Springboard to Success: The CHL Top Prospects Game

Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2006

By Lucas Aykroyd

Video game fans understand the concept of the bonus round. Over a short period of time, your character runs around collecting bonus points without endangering himself in any way. Well, that’s similar to what happens at the annual CHL Top Prospects game.

“A bad performance won’t really hurt a guy, but if he puts in an excellent performance, it’ll help,” said Barry Trapp, director of amateur scouting for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “During the year, you see these kids going against teams that have maybe one or two top-end guys. But here, they’re facing the best players in the CHL.”

Since NHL teams vote for the game rosters, there usually aren’t many surprises. But there are exceptions, like Dan Focht. The Tri-City Americans defenceman was a last-minute replacement for the injured Ric Jackman at the inaugural game in 1996. Focht’s outstanding performance incited Phoenix to draft the Regina native 11th overall that June.

Focht’s development hasn’t been as quick as the Coyotes hoped back then, and he’s played less than 100 NHL games. But other high-profile pros have used the Top Prospects game as a true springboard to success.

Top Prospects Game: 1996

Ten years ago, the NHL trend was toward big, tough grinders after the defence-oriented New Jersey Devils captured their first Stanley Cup with the likes of Bobby Holik and Randy McKay. That surely didn’t bode well for a nifty QMJHL centre generously listed at 5-8 and 163 pounds.

Daniel Briere of the Drummondville Voltigeurs was a perennial contender for the league scoring title, but many hockey observers agreed with the Montreal Gazette’s Herb Zurkowsky, who said Briere would be “a potential first-round pick were he bigger.” An official NHL scouting report went further: “Size is his only setback; if he were 6-0, he would be a franchise player.”

Briere did everything he could to persuade the doubters among the 10,000-plus spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens for the Top Prospects Game, which included 200 scouts and 19 NHL GMs. Skating alongside future NHL teammate J-P Dumont of Val d’Or and Francois Methot of Saint-Hyacinthe, Briere racked up four assists, including three in the third period, in a 9-3 Team Cherry win. Those records still stand.

The 18-year-old clearly made an impression on Phoenix GM John Paddock. After Briere finished 1995-96 as the CHL’s leading scorer, the Coyotes picked him 24th overall in the first round.

NHL success wasn’t instant for the flashy pivot. Not until 2001-02 did he enjoy his breakout campaign with 60 points. After being traded to the Buffalo Sabres, he established a new career high in points with 65 in 2003-04. With the NHL’s renewed emphasis on opening up the game, Briere is poised to thrive with his speed and skill for years to come.

Top Prospects Game: 1997

According to Barry Trapp, goalies face a little extra pressure in the Top Prospects Game due to the individual nature of their position. “If a goaltender lets in a bunch of goals and looks really bad, that could hurt him,” Trapp said. However, Roberto Luongo did just the opposite in his 1997 appearance.

The lanky butterfly-style keeper from the Val d’Or Foreurs entered this showdown at Maple Leaf Gardens with a 2.84 GAA, which put him among the QMJHL leaders. But some wondered how he’d measure up against snipers from the other two leagues. Luongo made a record-setting 24 saves in the first period, many of the spectacular variety, as his Team Orr mates built a 4-0 lead. At the other end, neither Curtis Cruickshank nor Pierre-Luc Therrien could rival Luongo’s performance, as Team Orr triumphed 7-2.

“I thought I was playing against Ken Dryden again,” said Cherry, whose Boston Bruins frequently clashed with Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens in the 1970’s.

“[Luongo is] big, he covers so much of the net and moves extremely well,” added Frank Bonello, head of the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. “He’s up there with the top goalie prospects from the last few years. Even [Eric] Fichaud and [Stephane] Fiset didn’t have the kind of year this kid is having.”

New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury must have liked what he saw. He took Luongo fourth overall in the NHL Entry Draft that June, making a kid who didn’t even start playing goal till age 11 the highest-ever drafted netminder.

Although Luongo has achieved some impressive save percentages in the NHL, his biggest triumphs have come in international hockey. He backstopped the 1999 World Junior team to a silver medal in Winnipeg, and won two golds and one silver with Canada at the senior Worlds from 2003 to 2005, in addition to defeating the Czechs in the 2004 World Cup semi-finals.

Top Prospects Game: 2002

Heading into this matchup at Saskatoon’s Saskatchewan Place, everybody knew Jay Bouwmeester had superb skills. The smooth-skating blueliner was rated first among North American prospects in the NHL Central Scouting mid-season rankings. He’d also cracked the tournament all-star team at the recent World Juniors in the Czech Republic, amassing the best plus-minus rating for second-place Canada.

But although “Jay-Bo” served as an assistant captain with the Medicine Hat Tigers, scouts were interested in seeing what kind of leadership the soft-spoken Edmontonian would display as the captain of Team Tiger Williams. Bouwmeester let his play do the talking versus Team Kelly Hrudey. The 6-3, 206-pounder assisted on an early second period goal by Armands Berzins and then scored on the power play less than two minutes later, giving his team its first lead of the night. Team Tiger Williams won 7-4, and Bouwmeester was named Player of the Game for his side.

After putting up 151 points in 194 career WHL games, Bouwmeester was selected third overall by Florida in the 2002 NHL Draft, behind such elite prospects as Rick Nash and Kari Lehtonen. To date, he hasn’t shown the same kind of offensive flair in the NHL as he did in his junior days. But Bouwmeester still has a tremendous upside at age 22. He was named the top defenceman at the 2003 IIHF World Championship in Finland, notching seven points in nine games as Canada claimed the gold.

Top Prospects Game: 2005

When Sidney Crosby declined to participate in last year’s Top Prospects Game in Vancouver, citing health concerns, it sparked some controversy in the West Coast metropolis. But it didn’t bother Vancouver Giants centre Gilbert Brule. The feisty former WHL Rookie of the Year seized the spotlight, tallying a hat trick in an 8-4 Team Cherry win over Team Davidson in front of 16,331 fans at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum.

In June, the Columbus Blue Jackets were thrilled to draft Brule sixth overall.

“Gilbert’s certainly a top-five guy,” Jackets GM Doug MacLean told reporters at the draft. “In my opinion, we got lucky. From what I saw last year–and I was at the Top Prospects Game–and knowing the type of kid he is, I think he’s going to be knocking on our door big-time. I think that’s pretty exciting.”

“Brule got drafted where he was drafted because he put on a display and showed everybody,” said Barry Trapp. “He also did very well in the skills competition. The good players always jump out. When Brule did, it was no surprise at all.”

Unfortunately, Brule’s good fortune didn’t hold up in his NHL rookie season, as he suffered a cracked sternum in October and a broken leg in November. But with the kind of enterprising spirit he showed at the Top Prospects Game, chances are good he’ll soon springboard back on to the road to NHL stardom.

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