The 2010 Draft is one hockey season away; while everyone knows about the star forward at the top of the class, how do the other wingers compare?
It's been true for many generations that the best players have traditionally been pivots, converting only to wing through necessity. However, positional saturation and a desire to pattern rosters and playstyles more after the NHL has lead to many players finding permanent homes on the wing as early as minor hockey
Some names to watch for on the left and right side include:
Brett Connolly, LW
Team: Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'1, 162 lbs
2008-09 Stats: 65 GP, 30-30-60, 38 PIM, -26
The WHL and CHL Rookie of the Year, Prince George forward Brett Connolly had the most goals by a 16 year-old WHL player since Scottie Upshall in 2000.
Connolly's story is like a fairy tale; born and raised in Prince George, he was the easy choice for the Cougars at 10th overall in the 2007 Bantam Draft. In 44 games as a 15 year-old, Connolly netted 96 points and over 50 goals for the Bantam Cougars.
However, that fairy tale hit a road block last season. Still playing in his hometown- but for the Midget AAA Cougars- much was expected of Connolly, but he managed just 32 points in 38 games.
That's part of what made 2008-09 so surprising. After all, Regina Pat and fellow '92- born Jordan Weal out-pointed Connolly in Midget by almost 70 points, but only had ten more in the Dub last season.
Connolly shares a number of similarities with '08 pick Evander Kane; both are extremely wirey forwards who have the frames but not the weight, and neither were considered elite skaters heading into their NHL Draft years. However, from the hashmarks down, few are better in recent Dub history.
There is considerable more worry about Connolly, however. Many players dominate minor and even junior as their bodies mature faster; this was true for Connolly, as he was the same height then as he is now. Even scarier is the fact that he is only about ten to twenty pounds heavier in June 2009 than he was in June 2007. Connolly also lacks the relenteless physical game of Kane, instead preferring to make himself invisible as he slides into space unmoleseted. While he is willing to get checked to score a goal, the room he has would increase if he made his presence known more along the boards and in open ice.
Pros: Remarkable one-on-one player and finisher; can easily handle three defenders and scores goals with such precision timing and accuracy that pucks appear to go through solid objects.
Cons: Break-away speed is lacking; tends to play to the perimeter and does not throw around his body as much he could.
Kirill Kabanov, LW
Team: Spartak Moscow (KHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'3, 176 lbs
2008-09 Stats: 6 GP, 0-0-0
The first thing an observer will notice about Kirill Kabanov is his pure height. Exaggerated by his lack of meat, Kabanov appears to tower over even players on the senior circuit. The next thing most-apparent is his pure natural ability; a lithe and effortless skater who possesses elite quickness, when Kabanov gets the puck, it's mostly impossible to catch or contain him.
However, that's where the similarities end. While most often compared to Ovechkin for commonalities in size and ability, 'Ovy' was a stand-out from a young age because he could both initiate and win physical battles against men. Kabanov sticks out like a sore thumb in this regard; it's rare to see him use his height to its maximum advantage, even against younger opponents. It's also even rarer to see him back-check. A typical Kabanov shift is spent somewhere in the middle of the offensive zone as he waits for a puck.
There is a great deal to like about Kabanov. He is a force with the puck on his stick and a head full of steam, and can power to the net like, well, Ovechkin. However, he does not have the same game-breaking mentality and needs to learn how to use their gifts to his fullest. It would be foolish to call him a bust or to disregard his natural gifts and there's no doubt that experience will iron out these wrinkles. However, for those expecting another #8, prepare to be disappointed.
Stanislav Galiev, LW
Indiana Ice (USHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'1, 177 lbs
2008-09 Stats: 60 GP, 29-35-64, 46 PIM
The CHL Import Draft hit a sour note with the news that Kabanov will not be heading to the OHL next season as planned, and there may yet be another disappointment from the Russian side- but not how you might expect. Moscow native Stanislav Galiev was the first overall pick in the Import Draft after amassing over a PPG as a rookie on the American Junior A circuit.
However, while he seemed like a slam-dunk to report- Galiev is already in North America- there is speculation that he may yet decide to stay in Indiana. If true, Galiev has a chance at scoring marks not met by a Euro in the USHL since Thomas Vanek in 2002. That season, Vanek netted 91 points in just 53 games.
Galiev compares favorably to a player like the greatly-missed Alexei Cherepanov. Not a burner speed-wise, Galiev compensates through tremendous instincts and stick positioning around the net; a hard, accurate shooter, Galiev's release is second-to-none even in mid-deke, and he is more than willing to battle in front for a loose puck. And as his assist numbers indicate, Galiev is a willing passer and can make deft feeds as he makes himself the center of attention on the rush.
Wherever he plays, look for Galiev to be a sure bet to hit 40 goals in 2009-10. He may even score more depending on the off-season gains he makes in muscle, strength and height.
Guillaume Asselin, RW
Montreal Juniors (QMJHL)
Ht/Wt: 5'10, 171 lbs
2008-09 Stats: 63 GP, 18-19-37, 37 PIM, +6
On a list of 16 year-olds with gaudy stats, it seems odd to include a player with fewer than 40. And while tin Guillaume Asselin was out-scored by a number of '92 borns across the CHL, it's important to note his birthdate: 09-09-1992. Had Asselin been born a week later, he'd be eligible for the 2011 Draft- a draft whose complexion we cannot even begin to guess at and whose players are not even CHL-eligible.
So what does Asselin bring to the table, besides youth?
Well, like one Sidney Crosby, Asselin utilizes his tremendous lower body strength and speed to the max with a low, wide skating style. This makes Asselin infinitely harder to push off the puck than other players of his stature. And like Crosby, Asselin prefers to navigate the offensive zone with equal parts flair and precision, playing chess with his opponents as he sets up a masterful play.
So with that kind of ability, why didn't Asselin break 40 points? It appears to be coaching. In one memorable game in early March, despite being involved in a blowout, Asselin rarely took to the ice. He was on essentially the third powerplay unit during a 3rd period man advantage, and didn't see significant even-strength ice time until there were less than two minutes remaining in what was then a 6-2 blowout. However, he scored on both shifts. In addition, both goals he scored were 'men's goals'- fearless drives to the net where he kept his stick open and deflected in passes.
Asselin might not scream game-breaker right now, but just wait. If anyone in the league has a Claude Giroux or David Perron-esque breakout in 09-10, it'll be him.
Taylor Hall, LW/C
Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'0, 178 lbs
2008-09 Stats: 63 GP, 38-52-90, 60 PIM, +29
Obviously, the prize of the '09 class at this point is one Taylor Hall. While he may yet face a challenge from a defenseman- as John Tavares did in the most recent draft- there's one thing we'll never be able to knock Hall for: pure speed.
Referred to as the 'Canadian Pavel Bure' more than once during Windsor's dominant regular season and subsequent Memorial Cup run, those expecting Hall to make a show of his speed and abilities every shift even at the cost of defensive duties will come away disappointed.
Hall is a far more cerebral player than most anticipate; a true threat not because he relies only his natural ability, it's as common to see the youngster score from two feet in front of the net on a bang-and-crash play as it is to see him blow by everyone for a break-away.
As such, it's tough to classify a player like Hall. We mentioned Wayne Gretzky in this space at least a season ago, but he does not possess the same dominant playmaking game. Similar to that, unlike Crosby, Hall is not a boundlessly creative player who will do something to make or finish a play that no one has ever seen.
Based on his speed and ability to play solid defense, one might think of Steve Stamkos, but then Hall is not as natural a sniper. The same goes for Mike Modano.
Statistically and physically, the best comparison at this point seems to be Jean Ratelle. Like Ratelle, Hall is a speed merchant who can dominate just on the strength of his skating and one-on-one ability. But like Ratelle was in his prime, Hall is as dangerous at scoring goals as he is at setting them up and is willing to grind it out in front to screen or tip pucks.
No matter who Hall turns out like, it's clear that he has all of the raw tools to be a very special player. It'll be treat to watch him and the rest of the 2010 class come into their own, both this season and for seasons to come.