2018 NHL Draft: Three Underrated Prospects That Are Beginning to Attract Attention

Every year, there are usually two NHL Draft storylines to watch. First off, there is the battle for the top spots in the draft, like Nico versus Nolan last year, and the fight for the #2 spot in this year’s draft. The other storyline is the underrated prospects that rise, seeming out of nowhere, into the first round. A lot of the time, at least one of those under the radar players enters the top half of the draft, and in some cases, even the top 5, like Cale Makar did last draft when he was taken 4th overall by the Colorado Avalanche.

2018 won’t have any prospects like that. There are simply too many top players that have suceeded at the WJHC or in prior years for a team to decide they would prefer some player that exploded into the draft scene in their draft year. However, German prospect Dominik Bokk could come close. Ranked 11th on my February list, Bokk was noticed thanks to his great numbers, 34 points in 29 games, in the Swedish Jr SuperElit, followed by a promotion to the SHL, the top men’s circuit, where he’s put up 2 points in 15 games as a teenager playing against older competition. Ever since he entered the radar of scouts, he has impressed them with his soft hands, quick release, and powerful stride, all of which are good enough for him to be labled with top line potential. Bokk was relatively unkown prior to January, where he managed to break into the top 31 of some lists. In September, Bokk was 46th on Steve Kournianos’ (www.thedraftanalyst.com) rankings. As of January, he is 28th, a significant rise, and I don’t think he’s done yet. I think he’ll end up going in the 10-20 range on draft day, a significant rise for a player that started out as a projected 2nd-3rd round pick. He has passed players like Joe Veleno, Ryan Merkley, Rasmus Kupari, Bode Wilde, and Jared McIsaac, all of which were projected top 20 picks earlier in the year.

Another riser that has broken into the first round is Grigori Denisenko, a Russian winger playing in the MHL, a lesser known league. Denisenko is incredibly skilled, but didn’t get many viewings earlier in the year. Scouts are beginning to realize his high ceiling and he is moving up draft boards. Unfortunately for him, the lack of attention could prevent him from going as high as he could. Choosing which junior league to play in is a big decision for a prospect, and choosing to stay close to home appears to be a good move for a prospect, but if a player really wants to get drafted high, their best bet would be to come over to the CHL, where they would get way more attention. From a purely “I want to get drafted as high as possible standpoint”, the CHL is the place to go. Denisenko is a far better prospect than somebody like David Levin or Giovanni Vallati, but Levin and Vallati have attracted more attention than Denisenko purely because of the league they play in, the OHL.

Aidan Dudas is a player that has just begun their ascent , thanks to an impressive CHL Top Prospects Game, as well as a good season to date, where he has been one of the most productive draft eligible players in the OHL. He first caught my attention when I was sorting through OHL stats on http://www.prospect-stats.com, something I do quite often, trying to identify undervalued prospects. His name was right along those of top prospects like Andrei Svechnikov, Evan Bouchard, Barrett Hayton and Ryan Merkley. I watched Dudas play a week later, and he was underwhelming. He was nearly invisible, and showed none of the speed and skill that he displayed at the Top Prospects Game. That could have been the end of it, but numbers like his aren’t a fluke. A poor player can get some lucky points and easy tap ins, but that many points couldn’t have been luck. I watched him again a few weeks later, and he was 10 times the player he was the first time. He was fast, he played with confidence, and he made things happen. It was obvious that my first viewing came on a tough night for him, but I still wanted to watch him at least one more time before I moved him up my rankings, just to make sure. However, time got in the way, and I couldn’t get another viewing in until the Top Prospects Game, where nobody expected him to excel. Except he did, showcasing his talent to the many scouts in attendance. He was one of my 3 stars of that game. The Top Prospects Game can be a great tool for players to boost their draft stock, and Dudas took advantage. Right now, I think he is commonly viewed as an early 2nd rounder, but if he keeps producing like he has, he’ll break into the first round on more rankings than mine.

February 2018 NHL Draft Rankings

It’s been two months since my last draft rankings, and a lot has happened in that period. The World Junior Championship has come and gone, as have the CHL, CJHL and USHL top prospects games. Strong performances in those can boost a prospect’s draft stock, especially in the case of the WJHC. Rasmus Dahlin, Filip Zadina, Brady Tkachuk, Isac Lundestrom and Martin Kaut, among others, used it well, either moving up the rankings or widening the gap between them and the next guy. Before we get to those rankings, I’d like to talk about a few things first.

Adjusted PPG

The biggest complication in the scouting process is comparing players that are playing in different leagues. It’s hard to compare players when one plays in the SHL and one plays in the OHL, like Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov. One way that that can be done is through adjusted points per game. Prospect’s PPG numbers are multiplied by league and age translation multipliers that put the players all on the same level, as if they were all the same age, all playing in the same league, in the case, the OHL. I compiled all these numbers in a spreadsheet which I will link to. Here is the top 5:

  1. Andrei Svechnikov-1.19 PPG
  2. Ryan Merkley-1.15 PPG
  3. Dominik Bokk-1.09 PPG
  4. Filip Zadina-1 PPG
  5. Calen Addison-0.98 PPG

You’ll also notice that two of the players, Bokk, and Addison, aren’t regarded as top prospects like the other three players. That’s the other use of this list; finding underrated prospects. Players with top PPG numbers in their draft year typically go on to NHL success.

The full spreadsheet can be found here.

Now that that is out of the way, we can get to some player talk. The first 15 players have a paragraph or two summarizing their game and in some cases, explaining their rise or fall. However, there are a few players outside of the top 15 that I’d like to talk more about.

Grigori Denisenko

The MHL is one of the lesser known leagues, it doesn’t get much attention, and because of that, prospects playing there are often underrated. Grigori Denisenko is one of those players. He’s incredibly skilled offensively, but that will go largely unnoticed because of the league he plays in. The best move a prospect can make if they want to get noticed is to play in a top league like the CHL, NCAA or a good European junior league like the SuperElit. A good player from the OHL will often be drafted over a better player in the MHL simply because of how much more attention he gets.

Aidan Dudas

Dudas has cracked the first round for the first time this year, and he will hope to stay in it by continuing the fantatic season he’s had so far. He’s been on my radar for some time now, thanks to his stats, but it wasn’t until the Top Prospects game that I could really see how he got those numbers. He’s very fast, and can dangle, shoot and pass. I see top 6 upside in him.

Jared McIsaac and Bode Wilde

My ranking of these two players is controversial, so I’ll take some time to explain it. Most rankings have these two in the top 15, or at least the top 20. Both players pass the eye test, they appear to be strong puckmoving defensemen that play with poise and confidence. I’m a big fan the two when I ignore stats, especially Bode Wilde. However, their statistics make them risky picks.

Goals For % (GF%) is a measure of the even strength goals a player’s team scores while said player is on the ice, versus the goals against the player’s team while they are on the ice. GF% rel is a player’s GF% relative to the GF% of their team while the player is not on the ice. Essentially, it measures whether a player has a positive or negative impact on a team’s goal differential (which then translates into wins or losses). Good players rarely dip into the negatives, unless they play on terrible teams, an excuse that neither player is entitled to use. My research actually suggests that if a player’s GF% rel is anywhere below +9, the chances of that player living up to their potential lowers. Both players are well below that. Unfortunately, the sample size for my findings is small, so it may not be completely accurate. GF% rel numbers are only available in the QMJHL, and have only been available since 2015. Doubt me if uou want, you certainly have a basis to do so, but when (if) these guys end up as 3rd pairing D or worse, I’ll be saying I told you so. More on this in a future post.

And now, the rankings. If you have any questions, ask me on Twitter, @DraftLook, or by email, samhappi77@gmail.com.

1. Rasmus Dahlin, LD

Dahlin, a dynamic, offensive defenseman used the WJC to cement his place as this year’s #1, dominating against top competition. He is often compared to Erik Karlsson, but he plays his own style of game. The biggest similarity between those two will likely be the gigantic impact that they will both have on a game, and Dahlin has the potential to leave an even larger footprint. He is more than just a franchise player, he is borderline generational, because he has the potential to be the best defenseman in the league for the majority of his career.

2. Andrei Svechnikov, RW

Svechnikov lost ground in the race for #1, but it wasn’t at all his fault. Svechnikov had only recently recovered from a broken hand, and his play at the WJHC reflected that, although he was still an important player for Russia. Dahlin played his best hockey when it counted, and impressed a lot of scouts, leaving Svechnikov appearing underwheming in comparison. At this point, Dahlin is simply the better player, and that isn’t a knock on Svechnikov. It’s like the 2015 draft with McDavid and Eichel. Eichel is a franchise player, but he couldn’t beat the generational McDavid.

3. Filip Zadina, LW

Zadina exploded at the WJHC, and was one of, if not the best players for the Czech Republic. Out of all the 2018 eligibles at the WJHC, he impressed me the most, playing a lethal dual threat game. He’s an elite sniper and an elite playmaker, and he combines the two in a way that only game changing players can. Most players fit into one pf the two categories, but Zadina fits in both, something only seen in world-class players such as Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. He’s the type of player that you could build a team around.

4. Adam Boqvist, RD

Adam Boqvist was the only player in my top 6 that wasn’t named to a WJHC squad, a surprising snub from Team Sweden. I think he deserved to make the team, although he hasn’t been able to establish himself in the SHL so far this year. Currently, he’s playing in Sweden’s tier two men’s league, the Allsvenskan. He probably plays the most like Erik Karlsson out of everybody in this draft class; an NHL style game, using his speed, vision and shot to create offensive opportunities. Looks like a future top pairing defender. He’ll probably need another year before he is NHL ready, where he can play in the SHL and get used to a higher level of play.

5. Brady Tkachuk, LW/C

Even if Brady Tkachuk wasn’t as skilled as he is, he might still have been a top prospect for the draft, because he has almost everything NHL teams like; size, NHL bloodlines, physicality, and leadership. In reality, he has all that, and incredible skill. He’s a goal scorer, and has good puck-skills and a quality shot. He also possesses a soaring hockey IQ. His most impressive trait IMO, is his ability to find open space. A lot of players will get the puck and then take the space, but Tkachuk helps himself to the space, then calla for the puck, giving the opposition less time to try to catch him. He has first line tools.

6. Quinn Hughes, LD

This draft is loaded with offensive minded defensemen, including Quinn Hughes, a speedy puck moving blueliner. The staple of his game is his puck rushing, which he excels at. He picks his head up, finds a lane, and takes it. If there isn’t a lane, he either creates one, pr finds a teammate with a hard, accurate pass. He’ll be a top pairing defenseman, and an elite PP QB.

7. Oliver Wahlstrom, RW

Oliver Wahlstrom, a winger for the USNTDP, has great hands and an elite shot. He first attracted media attention when a video of a shootout attenpt of his went viral. He displayed great hands, and now, those great hands will help carry him to a top 10 selection at the draft. He plays on a line with fellow draft eligible Joel Farabee and 2019 top prospect Jack Hughes for the USDP, and they have been lighting it up. He’s a top notch finisher, but doesn’t depend on others to create oppurtunities for him. He uses his hands, speed and vision to do that for himself. He’s destined for the first line, and if placed with a good playmaker, he could score 50.

8. Ty Smith, D

Ty Smith is a two way defenseman that doesn’t always get the respect he deserves, because he doesn’t play a flashy game like Dahlin, Hughes, and partially Boqvist, although he doesn’t make as many end to end plays as those two, and the end to end rushes are typically the plays that get a lot of retweets and attention on Twitter. Also, Smith plays in the WHL, which I have noticed not to get as much attention as other leagues, especially the European leagues. The European leagues get the most attention, since games from the SHL, Liiga and some of the junior leagues can be streamed relatively easily. The OHL is next, simply because of all the scouts situated there, as well as the popularity of that league. After that is the NCAA, then the QMJHL, the WHL, and finally the MHL. Grigori Denisenko, an under the radar prospect plays there, and if he was in the CHL, NCAA, or one of the more popular European leagues, he would get a lot more attention.

Smith can make an offensive impact while also being solid in his own zone. He plays an NHL style game, moving the puck up ice, while also being able to skate the puck up ice himself. Defensively, he can play physically while also possessing a good defensive stick. He could be a staple on a team’s top pairing for a long time.

9. Noah Dobson, D

Noah Dobson has been a big time riser this year. He started out as a projected 2nd or 3rd round pick, but since then, he has exploded onto the scene, establishing himself as a top 15 prospect. He’s put up fantastic numbers in the QMJHL, and has demonstrated impressive puck moving ability, as well as hockey IQ. During the CHL-Russia series, Dobson and Jared McIsaac formed a pairing for Team QMJHL, and the two 2018 eligibles impressed me with their calm, puck-moving play. Dobson appears to have the higher ceiling out of the two, with top pairing potential, while McIsaac has dropped considerably since December.

10. Evan Bouchard, D

Bouchard has exploded in the draft year, climbing draft boards. He is a shot machine, he is one of the shot leaders in the entire OHL, and those shots have led to points, either from rebounds or them just going in. He’s on pace for 80 points, which would be fantastic, especially for a blueliner. He can jump up into the play, and is lethal as the late man in on the rush. He can take advantage of slacking or tired backcheckers and rip one home. He can move the puck up ice, and is incredibly poised and confident. He has top pairing potential, and will be an elite powerplay QB.

11. Dominikk Bokk

One of the mosy underrated prospects in the draft, Bokk is high on some draft lists and low on others. The main difference between the lists that have him high and the ones that have him low is the attention that they pay to stats. A lot of scouting services look at very few stats when formulating their rankings. They depend on the good ol’ fashioned eye test. A prospect should definitely be watched before you make a judgement on their potential, but statistics deserve a place in the scouting process as well. Dominik Bokk has 29 points in 21 games in the SuperElit, 1.3 PPG. Those are very good numbers, 2nd out of all draft eligible prospects in unadjusted PPG, and 3rd when PPG is adjusted for league and age. Following his great 29 SuperElit games, Bokk went to the SHL, where he has put up 2 points in 15 games. There is going to be an adjustment period there, and when you go from playing against youth to men, it can be fairly lengthy. He’s also playing a much smaller role in the SHL, so the decrease is expected.

Stats aside, Bokk is a winger with both offensive and defensive skill. Offensively, he is a goal scorer that finds the prime scoring areas. He has great hands and a great shot. He’s the best German prospect since Leon Draisaitl. Defensively, he takes away lanes, can lend support down low, and is always ready for a counterattack, but not in a way that compromises him defensively.

12. Joe Veleno, C

Veleno has had an up and down season so far, but I think he has started to right the ship, and it will be smooth sailing for him from now on. He struggled with one of the worst teams in the QMJHL earlier in the season, sparking doubts about his potential. However, following a trade to a top team in December, he seems to have regained his production, and if he can keep this up, he may also be able to regain his previous place on draft boards, which was usually top 5. I don’t see that happening, I think the best he’ll do is 8th, but I can’t predict the future 100% accurately, only about 90%. I think slump that came from playing on a poor team spoke a lot about what kind of player he’ll be in the future; he won’t be able to carry a line, he’ll need good teammates to help him out if he’s gonna put up points. As a playmaker like Veleno is, you need linemates that can finish on the oppurtunities you create for them. If your wingers can’t score, you won’t be getting assists, and for Veleno, that’s the majority of his points (85% to be exact). At the start of the year, he looked like he had 1C potential, and he may still, but I’m concerned about his offensive potential, so I think he’s more suited for a 2C role, centering a line that can both shutdown the opposition as well as provide some scoring.

13. Barrett Hayton, C

I have Hayton 13th right now, but he could be a riser. I’ve seen him as high as 6th on some lists, but he’s also in the 25 to even 40 range on others. Hayton started the year as a projected 2nd rounder, but has impressed with his poise and shot to fight his way up. He’s a goal scorer, he’s got a 40-60 goal-assist split as of January 17 (when all stats mentioned are from, unless otherly specified). He has a nice shot, good release; his release almost incorporates a toe drag, he brings the puck back and then towards his body on his shot. He’s very patient, if he isn’t forced to make a move, he won’t. If he’s not being pressured, he’ll hold onto the puck and try to draw a defender out of position, especially on the powerplay. He’ll skate with the puck if nothing opens up as well, I’ve seen him take it back behind his own net from the neutral zone if he can’t find any options. I do have a few concerns though. Sometimes, he is a little too patient, and it results in turnovers, and he does try to do too much with it in his own end sometimes, and he’s lost it there as well. Both should resolve themselves as Hayton develops further, but they are things to keep an eye on. That aside, I think Hayton, like Veleno, has definite top 6 potential, and a 1C ceiling, if he develops well.

14. Isac Lundestrom, C

This Swedish centre is an underrated prospect that is beginning to receive more attention following a strong performance at the WJHC, where he centred an effective line for Sweden. Lundestrom plays against men in the SHL, and has put up impressive numbers for a teenager. He has 10 points in 26 games, good numbers for his age, especially when you incorporate his minimal role on the team. Those numbers are good for a 0.61 league/age adjusted PPG in a men’s league. Lundestrom uses his hockey IQ to make plays, getting into good spots and finding open teammates. He projects as a second line centre long term, I don’t think he has the offensive potential for the first line, but he could be apart of a second line that provides solid scoring.

15. Calen Addison, D

I have Addison ranked pretty high at 15, while most other lists will have him in the 20-40 range. He’s an underrated prospect, another WHL player. He’s a small defender, officially listed as 5’10, but he’s probably closer to the 5’8-5’9 range. I think he’ll end up being picked late first, and his height will be what holds him back. NHL teams continue to have biases towards taller players, despite the success of smaller players like Erik Karlsson or Samuel Girard. In Addison’s case, I don’t think his height holds his on ice play back at all, he plays like a bigger guy. He doesn’t get knocked off the puck very easily, and he can knock others off of it. He can move the puck up ice effectively, and excels in the offensive zone, making smart decisions and generating offensive opportunities. He’s good at keeping the puck in, allowing his team to continue their offensive zone time. Definitely has top 4 upside.

16. Joel Farabee, LW

Slippery winger excelling on line with Jack Hughes and Oliver Wahlstrom for the USNTDP.

17. Ryan McLeod, C

Fast, two way centre can shut down opposition and produce offence.

18. Akil Thomas, C/RW

Smart forward is always moving, creating opportunities.

19. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C

Skilled centre putting up great numbers in top Finnish league, playing against men.

20. Filip Hallander, F

Gritty winger also has skill, good numbers.

21. Grigori Denisenko, LW

Underrated player is very skilled, hidden away in MHL.

22. Ryan Merkley, D

Incredibly talented offensively, struggles in own zone. Boom or bust prospect.

23. Rasmus Sandin, D

Impressive puckmoving ability, good at getting shots through from point. Was great at CHL Top Prospects game.

24. Jacob Olofsson, C

Well rounded centre has few weaknesses, scoring touch.

25. Ty Dellandrea, C

Two way centre can deliver offensive production as well as solid defensive play.

26. Aidan Dudas, C

Speedy forward has a nice shot and puts himself in positions to score.

27. Rasmus Kupari, C

Highly skilled centre doesn’t have the offensive production to match his talent.

28. Jett Woo, D

Two way defenceman moves puck well, plays calm game.

29. Jake Wise, C

Smart player can pass and score. Plays a solid two way game.

30. Bode Wilde, D

Below average skater has poor underlying numbers.

31. Jared McIsaac, D

Passes the eye test, but advanced statistics are concerning. Risky pick.

Prospect Tiers (Top 31)

Tier 1: Rasmus Dahlin

2: Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina, Adam Boqvist, Brady Tkachuk

3: Quinn Hughes

4: Oliver Wahlstrom, Ty Smith, Noah Dobson, Evan Bouchard

5: Dominik Bokk, Joe Veleno, Barrett Hayton

6: Isac Lundestrom, Calen Addison, Joel Farabee, Ryan McLeod, Akil Thomas, Jesperi Kotkaniemi

7. Filip Hallander, Grigori Denisenko, Ryan Merkley, Rasmus Sandin, Jacob Olofsson, Ty Dellandrea, Aidan Dudas, Rasmus Kupari, Jett Woo

8. Jake Wise, Bode Wilde, Jared McIsaac

32. Adam Ginning, D

33. Allan McShane, C

34. Anderson MacDonald, LW

35. Jack McBain, C

36. Alexander Alexeyev, D

37. K’Andre Miller, D

38. Dennis Busby, D

39. Serron Noel, RW

40. Martin Kaut, RW

41. Marcus Karlberg, W

42. Jonatan Berggren, C/RW

43. Albin Eriksson, LW

44. Alexander Khovanov, C

45. Phillipp Kurashev, C/LW

46. Kevin Bahl, D

47. Cole Fonstad, C/LW

48. Jakub Lauko, C/LW

49. Nando Eggenberger, LW

50. Benoit-Olivier Groulx, F

51. Nicolas Beaudin, D

52. Xavier Bouchard, D

53. David Levin, LW

54. Gleb Babintsev, D

55. Vitali Kravstov, F

56. Giovanni Vallati, D

57. Mattias Samuelsson, D

58. Adam Samuelsson, D

59. Miles Roman, C

60. Adam Liska, LW

61. Martin Fehervary, D

62. Filip Kral, D

Sam Happi’s NHL Draft Notebook

This is the first edition of what should become a weekly thing, where I share my notes from the last week.  Over the course of a week, I watch a game or two featuring 2018 NHL Draft eligible prospects, and I’ll share my notes from those games, as well as the latest prospect news and analysis here.

Joe Veleno

Veleno was traded from Saint John to Drummondville in the QMJHL Friday.  Veleno will hope to rebound with his new team after a tough first couple months that has seen him falling on draft boards.  He has started to regain his footing after a tough start, and is now at 31 points in 31 games on the year, exactly a point per game.  Veleno is -10 this season.  He’ll look to heat up with Drummondville as he tries to make up lost ground.

WJC

Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes and Rasmus Kupari headline the 2018 eligible draft talent that are expected to make WJC teams.  Adam Boqvist was the most surprising draft eligible snub.  Boqvist, ranked 3rd, was not named to Sweden’s preliminary WJC roster.  Oliver Wahlstrom and Jesper Kotkaniemi were also surprisingly left off WJC rosters.

Andrei Svechnikov

Svechnikov has returned from his hand injury and will play on Saturday against Oshawa, a game that will be shown on Sportsnet in Canada as a part of their CHL Saturday Showcase series.  Viewers with Sportsnet as a part of their television plans will be able to see Svechnikov multiple times this season, as the Barrie Colts are frequently involved in the Saturday Showcase on the channel.

Noah Dobson

Dobson continues to rise on draft boards, as his calm, puckmoving game continues to impress scouts.  Could be the Cale Makar of 2018, a dark horse top 5 pick.

Jack McBain

McBain has seen himself fall after a poor start to the season where he has had 38 points in 31 games in the OJHL, a Junior A league.  Those numbers appear to be good, but a potential first round pick should really stand out in a 2nd-tier junior league, and McBain has not done so this season.

New Leagues Are The Solution For Junior Hockey Expansion

How to make hockey grow in North America, particularly in the United States? For the most part, Canada has worked out an excellent solution, the CHL which binds together the three main branches of junior hockey in Canada, the WHL, the OHL, and QMJHL and provides a national championship, the Memorial Cup each year. The only awkward part is Northern Ontario which has cities like Thunder Bay and Timmins which might be able to successfully support junior teams but are too far away to compete feasibly with other areas of Canada. Unless airfare is significantly reduced or a dramatic new way of traveling is invented, these isolated areas will have to be ignored for some time in the future.

Given the precarious state of owning and operating junior teams in North America, travel is a serious issue. For that reason there is no inter-league play except for the Memorial Cup tournament itself. It’s a fanciful concept but until improvements in travel are invented, it will have to remain an unrealized dream.

Growth of hockey starts with growth in the levels of play before a player reaches the NHL level. Of the three branches in junior Canadian hockey, the OHL has the best chance to expand. There are still lots of smaller Canadian towns in southern Ontario to plant new teams and northern New York State, Michigan, and Ohio offer lots more possibilities for expansion.

The QMJHL offers good chances for expansion but the league has too many weak sister franchises in terms of attendance and small arenas to do much. Right now the league wants to strengthen its existing franchises instead of expanding.

That leaves the WHL which is the biggest league in the CHL with 22 teams including an American branch. But here the problem of travel is most manifest. Areas of growth like Montana, Idaho, and southern Oregon are too far away from the existing WHL franchises to be feasible. So the best solution is to form new American junior leagues and affiliate them and existing American ones with the CHL.

Why join American junior leagues to Canada? Simply put, there is a drop in quality of play between Canadian and American junior hockey. Most of the best American players come from the CHL or from American university hockey. Alongside expanding the markets for junior hockey in the United States, raising the standard of play has to be a priority.

Forget the nationalism argument. The United States and Europe are quite content to send many of their top junior prospects into the CHL for development. In fact the Europeans want in so badly that the CHL has put a limit on how many their teams can have. Doing well in the CHL is almost a certain ticket to becoming a high draft choice in the NHL draft, no matter if the player comes from Canada, Europe, or the United States.

Where to start? There is only one Tier 1 junior level league in the United States, in the United States Hockey League, with most of the teams located in the northern, central United States. Becoming a branch under the CHL umbrella would raise the standard of play in the league and open opportunities for more American, Canadian, and European boys. Organizing a new league in the Montana-Idaho area and maybe other states within reasonable traveling distance would be a good idea. And sorting out and organizing another American hotbed of hockey, New England would help.

That would make the Memorial Cup a six team tournament (unless the CHL had any other ideas to make the tournament 8 teams; a host city and the best wild card team of the 6 branches of the league). As for the nationalist argument of American teams and leagues being under the Canadian umbrella: Well the Memorial Cup is probably the most prestigious trophy for junior hockey in the world. The existing American franchises in the CHL do not mind competing for it and more American leagues and franchises would be competing for it at a higher standard of play.

Reorganizing junior hockey, particularly in the United States is essential for growth. At a recent summit of the “big 4″ North American major league commissioners, Gary Bettman commented on the growth of hockey at the junior level of the United States. But the present growth is nothing compared to what could be accomplished if the existing leagues were better organized, new leagues founded, and the standard of play significantly raised.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 6: No Equivalent Of The CHL

In the World Junior Championships, Canada dominates the United States. The score is Canada 16, United States 4 in gold medals and Canada 30, United States 10 in total medals. Overall the United States sits 4th in both gold medals and total medals.

Given the huge population advantage the United States has, one might have expected a reversal of medals, but Canada’s lead proves that quality wins over quantity. Why is this possible? Most likely it is because of Canada’s secret weapon, the CHL.

No other country has a junior hockey institution like the CHL. It consists of three branches; a western league which includes a United States division, an Ontario league which has three American franchises, and a Quebec-Maritime league. At the end of the CHL season, the champions of each branch compete for the Memorial Cup along with a host city. The Memorial Cup tournament host team rotates each year through the three leagues.

The United States has no equivalent of the CHL. American players who become NHL players and play for the United States internationally usually come from the CHL or from hockey played at the American university level. Since the advent of Europeans in the 1970s, European boys also want to play in the CHL, so much so that the league has had to set a limit on how many Europeans can play on each team.

It is easy to see why so many Americans and Europeans want to play in the CHL. The quality of play at the junior level is high. The teams play a tough, rugged style that the NHL draws on. Americans and Europeans who join the CHL get a chance to compete directly against Canada’s top young talent. Not only do they get trained well, but if they distinguish themselves in the CHL, it is almost a certain ticket to becoming a high draft choice in the NHL draft.

For the record, if a young American with hockey talent gets drafted by a CHL team, he’ll move to that town or city where there are volunteer families who act as sponsors, a type of “foster parents” where he will live and become a part of that family. He will attend a Canadian or American high school to continue his education. And in the case of some Europeans, they will get a chance to learn to speak English or French. So Americans and Europeans can become “Canadianized” in more than just hockey.

And it seems that the United States and Europe are quite content to let Canada train most of their top stars. If the CHL ever expands (there approximately 60 teams at present) there would be no problem finding a talent pool in Canada, the United States and Europe to stock several new teams.

But this is one of the main reasons that hockey remains number 4 in status in the United States. The United States (and Europe) simply do not put in the resources necessary at the junior level and younger to raise the quality of play and the game’s stature. In Canada, hockey is number one. It is not a fluke that Canada dominates international play at most levels. They have better training, better coaches, and they put more resources into hockey.

If the game of hockey is going to rise in status in the United States, more has to be done at the junior levels or younger to make it happen. Perhaps an American equivalent of the CHL has to be created. In Canada, children start playing hockey when they start entering public school. It gets into the blood at an early age. That has to happen in the United States more often, for hockey to rise status and be considered one of “America’s games”.

 

Wide Gap Between Canada And The Rest Of The World Part 2

It starts with CHL and younger leagues. That is the meaning of the results of the recently revived World Cup Of Hockey. That is the reason for the huge gap in quality of play, now not only between Canada and the dozen “B level” countries which been around for too many decades to count, but now between Canada and the other “traditional 6″ hockey powers, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, USA, Sweden and Finland. The World Cup was a total mismatch, with no real competition except two all star hybrids Europe and North America. All hockey fans are glad to have the World Cup back after 12 years hiatus but the tournament was an embarrassment.

There is only one good hockey country in the world now, Canada. They have stated in no uncertain terms that hockey is a Canadian game. If Canada wanted to get revenge for the humiliation of having no Canadian teams participate in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, they got it in spades. It is a good thing that the NHL is not organized on nationality lines with only Canadians playing for Canadian teams and Americans and the rest of the world playing on American teams. No American city would come within sniffing distance of the Stanley Cup – for decades.

All the World Cup did as a follow-up to the last two Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi was confirm how dominant Canada is in hockey, now pulling away from everybody else with no real competition in sight. And they did it without two of their very best players, Duncan Keith and Connor McDavid. They have now won 16 consecutive meaningful international games and that is no fluke. It is time for the rest of the world to wake up and address the gap in quality of play between Canada and everybody else or this gap will continue to the end of time. They have to do what Canada did in 1972 after the famous Canada-USSR match.

Back then there was almost total ignorance in Canada about the state of international hockey outside of its borders. The only warnings came from certain individuals who had been following international hockey for the previous decade and knew that amateur and minor league teams like the Trail Smokeaters who last won the World Championship for Canada in the early 1960s could not compete against the best of the world anymore and that only the very best players of Canada, playing in the NHL had a chance of winning. So ignorant was Canada about the USSR that it was even speculated that a team of NHL “goons” would be enough for an eight game sweep.

CanadaUSSR

Despite narrowly winning the series 4-3-1, Canada ate humble pie – a lot of humble pie. The revelation of near defeat led to a revolution in Canadian thinking about many aspects of hockey. It was now recognized that some European countries and the United States were catching up in quality of play to Canada. They took the result seriously. There was no blindness to what was going on in the sport of hockey as there is today in international baseball with the United States scornful and degrading reactions to the repeated results of the World Baseball Classic (see my article about the state of international hockey versus international baseball on this blog about this matter). Canada was prepared to adjust to the new reality of international hockey conditions.

Before the series, it was possible for NHL players to spend the summer laying about and guzzling beer before training camp. It was recognized that the USSR nearly defeated Canada because of its superior conditioning. After the match with the USSR, woe to the NHL player who reported to his autumn training camp out of shape. It would now cost him his job. Better conditioning in hockey was a direct result of this first international match. This lesson and much more was absorbed by Canada.

The results of two Olympics and now the World Cup, 16 straight defeats shows that it is time for the rest of the world to eat the same humble pie Canada did. And the lesson of the World Cup is that no country can compete with Canada now and in the future until they revise their junior and younger programs in their own countries. The CHL is the most obvious example of Canadian domination. It has been and continues to be the best program for training young players at the junior level in the world. No one else is close.

Many of  the top European and most of the best American players in the NHL got their training and development playing for the Canadian and handful of American franchises in the CHL. So great is the desire to get in, that the CHL has had to put restrictions on the number of Europeans a team is allowed to employ. And why do so many junior Americans and Europeans want to play in Canada? Because the training and experience they get is the best in the world and if they distinguish themselves against the top Canadian juniors, a ticket into the NHL and guaranteed fame and riches will follow. If I am a boy with hockey skills who lives in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Visby, Sweden and Kazan, Russia, I want the chance to prove myself against the best Canadian boys because if I succeed, I’ll have picked up the skills and training needed to become a high NHL draft choice.

Now look at the ridiculousness of the current international hockey situation. When asked about how the composition of the American team which could not beat anybody was chosen, the answer from management was that they were chosen “to beat Canada”. But where do American and European boys have to go to get their best training and development? You got it, Canada, and what does that say about the quality of training that they get in their own countries? It is just not good enough and the result is two Olympic gold medals, a World Cup triumph, and 16 straight victories for Canada. If you say that your goal is to “beat Canada” but you have to send your best young players to your mortal enemy to be trained effectively, it is the height of absurdity.

It is now time for the rest of the hockey world to eat humble pie and study the lessons of these defeats. And the main lesson is to revise the junior and younger hockey programs and systems in your own land so that your country produces and develops hockey players of the quantity and quality that Canada produces. That is meaning of this World Cup. No country that seriously wants to compete effectively with Canada can avoid doing this. Producing a winner for the World Cup and the Olympics starts at the junior and younger levels of hockey. Countries that want to win will have to conform with the Canadian junior model or devise something better. Right now, everybody else is playing for second place.

chl

There are approximately 60 CHL junior teams in Canada and the Northern United States, but you could double that number to 120 and stuff all the new teams exclusively with Americans and Europeans so long as they got the same training and development that Canadians do. Maybe then there would be some parity restored and a real expansion in international quality from the “big 7″ to the “big 16″. Let Canada train your children in hockey. They are the experts.

But the real solution is to set up junior systems in other countries that matches or exceeds the CHL. Until this is done, no country can be taken seriously as an international hockey power. Right now hockey is a Canadian game. There is nobody else.