With the way the schedule worked out this year, I wasn't able to make it out to see an Elite League game this year until this past weekend, which happened to be their end-of-the-season playoff tournament. For the uninitiated, the Elite League is a fall all-star league made up of the best high schoolers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. The teams are split into seven regions and play each other every weekend.
Anyway, it's a shame I wasn't able to make it out earlier. I heard a couple different people saying this was probably the strongest the league has ever been. It's tough for me to say because I've only caught snippets of the four years, but the quality of play last weekend was outstanding and very fun to watch. The event always brings out a ton of pro scouts since this is the best competition most of the players will play against all season.
As for the games themselves, Team Southeast was the favorite going in, and ended up winning the tournament over Team Southwest in overtime. Southeast was definitely the best team in the league.
I made it down for Friday and Saturday evening's games. I was going to make this post two parts, starting with the NHL draft picks, and then talking about some of the players. The part about the NHL prospects got a little long, so I'll just post that for now, and have more on some of the other players later in the week.
I'll start with some of the NHL Draft prospects, since I know that's what a lot of people are interested in.
Nick Bjugstad: After last year's tournament, I wrote this: "I mentioned the Minnesota '92s being a little behind in terms of weight. Christian Isackson, Brett Patterson, and Nick Bjustad were listed at 170, 160, and 155 respectively. There's a huge difference between that and a guy that's a solid 200 lbs. and it showed. But I suspect that by next fall, those guys will have caught up and should be in the conversation for the 2010 draft." I'd say Bjugstad has definitely caught up. Last year he was listed at 5'10" 155 lbs. This year: a very legitimate 6'4" and a slightly less convincing 185 lbs. He maybe looks lanky and awkward at times, but that's understandable for a guy who has grown half a foot over the past year.
He's drawn buzz as a potential first round draft pick, and I can definitely see that. Now that he's this big, he's got a ton of potential as a future goal-scoring power forward. His skating isn't amazing, but it should improve as he adjusts to his body, and he makes up for it by working hard. He's definitely not a lazy player. His biggest asset has also been his phenomenal shot. It's probably NHL-caliber already.
He was pretty quiet on the weekend and didn't have many great chances to score, although with his shot, he can make a routine shot from the perimeter look like a great scoring chance. He's probably far from a sure thing, but his potential is so great that I could see him being a mid-to-late first round draft pick.
Brock Nelson: Nelson has started drawing a lot of draft buzz for his play in the Elite League this year and could end up going pretty high in the draft. He's another big, but fairly raw power forward.
Friday night he was pretty underwhelming. Saturday was much better, in large part because his linemate Adam Knochenmus(more on him later on) wasn't there on Friday, but was on Saturday. Friday night, it felt like Nelson had to all his own creating, which is probably outside of his comfort zone right now. Saturday, he picked up a nice goal where Knochenmus set things up, fired a puck on goal, and Nelson just had to get to the front of the net, where he looks a lot more comfortable for a nice tip-in.Overall, he was just more effective.
The bottom line is that I think some teams will see a ton of potential in him as a future power forward and love him, and some teams will be scared away because he's got such a long ways to go. North Dakota has him scheduled to play in the USHL next season, which seems like a very good idea. I don't think he'd be ready to play regularly and contribute for the Sioux next season. A good comparison might be Mike Forney, who went to North Dakota straight from high school, in part because of his high draft status, and struggled to see the ice, which really hurt his development.
Max Gardiner: I've always questioned whether Gardiner's skating would be good enough to by at higher levels. He works really hard, but he's not quite quick enough to make things happen offensively. He's incredibly strong though, and always a phyisical presence on the ice.
Justin Holl: Holl could be another late riser in the draft. He's not very polished as a player. He doesn't have much offensively, and got caught out of position a number of times defensively. But he's got pretty impressive size and strength and he skates really well, which was enough to make him one of the best players out there. Again, very far away from a finished product, and he'll spend some time in the USHL before going to Minnesota, but there's a good bit of potential there.
Caleb Herbert-He had a great Elite League season and was the best player on the best team. It's tough to tell where he fits in because he's not very big, at only 5'10", but he's definitely more of a goalscorer than a crafty playmaker. It's easy to see why he scores so many goals though. He's always moving and getting to the right position in the offensive zone, and when he gets the puck, he has a lightning quick release on his shot. He doesn't need much time or space to get off a pretty good shot. He also did basically whatever he wanted to on face-offs. I could see the lack of size scaring a lot of teams away, but he's probably worth taking a chance on at some point.
Max Gaede-Another big kid with a lot of potential and a long ways to go. His skating isn't bad when he's going in a straight line, but when the play starts changing directions, he can start to get lost. For a big guy, he's got pretty good hands. Just about every time he got the puck, he ended up putting it on a teammate's stick. Central Scouting only had him as a 'C' prospect, but he was one of the kids getting watched pretty closely last weekend and did some things that made some scouts take notice, so I could see him making a push to be a late round draft pick.
Chris Casto and Brett Stern-I haven't heard anybody talk about either of these guys in regards to the draft, but they should definitely be in consideration. These two were paired up and barely left the ice for Team Northeast. Neither are superstars, but they're both big, solid, reliable defensemen that skate pretty well and aren't afraid to play physically.