I've been paying more attention to the Memorial Cup games that involve the Saskatoon Blades in order to see Canadiens' prospects Darren Dietz and Dalton Thrower in action. The other teams also hold some interest however, if only due to the number of players eligible for the 2013 NHL draft. One player I was looking forward to watching was Seth Jones, the #1 ranked prospect according the NHL Central Scouting.
While his performance in the tournament has been uneven, he didn't disappoint tonight. While he only netted one assist, he was frequently dangerous, skating with the puck and getting shots off. He is noticeable whenever he's on the ice, being tall at 6'4" but also very mobile. He's quite an agile skater, and I don't mean the damning-with-faint-praise 'moves well for a big man', or 'deceptively fast'. On a couple of occasions, he took off with the puck from his own zone and easily outdistanced a much smaller forechecking forward who you would expect would be a better skater.
One aspect of his game which was somewhat odd was that he didn't show any kind of toughness. While the game itself was very physical, with every check being finished, Mr. Jones didn't throw his body around. If this is an indication of the type of game he'll play going forward, his size will still be an asset, as his reach is intimidating and he's very good with his stick, but he probably won't be a Chris Pronger (few are) or Shea Weber.
Dalton Thrower, who had been relatively unnoticeable to date, threw a big hit in the first period on Winterhawk Taylor Leier, apparently catching him in the head with his shoulder and stunning him. Mr. Leier ended up bleeding face first on the ice, yet no penalty was called on the play. Whether the hit was legal or not will be adjudicated later, but it seemed that Mr. Thrower was going to be in for a long night as the 'Hawks sought to avenge their teammate. Instead the WHL champions kept their cool and discipline, and aside from finishing every check on Mr. Thrower, didn't try to exact their pound of flesh.
Interestingly, the hit also seemed to focus Dalton Thrower. He may have figured he needed to tighten up his chin strap and bear down, keep his wits about him, and it showed up in his game. He showed more aggressiveness with the puck the rest of the period, at one point trying a nifty spinaround backward pass deep in the offensive zone. Overall, he played the best game I've seen from him at the tournament.
Darren Dietz also played a big game, in that it seems he played thirty minutes, and if he wasn't on the ice, Dalton Thrower was the one manning the right side of the blue line. Both are obviously being trusted by Head Coach Lorne Molleken over the other younger defencemen. Mr. Dietz is a more elegant, classic skater than Dalton Thrower, and seems more comfortable with the puck. In the third period, when the Blades were trying to close the gap and were attacking the 'Hawks' zone, he repeatedly left the blue line to sneak up to the net in an effort to score. Indeed, on the Blades' second goal, he was in the blue paint of the Portland goalie, causing havoc, battling with an opposite defenceman, without causing interference. His offensive instincts, confidence and ability with the puck are at this point more polished than Dalton Thrower's, and it showed in this game.
The Winterhawks have two other high-pedigree defencemen who played well in Tyler Wotherspoon, a steady presence who foiled countless Blades attacks, and Derrick Pouliot, who scored a goal and was entertaining when he carried the puck and always dangerous.
A disappointing result for the Blades, who finish the round robin at 1-2. During the game, I formulated the thought that it might be better if the Blades lost, since this way they'd potentially play three more games, whereas if they won they'd have bypassed the tiebreaker and semi-final and gone straight to the final. If we regard the Memorial Cup as a developmental tool (which I do), this is the preferred outcome, that both the Canadiens prospects have an opportunity to play high-level, high-pressure hockey games, the more the better. So we'll see if Dalton Thrower is suspended for his hit, and whether the Blades can follow the Cinderella journey the Draveurs de Trois-Rivières did last season.