September was a month of showcases for 2013 NHL Draft prospects in the United States.
As the leagues they play in kicked off their 2012 seasons with small tournaments, scouts and NHL Entry Draft fans received a healthy dose of the talent available come June.
The North American Hockey League showcase in Blaine, MN is quite the affair – a four day affair featuring teams from five different leagues, including the NAHL and the Upper Midwest Elite League. During the course of the event, thousands of fans and hundreds of scouts will have taken in games in the sprawling Schwan’s Super Rink Complex.
And much like Anthony Stolarz used the event to announce his presence to the hockey world last year, Wichita Falls goaltender Evan Cowley emerged as not just the player to watch out of the NAHL, but also a player who could hear his name called very early next June.
The six-foot-four Colorado product has much more to his game than just his outstanding size, displaying smooth athletic movements and a calm presence in net. Cowley also has a great sense of amnesia, getting over goals against as soon as the next sequence starts.
This tantalizing upside also helped him earn a spot in the All-American Prospect Game in Buffalo, NY where he replaced University of Michigan goalie Jared Rutledge. Cowley played very well in the game, stopping 15 of the 17 shots he faced and certainly made Wichita Falls, TX a destination for NHL teams this season.
While Cowley was playing in the rink right next to them, two players from the Upper Midwest Elite League have separated themselves from the pack as two legitimate high end players. Center Connor Hurley of Edina High School and defenseman Tommy Vannelli of Minnetonka are the marquee attractions in a league that features the best Minnesota and Wisconsin have to offer.
Hurley, who is currently on a tour of duty with the USNTDP U18 team for the month as an injury replacement, is building on a very strong previous season where he emerged as a dominant player in whichever league he played.
While he has the high end hockey sense, soft hands and the elusive skating ability to be a fixture on the scoresheet on a nightly basis, Hurley has shown a strong commitment to being an impact player without the puck on his stick, finishing his checks and digging pucks out of the scrums along the walls. There is no doubt that there will be plenty of curious observers as his tenure with the U18 team includes exhibition games against Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
Vannelli, who was one of three Minnesota High School defensemen on the 2012 US Ivan Hlinka Memorial entry, has really taken his game to another level over the course of the last six months. He impressed in Upstate New York at the USA Hockey Select Development Camp in June and has taken that momentum into the Fall.
Vannelli uses his incredible skating ability to not only defend but also to be the proverbial fourth forward. He effortlessly joins the rush with his tremendous acceleration but also has the ability to retreat and recover as well. Needless to say, he possesses massive upside.
The Eastern Junior Hockey League had a showcase of their own with the Junior Bruins Shootout. Future Considerations scout Bill Ladd was there to watch and came away excited with Ryan Fitzgerald of the Valley Jr. Warriors.
The son of Former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald opted to play in the EJHL this year, and impressed Ladd.
“He’s a talented offensive center who plays bigger than his size and even has an antagonistic side to his game,” Ladd said. “Very diligent defensively, although he wasn’t leaned on to kill penalties.”
Fitzgerald also took part in the All-American Prospect Game, and was named the MVP after he tallied three assists. His above-average stickhandling and playmaking ability clearly stood out.
Now that we’ve gotten a good sense of who these players are, now we can turn our gaze to how they develop during the course of the year, as their seasons begin.