By Larry Fisher
The Daily Courier
Last year at this time, Shane McColgan was getting grief — all kinds of flak. Now, the Kelowna Rockets’ sophomore scoring sensation is getting praise and rave reviews.
The 18-year-old centre is redeeming himself for a lacklustre playoff debut in 2009-10 and proving to be a clutch performer capable of producing when the going gets tough. Entering weekend play, McColgan was tied for the WHL playoff scoring lead with 10 points — three goals and seven assists — through Kelowna’s first-round, four-game sweep of Prince George.
Last year, through his first four playoff games, McColgan was limited to a single assist as Kelowna sat tied 2-2 in a series against Everett. The Rockets went on to win in seven games, but bowed out in the second round, losing in five games to the Tri-City Americans.
McColgan, who was Kelowna’s top point-getting forward in the regular season with 69 points in 71 games as a 16-year-old rookie, shouldered some of the blame for the exit after only registering four points — one goal and three assists — in 12 playoff games.
He also finished with a minus-5 rating and was called out in a newspaper article titled, ‘McColgan: M.I.A.’
My, but how times have changed. And what a difference a season can make in a junior hockey player’s development.
“I think Shane learned from last year, to be honest,” Rockets head coach Ryan Huska said of McColgan’s coming-out party. “He understands now that you have to work and compete that much harder in order to get anything accomplished at this time of the year. Come playoff time, everybody keys in on you.
“He found it difficult last year and every 16-year-old would. But this year, he’s better for that experience he went through last year, and he’s shown it so far. Hopefully he’ll continue to push and get better as the next series moves on.”
Now beaming with confidence, McColgan echoed Huska’s sentiments on adjusting to the playoff rigours.
“It was just a learning curve for me,” the Manhattan Beach, Calif., product said. “I didn’t have the best playoffs last year, but I learned a lot from last year and I came into this year’s playoffs just trying to be the best player on the ice every night.”
He was certainly that in last Wednesday’s series-clinching 4-2 victory at Prince George. After the host Cougars appeared to tie the contest 2-2 early in the third period, only to have the goal disallowed because a player was in the crease, McColgan scored seconds later on the ensuing shift, netting what stood up as the winner on a strong individual effort. Then, after former first overall bantam draft pick Alex Forsberg notched his first career playoff goal to cut the deficit to 3-2, McColgan banged home his own rebound to round out the scoring.
“He was our most physical player in that game and he was the guy that had the most energy for us up front,” Huska said, “so I thought it was fitting that he was the guy, in the end, that was probably the biggest reason we were able to get that fourth win.”
Asked what he’s doing differently this time around, McColgan said, “I was just playing the simple game and not trying to do too much. Just moving the puck quick and using my speed and quickness down low, and having the right mindset.
“My teammates have been really supportive and my linemates have been top notch. Me and (Mitchell) Callahan have really been clicking in playoffs so far, and I think that just stems from playing with him all season,” he added.
They will be joined for Kelowna’s second-round series (against Portland) by this year’s top-scoring rookie Zach Franko, who notched 53 points in 72 regular-season games before tallying two points, a goal and an assist, in his playoff debut against the Cougars. The Rockets will shuffle their lines slightly with the return of 20-year-old forward Evan Bloodoff from a four-game suspension for a charging incident in Kelowna’s regular-season finale against Vancouver.
For McColgan and Franko, among others, there’s added motivation as draft-eligible players to turn heads in these playoffs.
McColgan, specifically, might be out to make a statement. Upon coming to Kelowna as a first-round bantam draft pick (13th overall in 2008), most scouting services had him ranked as a potential top-10 or even top-five pick for this year’s NHL draft — a sure-fire first-rounder, no doubt.
Despite his stellar regular-season statistics, again leading Kelowna in scoring with 66 points in 67 games this season, McColgan has steadily dropped down the draft rankings to land at 102nd among North American skaters in Central Scouting’s latest, mid-term report released in January.
Franko, meanwhile, rose to 105th, with both now projected to be selected in the middle rounds come June in Minnesota.
“That’s a big part of it, too,” McColgan said of excelling in his draft year. “For individual goals, you can boost your draft stock tremendously if you have a good playoffs. But that comes second; the team comes first and if the team goes far, I’ll obviously get scouts looking at me just because the team is successful. So we just gotta keep rolling here.”
But is there extra incentive given the scouting community’s recent snub?
“You always want to prove those guys wrong,” McColgan said. “Those guys have to do their job, but I don’t really look at the scouting services and the rankings that come out. It can bother most guys, but I try not to worry about it and just play my game and have fun with it.
“Obviously, it’s in the back of your head that I’ve dropped a little bit, but if we go far in the playoffs and the team does well and I have a good playoffs, then there is hope for that first or second round (pick).”
The knock on McColgan is simple: Size. While scouts have toned down their infatuation with overgrown players since the NHL’s lockout in 2004-05, that measuring stick is still working against the 5-foot-8 1/ 2, 170-pound McColgan.
“That’s really it, to be honest,” Huska said. “I think they see some guys that maybe are a little bit bigger . . . Shane may have more skill or more ability than certain players, but they look at potential and potential size.
“But Shane has fire in him that when he plays the way he’s played the first four games of our playoffs, he can compete with anybody that is a foot bigger than him or inches bigger than him, it doesn’t really matter.”
Small in stature, McColgan isn’t one to back down from physical play or shy away from the dirty areas. And in this new, no-obstruction, free-flowing era, size isn’t the asset it once was.
“There’s a lot of successful smaller players in the NHL and I’m hoping to be one of those guys down the road,” said McColgan, pointing to Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis — a 5-foot-8, 176-pound forward — sitting second among NHL scoring leaders behind Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin. “As far as size goes, I don’t really think about that at all. The game has really changed and it’s more quickness and agility and skill out there rather than the big physical presence.
“But I still like to hit and play physical, and I think I’ve proved I can handle myself in this league. I don’t think size is a factor at all.”