Five Takeaways From Top Prospects Game

Outnumbered but not outshone, a few Quebec league players stepped up to steal the spotlight at the 2016 CHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver on Thursday night.

Pierre-Luc Dubois and Pascal Laberge dazzled in posting three-point performances to propel Team Orr to a sixth straight win over Team Cherry, prevailing 3-2 in the annual showcase of the best NHL draft-eligible talents from the Canadian Hockey League.

Playing in front of hundreds of scouts, Dubois really rose to the occasion — much like Travis Konecny in the 2015 game — and was dangerous on almost every shift, while Laberge exceeded expectations as a lesser-known standout. It’s only one game in a body of work, but those two definitely raised their draft stock going forward.

Here are five takeaways from the Top Prospects Game, followed by my three stars and honourable mentions:

Don’t Forget The French

The numbers weren’t in their favour, with the QMJHL only accounting for eight of the 40 prospects on display. The OHL sent 20 to Vancouver, including the top three North American skaters on Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings, while the WHL was also well represented with 12 and received plenty of publicity with the game taking place on the West coast.

Yet, everybody was left talking about those kids from Quebec.

Dubois was the best player on the ice and fittingly scored what stood up as the winning goal, finishing off a give-and-go with Laberge in responding just 11 seconds after Team Cherry had pulled even in the third period.

Dubois did it all in this one, even winning a few defensive-zone face-offs in the final minute of regulation as his teammates repeatedly iced the puck in hopes of hitting the empty net.

Dubois was so dominant that some wondered aloud why he wasn’t on Canada’s world-junior team, having been among the early cuts from last month’s selection camp. Of course, it’s easy to second-guess those roster decisions following a disappointing sixth-place finish in Finland. Dubois is currently ranked seventh among North American skaters and made a strong case to crack the top 10 in June’s draft.

Laberge, on the other hand, came out of nowhere to score twice. His first was a highlight-reel goal, dangling around Alex DeBrincat before beating Zach Sawchenko with a quick release to tie the game 1-1 in the middle frame. His second, to put Team Orr ahead 2-1 in the third, was another confident play with the puck by a teenager who has faced a lifetime of adversity within the last year.

The broadcasters revealed that Laberge’s dad has been diagnosed with cancer and his mom with Multiple Sclerosis, that he had lost his stepmom (presumably deceased) and, the least of his worries, had endured a trade from Gatineau to Victoriaville. Laberge went second overall in the 2014 QMJHL draft but came into the Top Prospects Game ranked 31st on Central Scouting’s list. Talk about perseverance. Hats off to him.

Another feel-good story from the QMJHL was that of goaltender Evan Fitzpatrick, a native of Newfoundland who fought off food poisoning to record a 17-save shutout in his half of the game for Team Cherry. Fitzpatrick denied Dubois for his best stop just before being relieved by Sawchenko, and was the only netminder of four to not allow a goal — battling through those flu-like symptoms to blank the opposition on his 18th birthday. An impressive outing, to say the least.

Julien Gauthier was also strong in spurts for Team Cherry but was overshadowed by the heroics of Dubois and Laberge for Team Orr. Gauthier, who did play for Canada at the world juniors as the lone underager, is ranked fourth by Central Scouting and was among eight of the top 10 North American skaters strutting their stuff in this year’s Top Prospects Game.

Making Most Of Opportunity

Switching gears, how about the hometown kid — Ty Ronning of the Vancouver Giants — opening the scoring for Team Cherry? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree for this undersized son of former Vancouver Canucks centre Cliff Ronning. Ty only got into this game as a last-minute injury replacement — he’s ranked 82nd, by far the lowest of any prospect in this showcase — but he certainly didn’t look out of place at Pacific Coliseum.

Ronning buried a rebound of his own redirection in the first period and was buzzing throughout, nearly making it 2-0 just over two minutes into the second period and coming close on a couple other chances too. He could have had a hat trick — could you imagine? — and almost netted the equalizer with less than four minutes left in the game. Score one for the little guys . . . and expect to hear Ronning’s name called again on draft day, perhaps as high as the second round.

Good Year For Canadian Goaltenders

It was a low-scoring game by All-Star standards thanks to the goalies. The Top Prospects Game isn’t your typical run-and-gun All-Star Game, but it wasn’t lacking in firepower and had its share of scrambly play, so it could have easily been a 6-4 final if not for several quality saves.

Carter Hart and Fitzpatrick — ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among North American netminders — staged quite the duel in the first half, with Ronning’s roofed rebound the only shot of 16 to get past Hart. Hart backstops the low-scoring Everett Silvertips in the WHL and his numbers are off the charts there, with a 1.93 goals-against average, .927 save-percentage and six shutouts to date. He has 27 wins in 43 appearances this season, including three in a row over the defending champion Kelowna Rockets within the last month. Granted, the high-powered Rockets were missing a few forwards at the world juniors for the first two meetings, but Hart was undeniably the difference in turning aside 65 of 69 total shots to prevail 2-1 in overtime, 3-1 and 3-2 in OT again.

Hart is considered, by many, a better prospect than Eric Comrie was coming out of the WHL a couple years ago and he’s significantly bigger too, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see Hart selected in the first round, possibly as high as the mid-teens.

Dylan Wells of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes came into this showcase ranked fifth but he was tops in Wednesday’s on-ice testing and then stopped 19 of 20 shots in getting credited with Thursday’s victory after replacing Hart for Team Orr. Wells robbed DeBrincat from point-blank range immediately after entering the game and was evidently athletic in the net.

Sawchenko, ranked third, surrendered all three goals for Team Cherry on only 10 shots, but he didn’t have much chance on at least two of them. It remains to be seen how that could impact his placing for Central Scouting’s final list.

Regardless, this is shaping up to be a promising year for Canadian goaltenders at the draft and the Top Prospects Game provided more reason for optimism. It was good to see after Mackenzie Blackwood’s world-junior performance cast more doubt on Canada’s ability to produce elite talent between the pipes. Look for one of these guys — most likely Hart — to be Canada’s starter at the 2017 world juniors even though Blackwood will still be eligible.

WJC Standouts Mostly Mediocre

The biggest names at this year’s Top Prospects Game left a bit to be desired.

Matthew Tkachuk, the top-ranked North American skater who starred on Team USA’s top line in capturing world-junior bronze, didn’t develop instant chemistry with third-ranked Alexander Nylander, who represented fourth-place Sweden in Helsinki. They got better for Team Orr as this game went along but were ultimately held off the scoresheet after tying for fourth and ninth, respectively, in tournament scoring at the world juniors. Perhaps they just didn’t get as amped up for this showcase after already starring on the international stage. The same could be said for Gauthier, who was more noticeable for Canada than Team Cherry.

Olli Juolevi, who won gold with host Finland before returning to the OHL’s London Knights, was probably the best defenceman on the ice Thursday night. He’s reminiscent of his compatriot, Rasmus Ristolainen, in terms of jumping into the play and taking chances offensively, but he too went pointless in the Top Prospects Game. This, after racking up nine assists in seven games at the world juniors to finish tied for sixth among scoring leaders.

Team Cherry captain Jakob Chychrun, another selection-camp cut for Canada, was solid defensively but rather ineffective when manning the point on the power play. He was paired with the more offensive-minded Kale Clague, but Chychrun had the play die on his stick quite a few times and didn’t live up to the hype as a poor man’s Aaron Ekblad. Ranked second among North American skaters, Chychrun is no longer a lock to go top five and could fall out of the top 10 if teams take a run of forwards. Some teams could prefer the fifth-ranked Juolevi over Chychrun too.

Missing In Action

It’s no secret that the top talents for this year’s NHL draft are currently playing in Europe and thus were ineligible for the Top Prospects Game. Those being American-born centre Auston Matthews, who opted to play pro in Switzerland over junior in Everett, plus Finnish forwards Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine.

However, that is rare, with the last nine first overall picks all drafted out of the CHL, starting with Patrick Kane in 2007. Eight of them — Kane, Steven Stamkos (2008), John Tavares (2009), Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011), Nathan MacKinnon (2013), Ekblad (2014) and Connor McDavid (2015) — participated in the Top Prospects Game, with Nail Yakupov the lone exception as a controversial injury absence from the 2012 showcase in Kelowna.

Puljujarvi led the world juniors in scoring with 17 points in seven games, while Laine was third with 13 and Matthews tied for fourth with 11. Laine and Matthews also tied for the goal-scoring lead at seven. The expectation is that trio will go 1-2-3 in June’s draft, with Matthews projected as the first overall pick and the other two considered pretty interchangeable.

Sportsnet’s Damien Cox had Laine ahead of Puljujarvi in his preliminary top-10 rankings released prior to Thursday’s game. He had Tkachuk at fourth, followed by Nylander, Chychrun and Juolevi in the top seven. American (USHL) forwards Clayton Keller and Kieffer Bellows were eighth and ninth, respectively, with Russian-born defenceman Mikhail Sergachev of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires rounding out Cox’s list. Sergachev turned some heads in the Top Prospects Game, especially for a kid who didn’t start playing hockey until he was nine years old. Apparently, Sergachev only learned of the NHL at age 11 but impressively picked up the English language within two months of arriving in Canada this past fall and now speaks it rather fluently. He’s another intriguing prospect to follow leading up to draft day.

Ronning’s inclusion came at the expense of Giants teammate Tyler Benson, who was ruled out earlier in the week with what is believed to be a groin issue. It’s been a rough season for Benson, ranked 21st and falling after previously undergoing surgery to remove a cyst from his tailbone area and failing to get up to speed in his recovery. Once thought to be a top-10 talent, Benson could potentially slip out of the first round, which might make him a huge steal if he returns to health and rebounds next season.

Many scouts would have loved to see Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro — both top-10 picks in the WHL bantam draft — compete in this Top Prospects Game. Unfortunately, they were ineligible because they play for the BCHL’s Penticton Vees, a junior-A team that doesn’t fall under the CHL umbrella. Jost and Fabbro did suit up for the CJHL Prospects Game on Tuesday in nearby Surrey, but both were held off the scoresheet in a 3-1 loss to Team East despite Team West dominating in shots on goal 44-19. Jost and Fabbro are expected to be first-rounders and could be knocking at the door of the top 10 even though they have been playing against lesser competition the past two seasons. Both are also committed to top NCAA programs for next season — Jost to the University of North Dakota and Fabbro to Boston University, but they could be one-and-done in school before turning pro if their development stays on track.

My Three Stars

1) Pierre-Luc Dubois — the offensive catalyst for Team Orr, constantly generating chances and scoring the game-winning goal.

2) Pascal Laberge — netted two goals and assisted on the winner, elevated his game on the big stage.

3) Evan Fitzpatrick — overcame illness to stop all 17 shots he faced in the first half of the game.

Honourable Mentions

1) Ty Ronning — the kid came to play, wasn’t intimidated and just did the things that have made him successful in the WHL this season, resulting in a goal that he’ll remember forever. As mentioned, Ty’s a chip off the old block from Cliff.

2) Michael McLeod — dynamic offensively with speed to burn, he was the best player on the ice in the first period for Team Cherry but faded a bit as the game went on. Ranked sixth among North American skaters, consistency will be key to McLeod cracking the top 10, but he’s got the skill-set to make that a reality.

3) Logan Brown — sniped a bar-down beauty to tie it at 2-2 for Team Cherry and really seemed to find another gear when the game was on the line. The son of former NHL defenceman Jeff Brown, Logan is a centre with size that you can’t teach at 6-foot-6, so scouts will be bumping him up in their rankings. Central Scouting has him at 14th.

4) Jordan Kyrou — assisted on both Team Cherry goals, including that sweet spinning feed on the tape to Brown. He’s ranked 45th in North America, which typically translates to an early third-rounder, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kyrou as a riser after this performance. He could go around 45th overall.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, and has been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.