Small Players Stand Out at Young Stars

Score one for the little guys.

The opening day of the Young Stars tournament belonged to a couple of 5-foot-nothings. Granted, a couple of 6-foot-somethings — Edmonton’s Mitch Moroz and Calgary’s Michael Ferland — each scored twice to lead their teams to victory, but those in attendance can attest that the biggest impressions were made by the smallest players.

Johnny Gaudreau came as advertised, while Vladimir Tkachev turned just as many heads despite being on a tryout. Curtis Valk and Hunter Shinkaruk weren’t too shabby, either.

Also known as Johnny Hockey, Gaudreau had the goal of the day, hopping the boards on a line change, picking off an errant pass at the offensive blue-line, dangling around a defender and lifting an effortless backhander over the shoulder of Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

It was a thing of beauty, and potentially a sign of things to come for the hot-shot Calgary Flames prospect and 2014 Hobey Baker winner as college hockey’s MVP.

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In the post-game scrum, Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun asked Gaudreau if he ever watches his highlight reel, joking that this goal was probably already posted to YouTube. It was.

“My mom always tells me to,” Gaudreau said with a laugh, denying that he does. “I might have to some time, just to check them out, but my parents and my siblings are really happy for me and always tell me about it, so it’s pretty cool.”

In true hockey player fashion, Gaudreau did his best to downplay his efforts that brought Calgary back to within one, trailing 4-3 in the second period of an eventual 6-4 win on Friday night in Penticton.

“I just stuck it between the guy’s legs and took a little shot on net and luckily it went in. It was a nice little move there, I was just trying to get it to the net.” — Johnny Gaudreau.

No big deal. Nothing to see here.

He took everything in stride, from Sportsnet’s Gene Principe comparing the initials of his alma mater Boston College to his current location of British Columbia, to the nickname that seems to be sticking in reference to Johnny Football, also known as Johnny Manziel, a rookie quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.

“The guys joke around with me, so it’s kind of funny. I know Johnny Football’s got a lot bigger of a name for him,” Gaudreau said.

And, of course, he couldn’t avoid a question or two about his size — generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, playing in a big-man’s game where the average size of forwards is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds.

“All small players hear it a ton, and it’s something that every small player needs to overcome,” Gaudreau said. “I’m not there yet, obviously. The guys like (Martin) St. Louis and (Danny) Briere are there, so I’ve got to follow those guys and watch how they play. And hopefully I can become one of those players some day.”

That day could be coming quite soon as Gaudreau is a strong candidate to stick on Calgary’s roster this season. He also scored a goal in his only previous game with the Flames, a season-ending 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks back on April 13.

Ryan Huska was manning Calgary’s bench on Friday night — he’s set to coach the AHL affiliate Adirondack Flames this season — and gave Gaudreau rave reviews while suggesting the game’s momentum turned on his goal.

“He’s got the ability. You look at his size and you think he’s maybe too small, but he’s got a way about him where he can elude checks. He kind of slows the game down a little bit where he finds the late man or the open man,” Huska said. “Like you saw (Friday), when he had the puck, typically things were happening. You get the sense that he’s going to be a pretty good hockey player, and whether or not we see him in (Adirondack), that’s up to him right now. If he keeps playing well and does a great job as he progresses through camp, then who knows what awaits him.”

Less noticeable on the Calgary front was Sam Bennett, the fourth overall pick in this June’s NHL draft, but Huska was cutting him some slack following his pro debut.

“I thought he got off to a bit of a slower start, but by the time the third period came, he started to skate and his game was better,” Huska said. “He’s a competitive kid. He wants to win and he wants to do well, and that’s kind of the attraction to him. He’s got ability and when you factor in the competitive side, he’s a good young hockey player.”

Tkachev, meanwhile, stole the show in the late game with two stellar assists.

First, the little Russian fed the big Russian for the nicest goal in that contest, as Tkachev stopped off the rush and dished to an oncoming Bogdan Yakimov, who went bar down on Canucks goalie Austin Lotz. Nearly as nice was Tkachev’s ability to find a streaking Martin Gernat for an open-net gimmie and the go-ahead goal in the third period.

With his loose-fitting jersey looking more like a cape when he got up to full speed, Tkachev also made a nice back-checking play in the second period to foil an odd-man rush by Vancouver. That jersey, which happened to be Nail Yakupov’s old No. 64 — Yakupov is switching to No. 10 for his third NHL season — was flapping in the wind because Tkachev, at 5-foot-8, clearly isn’t the 163 pounds indicated on the Oilers’ website. They must have weighed him soaking wet . . . with his pockets full.

Valk, the only other two-goal-getter on Day 1 and another undrafted invite, tied that game at 3-3 for the host Canucks with his second coming in the final minute of regulation, before Moroz, a 6-3, 214-pound power forward, won it for Edmonton in overtime.

Even though neither of his tallies were especially pretty — the first a shot through a screen that eluded Oilers netminder Laurent Brossoit, and the latter on a goal-mouth rebound — Valk stood out at only 5-9 and 162 pounds.

Shinkaruk, one of the Canucks’ first-rounders from the 2013 draft, wasn’t as dominant as he was at last year’s Young Stars tourney, but he still had his shining moments in Vancouver’s opener.

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The 5-10, 181-pound speedster didn’t appear to lose a step from undergoing hip surgery that ended his junior career back in January. Friday marked his first game experience and contact from opposing players since going under the knife, and he was pleased to report the hip held up just fine. Better than fine, in fact.

“I think the most exciting part about that game was not having to answer the questions about how does it feel and is it a hundred per cent. I think I showed that it is a hundred per cent and it feels great,” Shinkaruk said. “I’m really lucky with the Canucks and all the staff that helped me get to this point. It was a great feeling after the game when I knew all that hard work really paid off.”

He might actually have an extra gear this season, something that has been missing from Shinkaruk’s repertoire since scoring 49 goals and 91 points in 66 games with the Medicine Hat Tigers during the 2011-12 WHL season.

“My hip has been sore for about two years now. It’s been something that I’ve dealt with for a while, and especially last year when I could barely skate,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve really gone pain-free every stride in the last two years. I remember the last time I was pain-free I was 17 and I had a pretty good year, so hopefully I can do that again. I just have to keep working hard.”

Ferland, at 6-2 and 215 pounds, was also playing his first game in almost a calendar year after suffering a season-ending knee injury last December. His first goal should have been credited to Josh Jooris, who also scored an empty-netter, but his second was all Ferland, firing home a rebound of Markus Granlund’s shot for what stood up as the game-winner.

“I didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel. I’ve still got a lot of work to do if I want to make this hockey club,” Ferland said. “I just felt that everything was a lot quicker than I expected. I was still a little step back. I know it was my first game in a while, but everything was really quick and I felt like I was a step behind.”

Other top prospects, such as Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers and Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, the ninth and third overall picks in June, respectively, also lived up to expectations as some of the more talented players on display in Penticton. It just happened that on Friday, Gaudreau and Tkachev were the best of the bunch.

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Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC. Due to scheduling conflicts in Kelowna, Larry will not be covering the remainder of the Young Stars tournament in Penticton.

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