Sleepers. Diamonds in the rough. Late round finds. While the hope and expectation for NHL teams is to find a significant player in the NHL Entry Draft in the first round, uncovering a NHL player in the final rounds of the NHL Entry Draft is an achievement. It strengthens a team’s draft class and prospect pool. Other teams take notice and wonder where they may have missed out. As with any prospect, a team needs to do their homework, correctly identify their strengths and weaknesses, determine whether they can work with that, and have enough luck for it all to come together. This is true in the first or seventh round. As the New Jersey Devils have multiple picks beyond the fourth round, it would be ideal to find one of these players. There is one potential candidate that could fit this bill: forward of the Okotoks Oilers, Austin Wong.
Who is Austin Wong?
According to his profile at Elite Prospects, Austin Wong is a right-shooting forward that can play center or right-wing. He was born on August 26, 2000, which makes him one of the youngest draft-eligible players this year. He was 17 throughout his 2017-18 season. Wong is listed at 5’11” and 190 pounds, which is not too small (or large) of a frame. It is bigger than his AJHL page that listed him at 5’10” and 176 pounds. Wong possibly grew a bit during last season, which is good. Wong plays for the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. It is a Junior A league; a tier for players to play junior hockey but want to still be eligible for college hockey. Wong is taking that path as he is committed to Harvard University for the 2019-20 season. Harvard is an Ivy League school; they do not give out athletic scholarships. In other words, Wong has to have some brains to get into Harvard. (And based on this article in the Cochrane Eagle by Troy Durell, he does.)
This is notable because he has the penalty minute count of somebody who hasn’t learned any discipline. After compiling 150 in 53 games in his rookie season with Okotoks in 2016-17; Wong led the entire AJHL with 235 PIM. That is not a typo. I did a double-take when I saw that at EP. I did another one when I saw it at the AJHL website. The thing is that Wong is not a particularly large man. He is not two-fists on skates. He is not a fighting enthusiast; Drop Your Gloves listed him with four fights in 2017-18 and three in 2016-17. He is just a nasty player, which has led to some remarkable penalty counts. He had eight games where he took over 10 minutes in the game; he’s had nights where he received multiple misconducts; and while he behaved much better in the playoffs, he took plenty of minors against Brooks and one last misconduct before Brooks was eliminated. It is a marvel he was only suspended once in 2017-18; way back in September for a major slashing penalty. Here’s an example of the questionable acts from Steve Kournianos, who highlighted this clip in the 2018 Canadian Junior Hockey League Prospect Game. Keep in mind that this happened in an exhibition meant to show off Junior A players.
#CJHLHockey: This is no exhibition. Austin Wong delivers a massive hit on an unsuspecting Matthew Kellenberger, then Jack McBain flies in and plasters Wong. Present-day dirty, but you just know some of the scouts there loved it. pic.twitter.com/DSdbOql0CC— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) January 24, 2018
Wong pretty much hit Matthew Kellenberger like the NHL player that comes to your mind when ever a borderline check is thrown. (For me, it’s Tom Wilson although Wong’s hit wasn’t in the numbers.) And acts like that combined with his growing rep lead to guys like Jack McBain (a potential second rounder this year) to lose their minds and do even worse things. McBain was thrown out of the game. Wong is effectively a pest. A pest who could stand to learn some discipline. And is also going to Harvard University in two years.
But the what makes Wong interesting is that he’s not just some energy guy who gets people and himself to the penalty box. Wong actually has an offensive game. That clip from the 2018 CJHL Prospect Game? Wong had two goals including the eventual game winner and was named MVP of Team West, who won the game 5-2, according to this HockeyNow article by Neil Hilts. Wong improved from ten goals and ten assists in his rookie season to 25 goals and 27 assists. Wong finished fourth on Okotoks in points with 54 and finished tied for 27th in the whole AJHL. As far as I can tell, Wong outproduced all of the draft eligible players for this year and the only player not over the age of 19 that outscored him was Zachary Okabe, who is eligible for the 2019 draft and Okabe only did it by three points. This continued into the playoffs. Wong kept his penalties down to 26 in 15 games as he put up three goals and seven assists, which tied him for fifth on the squad. What stood out to me was that while Okotoks lost to Spring Grove in the finals, Wong did not get called for a single penalty. It is like he can actually control it. Wong was not just a penalty machine, he was contributing quite a bit to a really good Oilers team. That he did so at the age of 17 makes me think that there’s a real player here.
Where is Austin Wong Ranked?
Wong is expected to be a late round pick, if he is drafted at all. So I will highlight two people who I know have actually tracked and ranked him.
- NHL Central Scouting Services: North America - 174 (Final), North America - 214 (Midterm)
- Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst - 196 (May, Final 500), N/A (January Top 500), N/A (September Preseason 500)
Wong has basically played his way from “possibly not even drafted” to “he could possibly be drafted.” Rankings are not everything, but if Kournianos ranked 500 players three times and missed Wong the first two times. He put him just inside his top 200 on the final try. NHL CSS bumped up his rating in their final rankings too. It is possible that Wong is passed over entirely, but his CJHL Prospect Game performance plus what he continued to do with Okotoks earned him more attention than what he had by the beginning or the middle of last season.
What Others Say About Austin Wong
As Wong was not anywhere close to being touted, there is not a whole lot of information about him But he did gain more attention from that CJHL Prospects Game. Kournianos did not just highlight some clips from the game. He recapped it while highlighting several draft-eligible players at his site, The Draft Analyst. This is what he wrote about Wong, who was Team West’s MVP:
A pitbull of a power forward who combines skill and truculance, Wong scored a pair of goals and was named Team West MVP. It was his massive wallop on an unsuspecting Matthew Kellenberger, however, that got him the most attention. Say what you want about the nastiness of the hit, but it proved to be effective in the long run, as Jack McBain’s response got him a major penalty and kicked out of the game. Beyond the post-whistle shenanigans, the Harvard commit was one-arm shoving opponents off the puck with regularity. He gets in on the forecheck and is able to make quick-reaction plays that lead to scoring chances around the net. Wong was motoring up the ice with deceptive straight-line speed and showed excellent balance when taking it strong to the net. His hands and reflexes help him collect bouncing pucks and make clean transitions from skate to stick. He’s probably not as good a playmaker as Sean Avery or Darcy Tucker were at this stage of their development, but Wong plays a similar abrasive style that beats you in a variety of ways.
This provides some more evidence that Wong is more than just a PIM guy. While I’m sure you may cringe at seeing Avery’s or Tucker’s name, reading that he can move a little bit, he has some good hands, and he can use his body for constructive matters. Again, I read this and thought, “Hmm, there may be a player.”
Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News released a list of potential sleepers for the 2018 NHL Draft. While it is not in any particular order, Wong was on the list with this short description:
One of my favorite players in the class thanks to his tour-de-force performance at the Canadian Jr. A Prospects Game. The Harvard commit is a Wendel Clark-type who can really rip the puck. He piles up PIMs as well as points. Skating and agility are issues; he gets by on effort right now. If he can work out his mechanics, he could be Brendan Gallagher.
Kennedy highlighted his skating mechanics as something to work on. This is not inconsistent with what Kournianos wrote; skating is more than just going forward and staying up right. Still, Kennedy’s short blurb sees his physical play (to say the least) as a plus along with his shot.
The most descriptive profile of Wong is in this game report of an Okotoks and Brooks on March 31 at Recrutes by Derek Neumeier. This game was also Game 2 of their playoff series that the Oilers ultimately won. Neumeier picked a good one for Wong as he scored the team’s second goal early in the third in what would become a 3-2 loss. Wong also stayed out of the box. Still, Neumeier did not skimp on the details of what kind of player Wong is; it was a game report, but I believe Neumeier saw plenty of Wong to add to his observations. Please read the whole thing. I will highlight this section of it as it stood out to me:
Also like Roussel, however, there is a skill element to Wong’s game that can burn teams if they don’t account for it. A fast skater, he can accelerate in a hurry and move the puck while mid-flight. He caught Brooks with their pants down to start the 3rd period in this game, starting and finishing a fast give-and-go a dozen seconds after the puck was dropped to make the score 2-0 for Okotoks. He’s mostly a north-south guy, but he generates enough speed to get around defenders. Possesses a surprisingly hard one-timer, too.
The big risk, of course, is that Wong walks a dangerous line with his play, one that is easy to cross. He’s not always going to get away with chippy stick work, and there were a couple of instances in this game where Wong was dramatically knocked off his feet that could have been called as dives, but weren’t. If he wants to be a successful pest and not get stapled to the bench because of unnecessary penalties he will need to better learn what he can and can’t get away with.
Now this is curious. Neumeier saw Wong as a fast player, but consistent with Kennedy’s and Kournianos’ comments, it’s all about going forward and back. I wonder if the mechanics have more to do with changing directions, turning, stopping, and the like? But this description notes that Wong can absolutely fire a puck, he make plays in pace, and . At the same time, Neumeier goes into more detail about the penalties. It’s more than just being more disciplined; apparently Neumeier believes Wong can sell plays too much and uses his stick for bad as well as good. However, he does not think this is set in stone. Some of what Neumeier highlighted can be fixed.
The conclusion to his report is arguably the pitch one can make for drafting Wong at all. Yes, there is a lot to work on. Skating mechanics, knowing where the proverbial line is instead of constantly jumping it, getting stronger, and improving his overall game. But Wong is young, he is already college-bound (I suspect some his stuff in the AJHL will not fly in ECAC hockey), and he has already made strides to get here. He will have the time and environment to improve.
A Little Video
There is no compiled highlight package for Wong. However, the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL have plenty of highlight videos of their games, including most of their games against Okotoks. Unfortunately, they do not have one for the January 5th game where he had three points (one goal, two assists) and was named a star of the game against Brooks. But they do have a few bits and pieces here. Look for #10 in green and white to see Wong.
- October 15, 2017 - This game went into OT and Wong finished it. After hitting the logo on a chance at 4:36 into the video, Wong put up a more impressive play for the win. Starting at 4:42, Wong got around one Bandit in one big turn from the sideboards to the slot. He curled around two bodies (one Oiler, one Bandit), and beat the goalie to Wong’s right with a wrist shot. It’s a nice highlight if nothing else. Also shows some his quickness outside of going north-south.
- November 12, 2017 - This 5-1 win by the Oilers over the Bandits includes a goal and an assist for Wong. The assist is a secondary assist on the team’s first PPG of the game and is not seen in the video. The goal scoring play starts at 2:51. In 4-on-4 play, Wong hooked up Carson Beers with a pass as he gained the zone. Wong went to the net (and across the goalie), Beers shot the puck, and Wong finished the rebound at an angle. Nice stuff. Wong also nearly made the goalie pay for a turnover at 0:37 into the video too.
- March 31, 2018 - This is the game Neumeier reported from. The play that Wong scored on was at 3:01 of the video. It’s a rush play where you can see Wong slowly getting out of the zone to allow for the rush entry by his teammates, skating with the play, and finishing in stride. The skating is a bit choppy, but he finished it.
- April 8, 2018 - This is Game 6 of the Brooks-Okotoks series where the Oilers knocked out the Bandits. There is a lot of #10 in this video. You can see Wong taking the opening faceoff, Wong getting denied on a one-timer at 0:15 of the video; Wong throwing a late, high hit at 0:17 of the video (he took a penalty); a quick little pass for a zone exit off a bad Brooks pass at 1:36; scoring the 4th goal for the Oilers on a breakaway at 2:07 (there’s that north-south skating plus a strong wrist shot); Wong skating to the crease for a scoring opportunity but getting hamstrung by his position at 3:05; a forecheck working out at 3:16; firing a hard slap shot one-timer at 4:18; and kind of coming in late on defense at 4:54.
It is not much, but it is something and they show some good visuals of how Wong plays. If you can only view one, then I suggest the last one since #10 is present at multiple points throughout the video.
An Opinion of Sorts
You know how a fan will say “I hate Player X for his antics, but you’d love him if he was on your favorite team?” Wong seems to be a player to fit in that mold. I can agree immediately that he needs to be smarter on the ice and stay out of the box. Yes, he was a contributing player on a very good Oilers team. But taking an incredible amount of penalties helps nobody on Okotoks. I can see why somebody would see Wong’s PIM count and how he has obtained those penalties and want to pass on him. However, the full picture also includes the fact that Wong has a shot worth looking at, he can move well in some regard, and he played his way into a significant role on a strong team. He can even behave as evidenced by his playoff games. Again, anyone who selects Wong will have plenty of time for Wong to grow and develop his game as he is 17 and he will go to college after next season. As Okotoks was led by some 20 and 21 year old players, Wong will have the opportunity to be one of the leading players on Okotoks next season and playing in the ECAC will definitely drive further changes (hopefully, improvements).
Do I think this is a player the Devils should be looking at? I think so. This is the sort of project prospect that is perfect for late round picks. If Wong does not work out in college or in pro hockey, then not much is lost. But if he does, then it is a big win. Again, beyond the PIM count, there is plenty to like. Wong is not a small player, Wong has some speed, Wong has a shot, and Wong had a big jump in production on top of playing in a bigger role in 2017-18. There is a lot to work on, but it will be possible for Wong to do that. Pretty much everyone picked in the sixth and seventh rounds are risks. In the past, I’ve applauded picks like Jesper Bratt and Brett Seney - two undersized and overlooked wingers who had some nice signs of offensive skills. Wong is not really undersized and his reputation for doing illegal things on the ice is not overlooked. But there is evidence in production and from others who saw him play that he has an offensive game. That might develop further and the Devils can benefit. I think this is a sleeper that’s worth taking if he is still available in the sixth or seventh rounds. And if he is undrafted, I hope someone keeps tabs on him. He could be worth signing out of Harvard one day.
That’s my take on Austin Wong. Yours may be different. What do you think of Wong in general? How much are the penalties and his pest-like nature issues? Would you want the Devils (or any team) to draft a potential pest? Do you think that his production, his shot, and other skills suggest he has a future in pro hockey? Would you want the Devils to draft him late in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft? Do you think he will be drafted at all? Where do you think he will go in the draft? If you’ve seen him play for Okotoks in the AJHL last season, what did you think of him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Wong in the comments. Thank you for reading.