Area products have great shot in NHL draft
Five Pittsburgh-area hockey players will be selected in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft this weekend, and on the surface, their stories are remarkably similar.
Unlike most hockey prodigies, none of the Fab 5 hails from a hockey-playing family. All five credit Mario Lemieux's Penguins of the early 1990s with inspiring their parents to push their children toward hockey.
Eliminate geography and initial steps into the game, however, and you'll find five very different players — and people — have emerged to give Pittsburgh a special story.
Gibsonia's Brandon Saad, Whitehall's John Gibson, East Palestine, Ohio's J.T. Miller, and two Upper St. Clair natives — Vince Trocheck and Barrett Kaib — will be center stage not only at the draft, but for a generation of local kids who dream of playing in the NHL.
"If the Penguins didn't win those Cups," Miller said, "I don't know if we'd all be here. But here we are."
Hockey has always come easily to Saad, which might explain his only perceived weakness. Some scouts contend that Saad's "battle level" isn't always eye-popping, but this is likely more a reflection of his laid-back demeanor than anything resembling lethargic play.
Quiet and polite, Saad sounds more like a surfer than a hockey player. A smooth winger whose size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and skill level make him an automatic first-round selection, Saad registered 55 points during his rookie Ontario Hockey League season with the Saginaw Spirit, which was considered a disappointment by some. Saad entered the league with considerable hype and, thanks to a midseason groin injury and subsequent scoring slump, he has drifted to the lower third of the first round in many mock drafts.
"I can't really control that kind of stuff," Saad said. "I don't worry too much about what other people or mock drafts are saying. I'll just be happy to play for whoever wants me."
Someone will want Saad, without question. Long projected a first-round pick, Saad is viewed as a significant sleeper should he drop late into the round.
"He's just got it all," Kaib said. "The complete package of a hockey player."
The classic American
The godfather of American hockey, Herb Brooks, would have loved Miller.
At its essence, American hockey is based on speed and physical play. Few players in this draft combine those elements better than Miller, whose stock is dramatically rising. Red Line Report suggests Miller will be drafted before Saad, a previously unthinkable scenario that now seems possible.
Miller's stock jumped in April when he was named the tournament's best forward while leading Team USA to the Under-18 World Championship gold medal. He produced 13 points in that tournament.
"That was when it all came together for me," Miller said. "I knew I was a good player before then, but that's when the production finally came."
A speedy winger with a heavy shot, Miller plays a rugged game. He isn't exactly pleasant to play against.
"He drives people nuts," Gibson said.
Miller, previously projected as an NHL third-liner, is starting to showcase a skill level that could see him claimed in the first round. But that third-liner attitude won't depart from Miller's approach.
"I like to get on people's nerves, but not by talking," Miller said. "I like to hit people and hit them hard. My physicality is what sets me apart."
Gibson, much like Miller, saw his stock rise significantly as the Under-18 World Championship tournament. The tourney MVP, Gibson was magnificent while leading the Americans to gold and emerged as this draft's best goaltender.
Where Gibson will be selected is anyone's guess, but most believe he will be drafted in the first round. The pressure of being drafted is nothing like beating Sweden in overtime of the Under-18 World Championship, which is why the Whitehall native is playing it cool.
"I'm not going to stress about it," he said.
Opposing NHL teams might someday stress about beating Gibson.
Consider this scouting report from Kaib, who has played with or against Gibson for much of the past decade: "What an athlete. He's huge. He takes up so much net, and he's so athletic. Honestly, you can't really beat him. He's that good. After a while, he just forces you to give up."
Trocheck does things his way, and doesn't apologize. He left Pittsburgh for Detroit at age 13, believing he would enjoy more opportunities in Michigan. While that decision might seem questionable given that so many Pittsburgh-area players are receiving attention, things were different as recently as five years ago.
"I don't regret any decision that I made, and I think it probably was the right decision," Trocheck said.
Trocheck, a center, played with Saad in Saginaw and outscored his linemate this season, producing 62 points in 68 games.
"I really didn't surprise myself with what I was able to do," Trocheck said. "And it isn't all about points. My all-around game has really improved."
A gifted playmaker, Trocheck's game is flashy and intense.
"Just a great player," Saad said. "We clicked right away. He can do it all, and he's such a great passer. He makes everyone around him better."
Trocheck's stock also is rising. He is projected by many publications to be selected in the second round. For only being 17, Trocheck has a clear sense of confidence.
"He's got swag," Kaib said. "Lots and lots of swag. And I mean that as a compliment. You need that confidence."
The long shot
Kaib won't be selected as early as the other four locals, but his story is perhaps the most compelling.
While the others began skating at 2 or 3, Kaib was almost 9 when he first touched ice. A defenseman who will play at Providence College next year, Kaib is projected to be drafted late Saturday, likely in the sixth round.
"Hopefully, somebody gives me a chance," Kaib said.
The 5-10 defenseman offers versatility. A smooth skater, he has worked on his defensive game in recent years. Still, when he arrives at Providence, he figures to be used in more of an offensive role.
"I'm the kind of guy who will do anything," he said. "Offense, defense, hitting people, fighting ... I'll do whatever I can as long as I'm getting the job done."
Like every member of the Fab 5, Kaib said there is something special about so many players coming from the Pittsburgh area.
"I'm very proud to be a part of this," he said. "We all know how special it is."
Given that the Penguins have an abundance of American players in their system, it's not a reach to suggest that general manager Ray Shero will draft one of the local players.
The Penguins need some wingers, after all.
"I won't lie," said Saad, who might be available when the Penguins pick 23rd. "Being drafted by anyone is an honor. Being drafted by the Penguins, for me, would be the ultimate."
Five local hockey players will be selected in the NHL Entry Draft next weekend in Minnesota:
Brandon Saad, Gibsonia — A power forward with terrific touch; certainly a first-round pick who could make an impact in the NHL.
J.T. Miller, East Palestine, Ohio — A gritty forward whose stock is on the rise; he could sneak into the first round.
John Gibson, Whitehall — Without question the best goalie in the draft; he likely will go in the first round.
Vince Trocheck, Upper St. Clair — A creative playmaker and terrific two-way center; he won't last past the second round.
Barrett Kaib, Upper St. Clair — The late-blooming, two-way defenseman will be selected late in the draft.
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