From a hockey perspective, this has been a good week.
1) NHL training camp took place, with the 23-man Columbus roster finalized. I can't say I'm surprised by the makeup of the team, the only surprise for me being the use of a top prospect defenseman as the 7th guy, versus a veteran. "Controlled Chaos", aka Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski are the team's top two defensemen, unless you're talking to somebody who puts far too much emphasis on advanced statistics. This isn't baseball, they are the team's top pairing. Nikita Nikitin and Fedor Tyutin round out the top four. Adrian Aucoin was signed to be a mentor for the many young blueliners in the organization, but he can also intimidate with a big point shot. This friggin' guy used to make goalies crap their pants while still using a wooden stick. Babyface John Moore is on the squad, and is the early favorite to join Aucoin on the third pairing. Here's where my mild surprise comes into play- the seventh guy (for now, and maybe not even that long) is prospect David Savard. Savvy has more than a cup of coffee in the NHL under his belt- he has one of those boxes that you get from Tim Horton's when you want to impress at a meeting you called. They give you cups, sugar, sweetener, milk, cream, stir sticks, everything you need.
Savard is known for his offense. He always was. Back when he was with Moncton (I live a couple of hours from Moncton, and it sucks, for the record) he was a big point producer. Where I start to have some pause is when it comes to his defensive game. He's got some work to do, and he can't get any work done sitting in the rafters of Nationwide. Like Tim Erixon, I would like to see Savard down in Springfield, polishing his game off with the best team in the AHL. All of this may be moot, however, if Moore and Savard are the third pairing more often that not, throwing youth and inexperience out the window. Under this scenario, Aucoin would be more or less a locker room/practice coach/7th defender, while Moore and Savard would form the heart attack pairing.
2) On Wednesday night I, along with my Halifax bros and shebros, were treated to the CHL Top Prospects Game. It's an annual event, taking place in a CHL city (changing year-to-year) featuring the top NHL draft-eligible talent playing in the Canadian Hockey League.
This is a big deal for Halifax. The Top Prospects game is a national event, receiving a ton of press, and this game featured a battle between Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones, the two players who are battling for the top overall selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. A quick glance at the NHL midterm rankings reveals that a vast majority of the top 30 or so players ranked took part in this game.
To enable a partisan crowd, three Halifax Mooseheads players were placed on a team together. They were named to Team Cherry, coached by none other than Don Cherry himself. Love him or hate him, (I'm a member of the former) he is a major fixture in Canadian hockey and it was great to be a part of the huge ovation given to him when his name was announced. The Don had Sportsnet analyst Nick Kypreos, along with CHL coaching legend Brian Kilrea and Killer's long-time assistant Bert O'Brien helping with coaching duties. The three Mooseheads were MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Zack Fucale, who I've been profiling during the lockout.
Team Cherry faced off against Team Orr. Unfortunately, Bobby Orr couldn't make it, so coaching duties went to Mike MacPhee, a local man and former Cup winner and NHL coach. MacPhee rounded out his staff with more local hockey folk- Mooseheads coach Dominic Ducharme and wait for it- former Columbus GM Doug MacLean, a native of PEI and like Kypreos, a Sportsnet analyst.
The game itself isn't an all-star game, though the talent level would lead some to think it is. The kids taking part in this game know that their draft stock won't plummet with a bad showing, but a good performance can do wonders for them down the stretch.
Team Orr ended up winning the game 3-0, the first shutout in event history.
There were a few things that I took from the game. Team Cherry featured more of the higher-ranked players, along with some of the lower-ranked prospects. Team Orr was a grouping of the middle-ranked kids, with MacKinnon wearing the "C" for Cherry and Jones captaining Orr. The Cherry players played far more individually, versus the team approach that Orr took.
MacKinnon looked like a guy who tried to do everything he could to give his hometown fans a reason to go nuts. In the end, he couldn't pot one, nor could linemates Jonathan Drouin or Ryan Hartman. Speaking of Hartman, you may remember him as a member of the Gold medal-winning Team USA at the recent World Junior tournament. In Wednesday's game, he came out of the gate banging and crashing, levelling Laurent Dauphin with a huge check early in the first period. He followed that hit up with a scrap, and continued to throw the body around, making room for MacKinnon and Drouin. I fell in love with the idea of the Jackets drafting him in June. NHL Central Scouting has him ranked 25th overall in their midterm North American Skater rankings, and he'll likely end up as a second rounder. He's a point-per-game player for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, but has the physical side to his game. I have visions of he and Boone Jenner locking shit up on the shutdown line down the road.
The third of the Subban boys, Jordan, had a great game. In addition to some great defensive plays, he was very noticeable with the puck on his stick. He looked just like his brother and fellow blueliner PK. Not bad for a player who was added to the game as an injury replacement.
Shea Theodore, Nikita Zadorov, Curtis Lazar, Max Domi, Adam Erne and Valentin Zykov really impressed me. Seth Jones did too-man, he is smooth out there. He's a great skater with a huge wingspan and doesn't make many mistakes.
If the Jackets have the first pick in the draft, I still think they should take MacKinnon. Let the Islanders take Jones, where he can play in Brooklyn with his old man Popeye, an assistant coach with the NBA's Nets.
3) Something that I found didn't receive enough press- Kristian Huselius retired. While Juice's tenure with the Jackets ended on a sour note, with accusations of rushing him back into the lineup too early, he remains one of the more entertaining players to wear Union Blue. His first season with the Jackets was the playoff year, and I loved that he could increase my pulse when he had the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. It's sad to see a player retire earlier than expected due to injury. All the best, Juice.
4) Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Tim Erixon and Curtis McElhinney were named to the AHL All-Star Game. All three were completely deserving, and if the lockout was still in effect you know Cam Atkinson would be participating as well. JAM is having a great year, and is proving to be a very shrewd signing by the Columbus braintrust. Erixon is having a great year as well, and I'm in favor of him returning to the Falcons for the time being. C-Mac was a guy who optically seemed like a throw-in in the Antoine Vermette deal, to ensure the 50 contract limit for each team wasn't breached. This is how most of us saw it, but to our surprise, he was signed as a free agent this past summer and all he's done is put up a phenomenal season with first-place Springfield. Congrats to these three guys.
5) The Jackets aren't naming a captain to start the season. They are beginning the year with three players wearing the "A"- R.J. Umberger, Derek Dorsett and Jack Johnson. The leadership group is in place, regardless of whether a player has the extra stitching on his sweater. In addition to those three, James Wisniewski, Vinny Prospal, Adrian Aucoin et al form an experienced group who will guide the way for the NHL's youngest team. The role of captain will sort itself out.