Saturday night, 38 of the top American players eligible for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft will converge on Buffalo’s First Niagara Center for the inaugural CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game. As such a new event, it’s hard to pick out just a few things to watch for, but United States of Hockey will attempt to give you a comprehensive preview.
First off, if you’re not in Buffalo for the game, which starts at 7 p.m. EDT, you can watch it live on FASTHockey.com. Normally a pay-per-view site, FASTHockey is carrying the game free for viewers. Kevin Sylvester, host of Sabres Hockey Hotline and occasional fill-in for legendary Sabres play-by-play man Rick Jenneret, will handle play-by-play duties for the Prospects Game. Former Sabre Ric Seiling will provide the color commentary. Additionally, the webcast will include integrated stats, which should be a nice feature to help follow along. Here’s the link to the live feed.
The most successful coach in NHL history will also be on hand, as Scotty Bowman will drop the puck in an opening ceremonial faceoff. He might not be American, but the former Sabres head coach has had a profound impact on that team’s growth and the growth of the game locally in Western New York.
So that’s a few of the peripheral items, but this thing is all about the players, coming up after the jump a look at which prospects you should be watching closely.
The players have been broken up into two squads named for their head coaches Team Housley and Team McClanahan. Phil Housley, former Sabre and this year’s U.S. National Junior Team head coach, and Rob McClanahan, forward for the 1980 Olympic team and also a former Sabre are the men behind the benches. The rosters are available right here.
Before getting to the guys that will be there, a few players initially named to the game are no longer participating.
Adam Erne withdrew from the Top Prospects game and was replaced by Maine forward and second-year eligible Will Merchant. It’s unfortunate Erne won’t be there as he’s one of the best American prospects coming into the season, so that takes a little bit of shine off the event.
In a spot of awful timing, Justin Bailey was on the receiving end of a big hit from fellow American OHLer Patrick Sieloff in a Thursday night game between Kitchener and Windsor. He was injured on the play and will not be able to participate in the All-American Prospects Game, which hurts more because Bailey is from the Buffalo area. He’s another A rated guy that will be missing, unfortunately.
Michigan goaltender Jared Rutledge, another second-year eligible, was replaced by Evan Cowley, a big goaltender from the North American Hockey League. Cowley was recently given a B rating by NHL Central Scouting and is a first-year eligible. More on him in a bit.
U.S. National Under-18 Team forward Dawson Cook will also be unavailable after sustaining an injury last week. Neither Cook nor Bailey will be replaced, leaving each team with 11 forwards and shortening the initial list from 40 to 38.
So here’s a look at who will be there and why they’ll be worth following closely…
Seth Jones – D — Portland Winterhawks — Undoubtedly the top draw for the game, and a guy most scouts will be watching closely, Jones doesn’t have a lot to prove in a prospects game. That said, he’s one of those special prospects that is a must-see. He’s not flashy, but he plays the game at a different level, which makes for some good TV.
Michael Downing — D — Dubuque Fighting Saints — Prospects games aren’t exactly the same as watching a regular-season tilt and the importance of the game actually varies from player to player. Downing is a guy that can benefit from a solid game in Buffalo. He received an A rating from NHL Central Scouting, denoting his first-round potential, but other scouts I’ve talked to are less certain of that projection. Showing he’s playing at a higher level than his American peers will be a good indication he belongs in the first-round conversation.
Luke Johnson — F — Lincoln Stars — Similar to Downing, Johnson was given an A rating by NHL Central Scouting and has received mixed reviews from other scouts. For the same reasons as Downing, a strong performance in Buffalo will be a nice way to prove he’s deserving of the lofty praise from Central Scouting. Unquestionably, he’s a strong prospect after a 55-point campaign in his first USHL season. This game might help show how strong.
Ryan Fitzgerald — F — Valley Jr. Warriors — The smallish playmaker and son of longtime NHLer Tom Fitzgerald is skating in the Eastern Junior Hockey League this year, which will draw some eyeballs, but perhaps not as many as he would in a higher-tier Junior league. Either way, he’s got a solid stage to show what he can do against his peers. A game like this is designed for a player to showcase his skills and Fitzgerald has some standout tools. This setting might be perfect to help garner Fitzgerald some extra attention this season.
Ross Olsson — F — Lincoln Stars — After making the move from prep school to the USHL, there is a lot of intrigue surrounding the 6-4, 190-pound forward. How he performs in this game may be a good indication of where he’s at in terms of adjusting to the faster, stronger pace of the USHL. Scouts love the size, but there’s a rawness to Olsson’s game. The timing might not be in his favor in terms of where he is in his development, but he can take a nice step toward proving he belongs.
Evan Cowley — G — Wichita Falls Wildcats — A late addition to the game, Cowley is the goalie with the most to gain from a strong performance in this contest. He’ll only get about 30 minutes to show what he can do, but that should be more than enough time to show what kind of skill set he has. Playing in the North American Hockey League in a tough-to-get-to locale, any chance he gets in front of scouts like this, he’ll have to seize. Anthony Stolarz became a second-round pick out of the NAHL last year and with an early B rating from CSS, Cowley is looking to follow in those footsteps.
Hudson Fasching — F — U.S. National Under-18 Team — The NTDP gets scouted a lot, but this is an early-season opportunity for potential first-rounder Fasching to show some separation between him and his peers. A physical presence at 6-3, 214, Fasching has the physical tools and the skills are coming, but there are mixed reviews on him. This is a great showcase, against players his own age, where he can display his skills a little bit more.
Taylor Cammarata — F — Waterloo Black Hawks — His size is the first thing anyone mentions about Cammarata, but his skills are undeniable. He has good vision and puck-handling ability, but the big question is whether his skating is at a high enough level to garner a first-half of the draft selection like little guys Kyle Rau, Rocco Grimaldi and Johnny Gaudreau in recent years. There’s little doubt he’ll be drafted, but there’s no consensus on when he’ll go. Every opportunity he has against a high volume of scouts is a chance for him to prove doubters wrong.
While the All-American Prospects Game is an important event from a showcase standpoint for the players, it’s also a great opportunity for USA Hockey to showcase its developmental systems. All of these players have come through the ranks, starting at the grassroots level and going all the way up to high school, junior and college. While each player’s current team will be the one next to his name in the program, it is important to remember the long list of youth hockey organizations that helped players reach this point to be considered among the best in the country in his age group.
Prospects games, from a scouting standpoint, are only marginally effective and they’re easy to be critical of from a game-play standpoint, but they are unquestionably terrific showcases for the players, the leagues and organizations they represent and the game of hockey overall.
It should be a lot of fun to follow. Enjoy the game, everyone.
Editor’s Note: My wife and I welcomed our first child on Sept. 25, which has been why the posts have been non-existent this week. The hope is to have a full recap of the All-American Prospects Game on Monday, but the adjustment to new parenthood on top of other writing projects could delay that. Thanks for your patience, ahead of time.