Deep American draft crop attracting attention

by Steve Kournianos

American Might

It appears to be a banner draft year for USA Hockey, not only for the star power its National Team Development Program possesses, but also in both the high school and USHL ranks. One player to keep an eye on for the 2019 NHL Draft is Chicago Steel left wing Robert Mastrosimone, a Long Island native who earlier this month was with Team USA at the under-18 Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic. Committed to Boston University, Mastrosimone is an electrifying sniper with a deadly shot who consistently stands out during his shifts. He’s a tough, inside player who can beat goalies from just about anywhere, as was evident in his two-goal performance at Central Illinois on Saturday.

Aaltonen’s draft stock improving

Finnish winger Leevi Aaltonen is one of the fastest skaters among 2019 draft hopefuls, but there were times when he looked comfortable on the outside and lacked intensity beyond having the puck in open ice. Well, somebody must have spoken to him about it, because his play in the last month has been more than inspiring. Although seeing limited minutes for Tappara in Finland’s elite Liiga, Aaltonen is starting to dig deep in trench battles and fight for positioning. Sure, he’s not the biggest kid on the block (5’9, 177), but his compete level has increased, and you see him spending more time below his own circles in support of his defensemen. The stats don’t always tell the whole story, so it’s important to identify a youngster with the reputation as a finesse player fine-tune his game in other important areas.

Alexandrov heating up for Charlottetown

It’s always good to see kids rebound from slow starts to their draft season, so a stick tap is in order for Charlottetown center Nikita Alexandrov, a Russian-German import who in November has been one of the QMJHL’s top scorers among draft prospects. Known for being a high-volume shooter, Alexandrov has been far more generous with his passing lately, and he has found success in expanded his role as the Islanders’ second-line pivot. The late 2000-born scorer has registered 11 points (3g, 8a) in a recent six-game point streak and has 23 points in his last 17 games after recording just three in his first nine.

Rude welcome

Kingston defenseman Billy Constantinou’s debut weekend with the Frontenacs probably is one he’d like to forget. A fantastic skater with moves and passing ability that remind you of a young Duncan Keith, Constantinou was on the losing end of a pair of 8-2 losses to Peterborough and Sarnia over the weekend, going minus-3 in each match and having some issues with puck management. Not a big deal if you’re the type who focuses more on NHL upside and honing already impressive skills over stats, but Constantinou being traded to Kingston’s worst team in seven seasons could impact his draft stock.

Tilted ice in Toronto

Stanley Cup aspirations in the city of Toronto are very real, and deservedly so. But the Maple Leafs probably should tighten up defensively if they want to win their first title since 1967. In a 5-2 loss at Carolina on Nov. 21, Toronto was pelted with 29 shots in the first period alone, which triggered my interest in title-winning clubs and shot prevention. Through their first 25 games, the Maple Leafs are 30th in shots allowed at even strength (718) and 29th with 1347 attempts against. The last championship team to finish as low as second-to-last in shots allowed during the regular season were the 1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins, who placed 20th in a 21-team league.

Hextall out as Flyers’ GM

The early season’s hockey news cycle has been dominated by firings, and Philadelphia Flyers’ general manager Ron Hextall became the latest victim when he was relieved of his duties on Monday. The former Conn Smythe winner and Philly fan favorite was given a tough job when he was hired in 2013 after a successful run as an assistant to Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles, and Hextall did excellent work stockpiling Philadelphia’s farm system with multiple blue-chip prospects. He inherited a significant problem between the pipes, and this year’s two-headed monster of Brian Elliott and Calvin Pickard couldn’t combine to match the production and effort of a lineup loaded with talent. It’s puzzling that Hextall was so tight-gripped with his prospects, and his trade resume as the GM of a fringe playoff team beyond puzzling since the biggest name he brought in was Valtteri Filppula at the 2017 deadline. The firing makes sense though, as Philadelphia is looking at its seventh-straight season without a playoff series win.