Along with about another 200 or 300 people I attended the first day of Prospects Development Camp at the PNC Arena today. Much like last year there was a strong feeling of anticipation in the air. Unlike last year, things felt more organized, more pulled together, more professional. As I entered the arena coaches were working with the 4 goalies in attendance: Alex Nedeljkovic, Callum Booth, Jack Lafontaine, and Jeremy Helvig. Basically it was 3 big guys and one not so big. That size differential would help me to identify Alex Nedeljkovic later in the day.
Soon, the rest of the guys trickled out on the ice, 23 more young men filled with energy and expectation. The crowd would soon be treated to a series of drills filled with quick passes, full speed rushes, quick changes of direction, and circling back around to do it all over again. While I"m sure there was a method to Coach Peters' madness, much of it looked a lot like organized chaos. However, after a while I could pick up certain skills and characteristics of various prospects. The biggest challenge for me was the lack of numbers on jerseys. One had to really pay attention to the smallish numbers found on each player's helmut. In the end there were a few of the guys that I just didn't get a very good read on. As I plan on attending tomorrow's session as well, my hope is to focus on those guys I didn't get a chance to get a good read on today.
What follows is my uneducated report of my viewing of the prospects and my untrained impressions. Much like last year, I truly enjoy seeing these guys and hope, by the end of the week, that I have a better feel for them and their potential.
Overall the guys are bigger, faster, but with about the same skill level as last year's group. Some of this manifested itself as pure stick-handling at speed. In other cases the shooting seemed to be a bit more accurate this year. There's something about seeing a score of guys over 6 feet tall and weighing about 200 lbs flying up and down the ice, that is eye-opening. This is a good group of prospects that tick off most of the characteristics we would hope to see in our youngsters. While there was less of the flashy technical skill of a Noah Hanifin, a Lucas Wallmark, or a Sergey Tolchinsky, there was much more of a broader-based, well-rounded aptitude of a Roland McKeown, Andrew Poturalski, or a Janne Kuokkanen.
Some guys I expected to shine based on either their press clippings or the mere fact of this being a return engagement, didn't necessarily live up to my hopes. While other guys pleasantly surprised. Those guys, in particular, shined very brightly in my estimation. Some youngsters seemed to have a little something extra and proved to be special in this initial viewing.
Jake Bean - He's young. He was clearly nervous. And he has oodles of talent. In particular, his skating and his passing ability are both something special. He was very poised and made beautiful tape to tape passes at speed. His quick stick allowed him to make some nice defensive "strips". He also got used badly twice that I saw, both times by older, more experienced guys (once by McLovin....er, uh Warren Foegele and the other time by Steve Lorentz). But he didn't seem flustered or frazzled in the least, just getting back to the business at hand. As a matter of fact, after Lorentz stripped him of the puck, he recovered nicely and made a nice play to eventually break up an offensive rush. And in one case he hooked up on a 2 on 1 defensive rush with Roland McKeown for a beautiful feed for a goal. He'll be good, but my initial impression is that he's got some learning yet to do.
Valentin Zychov - My first impression was that he'd been spending too much time at Bojangles in the off season. He flat out looked pudgy in my initial look. But then as I watched further, it occurred to me that he wasn't fat, but merely thick, built something like the proverbial beer keg. He's not a particularly graceful skater but gets around the ice pretty well. He's also not fast but seems very smart about both offensive and defensive positioning. And he's a serious sniper. I saw at least three top corner shots, rifled past an unprepared minder. His stick-handling is also quite good. Still, I couldn't help but get the impression that Pete Friesen is going to have a field day with this guy's diet and workout plan.
Haydn Fleury - He impressed me last year with the amount of "size" he added. He was clearly stronger than when he was drafted. Fleury still has that look to him. He was big. He was fast. Most of all, he was poised. Peters used him a couple of times in what I would have called a leadership role. That wrist shot that impressed me so much last year was also again on display. My sense is that he's going to be pushing very hard for a job in Raleigh. He's bigger than Hanifin and has a better shot. He's got similar straight-line speed. He cannot, however, hold a candle to Hanifin's broader skating ability nor can he touch his creativity....yet.
Alex Nedeljkovic - Full disclosure here, Ned was the only goalie that I could definitively tell apart from the trio of other netminders (who all stand 6'3" to Nedeljkovic's 5'11"). What I could tell you is that he showed some of his cat-like quickness and his acrobatic skills that have served him so well. I saw two separate times when he shut down close-in, open net opportunities. He's got a very good glove. He also did not give up a single significant rebound that I saw. He was generally impressive.
All the Goalies - Simply put, as a group, they were all better than last year's crop. They all seemed smoother and more technically sound.
Warren Foegele - He looked like that cagey veteran out there. He was smooth and seemed to be in the right position for drills consistently. He also didn't disappoint; that kid's got some serious jets. If not the fastest guy out there, he was again, one of the fastest. He also had some sweet shots that found the back of the net with some "fumbles" mixed in. Still, it was clear he was a year older and that much more experienced than many of the other, younger guys.
Julien Gauthier - I had to keep looking up his number because I would have sworn that a guy who could skate as well and as gracefully around the rink as he could had to be a smaller dude. Yet, that 6'4" body smoothly moved from drill to drill. He sniped several good shots too. There was one shot where he totally fooled the goalie with his quick release, roofing the puck just under the crossbar. He also missed two opportunities to pass to wide open teammates. That will be something that he has to work on to make it successfully to the next level. People collapse on the big guy. He needs to be able to quickly identify his passing options and dish when appropriate. I didn't see that from him today. Still, he was exciting to watch.
Andrew Poturalski - The University of New Hampshire product may prove to be one of the coups of Ron Francis's tenure. Most know that he was a big-time NCAA scorer, but as a smallish guy (5'10", 190 lbs.) there were concerns about how his game would translate. Well today, he was clearly one of the best forwards on the ice. His decision-making was superb, making all the right passes and creating scoring opportunities multiple times. And he buried every shot that I saw him attempt. One of those shots he head-faked the goalie and then put an easy wrister over his glove-side shoulder. He was fast, active, and seemed to be soaking it all up. Now as an older kid, he may have an advantage, but I would suggest that he's somebody to watch this Summer and Fall. I don't think he'll make the team out of camp. But I won't be surprised if he's one of the leading scorers in Charlotte.
Roland McKeown - There's a reason that the coaches love this guy. He's a leader and a thinker. Almost always in the right position at the right time, he seemed to know when to break for the net offensively, and pushed his man consistently to the outside on defense. He was also a surprisingly good passer and, as previously mentioned, put a nice finish on a Jake Bean feed. Like Fleury, he's nearly ready for the show and won't be out of place at all in a Top 4 role in Charlotte.
Hudson Elynuik - One of this year's 3rd round picks, this kid is HUGE. He's also surprisingly agile on his skates with good speed and able to change directions quickly. His shot is very hard and mostly accurate. He hit two posts and put two others in the back of the net via nice "roofs". He also made a slick play in front of the net whipping the puck through one of the bigger goalie's "five hole". He's still rough and raw, but he could easily be a nice 3rd round find.
Janne Kuokkanen - While I'd hoped for more fireworks from the young Finn a la Aho, he was really smooth, poised and skilled. He's got a very good shot, but made a number of nice dishes that pointed out his "distributor" skillset. His skating is pretty solid as well. At one point Zykov, Elynuik, and Kuokkanen had a rush that ended with a perfect tic-tac-toe pass and Janne had the finish (pun intended). I'll be watching him closely tomorrow.
Nicolas Roy - He was clearly the other "best forward" on the ice. Most markedly, his skating has dramatically improved. His speed was good and his edge-work, in particular, looked solid. He stick-handled in traffic quite well and even when the puck bounced off of his stick he recovered to make the smart play. His shot is world class and his passing was near perfect. Roy is another guy who looked like he continued to soak up the coaching in big gulps. If today was any indication, he's going to be pushing quite hard for a roster spot. His improvement was that good in my eyes.
Best of the Rest - Guys I didn't really see a lot out of included Matt Filipe, Spencer Smallman, Max Zimmer, Noah Carroll, or any of the camp invitees. Luke Stevens looks to have filled out a bit this year. He's a smooth skater, but still looks young and a little lost out there. David Cotton had one of the sweetest plays where he rushed the puck up, circled around behind the net, and put a nice feed on Nic Roy's stick for a score. Steve Lorentz didn't look bad at all, but I had hoped for more. His skating does appear to have improved though. Josh Wesley was conspicuous in his low key performance. He didn't do anything special but he also seemed like he was always in the right place at the right time. He might have picked up a tick or two on his speed as well.
I'll be back at it tomorrow trying to get a read on some of the other guys and get a better feel on the guys I thought excelled today. All in all this is a quality group of prospects. Ron Francis and company should feel good about the job they did at these last two drafts.