|Ottawa 67's defenseman Tyler Cuma could be one of the top blueliners selected in this year's NHL Draft
The second-year defenseman with the Ottawa 67's has already crossed off three big items on his to-do list. Now, he hopes to round out the year as a first-round pick at the NHL Entry Draft in June.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound native of Bowmanville, Ont., played in the Canada-Russia challenge in November and was named to play in the Home Hardware CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game in Edmonton, Alberta this week and the OHL All-Star game in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., next month.
"Obviously, it's my draft year and I want to do everything that I can possibly do,” said Cuma, who was rated 15th among North American skaters in the mid-term draft rankings from NHL's Central Scouting released earlier this month. "It's just a lot of dreams coming true for me to be recognized as a top player in this league. Getting picked for the prospects game was one of the top things on my list and I'm glad that I achieved it.”
Cuma is one of 40 Canadian Hockey League prospects that will play in Wednesday's game at Rexall Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers. He is anxious for the opportunity to play against his peers in what has become one of the most anticipated events on the scouting calendar.
"It's one of the goals that I wanted to achieve this year,” said Cuma, who has four goals and 28 points to go along with 52 penalty minutes in 43 games this season. "Obviously being recognized as one of the top 40 (prospects) throughout the country is a big achievement for me. It's the biggest game of the year for draft-eligible prospects. Just seeing the roster, there's an abundance of good players that are going to be there at that game. I can't wait to get out there and show the scouts what I've got.”
The game annually draws hundreds of scouts and several NHL general managers. Despite the high-profile audience, Cuma said that he has to treat it like any other game and just go about his business.
"I'm not going to lie, it's going to be a nerve-wracking game,” Cuma admitted. "But you can't really think about who's there. You just have to go and enjoy the time that we have there in Edmonton and just go out and have fun with your peers. I'll just take it all in. You know that some people are watching; but you just have to go out there and have fun.”
Scouts rave about Cuma's competitiveness. He isn't shy about playing a physical game in his own end and has enough skill to contribute offensively, as well. In a year stocked with top-end defensive prospects, Cuma knows that he has to be at his best, game in and game out, to stand out from the crowd. But he doesn't expect that his showing at this week's prospects game in Edmonton will have a huge impact on how the scouts see him.
"They (scouts) are watching me all year long, so I don't think that one game is going to make that big of a difference,” Cuma said. "It's definitely added pressure, but you can't think about it. You just have to go out and have fun with your fellow peers there and just put on a show.”
Cuma was the sixth-overall pick in the OHL draft in 2006 after a standout season as the captain of the Mississauga IceDogs' minor midgets. He quickly fit in on a talented 67's blueline and was recognized with an invitation last summer to play for Canada's Under-18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He said that playing in that event helped him realize that he had a chance to be among the top draft-eligible players in the league this season.
"I've been working hard throughout the year to try to get to where I want to be,” Cuma said. "It's good to see that I'm getting recognition from other people, but you can't think about it too much. You don't want to put that added pressure on yourself. I try to block everything out and just try to go out and have fun.”
Like most of the other prospects, Cuma needs to work on his strength and conditioning before he will be ready to play at the next level. He said that he made a commitment to get in better shape last summer and has benefited from that this season.
"I knew that this year was my draft year so I wanted to train myself extra hard,” Cuma said. "Cardio is definitely a big thing for me. I knew that I was going to get a lot of ice time this year and I just worked extra hard all summer. I've got to work on getting stronger and bigger over the next couple of summers. The hard work is definitely paying off.”
He said that playing for coaching legend Brian Kilrea has helped accelerate his learning curve. Cuma routinely plays 20-plus minutes a game and is relied on in practically every situation, despite being a second-year player.
"He has given me a tremendous opportunity,” said Cuma, who was Ottawa's nominee for the OHL's scholastic player of the year award last season as a rookie. "He has a lot of confidence in me – playing me on the penalty kill and power play. I get to play everything out there. He's teaching me some things positionally and in the defensive end. I think that learning from such a mentor like him has really helped me.”
Cuma's success so far this season has caused him to re-evaluate his goals for the NHL Draft in June.
"At first, I wanted to get picked up in the top two rounds and now that I've got a chance to go in the first round, that's definitely what I'm striving for,” Cuma said. "I want to try to go as early as I possibly can.”