LOS ANGELES – Whereas top prospects such as Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley all bathed in the glow of major junior league (and in the case of Hall and Fowler, Memorial Cup) titles this season to help their draft stock, other elite kids aren’t so lucky.
But playing for a sub-par team is no reason to get down on a prospect and the players themselves don’t feel sorry for themselves. In fact, being leaned on heavily can be a great development tool.
“I played a lot of minutes,” said Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Mark Pysyk. “Even as a 16-year-old, I was playing a lot of minutes and it helps.”
Pysyk was the first bantam ever drafted by the expansion Oil Kings and needless to say, the fledgling team has struggled. But for Pysyk, being counted on to shut down another team’s top line has been a great challenge in his junior career, even if the math isn’t always on his side.
“You’re usually a minus,” he admitted, “which doesn’t look good on the stats.”
Indeed, Pysyk was a career-worst minus-19 this season, but also had a career-high in points with 24. Scouts love his skating and he is viewed as a “safe pick,” thanks to his all-around play; someone envisioned to have a long NHL career.
Another Western League star not accustomed to long playoff runs is Brett Connolly, one of the most talked-about players at this year’s draft. The right winger missed most of the season with hip ailments and his Prince George Cougars suffered greatly in his absence (ironically bolstering his draft stock in the process).
“That’s what made this year so hard,” Connolly said. “It made me pretty upset some nights.”
But when the Cougars get Connolly back next year – and given the year of development he missed, it’s probably in his best interest to return to junior – they’ll have a legitimate game-breaker on their hands once again.
“It’s nice to be that guy,” Connolly noted. “If I’m back, we’re going to have a good team.”
Towering blueliner Erik Gudbranson can relate to Connolly’s story. The 6-foot-5 powerhouse has played his junior career with the Ontario League’s Kingston Frontenacs, who have only recently jumped from doormats to respectable opponents.
With former NHLer Doug Gilmour behind the bench and top-end players such as Gudbranson and New York Rangers pick Ethan Werek, the Fronts are out of the wilderness. But Gudbranson remembers the dark days.
“I really felt it helped my leadership skills come out and I was able to separate myself from the pack,” he said. “I was able to learn the ups and downs of hockey. Not everything is going to be positive and it helped me mature.”
Not only that, but the big defender also learned about the love both the team and the Kingston community was capable of.
“They showed me so much support and gave me every option to succeed possible,” Gudbranson said.
All three players are positioned to be high first-rounders Friday and for the teams that pick them, it’s fair to say those NHL squads will be getting young men who won’t wilt when the going gets tough – they’ve already been there.
THN is in Los Angeles covering the NHL Entry Draft.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday.
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