As Chris VandeVelde chops and drops point drives past goalies at a rate helping to keep him an NHL player, here is tip about talent evaluation:
If a player has size, a high compete level, and major league skating ability, he should be considered a prospect into his late twenties.
On trips to the University of North Dakota to watch his son Brett, Ron Hextall saw enough of VandeVelde, captain of the Fighting Sioux, to want to see more, even after the Edmonton Oilers thought they had seen enough.
“We saw a big body with a nice combination of skill, skating and good work habits,” said Hextall. “We felt there was more there than he had shown as a pro and worth bringing into our organization.”
Perhaps VandeVelde’s hands will continue to prove better than the Oilers’ ability to overlook a skating deficit, if it ever really was a deficit. The 2005 day they drafted him in the fourth round, the Edmonton scouts, too, said, VandeVelde was the kind of guy who grew on you but, after he completed four years at UND, that growth appeared stunted. He scored only three points in 28 NHL games and 59 in 192 AHL contests.
After managing just one assist in 18 games with the Flyers a year ago, VandeVelde was sent back to the Phantoms out of training camp. His chances to establish himself seemed to be at the tipping point.
But off two redirects, a breakaway goal in Buffalo, and last night’s calm and confident kick of Micheal Del Zotto’s rebound on to the forehand to score a rare and wondrous Flyer game-opening goal, there are four goals in five games worth of evidence suggesting VandeVelde is doing much more than just killing 40 seconds until Craig Berube can put Claude Giroux out there again.
The Flyers are out of the penalty-killing cellar, all the way up 28th place, in part because VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have become Berube’s second pair. Never mind they were scored on in last night’s high energy 5-2 win over Winnipeg, the one-for-five on the night was something the coach does not necessarily mind, considering where his PK has been
“They are applying pressure and doing a great job,” said the coach.
All that pressure would be on Steve Mason if penalty killers can’t get from Point A to Point B as well as VandeVelde does. But if the Oilers saw this level of compete level from him, they were given no evidence of this ability to plant in scoring areas and get sticks on pucks.
To break it down for you, VandeVelde can break down those point drives between his legs (against Pittsburgh to tie the game in the third period); on the forehand (against the Islanders) and forehand-to-backhand (against Tampa Bay).
“I’ve always practiced it, so I should get good at it,” said VandeVelde, but of course, some get better at it than others. The way the defensive zone has become clogged with shot blockers and as big and good as goalies have become, the ability to change direction of a puck on goal may be as useful an offensive skill as nailing a shot just inside a post.
The Flyers still miss the net too much. But after almost a half season of wondering where their next goal would come from if Jake Voracek or Giroux didn’t score it, they have moved into the top half of the league in goals per game, indication that their secondary scoring and their even-strength scoring is picking up, thanks largely to eight goals in the last 16 games by the line of Bellemare, Vinny Lecavalier and VandeVelde.
In today’s, fast-paced, short shift, NHL, teams need, at minimum, energy from their fourth unit. But the Flyers need goals too, especially until they get a playmaking center for a second unit.
In the meantime an organization that often has performed deft trash picking of minor leaguers left on the curb -- Larry Zeidel, Barry Ashbee, Blake Dunlop, Paul Evans, Tim Tookey, Don Nachbaur, Terry Murray – has found another useful piece in another scrap heap.
“Chris is a heads-up, smart player,” says Berube. “He is really competing now, why he is where he is at and doing that he is doing.
“He is playing a hard game and if he continues doing that he is going to be successful. The line has continued to play well, why I haven’t changed it.”
Turning 28 in two months, VandeVelde is old enough to know that, even as the kid on a line with a 34-year-old future Hall of Famer and a 29-year-old rookie. Perhaps when you have been bounced back and forth from the AHL as often as has VandeVelde, either you learn how to bounce higher or spend the rest of your hockey days on a bus, in Europe or worst of all, on a bus in Europe.
“I always knew I could score,” said VandeVelde, “I just never was put in that role (as a pro).
“We played 15 minutes tonight, I don’t know another fourth line in the league that plays that much.”
We don’t know another fourth line in the league that is scoring this much either. Actually, we don’t even know why we still are calling it a fourth line.