Cameron Clarke spent the past week alongside five first-round picks (Charlie McAvoy, Trent Frederic, Jake DeBrusk, Jakub Zboril, Malcolm Subban), a defenseman who’s already played pro hockey (Brandon Carlo), and four alumni of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (McAvoy, Frederic, Matt Grzelcyk, Anders Bjork). It is not common company for a 20-year-old coming off a season playing for the Lone Star Brahmas of the North American Hockey League.
“When I first started playing hockey, I never dreamed I’d be in Texas,” Clarke, the Bruins’ 2016 fifth-round pick, said during the team’s annual development camp at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington. “But I took the unbeaten path. I developed kind of later. I ended up down in Texas this year and had a great time. I had great coaches. I ended up having one of the best years in my life. I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
Clarke, one of five NAHL players to be drafted in June, has a background that is more traditional than his route to the NHL. His father is Chris Clarke, a four-year defenseman at Western Michigan and a 10th-round pick of the Capitals in 1987. Clarke is from Tecumseh, Mich., about an hour southwest of Ann Arbor, the NTDP’s former headquarters.
But for Clarke, an invitation to play alongside Bjork at the NTDP never came. He never landed on USA Hockey’s radar.
Exceptions such as Clarke, however, can counter the rule that there is a preferred path to the NHL. While Americans such as Bjork, the Bruins’ fifth-round pick in 2014, played for the NTDP, then advanced to Notre Dame as an 18-year-old freshman, lesser known commodities such as Clarke can also advance to a team’s draft table via a more circuitous path.
Even those who change positions during prime development years.
For a while, hockey wasn’t getting Clarke, a former forward, close to a college scholarship. When he played midget minor hockey for Compuware, the powerhouse Michigan program, Clarke scored three goals and five assists in 30 games. Such statistics do not often lead to full rides.
Clarke’s fortunes changed by doing something every young man should mimic: He listened to his father. The elder Clarke suggested to his son that he change from forward to defense.
In 2013-14, while playing for the West Michigan Hounds, Clarke scored seven goals and 15 assists in 24 games as a first-year defenseman. In 2014-15, Clarke played Junior B hockey for the Sarnia Legionnaires of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. He scored 10 goals and 25 assists in 49 games.
Last year, Clarke faced a decision. He could move up to Junior A or he could play in the NAHL. He chose the latter upon the recommendation of several college coaches.
The NAHL is not known for producing high numbers of future NHLers. The USHL is the primary American development league. Current Bruins who have passed through the USHL include Torey Krug and David Backes. The NAHL is better known for being a launchpad for goalies such as Connor Hellebuyck and Pheonix Copley.
“It’s a little nontraditional coming out of that league,” said John Ferguson, the Bruins’ executive director of player personnel. “You do see players. You see a lot of the D-1 commits coming out of that league. You’ve seen primarily goaltenders come out of there.”
In North Richland Hills, Texas, the game that was once tricky for Clarke became easier. His strengths were his skating and his ability to rush the puck. From the back end, with the entire rink in front of him, Clarke found it easier to go up the ice and initiate the attack.
In hindsight, the NAHL was a good place for Clarke to continue learning a new position. Under coaches Dan Wildfong and Jeff Potter, Clarke acclimated to the defense-first league while pushing the offensive pace. He scored nine goals and 41 assists for 50 points, most of any defenseman in the league. He was named NAHL Defenseman of the Year.
Colleges started to notice. The 6-foot-1-inch, 170-pound Clarke committed to Ferris State. Scouts from an even higher level were also traveling to Texas. Bruins scout Keith Sullivan was the team’s primary set of eyes on Clarke. Reinforcing opinions followed. The point-producing defenseman passed the eye test for Sullivan’s colleagues.
“A number of guys went down there on our staff and saw him repeatedly,” Ferguson said. “We were really impressed with his ability to carry the puck and make plays as a right-shot D.”
The trick for scouts is to determine a player’s context. A player who tears up a Tier 2 league may shrivel against those in his age group competing in the OHL. It’s easier for scouts to project players who compete in high-level leagues with and against robust peers. It’s tougher to make educated guesses on how a late bloomer such as Clarke from the NAHL will fare against collegians.
But the fifth round is a good place for teams to take an optimistic swing. Clarke is entering only his fourth year of playing defense. It’s possible that because of his recent switch, Clarke will develop at a more rapid pace than other 20-year-old NCAA players.
“He’s a little bit older than some of the other draft picks, and that’s OK,” Ferguson said. “It lends itself to some of the talk about a potential 19-year-old draft where you get another year to look at a guy. You see and you project what he may be. We think he’s a potential mobile D-man with the ability to maybe add some offense.”
The NAHL gave Clarke an opportunity. He does not intend to burn it.
McPhee building from ground up
As the NHL’s second-newest general manager, Tom Rowe had limitations in place. Dale Tallon’s successor in Florida had to oversee the dirty work of trading Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Rocco Grimaldi, cutting ties with Brian Campbell, and overhauling the Panthers’ front office.
George McPhee will have no such infrastructure to tear down.
The former Washington GM resurfaced in Las Vegas on Wednesday as the first steward of the expansion club. McPhee will be involved in the stuff of fantasy: constructing not just a roster but a franchise according to his vision, free of the unpleasant business of firing and trading good men.
“Most GMs take over a team that needs work,” McPhee said during his introductory news conference, flanked by owner Bill Foley. “You have to dig out from under bad contracts and players not getting the job done. You have to make changes in staff. It has to be done. But it’s negative fun. Here, I’m coming in with a clean slate. I get to pick everyone in the organization. I’m looking forward to that.”
The sexy part of McPhee’s job is the expansion draft. On June 20, 2017, McPhee will submit his list of 30 players from a good pool. The expansion rules are generous, which one would expect with Foley writing a $500 million membership fee.
The grunt work, however, will take place on the amateur side. Once McPhee hires scouts, they will scatter to view prospective players for the 2017 NHL Draft. As important as the expansion draft will be for the inaugural roster, McPhee knows that the amateur draft — Las Vegas will pick no lower than No. 6 in 2017 — will be the franchise’s lifeblood.
The Capitals, the team McPhee led for 17 years, were built this way. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Braden Holtby, the team’s horses, were all drafted and developed on McPhee’s watch. He has no plans to change this philosophy.
“When you look at every team in the league, their best players are their draft picks,” McPhee said. “You’ll get a nice squad from the expansion draft. But players come in through drafting. It always comes down to drafting. We’ve done tremendously well in the draft over the years in Washington. We had terrific scouts and a methodology that really worked for us. We’ll bring that here and try to be every bit as successful.”
Second contracts good for all sides
Victor Rask, Carolina’s second-round pick in 2011, has 32 career goals. Sixteen players from Rask’s draft class have scored more than the Carolina forward, paced by Gabriel Landeskog, who has pumped in 100 pucks.
Yet two seasons of NHL play were enough for his employer to reward Rask with a six-year, $24 million contract last Tuesday. It’s a generous payday for a 23-year-old who has to yet to define himself as a consistent go-to threat. But 160 games of NHL data were enough for the Hurricanes to make a long-term bet that Rask, who is coming off shoulder surgery, will fulfill the expectations of his new deal — and perhaps even become a bargain.
It’s good for both players and organizations to commit to long-term contracts. Players become comfortable with security. They do not need to worry about injuries or performance in search of the next deal. Franchises are better off because they lock in assets to contracts that might seem pricey at first, but generally become sound investments later in the deal.
The trick is for teams to make accurate forecasts, which is not easy coming off entry-level contracts. Some teams might not consider a two-year NHLer such as Rask a sure thing.
Ryan Strome, for example, also has 32 career goals. Strome, selected fifth overall in 2011, was demoted for an eight-game AHL stint in 2015-16. Strome is a restricted free agent. A long-term extension is not guaranteed. The Islanders may not believe that Strome’s 189-game NHL portfolio is sturdy enough to make a long-term declaration.
But part of what separates successful front offices from their rivals is the ability to determine who is and who isn’t a future star. The Jets could have deferred a decision on Mark Scheifele, the No. 7 pick in 2011, for another two years. This is the approach Columbus took with Boone Jenner, the No. 37 selection in 2011.
After his entry-level contract expired, Jenner signed a two-year, $5.8 million bridge deal. Jenner breached the 30-goal threshold in 2015-16. Assuming the hard-nosed wing improves on that total in 2016-17, he will be in position for a big asking price on his next contract, bolstered by the right to go to arbitration.
Instead, the Jets determined that Scheifele will be their future top-line center. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did not hesitate to sign Scheifele to an eight-year, $49 million blockbuster, betting that a 29-32—61 third season is only a tease of what is to come. In doing so, the Jets purchased four unrestricted years from Scheifele. The center did not mind missing an opportunity to test the market.
“When a player ends his entry-level deal, there are many various forms the negotiations can take,” Cheveldayoff said during a conference call. “Certainly from our standpoint, we wanted to gauge his level of interest on a longer-term deal. You see a lot of six-year deals, maybe a few sevens, maybe not a lot of eights out there because they’re very difficult to do. There’s many years of unrestricted free agency that generally come into play. But Mark was very receptive. His group was very receptive about going out that far. Generally, it is the unrestricted free agent years that come into play and make things difficult to consummate a deal like this. But Mark made it very clear from the beginning that he wanted to be a Jet.”
Some prefer to build a bridge
While Carolina and Winnipeg went long with Rask and Scheifele, San Jose chose the bridge option with Tomas Hertl. The No. 17 pick from 2012 signed a two-year, $6 million extension, giving the Sharks more time to evaluate the left wing. Hertl scored 21 goals and 25 assists in 2015-16. A jump to 25 goals in 2016-17 would be realistic. So far, a bridge deal is likely to await David Pastrnak, who will be restricted after next season. Injuries, inexperience, and inconsistency have limited Pastrnak to 25 goals and 28 assists in 97 games over two seasons. The Bruins do not question his speed, skill, and creativity. A consistent third season will determine the structure of Pastrnak’s second contract.
Byfuglien set the standard
Dustin Byfuglien could have been the hottest defenseman on the free market. But Big Buff turned down the UFA lure to sign a five-year, $38 million extension with Winnipeg on Feb. 8. In retrospect, Byfuglien’s commitment to Winnipeg helped players such as Scheifele and Mathieu Perreault fall in line. Had Byfuglien left Winnipeg behind, it’s possible Scheifele would not have been comfortable with an eight-year extension. “That speaks volumes to younger players in the room when a Dustin Byfuglien likes and wants to be a part of it moving forward,” Cheveldayoff said. “They generally like that as well.”
Eagles continue to exit
The NHL’s ravaging of Boston College’s roster continued last Monday when Washington signed would-be junior Zach Sanford. As a sophomore, Sanford recorded 13 goals and 26 assists in 41 games as BC’s third-leading scorer. Other underclassmen who have left Chestnut Hill since April to go pro are Alex Tuch (Minnesota), Miles Wood (New Jersey), Steven Santini (New Jersey), Adam Gilmour (Minnesota), Ian McCoshen (Florida), and Thatcher Demko (Vancouver). NHL teams are sprinting to introduce young players on entry-level contracts to offset higher-paid players. While BC has been hit hard this year, it could be Boston University’s turn next summer. Flight threats include Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson (Boston), Charlie McAvoy (Boston), and Clayton Keller (Arizona).
Ryan Daisy will be one of four new officials in the NHL in 2016-17. The 28-year-old Mansfield native worked the Calder Cup for the AHL. According to Scouting the Refs, other newcomers will be referees Pierre Lambert, Peter MacDougall, and Chris Schlenker. Daisy is the lone American among the four . . . Future Canadiens will not have far to travel to play for the big club. On Monday, the AHL approved the move of the Canadiens’ AHL franchise from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Laval, Quebec, a Montreal suburb . . . As much as the Bruins outgrew Ristuccia Arena in favor of the soon-to-be-completed Warrior Ice Arena, there are few places more comfortable in the mid-July sweatshop heat than the Ice Box.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.