1. An introduction and discussion point
So Tuesday morning was Hockey East Media Day, which is a chance for various members of the local college hockey media to meet and speak with players and coaches from the league’s 10 member schools for the first time since the season ended. Hockey East, you’ll recall, is the conference for Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold’s Boston College Eagles, and Jon Gillies and Mark Jankowski’s Providence College Friars.
I was not in attendance at media day this year, but a good friend of mine, Joe Meloni of College Hockey News (and @CHNJoeMeloni on Twitter) was, and I asked him to grab some quotes on the Flames’ four prospects in the league from their coaches. I’ll share those in a minute.
But first, I want to note that I was talking to fearless leader Kent Wilson about the Flames’ prospects’ places in the league, and moreover on their development path, when the subject of their potentially leaving college early came up. That’s something that I think is worth discussing, so here goes.
In short, unless you’re a top-top-top-end talent — like a Jonathan Toews or James van Riemsdyk — picked high and widely considered to have a cathedral-like ceiling, leaving college early often isn’t a very good idea, and you should have to all but overwhelm the team that drafted you with oodles of points before they should consider signing you. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, and the NHL’s annals are littered with highly-touted college kids who left school too early.
Kent and I discussed this vis a vis Gaudreau, whose production as a freshman and ability to score highlight-reel goals, and whether he would jump to the professional ranks after this season. I deemed it highly unlikely. His size (tiny) is obviously a concern, but the real issue is that I don’t believe him to be a complete player yet. I drew a comparison between he and another recent pint-sized former Boston College Eagle, the Buffalo Sabres’ Nate Gerbe.
Gerbe was a ludicrously good college player who is slowly becoming a solid NHLer despite his size. But even though Gerbe started turning heads with his 25-22-47 in 41 games as a sophomore, Buffalo opted to wait. What you have to understand is that 25 goals in college hockey isn’t exactly a common thing, especially for someone still so early on their development path as Gerbe, or indeed Gaudreau, was. Maybe five guys do it every year, on average.
But Buffalo waited, and were happy they did. The next season, Gerbe’s production exploded. He netted 35 goals and 33 assists as a junior, in just 43 games. THEN the Sabres signed him, and all the better for it.
The general rule of thumb I would say exists in college hockey is that you should at least stay for three of your four years. Toews and van Riemsdyk didn’t, and probably shouldn’t have. But guys like Gaudreau absolutely should. Even Chris Kreider did it, and look at the impact he had for the Rangers in the playoffs last season. He wouldn’t have come close to that if he’d left after his sophomore year.
So no, I don’t care how many goals Gaudreau scores this fall and winter. His game isn’t where it needs to be to deal with the rigors of pro hockey. He needs to be in college for two more years. Period.
2. More on Gaudreau from his coach
With that having been said, that doesn’t mean he’s not already a very, very good college player, of whom much is now expected since he’ll be the one carrying the load offensively for the defending national champion Eagles.
There’s a lot of standard coach talk in this quote from the legendary bench boss Jerry York, but also some hints as to what Gaudrea will be concentrating on for the upcoming season.
(Again, all quotes were gathered for use here by Joe Meloni, not me.)
"We’re looking for John to just keep getting better. He’s not satisfied with last season, and we don’t want him to be," York said. "He keeps getting stronger, and he has to. I think we’re looking for him to be a little more aggressive this year, to shoot more. He has a good shot that he’s improved a lot. He needs to be stronger on pucks, and I think he can be. Getting better in his own zone is important too, with so many guys gone from last year."
Honestly, I’m not sure how much more Gaudreau will be able to shoot given that he finished third on the team in SOG last season (124 in 44 games), but I’m also not going to quibble with Jerry York. That part about being stronger on the puck and improving in the defensive zone are the two biggest holes in his game, but at least everyone recognizes that.
3. Leaman glows when discussing Jankowski
Of course, perhaps the biggest prospect Calgary has in Hockey East, both literally and figuratively, is this year’s first-round pick, Mark Jankowski. You’ll recall I was dubious when he chose college at his very young age over a year in the USHL, and coach Nate Leaman, himself a very good general, acknowledged those issues.
"It’s his youth [that’s an issue] more than anything," Leaman said. "He turned 18 the second week of school. The guys have to sign NCAA paperwork the first week of school, and you have to be 18 to do it. So he had to get his parents to sign his. We had to scan it, send it back to Toronto and wait for it. The guys gave him a lot of grief about that, and we’ve had a lot of fun with it. He’s pretty young, but he’s handled it well. He’s a mature kid, and he works his tail off in everything he does."
Which I guess is why Jankowski has already put on a bunch of weight since just his draft day. At the draft, he was listed as just 170 pounds. He’s considerably heavier than that now.
"I’m really happy with his progress right now," Leaman said. "He’s certainly putting himself in the position to be an impact player as a freshman. He’s a guy that has a very good stick and very good vision. He’s up to 182 pounds now, which is good. I look to him to really be a guy that can produce offense for us."
Not exactly the kind of talk you expect for a coach talking about a just-turned-18 true freshman, but here we are. Leaman did acknowledge that Jankowski needs to keep putting on weight, but also said that his vision and skill are "rare" and that he’s "elusive" down low.
"He has the ability to shake guys very easily and take pucks to the net," he said. "He scored some very nice goals in our team skills session. I’ve been very impressed with him. In his work at the prospect camp this summer, he improved there. He’s improved every day on the ice. I think he’s going to attack the transition to college hockey pretty easily."
So, looks like the kid’s gonna get a big workload early, which could be very telling in the season’s early goings. If the way a coach talks about a player is any indicator, reporters got three graphs on Jankowski, and just one on everyone else discussed.
4. High praise for Billy Arnold
One thing Jerry York very rarely does is sing anyone’s praises too hard. To wit, Gaudreau was just the second-best points producer on his team last season as a freshman, behind only an NHL-bound first-round pick, and the first thing York said was that he needs to get better.
With that having been said, look what he had to say about Billy Arnold: "Bill’s just been a super player for us since he arrived. Right now, he’s getting over some back issues that bothered him throughout the summer, and I think he’s ready. There isn’t a better three-zone player in our league than Billy, and he showed that more last year. As a penalty-killer, he’s always shown that, but the goals and points came more last season. We’re expecting more from him as a junior."
The best all-zone player in perhaps the nation’s second-best pro-producing college hockey conference? Yeah, that’ll play. Hopefully those back issues don’t crop up again, but Arnold, who played a lot of the time with Gaudreau last season, could turn out to be the standout on this team and in this league this season. That’s my educated guess, anyway; I see the kid and the team and the league a lot, and Arnold seems to have the goods to explode offensively.
Look, the way York talks about him is itself not especially common, and I’ve never been given the slightest reason to doubt anything he says about the sport of hockey. I’m not about to start now.
5. Gillies’ tempered expectations?
Finally we head back to Providence for a look at Jon Gillies, whose situation seems a lot less clear than those of everyone above.
It seems to me from the Leaman quote on him that he’ll very much get a shot to prove himself.
"John has a great opportunity to step into the net for us," Leaman said. "We don’t have a returning goalie. We have no experience in net. For any goalie at this level, it’s an adjustment (from lowel levels). But he’s been working hard, competing extremely well and he’s going to continue doing that. If he continues working and getting better, I think he’s going to be a really good college goaltender."
So essentially, we’re looking at a project, and if he doesn’t explode out of the gate and become a dominant college goaltender, that’s fine. I don’t think anyone expected that much more out of him anyway.