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Top 25 under 25: The case for J.J. Piccinich

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The London Knights’ Captain joins the Marlies this coming season on an AHL contract.

Aaron Bell / OHL Images

It’s no secret the very top of our Top 25 Under 25 lists are the easiest to select. Perhaps you will have to think about moving someone one spot up or down, but not much more. As you go on, it becomes more difficult selecting players whose future performance has a widening range.

The most difficult part comes is the very end. You are left with over twenty players to fill that last spot. Sure, there are some you can take out right away to narrow it down, but most will still be partial unknowns who may have a ceiling that’s in a regular NHL lineup, but also a floor that’s in the AHL for a few seasons and then out of hockey.

Picking out where they will actually end up is not easy, but let’s not mince words, they’re all long shots. My philosophy for the 25th pick was to go all in on someone no one else had selected from that wide group of players, someone who has a chance, albeit small, to make it big. A diamond in the rough. Is Piccinich the diamond? Let’s take a look.

Piccinich was drafted in 2014 and played for one year at Boston University. He left after that season to join the London Knights, and played on the same 2015-16 Memorial Cup winning team as Mitch Marner.

For the 2016-17 season the Knights players elected Piccinich as a team Captain, showing he had a lot of respect among his teammates. Piccinich was 20 years old for the 2016-17 season and finished with 72 points in 66 regular season games.

Of course, for players thought to have potential to make the NHL someday, scoring at a rate above PPG is somewhat expected, especially when you are a 20, going on 21, year-old forward in the OHL (he turned 21 last month).

Let’s take a deeper dive into his game.

We’re fortunate to have scouting reports from JP Nikota on Piccinich for the past two seasons. His most recent is from a Knights game in March. He had this to say about Piccinich’s game play.

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.

Poor skating ability is a death-blow to a lot of junior hockey players’ dreams of making it to the NHL. It’s good to hear he is working with Barb Underhill, and will continue to be able to do so. Since he arrived in London, Piccinich has said the Maple Leafs development staff have always kept in contact with him, with an eye to furthering his development.

Now he has to go all-in on furthering that development with the Marlies.

Piccinich signed a two year AHL contract in April, and will start with the team this fall. It’s going to be a real test for him to jump from being a 20 year-old player in the CHL to an AHL team in a very competitive division.

It can require a lot of maturity to survive in the AHL as a young player, especially when leaving a situation where you were a star on a junior team. In the AHL the hits are bigger, the game play faster, and the expectations of performance much higher. Organizationally, he will have a lot of competition for ice time, though that is to be said about anyone at this point in our list.

This season will be the test to see if Piccinich can improve his weaknesses, and fine tune his strengths enough to prove he can make a jump up to a bottom-six role in the NHL.

That being said, he’s going to be in a great place to do all of that. The Marlies are known for their excellent facilities and staff available to the players, like the aforementioned skating coach, Barb Underhill. Of course, as much as they will be available, one has to take advantage of them, and be willing to accept criticism and learn from mistakes. The AHL is what you make of it.

Regular Season Stats from HockeyDB

Season Team League GP Goals Assists Points PIM
Season Team League GP Goals Assists Points PIM
2012-13 Youngstown Phantoms USHL 63 3 12 15 4
2013-14 Youngstown Phantoms USHL 60 27 31 58 31
2014-15 Boston University Hockey East 25 1 3 4 2
2015-16 London Knights OHL 66 30 36 66 19
2016-17 London Knights OHL 66 26 46 72 24

Piccinich is listed above a a right shot who plays right wing, but he has reportedly played the other forward positions at times. That’s a point in his favour with Marlies Coach Sheldon Keefe who has been known to change up his forward players’ positions, often because of a lack of supply due to injuries.

Ultimately, I considered a lot of players for my 25th selection, including Frederik Gauthier, Trevor Moore, and Kasimir Kaskisuo. As I noted at the start of this post, the possibility of untapped potential and growth is a quality I like to focus on for the last selections in my top 25 and I think Piccinich has a lot of that.

By no means is my vote of 25th place a declaration Piccinich is making the NHL in the next few seasons, but he’s demonstrated the leadership skills, a willingness to learn, and put his development as a hockey player as a priority.

When I put it all together, I think Piccinich earned a vote in our Top 25, and I’m glad to be the one to get him in there.