July 08, 2011
On Thursday, I went to the Phoenix Coyotes prospect camp to watch the likes of goaltender Mark Visentin(notes) (Canada's starter at the World Juniors), Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele(notes), and highly touted defensive prospect Brandon Gormley(notes) (who had the audacity to not skate when I chose to attend).
Prospect camp is the place to be if you care to watch hockey and go "holy eff, those humans skate really really fast." Proven NHLers rarely put it in top gear in a non-essential situation. They choose to do drills at a crisp pace, but not as fast as they physically can, which makes sense — hey, it's a long year. But most of these kids are skating as hard as their legs will let them, in every conceivable situation. They're trying to stand out from the crowd.
Being there reminded me what a stressful time prospect camp can be for guys who are being exposed to professional coaching for the first time. On top of that, there's the realization that, wow, there's a whole lot of talented players out there that I'm supposed to be better than.
The top prospects experience these mini-camps a little differently from the unsigned guys. They know the front office has seen them play many times, they know they're still likely to sign with the team regardless of how they do in a few practice drills in the middle of summer, and those things alleviate some of their stress. Not having to blow the socks off the coaching staff is a nice position to be in.
On the other hand, they deal with a far greater degree of expectation from staff and fans alike, and that can be somewhat burdensome. The difference between a "good" athlete and a "great" one is a slim margin, and there's not always something you can do during 2-on-1 drills to make anyone say, "Wow, Kid A is much better from Kid B."
For the coaching staff, it's just nice to get all their prospects under one roof to educate them on a few things about the pro hockey life — and to see if anyone stands out.
One player stood out for me.
Yesterday, for me anyway, it was Evan Bloodoff from the Kelowna Rockets. He's a beautiful skater that I think had a shooting percentage near triple digits yesterday, and was just generally electric. That stuff doesn't go unnoticed as teams follow their hopeful stars into the next season.
He's the perfect example of how prospect camp is a win-win for players — if you're bad, there's a myriad of excuses, including "it's early July," but then there's always the opportunity to play great and make the coaches think "y'know what, maybe we need to keep a closer eye on that kid."
You can get yourself on the radar, but can't really take yourself off it.
These camps are pretty much the same for all teams - when anyone says "this team develops their talent well," it's basically nonsense. Kids grow and have different levels of commitment and usually just end up who they're going to be regardless of what type of coaching they've had. Every team puts kids through similar tests, conditioning, drills and all the rest, then just hope some kid improves at a ridiculous rate.
You get the impression that as far as teams are concerned, the young players are just another gaggle of lottery tickets, and the team is hoping their numbers come up somewhere. It doesn't matter if you do 52 or 61 pushups at these things, despite what you think at the time. That weight-training stuff that you stress about prior to camp is inconsequential — they just want to see how their odds of winning on each ticket are coming along when it comes to on-ice play.
For these young players, if they don't stand out in any particular way, the process just resumes in the collective mind of the brass — go back to your previous team, we'll keep an eye on you, and if your numbers balloon or our scouts think you've made huge strides, then we'll get serious about you.
Prospect camp is just a chance to stand out from the crowd for a few days and get the "what about that Bloodoff kid?" train started, and it's fun to be a part of.
It's hard to write yourself off, but you certainly have the chance to get into the coach's good graces.