Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter could sense in recent days that centre Oleg Zaytsev was a mite uneasy about competing in the Sherwin Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects game Wednesday at the Centrium.
So like any dependable mentor, Sutter tried to put the youngster’s mind at ease with the contest — featuring the top 40 North American major junior players eligible for this year’s NHL entry draft — just around the corner.
“I’ve talked to him about it. He’s excited, I think he’s a little bit nervous,” said the Rebels boss. “But I told him to enjoy the experience, to just go out and play his game.
“There’s the odd older player but he’ll be playing against kids he’s going to be measured against from here through the rest of the year as far as ratings.”
Sutter was referring to the Central Scoutings rankings, the mid-season version of which were released Monday. Zaytsev is ranked 37th among North Americans skaters, which — when including European and Russian prospects — would perhaps indicate that he’ll be drafted in the late second round or even the third round of the NHL draft in June.
“You want all the kids to enjoy the experience,” said Sutter, who will be on the same bench as Zaytsev as a member — along with Ron MacLean and London Knights president/co-owner/head coach Dale Hunter — of the Team Cherry coaching staff.
“It’s never going to happen again for them. It’s only once in a lifetime they get to play in a Top Prospects game. The ones who are fortunate enough to get asked to play in it, you want them to enjoy the experience but you want them to succeed and do well too.”
Zaytsev, who slowly but surely is learning the English language, merely answered in the affirmative when he was queried about his anticipation of the game, the fact that he will be surrounded by highly skilled players and the reality that NHL general managers and scouts will be taking in the contest.
Zaytsev, who celebrated his 18th birthday Jan. 7, did offer that he has five friends on team Orr, all fellow Russians playing in the Quebec and Ontario leagues.
He added he was excited at the thought of facing off against them, but when asked if he’s the best player of the bunch, Zaytsev shyly responded “I don’t know.”
One player who likely doesn’t harbour many doubts as to his skill level compared to his major junior peers who will be on display Wednesday is Saskatoon Blades star forward Kirby Dach (pictured below).
Dach, who turned 18 Monday, is tickled that the Top Prospects Game will be played just a couple hours away from his hometown of Fort Saskatchewan.
“For sure, there will lots of family and friends coming out for the game,” said the Team Orr captain.
Turns out that Dach, who is the top-ranked WHL player for the 2019 NHL draft and No. 2 among North American skaters, has a local connection.
“My cousin, Vanessa Verbitsky, plays for the (midget) triple A (girls) team here in Red Deer,” he said. “It will be kind of nice to see her, with her being in Red Deer and me being in Saskatoon. And my friends from back home who I haven’t seen in a long time, it will obviously be good to see them too.”
Dach insisted he’s honoured to be part of the pomp and circumstance prior to the actual event and is thrilled with the prospect of competing in the game.
“It’s pretty special to be part of this game,” he said. “You look at all the guys who’ve gone through this experience in the past and where they’ve gone in the draft and how successful they’ve been in the NHL with their careers.
“It’s a good stepping stone for me and I think I’m going in the right direction.”
That much is obvious, considering he’ll be off the board early in this year’s NHL entry draft as a basic ‘can’t miss’ prospect who, by his own admission, has become a more complete player this season.
“I think I’ve kind of rounded out my game, obviously with Mitch (first-year head coach and former defenceman Love) coming into the team he’s preached defence and the responsibilities with and without the puck and I think that’s something that I’ve tried to improve on.
“Obviously, scoring only seven goals last year and having 18 already this year, I’ve focused on shooting the puck a lot more and taking the puck to the net and being more tenacious about putting pucks in.”
Dach has steadily improved since making a splash with the Blades during a 19-game stint as a 15-year-old. He scored six goals and collected 10 points during his impressive underage WHL debut.
Dach went on to score seven goals and garner 39 points in 52 games last season and has 18 goals and 50 points in 43 games in the current campaign.
The Blades are at least an outside WHL championship contender this season and the six-foot-three, 195-pound centre is focusing more on team success than the NHL entry draft five months down the road.
“It’s tough to block out the noise, but I think you have to,” said Dach. “You have to focus on one day at a time and try to get better every day.
“If you’re focused more towards June and the draft, things aren’t going to go your way. You have to stay focused on what’s directly ahead of you and just work hard every day.”