Being a Leafs fan in Northern Alberta offers few benefits. I get to see the team play live only once a year. I have to subscribe to Center Ice or track down feeds online if I want to catch Sportsnet or Leafs TV games, and I never know what is happening with the Marlies. To make matters worse, the Leafs scouting staff rarely selects players from the WHL so I get few chances to watch prospects, and rarely have hope that a Western player will be selected in the draft by the Leafs (All QMJHL fans are playing a tiny violin for me right now.)
It has been a different story the past couple of weeks, as the Portland Winterhawks have been playing my local Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Hockey League Finals, and that has meant a lot of Brad Ross viewings.
Before I go in to greater detail on how he has been playing, hereâ€™s a quick background on my previous feelings regarding the man affectionately referred to as Rad Boss. I think heâ€™s great. Heâ€™s pretty much the biggest asshole in the WHL and heâ€™s a better player for it and he (along with Leo Komarov) will bring that skillset to the Leafs organization in abundance, something that Colby Armstrong failed to accomplish.
Iâ€™d also like to raise a personal bias. I am extremely cautious about prospects, especially when it comes to generating offense. I look at scoring in junior hockey like hitting a home run in College Baseball, in that I view the majority of junior goaltending with the same offensive generating power as an aluminum bat. While I know I couldnâ€™t beat these guys, anyone who has ever been sniffed by a scout wonâ€™t have any trouble with it. To put in perspective only 28 goaltenders have been drafted out of the CHL in the past three years, considering that there 60 teams most using a tandem system the majority of the games will not be against challenging competition.
With that in mind Iâ€™ve always felt about Ross is that all the comparisons to Darcy Tucker are unfair at this point. I may be guilty of the odd one myself, but when I do I want to be clear I donâ€™t think heâ€™ll provide anywhere near the same amount of offense that Tucker did. Heâ€™s only got the Tucker level of crazy. Thatâ€™s not to say that Ross hasnâ€™t produced offense. Earlier this season I watched him score a beautiful breakaway goal, and a 40 goal season and point per game pace are nothing to scoff at.
However here are the league leaders in goals for the WHL from the 2004-5 season to the 2008-9 season:
2005-6: Justin Keller (51)
2006-7: Mark Derlago (46)
2007-8: Colton Yellow Horn (48)
2008-9: Joel Broda (53)
2009-10: Kyle Beach (52)
While the jury may still be out on Kyle Beach, itâ€™s safe to say the ship has sailed on the others.
Itâ€™s also worth noting the quality of linemates that Ross has had over the past few seasons. Nino Neiderreiter, Ryan Johansen, Ty Rattie, Sven Bartschi have all played regularly with Ross. Each of those players were taken higher than Ross in their respective draft year and each of them beating Ross in scoring when they played with him. So as impressive as his numbers are today, they arenâ€™t likely to translate to the next level. Using the NHL Equivalent methodology on Behind The Net Ross would be 25 point scorer in the NHL. Not bad for a third line player, though itâ€™s also worth noting heâ€™d have less ice time and would likely not be playing on the powerplay. Better drop that number.
Remember, Iâ€™m pro Ross. I just wanted to get discussion of his offense out of the way early and of course make the reminder that no one can 100% predict the future of a 19 year old kid, but Iâ€™m just trying to temper some expectations. Perhaps the best NHL comparable is Dan Carcillo.
More than his strong offensive numbers, Ross is known for his aggressive, agitating game. You can easily put checkmarks next to pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. Of course with that comes an excess of penalty minutes, misconducts and suspensions. All of these things have to be accepted when you hop on the Rad Boss bandwagon. The trade off seems to be that he suckers good players into dumb penalties, hits hard, fights rather than turtles (Iâ€™m looking at you Kaleta and Cooke) and effectively pulls players off their game.
The question as always is â€œCan these tactics work on pros?â€ The answer as always is â€œThey shouldnâ€™t, but they probably will.â€ The same was said about Marchard, Kaleta, Downie and others when they brought their agitating game to the NHL.
The other big question mark is: who is the teammate Brad Ross? Is he the alternate captain who has willingly filled any role asked of him as a four year veteran of the Winterhawks? Or is he the player who was suspended by his own team for undisclosed reasons? The truth is most likely somewhere in between, but this adds to the excitement of adding Ross to the organization. Itâ€™s always nice to have a wildcard.
So at some point I said this was going to be about my actual viewings of Ross in the finals and I guess I better get to that. Before the finals Ross had 12 goals, 20 points and was a plus 9 in 15 playoff games. He had 28 penalty minutes and had earned Player of the Week honours on the strength of a four goal game. Â That brings us to the Brad Ross Iâ€™ve seen.
One the first pieces worth examining on Ross is agitation ability versus his discipline. Throughout the series Ross has proven he can get under the skin of the Oil Kings as he has goaded Henrik Samuelsson, Jordan Peddle, and Masrtin Gernat into penalties, ejections, and suspensions.
Though at the same time Ross hasnâ€™t been immune to stupid penalties himself, and he has taken more penalties in this series than the rest of playoff rounds combined. His ejection in Game Three was an unfortunate trade off as Ross is far more valuable to the Winterhawks than Jordan Peddle is to the Oil Kings. There is still some lessons that need to be learned about being selective on which targets to agitate and that sometimes itâ€™s better to just draw the penalty rather than fight back (something thatâ€™s embarrassing to do, but is the mark of an effective agitator.)
His effective agitation really came in his work on Henrik Samuelsson, a player whose lineage should make him an expert on identifying the hallmarks of agitation. Ross got under Samuelssonâ€™s skin early in Game One and by Game Three he was able to goad Henrik into a reckless penalty that would see him suspended for Game Four.
One of the highlights of this series for Ross came late in the second of Game Four. A mad scramble in front of the Oil Kings net led to Griffin Reinhart (Oil Kings defenseman) covering the puck outside the crease. Ross responded with a solid eight slashes to the body of Reinhart and as a result took a crosscheck to the head and was thrown in yet another headlock. The play would spill over to the final seconds of the period and again the Oil Kings would go after Ross this time seeing him tackled by Martin Gernat. The only Leaf who seems to inspire anything close to this hostility is probably Dion Phaneuf, and if looking at the top nine forwards there isnâ€™t any comparable to Ross.
By game two the flaws in Bradâ€™s offensive game became apparent to me. His positioning in the opposition end frequently sees him drifting in areas where he has little potential to score and his shot seems to be marginal at best. He frequently fires off Jason Blake specials (weak wristers into the goalies chest) and was often late to getting to the front of the net in order to take advantage of loose pucks. In contrast his passing ability is far better than I expected.
At his best Ross is hunting for rebounds near the goal, but a top defensive team like the Oil Kings (Griffin Reinhart, Keegan Lowe, and Mark Pysyk all being strong defensive prospects) has been able to contain him quite easily.
While I have seen Ross score beautiful breakaway and odd man rush goals this season, and his four goals in a game effort against Kamloops suggest he is offensively gifted, I still have my doubts.
Defensively Ross is generally a strong player, which should be heralded as fantastic news for Leafs fans. He is committed to being one of the first players back to his own end, and knows how to make sensible line changes which Iâ€™ve always felt to be an underrated skill. He chases the big hit in his own end, in one instance at the cost of putting himself out of position on a goal though.
The third period of Game Four contradicts some of what I have said about Ross defensively, as with the Winterhawks down, Ross shifted his game exclusively to offense, and was guilty of lazily coasting back to his own end rather than his usual effective back check.
The strongest moment of Game Two for Ross comes when Mac Carruth (the Winterhawks goaltender) kicked out a huge rebound, leaving the net wide open. Ross jumped back into the play in a timely enough manner to clear the puck to safety. While this description might not sound overly impressive, it demonstrated a winger with a great read on a defensive zone play. Iâ€™ve got to believe it will be plays like these that earn Ross top nine minutes in the next levels rather than being buried on the fourth line as a one trick pony.
Another thing worth noting is that his speed is not the liability some might have expected it to be. By comparison Ross has very good speed against WHL competition and his first steps donâ€™t put him at any disadvantage. I wouldnâ€™t say I saw anything that would let me accurately speak to his agility. This is probably going to see Ross considered an average skater at the next levels, but there isnâ€™t any fear of him lumbering around the ice like Jason Allison.
So, Iâ€™m not sure this has sold many people on Brad Ross since Iâ€™m essentially promoting the fact that his scoring is going to be secondary, and there are high risk elements to the primary way he plays the game. While thereâ€™s nothing to say to he wonâ€™t prove me wrong and provide offense at the AHL or NHL level, and if he does you wonâ€™t hear me complain, but what I have seen is a player that should be regarded as an agitator and let the rest fall where it may. Ross has shown some promise to become a strong defensive zone contributor and this seems like a skillset that Dallas Eakins should be able to further instill in him. If that comes at a greater cost to Bradâ€™s offensive abilities itâ€™s probably worth it.
What Iâ€™m also hinting at by mentioning Dallas Eakins is that I do not see any benefit to Ross returning to the Winterhawks as an overager. He has now proven his ability to be a factor on a winning team on long playoff run and he certainly has demonstrated his ability to score at this lower level. The next step for a player who will be filling such a physical role is to actually play against men. There isnâ€™t a benefit to being a 20 year old knocking around 16 year old kids or to be shooting on goaltenders fresh out of Midget hockey.
From what Iâ€™ve seen, I am confident that by the end of the 2013-14 season we will have at least seen Brad Ross have a cup of coffee with the Leafs, and with the results he has achieved so far, itâ€™s fair to say that it could easily be a prolonged stretch he sees in the 2013-14 season. Do I think it will be in a role beyond the third line? No, but Iâ€™m sure while Alex Burrows was toiling in the ECHL most people wrote off his potential to be a 30 goal scorer. What Iâ€™m equally sure of was that the Canucks organization was aware that Alex Burrows would be a sour pain in the ass and could add value to their team in that capacity. So letâ€™s embrace what we know we have in Ross and be thrilled if he follows through on his upside.
A COUPLE OF OTHER NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
- Itâ€™s very rare to say, â€œDamn Calgary has a great prospect,â€ but damn Calgary has a great prospect in Sven Bartschi. Heâ€™s a great two way player with an incredibly accurate shot and huge bag of tricks. I canâ€™t wait until Calgary throws him in a deal for Connolly, Orr and Liles.
- Though heâ€™s not really someone the Leafs would be looking at anyway, Iâ€™ve thought Derrick Pouliot has been a non-factor considering heâ€™s earmarked for the first round.
- Except when heâ€™s made a fool of by Sven Bartschi, Griffin Reinhart has looked very strong against the Winterhawks. The team thatâ€™s patient and develops him will get a solid all round player.
- I came into this series thinking that Henrik Samuelsson could be great for the Leafs with their second round pick (even better if they acquire another mid-second round pick) Having seen him go head to head with Ross throughout this series, add in his size and speed and my opinions havenâ€™t changed.
- I didnâ€™t know a damn thing about Brendan Leipsic before this series, but heâ€™s putting together a strong series and is drawing comparisons to Brad Marchand. While I chronically undervalue prospects, he could be worth the risk considering heâ€™s projected to go in the later rounds of the draft (Ranked 114th North American Skater by NHL Scouting.)
- I still wish the Leafs drafted Ty Rattie last season. Such crisp passing.
UFA Wishlist: Who Is That?
I canâ€™t say that the idea of overpaying for another defenseman (not named Ryan Suter) is too appealing to me.
The Conference Finals TV Schedule
Thank you NHL for making sure I only need to spend one night in the next couple of weeks conversing with loved ones. Go Devils! Go Kings!
Now that Brad Ross and the Winterhawks have been eliminated here is the Memorial Cup schedule. Hereâ€™s hoping for a strong McKegg showing.
Dominant Seasons By CHL Veterans Poor Predictors of Pro Success
Cam Charron reminds us all to stay grounded when getting excited about junior hockey statistics.
Who Were the Best Shot Blockers in the NHL in 2011-12
Some surprising Leaf entries on this list.
Does it matter to you that Phil Kessel is not playing (again) for Team U.S.A. at the World Championships?
It doesnâ€™t matter to me. Kessel is one the few Leafs who has earned some time off. Iâ€™d also rather see Luke Schenn working with a power skating coach than playing for Canada.