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.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Canada's Spring Under-18s: Younger, Better

Been away on book assignment for a stretch, but also coming back with the inside dope on the world under-18s and the 2007 entry draft. So here goes:

As strange as it sounds, the Canadian team that goes to Finland this month for the world under18s might in fact be better than the squad that won the gold medal at the summer u-18 World Cup in Breclav, Czech Republic, and Piestany, Slovakia. That's what scouts are saying after the first round of the CHL playoffs have wrapped. On its face not earth-shaking news but understand that this is sort of a fluke, a strange alignment of the planets, because on every other occasion the spring unit is not quite up to the quality of the August team. It only makes sense. In August Hockey Canada has its pick of eligible players; in April, many of these players, often the best of the bunch, can't make it because their CHL teams have advanaced to the second round of the playoffs.

Okay, logic would tell you that if somehow the concentration of u-18 best (i.e. the bulk of the year's draft-class elite) finished out of the playoffs--which is like lining up 20 lottery numbers--then the Canadian team could be as good but how could it possibly be better?

Two reasons:

1. Underage: Hockey Canada decided early on that the team would go with the best players available/eligible and thus a few underagers were on the radar early. Four were clearly in the mix: John Tavares and Michael Del Zotto in Oshawa, Steven Stamkos in Sarnia and Alex Pietrangelo in Mississauga. Tavares--you know, the one who was busting up 99's records for 16-year-olds scoring, yadda, yadda--was the one under-ager who was invited to the under-18 evaluation/tryout in the summer but was injured before the selection. (He surely would have been on the team and would have been its go-to player.) Well, Oshawa's through to the second round, so Tavares and Del Zotto, a highly skilled defenceman, are out of the mix. But Sarnia and Mississauga both got knocked out quick (swept and five games respectively), so Stamkos (think young Steve Yzerman, a player that is confirmed and right now Hockey Canada is waiting on word from Pietrangelo. The complicating issue there is a hairline fracture above his knee. He didn't miss a game or even a shift in Mississauga's five playoff games--it seems to be the type of injury that can't much worsen. (I think Brad Richards played in the summer 18s with precisely the same thing.) He's probably a good shot. But Stamkos, first pick in last year's OHL draft, is the player that really intrigues me and scouts--saw him a couple of times live including vs Russian touring team, more times on the tube. The son of a guy I went to EastYork Collegiate with back when I used to wear my hair in a Roger Daltrey perm. More than one scout has told me that they'd take him ahead of Tavares right now if they were in the same draft class. Then again, I think they sometimes say these things to amuse themselves. Caught them going head to head in Oshawa early on in the season--what a tilt. Sarnia smoked the Gens, to Tavares's immense displeasure. The Gens weren't going well back then. One aspect of Stamkos's game that's way ahead of Tavares: skating. Stamkos is faster in a straight line and he's aesthetically more pleasing to watch. Tavares, though, well if he skated any better, they'd have to ban him. Bladewise he's better on side-to-side elusive stuff than with breakaway speed. And if he has the puck within ten feet of the goal, everyone might as well skate to centre. (As it stands right now, Stamkos is in the '08 draft, Tavares, a late birthday by the thinnest of margins, is draft eligible for '09. Could things change? John Tavares as Curt Flood? Stay tuned. I know a lot of people will resist the idea of mucking up the draft but going to the calendar year as the draft criterion was on the table and in discussion back in the NHL's lockout nuclear winter.) All this said, Stamkos will be a significant upgrade up front.

2. Injury. Logan Couture of the Ottawa 67s was killing the field at the summer u-18 camp but suffered a nasty, nasty skate cut around his knee with seconds (literally) to go in the final scrimmage before the selection. By accounts of some witnesses he might have been the best forward there. Couture could be on--Ottawa was knocked out on the weekend. As has been mentioned on the blog weeks back, though, Couture's season has been screwed up by mono early and knee injuries late. He played with pain in the second half--he might want to play just to shore up his draft stock but if his injuries linger he might not want to risk further injury. Scouts say he was on fire in the playoffs v Belleville.

The addition of Stamkos, Couture and Pietrangelo would more than fill the holes left by those at the summer-18s who'll be in the second round of the CHL playoffs.

Further: The summer team's captain, Angelo Esposito, the CSS mid-term No. 1, could/should be back--his Quebec team was knocked out. But Esposito missed some time with a concussion late in the regular season (I'm just going by what I was able to read in the Journal de Quebec ... my French is tres rusty ... if only Quebec had a Spanish-language daily I'd know the veridad). He played in the playoffs so he might be good to go. Frankly, he should be motivated to play--scouts are so down on him. There's no shot that he'll be CSS's No. 1 in final rankings. Lot of scouts think he's out of the top 5 at this year's draft.

Personal preference: I like the Fortier kid in Rimouski. He's confirmed for Finland. He wore the A in the summer and I saw him in Rimouski last weekend of the season. The Oceanic gassed their coach, Doris Lebonte, who took the team to the Memorial Cup final (with some help from 87). Whoever inherits this club has a lot to work with. Youngest team in Q last year--clearly loading up. They want to take a run at the Mem Cup (as host) down the line, so the GM told me. Even looking at arena reno to do it. Well, Fortier will play a role whatever this team does competively the next couple of seasons. Came over in trade from Drummondville. Great skater, great hockey sense, already a two-way player. "The perfect kid to work with," said Doris Lebonte, who has some experience with perfect. Could Fortier be Patrice Bergeron? He's not in the top five and I can't see him in the top 10. He will play in the NHL and if he goes 20 in the draft, he'll have a bigger impact than five players who go ahead of him, guaranteed.

Draft / u-18 oddity ... I still wonder how Sam Gagner got cut from the summer 18s but made the u-20s in December. If he didn't get invited to the summer and played in the world juniors that would be easier to explain--simple oversight, guy's game gets better from one season to the next. But no, they saw him, he was going well by his account in the summer and they gave him a handshake for his troubles. Does someone improve that much from August to November? He makes u-20s and the captain of the sumer 18s is a quick cut, Tavares too. Oh well, Gagner's occupied with London.

Fine print ... talked with Mark Guy of Newport Sports at the Sudbury-Miisissauga game the other day ... Newport has Stamkos, Pietrangelo and Del Zotto, who could comprise the top three in the 2008 draft ... I suggested that the NHL might as well hold the draft in Newport's offices