The leap to the pro hockey level is one few are able to make. While talent, skill and dedication are compulsory in making that jump, other elements -- some beyond a young prospect's control -- play a part as well. Opportunity and exposure, for instance. And the former usually begets the latter. Offering a gifted skater the chance to develop, and hopefully shine, can be nearly as valuable as providing quality coaching and instruction.
When opportunity recently came knocking for Jimmy Lodge of the Saginaw Spirit, the young center not only answered, but jerked the proverbial door clear off its hinges and tossed it across the room. Promoted to the top line following the departure of Florida Panthers' prospect Vincent Trocheck (traded to the Plymouth Whalers after representing Team USA at the World Junior Championships), Lodge has simply flourished alongside Garret Ross (Chicago Blackhawks, 5th round, 2012) and Eric Locke. Scoring 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in 17 games can't be chalked up to fluke. Not that the 17-year-old center wasn't well-regarded before; only now there's empirical evidence he can score regularly against the top shutdown lines in the league. The accompanying boost in confidence ahead of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft doesn't hurt either.
"It definitely helps out a lot, playing with top players in the league," Lodge said recently, admitting the extra attention from the media and scouting community is also beneficial. "We're making the connection now and putting up numbers. Playing against other teams' top lines -- which have NHL draft picks -- helps too."
Ranked 28th in Central Scouting Service's midterm report (North American skaters), Lodge is admired most for his skill set, creativity and sense of anticipation. Such a dynamic combo obviously attracts the right flavor of attention from members of the NHL scouting community.
"He can make plays offensively that not every player can," said one NHL scout, after observing the young forward strut his stuff in person. "[He has] great vision, a good stick and knows how to get open in the offensive zone. He has a killer wrist shot from the slot, and he's an above-average skater with decent speed ..."
Like all young players, the Pennsylvania native still has improvements to make to his game -- the same scout also advised that Lodge has a tendency to cheat defensively. And size/strength is a real concern. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds, Lodge is no hulking beast.
"The big thing right now is he's not very strong and doesn't win many one-on-one battles. And he's small -- tiny legs, narrow shoulders -- very much a boy still. I think he's one of those kids that will have to find a way to play as a top-six forward or he won't be able to play at all."
The not-yet-18-year-old will inevitably fill out more and gain strength, but there's more to the suggested shortcoming than physical stature. Saginaw's head coach agrees, Lodge still has to progress in his approach to the game. Particularly as applies to the young lad's tendency to "drift off," here and there.
"He's improved quite a bit in most areas, but that's one thing Jimmy has to continue to get better at, playing at the next level -- especially at the National Hockey League -- it's a start and stop game," Spirit coach Greg Gilbert insisted. "It's not pond hockey ... stopping on loose pucks, and stopping and changing direction -- quicker -- in certain situations is something he has to continue to improve. He's a drifter; in the defensive zone he'll drift out of the ice he's supposed to be managing; in the offensive zone he'll drift away, rather than stopping and starting and bopping hard into holes."
But Saginaw's bench boss is also eager to admit that Lodge has made significant strides, even since the start of the season. So much so that the gifted forward has more than deserved the promotion to the top line. And becoming more physical will only make him -- and that top unit -- all the more effective.
"Early in the season he had his ups and downs, and he was in the lineup and out of the lineup, and he's finally understanding how he has to play," Gilbert said, suggesting Lodge has the potential to be an outstanding player at the next level. "He's not going to be a crusher, but every player is responsible for finishing checks and playing hard without the puck as well as with the puck. He's understanding that [playing physically] is a part of the game that he has to add to his repertoire."
Fortunately, these rudiments of play are all learned behaviors and habits. The collection of other attributes -- the aforementioned vision, etc. -- is what makes Lodge a truly special competitor. As long as he's willing to put his lessons into practice -- and evidence points to that being the case -- the teen can look forward to hearing his name called relatively early this June. A second-round projection wouldn't seem all that odd, especially since he has one of the best instructors in the business.
"The thing he has going for him is he is playing for one of the best coaches," the scout concluded. "[Gilbert] will teach him, or at least try to teach him, how to play the right way."
Talented, smart, committed, hardworking, and in the ideal spot to advance his game at this stage of development. If it all comes together, and he fills out enough, the fervent young Philadelphia Flyers fan will play a prominent role alongside -- or against -- his idols in the not-too-distant future.
Class of 2013
There's seemingly no slowing down Kerby Rychel of the Windsor Spitfires these days. The firecracker winger followed up an ultra-productive January by capturing "CHL Player of the Week" honors for the stretch ending Feb. 10 (three goals and seven assists in three games). Even more impressive is his recent consistency; Rychel has a mind-blowing 34 points in the 19 contests since Christmas. Judging from present-day scouting scuttlebutt, the 18-year-old forward is pegged to be a first-round favorite in June's draft.
• The International Scouting Service is clearly high on two OHL defensemen of note, ranking Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Nikita Zadorov of the London Knights fifth and sixth, respectively, in its February Top-30. Barring serious injury or other unexpected development, it would be shocking to see Nurse or Zadorov selected beyond the first round, come late June.
• Forward Justin Bailey of the Kitchener Rangers appears to be back on track after missing most of December to a chest injury. With 17 points in his past 15 games, the physically-imposing center is gaining some serious scoring momentum. Having fallen slightly off the scouting radar of late, Bailey should re-establish himself among the OHL's best if he stays healthy and on track. Esteemed for his skills, smarts, size and skating ability, the 17-year-old was projected to be a potential first-round pick earlier this season.
Notable NHL prospects
If Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets, 1st round, 2011) is still frustrated about his demotion from the NHL, he's channelling those feelings in a most optimum manner. After earning six points in his first three games back with the Barrie Colts, Scheifele erupted for six points (three goals, three assists) during Wednesday's 10-1 obliteration of the Ottawa 67's. While Scheifele faces a long and prosperous career at the elite level, the Colts must be (quietly) thrilled to have the gifted center back in the fold for their push to capture a Memorial Cup.
• After four NHL games on the ice and eight in the press box, winger Rickard Rakell (Anaheim Ducks, 1st round, 2011) has been sent back to the Plymouth Whalers. Coach Bruce Boudreau told the Orange County Register that the Ducks wanted to keep Rakell around for a bit "to see what the NHL is like to make him hungry to want to be here."
"I think he learned a lot," Boudreau added. "I think he's better prepared now. When he comes into camp next year, he's coming here to win a job. Not to just turn pro."
• Colts forward Anthony Camara (Boston Bruins, 3rd round, 2011) has been suspended six games for a nasty cross-check during Barrie's recent 6-3 victory over the Whalers. The 19-year-old winger is eligible to return Feb. 23.