A few years from now, Brandt Clarke might be able to brag he took the Auston Matthews path to the NHL by playing in Europe during his draft year.
“He kind of went over voluntarily,” Clarke said. “I went over out of desperation.”
Clarke and other 2021 draft-eligible prospects didn't have much of a choice but to divert to a different path this season when their leagues couldn't stage a season because of the pandemic. He was supposed to play for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League, which on Tuesday abandoned plans to play this season, a move that plunged countless young players into uncertainty during a year that has put a dent in hockey's developmental pipeline.
“There’s a lot of my friends in my age group that didn’t play this season, and, yeah, that sucks,” Clarke said. “Some of them have grown a lot as players and could have taken huge steps in their draft years and whatnot, and it’s hard to base your draft off a 16-year-old season, and now that’s what a lot of them are getting based off of.”
While players in the U.S. college system and Europe got through mostly full seasons and the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League got back on the ice, Ontario could never make something work. While OHL Commissioner David Branch believes his league is the best in the world at producing professional players, provincial restrictions forced many to go in another direction.
Clarke, a 6-foot-1 defenseman expected to go in the top five, played 26 games in Slovakia. Francesco Pinelli joined the Alps Hockey League in Central Europe. They and fellow projected first-round pick Corson Ceulemans will get to play in front of scouts at the Under-18 world championships later this month in Texas, but that showcase will leave many draft-eligible players behind.
“That’s just the cream of the crop,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “There’s going to be some players that, had they had the chance to show us this year what their development might be, they probably could have gotten into the top and now people are going to be relying on their underage reports and knowledge that you had before.”
Players know that. GMs and scouting directors know it, too. And the U18s are just one chance to see (some) players before a draft in which more than 200 will be selected.
“You’re going to have a year of missed opportunity to view, to see where they’re at and how they’ve progressed, and you’re going to make your evaluations based on a year earlier,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. “We’ve been trying to do as many things as we can video-wise, so there’s probably a sense of frustration — probably a sense of frustration on the players that they don’t get to show where they’re at.”
Ceulemans is thankful for his 11 games with Brooks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League this season, which got underway before a three-month pause and resumption. During the break in the action, the 17-year-old defenseman shot pucks in his garage, worked out when possible and attempted not to check in too much on his draft stock.
“It’s hard not to look,” he said. “But just not reading too much into it because it’s just such a weird year and not everybody’s had a chance to play.”
Players in the U.S. college ranks — including projected No. 1 pick Owen Power from Michigan — in Europe and in other Canadian junior leagues got more of a chance than those in Ontario. As recently as mid-March there was a hope of the OHL getting in 20-plus games, but that never materialized because of provincial health regulations that differed from the rest of Canada and the world.
"I’m not sure we can necessarily justify that to our players," Branch said. “Ontario is the toughest jurisdiction of all. Quebec and the Western Leagues’ local health authorities supported their return to play, and they were able to do. That was not to be the case in Ontario.”
NHL scouts will check the video and do their best to figure out how some players would have progressed this season. Most teams felt fortunate to be able to find places for their top prospects to play, whether in Europe or the American Hockey League.
But that doesn't make this year's draft any easier.
“It’s much like last year’s draft: you don't have a combine, you don't have a lot of different things and it’s different, but this whole world is different,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. “The whole hockey world, the business of our society is different and you can’t worry about those things you can’t control. You’ve got to just say: ‘OK, I’m not going to make excuses. I’ve got to go find an answer and a solution to it.'”
That's how Clarke, Ceulemans, Mason McTavish and other top prospects are coping. In a sport that preaches controlling only what you can, they're trying.
“Roll with the punches,” Clarke said. “I wish I could have played in Barrie and been with my friends and been with my Barrie Colts team, but I’m still really happy I got to play hockey this year and in a cool environment. ... I think I made the best out of my situation.”
With that in mind, professional executives aren't wasting any time feeling sorry for themselves because they couldn't scout players in person or get the full picture of what they can do on the ice like normal.
“I’m mostly thinking of those kids, that it’s their draft year, they haven’t gotten a chance to put their best foot forward," Stanley Cup-winning Lightning GM Julien BriseBoise said. "They haven’t got a chance to showcase themselves at such an important juncture in their career. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t making or breaking their career, but I know it means a lot to those kids from an emotional standpoint, so I mostly feel for them.”
PRICE IS OUT
Goaltender Carey Price is probably the Canadiens' best bet to carry them far in the playoffs. But he'll be out for at least the next week because of concussion protocol after a collision with Edmonton's Alex Chiasson on Monday night.
With Price out, Montreal will lean on Jake Allen between the pipes to try to hold on to what's so far a strong hold on fourth place in the North Division.
GAME OF THE WEEK
First place in the East Division will be at stake when the Washington Capitals visit the New York Islanders for games Thursday and Saturday on Long Island — and they meet again in the District of Columbia on Tuesday.
LEADERS (Through Monday)
Goals: Auston Matthews (Toronto), 33; Assists: Connor McDavid (Edmonton), 50; Points: McDavid, 74; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:56; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 27; Goals-against average: Petr Mrazek (Carolina), 1.66; Save percentage: Filip Gustavsson (Ottawa), .946.