Jeff Petry is the highest-ranked non-NHL defenceman on Copper & Blue’s Top-25 Under 25 list. Unlike other prospects on the Oilers' blue-line, who tend to be more or less one-dimensional in their skillset, Petry boasts a wide range of skills. He also boasts draft pedigree and some impressive numbers with Michigan State University.
The Oilers top pick in the 2006 Draft didn’t happen until the second round (they had sent away their first pick at the trade deadline to acquire Dwayne Roloson). With the 45th overall selection, the Oilers took defenceman Jeff Petry out of the USHL. Petry had size and physical skills, as well as a very impressive playoffs on a team that also boasted Kyle Okposo and Trevor Lewis. His regular season was less impressive; he scored a single goal and sat fifth among defenceman on his team in points (with 15 in 48 games). He also finished plus-6 on a plus-35 team. That said, he was highly regarded in the league (named to the All-Star team) and we don’t know the context around his minutes.
The next year was a different story; Petry’s goal production jumped from one to 18, his point total tripled from 15 to 45, and while his plus-minus fell to even, he was one of only three defencemen on the team who were even or better. Among other accolades, Petry was named the USHL Defenceman of the Year and the USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year.
Petry made the jump to NCAA hockey in 2007-08, and was one of three defencemen used in an offensive role at Michigan State University. He scored 12 points at even-strength, and 12 points on the power-play, and comments made by the coach suggest that Petry was eased into the power play role as the season went on, though he did not spend much time on the penalty kill. It was a promising, if unspectacular season, with Petry easing his way into the college game and showing promise in all areas but not blowing the doors off in any one area either. Petry was a finalist for the CCHA Rookie of the Year award.
2008-09 was a disaster for Michigan State, and for Petry. Petry was pushed up the depth chart as many of Michigan State’s players departed the system; the team as a whole suffered, and Petry struggled with the increased responsibility. His offence dropped to 14 points, both of his two goals came on the power play, and he finished the year a minus-31 – nine worse than the next player on the team. A lot of that came from playing a lot of minutes for a bad team, but at the same time, Petry looked a lot like a guy who wasn’t ready for top-pairing NCAA work at the age of 21.
2009-10 was a bounce-back year for Petry in all statistical areas. He scored 29 points in 38 games and easily led the team’s defencemen in scoring. The team jumped from minus-56 to plus-18, and Petry went from minus-31 to plus-1. It’s a year that has rehabilitated his image as a prospect somewhat, but what bothers me is that he still doesn’t appear – at a considerable distance, admittedly – to be a guy that has ever been a dominant top-pairing defenceman at the NCAA level. His offence is good but not overwhelming, and he puts up a lot of points on the power play, a role I’m skeptical he’ll get at the NHL level, especially right away. Plus/minus-wise, Petry has only ever just kept his head above water, and while that’s a flawed statistic over three years of college hockey I think it’s at least somewhat indicative.
Scott Reynolds talked about the group of four defencemen – all legitimate prospects, all drafted between 2006 and 2008 – and I think I will as well. All of those players have at least one season of professional hockey under their belt – all except Jeff Petry. Johan Motin has four years, Theo Peckham three, and Alex Plante one, and it matters because if there’s one thing that Taylor Chorney and Cody Wild have taught us, it’s that the transition to the professional game can be a tough one for college defencemen (the rule applies to defencemen as a whole, but Chorney, Wild and Petry are all NCAA grads). Now, it could be that three years from now we’ll be talking about Petry and Peckham like we do Tom Gilbert and Mathieu Roy (who once battled for the same NHL job), but the point here is that we just don’t know how Petry will adapt to the professional game – particularly since we haven’t seen a dominant performance at the college level.
I hope I’m wrong on Petry, whose skill-set isn’t easily translated statistically (especially given the numbers we have for the USHL and NCAA), but at this point in time I see a two-way defenceman who isn’t going to be able to put up points without significant power play time (which won’t come to him out of the gate and may not come at all) and who has never showed the ability to be a high-end shutdown guy in NCAA hockey. The caveat here is that he may be better than his numbers – we don’t know the percentages, the quality of his teammates or his opposition, and so on – but for now I’m skeptical.