By Scott McLaughlin/DFP Staff
I decided to head down to the Foxboro Sports Center yesterday to catch incoming freshmen Adam Clendening, Charlie Coyle, Matt Nieto and Garrett Noonan playing for the Beantown Bullies Jr. Major team in the Chowder Cup. They lost to the National Capital Recruits (a mostly Canadian team) 6-2, but that’s not really all that pertinent to this story.
Clendening didn’t play — a couple people in the stands said he went sightseeing with his parents, but no one seemed 100-percent sure — so there was nothing to observe on that front. The people I talked to said he did great in the first two games of the tournament, though, and that he showed some toughness Friday night when he dropped the gloves.
Nieto was consistently one of the two best players on the ice along with Kyle Thomas, a sophomore at Division-III Norwich University (side note: how Thomas, who had a hat trick Friday night and another goal Saturday, is playing D-III and not D-I is beyond me).
I was most impressed with Nieto’s speed and his strength and balance when he has the puck. Not only was he the fastest skater on the ice, but it also looked nearly impossible to knock him off the puck.
Let’s start with his speed. Ten seconds into the game, Nieto took a pass at center ice, blew by two defenders down the right wing and put a centering pass right on Coyle’s stick in front. On his second shift, he shot through a defender from just inside the blue line, put on the burners to chase down the rebound and would’ve gotten to it had the last defender not spun him around with a hook.
There were two more instances later in the game when Nieto made a defenseman look like he was standing still only to have his shot saved. He also showed off his speed on the backcheck, most notably getting back in time to break up a 2-on-1 after a Coyle turnover.
But let’s get back to that penalty he drew, for it was on that power play that he first exhibited his strength. He battled for possession behind the net, shed two defenders and scored when his centering pass deflected off an NCR player’s skate — his second goal of the tournament.
Later in the first half (they played two 25-minute halves), Nieto drew another hooking call with more hard work behind the net. It seemed that hooking was the only way to separate him from the puck.
Another aspect of Nieto’s game I was impressed with was his penalty killing. He was on the top PK unit all game and wasn’t afraid to be aggressive and try to start a shorthanded rush, something Jack Parker encourages. At the same time, he was never caught up ice, mostly because he has the speed to get back. He was on the ice for one power-play goal against, but he had a guy completely smothered in front, so it wasn’t because of him.
The only negative I could possibly find was that he struggled to finish. He had a couple chances right in front that he either put wide or into the goalie’s chest. Still, it was an all-around very impressive game from Nieto.
I’ve heard Noonan described by various people as the “wild card” or “question mark” of the freshman class. But I’ve also heard some people say they expect him to be a steady, everyday player from Day 1. After seeing him play yesterday, file me under the latter. There was nothing wild or questionable about his game, just consistency.
Defensively, Noonan was almost always in good position, whether it was keeping his man in front of him, forcing someone wide, or getting into a shooting or passing lane. The lone exception was when a player got in behind him at the blue line to create a 2-on-1.
I was also impressed with his breakout ability, whether it was with a pass or with his feet. All his breakout passes, short and long, were right on the tape. If he was under pressure, he always went up the boards instead of up the middle, something that can’t be said of BU’s defense last season.
If he had room to skate, he took it. A couple times he carried it all the way through the neutral zone and across the opposite blue line, including once when he actually went coast-to-coast and had a pretty good backhander saved.
Noonan also saw quite a bit of power-play time and did a pretty good job manning the point. He was patient, made smart passes and wasn’t afraid to carry the puck down low if he had the chance. I don’t know if Noonan will be asked to carry the puck up the ice or quarterback the power play any time soon at BU, but it’s good to know that he has that ability.
Another thing I noticed about Noonan is that he has deceptive speed. He doesn’t look like he’d be that good of a skater, but he is. Not only can he rush the puck, but he also caught a guy on a breakaway once and forced a rushed shot.
Like Nieto, there wasn’t much in the way of negatives for Noonan. I would’ve liked to see him throw around his body a little more, though. He has good size, but he didn’t really use it much yesterday. I’ve read that he is a hard hitter, though, so this might’ve just been a tame game.
Coyle wasn’t nearly as impressive as Nieto or Noonan. In fact, it was actually a pretty disappointing game for the first-round NHL pick. I thought he was too conservative with the puck. There were too many times when he slowed down, pulled up or circled back instead of hitting the jets and attacking. He was also slow getting back on NCR’s first goal, which was scored by the man Coyle should’ve been covering.
He also didn’t look very good on the power play. He spent some time down low on the power play, where he actually did a pretty good job creating traffic, but most of his power-play time came at the point, which is also where he played for the South Shore Kings.
In the zone, Coyle looked jumpy. He had a couple passes bounce off his stick, and there were a couple times when he held onto the puck a little too long and ended up just dumping it into the corner. He also made an ill-advised cross-ice pass that nearly led to a shorthanded break.
When the power play had to regroup, he was too slow starting the rush up ice. On one man advantage, he doubled back twice in about 10 seconds even though he wasn’t really under that much pressure.
All that said, there were still plenty of positives for Coyle. Like Nieto, he was very strong on his skates. When he did attack, he got to where he wanted to go, another reason I’m disappointed he didn’t do it more. He also managed to draw a penalty inside his own blue line just trying to get around a guy on a breakout.
Coyle was also one of the few players in the game to throw around his weight. He finished checks whenever he got the chance and had two bone-crushing hits.
Finally, he showed very good anticipation at times. He had two impressive steals, one at the attacking blue line to create a 2-on-1 and one on a 5-on-3 penalty kill that led to a clear.
Before anyone gets too worried about Coyle, I remind you that this was one game (although he does have just one assist through three Chowder Cup games). He was a first-round pick for a reason. I, for one, still expect big things from him.