Development Camp In Depth: The Best Defensemen
The Wings had six of their own drafted defensemen at development camp, and eight camp invitees. Here again is the link to the full roster for all the details. Kyle and I covered the entire camp live, and all of those articles can be found here, but now it's time to take a more in depth look at some of the prospects in attendance.
There were two defenseman who stood head and shoulders above the others, and not only physically. It's fitting that Mike McKee and James deHaas be in this post together, since they were paired together on the ice for scrimmages and drills, as well as being stall-mates in the dressing room, and even answering questions for each other. These two quickly became my favorite pairing to watch. Up North Live posted a video that included both McKee and deHaas' goals and deHaas' assist in the final scrimmage.
|Mike McKee||Defense||6'4"||250||2012 5th rd 150th overall||8/17/1993||Western Michigan (NCHC)|
Michael McKee was not at development camp last year, and from what I remembered of him in the 2012 camp, freshly drafted after being passed over in the 2011 draft, is that he was a big guy who could beat people up and didn't possess a lot skill. He was undisciplined and I didn't know if I should expect him to ever play in the NHL or not. He played another year for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL in 2012-2013 before playing his freshman year at Western last season. He only played in twenty-one games tallying a lone goal and no assists, while playing a majority of his games as a forward. He was a forward until the age of 15, when he switched to defense, now he's playing forward again. It it remains to be seen if he'll end up playing defense or forward and when asked about where the Wings would play McKee, Jiri Fischer said
Our philosophy has always been that where our players are, they need to dominate in whatever situation they're in. If he's put on D [at Western], he'll need to find a way to be a productive defenseman. If they use him at forward, he'll have to figure out how to be [a] productive forward. By the time he's leaving college, hopefully it will be solidified which position suits him better and we'll go from there.
I didn't really have any expectations for McKee coming into camp this year, but after watching him, think he could turn pro right now. Standing 6'4" and weighing 250, McKee is a very imposing player. It was clear watching him in camp that he had to make a conscious effort to hold back so that he didn't hurt or kill someone. McKee said
"You're not out there to run anybody or hurt anybody. You're competing hard and guys are battling, but you're not out there to hurt anybody. So you let up, I wouldn't say a lot, or even just a little bit, you just play"
I watched as other players tried to go one on one with him and just bounce off while McKee didn't seem to notice they had even run into him. Think you're going to knock McKee off the puck? Hahaha, I laugh in your general direction. He's big, strong, and I don't think there's any fat on him; and the six-pack he has going on is further proof of my speculation. He was very smart defensively as well, a tremendous improvement from the last time I watched him play, and his skating is miles better than two years ago. He has very good balance, especially for someone his size, and even during the very difficult skating drills, he did very well. He has surprising speed and agility as well, and add his skating abilities to his greatly improved defensive sense, some very good passing, and a wrist shot that's harder than most guys slappers, and McKee is shaping up to have much more potential than I ever expected from him. Western head coach Andy Murray said
"Mike has worked extremely hard, and we have been doing extra sessions with him. We decided that rather than have him play games and him not totally being ready, we would give him extra skill sessions. Coach Ferschweiler has been working with him in the morning on his skating and doing different things, and it looks like it's paying dividends." - Source
The biggest weakness in McKee's game had always been lack of discipline, amassing a staggering 237 PIM in 59 games with the Stars in 11-12 and 292 PIM in 42 games in 12-13. In camp, McKee played smart hockey, and for him that's a big deal. When asked about his transition to college from the USHL, McKee said
"I definitely struggled a little bit at the beginning of college; I sat out a few games because I had trouble staying out of the box. Coach Murray is really working with me to try and keep it under control and more play the game instead of running around."
Prior to starting college, McKee said he was looking forward to focusing on playing the game and improving his skills, which has proved to be a crucial attitude in his significant improvement. In camp, he said
"If you're not getting better you're getting worse. I'll take that back with me and work hard every day and try to get a little bit better every day; if not, guys are going to pass us [ he and deHaas] real fast, so we're going to try to pass some guys ourselves."
McKee showed some offensive skill in camp notching a nice assist in the 1st scrimmage and a fantastic goal in the final scrimmage, flashes of forward McKee, but at a pro level I expect him to be more of a defensive guy who's strong on the puck, in the corners, and moves the puck well up to the forwards. In my opinion, he's moved up from "will this guy even make it to the NHL?" to the potential of a 2nd or 3rd pairing guy in the NHL. He still has 3 more years of college, unless the Wings want him to turn pro sooner, and I'm definitely watching his development with great interest.
I very much want to see how McKee could handle himself against the pro's in the prospects tournament and Red Wings training camp, but because of NCAA rules, we won't be able to see him again until next summer in development camp. In order to maintain NCAA eligibility, the Wings can not play for anything for their college players, not travel, nor lodging, nor equipment. Unfortunately that conflicts with the requirement that the team pay for the players to attend both the Prospects Tournament and the main Training Camp.
|James deHaas||Defense||6'3"||205||2012 6th rd 170th overall||5/05/1994||Clarkson (ECAC)|
James deHaas, who just finished his freshman year in college, is a superb skater, great outlet passer, and a big body who isn't very physical and has a bit of filling out to do yet. Watching him skate and rush/pass the puck is a lot of fun, but despite his size, he is still too easy to move off the puck and loses too many battles in the corner. deHaas' downfall in those areas are largely due to the fact that despite his size, he's very top heavy and lacks the necessary leg and core strength to fully utilize his size. He didn't fare well in the puck protection department because all the smaller guys had to do was get leverage and push him and the top-heavy defenseman was out of the battle, all they had to do was push his chest/shoulders off the puck and the rest of him followed. He has another three years left at Clarkson, which should allow him to add the necessary strength to fully utilize his skills. I think with increased and balanced strength and weight, he could have the potential to be a top 4 defenseman in the NHL.
The Wings drafted him late and expected him to be a long-term project; a low risk, mid-reward pick. He has the skating and puck skills to potentially be a great pick, and with the current defensive depth the Wings have in Grand Rapids, they can afford to let deHaas take him time in college and increase his size and learn to use it more effectively. He wasn't projected to be an offensive defenseman per se, but he did lead all Clarkson rookies in scoring last year, and led all defensemen with 13 points (6G 7A) and had a goal and assist in the final scrimmage in camp.
As with McKee and the rest of the college players (Ben Marshall, Dylan Larkin, David Pope, and a large chunk of the camp invitees) NCAA rules don't allow deHaas to come back for the tournament, nor training camp. It gives the college guys a little different perspective, as deHaas explained...
"[I'm] A little sore, it's been a bit of a grind these past few days but we knew this was our last chance to make an impression and we just wanted to leave a good one. I thought that we did a good job of that today."... "We only get this week, while some of the guys get the tournament and then main camp, so for sure it's huge for the college guys."
The NCAA rules suck, and they're very strict, and I respect the extra effort, expenses, and dedication ti takes for the college prospects to come to camp every year. Do McKee and deHaas think it's worth it?
McKee- "[without hesitation] Oh, 100%. They can't pay for anything so that kind of stinks, but we come up here and spend our own money and it's not a problem for us because this is a great camp, a great experience, and we learned a lot"
deHaas: "Oh, for sure [it’s worth it]. Hopefully one day we’ll have million dollar contracts and a couple hundred bucks for a flight will seem like not too much."
These two players complimented each other very nicely on the ice, and deHaas was improved from last year while McKee was worlds better than the last time I saw him. If McKee is going to be a regular in the lineup for Western this season, I'm have to make a few trips down to watch him. He wins, by far, the most improved player award.
This pairing was pretty fun to watch.. Two kids built like Mack Trucks, one of which who has been playing forward so is taking pinches more often than not. De Haas/McKee pairing is simple, effective defending. It's a very "meat and potatoes" type style. Using their big frames to create room, or shielding the puck to retain possession. I had a word with McKee during development camp.. He said he doesn't know for sure, but he assumes that he will start his sophomore season as a forward. I'm not sure how I feel about it.. It creates somewhat of a conundrum for his development, if the Wings have any means to using him in the future as a blue-liner. I haven't seen him play forward at all, but I really like what I see from him on defense. He comments that he wants to excel in his attention-to-detail and puck control. The way he talks, he sounds like he's a defenseman. I think he should be used as such. We won't see these guys at training camp, because the NCAA is silly and doesn't allow prospects to attend their team's main camps. However, I plan to keep an eye on McKee and De Haas in their sophomore years. Both players play for good hockey schools, we know WMU is good because Danny DeKeyser is awesome, and even though Clarkson University is a Division III school, they compete against Division I in hockey. Is it likely we will see them paired together in the future? Who knows.. But what I do know now is that they were the standout defensive pair at development camp.