jekyl-and-Hyde decision making resurfaced, first by attacking an open lane with a rush and a shot, then inexcusable throwing the puck towards the middle not once, but twice on the same shift. Perplexing play, to say the least, but he’s got so much potential you might (key word) be able to stomach it.
LHD Markus Niemelainen (Saginaw, OHL): Add this big Finnish blueliner to the list of risk takers who toe that line on a shift-to-shift basis. His game is reminiscent of New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, but not the pre-injuries version. He was actively shooting the puck, which is nice, but overall, we saw a young rearguard who simply doesn’t understand the nuances of the position. He overcommitted, overplayed and overestimated the play in front of him, and failed to identify danger spots, when the prudent thing to do is backtrack and consolidate. And this type of behavior wasn’t exclusive in the TPG – it was a microcosm of his season.
LHD Samuel Girardi (Shawinigan, QMJHL): Girard was paired with the mistake-prone Niemelainen at both even strength and on Team Cherry’s second power play unit. He looked his usual self, taking the puck from behind the net and into the opposing zone with precision and authority. His diagonal passes were hard and accurate, and he stayed within himself and didn’t try to overhandle the puck. Defensively, he had a couple of rough shifts when his size was a disadvantage, as the bigger Dubois forced him into a turnover and scoring chance by simply outmuscling him.
RHD Luke Green (Saint John, QMJHL): He was the forgotten prospect heading into the game (well, sort of), but Green distinguished himself on the blue line with confident and heady play. Paired with Jake Bean, Green was the responsible one when it came to breaking out, and he played a near perfect match considering the stakes and obvious visibilty. We like his confident mobility, accurate shot and quick-strike mentality, but he did so without exposing himself to a deadly counterattack. We think he’s the kind of player who would be far more recognizable if he was his junior team’s go-to guy. But on this night, he sure played like one.
LHD Olli Juolevi (London, OHL): Add another all-around performance to his pre-draft resume. Juolevi flashed his skill and aggressiveness in the offensive zone. He made several tape-to-tape paases with a high degree of difficulty, and showed poise when he safely cradled the puck along the enemy blue line with a checker right in his grill. He didn’t make poor decisions in his own end as well. It’s a pleasure watching this lad quickly develop into a complete defenseman as the season progresses.
LHD Logan Stanley (Mississauga, OHL): Stanley displayed glimpses of a steady defender, but offered next to nothing in terms of offense. He made a handful of mistakes in the early portion of the game before settling into a comfort zone while paired with Windsor teammate Mikhail Sergachyov. We always thought of him as too raw for the first round, but we get the idea behind picking him that high.
G Evan Fitzpatrick (Sherbrooke, QMJHL): Would you look at that — a goalie on a struggling team played a near-perfect (exhibition) match when supported by elite talent. Fitzpatrick was active in his period and a half of action, timing his puck retrievals well and releasing himself from the confines of the blue paint. He wasn’t spectacular, but that was because he didn’t have to be. Still, we give the kid kudos for pitching a 17-save shutout while battling a stomach bug.