On my dream team, Jamie Benn, John Tavares, and Rick Nash are my first-line forwards. Good luck getting the puck off their sticks or denying them entry to the dangerous areas of the rink. They are monsters. In this league, it’s hard to beat size and skill.
Tavares and Nash were always considered NHL slam dunks. The Islanders drafted Tavares first overall in 2009. In 2002, Columbus made Nash the top pick. Tavares was granted exceptional status to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old. In 2000, the London Knights picked Nash fourth overall in the OHL draft.
Benn is the outlier compared with Tavares and Nash. In 2007, 128 players were drafted before Dallas picked Benn in the fifth round. Benn, a native of Victoria, British Columbia, was bypassed altogether when he became eligible for the Western Hockey League bantam draft.
In hindsight, neither is surprising.
Benn is a dominant NHL left wing. When paired with Tyler Seguin, the two are a lethal offensive combination. Seguin works magic with his speed, skill, and shot. Benn does the heavy lifting by protecting the puck, working the corners and the net-front real estate, and using his 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound frame to impose his will on opponents.
But as a teenager, Benn wasn’t a good skater leading into both the NHL and WHL drafts. The way prospects move is how they get noticed.
There is no bigger crapshoot in the NHL than the amateur draft. It is very hard to view a teenager in select windows and project how he will perform as an adult against angry men.
But it is easy to cull the herd. Scouts always look at a player’s skating first. If he skates well, the eyeballs will stick to monitor how he plays with the puck, reads off his teammates, and competes around the ice. If he can’t skate, the player will be forgotten, regardless of how well he performs the other components of the game.
If a scout is not impressed with his first viewing, two things happen. The player becomes dismissed. Even in subsequent viewings, the first subpar impression is hard for a scout to shake.
“It’s a common mistake scouts make,” said former NHL scout Gary Eggleston. “You’re very quick to write off people because it’s easy. They’ll take that route out. They won’t go back to see the player.”
This is why players such as Benn get lost in the system.
“My skating wasn’t that great when I was younger,” said Benn, who recalled he was approximately 5-3 when he was eligible for the WHL draft. “It was something I had to work on. Eventually, I did. Pretty much all aspects of the game, you can get better at.”
Like all leagues, the WHL has a history of overlooking future NHLers, especially those who don’t skate well. In 2003, every WHL team declined to pick Milan Lucic. Like Benn, Lucic wasn’t a good skater as a young player. He had an awkward stride. It took a long time for him to get up to speed. When he wasn’t drafted, Lucic even considered quitting hockey.
Benn never got to that point. In 2006-07, his NHL draft season, Benn had 42 goals and 23 assists in 53 games for the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies. One of his teammates was Tyler Bozak, bypassed entirely by both the NHL and WHL.
On June 23, 2007, under the watch of director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt, the Stars picked Benn 129th overall. Bernhardt had unearthed value in previous drafts, including James Neal (second round, 2005), Loui Eriksson (second round, 2003), Trevor Daley (second round, 2002), and Jussi Jokinen (sixth round, 2001). In Benn, Bernhardt clubbed a home run.
When he aged out of the BCHL, a league Lucic also played in, Benn considered playing college. He committed to Alaska-Fairbanks. But with help from childhood friend Tyson Barrie, Benn tried out for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.
In 2007-08, his first junior season, Benn had 33 goals and 32 assists in only 51 games. He played on a stacked team that included three other future NHLers: Barrie, Tyler Myers, and Luke Schenn.
“Some kids look at it as a make-or-break,” Benn said. “It just gave me the opportunity to grow my game if I did choose to go to the WHL, which I ultimately did.”
Benn never played a game in the AHL. He made Dallas’s varsity out of training camp in 2009. As a 20-year-old rookie, Benn totalled 22 goals and 19 assists in 82 games.
Three full seasons of 20-plus goals, as well as a 12-goal year during 2012-13, were not good enough to win Benn an invitation to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in the summer of 2013. Benn used it as even more motivational ammunition.
By the time Hockey Canada made its final Olympic selection, Benn was a lock for inclusion. He scored twice in the Olympics, including the only goal in Canada’s win over the United States.
“There’s always those people that criticize some of the abilities you have when you’re younger,” Benn said. “It just gave me a little fire under myself to push myself and get better in all categories of my game.”
Draft misses will continue. There is no science behind projecting a 16-year-old into an adult. Players grow. They get faster. It’s almost impossible to measure a player’s desire to improve by watching him play.
“Kids know more about themselves than we do, no matter how much we mine and evaluate,” Eggleston said. “Sometimes a kid’s got something cooking inside that you can’t ever read. He’s just going to stick to it until he makes it.”
PADDING HIS RÉSUMÉ
Chance of a lifetime between the pipes
John Choe is out $1,000 in travel expenses and nursing a groin strain following a recent trip to South Florida. They are two strikes he is happy to take.
Choe was one of the 37 dreamers invited to try out for the Panthers’ emergency goalie position. The promotion was the organization’s marketing response to injuries that wiped out Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya in the same game against Toronto March 3.
On Monday, Choe, a 38-year-old resident of Jamaica Plain, participated in the tryout. He did not make the cut. Bill Ruggiero and Dustin Smith were the finalists. Ruggiero and Smith practiced with the Panthers on Wednesday after both goalies stopped three of four shootout attempts in the final the night before.
Choe last played goalie when he was in graduate school at Dartmouth. As such, the father of three did not expect to make the cut.
“That was three kids ago, so it was hard to strap on the pads, as you might expect,” said Choe on Tuesday, during a layover in Milwaukee. “At 38, the reflexes are not what they were at 20. But it was an incredible day. It was so much fun.”
Choe is an equity analyst. The closest he gets to the ice is as a mite coach. He does not own goaltending gear.
But after hearing about the Panthers’ promotion, Choe knew he had to apply. It would be a fun experience. It would also be a teaching moment for his children and the youth players he coaches. So, after his application was accepted, Choe had to find equipment for his tryout. He did not have any luck with local Play It Again Sports outlets. Ironically, Choe found the gear he needed in Florida, where demand for secondhand stuff doesn’t run as high.
He paid $500 for airfare, $200 for a rental car, and $300 in equipment. He stayed with friends in South Florida. On Monday, under the watch of goaltending coach Robb Tallas and ex-players Marco Sturm, Radek Dvorak, and Tomas Vokoun, Choe took the ice at BB&T Center. Choe and the other invitees, including “SportsCenter” anchor Linda Cohn, participated in what would be a standard session for an NHL goalie: T-pushes, pad slides, saves, and shootouts. It was not so simple for a civilian.
“Wristers from the point were OK,” Choe said. “But the breakaways were impossible.”
The Panthers are unlikely to make the playoffs. Luongo didn’t return until Thursday against Detroit. Hockey is a tough sell in Sunrise, Fla. But a killer promotion can go a long way in creating buzz and interest out of a difficult situation.
“A lifetime of memories,” Choe said of the experience. “It was money well spent.”
OVERTIME CHANGE OVERDUE
Krug concludes way to finish is three on three
The NHLPA must approve the general managers’ recommendation of three-on-three play in overtime before it becomes reality next season. But if Bruin Torey Krug is speaking for his union, three on three can’t come soon enough.
“I feel very strongly for it,” Krug said. “I think it’s a better way to finish a game in more of a team structure. Yeah, it dwindles down to three guys. But there’s still a team aspect to it. Shootouts are more individual. Some teams aren’t built for that. You look at the way our team’s built, it’s not a shootout team. But we’re a very strong team. It benefits a team like us.”
Some variation of three on three — going straight to it after regulation, or after four minutes of four-on-four play — will reduce the number of shootouts, otherwise known as hockey’s clown contest. As of last week in the AHL, which introduced three on three this season, 76.3 percent of overtime games were settled before the shootout. That’s up from last year, when only 35.3 percent of overtime games were decided.
A gimmicky feel still exists in three on three. There’s too much open space. A thwarted scoring chance can turn immediately into a counterattack. But it still calls for athleticism, playmaking, good decisions, and strategy. Teams could have one forward cheat into the neutral zone to track down long passes. If a shot doesn’t land on net, it could bank off the boards, snap back out, and turn into a rush the other way.
“When you’re taking a chance offensively,” said Krug, “you have to realize that it can turn into a defensive situation really quickly.”
Most coaches will use two forwards and one defenseman. Aggressive coaches will roll three forwards. Plenty of thinking will go into three-on-three play. There is no such thinking in the shootout.
Ryan often is passing on shooting
The Senators believed they were acquiring a finisher in Bobby Ryan. They are paying the ex-Duck $7.25 million annually to put pucks in nets, not onto his linemates’ sticks. But this season, Ryan’s been more of a disher than finisher. Through 66 games, only 36 percent of Ryan’s points (50) were from his 18 goals. That’s the lowest mark of his career. In comparison, 35 of Ryan’s 64 points in 2009-10 were via goals (54.7 percent). Ryan’s a good playmaker. Most recently, he’s been playing with Mike Hoffman and Mika Zibanejad on Ottawa’s second line. Ryan is like a second center because he’s confident with the puck and pulls opponents his way.
Lehtonen has been far from a savior
Kari Lehtonen is under contract through 2017 at a little less than $6 million annually. This will be a problem if the Dallas goalie plays anything like he did this season. Had Lehtonen given his team anything close to reliable puck-stopping, the Stars could have pushed for a playoff bid. Instead, the 31-year-old was subject to untimely softies all season. Through 58 games, Lehtonen had a .906 save percentage, his worst mark since his rookie year with Atlanta in 2005-06. It didn’t help the Stars that they had no depth in goal, with Anders Lindback and Jussi “Rebound” Rynnas playing even worse behind Lehtonen. It’s not easy playing goal for the Stars. They push the pace and give up good scoring chances because they’re aggressive up the ice. But this will be GM Jim Nill’s first priority to fix during the offseason, either by getting somebody to fix Lehtonen or taking him off Dallas’s payroll.
Hudler having a career year
Jiri Hudler matched a career best March 13 against Toronto, not that any benchmark achieved against the Leafs is praiseworthy. That night, the Calgary sharpshooter scored his 25th goal, matching his output from 2011-12, when he hit the back of the net 25 times for Detroit. Hudler will smash his record and perhaps push 30. He is one of the reasons behind the Flames’ improbable push for the playoffs. The 5-foot-10-inch, 186-pound Hudler isn’t big. He’s not fast. Teammate Johnny Gaudreau is quicker. But players of Hudler’s stature don’t score 25 goals without off-the-charts hockey IQs. Hudler is exceptional at finding soft spots in coverage. Once he gets there, he doesn’t need much time to snap off his shot. Through 68 games, Hudler had an 18.9 shooting percentage. It’s well above his career average of 14.9 percent. Hudler is one of many Flames surpassing expectations this season.
I think this winter would have had even Jack Falla, the dean of backyard rinks, declaring uncle and reaching for a Molson instead of his shovel. Reader P.J. McNealy, who named his backyard rink in Natick in Falla’s honor, confirmed that the record snow did not make for ideal recreation. McNealy and his family couldn’t keep up with the shoveling, which led to bad ice at the Falla Forum. By the time they had the rink cleared and resurfaced, more snow came down. “We will fall short of the 34 days we had last winter,” McNealy wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday. “We might have a few more days, but not more than a few at this point. And quite frankly, no one is complaining. The skaters in the household are ready for soccer, and the rink supervisor is ready to play golf. I suspect Jack would understand.”
Tyler Seguin will most likely miss the playoffs for the first time as an NHLer. Seguin qualified for the postseason in his first four NHL seasons. That’s the longest streak to open a career for a top-two pick since Jordan Staal made the playoffs in his first six seasons. Staal was the No. 2 pick in 2006, one slot after St. Louis selected Erik Johnson. In comparison, Taylor Hall, the first pick in 2010, has yet to dress for a single playoff game . . . Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen set an NCAA record by making 87 saves in the Irish’s five-overtime loss to UMass March 6. Reader Jim Ready noted that his grandfather, Tim Ready of Boston College, formerly held the collegiate record with 82 saves, set in 1936 against Princeton. In 1976, Tim Ready was named to the BC Hall of Fame in hockey and baseball . . . The St. John’s IceCaps, the Jets’ AHL affiliate, will become the third team to play in its parent team’s city when it relocates to Winnipeg next season. San Jose and Toronto will also have their farm teams in their cities in 2015-16 . . . Matthew Wuest, the founder of CapGeek, died on Thursday because of colon cancer. CapGeek, which went dark when Wuest’s health worsened, was the groundbreaking website dedicated to roster and contract data. It was as elegant, intuitive, and irreplaceable as any of Apple’s finest products. It is not hyperbole to say that Wuest was hockey’s Steve Jobs.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.