The New Jersey Devils have seven prospects moving up from the junior and collegiate ranks for the 2014-15 season. Five of them are coming from either the OHL or WHL so it made sense to focus on these players as a group. What better way to learn more about them than asks the people that have been watching these players for the past few years? I decided to reach out to Brock Otten of OHL Prospects, Shawn Mullin, the Swift Current Broncos play-by-play announcer, and Regan Bartel, the play-by-play announcer for the Kelowna Rockets.
I want to thank each of them for the opportunity to interview them. Besides being great follows on twitter, they were all very accommodating and insightful which made doing this that much more exciting. Below is a brief background on each of these guys.
Brock Otten runs the blog OHL Prospects which covers the OHL in-depth from player reports, rankings of all sorts, and a fantastic "30 Teams in 30 Days" feature this summer that focuses on each NHL teams OHL prospects. You can read his feature on the Devils OHL prospects here. You can follow him on twitter (@BrockOtten) to keep up with OHL prospects.
Shawn Mullin is the play-by-play announcer for the Swift Current Broncos on The Eagle 94.1 FM. He's been working in the radio industry since 2004 and has been in Swift Current since 2010. In addition to calling Broncos games, he runs Broncos Blog which features interviews and insight into the team. You can find him on twitter (@shawnmullin) to keep up with the Broncos and WHL.
Regan Bartel has been calling Kelowna Rockets games for CKFR AM 1150 since 2000. Prior to that he called play-by-play for the Swift Current Broncos. He's called games at four Memorial Cups, a CHL Top Prospects Game, and a Canada-Russia Super Series. He runs the blog Regan's Rant which covers the Rockets in-depth with reports on practices and games as well as interviews with the players. You can follow him on twitter (@Reganrant) to stay up to date with the Rockets and WHL.
BF: Scouting reports from the 2012 draft mentioned that Johnson's best asset is his speed. Would you say this is accurate and how did it compare to his OHL peers? Has he developed other areas of his game in his 3 OHL seasons? What does he still need to work on?
Brock Otten: Johnson's speed remains his best attribute. He's one of the quickest players in the league. He uses it well to shake things up without the puck. He certainly can be a great forechecker when at his best. His skill with the puck has never really developed to the point where he's been able to use that speed to be a consistent offensive difference maker. He does have a good shot, but the scoring instincts remain a work in progress. At this point, he'll need to add a more consistent physical component to his game in hopes of developing as more of a 3rd line energy guy at the next level.
BF: I noticed that Johnson put up most of his points at even strength (43 of his 53 points). What type of role did Windsor use him in this past season?
Brock Otten: Johnson played big minutes for Windsor, seeing time on one of the team's scoring lines late in the season (with Vail and Foss). He and Vail have good chemistry. The powerplay numbers being low is more a representation of how poor Windsor's powerplay was this past year.
BF: The OHL's site list Thomson at 6'4, 220 lbs., how effective is he using his size in both the offensive and defensive zones?
Brock Otten: Thomson's incredibly effective at using his size at both ends of the rink. In the offensive end, he's great at winning battles for pucks and does a great job protecting and working the cycle. His line (with Goodrow and Paul) was a force late in the year, tiring out opposing defenses and pinning some of the East's top lines in their own end. Defensively, he's a workhorse who does well to seperate players from the puck and isn't afraid to mix it up or sacrifice his body to make a play.
BF: Thomson has racked up the penalty minutes in his OHL career as a tough guy but how has his overall game progressed across 5 OHL seasons? What areas of his game does he still need to work on improving?
Brock Otten: The trade to North Bay really saved Thomson's career IMO. Did wonders for him and his confidence. While he's not flashy, he does a lot of the little things well that make him a projectable 3rd-4th line player at the next level. The key will be improved speed and skating ability. If he's going to play the same type of role in the AHL/NHL that he did for North Bay this past year, he's going to need to get quicker in order to beat defenders to pucks. Playing him with a guy like Johnson (in the AHL), might actually be great for him. Definitely trending in the right direction after a solid year though.
BF: Scouting reports from the 2012 draft praised Black's skating and offensive instincts but noted that he needed to improve his defensive play. Would you say his defense was a concern at the time and has he improved that aspect of his game since being drafted?
Shawn Mullin: I think it’s a typical statement of any offensive player. If someone puts up points almost automatically the response is "he has to improve his defensive game" in an almost generic fashion. To me that’s such a broad generalization. Who doesn’t need to improve his defensive game? Usually those criticisms don’t really frame the specific issues that need addressing. There are so many aspects to being a strong defensive player. To me the biggest weakness for Black at the time was consistency. Health could have been a factor there for sure, but he’s a guy who could explode for a segment of shifts and disappear for some others. He also needed to be stronger in battles and on the wall. His face-off game needed to be improved and was. That’s always a work in progress.
Black got stronger, won more face-offs, won more battles and actually played an important role in the penalty kill his final year. He could still use more strength in those battles. His positioning defensively isn’t as instinctual as his offensive play is so that is an area he worked at and improved. He has a good stick, he competes hard and that speed will drive you nuts at both ends of the ice. It’s funny as much as some people talked about his issues defensively I’ve had other scouts tell me his destiny could be to succeed in the pros as a guy whose speed and defensive play could make him a good bottom six forward and penalty killer who is a threat to score. Consistency always needs to be improved for any player, but I didn’t think his defensive game was the blatant weakness some pointed it out to be.
BF: Obviously improved health aided Black on his way to a breakout year in 2013-14, but what parts of his game helped him on his way to 97 points in 69 regular season games? In what role was he utilized for Swift Current?
Shawn Mullin: Health is a major factor as you mentioned. When you don’t sleep more than a couple hours at most, are in consistent pain and always losing weight it’s hard to be a high performance athlete. Once he got that under control it not only helped his physical game it was a tremendous help on the mental side of the game for him. Other aspects I thought were that he trusted his shot more. He can fire a puck and too often in previous seasons I felt he passed up good shooting opportunities. In his overage season he took more of those shots and scored some goals from further out than most players in the WHL would because of that. Black also got better at recognizing when he didn’t have an opening in the neutral zone and instead of forcing it to the spot he had decided he was going he could either switch it up, pass or dump it in. In his other years he sometimes got caught trying to force the puck and could find himself turning it over. He found good chemistry on a line with Jay Merkley too. Merkley is a more deliberate player who slows the game down and had good hands. It made them into a good counterpoint as they did different things that seemed to mesh well. It’s also worth noting that Black didn’t start in the WHL until he was 18 and those health issues dragged him down for his 18 and 19 year old seasons. This was really the first time he got a healthy season as an experienced WHL player. Most 18-year-olds of that skill level in the league would have at least played as a 17-year-old. He didn’t so he still had lots of rookie learning to do. Another aspect that helped him put up points was the way the Broncos were able to structure their lines. They had a checking line for much of the season that opened the door to Black playing against the second or third lines or defensive pairings on other teams. Those lines had a really hard time containing him. Especially because his explosiveness allows him to play with almost anyone and still be a looming danger.
BF: What has impressed you the most about Black during his 3 full seasons in Swift Current?
Shawn Mullin: You can’t talk about him without talking about his speed and explosiveness. Those are the qualities that stand out on the ice. Those are the qualities that will earn him the opportunities he gets at the pro level. There are very few skaters like that. He’s always in great shape, he has a strong shot and he really cares about his team. I hate to come back to health all the time because it overshadows the other things about his game we should talk about, but ultimately what impressed me most about his career as a Bronco was how he was able to perform as well as he did when he was going through his health concerns. I can barely function on a couple hours sleep at night let alone score 60 points in the best junior league in Canada while never feeling healthy, rested or comfortable. That shows tremendous perseverance and strength I’d say. He’s got the tools. If he’s healthy and he’s focused on his goals he has a great chance to do something professionally. This is a late bloomer candidate for sure.
BF: Severson put up some strong offensive numbers for a defenseman in his WHL career but how would you describe his defensive game? Was he used in a shutdown role for Kelowna at any point over the past 2 years?
BF: A scouting report from the 2012 draft suggested that Severson struggled to focus when playing away from the puck in his own zone. Would you say that was accurate at one time and if it was, has he improved his awareness and positioning?
Regan Bartel: Severson has been a great skater and offensive d-man since he first came to the Rockets as a 16 year-old. When you can skate, pass and shoot like he can, playing with the puck comes easy. It wasn't until last years WHL playoffs though, that the 19 year-old played more of a shut down role against highly skilled teams like Portland and Seattle. Severson used his body, strength and active stick which resulted in the most dominant performance of his junior career. Severson was my choice as playoff MVP. He was that good. Severson needs to do a better job of recognizing danger. Using the glass to get the puck out of the zone is never a bad option. If he wants to play at the NHL level, he will have to mimic his performance from the 2014 WHL playoffs. If he plays like that, Damon will have a long and successful career.
BF: Bell is known for his excellent slap shot, once measured at 98 MPH. Did Kelowna utilize him on the point during power plays to take advantage of his shot? What other assets does he bring to the ice?
BF: Some reports have suggested that Bell needs to further develop his skating to be successful at the next level. Would you agree that this is an area of concern for him?
Regan Bartel: Bell's shot is his greatest asset. The 20 year-old was used as a defenceman (he is a forward) on every power play to utilize his shot from the point. Bell's snap/wrist shot is laser quick and he requires little time to unleash it. Bell doesn't get enough credit for his hard tape-to-tape passes either. The soft spoken forward shoots and passes like a pro. Outside of Jamie Benn, I have never seen someone shoot as hard or accurately as Myles Bell. Unfortunately, his foot speed needs to be better to match what he can do with his hands. Bell is like a bull. His upper body strength makes him hard to play against. What he needs to do is utilize that strength by playing consistently with more determination. Frankly, I still think he is adjusting to playing forward with only two seasons under his belt at that position. In both seasons with the Rockets, Bell was a go-to-guy which meant he played against the other teams best d-pairing. With the change in position, the Devils need to be patient with him.
What stood out to you the most about any of the answers? Have any of the responses changed your opinion on a particular prospect? Are you more excited about a specific player now that you've read the some of these answers? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!