Nathan MacKinnon could be poised to be the next #1 overall draft pick at the NHL Draft. I recently had the opportunity to watch him play in a game against Jonathan Huberdeau and the two-time defending QMJHL Champion Saint John Sea Dogs and thought I would share my observations from the game.
Why Is This Relevant To The Edmonton Oilers?
Should the Edmonton Oilers be paying attention to the kids at the very top of the early season draft rankings this year as they have the last three seasons? I would suggest they should.
Given Bob McKenzie’s multi-tweet address on his pessimism regarding the two sides finding a resolution to the lockout in time to save the season, and the fact that last time there was a lockout, the result was a 30 team draft lottery, if the season is lost, there is a chance the Oilers would once again have a shot at drafting #1 overall.
If there is a season, the team is coming off of consecutive seasons of 30th, 30th and 29th and the only tangible changes made over the course of the off-season was dropping Cam Barker in favour of Justin Schultz. That is an upgrade to be sure but a player with zero games of NHL experience (no matter what his pedigree) does not guarantee greater success in the short term. Result: There is a possibility that if a season is saved, the Oilers could once again find themselves in contention for a lottery spot.
With winning draft lotteries being the one thing the Oilers have been able to do successfully over the last three seasons, I think it is certainly relevant to the franchise to at least keep tabs on the players who are among the top 5 lists of most scouts as the season begins.
So How Did He Look?
My honest overall assessment of MacKinnon was that I believe he had a really off-game and therefore it was probably a really bad game upon which to form a first impression. The game between the Mooseheads and Sea Dogs was absolutely thrilling. It was an early season battle for first place in their division among two teams with identical records, and it was decided with a game-winning goal by Halifax in the final five minutes of the third period to give the Mooseheads a 4-3 win. MacKinnon however was held pointless on the night and had a pretty rough outing.
Here are my observations:
MacKinnon is certainly played like a guy who is expected to be the best player every night. He was centering the top line, played on the half-wall on the top PP unit and was among the top PK options among the forwards all night long.
He certainly showed that he does have high-level skills, though I didn't see anything on this night that I would classify as elite. Among his biggest assets, he has the ability to be strong on the puck and hold off defenders with his strength and he has some explosive speed when he wanted to show it, which unfortunately was not often enough on this night.
Two plays really stood out to me from MacKinnon in a positive way. First of all, one instance when on the powerplay, MacKinnon rotated back to cover the point and made a play to hold the puck in at the line. He received some heavy pressure from the Sea Dogs forward and showed a lot of skill handling the puck out of trouble and keeping the play alive. This was excellent to see because far too often over the course of the game I had been noticing him getting rid of the puck too quickly (more on that in a moment).
Secondly, after really not showing a lot of fire throughout most of the night (though to Saint John's credit, they were checking him closely), after Halifax tied the game part-way through the third period, MacKinnon put together the most dazzling rush of the night. It was almost as if you could see him change gears and ramp up his play late in the game. I didn't love the inconsistency, but when he wanted to turn it on, he certainly had the ability to take his game to a level beyond most of the other players on the ice.
One final point of praise was that MacKinnon acquitted himself very well on the face-off dot. By my count, he won 16 of 28 draws taken (57%) on the night.
From a critical standpoint, beyond getting rid of the puck too quickly and trying to force a low-percentage play, the other item of note was MacKinnon cheating for offense far too often. As a centre, he needed to be down below the face-off dot much more often engaging in the team's defensive zone coverage. Instead, I found him to be staying too high, and at the first appearance of an opportunity for the Mooseheads to gain possession, he was gone...out towards the blue line and frequently beyond it hoping to lead the rush.
The other negative item was a specific play where he was responsible for putting the puck in his own net early in the 2nd period. Jonathan Huberdeau stole the puck down below the goal line and MacKinnon (to his credit) tried to engage defensively. However, he approached from an odd angle and somewhat cut off his goaltender from crossing post-to-post. Huberdeau banked the puck off of MacKinnon and into the net. In this instance, the effort was there, but the execution needed work.
Overall, as I said, it was an off-night for MacKinnon. I would never go as far as to say that the scouts are wrong about him because I saw him have a single below-average game. I plan to see him again before Christmas. I believe against the Moncton Wildcats next time. It should also be noted the very next day the same two teams played again and that night Halifax throttled the Sea Dogs 11-2. MacKinnon was the game's first star netting a hat-trick plus an assist and going +5 on the night. It would have been nice to have seen him perform that night.
Was There Anyone Else Worth Talking About?
There absolutely was. Many other players of note actually.
First of all, Jonathan Huberdeau is simply sublime at this level. He is a man among boys in every sense of the term. His vision on the ice was a level above everybody else and by the mid-way point of the first period he has singled himself out as the best player on either team. He finished the game with a goal and an assist. The helper was a seeing-eye pass that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would have been proud of. Huberdeau's patience with the puck is really something. This is why MacKinnon's lack of patience stood out so strongly. Huberdeau just seemed to have all the time in the world whenever he had the puck, even when there was tight pressure. He is absolutely in need of a tougher challenge as the QMJHL game is too easy for him at this point.
Huberdeau also showed some fire. He didn't shy away from physical play, made his home in the corners fighting for possession and had a fight in the 3rd period (for the Gordie Howe Hat-Trick, not that I'm a big fan of those...fighting does nothing for me) against Martin Frk when he took exception to Frk rubbing him out on the boards.
Frk (2nd round pick by Detroit in 2012) was to my eye the best player for Halifax on the night. He scored a goal on a laser from the point on the PP (where he played consistently all night) and had a level of responsibility defensively that makes me think he can be a solid two-way player someday. Halifax has an abundance of undersized wingers. Two really stood out to me. One was Darcy Ashley, who is a player who has gone undrafted, likely due to the fact that he is only 5'8" (if that). He has some pretty solid skills though and was a tenacious player at both ends of the ice. I don't have access to any advanced stats for the game of course, but it felt like when Ashley was on the ice, the puck was moving in the right direction for the Mooseheads.
The other standout winger for me was a mirror-image of Ashely, only 3 or 4 inches taller...Jonathan Drouin. Drouin has some serious hands and reminded me a bit of Sam Gagner (though a winger) with a bit better skating ability. He wasn't as physically engaged as Ashley, but you could see that he was giving everything he had every shift. Relentless pursuit on defense, always up on the rush offensively and drove the net looking for rebounds. Really soft hands too. Drouin is the only other player of note in this game who is draft eligible and was ranked as high as #5 by Corey Pronman last month at Hockey Prospectus.
Overall, it was a great experience. It's enjoyable to approach a game live from more of a scouting mentality than that of a fan. Hopefully these insights will help expand everyone's exposure to some of the high-end prospects in next year's draft and if I am able to see a few more games over the course of the season, I will be sure to pass along my observations as my familiarity with these players increases.