When will NHL scouts learn that size isn’t everything? Too often scouts and analysts use physical stature as a benchmark for NHL-caliber talent. Yet, each year small players thrive in hockey’s most physically demanding league and defy the odds.
This season was no exception in the Western Hockey League. The Portland Winterhawks were the league champs this season thanks to a loaded lineup with a multitude of current NHL draft picks and more to come in the 2013 NHL Draft. Perhaps the biggest surprise came in the most unlikely package.
Standing tall at 5’9” and weighing in at 165-pounds soaking wet, Nicolas Petan went from potentially going undrafted to a first round talent within a season. That’s what 120 points, 74 assists, and a plus-68 rating will do for one’s draft stock.
This season wasn’t the first time Petan produced at a point-per-game rate. The center dominated his peers playing for the North Shore Winter Club bantam team, scoring 76 goals with 63 assists in 57 games. Following the season the North Shore captain was selected 16th overall by Portland in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft.
Petan sniffed limited ice time in 10 total games with Portland as a 15-year-old. He spent the majority of the year with the Greater Vancouver Canadians midget team. Playing with current rival and Edmonton Oil Kings goalie, Tristan Jerry, Petan helped lead the midget squad with 19 goals and 49 points in 35 games. Additionally, Petan played an integral role for Team British Columbia at the Canada Winter Games. He was the second-leading scorer on the gold-medal winning squad; finishing with 12 points in six games. His hometown friend Curtis Lazar led the team with 17 points.
Last season, as a 16-year-old rookie, Petan skated early on with Ty Rattie (STL 32nd overall ’11) and Sven Baertschi (CGY 13th overall ’11). But the stint would end shortly after due to the Winterhawks’ deep, veteran roster. Petan finished with 14 goals and 21 assists playing primarily on the fourth-line. However, the rookie sputtered to the finish line going pointless in 22 playoff games that ended in a WHL Finals defeat at the hands of Lazar and the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Entering this campaign Petan seemed prime for an offensive breakout, but spent the offseason strengthening his defensive responsibilities as requested by head coach Mike Johnston. The result was a more well-rounded game and significant minutes on the penalty killing unit. Petan’s development allowed his coach to play him in all types of situations, including crucial defensive shifts.
The natural center’s focus on his own zone didn’t stifle his offensive explosion. His 120 points tied for the league-lead with his teammate and linemate Brendan Leipsic (NSH 89th overall ’12). Petan also led the league with 74 assists and a plus-68 rating. His 46 goals were good for fourth in the WHL behind Leipsic’s 49 and Rattie’s 48, who finished first and second. Petan, Leipsic, and Rattie meshed quickly, developing into the best line in the WHL, finishing with 350 total points which was good for first, second, and third in the league.
After going scoreless in his first 29 WHL playoff games, Petan erupted this season, finally displaying some clutch qualities. Throughout the league playoffs the Vernon, BC native tallied nine goals and 19 assists in 21 games, helping Portland hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup. The title earned the Winterhawks a spot in the Memorial Cup, where they fought until the very end, falling to the Halifax Mooseheads 6-4 in the final. Petan looked outstanding throughout the Memorial Cup, finishing with nine assists and 10 points in five games.
Petan is the youngest of the threesome and has used the extra attention beneficially, playing alongside two draft picks. He has displayed his natural scoring abilities and is a bona fide sniper. He is outstanding on the powerplay and knows how to find the stick of superstar teammates, like Rattie. The center has improved his defensive play and is becoming more of an all-around player rather than purely offensive. Petan also vastly improved his skating ability in the offseason, which was evident in the speed and agility he displayed this year.
Despite his small stature the Winterhawk is feisty and has no issues scrapping in the corners for loose pucks. He plays big for his size and doesn’t shy away from contact. His lower-body strength is underrated as he generates quite a bit of power for his frame. If Petan can add 15-20 pounds, he would have more muscle to survive the ferocious physicality of the NHL.
Petan is a spectacular talent with the ability to dazzle spectators on a nightly basis. He flashes unique talents using his vision and soft hands to create plays out of seemingly harmless situations. In my updated mock draft I have Petan going 21st overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tom Zulewski slated the Winterhawk 26th overall to the Anaheim Ducks. Tom also listed Petan as his 25th overall top prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft. I listed the Portland center as my 23rd overall top prospect in the 2013 draft class.