TORONTO — Hockey players in their draft years are being evaluated at pretty much every turn, and each time they take the ice is a chance to leave a positive impression.
So just about the last thing any of them would want to do is slip up before the army of scouts taking in the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Skills Competition on Tuesday night.
But no one is perfect, and when things go wrong the best thing to do is to handle it with grace, aplomb and humour, just the way Sean Couturier, Scott Harrington and Dougie Hamilton did.
Couturier, the Drummondville Voltigeurs forward ranked second among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, could only smile and shake his head after going 0-for-8 in the shooting accuracy contest.
Hamilton, a Niagara IceDogs defenceman who sits seventh in the rankings, made one cross-over too many during the fastest skater event and crashed into the boards, finishing his lap at a snail’s pace.
And Harrington, a London Knights defenceman ranked 63rd, circled back after firing high and wide with his first attempt in the hardest shot contest and delivered a blast of 90.9 m.p.h., good for fifth in the competition.
Not ideal for all three, but not the end of the world, either.
“I don’t know what happened — I guess I’m used to seeing the holes and not the targets,” quipped Couturier. “I’m trying to get over it.”
Hamilton figured that he had already made his mark before the spill.
“It’s OK. I was going fast enough on the first half,” he said. “I was probably going too fast. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to cross over. Oh well.”
Harrington wasn’t going to let one bad shot get him down.
“Yeah, I’m over it,” he said. “It went off the toe, maybe I was squeezing the stick a little too hard. Laugh it off, it wasn’t a huge deal.”
Hamilton played for Team Orr in the skills competition, scoring a goal during the 30-minute running time, 3-on-3 shinny finale which rallied his group past Team Cherry 12-11. Couturier and Harrington helped Team Cherry build up a 5-3 lead during the skills portion of the night, an advantage their group couldn’t hold.
Sven Bartschi of the Portland Winter Hawks scored in the 3-on-3 and added the shootout winner to settle things before a crowd generously described as sparse at the Air Canada Centre. The Top Prospects Game, which really gives scouts something to sink their teeth into, goes Wednesday night.
Earning a spot in the annual showcase event for players eligible in the upcoming NHL draft is a big achievement, one that offers some encouragement that their stock is worth following. It’s a sort of midpoint in a season during which the players feel more pressure to perform than ever before.
“There’s a little bit of added pressure but you try to have fun with it,” said Harrington. “It’d be hard not to think about that everyday.
“That’s what this event is all about, leaving your impression on the scouts. That’s definitely running through your mind all the time, but you just try to have fun with it and show these scouts what you can do.”
Couturier has been in the public eye more than many of his counterparts, particularly after playing for Canada at the recent world junior hockey championship in Buffalo. He began the season recovering from a bout with mononucleosis that sapped his strength and kept him from training camp, and is only now hitting his stride.
“I just try to stay the same and not think about the pressure,” he said. “I just play the same game I always do and things should be the same. For sure you think about it, but it’s part of being a hockey player. You just got to get over those mistakes and be a better player.
“I think (scouts) know the type of player I am but there’s always room to improve.”
Hamilton is able to draw upon the experiences of his older brother Freddie — selected in the fifth round by the San Jose Sharks last year — to deal with the swings of the draft-year experience.
“He helped me out,” said Dougie Hamilton. “You through it in the OHL draft, which is kind of a miniature version of this with not as many scouts. You just kind of play your game and not worry about them. You definitely know they’re there and you know they’re watching, and the lists keep coming out. But you just focus on your game, work your hardest and that’s all you can do.”
Red Deer Rebels playmaker Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, ranked third among North American skaters by Central Scouting, scored twice in the shinny game to lead Team Orr, coached by Doug Gilmour.
In the skills competition, Tomas Jurco of the Saint John Sea Dogs won the breakaway event by scooping up the puck and whipping it into the net with a lacrosse-style shot while spinning around in the slot, earning a score of 39 out of 40 and a goal for Team Cherry.
Nugent-Hopkins, who had the second highest score of 37 after carrying the puck in under his skate, flipping it back through his legs and slipping it in, helped Team Orr earn a goal for having the highest average.
Matthew Puempel of the Peterborough Petes was the individual winner of the shooting accuracy contest, going 4-for-5 to give Team Cherry a goal. But Team Orr’s 12-for-29 total split the category.
Regina Pats defenceman Myles Bell won the hardest shot contest for Team Cherry with a blast of 98.4 miles an hour. Cherry’s squad received a second goal with an average of 92.8 m.p.h.
Sault Ste. Marie forward Daniel Catenacci won the fastest skater competition, lapping the Air Canada Centre ice in 14.017 seconds to secure a goal for Team Orr. Team Cherry split the category with a better average time.
Things got testy at one point during the 3-on-3 play, when defenceman Duncan Siemens of the Saskatoon Blades and forward Shane McColgan of the Kelowna Rockets exchanged cross-checks, slashes and shoves. They had to be separated by officials and yapped at one another all the way to the bench.