Friday, November 20, 2015

2016 NHL Draft Preview: Vladimir Kuznetsov

Hello and welcome back to my latest installment of the 2016 NHL Draft Preview. Today we venture into the QMJHL and take a look at a player in New Brunswick.

Today we look at:

Vladimir Kuznetsov
Height: 6’2”
Weight: 214 lbs
Position: LW/RW
Shoots: Left
Team (League): Acadie-Bathurst Titan (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League)
ISS rank: NR
CSS rank: C (no rankings released)
FC rank: NR
THN rank: NA
DTJ rank: 48

Current Statline for 2015-2016 Season:  25 GP, 8G 10A 18P 10PIM, -1, 0.72 Points/Game

First things first, no there is no relation to the Washington Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov is a relatively common last name in Russia.

From Yekaterinburg, Russia, Vladimir Kuznetsov was selected first overall in the 2015 CHL Import Draft by Acadie-Bathurst Titan from the QMJHL (to the surprise of quite a few who expected Dmitri Sokolov to be the first one taken). Upon drafting him, the general manager, Sylvain Couturier, remarked, "We are very excited to select a player like Vladimir. He is a big and strong winger with skill..."

This is Kuznetsov's first year living and playing in North America, and his season was off to a relatively cold start, which is to be expected from an import getting used to the different rink size as well as the language and culture outside the rink. He's been playing on the second line for Acadie-Bathurst, mostly Right Wing but also some Left Wing work. Over the past month, his play has improved and he's been getting on the scoreboard more often. He's been getting very consistent time on the Power Play, playing on the Titan's first PP unit.

Kuznetsov is an intriguing prospect to me because he has a very good awareness of the offensive zone and the rink overall, but there are some elements lacking to his game (I will elaborate on this a little later). The first thing you notice about Kuznetsov is just how big of a guy he is. His EP page lists him at 6'1", 190 lbs, but the Acadie-Bathurst official page lists him as 6'2", 214 lbs (I'm more inclined to go with the team's official page when it comes to size differential), but on the ice he looks even taller than that. Of course he doesn't look as big as Andrew Cordssen-David, the 6'5" defender for Acadie-Bathurst, but Kuznetsov does look like he's pushing 6'3", and he's still only 17 years old with time to grow taller and larger.

Kuznetsov is not hard to miss, he's a big lumbering skater roaming around. He almost looks a little hunched over in his skating, which is probably why he looks taller to me than he actually may be. While on the Power Play, Kuznetsov's main role is to be one of the two forwards in front of the opponent's net (Acadie-Bathurst runs a 3-2 Broad Umbrella type Power Play). Occasionally, about twice a shift or so, Kuznetsov is able to roam around the offensive zone and look for an open passing lane or a shooting angle on the net. He doesn't usually have to fight his way into the slot area, he just ends up there someway or somehow. For a big guy, he can sneak around the ice quite well.

When the puck is on his stick he uses his body well to protect it, and he's able to use the boards very well. This isn't necessarily in the sense of winning board battles, but rather bouncing the puck off the boards to avoid an incoming defenseman. He's got a very hard slapshot, but doesn't use it too much (mainly from the blue line if he's roaming on the Power Play...this is also a good one-timer from him as well), and an impressive wrist shot as well. His passes, while very accurate for the most part, lack a certain crispness that I would like to see some improvement on.

Defensively, Kuznetsov is pretty well-aware of what's going on around him. He usually doesn't leave his zone and doesn't chase people around too much. However sometimes in trying to prevent a point shot, Kuznetsov leaves the opportunity for an opposing player to break through to the slot for a good scoring chance. This is an issue Kuznetsov will have to work on if he wants to be effective at the next level. He can't simply rely on his good stickwork, but instead needs to work more on his positioning in regards to where the puck is and where the attacker in his zone is, whether they are open or not.

On that note, one thing that stands out to me about Kuznetsov is how he's able to use his stick so well on the defensive side of things. He stick always seems to be in the right place at the right time to intercept or block an incoming pass through his zone or while skating back through the neutral zone, or even while he is in the offensive zone forechecking. Offensively, Kuznetsov can handle the puck rather well, he doesn't try any dangles or dekes. He plays a rather simple game offensively like that. He can get around defenseman somewhat well and is a threat offensively, almost when he chooses to be.

The thing about Kuznetsov is that it seems like he coasts around the rink a lot, and I'd like to see him a little more active within the play, and not simply the scoring plays. I understand fully well that this is still a year in transition for Kuznetsov as he is coming from across the world, learning different rink sizes, playing styles, coaching systems, and a more focus on defensive play in North America, but it is also his draft eligible year and this is something that he must learn and improve upon.

The biggest concern I have for Kuznetsov, and why I project him to be taken in the upper-middle third round of the draft is his skating. His situation reminds me of Leon Draisaitl's situation during his draft-eligible year in that he's a relatively fast skater (I know Draisaitl is incredibly fast, but this is for the sake of comparison), but not quick or agile. It's because of this first step that he seems to gaffe on which results him being a bit behind the rest of the players on the ice, and not driving the offensive play.Draisaitl has since improved his skating tremendously. I'm not comparing the talent or the playing style of these two young men, but rather the similarity in the skating situation. I believe Kuznetsov's skating is holding him back significantly. Now I'm not looking for a Scott Niedermayer-type skater, but I believe if Kuznetsov could skate more agilely, he would be able to make a much better impact on the games, and not just on the scoreboard.

So here you have a promising young player who is still growing into his own body and sometimes thinks the game faster than his body can react. He's not an exceptional thinker of the game, he just seems the ice pretty well. He's got a hard, accurate shot as well as good passing instincts, but needs to improve on his passing speed, overall skating, and physicality. If Vladimir Kuznetsov puts everything together I can see him playing at the second line level of the NHL, but he will have to really hard for it.

From a Devils' perspective, unless he can improve his skating (especially because of Hynes' system is strong in transition) and support of teammates within the attacking and neutral zone, I don't think he would fit well in the new team vision Ray Shero and John Hynes are advocating for. I may be wrong though, and I don't want to beat a dead horse, but in order for him to be an effective player within the new system, Kuznetsov must improve on his skating. However, with the skillset he has, and the type of playing style he presents, if Kuznetsov is able to fix these developmental issues, then he has the potential to be very productive within the Devils' system of play.

I am very interested in following the rest of Kuznetsov's season in Acadie-Bathurst, and I hope he improves because the offensive instincts are there, and there's a reason why he was selected 1st overall in the CHL Import Draft. Acadie-Bathurst is not a strong team, in fact they have the 3rd worst record in the entire QMJHL, and Halifax is right behind them in the standings.
I hope you enjoyed my write-up of Vladimir Kuznetsov! If you have any feedback, suggestions, or players you’d like to see my write about, please let me know!

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Devils Prospect Notes: 11/13

This gameday update will bemainly focusing on our fellas from Sarnia, but overall it was a good night all-around for Devils prospects.
First-off the Albany Devils won 4-2 today against the Providence Bruins. Goals scored by Joseph Blandisi, Blake Pietila and Reid Boucher (X2). Vojtech Mozik had 3 assists tonight. It's great to see the young guys contributing.
In the NCAA, Miles Wood recorded 1G+1A for Boston College as they beat Michigan State 6-4.
Now as for the more specific game notes for Sarnia vs. Flint...I apologize since I wasn't paying too much attention to our prospect for Flint, Connor Chatham.
Zacha was clearly the best player on the ice for both teams. He had some good chances, but Flint did a good job blocking his shot attempts. He was physical and pretty much did whatever he wanted out there. Clear Top-10 talent display. His passing was crisp and accurate, and when he did make a wide pass to a teammate across the ice, it would be the exception rather than the rule.
In terms of his passing, it seems like many of his teammates were just not ready for the passes he was making. You remember how he liked to do those nifty, behind the back (sometimes drop) passes to teammates in the prospect tournament earlier this season? Yeah he's been doing more of that, not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to know that your teammates are ready for a pass like that before you drop such a beauty. It was very frustrating though because you can clearly see how well Zacha is reading the ice and how he's thinking the game, almost always looking for the open teammate. I was hoping at this point he would be a bit more selfish with the puck considering the team in general seemed to have trouble handling the puck or the passes.
At the beginning of the game Flint got to a 4-0 lead. It seemed to me that Sarnia was on the penalty kill so very often, but they only had 23 PIM tonight (which is still a lot, but not awful comparatively), so I don't know if Zacha was on the first or second penalty kill unit, but he was out there a lot for the PK. Very impressed with his play there. Also, there were two scenarios where Sarnia had to kill off a 5-on-3 powerplay, and Jacobs (who's wearing an "A" by the way) was out on defense for both of them...Flint didn't score at all on the PP.
Flint began to crawl back into the game, and when they were down 4-2 they went on the powerplay. This is when Pavel Zacha got the puck behind the Flint net and proceeded to bull his way into the slot where he shot a strong backhand that snuck through to the back of the net. Zacha had registered 3 shots on goal tonight (including some very good chances he created while missing the net), but this goal was the weakest shot he had all night, which is quite good news because he needs to just keep ripping the puck. He's over 0.5 goals/game at this pace, and I think his stats like that will only improve. Also some good news as Josh Jacobs got the assist on Zacha's goal.
Mid-way through the third period, the Flint OHL TV announcer said this on air
Taken in by Jacobs, man he's one heck of a hockey player, isn't he? Great pick-up by Sarnia
It's interesting to note Zacha's role on the power play as well, he seems to be the roving kind of trigger-man, since nobody else on Sarnia moves around the zone as much as he does...I mean he's ALL over, handling the puck along the blue line, or patrolling around either face-off circle, or even taking the puck behind the net like he did for his goal. He was playing center (I believe second line, may have been bumped to top line...not quite sure) throughout the night but would switch to wing on the power play. Whichever side the face-off in the offensive zone (for the PP), Zacha would be on the wing closest to the boards. I think he was moved to the wing because of not only his skillset for wing, but also to allow his flexibility to move throughout the offensive zone to make plays.
All in all, I was very impressed with Zacha's night, and Jacobs is really turning into a stud. Jacobs is now up to 11 points in 19 games. Zacha is up to 12 points in 14 games...highest in PPG pace on the team, and good for being tied for second place in the team in total points.
Boucher, Blandisi, Pietila, Mozik, Wood, Zacha and Jacobs all had stellar games tonight...not to mention MacKenzie Blackwood's 25 save shut-out for Team OHL against Team Russia in the CHL/Russia Super Series.
The Future is bright my friends.
Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed! You can follow me on Twitter @DTJ_AHockeyBlog for more updates.

Friday, November 6, 2015

2016 NHL Draft Preview: Matthew Tkachuk

Welcome back as we take a look at another draft-eligible player this year. Thanks for your patience as it usually takes a little while for me to make these posts.

Today we look at:

Matthew Tkachuk
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 194 lbs
Position: LW
Shoots: Left
Team (League): London Knights (Ontario Hockey League)
ISS rank: 4
CSS rank: A (no rankings released)
FC rank: 5
THN rank: NA
DTJ rank: 7

Current Statline for 2015-2016 Season:  15 GP, 5G 19A 24P 14PIM, +15, 1.6 Points/Game

Hailing from Saint Louis, Missouri, comes the son of NHLer Keith Tkachuk, Matthew. Currently third overall in scoring for the OHL, and especially leading his team full of well-established players like Dvorak and Marner is no easy task. Consider that and also take into consideration how Tkachuk came in second in total scoring in last year's USNDP, only to Auston Matthews and you can begin to see the offensive potential for this young man.

Obviously his NHL bloodlines play a key part in the type of player he is, in terms of "hockey IQ", and you can see how well he reads the ice when he plays. He's able to make some very subtle, intricate passes that help proceed the team's attack. Of course not every pass he makes are slight, but he always seems to find the open ice with his passes. And it's clear to see that Matthew does take after his father's style of play as well, but I will get to that a little later on.

Matthew Tkachuk is another name to add on to the list of high-powered scoring wingers in this draft class, and additionally he's up there with the elite American talent featured in this draft. Tkachuk signed with the London Knights right around the same time as fellow American 2016 draft-eligible winger, Max Jones (who's also projected as a Top 10 pick). I will write about Jones in another report, but what we can see from this is that the London Knights never cease to produce high-end talent from Corey Perry to Patrick Kane, from Max Domi to Bo Horvat to 
Olli Määttä...the elite talent from London continues to pour out, and the newest addition of elite talent from London will continue with Matthew Tkachuk.

So what kind of a player is Matthew? At the risk of sounding cliche, I think the best way to describe him is "complete". Not as physically punishing as his father, but just as willing to play physical when need be and to engage in the "dirty" areas of the ice. The thing that stands out to me about Tkachuk's game, besides his lack of weaknesses, is his patience with the puck when making a play. While he does possess a solid, heavy shot with a rather deceptive release, Tkachuk's game is predominantly based around playmaking and setting up teammates.

While not a weakness, an area for improvement for Tkachuk would be his skating. He's made some significant strides (pun not intended) since last season improving his previously choppy skating to a rather powerful stride. He still has plenty of room for improvement, but he has keeping his own against the more agile players in the league.

He plays the majority of his game below the face-off dots, and will continue his scoring campaign through the OHL this season.

In terms of projection, I believe Tkachuk has a top-line elite LW ceiling, and the floor of a top-9 LW. If his offense does not translate entirely to the NHL, then Tkachuk's physicality, smart play, and continually improving skating will keep him in the NHL. I do strongly believe though that Tkachuk will have a strong offensive contribution to whichever team drafts him.

From a Devils' perspective, we don't exactly quite know where the Devils will pick in the next draft in June, mainly from the pleasantly surprising run recently...but if the Devils were to pick in the same range as last season (#6 overall,...and that means not winning any of the top-3 lottery picks), then I really do think Tkachuk will be their selection. This is not taking into consideration the bloodlines that Tkachuk shares, being cousins with Tom Fitzgerald, the current Assistant GM for the Devils, but I'm not suggesting my belief that they will pick him is because of that. I believe he will be the selection because of two main elements. First is his elite offensive ceiling and that the Devils are in need of high-potential top-6 winger prospects. The second is more of the style of play that Tkachuk exhibits. As mentioned earlier he has an excellent shot, and can score in a variety of ways, but the emphasis of his game revolves around setting-up scorers and finding the open space to pass to scorers. From Pavel Zacha's development, we've seen him turn into an astounding goal-scoring threat, and while Zacha is able to make incredible passes tape-to-tape, he is more of a trigger-man than a set-up. I think if we're looking at projections, then Tkachuk would be the perfect player to compliment Zacha on the Devils' top line...but that's some speculation at this point.

Venturing back into reality, I believe Tkachuk will be taken within the 5-9 range. He may be able to make the jump to the NHL after his selection, but I think he will have to continue working on his skating for another year in London.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how Tkachuk's career progresses in London, and eventually in the NHL. I think we will see a strong increase in his goal scoring within the next few months, as he really has quite the arsenal of offensive weapons. I don't really have a specific player style comparison for Tkachuk, but rather he is the embodiment of a pure power forward prospect.
I hope you enjoyed my write-up of Matthew Tkachuk!If you have any feedback, suggestions, or players you’d like to see my write about, please let me know!

Follow me on Twitter 
@DTJ_AHockeyBlog for more updates.

Thanks for reading!