Last Saturday I had a chance to take in the U.S. National Under-18 Team’s road game against the Dubuque Fighting Saints at the brand new Mystique Ice Center.
First off, let me say that Mystique is a perfect facility for the USHL. It’s not too big, not too small… it’s just right. Very loud and energized crowd. I really enjoyed the experience there. By the way, I’m enamored with the Dubuque logo and color scheme.
Secondly, the Fighting Saints are atop the standings in the USHL’s Western Conference and it’s easy to see why. There is a lot of talent on that team, with a good mix of young and old. It’s not necessarily a veteran-laden team, which goes to show that some of the right decisions in the draft can go a long way, even at this level. It’s one of the better teams I’ve seen in the last few years. I’ll have more on the individual players for Dubuque in just a bit.
The main purpose for my trip was to get a better look at the U.S. National Under-18 Team’s top prospects including John Gibson, Tyler Biggs, Rocco Grimaldi and J.T. Miller. Apparently that was the purpose for a lot of the gentlemen wearing black coats in the building. The Mystique Ice Center was crawling with NHL scouts.
Coming up after the jump, a quick recap of the game and a look at some of the draft-eligibles that stood out.
Prior to last weekend, the U.S. had won 12 consecutive games, but a lackluster effort at Waterloo on Friday ended that streak as the U.S. lost, 4-1. It appeared that some of the residual effects of a tough loss were haunting the U.S. throughout the first two periods. Dubuque dominated, taking a 3-0 lead with goals from John Gaudreau, Tyler Lundy and former Atlanta Thrashers fourth-round pick Vinny Saponari. The score remained 3-0 heading into the third period. That’s when things picked up for the U.S.
An early third-period goal by Cole Bardreau, on a nifty little shot I might add, made it 3-1 and basically gave life to the U.S. squad. Continuing to pepper 2011 Draft eligible netminder Matt Morris, it appeared that the third was going to belong to the U18s.
At the 13:00 mark of the third, Rocco Grimaldi put on an absolute offensive display. After blowing by a Dubuque defenseman to the outside down the right wing, Grimaldi rifled a wrist shot from a tough angle that I don’t even think Morris saw. It went right under the bar. The space for that puck to get in the net was not much bigger than the puck itself. The diminutive forward had several other chances throughout the third.
It was kind of easy to sense that the third U.S. goal was coming. Dubuque was on its heels and a late power play allowed the U.S. to go in for the kill. Jacob Trouba, who is considered one of the top prospects available for the 2012 draft, converted on a text-book one-timer from the left point. Top shelf. Tie hockey game.
In the overtime period it looked as if Dubuque regained it’s composure, working the puck around the U.S. zone with relative ease. Big stops from John Gibson, who I thought was solid throughout the contest, helped keep it knotted up and force a shootout.
In the shootout, only three players scored. The first was offensive dynamo and 2011 Draft eligible Gaudreau. The move he put on Gibson to open the big goaltender up was just nasty. There may not be a goalie in the world that would have stopped that move as Gaudreau brought it to his forehand to slip the puck between Gibson’s legs.
Grimaldi tied it up for the U.S. with a snap shot that Morris didn’t even react to until the puck was in the net. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone would have seen it. The puck went from Grimaldi’s stick to the top shelf in a literal blink of an eye. I barely saw what happened, myself.
2012 Draft eligible and Riga, Latvia, native Zemgus Girgensons had a chance to end it in the fifth round of the shootout and did just that, with another nasty move to give him some net to slip the puck past Gibson. Dubuque won the game 4-3.
It was a thrilling contest with a lot of ups and downs for both teams. I really enjoyed the evening in Dubuque.
So now that you know what happened. Here are some of my evaluations:
Rocco Grimaldi: The little man didn’t have his best game. Before he turned it up in the third period, he didn’t seem to make a ton of great decisions with or without the puck. He also uncharacteristically miscued on a few up-ice passes. Another thing Grimaldi will have to work on, which is tough because of his size, is his stick work defensively. He’s prone to stick penalties (57 PIM this year) like slashing and hooking in order to take opponents off the puck.
That said, from the third period on, he was thrilling. His lightening speed was too much for some of Dubuque’s big defensemen and he seemed to generate a load of chances late in the game. When the game got tight, Grimaldi was seeing the ice a little bit more. Additionally, both his goal in regulation and the shootout showed his world-class release. The word “Woah” left my lips on each attempt.
Tyler Biggs: I really like the line Biggs was playing on with 2012 draft eligibles Travis Boyd and Henrik Samuelsson. They seemed to provide some energy and looked pretty good defensively, while generating some quality chances in the offensive zone. Biggs played his physical game and kept defensemen on their toes with a hard forecheck. He also was quick to stand up for teammates in a few instances where he felt he needed to. It appeared he was going to drop the gloves at one point, but both linesmen intervened.
Biggs isn’t a burner, so he needs to be more efficient in his skating, which I thought he was. I liked the angles he would take to get to certain areas quicker. Almost like a wide receiver running routes in football getting to the right place at the right time. He didn’t have his best night, but the size and strength were on display and didn’t leave me all that disappointed.
J.T. Miller: I’m convinced that Miller is one of the strongest kids playing Junior hockey. He’s not huge at 6-1, 193, but he is solid. Near impossible to take off the puck, Miller had opponents literally bouncing off of him. His play along the boards was pretty remarkable. If he was in a puck battle on the wall, he was coming out with it. In fact, Miller almost had the game-tying goal after stripping the puck from a defenseman along the half wall and taking the puck to the net hard. His stuff attempt was denied, but it showed pretty good grit to make that play.
There were a few instances in the game where I felt Miller was running around a little bit. One of the things that I’d like to see more from him is better decisions on the ice. One thing is clear though, he’s not going to get outmuscled by anyone. That’s going to make a lot of scouts smile.
John Gibson: The big goaltender looks like a pro goalie when he plays. He takes up so much net whether he’s standing up or on his knees. During the shootout, when he came out to challenge, I think the net basically disappeared. When I say the moves Gaudreau and Girgensons put on Gibson were nasty, I mean… just filthy. The big guy made 35 saves, including several key stops late.
I asked one of the team staffers if Gibson was excited about his season and his commitment to Michigan. The reply, “Gibby doesn’t get excited about much of anything.” Which is only a half joke. The kid is so calm and laid back, nothing really gets to him. After he gave up a goal, his body language was basically… I guess… Indifferent. I don’t think he likes giving up goals, but that doesn’t change his job, which is stopping the next shot. I really like that most about Gibson. Mentally tough, athletically gifted. Whatever team picks him up in the Draft is getting a really solid goaltender.
Connor Murphy, the big defenseman for Team USA, looked really solid. He’s missed so much time due to injury that I wondered how he’d bounce back. His decision making and defensive stick are pretty darn good. He’s not going to be overly physical, but he thinks the game well and still uses his size to his advantage in other ways than laying people out.
Blake Pietila might be one of the most improved players from his U17 year to U18 year. His strength along the boards and his relentless work ethic make him just a bear to play against. He’s ranked pretty low by Central Scouting, but he’s a kid I can see finding his way into the mid rounds of this draft. Keep an eye on him.
Cole Bardreau: If Blake Pietila isn’t the most improved player on the U.S. team, I think it has to be Bardreau. He had a nice goal from the high slot for the U.S., but it was his play with Pietila and a combo of Ryan Haggerty and Austin Wuthrich that really stood out. Bardreau’s line never lacked energy throughout the game and generated a few scoring chances. He’s another guy that’s just tireless. Considering he made the jump from New York high school hockey to the NTDP last year, he’s come a long way. He’s also a leader on the team, with great character. I think he may remain in the late rounds of the draft, but a team would be wise to pick up a kid who’s done nothing but get better. If nothing else, Cornell’s got a player that will fit in with their style about as well as you could want.
Robbie Russo: The offensive instincts and smooth skating are still there for Russo. He had a pretty solid game on the back end. He’ll throw his body around a bit, despite not being the biggest guy. His ability to distribute the puck to the right place at the right time was on display as well. While he may no longer be the top-round talent he was expected to be, he’s going to be a solid player for a long time.
The Dubuque Draft eligibles:
John Gaudreau has been turning a lot of heads this year in the USHL, leading the league with 34 goals. His offensive ability is off the charts. At 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, he has to be shifty and he is. He has 64 points, but hasn’t drawn much love from Central Scouting, mainly because of the size. He isn’t overly fast and he got knocked off the puck pretty easily a few times.
Central Scouting has him ranked as the 206th North American skater. A guy with his size and speed doesn’t appear to have a ton of NHL upside, but his nose for the net and vision on the ice can’t be denied. I really enjoyed watching him play and he may be worth a late-round flier for a team that would be happy to let him grow more at Northeastern over time. It could be one of those low risk, high reward situations.
Side note: Dubuque’s line of Gaudreau-Girgensons-Saponari might be one of the best the USHL has seen in some time. The three have combined for 170 points, including 70 goals. Having a veteran like Saponari (two years at the NTDP and two more at Boston University) helps, but Gaudreau is the straw that stirs the drink. Add in the slick skill of Girgensons and you’ve got a recipe for disaster for opposing defensemen. Very exciting group to watch.
Joakim Ryan: American-born, but as a dual-citizen of Sweden, Ryan has played for the Tre Kronar internationally. Having not seen him since he skated for Sweden at the 2010 World U17 Hockey Challenge, he looks to have grown physically and as a player. He looked pretty solid out there for Dubuque and leads their D corps with 28 points.
He’s not an overly big guy at 5-11, 185, but he held his own out there and was making some pretty good passes up to his forwards. Central Scouting listed him at 128th in their North American Rankings and I’d say a late-mid round selection is a good slot to pick up the half-Swede/half-American puck mover.
A look at the future:
Jacob Trouba: His goal was a big one for the U.S. He actually took a little something off his shot, which I like to see, because he can really let it go. Trouba made sure that puck was on net, as I have been told he’s had a lot of shots miss the target of late. However, his skating and his strength are still ahead of his class. He doesn’t look out of place with the U18 D corps after being called up from the Under-17 Team. I think he still needs to make some better decisions out there (he was caught up ice a few times in the game), but the tools are there. There’s little doubt he’ll be a very high pick in 2012.
Seth Jones: Despite being the youngest player on the ice, you’d never know it. Jones skates so well for a big man and his puck handling is something else. The constant rag on Jones is that he needs to build strength, which is certainly true. He got out-muscled a time or two, but he the way he sees the ice and thinks the game is beyond his years. He’s got plenty of time to build muscle and grow his game as he is not draft eligible until 2013. If Jones continues on his current track, he’s going to be special.
Riley Barber: Barber earned some time with the U.S. National Under-17 at its last international tournament on loan from Dubuque and I have to say I like his offensive game. I think he needs some work defensively, but he’s got a lot of potential. He saw plenty of time on the power play and looked to be an integral part of Dubuque’s second scoring line.
That’s it for this week’s American Prospect Update. Check back Tuesday for our next installment of updates, analysis and links for some of the top American hockey players getting ready for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.