100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Anointed and Disappointed: Espo No. 1 But Unloved

I’m trying to remember when a player projected as the first overall pick in a NHL entry draft generates so little enthusiasm as Angelo Esposito. Over the years many, maybe even most, had knockers. Some didn’t like Vinny Lecavalier’s skating. Others worried about Ilya Kovalchuk’s attitude. But if some poked holes in the prospects or got stuck on one weakness in the phenom’s game, others raved. Taking the pulse of the scouts that I know, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Angelo Esposito. The scouts respect him, but they don’t get too worked up about him. Curious thing. I had the same conversation with several scouts who had made the trip to the Quebec league to check him out with the Remparts. Yup, they saw him, te said, and he was good but not great. And most of them said that they heard he was really good the week after they came home.

It’s business as usual. The longer a prospect hangs out there as the projected No. 1 the more folks pick him apart. It’s like buyer’s remorse before the purchase. Esposito has been projected as the top pick since he went to Shattuck. And fact is, scouts have been racking up views on him for three seasons, first seeing him when they were scouting the Minnesota high school for players eligible in earlier drafts. Thus Espo’s been in the pipeline three years. He was spotted years back. Now he’s being picked apart.

The closest thing to an objective viewpoint might be a scout he sees him cold this year. A Euro scout I know saw him for the first time at the summer 18s. He was emphatic. “He’ll be a player,” he said. “They have him [ranked] where he should be.”

That seemed fair. But another scout I know said that he was disappointed that Tavares and Couture couldn’t make the trip to the summer 18s because of injury—that he expected Couture to outplay him. Second-guessing festering as schadenfreude.

I did this story on Esposito from the summer 18s. I wrote it for the sports insert that used to run Maclean’s. (In the tradition of Canadian sports magazines, that insert ceased publication.)

Breclav, Czech Republic

Angelo Esposito’s task was a daunting one. He was wearing the C and the Maple Leaf. He was supposed to lead Canada to victory at the 2006 under-18 World Cup. And he was supposed to impress in twenty shifts or less.

Officially, the attendance for the championship game on Aug 12 was 839. If NHL scouts had counted towards the gate, that number would have neared four figures.

The 839 came to watch Canada and the U.S. skate for the first prize of the hockey season in mid-summer and Canada was the favored choice of most Czech fans. The NHL scouts in attendance were getting a first look at players who’ll be eligible for the 2007 entry draft and Angelo Esposito was the most closely watched player in the tournament.

Esposito is the top-ranked junior eligible for the NHL draft next June. A native of Montreal , son of the owner of a grocery chain, Esposito is a skilled forward who was a figure skater up until age 10. “It started with my mother taking my sister to the rink and I just went along,” he says. “When I was ten I decided to stick to hockey.”

Esposito has been compared to Sidney Crosby for the past two or three seasons and for good reason. Their young careers have followed parallel courses.

Like Crosby, Esposito left home at 14 to enroll at Shattuck-St Mary’s, a Minnesota high school with an elite hockey program. Like Crosby, Esposito entertained the notion of attending a U.S. college on scholarship before casting his lot with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. And like Crosby , Esposito posted huge numbers in his first season at “the Q”—inevitably his scoring pace was compared with those of Canadian hockey’s most promising talent two years earlier.

That said, Esposito’s career tracks a course unlike Crosby’s or almost any other junior superstar in recent memory.

At the start of every hockey season a teenager emerges as the projected top pick in the NHL draft nine months away. From year to year, the thumbnail biographies of these players are remarkably consistent. They come from all over the hockey world—from the Canadian junior leagues, the U.S. college ranks or Europe—yet they’ve all grown up in the spotlight, all been the stars on the teams they’ve played for, all known nothing but unremitting success. It was like that with Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin in their years, with Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux before them.

Yet Esposito has had a significant setback: He was cut from the Canadian squad that won the world junior title in Vancouver in January. Even at the under-18 tournament nine months later he sounded unsettled by it. “That was the most disappointing moment for me,” Esposito says. “Looking back, I think may not have been strong enough [to compete with the under-20s]. That’s what they might have been thinking when they made the decision.”

And unlike those No. 1s in recent seasons, Esposito has had to share and even cede the spotlight to star players on his own teams. At Shattuck-St Mary’s he played beside Jonathon Toews, a forward who was the World Cup under-18s most valuable player last year and the Chicago Blackhawks’ draft pick, third overall, in June. With the Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts last season, Esposito was eclipsed by Alexander Radulov, a Russian expected to step into the Nashville Predators line-up this fall.

Even at this tournament Esposito wasn’t expected to be the focus of attention. That figured to be Oshawa Generals forward John Tavares, who was named the Canadian junior hockey leagues’ rookie of the year last season as a mere 15-year-old. But Tavares, who isn’t eligible for the draft until 2009, suffered a leg injury during the Canadian team’s tryouts and didn’t make the trip to the Czech Republic .

Also absent was a player who is challenging Esposito for the top spot in next year’s draft. At least a few scouts in Breclav liked Ottawa 67’s forward Logan Couture as much as Esposito if not more. But with five seconds to go in the final exhibition game at the tryout camp, Couture also suffered a leg injury, a fluke cut from a skate blade.

Thus did the sea part for Esposito.

“This is an opportunity for Angelo to step up,” the Canadian coach Cory Clausen said before the game. “That what were looking for. He was an easy pick to wear the C for us. We don’t have a really loud group but Angelo is a mature young man, well-spoken, respected by his team-mates. They listen when he speaks and they see that he works hard on the ice.”

As hard as Esposito worked in the tournament’s opening round, it was hard to impress the scouts in attendance. The Canadians were in the far weaker of the two four-team pools. Their wins over Switzerland and Sweden weren’t compelling. Only in their third game, a decisive victory over Slovakia , did they seem to be finding their game. And though Esposito led the team in scoring going into the final, he, like the team, hadn’t blown anyone away.

It was far easier to others, unburdened by expectations, to make an impression. Foremost among this number was forward Brett Sonne, who plays for the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. “Brett didn’t have a good camp and he started out as a fourth liner,” Clausen said.

But against Sweden, with the game tied one-all late in the second period, with Canada killing a five-minute major penalty, and with a single loss eliminating a team from contention for the gold medal, Sonne scored what was likely the most important goal of the tournament. Forechecking aggressively, he forced a turnover in the neutral zone, over-powered a defenceman and crashed the Swedish net.

If it had been Esposito making the play, it would have helped validate his billing. The scouts, though, were left wanting. Esposito did lead the team in scoring in the opening round but he was a couple of big saves and deflected shots away from a breakthrough performance. The margin between glowing reviews and perceived failure was that slim.

The final wasn’t Esposito’s last shot at winning over the scouts. He has a whole season and likely a turn at the world juniors to do that. But it was his last chance beside and against the players who’ll be in the draft pool next June.

Midway through the first period, Canada opened the scoring on a play engineered by Esposito. With a two-man advantage, Esposito handled the puck with authority, setting up a couple of scoring chances right off the hop. Then the puck came over to Esposito on the right side, at the faceoff dot. He moved the puck smartly to Sonne on the edge of the crease who beat American goaltender Jeremy Smith.

It was the only goal Canada would need with Trevor Cann and a bunch of mobile defencemen holding the U.S. at bay. Sonne added another goal in the second period. Tyler Ennis scored a third (set up by Brandon Sutter, son of Brent, who coach Canada’s juniors to two world titles).

Said one scout exiting the arena: “[Esposito] was around the action a lot but didn’t make things happen the way you’d want to see.”

In the closing ceremonies, Angelo Esposito was called out as captain to accept the tournament trophy. After 19 shifts it was easier to raise the silverware over his head than satisfy scouts and compete with players who either couldn’t make it or went in years before him.

Fine print … One thing that impressed me about Esposito was how he handled himself off the ice. He seemed to take the role of team captain seriously (what I heard from those in the room, what I saw away from the rink). Maybe a little overly, but then again, maybe that’s the side you’d want to err on. At team meals, he tried to drive conversation. When I interviewed him he was completely engaged and engaging—too accomodating for his own good. Rather than cut me off, he left himself only three minutes to pack before the team bus was leaving. Something of a carry-over to the ice. If he was guilty of something on and off the ice it was trying to hard. He pressed to impress … When I asked Esposito about stepping into the spotlight role (after playing with Toews at Shattuck and Radulov in Quebec) he didn’t blink. He basically admitted that it was an open question about his game. Not at all defensive about it when a lot of players—maybe most of them—would bristle. Goes to two things. 1. If you’re looking for the good, you’d say that his reaction shows he sees things with clear eyes. 2. If you’re knocking, you’d say it suggests some self-doubt, pure poison in the draft game.