National Hockey League staffs are beginning to come around on smaller offensive prospects, no longer writing off a player standing under five-foot-ten no matter his level of talent. Too many players who were disregarded on the basis of their height alone have gone on to be stars in a new era that focuses on skating speed and tempo. Shorter players with skill will get their opportunities in a game where you can’t just latch onto an opponent and take away all of his space.
The shift in mindset allowed Cole Caufield to be taken in the first half of the opening round in 2019, and it’s going to benefit Marco Rossi the most this fall. Amateur scouts would have been skeptical about how his offence would translate to the top league just half a dozen years ago, but this year Rossi is universally projected as a top-10 prospect.
Given the number of players who joined Caufield from the 2019 class of the U.S. National Team Development Program, NHL scouts went to watch the best players in the United States once again in 2019-20. Would it be the six-foot-one Ty Smilanic who emerged as the top forward option, maybe six-foot-two winger Luke Tuch, or would the six-foot-four Dylan Peterson have NHL teams dreaming of a big centreman for their roster? Instead, with those observers forced back home by the coronavirus pandemic disappointed by a much weaker 2002-born crop of U.S. forward prospects, it was the five-foot-nine Thomas Bordeleau who may have left the biggest impression.
Birthplace: Houston, Texas
Date of birth: January 3, 2002
Weight: 179 lbs.
Bordeleau had a good season, with siginificant jumps in his offensive totals despite playing fewer games. He punched out just under the point-per-game mark in both regular play with the development squad and in competition with USHL teams. There’s nothing striking about the numbers, certainly not after what Caufield, Alex Turcotte, Trevor Zegras, and Jack Hughes did a season earlier, but Bordeleau led the NTDP in points and assists. He needed to do more to get a lofty draft position like Caufield and Rossi, but he could still be in the running for the distinction ofof top forward selected from the program in 2020.
It’s his awareness that allowed him to find offensive success. To go along with his lack of size, he’s also not a particularly great skater, so that awareness is critical to his game. In the offensive zone, he tends to work the puck along the perimeter, always looking for a way to move the puck closer to the goal. That often means opening up a lane to a teammate with a quick shift of his body or the puck, or, when he gets a defender one-on-one, pulling the puck around him to advance into the slot.
His relatively low goal-scoring pace belies the quality of his wrist shot. He can get it off without needing much space, and do so in a hurry. His main issue was that he didn’t have a setup man of comparable skill to find him on the ice and let that shot surprise goaltenders. He created many of his chances on his own, with the defence and goaltender watching his moves all the while. With a more skilled passer on his line, he would likely have scored at a higher rate, and that could be true at just about any level.
One legitimate concern about his size is how that probing perimeter game will work versus better competition. With fewer breakdowns, there will be fewer lanes open up, and he’s also going to be facing more aggressive defensive systems that don’t sit back and wait for him to make the first move.
He will be able to deflect some of that assertive pressure with the wide stance he uses in possession, making him tough to knock off pucks with a low centre of gravity. He also has strong puck-handling skills to pull the puck around or through a defender and gain just enough space to make an offensive play.
Elite Prospects: #23
Future Considerations: #31
Hockey Prospect: #41
McKeen’s Hockey: #36
NHL Central Scouting: #29 (North American skaters)
Essentially, what an NHL team will be getting in Bordeleau is that crafty pair of hands. Some players have a physical presence, others just blow past any opposition with their speed, but Bordeleau is going to use his stick to frustrate attackers and fool defenders.
Those hand skills are obviously helping him in the offensive zone, but he’s just as strong when playing without the puck. His pass-interception skills are among the best in the class, whether that’s thwarting transition plays in the neutral zone or preventing shots in his own end.
He was very good in the faceoff circle for his team, often getting the call for defensive-zone faceoffs versus the opponent’s top offensive options, including on the penalty kill where his active stick is of major benefit.
With confidence in his stick work and awareness, he doesn’t need to waste energy just running around on the ice trying to make things happen. He’s usually content to just play his position waiting for his chance to make a play, and that applies to any zone. It’s an efficient style of play, but some teams will interpret that as a lack of engagement and likely drop him on their boards as a result. For some teams the lack of size in a prospect needs to be made up with relentless work, but Bordeleau doesn’t do that, because he’s smart enough not to have to.
There is quite a difference in the opinions of the prospect analysts who compile rankings for publications and the NHL scouts surveyed by Bob McKenzie for his consensus rankings. The scouts’ projection is the lowest of any of them — around the latter third of the second round — while nearly every other outlet has him either just outside of the first round or even within it. It seems there is still some controversy on the subject of drafting small players, and Bordeleau’s next few seasons will serve as the latest bit of evidence for one side of the debate.