It has been a special couple of seasons for the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Last year the Junior A league was the development place of Cale Makar, who was chosen 4th overall by the Colorado Avalanche, and in this June’s draft another AJHL defender could earn the prestige of being a high pick: Jacob Bernard-Docker of the Okotoks Oilers.
Bernard-Docker and the Oilers were in action on Saturday in their home barn against the Brooks Bandits, who are the defending league champions (and the same team that Makar previously played for). It was Game 2 of the league’s South Division finals, and while an entertaining playoff hockey game was the draw for the majority of the lively crowd, Bernard-Docker was the main focus for the scouts in attendance,
A two-way, right-shot defender, Bernard-Docker is listed at 6-0 and 171 pounds on the Oilers’ website, but looks and plays bigger than that, showing good strength in both his upper body and lower body. That lower-body strength plays into one of Bernard-Docker’s best assets: his skating.
He is strong on his skates and possesses a very fluid stride, shifting gears and accelerating with ease. He shows a special calmness when skating with the puck, making confident turns and crossovers to get away from opposing players, and he hits a nice top gear when he is given enough time and space. His ability to quickly transition from skating backwards to forwards is quite impressive. He shows keen awareness while retreating defensively or patrolling his own blueline, watching for bad passes that he can pick off and immediately turn in the other direction.
Bernard-Docker plays a very calculated, assertive game; aggressive at times in the neutral zone, but he keeps a good gap and picks his spots well. There was one instance in this game where he got a little too aggressive in the neutral zone and was promptly beat wide for a good scoring chance against, but there were far more instances where he made smart reads and used a good stick to disrupt Brooks’ transition.
On a team full of defencemen that are two or three years older than him, it was pretty telling to see Bernard-Docker playing a lot of minutes and in all situations. When you watch him shift-to-shift it’s easy to see why his coaches trust him so much, as he is routinely making correct decisions and doing all the little things (such as knowing when to skate a puck out of trouble versus passing it or dumping it out) right. His effort level is excellent as well, although you would like to see a little more tendency to play the body.
If there’s one big drawback about Bernard-Docker it’s that he seemingly lacks certain dynamic elements in his game. He’s responsible and safe with the puck on his stick, but doesn’t flash any high-end stick work or passing ability. His creativity on the power play left a little to be desired; there were a few interchanges at the point to queue up his one-timer and some nice attempts to sneak back door, but they were all telegraphed and stymied by the Bandits’ penalty killers. Despite scoring 20 goals on the season, he’ll need to get a little more crafty at finding open ice if he wants to be a shooting threat at the higher levels.
Overall, it doesn’t take very long to see clearly that there’s a lot to like about Bernard-Docker. He’ll be a dream for future coaches, the type of workhorse defenceman that can gobble up a lot of minutes at both ends of the ice and consistently make a positive difference. He’d headed to a pretty good hockey program at the University of North Dakota, and could come out in a few years as a very polished defenseman who is more than ready for the pros.
Austin Wong – Okotoks Oilers
Bernard-Docker wasn’t the only 2018 draft-eligible prospect to watch closely in this game, however. Okotoks teammate Austin Wong is a player that draws a ton of attention when he’s on the ice — for better and for worse.
It’s not often that you see a 17-year-old lead a league like the AJHL in penalty minutes, especially when that player is scrawny and stands just 5-10, but Wong is an interesting case. If you’ve ever watched a lot of Antoine Roussel, it’s clear to see what kind of player Wong is aspiring to become.
Wong is a pest with a capital “P,” looking for big hits despite his small stature, both on the forecheck and in open ice. He loves getting in the face of opponents and trying to get under their skin. It’s obvious how much opposing players can’t stand him.
Also like Roussel, however, there is a skill element to Wong’s game that can burn teams if they don’t account for it. A fast skater, he can accelerate in a hurry and move the puck while mid-flight. He caught Brooks with their pants down to start the 3rd period in this game, starting and finishing a fast give-and-go a dozen seconds after the puck was dropped to make the score 2-0 for Okotoks. He’s mostly a north-south guy, but he generates enough speed to get around defenders. Possesses a surprisingly hard one-timer, too.
The big risk, of course, is that Wong walks a dangerous line with his play, one that is easy to cross. He’s not always going to get away with chippy stick work, and there were a couple of instances in this game where Wong was dramatically knocked off his feet that could have been called as dives, but weren’t. If he wants to be a successful pest and not get stapled to the bench because of unnecessary penalties he will need to better learn what he can and can’t get away with.
There’s also the size factor. Some smaller players are compact and hard to push around, but Wong isn’t one of them. He’s more than willing to go to battle in the tough areas, but he needs to add both upper and lower-body strength if he wants to actually win them. His lack of strength also showed itself in this game in his struggles in the faceoff circle.
The good news is that he’s committed to Harvard University, so Wong will have plenty of time to put on some badly-needed muscle and add more responsibility into his game. With his skill and feisty compete level, he could be an interesting and worthwhile project for a team to take on with a late pick.
Ben Sanderson – Okotoks Oilers
The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, Ben has his dad’s wheels, gliding around the ice in a flash.
This game was a hard one to get a good read on Sanderson from, as his ice time was limited on an Oilers team with a lot of older forwards. The skating was noticeable and there were a couple of instances where he correctly read the play and moved back to cover for pinching defenders, but there weren’t enough puck touches this time around to get an accurate idea about what else he can do.
A commit to Colorado College, Sanderson might be a prospect to check back in on in a year or two to see where his game is at.
Dennis Cesana – Brooks Bandits
The top draft-eligible player to watch for Brooks was undoubtedly Cesana, the team’s captain and the AJHL’s 4th-highest scorer in the regular season.
Cesana is a fairly straightforward offensive defenceman, and while he may be one-dimensional, that one dimension is impressive enough to warrant a closer look.
He’s small, at about 5-10, and doesn’t have a lot of muscle, but he’s still an effective player because he can keep the puck away from harm, either by making smart passes or skating it to safety. He shows a good understanding of what his limitations are and uses his teammates very well to keep the puck from getting turned over.
Offensively, he didn’t help produce any power play goals in this contest, but he appears effective on the man-advantage, making quick passes to create openings in the penalty killing coverage.
It also seems that Cesana learned a thing or two from playing with Makar last year, as he loves to activate and join the rush, with or without the puck. There was one instance this game where he was out for a lengthy shift but still found the energy at the end to join his forwards and create a 3-on-2 scoring chance.
Cesana, however, saved his best in this game for when it counted most. With his team down 2-0 in the dying minutes of the 3rd, he started a rush up the ice in his own zone with a pass, picked up a return pass in the neutral zone, skated through a hole at the blueline and lifted a shot top shelf to bring his team within one. Minutes later, with his own net empty, Cesana fired a hard one-timer that got deflected by a teammate in traffic to tie the game 2-2. Brooks wound up stunning Okotoks by scoring the game-winning goal on the very next shift.
A 1998 birthday who is heading to Michigan State in the fall, Cesana has been passed over twice already in the draft, but the third time could be the charm this year. If an NHL team wants to add a future offensive defenceman that can transition the puck up the ice and contribute to the second power-play unit, taking Cesana with a late-round pick could turn out to be a profitable decision a few years down the road.