Wednesday, May 18, 2011

2011 CHL Memorial Cup: Under-the-Radar Draft-Eligible Players to Watch

Rather than highlight the youngsters who play an obviously-prominent role for their team, I decided to put the spotlight on some of the lesser-known players who could really boost their draft statuses with a stellar showing in the 2011 CHL Memorial Cup.

Stuart Percy (D, Mississauga)
Percy - the #53 North American Skater in the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau's final rankings - was Mississauga's baby on the blueline (the only defenceman on the team younger than 19) yet he managed to post very solid season for the Majors.

Percy put up some good numbers during his 18-year-old campaign, racking up 33 points with a +50 rating in 64 games while only playing on the Majors' second powerplay unit. As an important side-note, however, Stuart showed a lot of discipline for his age, logging 50 penalty minutes: the second-smallest total of the team's defencemen.

In the playoffs, Percy continued his consistent play notching 12 points and a +11 rating in 20 games. More impressively, though, was Percy's increased level of play during the highest-pressure situation of the season: the OHL finals. In the 7-game series against Owen Sound, Percy scored 8 points to go with a +7 rating and a mere 4 PIM (two minor penalties).

If he can continue his excellent play at the most important time of the year, Percy is a prime candidate to get boosted into the late-first or early-second round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Tomas Jurco (RW, Saint John)
Saint John, the CHL's #1-ranked team, is a powerhouse: no questions asked. While they do have the top-end talent required to be considered the best team in the CHL, the Sea Dogs also have the luxury of depth throughout their lineup. Within that depth lies a potential sleeping giant: Tomas Jurco.

As an avid draft nut, Jurco has been on my radar for years. Before crossing the ocean to play North American hockey, Tomas lit up the Slovakian junior system for Kosice. Jurco debuted with Kosice's U18 squad as in his 15-year-old season and finished second in team scoring with 52 points in 57 games. The following season, after ripping the U18 league for 13 points in his first 5 games, Jurco was promoted to the U20 team and led the team in scoring with 54 points in 51 games. To go with his in-season performance, Jurco suited up for the Team Slovakia in the World U18 Championships where he tied for the team lead in scoring with 5 points in 6 games.

Showing sheer dominance at such a young age, Saint John drafted Jurco with the #4 overall pick in the 2009 CHL Import Draft. Jurco did not disappoint, finishing 5th in team scoring with 68 points in 85 games (including playoffs).

While many, including myself, expected him to take his game to an entirely new level this year for the Sea Dogs, Jurco posted posted 56 points in 60 regular season games to go with 18 in 19 during the playoffs. Looking past the numbers, though, one can see that Jurco's performance did improve even though he was used merely as a secondary scoring option behind the likes of NHL-drafted forward Stanislav Galiev, Michael Kirkpatrick (the '09-'10 QMJHL Playoff Scoring Leader), and top draft-eligible prospects Jonathan Huberdeau and Zack Phillips.

Though his draft stock has certainly taken a hit this year due to the rise of others, Jurco is someone to watch regardless of the points he can point up: just check out some of the clips below.

Jordan Binnington (G, Owen Sound)
As far as goaltending was concerned, this season was an up-and-down affair for the Attack. Scott Stajcer, a former 5th round pick of the New York Rangers and last year's starter, had a solid start to his '10-'11 campaign with 7 wins to start the year and 10 in 14 games played - all until he ran into a hip injury which left '93-born backup Jordan Binnington to handle the starting duties.

In taking over for Stajcer, Binnington put up decent, but very unspectacular, numbers. When news came out that Stajcer would be done for the year due to hip surgery, Owen Sound acquired Michael Zador, another NHL 5th round draft pick, from Oshawa to bolster their goaltending depth. While Zador provided an experienced goalie for a playoff-bound team, the Attack stuck with Binnington as their starter the rest of the season, but the soap opera that was Owen Sound's goaltending situation was about to take a new turn.

Binnington got off to a horrible start in the Attack's first round match-up against London: he posted a 3.91 goals-against average to go with a save-percentage to forget of 86.4% and was yanked in Game 4 halfway through the 3rd period after letting in 5 goals. Zador took over the reigns, even with news that Stajcer would be back soon from injury, and his presence in net rejuvenated Owen Sound as the Attack did not allow a goal the rest of the series.

Another round for the Attack, another bad start. After letting in 3 goals after two periods, Zador was replaced by Stajcer, who stopped the rest of the Attack's shots against and led them to victory. Stajcer's stellar play led Owen Sound in a sweep of the Whalers.

Stajcer's play dropped off a bit against the champion Windsor Spitfires; however, unlike the previous two rounds, Owen Sound managed to overcome their goaltending weaknesses, winning the series in 5 games.

The OHL Finals saw the Attack return to true form: Stajcer was awful against Mississauga, letting in 9 goals on 65 shots, and Owen Sound lose the first two games. Zador was horrible in a Game 3 win and great in a win during Game 4, but he was pulled after 9 minutes in Game 5 after letting in two goals on six shots. Stajcer finished Game 5, but was also lit up for 5 goals on 29 shots.

Down 3-2 in the series, the Attack started Binnington, who seemingly brought his A-game to the table. In two games facing elimination, Binnington put the Attack on his back with a 1.94 GAA and a massive 94.3% save percentage.

After the turmoil of the regular season and playoffs, Binnington - CSB's #3-ranked North American Goalie - has the chance to shine under the spotlight of Canadian junior hockey's most-watched event. As history shows, Owen Sound isn't afraid to replace a struggling goalie in any situation, so the time is now more than ever for Binnington to step up and make his case for a selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Joe Antilla (LW, Kootenay)
On a team where both its stars and its role players are veterans it's hard to find a draft-eligible player to keep an eye on - let alone one that would be under-the-radar. Cue Joe Antilla: a player who could make a difference on a hard-working Kootenay squad.

Antilla, 20, can be described at-best as a late-bloomer. In his rookie season as a 17 year-old, he managed a measly 3 points and -11 rating in 56 games. Over the next two seasons, Joe improved amassed on his totals, but still only managed 54 points and a -5 rating in 151 games. The '10-'11 season, however, saw Antilla take a vivid step forward in his development as a hockey player.

This season, his 4th in Kootenay, Antilla stepped up as one of the Ice's leaders and managed to match his career goal total in a single season, including 3 shorthanders. More impressively, though, was Antilla's improved defensive play. Previously a career -16 player, Antilla's '10-'11 season saw him register a +33 rating even though he only accumulated 40 points himself.

Antilla then took his strong regular season to another level once the WHL playoffs came around. In 19 games, he registered 17 points, including 2 shorthanded goals, to go with a +17 rating. In addition to his stellar offensive play, Antilla showed improved discipline, meriting only 4 penalty minutes.

Where Joe's opportunity really lies is his two-way ability: when one considers his experience, defensive prowess and his size (6'1", 220 lbs.), one can see that Antilla has all of the tools to be a force for the Ice on the CHL's biggest stage. A big tournament could see him prove worthy of a late-round selection much like Eric Wellwood did in the '09 Memorial Cup.

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