Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Penalty Kill: MacGregor Sharp

10/31/09 Update available here.

Anaheim calling to the hockey world...

Some of you may have guessed from my previous posts that I keep my Slingbox in the Midwest to stream FSN North goodness into my home during the college hockey season. As such, I never miss a televised WCHA game.

When I heard that the Ducks signed Minnesota-Duluth center Macgregor Sharp, my response was a growling, "YEEEEEEESSSS!" instead of the recent Ducks fan standard, courtesy of Brian Hayward: "...*shrug* must be another McNab signing..." So, what is it about watching Sharp play over the past few years that has me so excited? Let's take a look at the story of MacGregor Sharp.

In many ways, the story of MacGregor Sharp is the story of Mason Raymond. The Alberta natives played together for four years, two years on the same junior hockey team and two years at Minnesota-Duluth. At both programs, the same pattern played out: Sharp and Raymond would post similar numbers in their first year together, only to have Raymond pull away as the superstar in the second year. Though identical in size and age, their styles were different: Mason, the speedster with great hands and MacGregor, the relentless grinding puckhound.

In 2005, Raymond won the AJHL MVP, which got him drafted by Vancouver in the second round. Sharp went unselected. In 2007, Raymond would win the UMD team MVP, which got him called up to the AHL. Sharp remained in the WCHA for his Junior and Senior years.

On March 19, in Vancouver, Mason Raymond scored his 19th major league goal, the 10th in his second season with the Canucks. He was living his NHL dream. Two-thousand miles away, in St. Paul, MacGregor Sharp was finally realizing his.

The WCHA plays a Final Five format where two teams play a wild card game, called the "Play-In," in order to qualify for the semi-finals. This year's Play-In pitted the Minnesota Golden Gophers against the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Sharp was red-hot going into the tournament, having points in 10 of his last 11 games. But, if the purpose of finishing your college career is to develop your game, play on the national stage and show the scouts you can win, then Sharp appeared out of luck. The Bulldogs were on the bubble in the Pairwise Rankings, making a selection to the NCAA tournament doubtful. And while four Play-In winners had reached the WCHA title game since the advent of the Final Five format, none had ever won the tournament. But then...

Sharp followed up a shot on Gophers goaltender Alex Kangas, potting the rebound and knocking the flu-ridden Kangas out of the game. MacGregor opened scoring again the next night when he chased down a misplay by Sioux goalie Brad Eidsness, depositing the shorthanded puck in the net before the tender could return to his crease. Then, in the championship game, Sharp made a sweet pass on a 2-on-2 break on the power play, only to slide the return feed under Pioneers backstop Marc Cheverie. It was the first of Sharp's three goals that night, and the Bulldogs became the first Play-In winner to ever take the WCHA championship.

I'm sure, or I hope, many of you saw the first rounds of the NCAA tournament. A pass by Sharp set up the Miracle at Mariucci. And the center would score the only goal (and a couple of near goals) in the Bulldogs bid for the Frozen Four. I'm here to tell you that those are good indicators of his talent level.

His performance in both the WCHA and NCAA tournaments shows he's developed poise. He has great two-way hockey sense: a grinding backcheck, but equally skilled at sniffing out rebounds and anticipating bad plays. He can create relentless first man pressure, but he's also played a lot of time as the second forechecker. He plays a solid penalty kill, but his impressive passing and his ability to dangle on the halfboards made him an indispensible center on the best power play in the WCHA. If I had to pinpoint the part of his game that caught McNab's attention, I'd say it was his play in the NHL sized rink. The Final Five was played at Xcel Energy in St. Paul, and the smaller but longer zones seemed to benefit Sharp on both sides of the puck.

He's played four games in Iowa (currently at -4), where they are likely working on his faceoff game. He's much better at tying up his man than winning a clean draw, but his game in the circle should drastically improve with the minor adjustments of the Chops coaching staff. Expect to see him in the preseason.

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