By Kirk Luedeke
If there is a silver lining to the American defeat in the quarterfinal round of the 2014 World Jr. Championship tourney in Malmo, Sweden this week, you can look at the standout play of several New Englanders and see a possible NHL future for them start to come into better focus.
Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.), Boston University star and Bruins third-round selection in 2012, earned one of three Team USA most outstanding player honors for the tournament with his excellent two-way play, including a player-of-the-game nod against the Czech Republic during the preliminary round. The slight, but speedy and smart defender brought his A-game across the Atlantic and opened a lot of eyes with his strong performance, even if his final play led to the empty-net goal that sealed the U.S. defeat in a 5-3 contest.
Although the Americans failed to earn a medal a year after winning it all the year before in Ufa, Russia, the event was a real coming out party for center Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford, Mass.), who impressed onlookers with his blend of size, speed, offensive skill and heady play away from the puck. Canada’s Connor McDavid has been the marquee attraction when it comes to talk of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and rightfully so, but in Eichel, the New England region has what could potentially be the highest area native drafted since Rick DiPietro (Winthrop, Mass.) was taken first overall by the New York Islanders in 2000.
Eichel has been an area standout for quite some time, as he blasted his way through local rinks with his special mix of talent and instincts, but it was his maturity and play away from the puck as one of the youngest competitors in this signature tournament that may have impressed NHL scouts the most.
The Bruins also saw flashes of what could be down the road in the performances of Swedish defender Linus Arnesson and Team Slovakia forward Peter Cehlarik. Both are longer-term project players, with Arnesson playing a simple yet steady game. Cehlarik has significant raw potential if he can improve his foot speed and add more strength/physicality to his game.
When comparing the two B’s prospects on defense, Arnesson does not have Grzelcyk’s natural upside, nor does he carry the same kind of size risk the young Bay Stater does. However, the two could one day form an intriguing and dangerous pairing in Boston should they reach their potential and make the big club.
Although Team USA came up short in its gold medal quest, there are enough intriguing pieces in place , headlined by Eichel’s anticipated return to the world stage next year in what should be an exciting draft year matchup with McDavid.
Adam Erne, LW (North Branford, Conn.)
6-1, 210 Shoots: L
NHL rights: Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd round, 2013)
Plus: Big body with wide skating base; tough to separate from the puck. Went hard to the net, used his size, strength to establish himself out front, did well in shielding the puck on the cycle.
Minus: Unable to produce or bring a consistent high offensive threat level when skating on a line with Eichel and Ryan Hartman; hands were stiff, failed to convert in close. Moved down/ice time reduced in quarterfinal loss to Russia.
Outlook: More was expected of the talented but enigmatic Erne (right); he didn’t deliver in his first WJC with Team USA. He’ll get another opportunity next year to put his impressive physical tools to good use. Chalk this one up as a learning experience for the 33rd overall selection last June.
Jon Gillies, G (South Portland, Maine)
6-5, 215 Catches: L
NHL rights: Calgary Flames (3rd round, 2012)
Plus: Gargantuan goalie blots out the sun with his sheer size. Gave opposing shooters very little to hit when he squared up and demonstrated his solid fundamentals. Character player and leader took accountability for the losses to Canada, Russia.
Minus: Rebound control and scrambly play proved his undoing in the short tournament. At times, Gillies looked like the dominant NCAA goalie he’s been for Providence College, but at critical moments, directed loose pucks into danger areas, and paid the price.
Outlook: Showcase events like this one do not a full body of work make, but whereas John Gibson used 2013 as a springboard to success, Gillies has a big challenge ahead not to dwell on what happened in Malmo. He’s a top competitor and driven athlete, so watch for him to shake it off and be a big part of the Friars’ continued ascension in the Hockey East.
Matt Grzelcyk, D (Charlestown, Mass.)
5-9, 180 Shoots: L
NHL rights: Boston Bruins (3rd round, 2012)
Plus: Speedy, savvy, skilled defenseman has some Torey Krug in him with the way he can control the offensive flow of a game from the blue line. Deserved the ‘A’ he wore in the tournament as one of Team USA’s two alternate captains behind Riley Barber, and led by example both with his attitude and honest effort throughout.
Minus: The only thing lacking in the Boston U. sophomore’s game is size/strength, but with his wheels and sense, he won’t be held back at the next level. Putting Grzelcyk in the right situations and matchups is the key to getting the most out of his impressive ability and character.
Outlook: Although he blew a tire on the play that led to the final nail in the USA coffin, nothing should take away from the Townie’s superb tournament. A year after being the final cut on a gold medal-winning club, Grzelcyk not only overcame that searing disappointment, but went on to be one of the best players in the entire 2014 WJC at any position. His future at BU and with the B’s looks bright.
Jack Eichel, C (North Chelmsford, Mass.)
6-1, 177 Shoots: R
NHL rights: eligible for 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Plus: A precocious coming out party for one of the most intriguing youngsters still 18 months away from learning his NHL future. Former Boston Jr. Bruins ace scorer looked like a natural at his first WJC; rangy skater attacked defenses with his speed and effectively distributed the puck. Diligent in his overall play away from the puck; showed uncanny poise and efficiency for one so young.
Minus: We’re nitpicking here, but like many players seeing their first taste of WJC action, Eichel at times tried some individual plays that didn’t work. Watch for him to better use his teammates in future iterations as he gains experience and improves his high-end skill level.
Outlook: The sky is the limit for this young thoroughbred (missed 2014 draft cutoff with an Oct. 1996 birthday), who headlines what could be the greatest New England regional draft crop since 1986, when four locals including Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch were selected in the top-21 picks. Eichel’s all-around game will position him to make the race with McDavid to No. 1 in 2015 a must-watch for hardcore hockey fans everywhere.
Danny O’Regan, C (Needham, Mass.)
5-10, 180 Shoots: R
NHL rights: San Jose Sharks (5th round, 2012)
Plus: Speedy forward played with a lot of energy and is noticeable with his quickness and hustle. Good head for the game with the intelligence and versatility to play in all situations.
Minus: Undersized; lacks the size and strength to power his way to the net, relying more on his wheels to generate off the rush. Did not do much in the way of production; after an excellent freshman season with the BU Terriers, he’s been in a scoring slump this season, and that seemed to follow him to Malmo.
Outlook: O’Regan is a solid young prospect who has worked his way into the picture after a nice prep career and some action with U.S. international teams before he got to Comm. Ave. His size is an obstacle, but like Grzelcyk, he has the speed and smarts to play the game at the highest level. The biggest question O’Regan must answer is where his skill level will take him in pro hockey.
Linus Arnesson, D
6-1, 185 Shoots: L
Acquired: Boston’s 1st choice, 60th overall in 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Plus: Tall and lean defender plays a smooth, mistake-free game that is simple, steady and safe. Fluid mobility and skating mean that he is rarely out of position, he recovers well and is able to keep opponents to the outside. Makes a good first pass and has a heavy, if not overpowering shot. An active stick and efficient gap control make him a dependable minute-muncher for the host Tre Kronor squad.
Minus: While defensively aware, Arnesson appears to lack the natural instincts, vision,and puck skills to be a top two-way defenseman with a high points ceiling in the NHL. Although willing to rub opponents out along the boards, he’s not a physical presence who takes the body consistently.
Outlook: If you’re looking for flashy upside, then Arnesson (right) is not the prospect for you. However, the 19-year-old brings the kind of physical tools and attitude to develop into a solid top-six defender and shutdown/anchor-type for the Boston rotation one day. He won’t win many style points, but at the end of the day, Arnesson makes difficult plays look routine and isn’t looking for a lot of fanfare. Teams win games with players like that.
Peter Cehlarik, LW
6-2, 190 Shoots: L
Acquired: Boston’s 2nd choice, 90th overall in 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Plus: Long-limbed, athletic winger was a nice complementary player on a Slovak squad with some smaller, faster, highly skilled forwards. Made some impressive individual plays where he showed off his quick hands and creativity. Lightning release and hard shot; didn’t finish a lot but created some lively rebounds that teammates converted.
Minus: Skating is improving, but the 18-year-old still lacks jump out of the starting blocks and the lateral quickness to back defenders up. Not much for the physical aspects of the game despite a big frame; does not drive the net with consistency and instead of leveraging his size out front, tends to leak down around the goal line where he’s not doing much to set up screens or position himself for secondary chances.
Outlook: Oozes offensive potential and positioned himself to be a major contributor on Team Slovakia at next year’s WJC after an up-and-down season in Sweden between Lulea and Asploven of the Allsvenskan. Some B’s fans following the prospects beat are understandably excited about the young European’s skill level after he exploded in the second half of last season to sneak into the late third round. Still, Cehlarik is pretty raw and will have to pick up several steps at the very least before he’s ready to compete for a job in Boston. Take a long-term flyer, settle in, and watch him develop, as he could come with a nice eventual payoff.