Luca Cunti's such a mixed bag it's maddening.
Once again, Cunti showed himself to be an impact player offensively in Rimouski's 3-2 overtime loss to Drummondville tonight. At the opening of the game, he really put his playmaking skills on display setting up at least 5 scoring chances early on, by my count, with several crisp, long tape-to-tape passes in the offensive zone. In the second period he scored Rimouski's opening goal poking in a rebound after a nice forechecking shift by his line. He's not exactly known for his physical bravery, and in fact in the first period he had a clear opportunity to step out in from of the Volts net for a stuff attempt and he shied away from it, but he went to the net for a little drive by and got a rebound to poke in for his goal. Shortly after that he almost set up another goal on a rush where he got a step on Dimitry Kulikov, who fell down on the play, around the corner with his speed and sent a nice, soft saucer pass to Keven Veilleux who was stopped cold on the bid. My one criticism of him early on, aside from his unwillingness to step out for the stuff attempt, is that he hesitates when he has a shot available. He looks to pass first, and he needs to understand that if you have the puck open in a scoring position, you have to shoot the puck. Force the goaltender to make a stop and give yourself the possibility of a rebound for your teammates. The stat page doesn't care if your assist comes from a brilliant cross ice pass across the seam or a rebound that becomes a garbage goal. An assist is an assist, so shoot the puck.
Unfortunately, Cunti was partially to blame for Drummondville's tying goal and no one picked up Jonathan Brunelle going to the net and taking a pass from behind the Rimouski cage. I'm not sure, watching the replay, that Brunelle was actually Cunti's responsibility. However, if he's open and you're right there, you take the guy and ask question later. And the soft play continued in the third period, as Cunti was clearly the weak link for Rimouski on the forecheck. He simply won't turn his back and take a hit to keep possession of the puck. Won't do it. So, as well as his line played, he was the weak link that would often cause them to lose possession. Now, on the good side, he was single handedly beating Drummondville's trap with his speed and stickhandling ability just to get his line into the zone in the first place.
In overtime, Cunti's night ended badly as Gabriel Dumont beat two Rimouski defenders to get to the front of the net where Luca, much like the Brunelle goal, pretty much stood there and watched him score the goal from point blank range. Cunti has to eliminate Dumont physically on that play. At the very least tackle the guy, but preferably lower the boom and knock the guy down. Instead Cunti vacantly tried to tie up his stick and that was it. Now Rimouski has to play a tiebreaker game tomorrow night against Windsor just to get to the semifinal game. That's not good, especially considering what a tough game Windsor was for Rimouski to pull out the last time.
I love his speed. I love his skill. I don't think he's hopeless defensively or even physically because his skating always puts him in the neighborhood he needs to be in. He's not so selfish that he's out at the red line constantly cherry picking and waiting for breakways. That's not what he does. But he has got to start to compete physically. He doesn't have to become Cam Neely overnight. That's not the point. But he's got to turn his back and take a hit to keep possession for his line on the forecheck. He's got to physically take out his man on coverage in front of the net if the puck comes to the front of the net. If he has a clear avenue to step out in front of the net, he has to show physical bravery to go there and score goals. Basically, he's got the athletic foundation to be a very good player. He just needs to man up. He's an NHLer if he grows some manhood. He'll be right back playing for a team like Bern or Lugano in the NL/A back in Switzerland if he doesn't.
Before I get into talking about how Luca Cunti played in today's game against Windsor at the Memorial Cup, I have to comment on what a great game Windsor and Rimouski played today. Unlike the snooze fest between Kelowna and Rimouski, l'Oceanic played with a lot of pride today in a game that had a little bit of everything: speed, hitting, lots of goals, a potential future #1 overall pick, and goal mouth thrills down to the wire of the game. People got their money's worth in this game.
Luca Cunti got a promotion in today's game to a line with 2007 2nd round pick Keven Veilleux, whose was selected by the Penguins. Their line came out really strong on their first shift to generate a scoring chance, but Veilleux got his teeth knocked out by Ryan Ellis on his second shift, so their line wasn't together for a good chunk of the first period. Cunti came out with the same speed be had against Kelowna early in the game, but Windsor seemed better prepared and wasn't giving him the corner. That really limited Cunti's effectiveness because he just didn't seem to be willing to fight through the opposing defenders to create chances. Rimouski really upped their physical intensity tonight over the opening game with Kelowna, but early on Cunti seemed to lack the same urgency. I said last game I'd like to see Cunti with better linemates, and that happened today. Now, I'd like to see Cunti play angry.
In the second period, it started out worse for Luca. He took a bad highsticking penalty against Ellis on a play at his point that resulted in an Ellis goal that tied the game at 1-1. He then took a big hit a shift or two afterward and made a bad turnover in his own zone. He made about two of those in the game. He tried to make up for it after a Windsor scoring chance by carrying it on a dangerous rush, but he sat for the next 5 minutes or so. When he got back out, the good Luca re-emerged. He got the puck on the rush and used his speed to swoop around the next on his first shift after getting back in to set up a chance on a pass across the crease at the far post. A shift after that he scored Rimouski's 4th goal on a nice give-and-go on the rush moving up through the neutral zone. He passed the puck in the neutral zone to Veilleux who crossed the blueline and drew the attention of Winsor's defenders because of his big shot. Cunti then cut right to the net with his speed and got a nice diagonal pass down low from Veilleux that he one timed into the net. Nice goal. In the third period he didn't get much ice time because Rimouski was on the PK most of the first half of the period and they were protecting a one goal lead late in the game. He almost set up Veilleux for an insurance goal on a play on the rush where he crossed Windsor's blueline and beat a defender with a nice inside-out stickhandling move. But, he lost control of the puck on the play and it ended up sliding to Veilleux who was going to the net and lifted it over the net.
He wasn't the fastest player on the rink today with Taylor Hall flying around for the Spitfires, and he was annoyingly passive at times, but once again Cunti's speed made a difference. He has game-changing speed the other team has to respect, and now Rimouski has an opportunity to advance in the tournament if they can knock off QMJHL champion Drummondville in their next game.
After watching Rimouski's opening game of the Memorial Cup Tournament tonight, I felt compelled to write a little about Luca Cunti.
Cunti didn't score tonight and Rimouski was clearly overmatched by the better team in Kelowna, but there's definitely something there with Cunti: speed. He has raw, pure, and undeniable speed. It's world class skating ability; a gift that simply can't be taught. There were times tonight where Rimouski's best and only chance of getting the puck out of their own end was to have Cunti carry it out himself, and his speed generated several scoring chances. Bear in mind, Kelowna's defense is very good (Tyler Myers is going to be an awesome NHL player), and there were times Cunti made them look like they were standing still. It was a 2000% improvement over the way Cunti looked at the start of the season at Traverse City. Sure, some of the same old criticisms of Cunti are still valid. He tended to float in the defensive zone, although he wasn't overtly cherry picking. He looked uncomfortable digging in the corners. He hogged the puck a bit (although that's partly due to the lacking quality of his linemates and the fact they simply couldn't keep up with his speed). There's definitely holes in his game and he's definitely a project. But, my word, he will back opposing defenses off the blueline with his speed. If you put him and Steven Stamkos on the same line 2-3 years down the line, I promise you there will be opposing defensemen going prematurely grey. Speed kills, and I'm closing my eyes and imagining what a line of Cunti, Stamkos, and maybe Dana Tyrell could do together. Have mercy.
There's some ambiguity, on our end at BoltProspects, as to whether Cunti's rights will be retained after June 1st or whether he's considered to have defected status as a player who was drafted out of Switzerland. It's one of the joys of the breakdown of the IIHF transfer agreement coupled with the new rules that were supposed to be enacted in the new CBA. We believe his rights will be retained past June 1st if he isn't signed. However, if the Lightning do indeed need to sign him before the end of the month in order to keep him, count me among the people who think that they should. The same is true for Edmonton goaltender Torrie Jung, whose rights definitely will be lost after June 1st. Both players could be returned to junior if there isn't room for them in Norfolk, and both players, in my mind, have the kind of athleticism the Lightning just shouldn't let get away.
Sportsnet is reporting that Leafs GM Brian Burke has confirmed that the Lightning have asked for defensemen Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle as well as the 7th overall pick in exchange for the Lightning's 2nd overall pick in the June draft. Burke says that Schenn is the deal breaker for the Leafs.
Burke's interest in the #2 pick stems from his desire to draft London Knights center John Tavares, who may or may not be available depending on what the New York Islanders will do with the draft's top pick. Tavares was considered the top prospect in this draft going into the draft lottery, but a mediocre playoff performance by Tavares may have pushed behemoth Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman into the top slot. There also is at least one organization (Red Line Report) that believes that Tavares has been passed by speedy Brampton center Matt Duchene as well.
Where does this leave the Lightning? The ideal scenario has Hedman available at the #2 pick giving the Lightning the future #1 defenseman they so desperately need. If that doesn't come to pass, the Lightning must decide between drafting Tavares (or Duchene, who Lightning GM Brian Lawton recently scouted), or trading out of the pick. As long as the Lightning remember that they don't have to make a trade, the team should come out well ahead on draft day.
Selecting Tavares gives the Lightning a smaller, and arguably more talented version of Ottawa scorer Jason Spezza. It also gives them a one-two punch at forward only rivaled by Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh. That's not a bad situation to be in, and I suspect that with the Lightning scoring 4-5 goals a game it would certainly put people in the stands even if the team still struggles with keeping the puck out of the back of its own net.
A trade down can, and should, result in a king's ransom similar to the kind of deal the Lightning have reportedly demanded from Toronto. Personally, I think that asking for Schenn and Kaberle plus the 7th overall pick is a little too steep, but kudos to the Lightning for starting high in the negotation. If the Lightning could negotiate down to something along the lines of Luke Schenn and the 7th overall pick along with some other sweetener for the 2nd overall pick and a toss-in like Lukas Krajicek, it would be worth considering. That would give the Lightning a future shut-down defender in the mold of Adam Foote and the opportunity to choose between another shut-down defender like Jared Cowen, a Mike Richards-lite center like Luke's younger brother Brayden, the draft's best speedster in Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, or some other talented players like Minnesota's diminuitive playmaker Jordan Schroeder or Drummondville's top-notch offensive defenseman Dimitri Kulikov.
Now that's a rumor I could live with.
I hope some lessons were learned this season in the OK Hockey hierarchy. After spending the entire summer pointing the finger at the previous coach, GM, and scouts and slinging money around the free agent market like three drunken sailors on shore leave, I hope Oren Koules, Len Barrie, and Brian Lawton learned it takes more than flash to build an elite organization. Defense and coaching, for instance, are two very important components to any hockey team that OK Hockey neglected to adequately address heading into the season. When the club traded Filip Kuba to Ottawa for Andrej Meszaros, thereby making Paul Ranger the grizzled veteran of their d-corps, even Stevie Wonder could see trouble on the horizon for the Lightning. Lawton and Companyâ€™s reticence to address the obvious deficiency was puzzling, and turned out to be one of the ultimate downfalls of the season. And, of course, there was the unmitigated disaster of naming Barry Melrose the teamâ€™s Head Coach. Melrose could barely coach his way out a wet paper sack 13 years ago before he became a talking head on ESPN. What on earth possessed Oren Koules to believe his buddy had become Scotty Bowman in over a decade of inactivity, Iâ€™ll never know.