When hoping to draw the attention of NHL scouts, there can be a downside to being too well-rounded of a player -- particularly when it comes to blueliners. Logical or not, there's inarguably some benefit to standing out as a premium, puck-moving offensive defenseman or an imposing shutdown defender of the stay-at-home variety. Either type can be appropriately categorized with little confusion. But when a defensive player brings a little bit of everything to the table -- a jack-of-all-trades type, if you will -- it's more difficult to affix any one label. Which brings us to Chris Bigras of the Owen Sound Attack, who, in some sense, could be considered the ultimate renaissance man of NHL draft prospects.
"You have certain defensemen that do certain things extremely well, [while] Chris does so many things at a very, very high level," said Attack head coach Greg Ireland, ahead of Wednesday's 3-0 win over the Barrie Colts. "[Scouts] struggle to pigeonhole him: 'Is he an offensive guy? Is he a defensive guy?' Here's a kid who's 17 years old, who's playing on one of the top teams in the league, every night he plays against the best offensive players, and he's a plus-29. And for most of this year he's been running our power play as well."
Well, the scouting community is now taking proper notice. Known for his above-average hockey sense, Bigras is currently ranked 19th in Central Scouting Service's midterm report (North American skaters) -- several spots ahead of defenseman Nikita Zadorov of the London Knights. Darnell Nurse (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) is the only OHL defenseman listed higher. And Ireland believes his young D-man can rise up the ranks even farther.
"I think the finer you turn the microscope on him, you'll find he doesn't get rattled," said the former AHL head coach. "He's got great poise and patience with the puck. Defensively, he always seems to be in the right spot. ... I think he's going to continue to elevate in value when people start to [focus] the microscope even tighter. They'll find he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's a pretty steady puck-moving defenseman."
This isn't to suggest the 17-year-old doesn't have a ways to go. Our own insider, NHL scout Grant Sonier, suggests Bigras shows promise but still has to take many elements of his game to the next level.
"I often use the term 'tweener' when it comes to prospects," wrote Sonier. "Bigras is a solid performer on a very good junior team, but we are talking NHL projection. Bigras has skill, but I do not see an offensive element to his game from the back end. Also, though he is not small, he certainly is smaller than the average size for NHL D-men. Bigras plays hard, but he's not nasty in his approach. Everything seems to be in between for me. Because he plays a good, quiet game, he is the type of player you have to be very careful with as over time he could develop because he is smart."
Fortunately, more playing experience should only help to improve upon those suggested shortcomings. And keep in mind, the high school student is still just a kid and has a fair bit of growing to do. While Ireland contends Bigras is nowhere near his physical peak, the player himself admits he needs to get bigger and stronger.
"[Building] strength is a huge part of getting to the next level," Bigras acknowledged this week. "You're playing against men when you get up there, so I definitely want to work on that."
As for the immediate future, Bigras could also benefit from the recent pre-trade-deadline acquisition of defenseman Cody Ceci, formerly of the Ottawa 67's.
"I think Chris is the kind of player who sees [the addition of Ceci] as a challenge," said Ireland, insisting Bigras won't lose out on power-play opportunities despite the addition of the Ottawa Senators' first-round selection. "As in, 'Hey, that's a top-end player that's been drafted in the first round -- let me see how I can project against him, competing within our own team structure.'"
The extra push can't hurt. Not when a kid has his head screwed on tight like Bigras does. Further, Ceci's presence could be one more factor that helps Bigras evolve from a jack-of-all-trades defender to an elite master-of-many-talents player. There aren't too many defensemen like that around -- even at the NHL level. In fact, one of the very best recently retired.
"I would always say Chris patterns his game along the lines of Nicklas Lidstrom," Ireland suggested with caution. "But I would never compare anyone to Nik Lidstrom. [Chris] does a lot of things a Nik Lidstrom does in terms of body positioning and [playing] smart, but there's only one Nik Lidstrom."
Ireland eventually settled on comparing his young defenseman to a "more physical" version of Tomas Kaberle, a hybrid-type player more than a few NHL squads would happily add. And if the Attack's top draft prospect manages to surpass that projection, we may be talking about how there's only one Chris Bigras 20 years from now.
Class of 2013
• Scrappy, hard-hitting centerman Ryan Hartman is turning a lot of heads in his first season with the Plymouth Whalers. Following his gold-medal-winning appearance for Team USA at the world junior championship, Hartman was a standout at the recent Top Prospects game, showcasing his physical style of play. With 41 points and 102 PIM in 39 games for the Whalers, Hartman is currently pegged as a second-round selection at the 2013 NHL draft.
• Kerby Rychel is enjoying a pretty productive late January, tallying seven points (two goals, five assists) in his past three games for the Windsor Spitfires. Perhaps even more impressive, the future NHL power forward is plus-4 since Jan. 4 (minus-11 on the season).
• Rising through the scouting ranks, Nick Moutrey of the Saginaw Spirit is emerging as one to watch ahead of the draft. The big forward (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) doesn't get loads of press coverage, but that should change as we approach late June. CSS has Moutrey listed 48th in its rankings.
Notable NHL prospects
• Of the gaggle invited to participate in NHL training camps, a handful of OHLers are threatening to hang around the bigs awhile yet. Barrie F Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets, 1st round, 2011), Sarnia F Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens, 1st round, 2012), Oshawa F Scott Laughton (Philadelphia Flyers, 1st round, 2012) and Plymouth F Rickard Rakell (Anaheim Ducks, 1st round, 2011) have yet to return to their respective junior teams. How many of them will remain past the fifth "freebie" game before one contract year is burned remains to be seen. (Smart money is on Laughton to stick, in light of how well he's adjusted and due to other injuries endured by the Flyers.)
However, Dougie Hamilton (Boston Bruins, 1st round, 2011) can comfortably bid adieu to the Niagara IceDogs. Expected to fill a top-six NHL role this season, Hamilton has been "outstanding" at times, according to Bruins head coach Claude Julien.
• Back in the "O," Tom Wilson (Washington Capitals, 1st round, 2012) has landed in a fresh pile of trouble. The Plymouth forward has been suspended five games for a nasty crosscheck/hit-from-behind. Meanwhile, defenseman Mikko Vainonen (Nashville Predators, 4th round, 2012) has been suspended a whopping 10 games for issuing a check to the head. Vainonen isn't eligible to return for the Kingston Frontenacs until Feb. 6.
• Injury-wise, requiring shoulder surgery, Slater Koekkoek (Tampa Bay Lightning, 1st round, 2012) is shut down for the rest of the OHL season. It's a nasty blow for Koekkoek and the Windsor Spitfires, who recently acquired the defenseman from the Peterborough Petes. Hopefully this marks the end of Koekkoek's shoulder woes and he can start fresh in 2013-14.
• Kitchener Rangers forward Radek Faksa (Dallas Stars, 1st round, 2012) is reportedly out four to six weeks with an MCL injury.