With their third pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the Leafs closed out the second round by selecting gifted, diminutive forward Jeremy Bracco.
Bracco, ranked 22nd in my final top 60 with McKeen's, was my highest ranked available prospect after the Calgary Flames moved up to select Oliver Kylington (No. 14) with the 60th selection.
Bracco, built sturdy despite being just 5-10, scored at a staggering clip with the USNTDP this season, registering 94 points in 65 games as well as 13 in seven at the U18s with the United States.
His ceiling as second line forward gives him excellent value with the last selection of the second round.
Not an excellent skater, but strong edge work an elusiveness through lanes and in tight give Bracco chances as a scorer and opens up space for his teammates.
A good shooter, with a shot that is more accurate than it is heavy, Bracco can control an offensive zone entry from the permitter or sneaking into seams in the high slot or around the crease to finish off plays.
Known most for his passing (unlike some junior prospects, Konecny being a prime example, Bracco is rarely laid out because he's always surveying for the pass), Bracco was also a key player in tight games for USNTDP head coach Don Granto.
"I couldn’t get him on the ice enough in overtime," Granato said in an interview with the NHL Network following the pick. "He’s waiting for it. He has ice in his veins."
Notice the way Bracco uses his creativity, instead of speed, to beat the defender one-on-one before the cross-crease set-up.
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In January, I spoke with Bracco for McKeen's Hockey. Here's his story:
Hockey has always been a family affair for the Bracco’s.
At Christmas this year, brothers Mike and Jon Bracco pulled out some old photos of themselves playing against each other. Each had played NCAA hockey as goaltenders, each had won one game a piece against one another.
For Mike, it would have been easy to coach his son Jeremy through minor hockey as a goalie. Instead he insisted otherwise, despite the goalie equipment and memories that line the family’s home and stories.
Now 17 years old, Jeremy is paving his own path to college hockey and beyond, slotted to attend Boston College (BC) next fall and an expected top draft pick in this year’s NHL Draft.
"You know what, my dad said he wouldn’t let me [play goalie] so I don’t think I asked," Jeremy said in an interview Tuesday evening.
Ever since, he hasn’t looked back, joining USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (USNTDP) last year, where he has since played on both the national under-17 (U17) and under-18 (U18) teams, scoring at well over a point per game in various competitions and leagues.
For a young man on the fast track to the NHL, schooling remains a top priority though.
"The NHL is the end goal for me, every player wants to have a 20-year career and be in the Hall of Fame," he said. "But you have to complete school and you need a backup plan after hockey so that’s definitely a big thing for me too."
Boston College emerged as his choice after giving consideration to Harvard University and Boston University (BU).
His choice, he said, has created a friendly rivalry of sorts between fellow American-born prospects.
Jeremy currently plays on a line with Colin White, a future teammate with Boston College and Jordan Greenway, a future adversary committed to BU. In this year’s All-American Prospects Game, he also played on a line with current BU forward and top-ranked 2015 draft prospect Jack Eichel.
"It was pretty funny how two BC guys on one line now and I was playing on the BU line in the prospects game," Jeremy said.
It was the All-American Prospects Game where the diminutive 5’9" forward exploded for two goals, including a breakaway tally, with the hockey world watching.
Still though, it wasn’t the highlight of his career to date.
"Everyone wants to play well in high stakes like that with everyone watching but a career highlight for me is definitely winning the U17s last year," he said of his 11 points in six games performance on route to a gold medal.
On the day NHL Central Scouting released their midterm rankings, with Bracco ranked at 36 among North American skaters, he said they don’t change anything.
"I mean, 36, 2, 7 or 10, you always want to be better and get higher and beat the next guy in front of you or the next five guys in front of you," he said, adding that every player should have a chip on their shoulder to push them to be better.
"The end goal is to play in the NHL and rankings really don’t matter for that," he said.
Still, Jeremy said he recognizes that as a smaller player it’s up to him to prove he can play against bigger competition. He said he believes he’s done that this year.
His size isn’t the only challenge he’s had to overcome either. After being one of the last cuts from the U.S. World Junior Team this year, Jeremy has tried to turn a negative into a positive.
Jeremy points to positive feedback from coaches Don Granato, Mark Osiecki and Kevin Patrick as well as general manager Jim Johannson as helping him become a better player.
"They were telling me ‘you made it a real tough decision’ and I don’t think people thought I would get an opportunity."
Jeremy also credits Buffalo Sabres prospect J.T. Compher, who was his roommate during the camp, for his advice.
"He just tried to help me to never be satisfied and always keep my head up no matter what happens," he said. "I mean, getting invited as a younger player is a tremendous honour, it was a great experience."
Moving forward, Jeremy has his eyes set on a U18 gold medal.
"The main thing that we’ve been preaching for two years now here, for myself personally and for the team is winning that U18 gold medal," he said. "We were fortunate enough to be undefeated last year internationally and we’re going to hope to keep that going."