Road to the NHL, part 1: Stud prospects
983 players appeared in at least one game in the NHL this season, a number on par with other recent seasons in the 30 team league. In the labor-dispute shortened 2012-13 season, that number was only 921, but in 2011-12, the magic number was once again 983. Only 978 suited up in the 2010-11 season. Considering that as of the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, more than half of all NHL players had careers spanning fewer than 100 games played, it is safe to say that the majority of players spend more time with their junior teams than they do in the show. If we can also account for the often upwards of 8-12 years of high level hockey most professionals play before they are drafted, it becomes a safe bet that the overwhelming majority will have spent more than half of their competitive hockey playing lives getting at most a living expense stipend before they will have earned a chance at immortality. Before we begin to feel a sense of impending doom while watching the next scheduled NHL game, remember that these men are the lucky ones; the upper crust of amateur players who have excelled at every level, catching the eyes of scouts and player agents as early as 14 years of age.
Those few who are noticed are thus given all the more motivation to reach for the top. If these kids are North American, before their 16th birthdays, they will have to choose on a path that they deem more likely to lead to NHL glory.
While there are differences based on geography, for most the choice is twofold. If any clubs from the prestigious CHL – QMJHL, OHL or WHL – are interested, the player will be drafted around their fifteenth birthday. In last year’s draft, 101 of the 210 young men selected had been playing for one club or another in the CHL when they were scouted by NHL teams. Of the remaining 109 players, 64 had taken different paths in North America. The other 45 were European nationals who did not make the underage journey to North America.
Focusing for a moment of the 64 players from Canada or the US who did not play in the CHL, there are many other high caliber leagues that, unlike the CHL route, would allow the player to maintain eligibility to play collegiate hockey in the NCAA.
While the numbers of total draft picks from one route to the next does not seem too large (ratio of 1.57:1 between the CHL and other), once we factor the sheer number of other leagues available in North America to the talented player who is not in the CHL – including high school hockey, the USHL, some underclass collegians, the EJHL, BCHL, AJHL, OJHL and others, we need to also remember that there are only 60 total teams across the three leagues of the CHL. They can afford to be selective. The players cannot. They know that their greatest chance of getting noticed comes from playing in the CHL.
To understand more about their journey and the decisions they have had to face on their quest to be drafted and eventually to play with NHL teams, I spent much of this winter and spring watching and analyzing the OHL game, talking with players, coaches, scouts and agents. Of the players I interviewed, whether they were already drafted by an NHL organization, or still awaiting the call, whether they were considered to be top prospects or with more peripheral chances, their paths were similar.
As we near the 2014 NHL Entry draft, it is illustrative to learn more about that path, from all perspectives. As a point of reference, the players and OHL coaches and GMs interviewed were all members of the Guelph Storm and Oshawa Generals organizations. The NHL scouts spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Scott Laughton, Oshawa Generals
Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images
Scott Laughton wore the ‘A’ for Oshawa, although his reputation as a leader is such that, when he was called upon by his country to wear the colors in the most recent World Junior Championship, the native of Oakville, Ontario was given the honor of the captaincy. Now 20 years old, he was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers with the 20th overall pick of the 2012 draft. Although he spent both of the last two training camps with the Flyers, even receiving a five game cameo at the start of the 2012-13 season, Laughton was returned to Oshawa each time, where he has gradually upped his scoring rate while cutting down on the belligerence that marked his play in his draft year.
A good two way player, Laughton projects as a potential second line NHL center, possibly as soon as next year. He was regularly entrusted with time on the Generals’ first penalty kill unit while generally manning the point on the power play where his plus slap shot can play up to great effect. Listed at 6-1”, 180lbs, he can transition smoothly between the three zones, with quick passing helping his high tempo game. Above average puck skills also portend well in the possession game.
Like many of his peers in the CHL, Laughton first drew the attention of scouts and agents around when he was 14-15 years old, playing as a bantam. An agency pounced during a summer hockey tournament. As he recalled, “My agency, they recruited in the GTHL, they came up to me and talked to me, gave me their business card and said to call if I had any questions…I’ve been with them ever since. (Once) we talked to them, with my parents and everything like that. I think when agencies know you’re talking to one (agency) they kind of stay away, so they were the only agency that came up to me and wanted me to be with them.”
As a third overall choice in the OHL entry draft, it would have been clear to the then 15 year old that he would have a big role with Oshawa, but as a player of his talents, it was not his only option. As he explained, “Before that I went to all the Boston schools and checked those out and kind of explored all my options. That’s what I wanted to do, and I thought the best fit for my game was the OHL and at the same time they offered school. I think just the way I play – hard-nosed – and I thought I was ready when I was 16, so I wanted to make the next step right away and try to play at a top level and I think it’s the best development league in the world.”
Being in such a hotbed for amateur talent also helped the young man when the NHL was ready to come for him. “At the time I lived with Boone Jenner, so he went through the same situation and helped me out a lot. We just got a new coach my second year and Gary Agnew – he’s with St. Louis now – he gave me lots of opportunity and things I wasn’t really seeing before my first year and a half. My numbers kind of started skyrocketing and then I thought maybe I could go in the first round. And everyone in the Philly organization made me feel comfortable when I got drafted. Even before, Chris Pronger came to my house and interviewed me. He was helping the scouting, I guess. He wanted to talk to me and see how I was as a person.
Now, as a graduating player, it has been Laughton’s turn to mentor his teammates, much as current Columbus Blue Jacket Boone Jenner did for him two years earlier. As he put it, “I want to make an impact on this organization. (I’ve) played a lot of games here and been here for a while, seen a lot of coaches and a lot of players come through here, so I just want to help out the younger guys…in any way I can. I mean, I think I’m pretty hard on the young guys, which helps our team in the future.”
Michael Dal Colle
Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images
One of Laughton’s teammates, and sometimes linemate, Michael Dal Colle, is projected by many to be among the top ten, if not the top five, players selected in the upcoming NHL entry draft. Tall and rangy, at a listed 6-2”, 171lbs., the Woodbridge, Ontario native possesses exemplary offensive skills including plus marks for skating, shooting and shot release, with his wrist shot particularly lethal. He can stick handle through a crowd as if he was all alone with a full bag of puck tricks at the ready to beat his defender. All of that, and yet his first instinct is generally to dish the disc off to a teammate in the offensive zone. For his detractors, the only serious point of contention has been a seeming disengagement in his own zone as he can coast near the point waiting for a breakout pass, a not uncommon trait at this level, especially among stronger teams.
Like his teammate, Dal Colle was noticed (or at least noticed that he was noticed around 14 years of age. “My bantam year, the year before the OHL draft. There were some people watching in the crowd. That’s when it changed a little bit and it became the mindset where obviously I want to be a pro…You just knew that the OHL draft at that time was very important. You know a lot of players growing up, obviously. The OHL is where you want to be for most Canadian kids, so that’s definitely when it changed for most of us…My parents – especially my father – he really liked that NCAA route and I toured some of the NCAA DI schools. Obviously that’s a great option, too. For me, I always wanted to be an OHL player, so that’s what changed.”
When Oshawa selected him with the seventh overall selection of the 2012 OHL Priority draft, his path was clear. Between Laughton, the aforementioned Boone Jenner, and Tyler Biggs, a former first round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs who spent one season with the Generals, Dal Colle has had no shortage of role models with legitimate professional aspirations to look up to and confide in as his own game developed under head coach DJ Smith. Their models proved to be very important as Dal Colle nearly doubled his point production from his rookie year to his draft year.
In discussing the increased expectations on him, both for the Generals and for his own draft prospects, he said, “I knew there was going to be a bigger role on my shoulders with key guys leaving into the pros like Boone, Biggsy, (Lucas) Lessio (a second round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes), all those guys going up, in the American League and in the NHL, so I knew there was going to be more pressure on me.”
As for the draft process, “Scott told me it’s (the draft combine) pretty tough, so it’s going to be pretty grueling on your body and you’re going to have to train hard for it. Obviously there’s also the meetings with the teams as well. I think you’ve just got to be honest and obviously it’s a special time. I’m looking forward to that and definitely being drafted is going to be a pretty big day for me.”
Robby Fabbri, in a familiar pose
Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images
West of Oshawa, Robby Fabbri of the Guelph Storm went into the season with less hype, as many considered the small statured center to be at best a 50-50 proposition to end up as a first round draft pick. Even though he was selected one spot ahead of Dal Colle in the 2012 OHL draft, his rookie year production was less exciting and, in the eyes of NHL scouts, kids measuring only 5-10”, 165lbs need to drop jaws to get the kind of attention that comes more naturally to players who look like the two Generals.
As this season progressed, he did just that. Not likely to the extent that he will hear his name called on draft day before Dal Colle’s, but where the 50-50 proposition is now if he will go in the top half of the first round. In spite of his lack of size, Fabbri plays with a heightened level of intensity, which coupled with his well above average offensive skills to allow him to score 60 goals in 78 regular and post-season OHL games (including Memorial Cup), in addition to 61 assists over that time span. Unafraid to take a hit to make a play, he has already shown that he can withstand physical play against defenders larger than their average NHL peers. He has skated through checks against players with 5” and 40-plus pounds on him and still managed to create quality scoring chances for his team. Between his speed, high energy play, stickhandling, passing and shooting skills, he will not look out of place as a top six pivot at the next level.
As a star at the bantam level, Fabbri could have taken any path for his next step, and a number of his teammates from the early days took the NCAA route, but he always had one goal in mind. “Growing up in Mississauga, I always watched the Ice Dogs, as they were called at the time, in the OHL, so I always thought, growing up in that atmosphere, the OHL was my route to take.”
When he was drafted by the Storm, Fabbri was listed at 5-9.25”, 160, and that had not changed much in his two years with Guelph. When asked how that has factored into his game, his response was thoughtful. “It’s not the first year I heard size as a knock about my game. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of proving myself up to this point and I hope I can just continue to doing that throughout the finals and hopefully into the Memorial Cup. (note – this interview was conducted before the Guelph Storm won the 2014 OHL championship and went on to be finalists in the Memorial Cup) I just think applying under coach Scott Walker, he played many years in the NHL and his size (Note – Walker was listed at 5-10” 196lbs as an NHLer), and he wanted our team to play hard and fast and competitive hockey and I think that just goes into the type of player that I am. I always wanted to compete and play hard and win every battle.”
As it related to how he would be perceived by NHL scouts, he remarked, “I just stuck with controlling what I could control and that’s how I performed and how I carry myself off the ice. Being myself on and off the ice. Going into this year like this our coaching staff has done a terrific job and all the experiences that they’ve gone through I’m going through now and they’ve done a lot to help me prepare for all the pressures that go into being in my draft year. A big thing would be now worrying about who’s in the building, who was there to watch and coming out every single game like it’s full of scouts and it doesn’t matter who’s there or who’s not there, you just need to play the best of your abilities you just need to compete every shift. You can’t choose where you go in the draft you can only perform. A lot of people look up points and use that for consistency and it was great that I was able to do that but I’d like to focus on things that don’t get on the score sheet like face-offs and competing in winning rebounds. What was helping my consistency with points was my play away from the puck and in key situations. Being relied on more heavy and in key situations to score goals are things like that. Playing in the top two lines on our team this year has helped I guess last year it was different situations being third or fourth line. I think having more confidence and having that experience and playing with a couple of great linemates in (Kerby) Rychel (a first round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets) and (Zack) Mitchell helped a lot in my second season. I was slotted at the top six at the beginning of the year, Walks (coach Scott Walker) just made it clear that it was my job to lose. I kept that in the back of my head knowing that nothing is given to me, I have to work for the opportunities that I’m going to get and I think I did a pretty good job of that this year.”
Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.