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Top prospects smack balls, talk smack at Marlins Park

by Mike G. Morreale

MIAMI -- London Knights center Mitchell Marner shook his head and smiled when asked about Kingstown Frontenacs left wing Lawson Crouse, who was the only player to hit a home run during batting practice Wednesday afternoon at Marlins Park.

Marner, Crouse and four other top 2015 NHL Draft prospects got the chance to take batting practice and shag fly balls prior to the Miami Marlins' game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

"It was luck, that's what it was," Marner said of Crouse's shot, which cleared the fence in right field, about 335 feet from home plate.

Marner was joking, of course, but kept piling on the sarcasm with the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Crouse within an earshot. After a pressure-packed season that included highs, lows and plenty of media scrutiny, Wednesday provided a chance for the players to have some fun before the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft begins Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports) at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

After taking batting practice they got a chance to meet Marlins players and coaches and check out the home team clubhouse.

Erie Otters center Connor McDavid and Boston University center Jack Eichel, the top two players on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for this year's draft, also threw out ceremonial first pitches. Billy the Marlin, the Marlins' mascot, stood in as catcher.

"It's a totally different life and atmosphere; it's crazy," Eichel said of the baseball players. "Just the mood in the locker room and the dynamic of it, it's a lot different than a hockey locker room."

Other prospects on hand among the top six on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters were Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin (No. 3), Erie center Dylan Strome (No. 4), Crouse (No. 5) and Marner (No. 6).

"This is all new to me; I've never really played baseball before," McDavid said. "I don't think it really matters how I did so long as we were having fun."

Strome felt Crouse, who batted first, set the bar high with his homer.

"He was crushing them out," Strome said. "[Marner] was up next and I don't know what he was doing. I thought he was batting wrong-handed. But it happens. Everyone tries their hardest I guess. I thought I did pretty well, hit a couple deep but none out."

Strome's smack talk came with Marner standing a few feet away with a TV video camera he had taken from a cameraman.

"Dylan was pretty bad at batting," Marner said when given the chance to respond. "I think the Erie boys did the worst batting I've ever seen. They play a baseball tournament every year in Erie and it didn't turn out the way they wanted. It was pretty embarrassing watching them and I felt bad."

Hanifin, who many expect will be the first defenseman off the draft board Friday, said he was glad to be invited.

"I almost hit one off the wall; I came pretty close and if I pulled it a little bit more it would have been out of the park. But it was a lot of fun," he said. "This has been a pretty competitive and intense process to get to this point for all of us; now it's nice to kind of relax and have some fun with it all."

Hanifin said he also had a chance to talk with Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who hit his major leadue-leading 27th home run in the second inning Wednesday.

"It was great to meet him and talk to such a great power hitter," Hanifin said.

McDavid, the expected No. 1 pick by the Edmonton Oilers, is glad the moment of truth almost has arrived.

"I think you think about the whole journey it took to get [to the draft]," McDavid said. "The number of people who have been there to help you along the way. I'm really looking forward to this [Friday]."


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