Suspended Wisconsin forward Nic Kerdiles received a rare opportunity last weekend when he got to skate for the National Team Development Program last weekend in two exhibitions against NCAA teams, while serving a ten-game suspension for an amateurism violation assessed by the NCAA. I had the opportunity to see him play on Friday night against the University of Minnesota, and here's an in-depth look at his play.
A lot of the talk in both rinks I was in last weekend centered on the question of how was it even possible for Kerdiles to skate in these games. My initial instinct was that it didn't quite pass the smell test either, though there is a bit of logic to it. It's common practice for NCAA players to leave their teams mid-season to participate with the World Junior team, and prior to USA Hockey creating their own pre-tourney camp, it was common practice for those teams to skate in an exhibition game or two against NCAA teams. Kerdiles' situation is really no different. It was a pretty mutually beneficial arrangement too. Wisconsin got one of their players some invaluable game time, and the NTDP was pretty desperate for players after suffering a rash of injuries. Of course, Kerdiles suffered a knee sprain on Saturday night that will keep him out of action until his suspension is over and he can return to Wisconsin.
Kerdiles spent the night on a line with two Notre Dame recruits, playing on the left wing with center Dawson Cook, and left wing Kevin Labanc. He also saw some time on the power play.
Kerdiles spent much of the first period looking exactly like a player that hadn't played in a real game since last April. There's no substitute for playing at game speed, and Kerdiles was about half a beat behind the play. But after a few shifts, he started to settle into his comfort zone a little more.
In his last shift of the first period, one of his own defensemen fired the puck knee-high off the boards just trying to clear the puck out of his zone, while Kerdiles was swinging through the neutral zone. There's a hockey adage about good players making bad passes look good, and that's exactly what Kerdiles did. He calmly caught the pass off the boards with his glove, set it down without breaking stride, and led a 3-on-2 rush up the ice. It was a really nice play that created an offensive chance rather than giving the puck back to the other team in the neutral zone. Kerdiles dished the puck to a teammate who drove wide while Kerdiles hung in the high slot. The play fizzled when the teammate tried to drop the puck back to Kerdiles for a one-time, but the pass was off mark, forcing Kerdiles to take it on his backhand, and allowing the Minnesota defenseman to break up the play before Kerdiles could get the puck to his forehand for a shot.
From there, Kerdiles began to get a little more comfortable. Early in the second period, he made a nice play along the halfwall with the puck, when he absorbed a hit from a Gopher defender, and was still able to dish the puck off to a teammate. One of the biggest adjustments players have to make from junior to college hockey is being able to make plays along the boards and in tight spaces because there's just so much less open space in college hockey. That's an ability that bodes very well for Kerdiles' future once he is able to put on the Badger uniform.
The fact that Kerdiles is a Badger, playing against their biggest rival in Minnesota didn't seem lost on either side. Late in the second period, after Nick Bjugstad scored to tie the game at 2-2, Kerdiles took a nice little shot at Bjugstad after the play, leading to a mini-scrum after the goal. No penalties were assessed on the play, however. In the third period, Kerdiles got tangled up in the corner with Gopher enforcer Seth Helgeson. As Helgeson was getting up, he noticed he was alone in the corner with Kerdiles and circled back to deliver a solid cross check to Kerdiles' back. Helgeson received a two-minute roughing penalty on the play. On the resulting power play, Kerdiles almost scored, when he spun around in the slot and fired a shot that bounced off a couple bodies before making its way on net.
Kerdiles finished the night without factoring into any scoring and a -1 +/- rating. He had three shots on goal, which were the only three shots he attempted on the evening. Two of those shots were on the power play.
All in all, it's a shame that the knee sprain will keep Kerdiles from playing more with the NTDP, because I think it would really help him round into game shape when he's allowed to skate for Wisconsin. He wasn't a dominate player on the ice on Friday, but he looked like a player that was ready to step in and contribute at the NCAA level.