Friday, July 15, 2011

T.J. Syner Makes Up for Size with Strength

photo by Bridget Samuels/bridgetds
T.J. Syner, a free agent attending UMass-Amherst, is an interesting player in this year's development camp. He possesses staggering speed and is built like a football player, with one exception: he's 5'6".

Looking up to smaller players who succeed in the NHL like Martin St. Louis has given Syner the motivation to make himself the best hockey player he can. "The guy's done unbelievable as a career, especially for his size," Syner says of St. Louis. "Going out there and being able to battle like he does every night just amazes me. I definitely look up to him and the style he plays."

Syner has explosive speed, and works hard to keep it that way. Before coming to camp, he says he "did a few power skating lessons just to get back on the ice." He worked with a coach near his hometown who also coaches figure skating, which might explain Syner's smooth stride. He's also very strong, which is important for a smaller player, as it makes him that much more difficult to knock off the puck.

His speed is also valuable on special teams, and UMass head coach Don Cahoon feels comfortable putting him on the ice in all situations. Last year, Syner scored four power play goals and one shorthanded goal. 
The one area where he's been trying to improve is his scoring. While his point total has increased each year at UMass-Amherst (27 points last season), Syner is looking for his upcoming senior year to be the best yet in a big way. His coach has urged him to shoot more so the scoring will come.

"I've been trying to make steps, hopefully a bigger step next year, [my scoring] only increased a little bit each year," Syner said. "I played a lot last year and hopefully I'm going to get that same opportunity this year. It will play a big factor, a little bit more confidence, and definitely shooting the puck more, and hopefully produce points."

Syner is also looking to remain a mentor for younger players coming into the UMass program. A co-captain last season, Syner hopes to have a captaincy role again. Even if not, he's happy to play the role of an older player leading by example. 

"We had 13, 14 freshmen last year so I kind of played that [leadership] role all last year," Syner said. "Every freshman looks up to a senior coming in, so you definitely gotta play the role and hopefully being a captain again, they'll look up to you and you just got to set the example for them."

Syner will be heading into his senior year with an NHL development camp under his belt - another learning experience to impart on younger players. Not to mention a boost of confidence that may just help him score the goals he's looking for. With one day left to go, Syner has found camp difficult but rewarding.

"It's been awesome; it's tough. I'm going to be honest, it's a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. The skating's been really hard and challenging, but it's a great way to get in shape," Syner said. "This overall experience has been unbelievable."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Observations from Scrimmage #2

Just a couple of quick notes as today was the second scrimmage and also the shortest day of development camp.

  • Travis Boyd is unbelievable. He has incredible hockey sense and vision way beyond his 17 years. He has the innate ability to see exactly how a play is forming, and set up several chances and goals.
  • Dmitri Orlov is very strong and makes great hits, but if he has the puck, he carries it way too far into the zone, nearly to the crease sometimes. It leaves just one defenseman back at the blue line, and if a breakaway forms the other way, Orlov is totally behind the play and in trouble. He has to learn how to reel in his excitement for contributing offensively and find a balance between contributing while remaining defensive-minded. I'm sure the coaches will try to get him to adjust that aspect of his game.
  • Someone I may try to talk to at some point is T.J. Syner. He's very small (probably 5'6") but he's incredibly fast and very strong. I'm not sure if he's contributed any points in scrimmages (scoring is not being announced in the rink after goals), but he has an interesting skill set.
  • Garrett Mitchell's shootout goal was gorgeous. A Twitter follower compared it to Matt Hendricks' chosen shootout move, and I don't disagree. He scored the lone shootout goal to win the scrimmage for Group A.
  • Philipp Grubauer has been getting better every day. He was very sharp in the scrimmage. He stopped all shootout attempts, even boldly slapping away with his stick Stanislav Galiev's attempt. (a wonderful YouTube user got video of the whole shootout, catching Mitchell's lovely goal at about 0:48 and Grubauer slapping the puck right out out Galiev's grasp at 1:19)
  • There were two fights in today's game, both involving Scott Wietecha. He fought both Garrett Mitchell and later, Danick Paquette. The fight with Mitchell was fairly tame, just a little bit of grappling, and the two were separated. The fight with Paquette was much more spirited. Paquette, in his area of expertise, was not hesitant to throw punches. Paquette got the take down, and Wietecha had to go to the dressing room for repairs. When he returned, his right eye was already massively swollen and it looked like he also had a cut above his eye.

Danick Paquette met the media after the scrimmage, and went to the main focus area in front of all the cameras and lights. As he approached the microphone, he was slightly awed that he was getting the attention, and said (my audio was not on at the time), "I feel like President!"

And now, presented without further comment: Danick Paquette.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cody Eakin Reveals What He Told Steffen Soberg

Quick update on the Swift Current Broncos front: I was able to ask Cody Eakin if he had indeed talked to Steffen Soberg about Swift Current. Eakin did, and spoke at length about what he told Soberg about his own experience with the Broncos.
"I told him a little bit about it. I told him it's a great city, a great town, and it's a really good place to play and come up through juniors. He said he likes the idea and he's thinking about going there. I think he's got a chance to be the number one goalie. Like I said, it's a great place to play, and a great community, great atmosphere, and great camaraderie with the team."

The Growth of Hockey in Illinois: Conor Allen

photo by Bridget Samuels/bridgetds

Being from Chicagoland, I was pleased to look at the full development camp roster and see a Chicago native attending Capitals camp: defenseman Conor Allen.

Since I've been living in DC for eight years, I always enjoy chatting with a fellow Chicagoan. I was able to speak with him today, unbeknownst to me, our entire exchange was caught on video and is now on the Caps' website and I'm quite embarrassed at monopolizing Allen.

But I digress. Thinking about the two other Illinoisans in the Capitals system, Zach Miskovic and new signee Danny Richmond, it occurred to me to ask Allen, younger than those two, if he personally has seen youth hockey grow in Illinois, particularly since the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010.

My suspicions were correct. "Everyone loves hockey right now, it's amazing," he said of the effect the Hawks' Cup win has had on hockey involvement in Illinois. "Illinois is getting stronger and stronger every year. We have a great triple-A system, club hockey, the only problem is we don't have a college to go to." No university in the state of Illinois has an NCAA Division I hockey team (though the University of Illinois has hinted at someday adding a Division I team).

Conor Allen, who opted to head east to play hockey at University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a full-on product of Illinois hockey. He played with Team Illinois and the Chicago Blues, a Tier II hockey system that offers a full youth hockey program. 

Allen spent the 2009-2010 season in nearby South Dakota with the USHL's Sioux Falls Stampede, where he scored 15 points (7g-8a) and was a +9. He was twice named Defensive Player of the Week during the season.

Allen just completed his freshman year at UMass-Amherst, scoring six points (2g-4a) in 31 games. But he won't be signing an NHL contract anytime soon; he chose college hockey for a reason. 

"When you grow up in the United States, you idolize the college hockey route and the players. Education, especially in my family, is a big deal. All my brothers and sisters went to school; my dad's a professor," Allen said. 

"And nowadays you can make it to the NHL playing college hockey. You play great hockey and get your education for free. It's really a great way to do it, and you also get the experience of being a college student which is really valuable."

Allen is set on returning to college next year, but he's looking to get some NHL exposure while completing his education. "It's always good to get exposure, live like a pro for a week, and feel it out. Hopefully I can keep the relationship going, and someday be a Capital."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Soberg Shows Off at Development Camp

photo by Bridget Samuels/bridgetds

Soon after becoming the first Norwegian goalie ever to be drafted in the NHL, Steffen Soberg had to face another draft - the CHL Import Draft. Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior instructed Soberg to go the CHL path to get the best coaching and development possible to turn him into a professional-league goaltender.

It's the path Michal Neuvirth took after coming over from the Czech league, before winning two Calder Cups with the Hershey Bears and moving on to the NHL.

Soberg said that he had some offers from teams in Sweden, but turned them down in favor of doing what the Capitals wanted. "That would be easier for me [to play in Sweden], not moving that far away," Soberg said. "But Dave Prior thinks that [the CHL] is the best place to develop as a goalie. I trust that."

Soberg went sixth overall in the CHL Import Draft to Cody Eakin's former club, the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL. Eakin had been captain of the Broncos before his trade to the Kootenay Ice, and I asked Soberg if he had spoken to Eakin yet about the experience in Swift Current.

"He said I was going to be the first goalie to play a lot of games." [Ed. note: I took that to mean that Eakin told Soberg he'd be the No. 1 goaltender.] "They're going to test me there," Soberg said.

When I asked about his U18s tournament, he seemed very proud of his achievements during the tournament. "That's one of my best tournaments ever. I [faced] like, 50 shots every game," he said. "When you get a lot of shots it's more easy to come into the game, and I like that. Everything was working and everything went great. It was a good tournament."

It seems that Soberg thrives under pressure. He likes being tested and likes to be a big part of the game. Even with a weak team in front of him, he's able to perform and not completely shut down. The CHL is a league in which games tend to have a lot of shots and a lot of goals per game, so Soberg should do well in that environment.

I recorded a video of Soberg making saves during a drill. I noticed that he tends to rely on his leg pads a good deal, and his reflexes are good.

Samuel Carrier and the Death of the Lewiston MAINEiacs

photo by Bridget Samuels/bridgetds

After development camp practice Tuesday, Samuel Carrier and Samuel Henley left the rink at Kettler Capitals Iceplex walking side-by-side. This year's camp is a reunion of sorts for the two.

They had been teammates for two seasons, but now, their team no longer exists.

On May 31, 2011, the owners of the QMJHL voted to fold the Lewiston MAINEiacs, based in Lewiston, Maine. The team will return (somewhat) as an expansion team in Sherbrooke, Quebec for the 2012-2013 season. 

The group relocating the team to Quebec, owned by former NHL goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, would not have been able to relocate the team in time for the 2011-2012 season, and so the team had to completely disband via a special dispersal draft.

The dispersal draft took place on June 3, just a few days after the league announced the decision to fold the team. It was a tough situation for all the players involved as it was, but the QMJHL also completely botched how they handled the dismantling of the MAINEiacs.

Some of the players, active on Twitter, said that they had no idea what was going on in the days between the folding and the dispersal. No one in the league was in communication with the players, and the players were understandably panicked about their futures. 

Cameron Critchlow, captain of the MAINEiacs, was also one of the more candid players, tweeting on June 1, "Wants to send the #qmjhl a big @#9* off and let the god damn boys know what's going for crying out loud what a joke."

Tuesday, I spoke with Sam Carrier, who was selected second overall in the dispersal draft by Baie-Comeau Drakkar, about the situation in Lewiston.

"It was pretty tough. No one knew what was happening," Carrier said. "The news came out one or two days before the dispersal draft. It was weird. It was the first time I'd seen that. Every player was like, 'What's going on?' We were talking on Facebook and Twitter, and nobody knew, so it was weird."

But Carrier is looking to move on with his new team in Baie-Comeau. He said that the Drakkar brass called him before the dispersal draft, and he met with them at the junior draft. Drakkar's head coach, Mario Pouliot, was Carrier's coach in Midget AAA (at Collège Antoine-Girouard), so his transition should be a fairly smooth one having previously worked with Pouliot.

Carrier does know some of his new teammates as well, saying that he has trained with a couple of them in the past.

He's hoping to further improve his game next season, after making strides last year with Lewiston. In 14 playoff games, he scored 15 points, and was a huge part of Lewiston's push in the postseason. Carrier feels he also improved on the other side of the game.

"I think my defensive side of the game improved a lot, just looking at the stats. Last year I was -9 and then this year I was +40," said Carrier. "It's a huge step for me, and I want to continue with this."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Get to Know the Invitees: Thomas Frazee

photo by Bridget Samuels/bridgetds

Name: Thomas Frazee
Position: C
Shoots: Right
Height: 6'4"
Weight: 205 lbs
Birthdate: 1990-03-31
Hometown: N. Vancouver, BC
Roster # at camp: 95

While I did not see Frazee (no relation to Jeff Frazee, the New Jersey Devils goaltending prospect) skate today, the photographer providing the picture for this post did, and she noted that she was impressed with him. So I did my usual background digging.

Thomas Frazee is truly a journeyman in the WHL, playing for five different teams over the span of six seasons, finally spending his last WHL game as a Kamloops Blazer. He split the 2010-2011 season between the Regina Pats and the Blazers, putting up 71 points for the season.

With his overage season done, Frazee, undrafted, is hoping to become the Capitals' next Brandon Anderson - a free agent earning a contract based on camp performance. At 6'4", he certainly has the size to play professional hockey. But as a 16-year-old prospect for the Portland Winter Hawks, it seemed to coaches that he didn't have the heart.

In Portland's 2007 camp, Frazee was sent home for "off-ice reasons," which Frazee said amounted to his "attitude away from the ice, and being a better person." Portland GM Ken Hodge said of his dismissal, "I don't think Thomas has figured out the road to success. It's been easy for him, without a lot of accountability. We want him to commit to himself, and a commitment to the hockey club would fall into place."

By Frazee's overage season, he seemed to find his motivation. Though his point totals steadily increased with each junior season, he outdid his 2009-2010 season by nearly 20 points in 2010-2011. Finally touted as a quality power forward, his stock has risen as he continues to improve.

Frazee has good scoring ability, but is also not afraid to drop the gloves every now and then, with two registered fights last year.

It seems that Frazee has matured and is ready to work his way into professional hockey. I'll keep an eye on him as the week goes on.

Get to Know the Invitees: Jacob Gervais-Chouinard

Instead of the usual "Focus on Prospects," I changed it up a bit to introduce you to the development camp free agent invitees. We all know the guys the Caps have drafted, but who are the others at camp?

I'll start out with the only free agent goaltender attending this year's development camp, Jacob Gervais-Chouinard.

 photo by Bridget Samuels/bridgetds

Name: Jacob Gervais-Chouinard
Position: G
Catches: Left
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 160 lbs
Birthdate: 1992-03-21
Hometown: Sherbrooke, QC
Roster # at camp: 80

First, the basics. Gervais-Chouinard just wrapped up his second season with the Val D'Or Foreurs of the QMJHL. Last season, he acted as number one goaltender for Val D'Or, appearing in 54 games with a GAA of 3.45 and save percentage of .882. Gervais-Chouinard was included in the QMJHL's Three Stars of the Week in March after backstopping two Val D'Or wins with one shutout, a .961 save percentage, and a .96 GAA.

In June, Gervais-Chouinard was traded to Rimouski Oceanic, as Oceanic's top goaltender aged out at the conclusion of the past season. He's expected to step in to Rimouski's number one goaltending spot and start the majority of games.

Gervais-Chouinard led the Foreurs into the playoffs, ending the regular season ranked  14th of the 18 QMJHL teams. But ultimately, the Foreurs were swept out in the first round by the Quebec Remparts. Gervais-Chouinard's performance in the playoffs was pretty rough - a 7.19 GAA and .784 save percentage in three games played.

But Gervais-Chouinard was playing behind a weak team in Val D'Or, a team that had just one roster player who averaged over a point per game. For perspective, the Memorial Cup-winning St. John Sea Dogs had four point-per-game players this past season.

With Gervais-Chouinard now in Rimouski, things should start to look up for him. He's got a better team in front of him, in the middle of the pack league-wise at 10th in the Q.

In terms of playing style, he's got flashes of brilliance. He has the ability to make fantastic leg pad saves, but is weak on his low glove side. Not to mention he was majorly gassed after sprints today. Considering he doesn't have a lot of weight on his frame, it could be the reason for his exhaustion. Bulking up would greatly help him with his playing performance.

I'll keep you updated as the week goes on, but he was down on the other end of the ice from where I was standing, so I didn't get to watch him as much as other goalies. I'll also update if I get the chance to chat with him.