Both Jeremy Bracco and J.J. Piccinich are playing for contracts this year, but whether those deals will be for the AHL or NHL remains unknown.
For his part, Bracco hasn’t heard anything about contracts yet from Leaf management:
“Nope, none yet. Lou and I haven’t got to that. Just focusing on what I need to do to make the club. ... In the end, I’ve got to be better.”
With 18 points in his first 21 games as a Windsor Spitfire, Bracco has been producing points at a fair clip, but nothing like the 51 points in 27 games he had with the Kitchener Rangers before being traded earlier this year.
“Obviously, my start in Windsor hasn’t been as good as it was in Kitchener, but I’ll just have to get acclimated to the different coaching, different systems, and obviously new linemates. It’s a bit of a change, but I think I’m making the right steps.”
Meanwhile, when Piccnich is asked if he has spoken with the Leafs about a contract, his eyes widen, he stammers a bit, and his eyes dart around the room. After a moment’s pause, he turns and asks “Um... Do I have to answer that?”
The interview appears to have strayed into sensitive territory.
“Listen,” Piccinich continues, “I’m in contact with them. They’re really happy with how I’ve been playing. I see myself on the Toronto Marlies, hopefully next year.”
This season, Piccinich has been happy to keep working on his shutdown game, as he lined up directly beside Bracco in London’s game against Windsor last Friday, and held the speedy winger off the scoresheet. Even better was that Piccinich managed a goal for himself in the game, as the Knights won 4-1.
Although he has shifted a little at different forward positions this season, Piccinich has played mostly on his off-wing. “It’s been mostly left wing, but obviously, you try to be as versatile as you can. I mean, it gets you more ice, right? I’ll play centre, I’ll take draws, whatever I can do.”
Asked whether or not he sees himself continuing to play a shutdown role at a higher level of competition, Piccinich is doesn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, absolutely, but I mean, at the same time, if I was given a different role, then I’m fine with that too. I’ve been finding success with it here at this level and I’ve enjoyed it.”
J.J. Piccinich and Jeremy Bracco have a number of things in common.
They are both Americans from the Eastern seabord, and actually played minor hockey together for a time, before each playing stints in the NCAA – Bracco for Boston College and Piccinich for Boston University. Then, they both made the jump to the OHL in 2015-16. Neither player will be eligible for the OHL again next season due to their age, and both are still looking for their first professional contracts.
When they lined up next to one another at the faceoff dot on Friday night, they even shared a quick word or two as old friends meeting after for the first time in a while.
And yet, they are remarkably different as players.
Bracco is shorter, slightly stouter than Piccinich, and plays with a nose for offence. Last night, he was used as Windsor’s stretch-pass outlet for much of the game, which meant that he often left the zone early and came back later than his linemates. Even though he didn’t pick up any points, he created several terrific plays, and came close to finishing one off himself. It looks like he and his linemates still have some adjustments to make before more of their passes click. Bracco makes good decisions with the puck while cruising at high speeds, and so can create some great zone entries off the rush, particularly on the power play. Although he is used on the half-wall on the power play, Windsor’s power play often runs off the point – through Mikhail Sergachev. If Bracco on the shorter side, already being 190 lbs helps him bounce back from hits, and create some space for himself by pushing off defenders.
Piccinich, by contrast, is more of a straight-line player. His forte is clearly his cycle game, where he relishes battles along the boards, as well as the challenge of being matched up against opponents’ top lines. He has been working with Barb Underhill on his skating, which is one of the things that he has focused on since last season. His first three strides and top-end speed are still not terrific, which could ultimately hold him back from being an NHL contributor, especially since his style of play and stats suggest a bottom-six role. Piccinich cleans up well around the net, and seems to have hands that could net him a few points next season with the Marlies, though with reduced ice time and tougher competition, it’s hard to foresee him lighting the lamp nearly as often.