The initial phase of constructing rosters for the 18th annual Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 16 at the Halifax Metro Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was completed Wednesday when the captains, alternates and coaches were announced during a media conference call.
The Top Prospects Game showcases the Canadian Hockey League's top 40 NHL draft-eligible players, featuring talent from the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
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Former NHL player/coach and current broadcaster Don Cherry, and former player and Stanley Cup champion Mike McPhee will coach the teams. McPhee, who spent nine of his 11 NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, will work the bench for Team Orr, while the effervescent Cherry will serve as coach for Team Cherry. McPhee won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1986.
The full rosters for both teams will be formulated by NHL club nominations, a process that will be completed by Dec. 10. For the first time, however, captains and alternates were announced prior to the release of the team rosters. The players chosen to wear letters included those skaters occupying the top two spots from each league on Central Scouting's preliminary league rankings of the CHL.
Halifax Mooseheads center Nathan MacKinnon was named captain for Team Cherry, while Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones was chosen captain for Team Orr.
"When you're coming down the blue line [against Seth Jones], you better keep your head up," Cherry told the media via conference call. "When Nathan handles the puck, he reminds me of [Jeff] Skinner in a way. He's got that move and the shots and is a fast skater.
"To tell you the truth, I can't remember two better captains in this game," Cherry continued. "I've had good captains before in [Ryan] Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, but never seen two at the top like this. It's going to be interesting to see these two guys going at it head to head."
MacKinnon will be joined by alternates Jonathan Drouin of Halifax and Darnell Nurse of Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL. MacKinnon ranks fourth in the QMJHL this season with 43 points, including 20 goals, in 25 games. Drouin is 10th in the league despite missing six games to injury with 40 points (15 goals) in 19 contests.
MacKinnon was playfully asked if the Top Prospects Game would offer a good opportunity to drop the gloves and settle the score against Jones.
"I don't think I want to fight Seth, to be honest," MacKinnon said. "He's got four feet on me, so he has a distinct advantage there."
Cherry immediately added, "You don't want to fight Seth Jones. I need you for the whole game."
Cherry also said he would undoubtedly have MacKinnon and Drouin on the same line. The duo has combined for 35 goals for Halifax this season.
"I'd be a dummy not to have them playing together," Cherry said.
MacKinnon said he's game for whatever Cherry needs him to do to come out victorious.
"Honestly, it doesn't matter who I play with," MacKinnon said. "Obviously, Jon and I have great chemistry together, but at the same time we're comfortable playing without each other. It's up to the coaching staff and what they feel is best for the team. We're going to go out there and play our best game regardless of who we're playing with."
Nurse, who has exhibited plenty of smarts and grit along the back end for the Greyhounds this season, has four goals, 17 points, 57 penalty minutes and a plus-5 rating in 26 games. He is ranked No. 2 among OHL skaters.
Jones will be joined by alternates Sean Monahan of the OHL's Ottawa 67's and Hunter Shinkaruk of the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers.
"Having the two frontrunners for the first overall selection for this year's draft, going head to head against each other as captains of their respective teams, adds a uniqueness to the event because it matches two highly skilled, motivated and competitive prospects who play different positions," Central Scouting director Dan Marr said. "The skills, attributes and intangibles of both Seth and Nathan make them worthy captains for their teams. They are both highly competitive and unselfish in the way they utilize their assets, that they're always leaders by example."
Jones, rated No. 1 among all skaters in the WHL by Central Scouting, has six goals, 17 points and a plus-17 rating in 24 games for the Winterhawks.
Monahan, rated the No. 1 skater in the OHL, is in the midst of a 10-game suspension handed down by the OHL for an illegal hit on Nov. 18. The forward, who has served three games of the suspension, has 12 goals and 36 points in 24 games. Shinkaruk, who ranks ninth in the Western Hockey League with 35 points in 24 games, is No. 2 behind Jones on Central Scouting's rankings of prospects in the WHL.
Since the event was introduced in 1996, the game has featured 10 players who were selected with the first pick in the NHL Draft: Chris Phillips (Ottawa Senators), Joe Thornton (Boston Bruins), Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay Lightning), Rick Nash (Columbus Blue Jackets), Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning), John Tavares (New York Islanders), Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers).
The first choice in the 2012 Draft, Nail Yakupov of the OHL's Sarnia Sting (Edmonton Oilers), did not participate in last year's game after he suffered an ankle injury while playing for Russia at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
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