By Kirk Luedeke
His Twitter handle is “MysteryMan93” but Indiana Ice forward Robbie Baillargeon is a mystery no more to NHL draft watchers.
|Robbie Baillargeon (Enfield, Conn.) had an impressive season for a first-year player in the USHL. (Photo courtesy of Indana Ice)|
The Enfield, Conn. native, who scored 30 goals and 64 points in 31 games for the Cushing Academy Penguins a year ago, left the New England prep circuit for a bigger challenge away from home. In his rookie USHL season, Baillargeon boosted his draft stock by finishing out the 2011-12 campaign as the 50th-ranked North American skater on Central Scouting’s final rankings released last month.
“It’s my nickname on the team,” Baillargeon told New England Hockey Journal when asked about his Twitter account. “Not sure why! I think because I tend to do my own thing a lot of the time.”
Being a newcomer to the team from the East Coast, an area that doesn’t provide a large percentage of talent in the USHL, may have also contributed to the moniker. In any case, the 18-year-old is reaping the benefits of playing at a higher level this season as the NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh rapidly approaches its June 22-23 dates.
“It was the right decision,” he said. “Seeing myself as a player now as opposed to the beginning of the year, I’ve come a long way.”
Some players out East opt to stick closer to home, either in prep or in the EJHL, so Baillargeon accepted some risk by opting for the USHL. Much like Connor Brickley (Everett, Mass.) did a few years back when he left Belmont Hill for the Des Moines Buccaneers and ended up being a second-round selection of the Florida Panthers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Baillargeon is hoping to follow a similar path.
If dominating prep hockey as a player one year older than the one who averaged more than two points a game at 17 wasn’t the best way to market himself to NHL clubs, the challenges he faced in the USHL beyond the normal adjustment a player faces against opponents who are bigger, stronger and faster have helped him to prepare for life at the next level.
“I would say the travel and the length of the season were the biggest things,” he said. “It was really the first time for me experiencing that. I wasn’t used to the length of the season with 60-plus games and the playoffs, and all the practicing in between.”
Baillargeon is a long way from his home in the Nutmeg State, having journeyed 900-plus miles to Indianapolis and spent many more hours on long bus rides with his junior teammates to exotic USHL locales like Youngstown, Waterloo and Omaha to name a few.
“You’re on the bus anywhere from six hours to 20 hours or so,” said Baillargeon. “You’re with the team the whole time, so we try to do stuff to make it go by and then carry it over on the ice. That’s important—the team-building you can do with all the time spent together on roadies.”
Baillargeon added that the team bus is a nice sleeper model that helped pass the time nicely, whether spent watching the NHL Network and televised games, or playing computer games on iPads or MacBooks like PGA Tour and Fruit Ninja.
On the ice, Baillargeon resembles another Enfield native who had a productive NHL career until injuries and a rare blood disorder forced his retirement at age 31, Craig Janney. Like Janney, Baillargeon sees the ice beautifully and has a deft passing touch with the puck, often able to thread the needle through a maze of bodies and sticks to find an open teammate in prime scoring position.
In that vein Baillargeon’s playing style is also comparable to a member of his favorite team, the Boston Bruins. When looking at the kind of physical attributes and skills Baillargeon has, he draws some parallels to David Krejci.
“I love watching the Bruins, so Krejci’s someone I definitely pay attention to,” Baillargeon said. “He is such a great passer. I also really like watching (Philadelphia forward) Claude Giroux. Just the way he plays the game with the kind of skill, awareness and passion—that’s the kind of player I want to be.”
Although not tall at just a shade over six-feet, Baillargeon’s advanced instincts and puck skills help him to compensate for the lack of a larger frame as he grows into his body and matures. In 54 USHL games with the Ice, he scored 14 goals and 48 points, an impressive points tally for a player in just his first full season in a league known for being physical and more defense-oriented than others.
“Baillargeon could have stayed at Cushing and blown up that league this year, but it wouldn’t have helped him much,” said an NHL scout recently. “He proved last season that he can score at will, so another raft of goals and assists would not have done it. By going out to the USHL and not only playing well from start to finish, he also showed people that he wants this and can handle the increased checking and more physical style. He chose a tougher path, one that could have hurt him in the draft if he didn’t get the playing time and points.
“He not only did all that, but made the most of it with a pretty solid performance.”
Boston University recognized Baillargeon’s potential and will bring him to Commonwealth Ave. in 2013, which means that barring an accelerated timeline, the youngster will spend another year honing his skills and building up his body in the USHL.
After bowing out to the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL semi-final series, Baillargeon is back home working out and getting ready for the NHL’s scouting combine in Mississauga the first weekend in June.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said of the opportunity to travel to Canada and be with the rest of his peers near the top of the Central Scouting Service rankings. “I’m trying to take care of my body and I have a lot of work to do between now and then, but it’s an honor to be invited and I’m looking forward to it.”
For a player from New England like Baillargeon, he has yet to experience the draft-crazed environment there, where media with no more Canada-based NHL clubs competing for the Stanley Cup will likely descend in force to cover the testing days.
“I’ve heard about it and can’t wait,” he said of the circus-like atmosphere. “As a kid, I dreamed of playing in the NHL one day. The combine and the draft is all a part of that dream, but at the same time, even if I get drafted, it’s just one step. After that, I still have to work hard to earn a spot, so I have a long way to go.”
That kind of perspective is what has allowed Baillargeon to have success at every level. From early minor hockey days in Columbus, Ohio where his teammates included Connor Murphy, the Phoenix Coyotes’ first-round selection in 2011 (and son of former Bruins defenseman Gord Murphy) and Indiana teammate (and Sharks prospect) Sean Kuraly, to his prep hockey scoring title at Cushing and ultimately, Indianapolis with the Ice, Baillargeon has been able to generate offense. He’s also been a good teammate and example for his coaches to lean on.
“Baillargeon’s a winner,” the NHL scout said. “He won Team East player of the game honors at the USHL top prospects game and found a way to get his points despite not seeing a lot of prime minutes at various times during the season. He doesn’t look like much physically, but he’s a real playmaker who is a couple of steps ahead of everyone else out there.”
He might have been a bit of an enigma to the Indiana Ice and their fans when he first arrived last fall, but for Baillargeon, the only real mystery left to learn about him is which team will call his name at the draft next month.