Scouting defensive players in the American Hockey League is quite a chore. For starters, the wide margin of nightly offensive firepower they see is wildly inconsistent. The league prides itself on being the feeder for the National League, and when a minor league team loses its top scoring threat the team is bound to take a slight dip. A back-to-back matchup with Houston might look vastly different on Tuesday when compared to the lineup on Wednesday - it's the nature of the beast.
But more than anything, defenders take some major grooming. Those that aren't quite NHL-built will spend years harnessing their soon-to-be-powers in a league that is built for goal scorers. And thus, watching, grading, and scouting these d-men can get kind of hairy. Remember how great Shawn Belle was in the minors during October and November last season? Remember how equally dreadful he was in the National Hockey League the next month? It's a slippery slope my friends.
There is no quibble about it, the Oilers need defensive prospects about as much as Russell Brand needs Katy Perry to make himself look (and smell) good. So desperately so, that the trade deadline this season will most likely be entertaining. The crop of Barons prospects on the defensive side of the puck are quite familiar, and really past the "prospect" stage. Taylor Chorney, Alex Plante, and Colten Teubert have all seen their share of play at two levels this season. Clearly two of these have all but run their course within the organization, and the other needs to quickly become good or his time runs short as well (Davidson > Teubert). However, there is one prospect in the minors that doesn't get much attention, and in his rookie season shows quite a bit of promise along with some rough edges.
"Ryan is a player that our organization really liked in college," said GM Bill Scot of Lowery, "He is a smooth skating defenseman, who is responsible in his own end, and can provide us some offense from the blueline." The four year collegiate player who was recently the captain of the Colorado College Tigers signed an AHL only deal that guaranteed him a spot with the club in Oklahoma City. I'll admit that I hadn't heard of Lowery outside of a terrible incident involving a coach-less practice fight in which Lowery injured his shoulder and had his jaw wired shut in his USHL days. So I was anxious to see him play in training camp. He impressed both coaching staff and management in several regards, and to some extent has progressed very nicely in his first professional season. So how does Ryan Lowery stack up?
You have to begin a Ryan Lowery scouting report with his speed. He's not a large, hulking defensive player, but rather an undersized quick-legged puck mover. At 5' 11", 180lbs soaking wet, he's a smallish player. He clearly plays a style akin to another Baron, Taylor Chorney, but without the strong puck skills that develop over time. Lowery is a quick skater, and usually cracks the lineup on the nights that the team needs some hustle. He's not a powerplay virtuoso, but has slowly become a respectable part to the Barons' nearly league best penalty kill. Bill Scott called him a smooth skater, and he certainly is effortless, but the wheels on this guy is the major selling point.
After two years of steadily watching minor league hockey, it's apparent that the head/smarts/brains of defensive players is where some of the greatest development takes place. Lowery is a sharp kid. He speaks well with fans and the media. He's very honest and dedicated to his team. However, he clearly is learning how to play a much more competitive brand of hockey in the pro ranks. He seemingly finds himself lost on the ice at times, forcing opponents to take advantage of the space around him. He's an over-committer in open ice, but growing better around the boards. He's not been perfect on the penalty kill when called to do so, but, then again, he looks more prepared at five on five opportunities.
Over the last ten games, Lowery has nudged the time on ice in the wrong direction. The last three starts have placed him alongside a Central Leaguer, Andrew Martens, in a very limited role. The majority of his ice time comes at even strenth, and that's a good thing for Lowery who moves through traffic well. However, he has been a healthy scratch roughly four times since the beginning of December. But it's not entirely his fault. A trend in Todd Nelson's coaching has become that he readily inserts newcomers into the lineup to get them acclimated. This, unfortunately, comes at a price for some of the regular players. With a banged up defensive core in Edmonton, those healthy benchings for Lowery will hopefully get fewer.
The Puck, The Hands, The Shot
Lowery is quick, but lacks in the puck moving, and quick hands department. Dubbed a scoring defender by a few preseason thinkers (who clearly didn't even look at the box scores at Colorado College), he's not one to shoot the puck regularly. When we saw him play in the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, we were all fooled into thinking he could indeed play an offensive role. Of course, he wasn't great in the Young Stars tourney in other areas, but for a brief moment you fancied him a scoring defender. This has not been the case. Over the last ten games, he's shot the puck three times on net (by my count). Of course, this is a direct result of limited ice time, but it's also a piece of his game that hasn't caught on in the pros, and in his current role probably won't. Through his collegiate career he only tallied 7 goals, and 39 assists. That's over a four year period, and in over 150 games played. Not the scorer some expected him to be. But through 26 games this season he's had one goal, and six helpers. So there is indeed life at the end of the tunnel per say. Then again, through training camp, preseason, etc it was clear that Lowery would be a bottom minutes defender whom occasionally played the PK role.
To recap, Ryan Lowery is a very quick and determined skater who plays limited minutes, but can accommodate occasionally on a scoring chance. The coaching staff clearly views Lowery as a "work in progress". As the throws of January play begin Lowery will have to be good. He'll have to play solid, stay-at-home defense as the team attempts to stay at the top in the West Division. As for his contract moving forward, Lowery will have to really surge this season to gain some attention. Under 30 games, in my opinion, is still not enough to seal the fate in favor or against a player especially a rookie defender. However, the parts of Lowery's game that need improving will need to show progression or he'll be overstepped by some stout competition over the next calendar year.
Personally, I like how far Lowery has come from the beginning of the season to this point. Here's hoping that he cracks that lineup more often and finds a more valued role in the lineup.