Brandt Clarke can’t take his eyes off Erik Karlsson.
“If you’re open and Karlsson turns for a second, he will hit you perfectly right on the tape,” Clarke said. “It’s pretty remarkable. I’m kind of blown away and I’m just trying to not get embarrassed by them. It’s a lesson for me, but I feel like I’m doing pretty good for myself.”
What Clarke, a defenceman with the Barrie Colts and a top prospect for the 2021 National Hockey League draft, is describing is a twice-a-week scrimmage at a suburban Ottawa rink with NHLers such as Karlsson, Claude Giroux and Thomas Chabot.
Clarke is having a blast each time he steps on to the ice. Given a choice, however, it’s not what the 17-year-old native of Nepean, Ont., would be doing.
Had this been a normal year, one which wasn’t impacted in every avenue of life by the COVID-19 pandemic, Clarke would have been well into his second season with the Colts, trying to further cement among NHL scouts a positive impression that started last season when Clarke had 38 points in 57 games.
Clarke still might get that opportunity with the OHL’s plans to start a 40-game season on Feb. 4. With the pandemic firming its grip in North America, there’s no guarantee of the abbreviated OHL season beginning as scheduled.
A spot for Clarke on a team in Sweden fell through a few weeks ago. He has not played in a game since March 11.
The situation is especially urgent for those players, such as Clarke, in their draft year. While a lack of games likely won’t cause Clarke to fall in the rankings, he wants to keep on top of his development. He is 6-foot-2, having grown an inch since last season, and is closer to 190 pounds after finishing last year around 175.
“I would rather be in my league right now and playing with my team and being with my friends,” Clarke said. “I do miss it a lot. It has been a long time and I feel like I’m in really good shape. When I go out to these scrimmages against NHL players, I’m holding my own, putting up a few goals, and I feel like I’m ready to showcase myself in the OHL.”
Another draft-eligible player, defenceman Logan Mailloux, figured he would have been well into his first full year with the London Knights following a fine 2019-20 season with the junior B London Nationals. Instead, Mailloux was idle until he managed to get a spot with SK Lejon in Hockeyettan, Sweden’s third professional division, until the OHL resumes.
In eight games, Mailloux has five points, but his team is presently in quarantine after several players, including Mailloux, tested positive for the coronavirus.
Osborne misses ‘rhythm’ and ‘energy’ of rink
Mark Osborne should be sitting in a hockey rink on any given night.
“Completely strange,” the former NHLer and two-time Maple Leaf said. “I’d go back to my junior days, or even being a kid, back to minor hockey, with the rhythm of being in a rink.”
A pro scout with the L.A. Kings, Osborne usually would have been in attendance at Leafs games at Scotiabank Arena, studying both the home and visiting teams.
With no professional hockey being played in North America, the job as a pro scout has taken on a new description.
“My week is still doing video stuff, but it happens to be not the NHL or the AHL, it’s watching some of the drafted players and free agents who are playing in Europe,” Osborne said. “It’s not like I have nothing to do. Without the live views, you miss the people, the social interactions, the energy of the game.
“We’re all learning to improvise and adjust, but it has been different for everybody.”
“That was the main part to coming here — to develop more and be ready when the season comes with the OHL because not playing a real game in eight or nine months or so was not fun,” Mailloux said on the phone from Skelleftea, adding he has nothing more than a head cold. “Getting into game situations has been huge for me.
“I don’t think (whether he was playing) would have been as big of a concern if it was not my draft year, but I’ve got a lot of rankings and draft boards that I want to climb.”
Members of NHL clubs’ amateur scouting departments have found challenges with the majority of leagues on hold or not playing as often as usual. Travel mostly is out of the question, so almost all scouting of draft-year players is being done via video, even if games are from last season.
“It’s different, for sure, and it’s not easy,” Calgary Flames director of amateur scouting Tod Button said. “When you see a player play four, five, six times and you watch him on video, you have a better understanding of the speed of the game, his speed, the pace.
“We would like the whole season to be able to watch kids and how they adjust. They’re going to have lulls, they are going to hit peaks, and you would like to see how that irons out over the whole year before you make decisions. Now you’re going to have less time to do that (once the junior leagues start).”
Clarke will be ready when (let’s not say if) that happens.
“I feel like I was a step ahead of everyone when last season ended and I want to come back not on the same level — I want to be more than a couple steps ahead,” Clarke said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll keep doing what I have to do and hopefully we get back (to the OHL) in two months.”