Prospect Camp Observations - Days 1 & 2
By Mike Gallimore
With a national holiday Wednesday, promising a lighter workload and an afternoon excursion to see the Rays looming, the Lightning's prospects and invitees took to the ice for several sessions Tuesday morning and afternoon. As GM Steve Yzerman took the time to stress, this camp is strictly a tool for presenting the culture of professional hockey, getting a feel for each player's conditioning, abilities and, in the case of returning participants, progression and provide some structured learning opportunities.
Following are some of my takeaways, for those of you who enjoy this sort of thing, from watching almost all (I arrived a little late to the 11:30 a.m. whole group session due to a prior engagement) of today's on-ice activities:
Recently drafted Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski was every bit as entertaining as suggested by Peter Pupello (TampaBayLightning.com) and Damian Cristodero (Tampa Bay Times), who devoted an entire feature to his performance. The key highlight was the sequence where he drew a loud cheer with a handful of Hasek-eque, acrobatic saves that stymied the efforts of one disbelieving pair during a 2-on-0 drill. If the available scouting reports describe him as big and athletic, they earned the first thing you notice about the soon-to-be 18-year-old netminder is his size. Then, while watching him square up for shots, make a save and react to rebounds is how fluid his movement and technique is in and around the crease, at least until his instincts lead him to attempt any flop or contortion possible in an attempt to make a save. He seems adept at making stops with every possible inch of his frame and piece of his equipment; in short, he's just fun to watch.
Judging by often he flashed a very wide grin, J.T. Brown looked very loose and to be having the most fun. At the start of one shooting drill, he fell awkwardly but took it in stride, chuckling to himself as he carried on to mock jeers from fellow camp-mates, and laughing it off in the corner while waiting his next turn. He was impressive, however, in all of the drills I watched him in, flashing a healthy dosage of the speed and vision he displayed during his short stint with the Lightning at the close of last season as well as a very heavy and accurate, quick-release snap-shot that, in particular, seemed to give Pat Nagle fits. Last season it was Ashton, Killorn and Connolly who appeared in a league of their own compared to other development camp attendees; Brown gave the same impression today.
Also continually catching my eyes today were Jimmy Mullin and Cedric Paquette. Mullin, whom BoltProspects has touted as the next stealth prospect on the heels of Alex Killorn, looks even more chiseled than he did last summer; the college regimen has been good to him. He's everything you could want in a promising forward prospect: great burst, agility and stamina, impressive with the puck and the swagger of a trigger man. Like Brown, he was flying today and looked that far more advanced than most of the other attendees. Paquette shined in the transition and shooting drills. He showed some real handiwork with the puck, consistently dishing tape-to-tape passes with the needed zip or touch and an indiscriminate shot selection. Simply put, he struck me as a creative force on the attack. Less impressive was his skating, at which he looked only marginally better than Philip-Michael Devos and brought Vinny Prospal to mind.
All three of the defensemen (Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus and Jake Dotchin) selected in the recent 2012 draft can skate. I was particularly impressed with Koekkoek and Blujus in the power skating drills where both showed off their mobility and looked to handle their edges and hip transitions with ease. All were steady in the earlier puck drills, fending off most (and, in the case of Dotchin, all) puck-carriers in 1-on-1 drills and effectively sealing off the best scoring chance during odd-man rushes. It was also fun to watch Koekkoek (pictured) ham it up with Luke Witkowski for a few minutes after their group concluded the last session of the day. A small omen or meaningless, perhaps, but you like to think it bodes well to see a player thoroughly enjoy being on the ice so much and making (let's hope) a habit of sticking around after he has to.
Probably due to where I was positioned myself today, I didn't see much of forwards Mike Hart, Vladislav Namestnikov or Tanner Richard until the power skating session. From what I did see in the earlier drills, Hart seemed to have a little trouble keeping up as the drills wore on. His skating may or may not need some work; he's fresh out of prep school and, like Vasilevski, he's got a hell of a frame for his age. The skill was evident, though, which makes it easy to imagine Hart several years now, when fully grown into his body, as a promising power forward. Namestnikov was ho-hum (which isn't criticism because his game revolves around his speed and tenacity, the latter of which is most evident during situational drills, scrimmages and games) while Richard didn't really do much today worth noting (that I saw) aside from becoming visibly frustrated after committing a turnover during a 2-on-1 drill by making an ill-advised pass that was easily read and intercepted by newly-signed defensive prospect Artem Sergeev.
Likewise, I didn't see all that much of defensemen 2011 5th rounder Nikita Nesterov, giant (6'8"?!) invitee Andrej Sustr or Luke Witkowski. Nesterov, from what I did see, is physically underwhelming and possesses an awkward stride but he managed to maintain gap control and then use his stick effectively and muscle off forwards when in-tight. Sustr looked like a more polished and, though hard to judge, better-skating version of Vladimir Mihalik; he struggled with his foot speed (not to be unexpected for somebody his size) getting out of the gate and in transition, but once he got going, he actually looked pretty smooth for such a big guy. Witkowski, sturdily built and known for his rugged play, excited the crowd during a 1-on-1 drill by delivering a solid check to the chest of invitee Brandon McNally (who possesses some decent size himself) that sent McNally to the ice in a heap.
Cody Bradley, son of Lightning great Brian Bradley, didn't exactly look out of place but was noticeably less mature from a physical standpoint. He looked to have a hard, choppy stride that will probably receive some attention and his shot looked a little weak but, aside from that and for a raw soon-to-be college freshman, I was left with a very positive first impression.
The second day of camp - Wednesday - opened with goalies-only instruction followed by staggered sessions of puck-handling, passing and shooting drills and power-skating for skaters. The schedule was a bit truncated as the Lightning treated all of the camp attendees to the Rays-Yankees game in the afternoon:
Following are some of my takeaways, for those of you who enjoy this sort of thing, from watching the day's on-ice activities:
I spent a good chunk of time watching Luke Witkowski. It's been fun seeing him at each development camp for the past four years and he finally looks as polished as you'd expect a vet prospect, one who's a pending senior and team-leader on a competitive college squad, to look in comparison to much of the others. Be in skating, passing or shooting (at which he looks much better than I recalled) drills, Witkowski always looks intense and yet thoroughly enjoying himself. Plenty of personality out on the ice and, I'd be willing to bet, in the locker room; he should be highly entertaining to follow once he enters the pro ranks and fun to root for his ascension in the ranks. He also seems to be a lock for the organization's All-Beard team and, though I could be wrong, looks like he could give the current heavyweights in the beard-growing department, Radko Gudas and Scott Jackson, a run for their money.
I took a closer look at D Andrej Sjustr, the 6'8" behemoth invitee whose skating I critiqued in the Day 1 write-up, and came away intrigued. The lack of foot speed is a function of his size and, though it might be improved, should always plague him. It's how Sjustr manages to move when he gets going, though, that's so impressive. He seems grown into his frame; there isn't an awkwardness to his mechanics that's often evident in over-sized project defensemen like this. He executed all of the skater drills efficiently and, I'd go so far to say, with a bit of flair. I'm not saying he skates like Bobby Orr, but after watching Vladimir Mihalik and Matt Smaby in seasons past, Sjustr looks downright proficient in that department. I still don't have much of a read on his shot; he can whip the puck pretty good but showed a limited shot selection. Of course, the scrimmages will help to gauge him, too.
I'm not sure what his offensive-upside is as he looked more poised without the puck but Jake Dotchin moved his 6'2", 200+ pound frame very well in the drills. He's definitely more mobile than I anticipated and I ended up making a very off the cuff comparison to Cory Sarich. It'll be intriguing to see how his positional play will hold up at the elevated pace of a scrimmage and whether or not he'll display the physical side of his game that he seems to have shown up in juniors.
As I always try to make very clear, goalies are hard for me to evaluate. Having never played the position and never talked shop with other goalies, I can't explain exactly why Andrei Vasilevski is so special in technical jargon but watching him the past couple days, what separates him, beyond his size, from the other goalies, for me, is his combination of power and grace. He comes across the crease with what looks like incredible ease but it's deceptive; he generates incredible speed as he pushes off, his legs taking up what looks like all the space down low. It's something you probably have to see yourself to fully appreciate but I thought it worth attempting to describe.
Brendan O'Donnell may not be participating in a limited fashion given he is recovering from a shoulder injury that shortened his season but he's fun to watch in the power skating drills. He has great control of his body, with and without the puck and looks to have a great burst. Of course, a lot of that has to do with his size; at 6'0" he's not small but has a compact, almost slender frame.
Editor's Note: Mike was unable to make it to Day 3 due to a previous commitment. Peter Pupello has a nice recap on tampabaylightning.com.
(Photo by Eric DuBose)