Inside the NHL
Forget the goals, assists and more advanced metrics attached to the somewhat thin scouting sheet on Matt Rempe. The biggest number the Seattle Thunderbirds center has going for him this week is 80 — the number of inches he towers above the ground.
There’s never been a 6-foot-8 forward in the NHL, and only Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara beats Rempe’s height by an inch. So, when NHL teams gather virtually Tuesday and Wednesday to stage a pandemic-altered draft, there’s a good chance one takes the 18-year-old with only 12 career goals and 19 assists on his Western Hockey League (WHL) resume.
Sure, his statistics aren’t eye-catching. But given Rempe stands 7 feet tall on skates, the eyes aren’t focused on much beyond his height once the Calgary native takes the ice.
“All the teams like my height because I can also skate very well,” said Rempe, who didn’t make the final NHL Central Scouting rankings but could sneak in as a late-round pick. “If I couldn’t move, it would be much more of an issue.”
It helps that Rempe packed on about 30 pounds weight training the past year — especially after the WHL halted play in March — and now carries 235 pounds into the corners, face-off circles and in front of opposing nets, compared to the 208 pounds most scouting websites still list him at.
“I’ve just gotten way, way stronger,” Rempe said. “But I’ve also gotten way, way faster. So, I think my skating and also my overall strength is just the most improved.”
There are no guarantees Rempe or other Seattle-area junior prospects will get called once the draft begins on Zoom instead of at its previously postponed June location in Montreal. While Quebec-born forward Alexis Lafreniere of the Rimouski Oceanic will almost certainly be selected No. 1 overall by the New York Rangers, no Thunderbirds or Everett Silvertips are expected to be taken before Rounds 2 through 7.
Everett center Gage Goncalves and defensemen Kasper Puutio and Ronan Seeley could all go by the fourth round, while center Michael Gut is a potential late-round pick. Thunderbirds defensemen Simon Kubicek and Tyrel Bauer project as mid-rounders, while goalie Blake Lyda — who has played for both Seattle-area junior teams — could go late.
The Kraken will watch in preparation for next year’s entry draft, where it’s No. 3 in the lottery and has a 10.1% chance at picking first overall. Much of the team’s amateur scouting information was compiled with a partial staff relying heavily on analytical models in lieu of firsthand reports — given pandemic shutdowns of amateur hockey — so they’ll see how predicative of this year’s draft they were and make needed tweaks.
“We’ll get together on a Zoom call and we’ll have some of the analytics people on as well,” Kraken GM Ron Francis said. “There are some things they’ve been playing around with, so this gives us a chance to look at things, learn more and prepare more as we move forward.”
As for Rempe, his added muscle should reassure scouts his height won’t hinder him. He’d like to add 10 more pounds to maximize his balance and center of gravity so crucial to NHL success.
“Right now, I don’t think I’m going to get knocked over,” said Rempe, who spent a season with Spruce Grove in the lower-level Alberta Junior Hockey League before cracking the T-birds in his second attempt last year. “I feel like it’s hard to get the puck off me because I have a really long stick and I can really protect the puck and also just shield it with my body. I can use my body as a shield against people and muscle people around.”
It can also be helpful on face-offs.
“One, I feel I can get a lot more strength than the other guys on the draw,” he said. “And two, I can take up so much more space over the circle. So, I can just go in there and I’m pushing the guy so far back, so I’m giving myself a much better stick placement position.”
But that only works when Rempe isn’t tossed out of the face-off circle.
“I get kicked out a lot because I’m so big and I’m over the dot and they think that I’m cheating. But I really can’t set myself up in a way that’s not cheating because I’m too big and I can’t get out of the way. But most of the times, the linesmen are good guys and don’t kick me out.”
Rempe won 46% of face-offs when he did stay in. While hardly elite — a 55% rate is considered the sign of a good face-off man — it wasn’t bad for a first-year WHL performer literally still growing into his big man role.
His late father, Ron, was 6-foot-6, while his marathon-running mother, Janice, is 5-foot-10 and his college-hockey-playing older sisters Steph and Alley are 6-foot and 5-foot-7, respectively. But while usually the tallest kid in his class, Rempe’s biggest growth spurt came the past two years.
Two WHL training camps ago, he was shorter than 6-foot-2 Thunderbirds teammate Bauer. But by last winter, Rempe couldn’t walk though the hallways at Kentwood High School in Covington without the basketball coach trying to recruit him.
He’s gotten good at staying low while skating, helping maintain his speed and center of gravity.
“It takes longer for bigger guys to grow into their body,” Rempe said. “I find it’s easier now to make plays because I’m starting to fill out.”
Thus, his potential remains uncharted territory.
Finding NHL players to model himself after has been challenging. Chara is 6-foot-9, 250 pounds; Tyler Myers of the Vancouver Canucks is 6-foot-8, 229 pounds; and Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Victor Hedman goes 6-foot-6, 223 pounds.
“But they’re all defensemen,” Rempe noted.
Among centers, 6-foot-5, 205-pound Adam Lowry of the Winnipeg Jets is the closest he’s found and admired. But Lowry is three inches shorter and a good 30 pounds lighter.
“You realize there’s no one like you,” Rempe said. “And I really like that because I want to be different than anyone’s ever seen before.”