The Road to the NHL, part 2 – The road less traveled

In part one of this series, we looked at the stories of the high-flyers, the top touted prospects whose ascensions to the NHL seem pre-ordained. Unlike the NBA, the NHL draft is more than two rounds long and many, many NHL’ers are not selected in the first round, or even the second.

For those, their road to the NHL was not as smooth, with less leeway given for a slower pace of development. While may still make it to the top, they are more likely to have to have proven themselves more often and held to higher standards besides while doing so.

This series is also about those players. In addition to looking at the stories of mid-round picks Daniel Altshuller (G, Carolina Hurricanes) and Ben Harpur (D, Ottawa Senators), in this chapter we will also visit with a potential 2014 mid-rounder in Guelph Storm D Phil Baltisberger, whose story differs from those visited before, in that he grew up in Switzerland and gave up a good spot with his hometown team in Zurich for a chance to prove himself on a bigger stage.

Ben Harpur

Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

Relatively new to the blueline, Guelph defenseman Ben Harpur nonetheless has the one attribute that cannot be coached at any level – size. At 6-6”, Harpur towers over almost every other player in the CHL, and would likewise have no difficulties looking down over the skulls of the vast majority of NHL forwards, should his career reach the ultimate destination. That said, Harpur is more than just a tall man. Generally utilized as one half of a shutdown pairing with the Storm alongside Swiss import Phil Baltisberger, he plays a physical game and makes generally effective use of a very long reach. With the promise inherent in his frame and the idea of more upside than might be expected with a newer convert to the position, the Ottawa Senators used a fourth round pick to secure his service in the 2013 NHL draft.

Always large for his age, Harpur garnered the attention of agents and scouts shortly after his midget level coach moved him from the wing to the blueline. As he recalled, “It wasn’t until my OHL draft year – actually I was playing AAA at Niagara Falls and I had been playing for six years on the same team in Niagara but I’d always been a forward. My coach actually moved me to defense about halfway through the year through a tournament we were in Hamilton. I started getting attention first from agents that were approaching my family and saying they’re interested and then the scouts followed and then everything kind of fell into place after that.”

Unlike the players interviewed above, Harpur was not considered a top prospect at the OHL, but was still highly sought after and he was selected by Guelph in the third round in his draft year. As such, he had to be more open to alternative hockey paths. “I talked to a couple different schools and my minor midget coach played in the NCAA he went the NCAA route and had some connections. I talked to some schools and up until Guelph signed me I still had all my options open and I was considering everything and wealth seem the right fit so I signed with them. (With) the coaching staff that they have and the players that have gone through there it just seemed like a great town a great organization and with them being in a rebuild year, the year I was going to be a 16-year-old, that was a huge part of that to for me to play and develop and be a huge part of that team.”

The draft itself was also a grey area for Harpur, as unlike a consensus top prospect, he was not invited to show off his physique and interview skills at the annual draft combine. Come draft time, there was no guarantee that he would be selected, but there was some inkling that he might. “My agent talked to a couple of teams and there was some interest and…I could go anywhere from the mid-rounds to the late rounds. I had no idea where I was going to go and I kept an open mind about the whole thing…I went (to the draft). I really didn’t know where I was going to go, but I talked to my parents about it and we decided you only get drafted to the NHL once and it’s a lifetime opportunity so I figured I would be upset and I would regret it if I didn’t go so I went and stuck it out until the fourth round.”

As a project pick, Harpur’s future is as yet uncertain as the Senators still have another year before being forced to offer his a contract or to let him go. All he can do is continue to learn the position and follow the instructions given to him by his coaches with Guelph and the instructors at the development camp with Ottawa. “Just practicing and playing with the guys who are playing pro in the AHL and then being at the main camp with the NHL guys you get to be around them and you get to feed up the knowledge that they have and they know what it takes to play at that level so you just learn whether it’s just preparing for ice time or preparing for games, it’s the little things that you go ahead and pick up on and bring back to junior that just elevate your game. They (the Senators) didn’t really talk to me much about plans for the future, they just talked about how much I had improved that summer (his first after being drafted) from the development camp to the main camp. They talked about how I had to go back to Guelph and how I had to be a leader and help take my team as far as we can go. They knew that this was going to be the year for us in Guelph and wanted me to big part of that.”

With a long playoff run in the rearview mirror, Harpur will get a second opportunity to learn from the men in the Ottawa summer camps before one final season with the Storm.

Daniel Altshuller

Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

When he was first eligible for the OHL Priority draft, Daniel Altshuller, a native of the Ottawa suburbs, already carrying the length expected from the position, was the third goaltender selected, going in the third round to the Belleville Bulls, a team already rich in netminding talent, including recent Boston first rounder Malcolm Subban. In fact, for his first year after being drafted, he did not even sign with Belleville, as he would not have had a definite spot on the team, and as a smart young man, saw fit to protect NCAA eligibility. “I actually was really thinking about going to the NCAA. I spent my first year in junior in playing Junior A, I was expecting to go play Junior A, but I got traded to Oshawa and it was pretty much an offer I couldn’t say no to… they (Belleville) had some good goalies. And I knew there was an opportunity here in Oshawa, especially in my draft year, so I knew that the OHL would give me the best chance for me to get drafted, yeah, so I couldn’t say no.”

The choice worked out well for the mobile puck stopper, who saw regular action as a rookie, showing enough to get noticed by NHL scouts. His agent had let him know that he was a good bet to be drafted. “My agent kind of gave me an idea where around I’d be picked. You know I saw Carolina and then Ottawa was up next (note: Carolina picked 69th. Ottawa’s next pick came at 76) and I knew around there was the time. I was pretty excited, but even though you kind of know when you’re going to get picked, you still can’t believe it. Before I stood up and celebrated, my parents were already up because I couldn’t believe that they said my name.”

Like most other drafted players, Altshuller attended rookie camp with the Hurricanes, who are one of the teams that participates in the famed Traverse City prospect tournament. “They are pretty much all pros there with you and you learn a lot from everybody with you – how to be a pro and especially with the goalie coach, Greg Stefan, you know, he taught me a lot over the summer.”

Altshuller has put those lessons, and continued development time with the Oshawa Generals, to good use as his save percentage his improved in each year since being drafted, from .900, to .909 and finally to .917 in his final year of eligibility. While not viewed by the mainstream press as a top prospect, for goalies – as Altshuller has already experienced – sometimes all that is needed is opportunity, something that is available to him in Carolina. With incumbent Cam Ward seeing his numbers steadily and rapidly declining, the Hurricanes lack a rock solid heir apparent. Anton Khudobin is signed for two more years, but at numbers that suggest that he is not counted on to run away with the position. Justin Peters is a pending UFA and Mike Murphy is a pending RFA that has struggled at the minor pro level. The only other goalie in the system, Collin Olson, just completed his sophomore season at Ohio State, but he has struggled to get ice time for the Buckeyes leading him to leave the team for a return to the USHL. With Altshuller already under contract with Carolina, the opportunity seems to be there for him to establish himself at the AHL level in short order with NHL openings potentially as soon as 12 months away.

The Foreign Import

Phil Baltiseberger

Image courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images

Every club in the CHL gets a chance to bring in up to two players seen as imports per year. That is, players who played their minor hockey in places other than Canada or the US and are thus not covered by the Priority drafts. Some of these players go on to make big waves in the NHL, but at the very least, the drafting team wants to make sure that the players they bring in are capable of holding down a regular lineup spot without being ostracized from their North American teammates. Last summer, in the 2013 Import Draft, the Guelph Storm, without any returning imports, decided to double down on Switzerland, drafting Zurich area teens Pius Suter, a speedy defensive center, and Phil Baltisberger, a physical, mobile blueliner. Both are eligible for the NHL draft this year, with Baltisberger in particular getting some traction as a potential mid-round pick, as he fit right in taking on a defensive role on an offensive juggernaut.

For a native German speaker who is new to these shores, his English is remarkably good. Although this was his first year in Canada, the roots of this journey run a few years deep for the three time participant in the WJC. “It was probably when I started playing in the men’s league. I was 15. I played my first game in the Swiss B league…In this season, I also got called from the Under-20 team for the World Juniors. I was 16 so probably around this age people start recognizing me. Maybe not all, especially in Switzerland, they start to know me and I was a little bit in the media but I don’t know when junior teams in Canada saw me playing but it was probably around the time I played at the world juniors…We don’t have drafts over there. So it kind of starts, I started playing when I was four I played for my local team and then when I was around six I changed my team to Zurich – one of the biggest organizations in Switzerland. And I went through their junior program when I was six and ended up playing my first game when I was 17 for their pro team so I always came to the same rink.”

As is natural for a competitive person who had accomplished as much as possible given what was available to him, Baltisberger was ready for a new challenge.

“I played already two years in the Swiss B league. I had a contract for the pro, for the highest league in Switzerland but the level over there in this league is pretty good. And as a young player it is really hard to get the ice time you need to improve your game. And because I played alright at 15 in the B-league, I wanted to test something new to improve my game and I thought, my agent told me that there are a bunch of teams  that are interested to draft me in the CHL import draft. I was sitting down with my parents to talk about it, maybe an option to go over to Canada to play junior hockey and it was kind of always a dream of mine to play hockey in Canada. I remember when I was 13, I went to this pee-wee tournament in Quebec City. And since then, I was kind of a big fan of Canada, how the people love the game here…When I was 17, I signed my first A-league contract. I was hopeful I would get the ice-time there and improve my game in this league but the problem is that Zurich is usually one of the teams that plays for the championship so they usually have a pretty good team so the chance wasn’t really high that I play a lot and play the time I need to improve my game. So maybe it’s good to take one or two years in the junior league over here. (Zurich) understand my decision for sure. They kind of wanted to me to stay…For sure they weren’t happy that I leave but they couldn’t be mad at me because I had a clause in my contract that I could leave when I get drafted and I always told them that’s an option for me…At the end of last season, I sat down with my team over there and told them, “yeah the situation is like this. I want to have something new.” He understands what I need. He also came over in January and then he went to a game in Kitchener so I’m still in contact with Zurich. It’s kind of like my home town team and I’m really…what they did for me was really good. I got a good education through a good junior program over there.”

That education continued at a higher pace with the Storm.

“We play a lot of games over here,” he ruminated on the difference between hockey life in the Swiss B-league and the OHL. “That’s probably the biggest difference. Here, you play more and practice less, and there it’s more practice and you play less. That’s probably the biggest difference. And then for sure the ice rink here is smaller and the game is different. It kind of helps me to make faster decisions here because you don’t have… you have less time than in Europe. In Europe with the bigger ice there is a difference. You usually have more time to make the play and here everything is pretty fast. I think it helps me improving my game.”

Asked whether playing in the OHL would increase his chances at an NHL career, he had no doubt.

“Here the people see you more.  And I’m the kind of player probably people don’t see right away what I can do, because I’m not the high scoring defenseman, or the offensive guy who scores a lot of goals and makes the highlight plays but I think I’m pretty solid in my own zone and work hard and all those kind of little things and people see that over here because we play a lot. Because in Europe, probably scouts don’t…there aren’t a lot of games.”

With four of his fellow Guelph blueliners already selected by NHL teams, Baltisberger has more than enough role models were he to take the next step.

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