Prospect Ramblings: Big Skill in Small Packages

Cam Robinson

2017-09-14

 

 

Here’s a fun little anecdote: Back in the 1970’s my uncle was invited to the New York Rangers training camp. He was a speedy, skilled and hard-nosed winger who put up some big point totals. Sounds perfect for the goon-era of hockey, right? Well, he was also 5’7.

 

When he arrived at camp that fall, he was met with strange glances and confused looks from the suits. They either read his measurements wrong or expected him to shoot up several inches. Whatever the case, he remained 5’7 and never really got past day one.

 

Today’s NHL is a far different animal. The name of the game is speed and skill, and so long as you can withstand the potential punishment that’s doled out and play a little defense here and there, a player of (almost) any size can have a legitimate shot at the NHL.

 

Today we’re going to dig into a handful of small players hoping to push for gigs this very season and outline a few more who may have the goods to get there down the line.

 

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Alex DeBrincat had a typical Alex DeBrincat-like prospect tournament. He led the Traverse City tourney with five goals, including the overtime winner in the finale. The 5’7 winger had his deadly release on full display – the same one that led to three straight 50-plus goal campaigns in the OHL, the last of which was 65 markers in 63 regular season contests while pumping just under five shots on goal per game (4.9)

 

While the 19-year-old doesn’t have the blazing speed that is typical of smaller, dynamic players, he does move around the ice well enough and isn’t afraid to cut into the high-danger areas. His skill level is undeniable, but his size led to him slipping just out of the first round and into the Blackhawks’ laps at 39th overall in 2016.

 

DeBrincat heads into camp as a very interesting target for fantasy managers. Does he manage to wow the coaches with his natural goal-scoring ability and find a home on the wing opposite Patrick Kane that was left open by a similar-styled player in Artemi Panarin? Or does he find the transition to be a difficult one (as many do) and end up in the AHL? Fortunately, the American league is an option as his birthdate lands just before the 1998 cut off which allows him such a opportunity.

 

The cheap entry-level contract, coupled with the team’s tight cap situation and the need to infuse the lineup with some fresh, skilled blood should give the former Erie Otters’ superstar a good long look in camp, but it’ll be up to him to snatch the opportunity. Regardless of the outcome this fall, he has a bright future and a sky-high offensive ceiling; something all fantasy managers are looking for in prospects, regardless of their height.

 

{source}<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Alex DeBrincat goes upstairs with an absolute snipe. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Blackhawks?src=hash">#Blackhawks</a> lead 4-3. <a href="https://t.co/e6JFlAtVvH">pic.twitter.com/e6JFlAtVvH</a></p>&mdash; Cristiano Simonetta (@CMS_74_) <a href="https://twitter.com/CMS_74_/status/906641912786026496">September 9, 2017</a></blockquote>

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Clayton Keller has already had a sniff of NHL action and is widely considered a true contender for the Calder Trophy this season. The 5’10 168lbs forward has done nothing but put up gaudy point totals often via dramatic and high-skill plays throughout his formative years.

 

Drafted seventh overall in 2016, Keller likely slipped a bit due in part to his size – or lack thereof. When a player of his ability becomes a draft eligible, teams usually jostle to the front of the line for a chance to select a future dynamic front line centre. However, despite breaking Patrick Kane’s USNTDP scoring records while playing in the middle of the ice, the questions still swirled whether someone of his stature would manage to stick at the pivot position in the NHL or be forced to the less impactful wing slot.

 

The size concerns played such a role, that even though Pierre-Luc Dubois had played roughly 30 total games as a centre in junior, he was deemed a more likely candidate to maintain that role down the line simply due to his size rather than his skill. Dubois was selected third overall and his reputation has taken a hit since that draft day due to some uninspired play.

 

Fast forward 15 months and Keller is considered one of, if not the, premier prospect outside of the NHL and will be stepping into camp as an extremely strong bet to begin the year in a top six role (he’s been skating next to Christian Fischer and Dylan Strome early on at camp).

 

The most impressive of his accomplishments this past year (and there have been many, including a World Junior Gold and All-Star team nod, a Hockey East Rookie of the Year award, and leading the nation in points-per-game for all NCAA freshman, just to name a few) must be his standout play at the World Championships. There, Keller put on a show for the Americans, scoring five goals and seven points in eight games as one of the youngest players participating.

 

The former Boston University Terrier has a long history of racking up short handed tallies using his blazing speed and terrific anticipation skills and that responsible two-way play should earn the trust of his coaches sooner and go even further in dispelling the notion that smaller players are one-dimensional.

 

Clayton Keller 2016 U18 Highlights

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Kailer Yamamoto had an unbelievable draft-eligible season in the WHL. The 5’8, 150lbs winger led all draft-eligible CHL players in points and points-per-game while dazzling on a nightly basis. The Edmonton Oilers first rounder has the speed and skill that would normally warrant a lottery selection but slipped all the way to 22nd due to that diminutive stature.

 

I spoke about Yamamoto last week so I won’t delve in too deep now, but he’ll head to camp with an eye towards surprising and earning a job. That’s unlikely, as the team surely wants to insulate him as much as possible and throwing him to the wolves early isn’t’ likely the best move. However, the soon-to-be 19-year-old was just two weeks shy of being eligible for the 2016 crop so he’ll be able to play in the American league next fall thus accelerating his development and likely arrival time in an Oilers uniform.

 

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Vitaly Abramov is one of my favourite prospects these days. He’s earned that lofty achievement by constantly being undervalued and overlooked. The 5’9, 170lbs winger has destroyed the QMJHL the past two seasons and is finally catching the eyes of some folks.  

 

After being the 13th overall selection in CHL Import Draft, the shifty winger scored 38 goals and 93 points in 66 contests as a draft-eligible player in 2015-16. He consistently displayed his great lateral edge-work, quick release and drool-worthy hands throughout his major junior tenure while also engaging in some physically combative adventures despite his size.

 

He ranked in the first round on many established lists, including Central Scouting (29th), Future Considerations (22nd), Corey Pronman’s List (21st), and Craig Button’s List (19th), but despite that recognition and producing very similar numbers to Claude Giroux as a draft-eligible in the Q, he slipped all the way to the third round (65th overall). We’ll give “The Russian Factor” some credit here, but the fact that Abramov crossed over to North America for his d-season showed his commitment to playing in the NHL, so we’re left to assume that the size factor once again reared its ugly head.

 

2016-17 saw him jump his totals up to 46 goals and 106 points – good for the league lead in the QMJHL and sixth most in the entire CHL. He then transitioned to the American league for four contests at season’s end and produced a goal and three helpers. Those results have seen his stock steadily rise in both the real world and fantasy circles.

 

Unlike Yamamoto, Abramov is born in May of 1998 and is subject to the NHL-CHL agreement thus limiting him to either the NHL or back to Gatineau. He’s something of a long shot to break with Columbus as the team already has a slightly undersized and skilled winger in Oliver Bjorkstrand looking for a more prominent role, but if the team deems Abramov too good to return to junior after a top-notch camp, he could find himself in a complimentary scoring role.

 

Keep a close eye on his training camp, and who he’s lined up with during exhibition contests as he could be a great sleeper for deep leagues.

Vitali Abramov Hat Trick versus Sherbrook Phoenix

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A few undersized players to watch moving forward:

 

Petrus Palmu: Passed over in two drafts, the Canucks grabbed the pint-sized winger in the sixth round this past June after he lit up the OHL on a line with fellow-Canucks’ draftee, Jonah Gadjovich and Vegas first-rounder, Nick Suzuki. Palmu is currently plying his trade with TPS in the Finnish Liiga and has a point-per-game through three early season contests. Palmu may not be blessed with much height (5’7) but he’s built like a fire hydrant weighing 180lbs and is wildly difficult to move off the puck due to that low and strong centre of gravity. The Canucks are an organization short on dynamic talent, and that may be the boost needed to get this undersized point-producer a nice long look in the not-so-distant future.

 

Adam Fox: Another player who slid in 2016 draft due to size concerns, Fox has done nothing but endear himself to Flames’ fans after the team selected him one pick after Abramov (66th overall). The right-shot blue liner offers terrific vision, exquisite playmaking ability and has all the earmarks of a future power play quarterback in the NHL. He was named an ECAC All-Rookie and First-Team All-Star as he racked up 40 points in 34 NCAA games last season as a freshman at Harvard. That is likely just the tip of the iceberg and it can only be assumed that Fox will turn professional at the culmination of this upcoming season.

 

Matthew Phillips: The Flames didn’t seem to mind selecting small players in 2016 as they once again went to the vertically-challenged well in the sixth round to select Phillips from the Victoria Royals of the WHL. Phillips improved on his slightly above a point-per-game pace as a draft-eligible to score 50 goals and 90 points in 70 games as an 18-year-old last season. He also saw a single game in the AHL and recorded an assist. The 5’7 forward is all but assured to head back to Victoria for a third season, and then take his talents to the American league, but he has a high ceiling if he can push past the stigma of being a small yet wildly talented player.

 

Jeremy Bracco: Bracco has long been considered one of the premier puck handling prospects, and has earned that reputation with his slick and creative play since being drafted 61st overall by the Leafs in 2015. The 5’9 forward owns great vision, ultra-quick hands and a mind for offense. He recently led the Memorial Cup in scoring on route to a Championship with Windsor and he also had a nice little World Junior Championship that ended with a Gold as well. Bracco was a player worthy of a much earlier selection but fell victim to the size concerns. He takes his talent to the American league this fall and will attempt to climb the ladder into a very deep and youthful Maple Leafs’ front end.

 

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Thanks for reading and feel free to follow me on Twitter @CrazyJoeDavola3 where I’m usually spouting off some sort of hockey-related take that I’m sure at least someone is listening to.

 

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