Thursday, 19 May 2016

NHL shafting prospects that lack size

Adam Brooks led the WHL in scoring this past season.
    What is old has become new again if you are a small guy trying to make the NHL.
    When I covered the Regina Pats in the last half of the 1999-2000 season and first half of the 2000-01 campaign, two of their most exciting players to watch were Matt Hubbauer and Kevin Korol. Both were heart-and-soul skilled players, had tonnes of speed and competed hard night in and night out. Off the ice, they were gold in the dressing room becoming best friends with all of their teammates.
    Despite all their positive characteristics, you had a gut feeling that no matter how hard or how well Hubbauer and Korol performed they would never play in the NHL because of their size. Hubbauer stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 194 pounds, while Korol was 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.
    While they played hard, it was viewed players like Hubbauer and Korol would not be able to hold up to the physical pounding a player takes in the NHL. Despite posting solid statistical seasons in their major junior careers, Hubbauer and Korol were never drafted and never played a shift in the regular season or playoffs in “The Show.”
    Fast forward to the current major junior campaign that is nearing completion with the Memorial Cup tournament getting underway Friday in Red Deer. Two of the most exciting players on the Pats this season were Adam Brooks and Cole Sanford. They were key in helping Regina advance to the second round of the WHL playoffs, where the Pats fell in an exciting seven-game series to the Memorial Cup hosting Red Deer Rebels.
Matt Hubbauer used to pile up points for the Pats.
    As a 19-year-old veteran, Brooks topped the WHL in regular season scoring with 38 goals and 82 assists playing in all 72 regular season games. Sanford was an overage right-winger the Pats acquired in a trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers. In 63 regular season games in 2015-16, Sanford had 41 goals and 39 assists. In four seasons in the WHL, Sanford collected 126 goals and 123 assists in 260 career regular season games.
    Both were dynamite in the Pats 12-game playoff run. Brooks pick up seven goals and 16 assists, and Sanford posted seven goals and nine assists.
    Both also have shortcomings in the size department. Brooks stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 175 pounds, while Sanford stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 165 pounds.
    Neither player has been selected in the NHL Entry Draft, and they will likely be camp bodies when NHL training camps open this fall. That will likely be the closest either player comes to appearing in an NHL regular season or playoff game. Barring something unforeseen, Brooks will be back with the Pats next season as an overager.
    It seems like NHL scouts are just looking for players that stand 6-foot-3 and weigh in the neighbourhood of 210 pounds. Gifted Brandon Wheat Kings Centre Nolan Patrick is viewed as a perfect prospect, because he has the size, as he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 195 pounds, to go along with his outstanding skill. The Winnipeg product isn’t eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until next year, so he will have lots of time to bulk up and fill out.
Cole Sanford (#26) has never been afraid to battle in the hard areas.
    The travesty is the fact the little guys with skill don’t seem to be on the radar of NHL scouts anymore. The WHL might be the most physical of any junior hockey circuit in the world, but players like Brooks and Sanford have still flourished. Both never shy away from battling the corners or other tough areas on the ice.
    They have proven they can play and should be given a real chance to make an NHL roster.
    At one time not long ago, the door was wide open for the little guy. From a period of about 2005 to 2008, there was a serious effort to crack down on obstruction at all levels of hockey. All of a sudden, the little guy with skill became a valuable asset.
    It was during this time that brilliant puck moving defenceman Kris Russell, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 170 pounds, went from being the WHL’s most valuable player in 2006-07 with the Medicine Hat Tigers to becoming an NHL regular. Over nine NHL seasons, Russell has suited up for 573 regular season games collecting 38 goals and 139 assists.
Jordon Cooke of the Huskies has been the top goalie in the CHL and CIS.
    Forward Tyler Ennis, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 160 pounds, went from being a star with the Tigers to a first round selection by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. After going 26th overall to the Sabres, Ennis has appeared in 368 career regular season games over seven seasons collecting 92 goals and 131 assists. While he was out most of last season with a concussion, Ennis proved he belongs in the NHL.
    Unfortunately, scouts have a little too much fear that smaller players have a greater chance of suffering injuries like concussions, so that fear helps little guys get overlooked. With that said, a lot of big players have suffered their share of concussion injuries over the years too.
    As a result, you can go to a Canadian university hockey men’s game and watch players like goaltender Jordon Cooke and forward Kohl Bauml shine with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. When you see both of those players perform, you think they should be in the professional ranks but realize they aren’t because of their size.
Kris Russell has played nine seasons in the NHL.
    Cooke, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 185 pounds, came to the Huskies after having an outstanding WHL campaign in 2013-14 with the Kelowna Rockets, where he was named the Canadian Hockey League’s goalie of the year. Just think about that for a second. Cooke was voted the best goalie in all of major junior hockey, and he still didn’t get an NHL contract.
    That fact right there shows how difficult it is for the small guy to gain a legitimate chance to make an NHL team.
    Cooke had a spectacular campaign in 2015-16 for the Huskies posting a 19-5 record, a 2.52 goals against average, a .921 save percentage and two shutouts. His win total set a new Huskies regular season team record, and he was named the goaltender of the year for Canadian Interuniversity Sport and was a first team CIS all-star.
    Bauml, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 170 pounds, potted 30 goals and 30 assists in 71 games as an overager with the Everett Silvertips in 2014-15. He topped the Huskies in team scoring as a rookie recording 12 goals and 21 assists in 28 games. The Saskatoon product was named the rookie of the year for the Canada West Conference and was named to the CIS all-rookie team.
    You can keep adding from there to the list of small guys who are not getting a serious NHL look. These players have kicked down the door to prove they can play. All they need is another cycle to arise where NHL scouts come to their senses to allow small players to have legitimate shots to make the league again.

Back in the Express with Nogier

Nelson Nogier will play in the Memorial Cup tournament for a second time.
    I was back in the Saskatoon Express this week with a story I really enjoyed writing.
    I had the opportunity to craft a feature story on my young cousin Nelson Nogier, who is about to appear in the Memorial Cup tournament for a second time. Nogier is a 19-year-old stay-at-home defenceman with the Red Deer Rebels, who are hosting the Memorial Cup. The Rebels open the tournament on Friday against the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights.
    The prospect of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets was a 16-year-old rookie with his hometown Saskatoon Blades when they hosted the Memorial Cup in 2013. Nogier, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 209 pounds, joined the Rebels via a trade that came shortly before the WHL’s Christmas break in 2014.
    On a personal note, I had a lot of fun interviewing Nogier, and I had so much pride and enjoyed watching him help the Rebels make it to the WHL Eastern Conference championship series, which they lost to the eventual WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings. My story on Nogier can be found right here.

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