|Belleville Bulls defenseman Shawn Lalonde is the 32nd-ranked North American skater heading into the NHL Draft, according to Central Scouting.
The Belleville Bulls' smooth-skating defenseman is as anxious as any of the other top prospects to be picked in June's draft; Lalonde, though, is one of the few draft-eligible players still playing meaningful hockey.
Lalonde helped the Bulls push the Kitchener Rangers to a seven-game Ontario Hockey League final series, and is in Kitchener this week competing in the Memorial Cup tournament against the three other top teams from the Canadian Hockey League.
Not that Lalonde is complaining about the amount of hockey he has put on his odometer this season. He said he has enjoyed a long playoff run, which included that seven-game OHL final loss and now an appearance in the Memorial Cup.
"It's fun to play right now," Lalonde said. "You have to have the passion to continue playing all the way through. Not a lot of teams are here and can have the opportunity to play in this tournament. The experience has been fabulous. We are learning every day."
The extra playing time has made it easy for scouts and managers to get an extra look at Lalonde, who was rated No. 32 among North American skaters for the draft in the final Central Scouting list that was released in April.
Lalonde said he doesn't feel any added pressure from the extra attention.
"I'm not thinking too much about that, but it is in the back of my mind," said Lalonde, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound native of Orleans, Ont. "If I think too much about it, it might affect my game. I just like to play and give everything that I've got and have no regrets."
Offense always has come easy to Lalonde. This season, he had nine goals and 31 points in 66 games as an OHL sophomore and then added two goals and nine points in 21 playoff games. Those offensive numbers were up marginally from his rookie season; his greatest improvement came in his plus-minus rating, which went from plus-6 a year ago to plus-28 this season.
That dramatic improvement is a good indication of the commitment he made to improve his defensive game.
"I think I was expected to play more of a defensive role," Lalonde said. "I've been working on my defensive game because my coach told me that all the scouts know that I can skate, I can shoot, I can pass and do all of those things. They just want to know if I can play in my own end."
Lalonde is playing under coach and GM George Burnett, who had a brief stint behind the Edmonton Oilers' bench and spent two seasons as an assistant with the Anaheim Ducks. Burnett demands responsibility in the defensive end and worked with Lalonde to make sure he could play in any situation.
"I think Shawn has improved his play significantly defensively," Burnett said. "I think when he's made mistakes, he responds with good plays at both ends of the rink. Those are signs of a maturing young man. He's got dynamite wheels – NHL-caliber skating. He doesn't mind the corners and the battles and he's improving his skills and execution and all of those things on a regular basis."
The scouts have noticed the improvement, as well.
"He kept getting better as the year went on," said E.J. McGuire, the NHL's director of Central Scouting. "George makes a player earn his stripes through the year and it makes for a stronger player and a more solid development. In the case of Lalonde, he just kept getting better.
"Everyone was saying, 'Tell me more about Lalonde,' and I thought, 'You know what? I need to get another look at him.' With each subsequent look, he got better and better. We think that he is not only going to be a good draft pick but a good NHLer projecting into the future."
Lalonde plays with a solid group of defensemen in Belleville, which includes NHL prospects P.K. Subban, a second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens, and Nigel Williams, a second-rounder of the Colorado Avalanche.
"We think that he is not only going to be a good draft pick but a good NHLer projecting into the future." -- E.J. McGuire, Director of Central Scouting"We have a great team here," Lalonde said. "We have great leadership and we've been great all year. We just want to focus on this tournament and nothing else. We don't want to miss this opportunity. It might not happen ever again for many players."
Lalonde isn't the only top-end draft prospect playing at the Memorial Cup this week. Mikkel Boedker of the Rangers was rated No. 11 in the final rankings, and Spokane goaltender Dustin Tokarski was rated No. 9 among North American goaltenders.
Lalonde said he enjoys competing against other top draft prospects to show the scouts that he wants to compete. He had a great series against the Oshawa Generals and Michael Del Zotto, No. 15 in the final CS rankings, on the way to the OHL final, and admitted he pays a little extra attention to the other players the scouts are watching.
"When you see them carry the puck and know that people are watching them, you try a little bit harder because they might be your competition," Lalonde said. "It's just like Del Zotto carrying the puck down the ice – he's my competition. That's the way I think and try to match them because I know they are ranked higher. You might get that little extra push."
McGuire likes what he sees in Lalonde and expects him to develop into a quality NHL defenseman and a player that deserves to be rated among the other top defensemen available in this year's crop.
"In my career, this is the deepest crop of defensemen who are going to play in the National Hockey League and Lalonde is one of them," McGuire said. "With so many good defensemen (available this year), he may be one of those finds that a couple of years later we look back in the books and say, 'How did he slip to number whatever he's going to be drafted?' "