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A special time of year for junior hockey

by Brad Holland

Sarnia Sting center Steven Stamkos is one player who could be the top selection in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft that takes place in Ottawa in June.
For the players, coaches and fans of Canadian Major Junior hockey, the next few weeks should prove to be an emotional roller coaster as the teams involved attempt to switch gears into playoff mode. For the scouts watching these kids, trying to project the next big NHL star, it could be just as entertaining.

As teams jockey for playoff position, or out-and-out fight for their playoff lives, the players on those teams are looking to solidify their rankings for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. The added intensity makes watching all of the top prospects, who have so many reasons to raise their game at this time of year, a real treat. Especially since in many seasons, it's the players who continually improve who are the ones taken with the highest picks at the draft.

B.J. MacDonald, one of the seven North American scouts on the NHL Central Scouting staff, is eager to see which players are able to take their game to the next level.

"I think we like to see players that are consistent, but we also like to see players get better and better because that's what we're doing, we're trying to project what that player will be like in three or four years," MacDonald said. "So, if we see the kid consistently improving, that's a big plus and it's a good sign for us."

For the players whose teams have either been knocked out of playoffs or who are so far out in front that the teams are basically on cruise control heading into the playoffs -- although this season things are pretty tight all across the CHL -- the "dog days" of the regular season can be tough on maintaining the necessary focus. But the scouts take that into consideration and concentrate on the player -- not his team's position in the standings.

"Obviously if he plays really well and contributes to the team, then they have a better chance to get into the playoffs," said MacDonald, who scouts the Western Hockey League heavily. "And we look into the fact on how he maybe leads his team on or off the ice. But as far as his team's playoff position or not, we try to focus more on the player as to what he does for the team and what skills he brings. We don't really rank them and say to ourselves, 'Well, his team is in the playoffs so we'll bump him up.'"

Chris Edwards is also a North American scout for Central Scouting. Edwards is based out of Ontario and primarily scouts the Ontario Hockey League. It is a league that he is very familiar with, as he was an on-ice official in the league for a number of years -- in fact, he once broke up a fight between ex-NHLers Drake Berehowsky and Eric Lindros. Once again, the OHL looks primed to place a number of blue-chip talents into NHL rosters in the coming seasons.

Much has been made about this year's top prospects -- Sarnia's Steven Stamkos, Geulph's Drew Doughty and Peterborogh's Zach Bogosian, to name a few -- but any one of the top 25 skaters in this draft, and possibly more, could turn out to be the player that a franchise can build around. This year's draft depth is that good.

But it is not only the top-line scorers and No. 1 goalies who are getting the looks this time of year. Central Scouting is keenly aware of the role each player has on his team, and the scouts spend hours debating and considering what role each player will have to play at the next level in order to be successful.

Projecting those roles, and the players' ability to fill them, is at the core of the scout's job.

EJ Maguire, the head of Central Scouting, is a former NHL coach. He knows that players will take on different roles from their current assignments. He stresses the evolutionary process players must undergo to his scouts on a regular basis.

"When you talk to EJ and (Calgary coach) Mike Keenan, they'll tell you these guys come into training camp and they have 100-point junior seasons, but for whatever reason, they aren't going to be able to do that (at the next level)," Edwards said. "So, they'll have to buy into the fact that if they want to make that team, this is what their role is."

The NHL is littered with junior scoring greats who were forced to accept a different role in the NHL.

The Detroit Red Wings' Darren McCarty, for example, scored 55 goals and 127 points his final season with the Belleville Bulls of the OHL, but he was never able to put up more than 19 in any one of his 13 NHL seasons. However, McCarty won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, was an integral piece of the Motor City's famed "Grind Line" of the 1990s, and scored the Cup-clinching goal in 1997, ending the Wings' 42-year Stanley Cup drought.

Not bad for a player who fought his way into the NHL.

Brampton Battalion center Cody Hodgson has impressed the scouts who have followed his development all season long.

"If they say, 'I want to make this team, I'll do whatever it takes,' then they have a real shot," Edwards said. "But then, some guys just can't do it."

Edwards sees players throughout the OHL this season who have the ability to make the jump to the next level, be it fourth-line "energy" guys to future No. 1 centers with unlimited scoring potential.

He sees the Brampton Battalion's Cody Hodgson as one of those top-end centers, and has been following the young player's development since he joined the league last season. He has been impressed with the fact that Hodgson doesn't seem to have a ceiling.

"Last year, you knew he was going to be good, but now when you see him, and you can see he's probably going to be a number-one guy at the next level. Everything about him is getting better," Edwards said.

An NHL executive who scouts the OHL heavily also remarked on Hodgson's play in a recent interview, comparing his abilities to that of a young Adam Oates.

A potential Adam Oates, who was a five-time 100-point player, a career 1,000-assist man and a guy who played to more than a point-per-game clip in 1,337 NHL games, ranked No. 10 in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. That fact alone shows the strength of this year's crop, touted as one of the best in recent memory.

That draft depth makes this year's run up to the playoffs that much more exciting, for the players, coaches, and scouts alike -- and especially for the fans.

Around the WHL -- The race for the Western Conference Championship remains up for grabs with the three teams still in the hunt entering the final week of the regular season. Spokane, led by three-year veteran Drayson Bowman and goaltending prospect Dustin Tokarski, is in the driver's seat -- tied with Tri-City in points, with 102, but holding a game in hand. Vancouver has 100 points and is guaranteed at least the No. 2 slot in the Conference as it has clinched the B.C. Division. The Giants could wind up as the No. 1 with a little help from Portland. The Winter Hawks are dead last in the West, but with two games against the Chiefs in the season's final week, the Winter Hawks could play spoiler to a divisional rival and end their season on a bit of a high note. The Chiefs and Americans will also face off one last time in the regular season, in Tri-City's final game of the season, March 15 in Tri-City. Depending on what happens in the lead-up to that matchup, the game could be extremely competitive and intense. Not only is the Western Championship on the line, but also the opportunity to avoid meeting Kelowna or Everett in the first round. The Rockets, anchored by blue-chip blueliners Tyler Myers and Luke Schenn, and the Silvertips, 10-1-0-1 in their past 12, would likely be a far more dangerous first-round opponent than the Kamloops Blazers, who currently sit 22 and 23 points behind the Rockets and Silvertips, respectively. With the top seed also guaranteed the lowest-remaining seed in each successive round, No. 1 overall is a very valuable tool in the run-up to the WHL Championship. … The race is still on for the Eastern Conference's fourth seed, and home ice in the first round of the playoffs. With only three games remaining for most teams in the Eastern Conference, it appears as if the berth will go to either Kootenay or Medicine Hat. The Ice are unbeaten in regulation in 10 games while the Tigers have won eight of 10. The WHL's fourth-leading scorer, Tyler Ennis (2008) has been a big part of the reason that the Tigers have been able to keep pace with the Ice, as the Edmonton native has put up eight goals and 17 points in his past nine games.

Ontario Hockey League

Windsor's Taylor Hall has not accepted Sault Ste. Marie's claim to the West Division title just yet.

Despite the fact that he is not eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until 2010, the 16-year-old rookie from Kingston, Ontario, earned the Boston Pizza OHL Player of the Week honors for the second consecutive week this week, as he put up seven goals and 12 points and a plus-7 rating in three games.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Spitfires earned five of a possible six points, giving them a shot at catching the Greyhounds before season's end.

In the biggest game of the week, Hall scored four goals and added an assist in Thursday's 5-4 defeat of the Greyhounds in Windsor. With the win, and a follow-up OT loss to the Sarnia Sting the following evening, the Spitfires are now only four points back of the Greyhounds with two games in hand.

However, the Greyhounds would earn the tiebreaker based on their win total; 42 to 37 for the Spitfires. So the 'Spits' will have to play a point better than the Greyhounds (who have only two games, both at home, remaining on their schedule) in their final four games.

The Spitfires will play three of those final four games at home, and all four in only six days, to close out their regular season.

Around the OHL -- The Oshawa Generals retired former star Eric Lindros' No. 88 jersey Thursday in a pre-game ceremony before a game against the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors. Lindros recalled his favorite OHL memory as his Memorial Cup Championship with the Generals in 1990. … The most interesting playoff race in the OHL this season is not for the top slot in either conference, or for home-ice advantage, and not even for who will earn the eighth seed. Rather, the race is to who can stay out of the eighth seed, and therefore miss the pre-playoff favorite Kitchener Rangers in the first round. Right now, Saginaw and Sarnia sit eighth and seventh, respectively, with 72 points each, and Guelph and Plymouth sit sixth and fifth, respectively, with 73 points each. Plymouth appears to be in the best position to remain where it is, with a game in hand on each of the other three teams. … Kitchener set a team record for points this week with its 4-3 defeat of Saginaw that gave the club 107 regular-season points. The Rangers also tied the win mark of 52. Each record had been set by the 1983-84 Kitchener Rangers, a team that included such NHLers as Shawn Burr, Wayne Presley, David Shaw and John Tucker.

United States Hockey League

The Ohio Junior Blue Jackets called in the cavalry this week, as Boston Bruins' second-round pick Tommy Cross joined the team for the first two games of his USHL career.

Cross, who played his high school hockey at Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn., has joined the Junior Blue Jackets at the right time, as the team won each of the two games with Cross in the lineup and now boasts an impressive five-game winning streak.

With only 13 games left in the regular season, Columbus has ample time to get its game together and for Cross to get comfortable with his new teammates, prior to the USHL playoffs.

Cross has committed to Boston College for 2008-09.

Around the USHL -- Tri-City forward Alex Hudson extended his scoring streak to seven games this week, scoring three goals and six points in two Storm wins. Hudson now has 36 points in 49 games this season, his second in the USHL. … Omaha goaltender Drew Palmisano went 2-0 last week, making 43 saves on 45 shots overall, with a 1.00 GAA and a shutout against the Lincoln Stars. The Lancers edged closer to clinching the West Division. … Tri-City's Mario Lamoureux picked up his 121st career USHL point Saturday, in a 5-1 defeat of Green Bay, breaking the all-time Tri-City points record. The record had been set by former Storm great Bill Thomas. … Indiana was shut out for the first time this season, a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Sioux Falls. It marked the first time the Ice was shut out since April 13, 2007, against Cedar Rapids.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

The QMJHL's newest franchise -- to be located in the Montreal suburb of Verdun and competing in games in 2008-09 -- released its jersey this week, and promised its fans it would contend for the playoffs as early as the first season.

"Our last few years at the draft have been fruitful and we are very confident that we will be able to count on having a competitive club next year," Martin Routhier, president of the new Montreal franchise told the QMJHL Web site. "Our development years are behind us and at the very least, we are now aiming for a playoff spot."

He further went on to say that be believes the Montreal franchise would be received well by the city's citizens.

"Hockey has a special place in the hearts of Montrealers and we would like the Club de hockey junior de Montréal to find a spot there too. We will be offering an exciting standard of play and we want the fans to catch junior hockey fever in Montreal," he said.

Around the QMJHL --Telus Offensive Player of the Week went to Drummondville forward Garrett Peters, who scored seven goals and had nine points in only four games. He was especially dangerous on the Voltigeurs' power play, notching five of his seven goals. Peters, an over-ager who came from the Halifax Mooseheads earlier this season, now has 30 goals and 54 points with the Voltigeurs. … Telus Defensive Player of the Week honors went to Lewiston MAINEiacs goaltender Jonathan Bernier, the first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings, went 2-1 with a 1.34 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage in stopping 88 of 92 opponent shots along the way.

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