January 08 2013 10:12AM
I was going to put some thoughts together on the Leafs players in the World Junior Hockey Championships played in Ufa, Russia, but with the imminent opening of NHL training camps, my thoughts drifted into connections for Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly and his NHL readiness and forward Tyler Biggs putting on display his translatable skills.
Before I get into the actual players I have some general thoughts, particularly on NHL readiness, at the World Junior Championships. Draft decisions often take readiness into consideration, and sometimes it’s just a nice surprise (Cam Fowler, Jeff Skinner). Generally, prospects take time (and resources) to develop.
The World Juniors is geared towards older players, normally drafted, and it's a very good test to see a player amongst the best of his peer group in a high intensity, short burst tournament. The top prospects game has a similar effect with a competitive nature, but a one-game small sample that’s more of an audition.
These players have been evaluated with a solid profile by the time of this tournament. These profiles have followed the changes through multiple viewings during league play along with other international tournaments, the Ivan Hlinka tournament, etc, that practically has prospects seen in every situation throughout their developmental career.
Player evaluation generally at the World Juniors I feel is different, focusing more on performance at the peak event of their junior careers. They not necessarily evaluated by specific attributes within the four S’s of scouting: speed, smarts, skills, skating. This tournament is about competition level.
This is an older player tournament, and draft eligible players are a rarity, unless there’s an exceptional talent. I would consider a draft-eligible able to crack a national team lineup – especially Canada – with this much depth, it's likely this player projects further along the development curve, capable of using skills and to play in a much more competitive nature.
With that in mind let's get into the players.
The Leafs first-round pick fifth overall in 2012 nuzzled into a role for Team Canada at the world juniors in a direct contrast from the central figure responsible for offense of the Moose Jaw Warriors. Issue was made over the power-play time, but I don't find that to be as important, specifically due to interchangeable talent on the blueline with the man advantage. He’s already put on display what he can do with the man-advantage during his junior career. Even strength play weighed more important than a structured power-play, where players with similar skill sets can be superimposed into the overall concept. I wanted to see his gaps on bigger ice, recovery when pulled out of position etc.
Rielly’s role was different from his club team in Moose Jaw, where he takes more of a leading role offensively, relied upon to use his rushing and distribution skills to create scoring chances. It’s for the lack of a better word, ‘individualistic’ carrying the play with support. Team Canada's blueline didn’t seem to jump heavily into the rush and made smart outlet passes, leaving offense to the forwards. I felt he was conservative and more reserved, whether by design or circumstance, juxtaposed into the support role from centrally offensive. Towards the end with Team Canada all disjointed and needing a spark, I thought he took a more individualistic approach, trying to be a catalyst in an individualistic way.
He showed poise and defensive stability, using his swift feet to recover defensively, with the occasional breakdown. I felt the offense was driven more by forwards with support from the backend rather than initiating from the back end. That seemed to be in a direct contrast to what Morgan Rielly was with the Warriors.
This is a strange season in that under normal circumstances, should the NHL had started back in October, Rielly would have been invited to the Leafs training camp as he will be doing in now in January 2013, likely returned to junior coming off a serious injury in his draft year that wiped out the majority of his draft-eligible season. This would have been a clean tournament and return to finish the season in the WHL without the questioning of whether he could make the Leafs.
Overall, I feel he may be a lot closer to the NHL than I initially believed, but this doesn’t seem to be that season – not as an 18-year old. It would have to be an exceptional NHL audition to keep him up in the NHL. But he’s not far off.
I looked for something a little different with the 2011 1st round pick. Instead of NHL readiness, in this instance, I was looking for translatable skills. Not ready to step into the Maple Leafs lineup, likely still 2-3 seasons away. He’s on a steep learning curve in development, while elements of his defensive game still rounding out.
Seamlessly slipped into the USA lineup, the Oshawa Generals winger is a good example of an assigned role at the World Juniors that put on display his translatable skills.
He wasn't strictly required to create offense, but rather to play an aggressive, physical forechecking role to hurry defenseman forcing quick decisions and breakdowns in plays leading to neutral zone turnovers and board battles in the offensive zone while going to the net without the puck.
This is the type of grinding game he will bring with it to the NHL, so from a developmental perspective seeing him being utilized in that same capacity in a high-end tournament amongst his peers gives an indication of his skills in the most pressured situation. He didn’t disappoint in a limited capacity, as vital in his role to the gold medal winners US team as Johnny Gaudreau, Rocco Grimaldi were up front with pucks on their sticks.
I don't particularly expect Biggs to be a major factor offensively, although he’s not bereft of some scoring touch. But that energy, physical game, level of compete, use of body and feisty, aggressive nature will make him a pain to play against along the wall as a pro.
It's clear that he is still on the development curve, to whatever endive becomes, but I feel his performance in the world juniors was the glimpse of the type of player that you would see in the NHL level, rather than the point producer that you're seeing with his club team in Oshawa.