Turkey and a win over the Wheaties is great recipe

Keep an eye on all of these guys between now and June. From left, Brandon defencemen Ivan Provorov and Ryan Pilon, Hitmen forward Terrell Draude, and Wheaties netminder Jordan Papirny in the background (photo from Hitmenhockey.com)

I’m a little late to this weekend’s Hitmen/2015 draft wrap, and I’m sorry for that. Canadian Thanksgiving, and all its delicious turkey and stuffing and gravy are very much to blame for the delay. The delay ends now though–much like Brandon’s unbeaten season ended Sunday.

Let’s start there, since it was the most intriguing matchup for a lot of reasons. As mentioned, Brandon were unbeaten (in regulation) before Sunday’s trip to the Dome, making them a strong test for the still-kinda-scuffling Hitmen. They also brought some exciting prospects with them, which pro and amateur draftniks alike were thankful for. Central Scouting’s watch list includes three Wheaties skaters and a goalie. Although the Hitmen won 6-2, the game was nowhere near that lopsided and each of the listed Wheaties left strong impressions.

We’ll start with forward Jesse Gabrielle. Listed as a third liner, Gabrielle is currently tied for second in scoring for the high-octane Wheaties, outpacing highly-touted 2014 picks John Quenneville and Reid Duke (who doubles as a big-time in-season acquisition). Gabrielle used his size effectively, hounding Calgary’s smallish defenders all afternoon, and playing pest perfectly against a team known for taking too many penalties (more on this in a moment).

The real draw for this club are a pair of defencemen whose names you should start getting to know: Ryan Pilon and Ivan Provorov. With nine and eight points respectively, this dynamic duo are making their mark in the offensive zone as well as at home along the blue line. Pilon’s own-zone coverage appeared more polished than Provorov’s, and Pilon looked a little more comfortable with the physical game (not that Provorov was any shrinking violet–he mixed it up plenty). Central Scouting lists both as B players. Their rankings should improve if Brandon continues to have success. Neither looks ready to jump directly into the NHL, leaving the Wheaties blue line in good shape this season and next (it’s obviously folly to try to handicap the 2015-16 season while we’re still figuring out this season, but a lot of smart folks are already penciling Brandon in as favourites to head to Red Deer in 2016).

Last among Brandon’s listed players is goaltender Jordan Papirny, a second-time eligible goaltender. Papirny was better Sunday than the scoreline would indicate (an empty netter and a 59th-minute goal padded Calgary’s totals), and while it’s unlikely he’ll play his way into the first round, he’ll make a nice prospect that some team can bring up slowly through the ranks.

That was a lot of words about the team I dislike the most in the Dub. So here’s a little about the good guys. It’s time for a shout-out to Chase Lang. When Lang came to the Hitmen, he looked like a little kid in his dad’s clothes, and while he’s still not quite filled out his uniform, he’s grown in leaps and bounds on the ice. Langer hit the post roughly 75 times last season, but did so many unheralded things (almost always making the right pass, winning lots of key faceoffs in both ends, working his tail off, and killing penalties) the Minnesota Wild took a chance on him in the sixth round of June’s draft. Already, he’s beginning to look like a steal. His puck-luck has come around, and he’s tied for second in the league with seven goals, leads the Hitmen in points, and has effectively taken over the job as number one centre.

On the prospect front, Terrell Draude was left off CSS’s preliminary list, which must have been disappointing for the former second-round WHL pick and Canadian U-17 representative. In the last three or four Hitmen home games, he’s been making a strong case to land on someone’s draft list. In eight games this season, he’s already eclipsed his meagre seven point output in 47 games last season, albeit playing significantly more minutes and with better linemates than he had last season. His skating is a work-in-progress, but appears to have improved from even three weeks ago, and his decision making has improved to the point he’s occasionally been rewarded with second-line (and first powerplay) time.

Earlier in the weekend, Calgary hosted Victoria and dropped a 3-2 heartbreaker. Victoria’s Tyler Soy was named the game’s first star after scoring a goal and an assist in the Royals’ comeback victory. Soy showed an impressive first step both with and without the puck, often needing just a stride of two to get to top speed–or evading defenders with one very good first step.

After seeing Austin Carroll’s hit on Alex Schoenborn (stick tap to @hawkeyblog for the vid)…

…and seeing him level Connor Rankin with a similar hit Friday night, it’s beginning to seem obvious this is a player who plays beyond the line. I disagree with hawkeyblog’s assessment that having more goons around will help to eliminate this garbage, but I wholeheartedly agree that it needs to go. I’ll never fully understand how Carroll escaped suspension. The league needs to get serious about penalizing these incidents as they happen, and then handing out supplementary discipline.

And speaking of discipline, let’s get around to that point about the Hitmen and penalties. Calgary allowed two powerplay goals in the third period against Victoria, en route to blowing a 2-0 lead after two. They’ve been shorthanded 36 times already, through eight games, including five different 5-on-3 situations. It’s the same old song in Calgary, as the team just can’t stay out of the penalty box. They were shorthanded just three times Sunday against Brandon, and in a close game, they were able to score an insurance goal in the third instead of spending time killing penalties.

Get ready Alberta

With the Rebels winning the 2016 Memorial Cup, there’s even more to cheer about in Alberta than just junior hockey’s biggest prize.

Wednesday afternoon, the WHL awarded the 2016 Memorial Cup to the Red Deer Rebels, over the Vancouver Giants. While Vancouver is a lovely city, would make an OK host for the Mem Cup, and is a pretty ideal travel destination, I’m glad Red Deer won the bid.

I’ve been to the Rebels’ rink–the Enmax Centrium–a couple times. It’s a beauty. It’s got big, wide, open concourses. The sight lines seem pretty good from just about any seat. Getting in and out of the building itself is a breeze, and the on-site parking lot is top notch.

If there’s a complaint to be made about the rink, it’s about the location. It’s sort of outskirtsy, and not particularly close to hotels travelers and the teams will be using. Otherwise, it’s the platonic ideal of a big junior hockey arena.

Another benefit to having the Mem Cup in Red Deer is that it’s a stone’s throw for most of the Central Division teams to get to, which is great news for those of us that want to see more great hockey

The WHL’s Central Division has long been home to some of the best hockey around, and has been one of the most competitive divisions in hockey. You have to go back to the 2005-06 WHL season to find one without a Central Division team in the final. And a Central team’s been in all but two finals since 1998-99.

The rich teams in Calgary and Edmonton have already been locked in a pretty epic battle for the last two seasons, and they’re not going to let an opportunity to play in a Mem Cup so close to their backyards go to waste. Medicine Hat and Kootenay don’t have the resources Calgary and Edmonton do, but that’s never stopped them from being on-ice equals with the big boys. Obviously as hosts, Red Deer is going to start ramping up for a couple of big seasons. And even lowly Lethbridge will try to get things turned around in time to join the party.

So buckle up, Alberta (and Cranbrook). Red Deer’s Memorial Cup is going to be a great party, but it’s also going to be a great way to cap off two very exciting seasons of hockey.

A big Hitmen comeback, and other notes

Kenton Helgeson (centre) battles with Troy Murray in front of the Kootenay net during Calgary’s 6-4 come-from-behind win Saturday. Photo from Hitmenhockey.com

Last week was another busy one in the junior hockey world. On top of a pair of road games for the Calgary Hitmen, Hockey Canada released their rosters for the upcoming U-17 Challenge, the Hitmen made a minor trade, and then the Hitmen came home to face off against the Kootenay Ice in a wild one.

Let’s start with the U-17 rosters. Gone are the five Canadian teams of the old days. Canada will now send three squads, each filled with players from all over the country. This seems to be a wise move, as it’ll get players out of their comfort zones a little more, and provide stronger Canadian squads at the tourney.

Two Hitmen players, defenceman Jake Bean and forward Beck Malenstyn, were named to the squads, which for now can act as a very early watch list for the 2016 NHL Draft.

But let’s bring 2015 back into focus. The Hitmen have had a rocky start to the season, which is to be expected with such a disrupted camp, a new coach, and key graduations. And after their loss in Lethbridge last week, the back-to-back games in Edmonton and against the Ice were a bit of a worry for some fans.

The boys acquitted themselves well though, with a pair of wins–a 2-1 nailbiter in Edmonton and 6-4 comeback at home. Although he has held off the scoresheet, Terrell Draude turned in one of the most impressive performances of his young career. During the home opener, Draude looked lost most of the game. But he was better in Calgary’s second home game, piled up four points in their third, and started looking like the player everyone hopes a kid with Draude’s size can be in the win over Kootenay.

In just two weeks, his skating is better, and his decision making is a complete 180 from where it was in the opener. He finally looks comfortable out there. He may still be a little under the radar, but if he plays for the rest of the season the way he did Saturday night, he could climb into the top 100 picks.

From the Kootenay side, get to know the name Cale Fleury. He’s not eligible until the 2017 Draft, which is crazy to be thinking about already. But he’s already getting first-unit power play work from the blue line, finished the night with two assists, and was out there late in the game when Kootenay was pressing to tie.

Among drafted players, Hitmen forward Greg Chase is in the mix for a spot on this year’s World Junior team. He’s a vastly-improved player from the player we saw last season. His puck control really stands out now. He’s listed at 6′ (which is believable), but has shown the reach of a player two or three inches taller. His shot’s improved, he still passes too much, and his defensive game is still very strong. There’s a lot for the Hockey Canada brass to love.

There’s also the part where he was benched for most of the third period after a sequence in which he took a too-long shift, nearly scored on his own goal because of a careless turn in his own end, then took his frustration out of a Kootenay player after the whistle, leading to a penalty against Pavel Karnaukhov who came to his aid. He had the best seat in the house to see Calgary’s four third-period goals. This stuff is part of his game, but he’ll need to show he can tone it down if he wants to make the WJC squad. Hockey Canada won’t want to bring a guy who may find himself stapled to the bench like this.

Up next for the good guys: familiar foes. Former head coach Dave Lowry and his Victoria Royals are in town Friday night. Sunday afternoon, the Hitmen host pre-season East Division favourites (and my favourite rival) Brandon. In non-Hitmen news, we’ll learn whether Red Deer or Vancouver will host the 2016 Memorial Cup. Either city is fine by me. Red Deer is home to Canada’s best donuts at the Donut Mill, and Vancouver is Vancouver.

And the scouts rested

This sums up Sunday's action. Games like this are fun on the PS4, but not so much as a paying customer.

This sums up Sunday’s action. Games like this are fun on the PS4, but not so much as a paying customer.

Although the Calgary Hitmen are just three games into the shiny new WHL season, this past weekend felt like a reminder that the 72-game schedule can be a grind. Largely, that’s because this observer was operating in Full DayQuil Mode.

Compounding the feeling of the grind was almost complete lack of solid draft-watcher material on display during the pair of games. Med Hat’s veterans led the way in their win over Calgary Friday night, with Trevor Cox doing all the Trevor Cox things Hitmen fans have grown to expect/hate. Marek Langhammer was great in his return from NHL camp. Defenceman Connor Hobbs made last week’s Central Scouting list as a C prospect, though did little to stand out in the game.

Meanwhile, one of Calgary’s most notorious trends was once again on full display–lack of discipline. It was early Halloween and power plays were the treats. The Tigers converted one of six chances in the win. The Hitmen also showed a lack of discipline when defencemen were pinching.

For as long as I can remember, the Hitmen have always been very good at activating their defence. It’s been so long since I saw a bad pinch by a Hitmen defender, I was a little alarmed to see so many in the first two games. Some of that comes from the very young defence corps they dressed in their opener, and a lack of familiarity with each other in the second game. But even the forwards seemed unaware of the pinching plan.

Under former head coach Mike Williamson, I often lamented the team was too reliant on their systems, and could be beaten easily by teams that were able to disrupt the system. Early in new head coach Mark French’s tenure, this team has been very loose. I’m keen to see the way it plays out this season.

Against an opponent like Sunday’s visitors from Lethbridge, a loose system is rarely going to hurt. The Hitmen piled up nine goals, including a pair from Pavel Karnaukhov–a C-level CSS player. Lethbridge isn’t a lot of fun to watch lately, and this 9-2 romp by the Hitmen wasn’t much of an exception. Although the Hurricanes’ Zachary Goberis and Brandon Kennedy didn’t make Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list, both had a couple of flashes for this putrid team. Goberis has a little skill and could become an important part of whatever offence Lethbridge hopes to mount this season, while Kennedy threw his weight around quite a bit and was a real banger. If nothing else, they stood out. Time will tell if they catch anyone else’s eye, but without a true A-level player drawing draftniks to Hurricanes games, it seems unlikely.

Next weekend the horrible Kootenay (sucks) Ice are here for a visit. See you next week, with hopefully a little more to say about the action.

Welcome back, WHL!

Mack Shields looks through a screen during Saturday night’s season opener. Photo from hitmenhockey.com

Following a too-long off-season, the Calgary Hitmen returned to Saddledome ice Saturday night. And frankly, not a moment too soon.

With the would-be contenders loaded up for the 2013-14 season’s stretch run, all signs pointed to Calgary and Edmonton squaring off in a conference finals rematch. The Kootenay Ice had other plans though, and unceremoniously bounced the Hitmen from the playoffs in the first round.

And just like that, instead of a short summer filled with accolades, a summer of change was upon the Hitmen. Graduating overagers Jaynen Rissling and Alex Roach left huge holes in Calgary’s blue line corps. Along with the disappointing playoff result came a predictable coaching change. New head coach Mark French also has to figure out his club piece-by-piece, as nine players attended NHL rookie and training camps during the majority of Hitmen camp, with only one returning in time for Saturday’s season opener.

Despite the upheaval, the Hitmen are favoured to win the Central division this season. Just don’t mention that to Red Deer. Saturday night, Red Deer came into the Dome and took an ugly one from the favoured Hitmen thanks to a pair of fortunate bounces for the Rebs, and Calgary’s inability to capitalize on their own bounces. The 4-1 loss spoiled the debut of Calgary’s 20th “anniversary” jerseys, which may have been the highlight of my night even with a better result.

Of course the WHL season is the main event, but let’s be real. We’re all looking ahead to the World Junior Championship and the 2015 NHL Draft. So let’s take a look at that.

Both Red Deer and Calgary were without their top drafted talent, and in this game full of youngsters (I think five Hitmen skaters were making their WHL debut), older players usually stand out. Saturday was no exception. But that’s not to say none of the young guys made their mark.

Red Deer’s Adam Musil made Central Scouting’s pre-season Futures list and quietly played a strong game. He’s a big body who does a lot of the hard work along the walls. He didn’t create a lot, but he didn’t hurt his team either. Meyer Nell may be a name to watch for the upcoming draft. He has good speed and showed some good possession instincts. A couple of times, he carried the puck into the zone to initiate long and extended (15+ and 30+ seconds) possessions, and was in my eyes Red Deer’s most dynamic forward during the game. From the blue line, ’98-born Josh Mahura showed some offensive upside and is a name to remember this time next season.

On Calgary’s side, their top pick in this summer’s import draft Pavel Karnaukhov showed a little of the stuff that had people saying Calgary got the steal of the draft. He’s big–listed at 6’2″ 197, he used that size. He’s a very good skater and has a nose for the net. If the production comes, and if he can fit into Calgary’s system (he looked a little lost at times), he’ll draw a lot of interest at draft time. Michael Zipp is a late ’96 who happens to be one of Calgary’s most experienced defencemen. So far, I’d be surprised if he’s on anyone’s draft lists, but he could rise quickly the way Ben Thomas and Travis Sanheim did last season if he grows into a top-four role. I’ll have more on him as the season moves along. The Hitmen defenceman to really watch this season is Lochlan Morrison. He played a handful of games with Calgary last season and showed great promise. He has high hockey IQ, highlighted by high-end transition instincts and the speed and skill to use them. If he’s under the radar now, he won’t be by Thanksgiving.

That’s all for today. Next weekend Medicine Hat and Lethbridge visit, and the Hitmen should have at least a couple of their vets back.

MELKY MELKY MELKY

Sometimes, one play says all you need to know about a team.

These Blue Jays have the look of a team that’s cast aside Jobu’s myth and magic (or, in the real world: the possibility of honest-to-goodness trade deadline reinforcements), knowing they have to do it themselves, and for each other.

The Jays will need to go about 32-24 down the stretch to have a real shot at winning the division, which is a shade or two better than they probably are. If Melky there is to be believed, they’re going to throw everything they have at making a run.

The next 56 games could be a very long rollercoaster like Sunday’s game in New York was. All in hopes of a payoff like that catch. I can’t wait.

*Let’s be real, this post exists almost entirely to showcase that catch by Melky Cabrera. I’m going to watch that catch while eating breakfast for the rest of the season, because seeing it is like shotgunning 26 Red Bulls at once.

Change this so we don’t have to change that

Would shifts have reduced Ty Cobb from .366 lifetime hitter to a quad-A type? Unlikely.

If you’ve been a baseball fan for longer than, oh, 17 seconds, you probably know there’s one thing baseball does worse than just about any other sport: handle change.

It’s not just baseball’s terrible reluctance to change things that makes it so bad, it’s baseball’s uncanny ability to change the wrong thing in an effort to prevent making the change that’s really needed.

Tuesday, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci outlined the latest example. The article says there’s growing interest within MLB to explore a rules change which would make defensive shifts an illegal defence–in an effort to reverse a trend of declining offense.

While boosting offense is probably a good idea, the shifts alone aren’t the culprit. Sure, busted old guys like Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard have seen their batting averages and power number drop off the charts. And sure, guys like Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Davis saw their (possibly outlier 2013) power numbers bottom out as well.

Verducci cites a few other power-hitting lefties as examples, about a dozen in total. All of whom are no longer slugging, thus causing run scoring to dip to pre-DH levels.

Nevermind that even without shifts, more defensive players have superior range today than they did 10 years ago. Nevermind that average fastball velocity is way up from 10 years ago. Nevermind that other major storyline from 10 years ago that may have helped boost offenses.

Instead, because a dozen or so players can no longer find success as one-dimensional hitters, coinciding with a rise in the use of defensive shifts, the shifts must go. MLB Logic at its finest.

Rather than forcing players to become better hitters (it was just a few weeks ago that we reminisced about Tony Gwynn’s greatness) to neutralize shifts, to evolve or be left behind by the game, baseball wants to let them have a cop-out. Anthony Gose can’t recognize pitches below his knees aren’t strikes. He’ll be left behind unless he figures it out. Nobody’s making a case to change the rules for him. Nobody’s weeping for him. Can’t hit a curveball? Enjoy the International League. Nobody’s going to outlaw curveballs.*

*Although, considering curveballs have been labelled a potential culprit for the increase in Tommy John surgery over the past few years, outlawing the curveball–in the name of player safety–arguably has a better case than this illegal defence crap.

It should be no different for guys who can’t figure out how to stop hitting into shifts. During Edwin Encarnacion’s invincible May, he was regularly lauded for his willingness and ability to hit away from defensive shifts. He evolved as a batter inside of about a month, so I’m not buying the article’s–or Rays manager Joe Maddon’s–assertion it’ll take years for batters to come around to hitting around shifts. Teams need to encourage their players to look for opposite field opportunities, or to lay down bunts to beat the shift the way Colby Rasmus did last weekend.

So please, spare us your tears over the demise of crappy hitters with power (looking at you, Adam Dunn) who should never have risen to prominence, and instead call for more hitters to be able to punish defences that leave half the field open for them.

2014 Draft First Round Recap

2014 NHL Draft first overall selection Aaron Ekblad

The first round of the NHL Draft is in the books, and for draft-crazed fans like myself that means it’s almost time to start looking ahead to the 2015 draft. Before that though, let’s take a look at some of Friday night’s results.

For most of the last year, this draft has been knocked for a lack of high-end talent at the top and lack of overall depth. While the 2014 class didn’t tout a Nathan MacKinnon at the top, I wouldn’t be surprised to see each of the top three picks in the NHL this fall. Let’s start there.

Aaron Ekblad, First, Florida Panthers
If I had to guess, I’d guess Ekblad was the top player on most NHL teams’ draft boards. I didn’t see a lot of him this season–just the World Junior Championship and the Top Prospects Game. In those games, it was clear he was head and shoulders ahead of the rest of this draft class. He could have played second-pair minutes in the NHL this past season. At worst, Ekblad projects as a top pair defenceman, if not a true number one. He’s strong, agile, has a heavy shot, off-the-charts hockey sense, and the sort of mean streak everyone assumes players with his size should have. It’s inconceivable to me that Ekblad won’t be a star in the NHL very soon.

(It’s also worth mentioning Tyler Myers’ current lack of stardom was inconceivable to 2011 me)

Sam Reinhart, Second, Buffalo Sabres
Because he’s a late ’95 birthdate, Sam Reinhart’s been around the WHL a year longer than most of the other players in this year’s draft class. And even though he wasn’t even 16 when he joined the Kootenay Ice, he went straight to work dominating the much-older competition. Reinhart scored 62 points in 67 games as a rookie, then tallied another 190 over the next two seasons. He takes all of Kootenay’s big face-offs, he was arguably Canada’s best forward as an underager at the WJC. He looks smaller than the 6’1″ he’s listed at, but plays bigger, so although he’s not the prototypical 1C size, he does everything else you could ever ask for in one. If he can withstand the physical rigours of the first nine games of next season, there’s no good reason to ever see him in a WHL jersey again.

Leon Draisaitl, Third, Edmonton Oilers
It’s interesting to see how expectations can warp our impressions of a player. Coming into the season, Leon Draisaitl appeared to be the definition of a power forward: he’s big, bordering on hulking. He scores. He makes his linemates better. The knock against him was that his skating was merely passable. As the season moved along, and his Prince Albert Raiders struggled to meet expectations, and his German team at the WJC (which was basically him and 20 tier 2 guys) flopped, and Draisaitl didn’t turn any heads at the Top Prospects Game, his stock plummeted. His “compete level” was questioned, his skating was downgraded from passable to poor, and he slid down rankings and mock draft boards. But somewhere along the way, scouts and teams remembered last season, when he ousted Mark McNeill as PA’s top centre at 16, and scored 105 points for a really bad PA team this season. His skating may still hold him back, but if he improves that area of his game, he may end up leaving all three of Edmonton’s first overall picks in his dust.

Now, a look at how the Canadian teams fared. Along with the belief about the lack of high-end talent at the top, this draft was also saddled with a belief about a lack of depth. Nobody’s going to confuse this with the 2003 draft, but the first round was littered with gems waiting to be unearthed. Most of the players in this next section have a couple of elite skills, but lack well-rounded games. For many of these players to reach their potential, they’ll need strong support from their new teams’ development staffs.

Sam Bennett, Fourth, Calgary Flames
After Calgary struck gold with Sean Monahan in last year’s draft, Flames fans were hoping for a repeat this time around and they may have it in Bennett. I haven’t seen Bennett in person at all this season, so I’m going mostly from reports about his ability. I have some concerns about his rapid rise to the top of rankings, but by all accounts he’s a pretty complete player. Much was made of his inability to do pull-ups at the Combine, but considering Brian Burke signed off on new GM Brad Treliving picking him, we can probably safely bury that story. I’m excited to see what he can do when he comes to Calgary and to see whether or not he’ll stick at centre. If he can, the Flames have a nice trio in him, Monahan, and Joe Colborne to rebuild around.

Jake Virtanen, Sixth, Vancouver Canucks
I’ve been watching Virtanen for the last two seasons, hoping he’d develop into a top pick. By the end of this season, I was convinced Virtanen would be a mid-round player at best. The big winger has a pro-ready shot–heavy with a lightning quick release, and he can skate like the wind. But after that, there are questions about his hockey sense (45 goals and just 26 assists last season), his two-way game, and his ability to take his game to the next level. There won’t be much room for interpretation with this pick. He’ll either put it all together and become a high-end scorer in the NHL, or he’ll be considered a bust. I’ll be very surprised to see him stick with Vancouver this season; 2015-16 seems more realistic for him to join the club full-time. If you’re a Canucks fan who can’t wait to see more of Virtanen, he figures to have a prominent role with Canada’s WJC team this winter–especially if Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett stick with Buffalo and Calgary.

William Nylander, Eighth, Toronto Maple Leafs
Entering the season, William Nylander was considered the top European skater in the draft, and a player who could challenge for first overall. By all accounts, Nylander is a complete player–but is undersized at just 5’9″, which may have helped him fall to the Leafs. It’s unlikely he joins the Leafs this season, and I don’t want to fill Leafs fans’ heads with false hope or anything here, but considering Nylander fell mostly because of his size (and a little because he wasn’t great in Sweden’s top league this season), there’s a chance he’ll be considered the “steal” of this draft several years from now.

Nikolaj Ehlers, Ninth, Winnipeg Jets
Ehlers epitomizes my belief many of the players taken Friday night are great at one or two things, and need to round out their games. Ehlers is a tremendous skater and has an unbelievable nose for the net. He was by far one of the most electrifying players at the Top Prospects game, and helped the Halifax Mooseheads fill the void left by Nathan MacKinnon’s departure. Among the players I’ve seen in person, Ehlers is the second or third-best pure scorer in this draft.

Jared McCann, 24th, Vancouver Canucks
Having two first round picks in one draft will give a boost to any team’s prospect pool, and few teams need that boost the way the rebuilding Canucks do. McCann’s been all over the rankings this season, looking to scouts and evaluators like a potential All-Star some nights, and a potential AHLer others. If the consistency comes, Canucks fans will be pretty happy with this selection (even though he’ll always be the guy they got for Ryan Kesler).

Nikita Scherbak, 26th, Montreal Canadiens
All Nikita Scherbak does is score. He skates a little too, but mostly he scores. Highlight reel goals, garbage goals, and everything in between. He led all WHL rookies last season, piling up 78 points and making Saskatoon a must-watch team. He’s got great hockey sense, gets my vote as the best pure scorer in the draft, and is an electrifying player. As a fan watching, you rarely have to look for Scherbak–he’ll announce himself when he gets onto the ice. If the Habs are planning to continue to let their dynamic guys be dynamic (as this pick would suggest), this has the potential to be a match made in heaven. If everyone’s going to play boring grinding hockey like LA, Scherbak probably won’t find a home in the NHL.

And lastly, some quick thoughts on the other WHLers taken in the first round.

Haydn Fleury, Seventh, Carolina Hurricanes
I’ve been watching Fleury for two years with Red Deer, and I’ve yet to see what all the fuss is about. He’s fast, and he moves the puck quickly, but I’ve yet to see him make a “WOW” play that shows he’s got the sort of off-the-charts hockey sense that would justify taking him this high. His work in his own end is… we’ll call it a work in progress. A very interesting selection for Carolina, a franchise that doesn’t have much history in developing their d-men the way he’ll need.

Julius Honka, 14th, Dallas Stars
Honka started the season on a tear, and never really cooled off, collecting 56 points in 62 games from the blue line. He is diminutive, like Ryan Ellis sized, but he can do it all. And he could have a much worse role model in Dallas than Trevor Daley.

Travis Sanheim, 17th, Philadelphia Flyers
Now here’s a meteoric rise. Sanheim wasn’t even on Central Scouting’s “watch list” to start the season, but his stellar play with the Hitmen moved him up their depth chart, up the scouting rankings, onto Canada’s Ivan Hlinka roster, and into the first round of the draft. Sanheim had three points before the WJC tournament, but took off after scoring his first WHL goal in January, and posted 26 points in the second half of the season. He’s got outstanding mobility, makes great reads, and is pretty competent in his own end. If his development continues at the rate it did in the second half of this season, look out world.

Conner Bleackley, 23rd, Colorado Avalanche
Nothing to see here folks, just the Avs picking up yet another very good centre. Bleackley’s production didn’t quite meet expectations this season, and his Rebels didn’t succeed the way some thought they might. He became something of an afterthought among this strong WHL crop. He plays a simple, hard game, has good hands and a nose for the net. Don’t be surprised if he’s anchoring Colorado’s third line two years from now, and running their PK two years after that, and getting a lot of nods as the league’s most underrated player.

John Quenneville, 30th, New Jersey Devils
I didn’t see him at all this season. First time I’ve missed out on every Brandon game. I’ve seen him described as a no-nonsense kind of player. He goes out there, does his work and does it well. He’s perhaps a bit unheralded because of it. Brandon has designs on returning to the contenders ranks next season, and Quenneville is expected to be the centrepiece of those plans.

Converted, maybe

Kyle Lowry is the perfect leader for the Raptors

For most of the last three seasons, I’ve been of the mind it’s time for the NBA to scrap it’s little Canadian experiment and fold the Toronto Raptors. They’ve been an utterly awful and unlikable franchise for, well, pretty much forever other than that brief, nearly-amazing period known as Vinsanity.

In his end of season column Sunday, Bruce Arthur noted the Raptors drew just 50,000 viewers for their season-opener last fall. In relative obscurity, overshadowed in Toronto by the hot-out-of-the-gate Maple Leafs, ignored by a western half of the country wrapped up in a thrilling CFL stretch drive, and seemingly on the verge of an epic tankfest, the Raps were barely on the radar.

As the season moved along though, names like Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan kept popping up in my Twitter feed. To even the most casual of observers, it was clear the Raps had a pair of good players in these two guys. As the regular season came to an end, a curiosity brewed inside me. I figured I’d just keep tabs on the team via twitter until the ride ended.

Then:

Hard to ignore that. So I tuned in. Again and again. And so did a lot of other people. After attracting just 50,000 viewers for their first game of the season, the Raps had 10,000 outside the Air Canada Centre to watch the game in Maple Leaf Square, which had been re-christened for the team that was actually playing–Jurassic Park. Games 5 thru 7 averaged around a million viewers each (with much higher peaks).

With the Leafs out of the playoffs, no other Canadian-based NHL team folks are willing to cheer for still in, and the Toronto Blue Jays hitting the skids all at once, well it was just logical to check out these plucky Raptors. Game to game, their legends grew. By the end of Game 7, even the 950,000 of us that ignored the team all winter knew the last possession was Lowry’s.

Game to game, we hockey fans saw guys playing hurt (basically the whole team), guys giving and taking hard contact, and a seven-game series over 16 days that felt a lot like a Game 7 from the opening tip. That idiotic (and false) “I/we, LeBron/Toews” meme from last spring quickly faded from memory, as we saw Lowry and Co playing like the warriors we demand our hockey heroes to be.

A lot of diehards had their hearts broken Sunday afternoon, but even more diehards were made. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but next fall I won’t be actively ignoring or calling for the end of the team’s existence. I’ll be cheering for them. “Fuck Brooklyn” may have been the hook I needed, but I’ll happily shift to “Go Raps!”

Taking the fall

Torts offering his opinion on how many years it’ll be before the Canucks are good again

Fine, fine work on display right now by the Vancouver Canucks. Folks say the NHL is a copycat league, so just like their division rivals in Edmonton, the Canucks are opting for the Three Coaches In Three Years option.

In taking that option, the Canucks seem to have missed the part where it usually also leads to three piss-poor seasons. And where they’ll be tying up a lot of money in former staffers.

I was on your side during the 2011 Cup run, Canucks fans. I wanted it to work out for you. So know this comes from a place of love: you’re in for a bad stretch. Your farm is barren. The NHL roster is aging. And the front office is in flux. I feel for you, I really do.

Just like Roberto Luongo before him, John Tortorella’s the latest fall guy, and just like Luongo, Torts wasn’t the problem.