Inside the NHL
Self-motivation won’t be a problem for late-blooming local junior players Matthew Wedman and Bryce Kindopp when they join NHL training camps this week.
Seattle Thunderbirds center Wedman, 20, wasn’t picked by the Florida Panthers until the seventh and final round of the recent NHL Draft, while Everett Silvertips winger Kindopp, 20, didn’t get chosen at all and had to score a camp invite after the fact from the Colorado Avalanche. Among the seven prospects from both junior teams trying to crack NHL rosters this month, the pair arguably have the most to prove and limited time to do that as both are entering their age-20 seasons.
Alberta native Wedman knew his draft status was so up in the air that he’d gone for a morning skate as earlier rounds unfolded. He got home during the seventh round and searched for the draft on television.
“Maybe two minutes after I turned it on, I saw my name pop up,’’ said 40-goal scorer Wedman, chosen 199th overall out of 217 total draftees. “Me and my parents jumped up and we were all pretty excited.’’
There was no such joyous eruption for Kindopp, another native Albertan, who knew going into the draft he was on the bubble despite a 39-goal season with the Silvertips.
“I was watching towards the later rounds and I didn’t get called,’’ Kindopp said. “But then right after the draft, my agent phoned and said a few teams had interest but the Avalanche seemed the most interested.’’
Kindopp got invited to Colorado’s prospect-development camp the following week and a strong showing there saw him asked back to the regular camp this month.
Others attending their first NHL camps this week include Silvertips defenseman Gianni Fairbrother, a third-round pick, with Montreal and goalie Dustin Wolf, a seventh-rounder, with Calgary. Thunderbirds hopefuls include winger Henrik Rybinski, a fifth-rounder joining Wedman in Florida’s camp, and netminder Roddy Ross, a sixth-rounder in Philadelphia.
And then, there are holdover picks who have already attended camps in previous years but have yet to play professionally, like Silvertips forward Connor Dewar, a third-rounder from 2018 with the Minnesota Wild who just signed a three-year, entry-level contract. Technically, Dewar could still be returned to Everett for his age-20 season, though that is rare for players who sign pro deals. Chances are he’ll begin in the American Hockey League if he doesn’t make the big club.
Players are only eligible for the minor pro leagues once they turn 20 in a given year, or otherwise must be sent back to their junior teams if they fail to make the NHL. They can still be returned for an age-20 season, though junior teams are only allowed to keep three such players on their rosters.
There is, naturally, somewhat of a stigma attached to 20-year-olds being returned to junior rather than playing minor pro. It worked out well for the Thunderbirds in 2016-17, when they won their first WHL championship after star forward Ryan Gropp was surprisingly returned by the New York Rangers at age 20.
Still, rightly or wrongly, many players view an age-20 junior return as NHL teams telling them they aren’t mature enough to cut it in pro hockey.
So, this will be a big upcoming camp for Lake Stevens native Wyatte Wylie, 19, a Silvertips defenseman picked in the fifth round last year by the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s his second Flyers camp and – unlike Dewar in Minnesota – he’s yet to be offered an entry-level pro deal and turns 20 in November.
Wylie undoubtedly wants to start his pro career with the Flyers or, more likely, their AHL affiliate in Lehigh Valley, Pa., than return to Everett for a final year.
For Wedman and Kindopp, though, the stigma of an age-20 return to their junior clubs likely wouldn’t sting as much given how uncertain their NHL futures seemed on draft day. Their gradual progression is a prime example of how junior hockey can be used to develop players into pro-ready products.
“My first couple of years, I was more of a role player,’’ said Wedman, adding he improved as a playmaker the past two seasons rather than simply dumping the puck in.
At 6 feet 3, 196 pounds, Wedman impressed the Panthers with his ability to utilize his size advantage. They’ve stressed to him how “puck possession’’ will be key to his development.
Among the more famous names he met at the development camp were new Panthers coach Joel Quenneville – second of all time in victories behind Scotty Bowman – and outgoing netminder Roberto Luongo. In fact, Luongo had just given his retirement news conference and was still hanging around the arena when Wedman was introduced to him.
“He wished me luck and told me he plans on sticking around the area for a while,’’ Wedman said. “He had a lot of advice to offer about just staying focused and working hard. Just the fact he’d take some time to speak to me on a day like that for him was something pretty special.’’
Kindopp had his own celebrity moment when Avalanche executive vice president Joe Sakic addressed his group of prospects at Colorado’s development camp. Having watched Sakic as a Hall of Fame player, it was “cool to realize just how much closer I am to my NHL dream.’’
A dream that once seemed it might not even get this far. Kindopp scored only 31 goals his first two seasons with Everett before the 39 last season and a one-year increase of his points total from 36 to 73.
“I think maybe it was a mental thing for me,’’ he said. “Maybe I don’t have the confidence right away when I start at a new level.’’
Now that he has seen what he can do, he hopes it doesn’t take as long to make a lasting impression at the next level.
“I still have a lot to prove,’’ Kindopp said. “But they obviously saw something in me that they like and now I have to keep showing it to them.’’