Kyle Bigos is one of the many players coming out of the fastest growing prospect pools in the world - California. The lack of developmental hockey on the west coast forced Bigos to play his formative hockey in the BCHL for the Vernon Vipers where he led the Vipers to an RBC Cup victory in 2009. The Oilers selected him in the fourth round (#99 overall) of the 2009 entry draft, after which Bigos headed off to Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts to play in Hockey East, arguably the toughest conference in the NCAA. Bigos is a towering defenseman, standing 6'5" weighing in at 230 lbs and he's got a mean streak Oilers fans will love. Bigos was called for 94 penalty minutes in 36 games last season and has thus far collected 112 penalty minutes in 26 games in 2010-11. Bigos has helped Merrimack to a top ten ranking (as high as #4 at one point) in the NCAA and a certain spot in the NCAA post-season tournament, where Oilers fans may finally catch a glimpse of the big man.
I caught up with Mike McMahon, the writer who covers the Merrimack Warriors at the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, MA as well as his blog, Warrior Rink Rat. "He's a frieght train on skates," McMahon said to me. Read on for the rest our conversation about the towering defenseman.
C&B: Edmonton fans don't get to see Kyle play. We know he's big, can you describe him as a player and tell us a little about his game?.
Mike McMahon: He's a big, physical defenseman. Pretty mobile for a big guy though. He's very good in his own end and hits like a Mack Truck. Absolutely crushes guys. I can't speak for the rest of the country, but at least in Hockey East, he's probably the hardest hitter in the league, and Hockey East has produced that last three national champions, so it's the premiere league in the country, if you ask me.
C&B: What is his role? Is he being relied on as a shut-down or top-pairing guy?
McMahon: He's a little of both. He's a shut-down defender for sure but plays on the top-4 on this Merrimack team. He can log a lot of minutes and plays on both the PK and the PP. On the PP he's been at the point and at times they have even parked him in front of the net for screens and rebounds, though that was a short-lived experiment after Merrimack's star, Stephane Da Costa, went down with a knee injury two weeks ago, the Warriors reverted back to their PP structure so Bigos could play the point (Da Costa was playing the point on one of the units).
C&B: I read your reports that he struggled with an injury this season. What was it and how did affect him? How long was he out and did he come back at full strength?
McMahon: He was banged up in January with I think what was a minor knee tweak/sprain. Nothing major at all. He missed a week or two and has been back and at full strength. From talking to him, it was the first time he's ever missed any game time with any injury, so it goes to show that he is a pretty durable player. The injury happened in Nashville at the Bridgestone Arena - the Warriors were playing a pair of games there against Alabama-Huntsville.
C&B: We know about his size and strength, but we've also read that he's not the most mobile player. Has his agility improved since coming to Merrimack?
McMahon: I've never thought that mobility has been a problem for him. Does he get beat from time to time? Sure, but everyone does. Mobility is not an issue with him at all, in my opinion. That's not to say he's the best skater in the league, but it's not a glaring weakness. In fact, I'd say from his freshman to sophomore seasons, it has improved.
C&B: He's averaged better than 1.5 shots per game, though Merrimack isn't shy about shooting. It seems rather unlucky that he's taken 42 shots and not scored yet.
McMahon: He has a heck of a clapper but most times it's coming from the point. He's not the type of player that pinches up into the zone all that often, though he does on occasion and I think catches a lot of opponents off guard because he's such a big body and most times it's not expected. But most of his shots - and this is a byproduct of his position - are low-percentage shots.
C&B: What about his breakout ability and passing accuracy? Is he able to get the play started and clear the zone effectively?
McMahon: Merrimack plays a stretch a lot, where they'll keep a forward up in the neutral zone and either play 4-on-4 in their own end, if the opponent shadows the stretcher, or will actually play 5-on-4 in their own end with the stretcher alone in the neutral zone. They've actually done it far less this year than last - only a handful of times this season and almost every game last season - but Bigos, and all of their defensemen, will try to hit that stretcher when they're playing in that formation. Bigos is also very good at using the boards to chip it out of the zone, too.
C&B: One of the hallmarks for defensive defensemen is penalty kill time. Is he counted on to kill penalties?
McMahon: He's one of the penalty killers. For a period, Merrimack had the best PK in the nation and it's still ranked in the top-10 (8th overall). Merrimack blocks a lot of shots on the PK and Bigos is counted on to be one of those guys. They stay tight and pack it in front and just block anything that comes their way.
C&B: Kyle seems to be prone to taking penalties - in 26 games he's taken 31 minors, 2 majors and 4 others (misconducts?). Is this just a byproduct of being a physical player?
McMahon: It is. And to be honest, I think he gets a bad wrap. Here's how I sum it up - he's 6-foot-5 ... when he hits a forward in the defensive zone that's 5-foot-9, he's going to make contact with his head. There is an 8-inch difference, there is no way Bigos can hit a shorter forward in the league and not make contact with his head. Can't happen. So I think that he, and a lot of other taller players in the league, get punished for simply being too tall. There was an initiative in NCAA hockey this year to cut down on hits to the head and I think anything that's close, even questionable, is being whistled for something (roughing, etc.) and he's had a lot of those "being too tall" calls. With that being said, he isn't afraid to muck it up either and will be a watchdog out there if he thinks one of his teammates takes a cheap shot, he'll mark down that number and they better keep their head up, so his style is prone to penalties. But, now nearing the end of his second year, I think he has started to earn an reputation as a physical player, so if he does anything that is even remotely questionable, he gets called. Prime example was this past weekend up in Maine. He hit Gustav Nyquist from behind late in the third period of the first game of a two-game set up there. It was definitely a penalty, but the refs also gave him a game DQ, which brings an automatic one-game suspension and he had to miss the second game. It was a brutal call. A 5:00 major and game misconduct (normally what we see in this situation) would have been sufficient but giving him the DQ and the automatic suspension was, to me, because he has a reputation for being a physical player. And that's not to say he isn't - he's very physical - but he's not dirty.
C&B: You've seen a number of players come through Hockey East and move on to higher levels. Do you think Kyle can make the jump to professional hockey?
McMahon: Absolutely. With NCAA players, most times, it's simply size. They'll be prolific scorers but are 5-9, 170. The only exception to that has really been Brian Gionta. Most players in the NHL are 6-0 or taller or at least 5-10, 5-11. Size isn't an issue with Bigos. And like I said, he's a pretty good skater for a guy with his size and weight. One of the most underrated parts about his game though, in my opinion, are his hands. When he's been in front of the net on the PP this year, he hasn't just hammered at pucks. He has good hands and that's an underrated part of his game.
At the next level, he could be a defenseman but I wouldn't rule out a team using him as a 3rd-4th line winger, who will bang in the corners and hit people and drop the mitts every so often.
C&B: Thanks again for your time.
Mike is also on Twitter: @mikemcmahonet