This weekend I headed up to Hershey to get a fix for my hockey jones and to "scout" some of the Caps' prospects in the crucible of the Calder Cup Playoffs. If you haven't been up to Hershey yet, I highly recommend it. The drive is a little long, but you can make a weekend out of it and see two games. The best part is how affordable it is: lower-level tickets are under $25, and a draft beer is under $6.
This post is going to be a bit on the long side, so I'll provide some organization up-front so you can skip around and read what you like. First, I only paid attention to the top prospects - I've only got one set of eyes, so I focused them on Bouchard, Bourque, Carlson, Neuvirth, Osala and Perrault. (If you have specific questions about anyone else, I'm happy to answer them - if I don't know, I'll just say so.)
Today's part one will be Bouchard, Bourque and Carlson. Tomorrow's part two will be Neuvirth, Osala and Perrault. To conclude, part three will be my impressions about the organization as a whole. I'll break the players down in alphabetical order. To try to make comparison easier, I'll rate the skaters in nine categories: Skating, Shot, Puckhandling, Passing, Defensive Awareness/Responsibility, Physical Strength, Conditioning, Hockey Sense and Intangibles. (I'll just write up my impressions of Neuvirth) These ratings will be from 1-10, with 10 being the top score. I could BS you and give every player a rating for every category, but that would be silly - if I didn't get a solid impression, they'll just get an asterisk. After that, I'll give a little write-up.
*A brief disclaimer: I'm not a professional scout. I'm an avid hockey fan who has played and coached a bit. My impressions are only based on two games, so they should be taken with a grain of salt.*
Francois Bouchard (Age: 21) Reg. Season: 64GP, 15G, 20A, 35P, +18
Playoffs: 11GP, 1G, 2A, 3P, Even
Def. Awareness: *
Physical Strength: 6
Hockey Sense: *
It was tough to get a read on Bouchard. He only played in Sunday's game, and he didn't get much ice time. He acquitted himself well during his time on the ice, but didn't really stand out in any particular way. I rated him a 7 at skating because, while he seemed to have some jump, he was a fair bit slower than the elite skaters, such as Perrault. His strength along the boards wasn't terribly impressive, and from my vantage point, he didn't look nearly 6ft/180lbs. To my eyes, he looked more like a tall 5'10.
Chris Bourque (Age: 23) Reg. Season: 69GP, 21G, 52A, 73P, +10
Playoffs: 13GP, 2G, 11A, 13P, +1
Def. Awareness: 9
Physical Strength: 8
Hockey Sense: 10
Bourque was a revelation. Simply put, over the course of two games, he was the best player on the ice for either team, hands down. It may not have shown on the scoresheet, but Bourque was everywhere, constantly creating scoring chances. I must admit, I was surprised. From watching him during call-ups and looking at his stats, I expected to see a good, but not excellent player. After this weekend, I'm left scratching my head as to why the Caps didn't call him up during the playoffs. Despite his size, he repeatedly won physical battles along the boards. He may be short, but he's built just like his father in 8/10 scale - in other words, a brick s--thouse on skates. He's strong and his low center of gravity and strong lower-body ensure that he ins't easily knocked off the puck. (Now he just needs to cinch up his helmet a little tighter.) He has a hard shot that he gets off very quickly, which is why both Woods and Boudreau have played him at the point on the first powerplay unit. I only rated it an 8, however, because it doesn't seem to be terribly accurate. He'd probably be well-served to ease off the velocity a bit and try to pick some corners.
What really stood out about Bourque wasn't his skating or his shot, or even his superior conditioning (he was still skating and battling like mad in the third period of back-to-back games). No, his greatest assets are his hockey sense and his "intangibles." Like another son of a former NHL great from his draft year, Paul Stastny, Bourque makes up for an obvious shortcoming (for Stastny it's his skating, for Bourque it's his size) by being smarter than everyone else on the ice.
Gretzky's dad used to say, "don't skate to the puck, skate to where the puck is going to be." Bourque is always where the puck is going to be. I simply stopped counting the number of times that he was the first player to a loose puck. He's almost always in the right position. He helped his linemates win several faceoffs by anticipating where the puck was going and beating the P-Bruins forwards to it.
Watching him in isolation without the puck, I was struck by how often he was all alone in high-scoring areas. He just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time - it was uncanny. This "hockey sense" also carries over to the defensive end - he's very defensively responsible, and he made a solid play backing up a pinching defenseman to shut down an offensive rush.
Like me, you might find yourself wondering why his stats aren't better, or why he didn't look all that impressive when called up. My guess is that it's due in part to his linemates. When I saw him, he was primarily playing with a mixture of gritty guys (Beagle and Reid, primarily), but not with the big scorers like Osala or Giroux. Also, having great hockey sense doesn't amount to much if your linemates don't share it with you. Often, Bourque would be in the perfect position, but he wouldn't get the pass, or when he would, the window would have closed. Stastny noted this when his statistics suddenly went through the roof when he joined the Avalanche - "smart" players need to play with other smart and talented guys in order to fully exploit their skillset, whereas guys with overwhelming physical talents (such as Ovechkin), can stand out regardless of the circumstance. (Just as an aside, I think Detroit's success can be tied in large part to their ability to identify "smart" players and put them all together into a system that utilizes their combined hockey sense.)
The one big flaw that I saw in Bourque's game is that he hurries himself at times. He's so used to doing everything fast (probably to avoid getting hit), that he rushes passes and shots when a bit of patience might be called for. To make the jump to the next level, he might need to heed the old adage, "slow is smooth and smooth is fast."
Ultimately, I found Bourque both fascinating and frustrating to watch. Why frustrating? Because I couldn't help but picture him replacing Fleischmann in the Caps' playoff lineup and providing a much-needed boost. If the Caps can't find a place for Bourque on the roster next year (and not just on the fourth line), it will be a shame. He has the capability to step in and put up a 15/20/35 stat line right now, and possibly more than that if he plays with more talented players.
John Carlson (Age: 19) Reg. Season (OHL): 59GP, 16G, 60A, 76P, +23
Playoffs (AHL): 9GP, 1G, 0A, 1P, +1
Def. Awareness: 9
Physical Strength: 9
Hockey Sense: 9
After watching Carlson, I was tempted just to rate him 9s and 10s across the board. He's that good. He wasn't perfect - he made a couple of youthful errors of exuberance: one was an ill-advised attempt to glove down a clear at the offensive blue line, and the other was a mistimed hip-check: both led to scoring chances against. Other than that, he was mighty impressive. He has a smooth and powerful skating stride, and his transitions (front-back-front) are quick. There were several loose pucks that looked like they would be a close footrace between Carlson and a P-Bruin. He won every race, and they weren't nearly as close as they might have been. With the exception of the missed hip-check, his lateral movement was equally impressive. His play in the defensive zone was responsible - he saved a sure goal against in Game 2 with a smart stick on the goal line.
For all of that, his most outstanding attributes were his strength/conditioning, and his outlet passes. Despite being just 19, I never saw Carlson get muscled off the puck. Admittedly, Providence's forwards are on the small side, but some, such as Jeremy Reich, present a physical challenge. After watching Alzner get pushed around during his brief NHL stint, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Carlson's strength (although reports from the development camp last summer suggested that he was a bit of a gym rat). His outlet passes were consistently quick and sharp, particularly in contrast with the other Bears. His composure with the puck was equally impressive, regardless of his age or level of experience.
Carlson could use to be a little more physical in front of his net - I'd like to see him initiate contact and develop a bit of a "mean streak," but perhaps that will come with age and experience. He seemed willing to take a wrist shot and get it on net rather than blast a slapshot into a defender, but otherwise he didn't really impress me with his shots. (This was a characteristic endemic to all the Bears players, and it's something I'll discuss in a later entry.) I wish that Alzner had been healthy so that I could have compared them both against similar levels of competition. Regardless, I'd guess that Carlson plays at least a handful of games for the Caps next year, and I wouldn't be surprised if he were called up late in the season and stayed. He doesn't look as though he has too much left to learn in the AHL. He'll go through some growing pains in the NHL, but his upside would likely be worth it. If he's not up with the big club next year, it's more likely because there isn't space on the roster, rather than due to his lack of ability.
That's it for tonight. I'll try to write part two tomorrow. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.