After scouts saw Broncos center Cody Eakin
on the big stage, however, it became worth the trip.
Eakin was one of 40 prospects from the three Canadian Hockey League member circuits invited to the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game in January in Oshawa, Ont. Playing on the wing next to consensus top pick John Tavares
, Eakin had a pair of goals and a plus-2 rating. At 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds, he was fearless in battling with players far bigger, including most memorably with 6-7, 218-pound Kingston defenseman Taylor Doherty
. Eakin was a big part of Team Orr's 6-1 win against Team Cherry and was named his team's most outstanding player.
"I didn't really know what to expect at the Top Prospects Game," Eakin said. "The caliber of players there was unbelievable. They were the top junior players in Canada, so I went in with an open mind. I was set up on a good line with John Tavares and I couldn't have asked for anything better, so we managed to win."
NHL Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire knows any player can have one good game. In Eakin's case, however, the Top Prospects Game made NHL scouts notice Eakin and book a few trips to Swift Current.
"It probably started with Top Prospects," McGuire said. "A lot of people say the Top Prospects Game is only one game, but he grabs people's attention in January at that game and forced scouts to go watch him in the regular season and he didn't disappoint. Cody Eakin took that most valuable player for his team at the Top Prospects and built on it to the point where we predict he'll be a No. 1-round choice."
Eakin is No. 29 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2009 Entry Draft, up from No. 52 in the midterm rankings. Eakin finished with 24 goals and 48 points in just 54 games, and he added 3 goals in seven playoff games.
Swift Current coach/GM Dean Chynoweth said Eakin's biggest strength is his speed.
"Cody is a tremendous skater and a lot of the things he does come from his skating ability," Chynoweth said. "He's also ultra-competitive, and where he has a lot of success is getting in on the forecheck and chasing and racing for loose pucks. He also uses his speed a lot with the puck on the entries into the offensive zone. His speed also helps him in the defensive zone by catching guys from behind and creating turnovers in situations where guys who don't skate as well wouldn't be able to do. He beats a lot of guys to the outside and that's because of his skating ability."
Just because his skating is good now doesn't mean it can't get better, so Eakin has been trying to strengthen his legs.
"Skating has always been my strong point," Eakin said. "I've always been a naturally good skater. I've been working out off ice and I've been working on my strength and quickness, which hopefully translates to my on-ice performance."
Besides working on his speed, Eakin also plans on continuing to work at playing on the wing. Generally a center in Swift Current, Chynoweth feels that since Eakin's game is scoring and using his speed to beat defensemen to the outside, it would make him a better fit on the wing. Scouts got a sneak preview of Eakin on the wing at Top Prospects.
"He doesn't mind playing the wing because he will do whatever makes the team better," Chynoweth said. "For us I think there will be times he will play the wing and other times that he will play center. I think at pro that he will be a winger, which is my opinion. You see guys like Mike Cammalleri or Rene Bourque with that speed coming off the wing. I think that's how the game is now because the speedier players are on the wing and you want your center to distribute the puck, which isn't necessarily his strong suit. Cody has good hockey sense and shoots the puck well, which is more suited for a winger. His speed allows him to get into position for scoring chances."
Swift Current's season came to a disheartening end when the Broncos lost to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the seventh game of the first round of the WHL playoffs. While losing in that fashion stings, Eakin is treating it as a learning experience.
"I think losing in Game 7 this season helped build up my character," he said. "Even though we lost, I definitely learned something for along the way. A seventh game can go either way, but it helped teach me the way you have to play and the way you have to battle every shift because it could be your last."
That reaction is proof to Chynoweth that Eakin is a leader as well as a talented player.
"He's ultra-competitive and everyone was disappointed in how the season finished," Chynoweth said. "We're going to have to use it as a learning experience going forward next year. He's one guy that's a natural-born leader. Even as a 17-year-old he has the respect of the older guys. He doesn't always have to say something, but he makes guys accountable and he makes players around him better."Contact Adam Schwartz at email@example.com