- Gare Joyce
TORONTO -- The hallways at Friday's NHL draft combine in Toronto were a beehive of buzz. Some of it was trivial stuff. "How does a kid who is 18 look 40 years old?" one scout asked when watching Mark McNeill testing Friday morning. But some matters discussed by scouts carried a heavier weight. In no particular order, here are the top points of discussion.
The Tim Erixon heist
On paper it looks like the trade of Erixon along with a fifth-round pick in this year's draft for a pair of second-round picks and prospect Roman Horak was a thoroughly one-sided deal in the Rangers' favor and inexplicable for the Flames. Based on his performance at the World Juniors, Erixon, a 2009 first-rounder, looks like a guy who will play 10 to 15 years in the league and at the bare minimum be a top-four defenseman with at least a shot at being a top-two. In other words, what were the Flames thinking with the trade?
Well, it may have been out of Calgary's hands. One recurring suggestion has come up from scouts and front office sources with several teams -- the Rangers may have massaged the system to pry away Erixon on the cheap.
And that opinion is not solely held by those in Calgary. Hockey men from other clubs had the same opinion though they wouldn't want their names attached to the accusation.
The Flames thought they had a good working relationship with Erixon when they drafted him out of Sweden and they had kept tabs on him on a consistent basis. Everything seemed hunky dory and neither the team nor the player seemed in any great rush to sign. The Flames figured that he'd be signed this spring and they'd see him in training camp. But just a couple of weeks ago relations chilled when Erixon's agent complained about the Flames' treatment of the prospect and various other indignities that the team allegedly heaped on him. The charges were news to the Flames, but the agent's threat was clear: no signing was imminent and the team was at risk of Erixon re-entering the draft due to league rules concerning unsigned European draft picks.
The compensation to an NHL club for failing to sign a first-rounder is marginal, so the Flames were forced to go to the market even if it meant taking less than equal value in return. There they were again hindered by Erixon's rep, who allegedly provided the Flames with a very short list of teams that Erixon would consider signing with. Essentially, Erixon wanted to go to the Rangers, where his father Jan played, and that was about it.
Did Rangers GM Glen Sather "game" the system? Several fingers accusingly point that way, though no one can prove anything and the Flames have not filed any official protest with the league. In the end, Sather ends up getting a certain NHLer and his Calgary counterpart Jay Feaster has two picks with, as draft history tells us, about a 5-to-2 chance against coming away with a single NHL player. It's a cautionary tale for everyone else in the league.
Mikael Granlund's ETA in Minnesota
In light of l'affaire Erixon, I asked Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher about his first-rounder last year, Mikael Granlund. You've probably heard of Granlund if you're a regular reader of this blog, a fan of spectacular hockey goals or a Finnish stamp enthusiast. With Granlund committed to play in Finland this coming season, Fletcher said he expects Granlund will come over to join the Wild for the start of the 2012-13 campaign. Fletcher said that he's confident the club can get the prospect signed in part because of his friendship with fellow countryman Mikko Koivu and in part because the Wild would present Granlund a chance to play a big role right away. That might be true, but right now the Wild just have an understanding, the worth of which, as the Flames have taught us, can vary.
Short ... and to the point
Rocco Grimaldi gets points for candor and commitment. One scouting director tried to sound out the diminutive speedster about playing in the major junior leagues rather than going to the University of North Dakota, where Grimaldi is commited to play next year. The scouting director is an old-school type who doesn't have much faith in the NCAA route for player development. Grimaldi didn't budge. "With all due respect, I'm going to North Dakota next season and that's it," he said.
Gabbing with Gabriel
There seemed to be a consensus winner of the interview process over the last few days: Gabriel Landeskog. Said one scouting director: "A really impressive kid. He gave very smart answers and didn't seemed prepped. You can tell that he has really strong people skills. It's obvious that he'll be a good teammate. I thought the talk about him being a captain in the NHL was a bit overblown but, no, there's good reason for it."
The prospects from the Saint John Sea Dogs went from Toronto, where they won the Memorial Cup, to Saint John for the parade, and then back to Toronto for interviews and testing. They looked pretty whipped here.
A scout had one interesting observation about Zack Phillips. "We were up front with him," the scout said. "We told him that we know that he doesn't work out, that he doesn't work with a personal trainer or anything like that. We wanted to get an idea of how serious he is about following through on that part of the game and he seemed pretty intent on it. The thing is, he already has those skills that you can't teach or develop and he might be a player if he works on those things that you can develop. It might be that he can become a better skater if he gets a bit stronger."
A bit of the Phillips backstory: He had intended to go to the NCAA after prep school rather than to the QMJHL. In his interview with one team, he was asked when and why he changed his mind. "When my rights got traded to Saint John, I figured I'd be crazy not to play with that team." That qualifies as pretty good hockey insight for a teenager.
More interview chatter
Scouts were raving about Jonathan Huberdeau's season but thought his interviews were only okay -- "soft-spoken" was the word most cited. One scout, though, made an interesting observation. "At the Ivan Hlinka [the summer under-18 tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia] Huberdeau was the 13th forward on the Canadian team," the scout said. "I had video of that tournament and I couldn't find him. Then a week later he was at the NHL R&D camp and I thought, 'This kid is great. Where did he come from?' It's almost like he got better on the flight home from the tournament."
One prospect who interviewed particularly well was defenseman Duncan Siemens. Said one scout: "We asked him the same questions that we ask most kids: What's your game? Strengths? Weaknesses? Adjustments you're going to have to make? He absolutely nailed it. I couldn't have described his game any better. He had never impressed me [on the ice] as a guy who might have that type of insight or intelligence. You hear that, though, and you come away thinking that he'll figure things out and will do what it takes to get to the next level."
Tallon's golden rule
I spoke with Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon about Nick Bjugstad, the 2010 first-rounder who went from high school to the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the U.S. World Junior team last year. Tallon said that Bjugstad will be back in school again in the fall. "Some teams will tell kids that they want them to play junior hockey instead of going to school or that they have to come out of school to sign," Tallon said. "I won't do it. Never have. I don't think it's a smart idea. If things don't go right, then the player thinks you forced him to make a bad decision. You don't want there to be any bad feelings."
Gare Joyce reports from the NHL combine, where scouts are abuzz with news of the seemingly lopsided trade of prospect Tim Erixon from the Calgary Flames to the New York Rangers. Plus hot notes on this year's top draft prospects.