June 24, 2011

New England draft candidates could yield big gains

by Kirk Luedeke

Steve Michalek (photo: USA Hockey)

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

The run of four consecutive years of New England players being selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft likely will come to an end this year with a pretty shallow group of area natives, albeit several with intriguing long-term potential.

From Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.) in 2007, Colin Wilson (Greenwich, Conn.) in 2008 and Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) in 2009 to Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) and Charlie Coyle (East Weymouth, Mass.) in 2010, New England has produced NHL players and high-end prospects alike in the top 30 picks in recent years.

But 2011 will buck that trend.

“It’s a little thinner than in recent years,” Central Scouting’s New England regional scout Gary Eggleston (Wakefield, Mass.) told New England Hockey Journal. “When you take the other kids (non-New England natives) out of the mix, it’s not as deep a crop on the whole.”

Even with the concerns with the quality and depth of this year’s class, sometimes the draft itself is not a strong indicator of what the future holds.

In the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, not one New England player was selected in the first two rounds. Even so, two of the region’s top young NHL stars — Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.) and Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle (Milton, Mass.) — were third- and fourth-round picks, respectively. If that draft were done over, both would be top-15 selections.

Although the 2011 New England class lacks clear-cut first-round talent in the eyes of scouts, several players have the size, skill level and upside to eventually develop into NHL players. It will take time and patience on the part of the team willing to invest a draft pick on the likes of Mike Paliotta (Westport, Conn.), Colin Sullivan (Milford, Conn.) or Jimmy Vesey (North Reading, Mass.), but all three bring the right tools to the table.

While this appears to be a down year for New England players in their first year of eligibility, one overage skater passed over in 2010 could get a look. UMass forward Mike Pereira (West Haven, Conn.) scored 12 goals and 25 points as a freshman after leading Avon Old Farms to the 2010 prep championship. He has excellent speed and hands but needs to get a lot stronger.

“These things go in cycles,” said one NHL director of amateur scouting who attended the New England prep tournament in Salem, N.H., in March. “It’s a down year, but if you look at some of the kids from New England in 2012, that’s shaping up to be a pretty good group, so there will be more interest from scouts next season.”

Here's how NEHJ ranks them:

1. Mike Paliotta
Hometown: Westport, Conn.
Position: D 
Shoots: R
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 198 pounds
Team: U.S. NTDP U18 Team
2010-11 stats: 52 GP, 1 G, 12 A, 13 Pts., 71 PIM
CSS Final Rank: 86 North America
Plus: Excellent size, very good skating and mobility. Moves the puck well and makes smart decisions. Possesses a big point shot, but is better in puck distribution on the power play than as the triggerman. Rugged, physical player who has the size and will to take the body.
Minus: May lack the instincts and vision to be a true offensive threat. Sometimes tries to do too much; needs to keep it simple to be most effective.
Quotable: “He’s a defensive guy. There isn’t a lot of offense, but he tries to establish himself physically from the drop of the puck and is quite good in d-zone coverage. He’s pretty efficient; he blocks shots and does the little things.” — Gary Eggleston, regional scout, Central Scouting Service

2. Colin Sullivan
Milford, Conn.
Position: D
Shoots: R
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 205 pounds
Team: Avon Old Farms
2010-11 stats: 27 GP, 3 G, 12 A, 15 Pts., 14 PIM
CSS Final Rank: 75 North America
Plus: Tremendous skater; excellent lateral movement and footwork make him a threat to lead or join the rush at any time. Hard worker who has the dedication to on- and off-ice training to make himself a better player.
Minus: Average production for a player of his physical gifts. Scouts question whether the hockey sense/creativity is going to allow him to develop offensive element to his game.
Quotable: “I love his wheels; we’re talking about a kid who can really skate. If he was playing at a higher level, you’d probably hear his name a lot more than you do.” — NHL Eastern Conference scout

3. Jimmy Vesey
North Reading, Mass.
Position: LW
Shoots: L
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 185 pounds
Team: Belmont Hill
2010-11 stats: 32 GP, 28 G, 21 A, 49 Pts., 30 PIM
CSS Final Rank: 150 North America
Plus: Outstanding hockey sense and hands for scoring goals and setting up the play. Good size with the room to fill out and add mass as he develops. Has NHL bloodlines and the willingness to get out of his comfort zone to challenge himself at a higher level.
Minus: Still rounding out his play in all zones; drafted by Youngstown of the USHL with the 37th pick in the 2011 draft. Long-term project who won’t reach Harvard until 2012.
Quotable: “The bottom line with him is that when his total game comes together he can be very effective. When he’s not on his game, he’s barely noticeable. He’s a very good skater who is strong on the puck and can beat guys 1-on-1.” —Eggleston

4. Steve Michalek
Glastonbury, Conn.
Position: G
Catches: L
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 195 pounds
Team: Loomis-Chaffee
2010-11 stats: 2-19-2, 3.95 GAA, .918 save pct.
CSS Final Rank: 5
Plus: Very good size and athleticism; takes up a lot of net and is tough to beat on the first and even second shots. Excellent recovery skills and never gives up on the play. Superb mental toughness; under siege all season, yet always kept his overmatched team in games. Proved himself against elite competition in his peer group last summer in winning silver medal at Eight Nations tourney.
Minus: Can get scrambly and overcommit at times; needs to keep fundamentals in mind and not open the net up by anticipating or cheating to one side.
Quotable: “I have him No. 2 on my list for goalies after the U.S. kid, John Gibson. He has terrific mental makeup and even when his team was giving up a lot of scoring chances and goals, you didn’t see it affect him.” — Eggleston

5. Stephen Miller
: Boxboro, Mass.
Position: LW
Shoots: L
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 195 pounds
Team: Noble & Greenough
2010-11 stats: 27 GP, 21 G, 9 A, 30 Pts.
CSS Final Rank: 109 North America
Plus: Good skater with a wide base to generate power and maintain balance against contact. Decent puckhandler who will take it into traffic and can beat defenders with his quick stick. Goes to the net and will be tough to contain as he matures and gets stronger. Natural offensive instincts and flair for scoring.
Minus: A better athlete than hockey player; doesn’t seem to have a lot of awareness for the flow of the game and where he needs to be. Will require a lot of coaching. Whispers about attitude will have teams taking a deeper look into Miller’s off-ice profile.
Quotable: “Miller is a very good skater with top-end speed, agility and quickness for a big kid. He gets to the puck in a hurry and causes a lot of turnovers on the forecheck. He’s an effective penalty killer, too. There’s some nice offensive upside here.” — Eggleston

6. Mike Pereira
West Haven Conn.
Position: LW
Shoots: L
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 170 pounds
Team: UMass
2010-11 stats: 32 GP, 12 G, 13 A, 25 Pts., 22 PIM
CSS Final Rank: 114 North America
Plus: Outstanding skater with big-play ability. Has an excellent shot and is also a deft passer. Sees the ice well and has a penchant for raising his compete levels when the intensity picks up. Productive; if scouts questioned his success at low prep level, they have to acknowledge his success in Hockey East.
Minus: Still has a lean frame and needs to get stronger. Late ’91 birthdate; NHL clubs may hope to grab him via free agency several years down the road.
Quotable: “I think (NHL teams) would be smart to take him. He’s a very noticeable offensive player whose skating is obviously better than a lot of the players on the ice. He has very good balance agility and a real good stick.” — Eggleston

7. Nick Bligh
Milton, Mass.
Position: C
Shoots: L
Height: 6 feet
Weight: 160 pounds
Team: Dexter School
2010-11 stats: 29 GP, 27 G, 37 A, 64 Pts.
CSS Final Rank: 171 North America
Plus: Outstanding skater with big-play ability. High-end hockey sense with vision, patience and an innate feel for the flow of play. Soft hands for passing and can finish off the play as well. Excellent two-way player and character kid.
Minus: Has a lean frame and needs to get stronger. Deserving of a late-round flyer, but lack of size may see him passed over much like Pereira a year ago.
Quotable: “Nick sees the ice so well and is very patient. Guys who have total confidence in their game are usually patient and will take their time to make the right play, taking option 2 or 3 instead of the first thing that shows itself. He’s so aggressive as a defensive player, too — he pressures the puck carrier and plays with such drive and tenacity.” — Eggleston

Colin Blackwell (North Andover, Mass.), C, St. John’s Prep — The 173rd-ranked player on Central Scouting’s list is small at about 5-foot-9, but he has high-end offensive skills and strong two-way ability.
Ben Foster (Darien, Conn.), LW, Choate — Unranked by Central Scouting, but Foster has the size, skating and upside to be a late developmental project pick.

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com