Last night, I appeared on Chicago’s Score 670 with host Laurence Holmes to talk about the state of hockey analytics, the importance of puck possession and the second round series between the Blackhawks and the Red Wings.
To listen, click here.
Segment starts around the 26 minute mark.
Hosts Matthew Coller and Timo Seppa break down the first round playoff series in the Eastern Conference before bringing in long-time Hockey Prospectus authors Rob Vollman and Jonathan Willis discuss their preview articles for the four Western Conference matchups. It’s a square table, folks. Buh-dump-bump.
The day after his college team Quinnipiac lost in the NCAA championship game, goaltender Eric Hartzell signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Hartzell is the top goaltending prospect in this college free agent class and adds some quality depth to the Pens organization at that position which they significantly lacked outside the NHL level. Hartzell was in the top three in Hobey Baker voting for best player in college hockey, the only goalie among the finalists.
The 23 year old netminder’s best attributes are his size and hockey sense. Standing at 6′4′’ 188, while Hartzell has some room still to fill out, he’s a big man with a wide stance that takes up a good chunk of the net. He also reads the play very well, showing the ability to anticipate puck movements effectively and consistently square up pucks. He moves pretty well for a big man too as he has strong feet with good lateral movements. Hartzell is also a competitive goalie with the strength to battle for pucks in scrambles.
With Hartzell the only real quibble with him is that he may not have the highest upside as he doesn’t show enough dynamic qualities to make you think he can be a top player at his position. With that in mind, he’s still a pretty impressive goalie in many regards and could be an average NHL goaltender. With 18 year old goaltending prospects being so hard to project, NHL teams can usually find value by getting older goalies who have developed later into their career. Pittsburgh’s decision to sign Hartzell is low risk with a potential moderate reward.
Antoine Laganiere signed with the Anaheim Ducks days after winning his NCAA team Yale made a surprising run to win the national championship.
Laganiere is a 6′4′’ 215 pound power winger with offensive skill. He’s a big man who protects the puck well and will lay the body on the forecheck to win battles. He also has pretty good puck skills for a bigger player. Laganiere regularly shows good hand-eye coordination with the puck and can flash some impressive creativity.
The main issue with the 22 going on 23 year old forward is his skating. He’s a bit of a lumbering skater with a stride that doesn’t look pretty. Seeing that issue in a big forward is not unusual, but it makes me question what his ultimate upside is. I’m also not convinced he has above-average vision, more of just the average variety, but other scouts would disagree on that front. If you do disagree, Laganiere projects as a top six forward, but in my eyes he probably ends up a good third line winger. He may be able to step into the NHL right away.
With the Oilers signing Andrew Miller, he becomes the 2nd free agent signing to come from the NCAA champions Yale. Miller was the tournament MVP of the NCAA’s Frozen Four and was Yale’s co-leader in scoring this season. He was also named a 2nd team All-American in the NCAA east. Miller has been one of the ECAC’s most productive forwards in his college career, averaging a point per game or better in each of his 4 seasons.
The 24 year old center is a classic small, skilled college player. Miller displays above-average qualities in terms of his speed, puck skills and overall offensive instincts. In his Senior season especially he showed the ability to consistently create scoring chances and keep the play flowing in the right direction.
The concerns I would have with Miller are firstly his physical game. He’s a 5′9′’ forward and although he does work hard, I’m not convinced he has the necessary grit and physical qualities to be anything more than replacement level in that area in the pro game. With Miller you also wonder if he has enough offensive talent, meaning if he’s dynamic or merely good, to overcome his size. I see reasonable arguments for and against him on that issue depending on which night you saw him.
Given his advanced age we will probably know sooner rather than later if Miller will be able to succeed at the pro level. While there is a chance he could be ok as an NHL player, I would also advise a wait and see approach with him.
According to a report from Renaud Lavoie with RDS, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Petr Straka to an ELC.
Straka had a great 17 year old season in the QMJHL in 2009-10 where he led QMJHL rookies in scoring and was named to the CHL All-Rookie team. Straka was then drafted by Columbus in the 2nd round in the 2010 Entry Draft, 55th overall. Straka tailed off though in his two post draft seasons. He was underwhelming in both QMJHL and World Junior play, resulting in Columbus electing not to sign him last June.
In his overage season, Straka has looked much more impressive. Straka has always has the great speed and puck skills, but was plagued by consistency issues, as well as iffy defensive and physical play. This season he always seemed to be making plays though, and not just with the puck as Straka displayed more defensive ability as well.
I wouldn’t advise get overly excited about him as a prospect. There is a long list of once touted prospects who play well as a 20 year old versus much younger players in the CHL. Still seeing Straka progress as much as he did this year is hard to portray as a bad thing, and at the very least he is a player who has a chance to be play on a scoring line. It remains to be seen though as he begins his pro career if he can play a pro style game in North America against tougher competition. Philadelphia also lacks youngsters in their pipelines with significant offensive tools and at the least he adds some depth on that front.
The Chicago Blackhawks signed Drew LeBlanc from St. Cloud State in the WCHA seemingly right after he was awarded the Hobey Baker for best player in college hockey. There is sometimes good reason for reservations when players win that award in terms of NHL expectations, as they are usually older, small players even if they have great skill. Past winners like Spencer Abbott and Andy Miele come to mind. The 23 year old LeBlanc has several NHL caliber skills though and at 6′0′’ 195 his size seems to be decent enough to make him a good NHL prospect considering his other gifts.
When you watch LeBlanc his hockey sense and overall puck possession skill is immediately noticeable. He was the 7th leading scorer in the NCAA, with the most assists which is a stat that speaks to his great playmaking skills. LeBlanc is a player who consistently makes above-average passes, can slow the game down well and is a player who the offense flows through. He’s an aware and diligent defensive player who shows the two-way hockey sense to play versus good players and kill penalties. He also has an above-average amount of puck skill.
With LeBlanc the only two quibbles are he’s a pretty average skater, slightly below-average for his size, and he could use a little more bulk especially for a 23 year old. Other than though he looks like a real good prospect and with Chicago graduating the likes of Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger in recent years, he becomes one of their better forward prospects although not at the level of a player like Teuvo Teravainen. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in the NHL within the next year and he projects as a top six forward. Chicago has one of the deepest organizations in terms of young talent, and this signing was another solid addition to that depth.
Eriah Hayes, Right Wing, San Jose Sharks (Minnesota State):
Eriah Hayes was named to the third All-WCHA team in his senior season at Mankato State. The 24 year old is a solid 6′4′’ 210 and plays a power game. He projects as a top-end physical player because of how well he protects the puck, plays in front of the net and win battles. Hayes also has a great shot, as exhibited in his 20 goals in 41 games which was 13th in the NCAA, although 13 of those 20 goals came on the power play. Hayes has some skill with the puck, but he won’t wow in that department. He also could be a little quicker. He could potentially be a bottom six forward for the Sharks.
Rylan Schwartz, Center, San Jose Sharks (Colorado College):
Rylan is the brother of Blues first round pick Jaden Schwartz. Schwartz led the NCAA in scoring this season and was named to the second WCHA All-Star team. He’s a pretty skilled player who has good hands and can make plays to his line mates. Schwartz is also a quality defensive player who works his tail off to get back and win battles. His speed is average though, and below-average for a 5′10′’ player but still he has the pure puck possession skills and intangibles to potentially be a decent NHLer. In a light San Jose system at forward, he jumps up near the top of the depth chart and it’s possible the 23 year old could be in the NHL in the near future if he shows he can handle the physical rigors of the pro game.
Nate Schmidt, Defense, Washington Capitals (Minnesota):
Washington got one of the top free agents in this college class in Nate Schmidt. The 21 year old Junior was a first team All-Star in the WCHA this season and tied for 3rd in defensemen scoring in the NCAA. He was 2nd in defensemen scoring in 2011-12.
Schmidt is a dynamic offensive defenseman as you could imagine with those numbers. He’s a high-end puck handler and passer who has wowed observers in the NCAA on many occasions with his skill. He’s a creative player with great offensive instincts who projects to play on an NHL team’s power play, if not their top unit. He skates well and while he doesn’t score a lot, there’s potential in his shot too. The concerns with Schmidt has been his defensive and physical game. The former I thought showed progression this season, as he started to log more tough minutes and be used in critical situations. I doubt he’ll ever be a better than average defensive player, but there’s a possibility he can play at a high enough level to survive given his other tools. Schmidt is also slightly undersized and I question how he’ll be able to handle NHL-level physicality.
He projects as a top four defenseman in the NHL and while I lean to seeing him get some AHL time first, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s utilized by Washington in an NHL line up from the get go. If you don’t count Orlov as a prospect anymore, Schmidt instantly becomes the top young defense prospect in the Capitals organization.
Steven Whitney, Right Wing, Anaheim Ducks (Boston College):
Whitney who was a Senior at BC this season, was named a first team All-Star in the Hockey East conference and given the Walter Brown award for the best American playing in New England. He was 2nd on his team in scoring, and ended the season 11th in scoring in the nation.
Whitney is a skilled all-around player who can attack other teams with his speed, puck skills or vision. He’s a fluid, powerful skater and has the offensive awareness to always make the right plays. He plays a hard two-way game and doesn’t mind getting involved in the rough stuff. The drawback for Whitney is that he’s 5′7′’. I’m not sure if he has that top-end skill you want in a small guy, but he’s certainly pretty talented and a guy who at the least has a chance to get to the NHL level and be an ok second line winger.
Hosts Matthew Coller and Timo Seppa discuss the coaching change in Tampa Bay (no Lindy Ruff) and teams’ needs heading toward the trade deadline. They are joined for the second segment by HP’s fantasy writer Ryan Schwepfinger, who weighs in on real-life trade possibilities in the Pacific Division as well.
The college FA signings will start soon and while I won’t be able to cover every signing, on players I am able to cover those notes will be posted here.
Kellan Lain, Center, Vancouver Canucks (Lake Superior):
Lain is an older than usual Junior, a 23 year old who turns 24 in July. His main asset is his physical game, at 6′6′’ 222 not only is he tall and strong but tough as well. He’s a big center who can win battles and make opposing defensemen aware of his presence on the ice. He also skates at a decent level for a man his size. Lain doesn’t have a whole lot of offensive upside, notching 39 points over 108 NCAA games, but he does have some defensive value and I think he can stay at center at the pro level. He actually led Lake Superior in face off % this season, winning 56% of his 571 draws. That’s not a great sample, but it is nevertheless intriguing.
Andrej Sustr, Defense, Tampa Bay Lightning (Nebraska-Omaha):
Sustr is a very toolsy prospect with significant upside although with some risk as well. The 22 year old Junior was on the third All-WCHA team this season, notching 25 points in 39 games, putting him top 20 in NCAA scoring for defensemen. His skating is average, but notably above-average for a 6′8′’ defenseman. His mobility has seen significant advancements in the last 12-24 months. He’s a good puck-mover too, showing nice touch with the puck and the offensive instincts to make unusual offensive plays for a player his size. For Nebraska-Omaha on the man advantage I’ve seen him be used in front of the net as a screen or a primary quarterback up high. This combo of traits make Sustr a very desirable asset with the potential to be a #3 if not a #2 defenseman. He is not a player without warts though, for one even though he’s a huge player with a good wingspan, he isn’t all that physical. His decisions in both ends, while not a major issue, could use some work as he can make the odd bad turnover or be off with his positioning.
Danny DeKeyser, Defense, Detroit Red Wings (Western Michigan):
DeKeyser is the top player of this college free agent class and would have been so last year had he not decided to go back to school. DeKeyser is the two-time best defensive defenseman in the CCHA and was named to the CCHA’s first All Star team. Some may wonder when you look at his numbers — 49 points in 118 NCAA games, 15 points in 35 games this season — and ask what all the hype is about; and it is because he has such great defensive value. DeKeyser has high-end hockey sense, good if not great mobility and a big frame that he’s not afraid to use. Given how well he processes the game, how many defensive stops he makes, the low amount of errors he commits, and where he is in his physical development, it is conceivable the 23 year old DeKeyser could step into the NHL right away upon being signed. He does have average offensive ability as a puck mover, and could potentially play a 2nd power play unit on a non elite team. His potential is that of a good #3 defenseman with a low amount of risk on that projection.