March 26, 2012

St. John's Prep star Kurker working his way to the top

By Kirk Luedeke

If the cupboard was a little bare in the Bay State as far as the 2011 NHL Entry Draft was concerned, St. John’s Prep power winger Sam Kurker is one more reason for Massachusetts to enjoy a renaissance in June. 

St. John’s Prep winger Sam Kurker (Reading, Mass.) ranks 41st overall among North American skaters on the NHL’s CSS midseason rankings. (Dave Arnold Photography)

The Reading, Mass., native and Boston University recruit is in the middle of a fine senior season that Kurker hopes will end with a state championship this month to go along with what is sure to be an NHL jersey at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center in another 100 days or so.

“Everybody’s focused on hockey,” the former Valley Jr. Warriors standout told New England Hockey Journal recently. “The (NHL) draft is something you think about but keep in the back of your mind because the focus is obviously on the season and winning a Super 8 title. That’s really what we’re about right now, especially after what happened last year.”

Kurker and his fellow St. John’s teammates came about as close as you can get to a Massachusetts Division 1 victory without securing one, falling in overtime a year ago in the championship match to Malden Catholic on a goal by fellow BU recruit Brendan Collier’s (Charlestown, Mass.).

“It definitely made me hungry this year,” Kurker said of the devastating loss. “We have another opportunity, and we want to make the most of it. As a player it’s great to play in front of a lot of people, and I’m so glad I stuck with high school hockey.”

Although courted by junior teams and prep schools, Kurker got advice to remain with the program from former St. John’s legend and NHL forward Bobby Carpenter (Peabody, Mass.) as well as his father, Paul, who played for Union College (class of 1985). Carpenter was one of his coaches with the Warriors and has become a mentor to Kurker, who like most hockey players raised in the state, hopes to follow in the same footsteps that saw Carpenter become the first-ever American selected in the NHL draft’s first round.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound winger and Eagles co-captain was 41st overall among North American skaters on the NHL Central Scouting Service’s midseason rankings. It was good enough to put Kurker at the top of that particular list for New England natives, though Kent School and native New Yorker Cristoval Nieves placed higher at 31st. With 27 goals and 53 points in 19 games, the production is another good indicator of Kurker’s draft potential.

“It’s an honor to be there,” Kurker said of the second-round projection. “I’ve put in a lot of work and it’s nice to get the recognition, but at the same time, there’s still a lot of hockey left and I’ve got to keep playing well. There’s still a lot to do.”

Kurker attracted notice a year ago while skating alongside the high-flying Colin Blackwell (Andover, Mass.), who is making an immediate impact with Harvard after being a seventh-round selection by the San Jose Sharks in 2011 (along with Garrett Noonan just one of two Massachusetts natives picked in the entire draft class). Kurker parlayed his successful junior year at St. John’s into a spot on the Team USA Under-18 Select squad at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament this past August.

Although the team did not enjoy the same kind of success as the 2010 group’s silver medal-winning entry, Kurker was grateful for the chance to represent his country.

“Anytime you can wear the USA jersey, it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “It was an unbelievable experience, just being able to play with all the other guys from the USHL and other teams from around the U.S., then getting a chance to travel and play against some of the top international players in my age group. It’s reassuring to me that I can skate with those kids even though I play high school hockey.”

Kurker describes himself as a power forward who opens up space for his linemates but also has the kind of scoring touch to be a good option in any situation. At least one NHL scout who has seen him pretty much agrees with the youngster’s assessment.

“Kurker has a big, wide frame and the strength to take the puck to the net and fight through checks,” the scout said.  “I like when he plays with an edge, because when he gets that chip on his shoulder, he’s a real load to handle, especially at the level he’s at.”

If the level of competition is a concern for some scouts, Kurker is confident that his dedication and effort levels will win them over.

“I think that one of the things that sets me apart from others is my work ethic,” he said. “I always try to do a little more and it’s something my dad has always talked to me about.”

NEHJ TOP FIVE

2012 NHL draft prospects

1. Brian Hart

Position: RW

Size: 6-foot-2, 215 pounds

Hometown: Cumberland, Maine

Current team: Phillips Exeter

The skinny: Scoring prowess should not be overshadowed by teammate Matt Beattie’s dazzling numbers in leading the Lions to a 19-2-4 record in mid-February.

2. Sam Kurker

Position: RW

Size: 6-2, 205

Hometown: Reading, Mass.

Current team: St. John’s Prep

3. Jon Gillies

Position: G

Size: 6-4, 205

Hometown: South Portland, Maine

Current team: Indiana (USHL)

The skinny: With 22 wins and a .921 save percentage, Gillies gives the offensive powerhouse Ice reason to think about a Clark Cup championship run this spring.

4. Robbie Baillargeon

Position: C

Size: 6-0, 175

Hometown: Enfield, Conn.

Current team: Indiana (USHL)

The skinny: Point-per-game player and former Cushing Academy star earned top honors at USHL Prospect Showcase; has a knack for setting up the play.

5. Brendan Collier

Position: LW

Current team: Malden Catholic

Size: 5-10, 170

Hometown: Charlestown, Mass.

The skinny: Townie is a bulldog on skates; the Lancers’ top scorer averaging three points per game. He also puts in the extra effort to overcome his lack of size.

Other notables

Chris Calnan (Norwell, Mass.), F, Nobles

Doyle Somerby (Marblehead, Mass.), D, Kimball Union Academy

Jimmy Vesey (North Reading, Mass.), LW, South Shore Kings (EJHL)

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com