Prospect Profile: Tyler Eckford

NEWARK, NJ - JUNE 17: John MacLean has seen first hand the progression and talent of Tyler Eckford. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)

Even before the recent re-signing (or whatever the status is right now) of Ilya Kovalchuk one of the needs of the New Jersey Devils' defensive corps has been an additional puck moving defenseman.  As mentioned in my previous profile on Matt Taormina, opinions expressed by John Fischer, Tom Gulitti and even Patrick Elias have all stated this and I have to concur.  Currently, the Devils only have Andy Greene to fill that role and to a lesser degree Henrik Tallinder and Anssi Salmela.   At this point, unless there is a trade or free agent acquisition the Devils will go into the season with only one real offensive defenseman. In addition to the current free agent and trade market they can also wait and look for someone via the trade market at the trading deadline or look for someone within the organization.  Looking at the recent prospect camp there are certainly a few candidates out there.  One name that has popped up as a cost effective option ($550,000) is Tyler Eckford

Called up during the past season in November because of injuries to defensemen Johnny Oduya and Paul Martin, Eckford suited up for three games for the Devils.  During the three game stint he averaged about 7:40 of ice time per game on roughly 11 shifts per game as a defenseman, power play quarterback and 4th line forward.  He also contributed a power play assist and was called for two minor penalties. 

Jacques Lemaire, head coach of the team at the time, praised Eckford in his debut:

"He was good. He looked relaxed and he was skating well," Lemaire said. "He moves the puck well. He's going to be a good player. It's just going to take some experience, knowing what he can and can't do."

His only point was a secondary assist on a Brian Rolston power play goal on November 25th, 2009 against the Dallas StarsYou can view the goal here.

Patrik Elias does most of the work here, but Eckford helped keep the puck in the zone and didn't panic when approached by the defender, drawing the defender a bit closer to help give Elias space. 

After two years in the AHL I am sure Eckford will be looking to impress Devils management in training camp and make a case for an open spot on the roster.  While the Devils do have a number of defensemen already under contract, Anssi Salmela will start the year on injured reserve so there will be a need for a puck moving defenseman.

So can Eckford make the jump to the NHL this season?  He thinks he can but realizes he will have to make a great impression on the team:

"Of course I'd like to think so," Eckford told me today as prospects camp came to an end after five days. "I've worked very hard the last few years. All I can do is put myself in the best position to get there. I just have to play my way into a spot.

"I've got to play good enough to give them no choice but to have me here."

After the jump I will look at Eckford's past to see what he has accomplished and what type of impact, if any, he could have on the team.

UPDATE 7-23-10:   I just saw this interview with Tyler Eckford posted on the Devils website so I thought I would share it within this post. 

 

While Tyler Eckford's profile on Hockey's Future.com gives the indication that he might be ready for the NHL this year, and I agree, I think it is important to see what he accomplished in his past to help predict his future.

Never a top ranked Devils prospect by Hockey's Future (ranked #7 in '10, #9 in '09, #12 in '08) Eckford was selected in the 7th round (the Devils' 5th overall pick) of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft from the South Surrey Eagles of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). This league should sound familiar as it is the same league that produced 2004 Devils 1st round draft pick Travis Zajac. In a 2004 draft retrospective Jared Ramsden had this to say about the former 7th round pick:

The 6'3, 215 lb Eckford has emerged as one of the top defense prospects in the organization, and as a seventh round pick, the Devils have to be absolutely thrilled with how he's developed thus far. He's a strong skating blueliner with the size and offensive skills to help New Jersey's blueline in the not too distant future.

Eckford was drafted (he was ranked the 199th North American Skater by Central Scouting Services) off a productive rookie campaign which saw him score 37 points in 58 games. Eckford continued in the BCHL the next year putting up 65 points (22g/43a) with 13 of his goals coming on the power play.  Eckford's 65 points were tops by a defenseman in the BCHL.    Eckford also contributed 19 points in 25 playoff games (once again tops by a defenseman) helping lead the Eagles to the Fred Page Cup in which Eckford contributed a goal and two assists in the Cup clinching game.

Tyler Eckford's BCHL/NCAA Statistics

Year Team League GP G A Pts
2003-04 South Surrey Eagles BCHL 58 7 30 37
2004-05 South Surrey Eagles BCHL 60 22 43 65
2005-06 University of Alaska NCAA 38 3 15 18
2006-07 University of Alaska NCAA 39 5 17 22
2007-08 University of Alaska NCAA 35 8 23 31

Committing to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks for the 2005-2006 season, Eckford was ranked as the 15th  overall incoming defenseman by Inside College Hockey.  Some other names you might recognize on that list are Jack Johnson at #1 and Matt Taormina at #14. 

Coming into the season coach Tavis MacMillan was very complimentary in his assessment of Eckford: 

"Tyler is a very, very special player. He skates very well, can really move the puck and has good vision. He's a kid that can really help us," said MacMillan of Eckford

Eckford finished his freshman campaign with three goals (one scored in his first game) and 15 assists for a total of 18 points which was good for 5th on the Nanoonks and led the defensive corps.  He was named to the CCHA All Rookie Team along with Jack Johnson as the other defenseman.

After his freshman year his coach, realizing the talent he had on his hands was ready for Eckford to play a much bigger role on the team in his sophomore year.

Alaska head coach Tavis MacMillan on Eckford: "His skill level and mind for the game is clearly much higher than many of his peers in college hockey. He still has plenty of room to grow physically, and when he does, he has the skill level to be an All-American. He should be an All-CCHA player this season, and with the way the NHL is now, that game is perfectly suited for a player like Tyler."

His sophomore season saw him score 5 goals and add 17 assists for 22 points.   He was 4th on the team in overall scoring and 2nd among defensemen.  Following the 2006-2007 campaign coach Tavis MacMillan resigned with Doc DelCastillo instilled as the new head coach for the 2007-2008 junior season.  DelCastillo immediately realized the value that Eckford would add to his new team: 

"Tyler is a defenseman that is very good for us and will be very good in the league," said first-year head coach Doc DelCastillo.

Returning as the team's top scorer Eckford was named to the pre-season All-CCHA team which would be a prologue to his successful junior season.   While it was a disappointing season for the team finishing 9-21-5, it was a successful one for Eckford.   He was named to the CCHA All-Conference First team and was named the CCHA's Top Offensive Defenseman.

This was an award current Devil Andy Greene won in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006.  Other notable CCHA Top Offensive Defenseman winners include Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Jack Johnson.    Even before this award, in February of 2008, Hockey's Future noticed Eckford's stellar season and made a prophetic statement at the end of their analysis:


As evidenced by his numbers thus far, Eckford is having a great third season at UAF for the Nanooks. Eckford is a great skater and does not hesitate to join the rush where he can show of his puck distribution skills. His size (6'3, 215 lbs) allows him to be assertive in his own end as well. While it wouldn't hurt Eckford to return for his senior season next year, it wouldn't be a complete shock to see the Devils try to sign Eckford at season's end.

Well Hockey's Future was dead on as the Devils signed Eckford to an entry level contract. A long shot to make the team, after training camp he was assigned to AHL affiliate Lowell for the 2008-2009 season.   

2008-2009 Month-By-Month Scoring Breakdown

2008-2009 GP G A PTS Plus/Minus
October 8 1 4 5 1
November 10 0 5 5 1
December 11 0 6 6 -3
January 13 1 3 4 -5
February 11 0 3 3 -4
March 12 0 2 2 -5
April 7 0 2 2 -1

 

In an up and down rookie season in the AHL he started off the season strong and continued that play into January.   February through April is where he had struggles, and after looking at his month-by-month breakdown below it is conceivable that he hit a wall after being accustomed to only playing 40-45 games for three consecutive years in college.  He finished the season with the most points on a team by a defenseman,  (not bad considering he only had 7 points in the final 30 games of the year) but he finished with a team worst -16 rating.  In an interview in April of 2010 to NHL.com he talked about his rookie season and his plus/minus rating: 

"I was definitely not happy with my plus/minus last season," Eckford said. "Over the summer, I wanted to improve on that, and this year I focused on being better on the ice, not being a liability, and I think I did a decent job of giving the coaches confidence in being able to put me out there in the last five minutes of a period or in a 3-3 game in the third period."

One of the knocks on most offensive defensemen is that they are always focused on making plays and not preventing them.  While this motivation is partly because of the Devils' organizational philosophy and his own competitiveness, it is always refreshing to hear that players want to improve their play on both sides of the rink. 

 

After his sub-par first season in Lowell, Eckford started out the 2009-2010 season very strongly, posting 15 points in his first 18 games and being named the AHL Player of the Week after posting 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points earning a plus 6 rating in 3 games. After that he was called up by the Devils.  He dressed in three of the four games in which he was eligible to play and tallied one power play assist before he was sent back to Lowell.  He was also named to the AHL All-Star game for his efforts in the first half of the season.  While his point production did slow down in the second half of the year, it didn't affect his defensive progression. Eckford still improved upon the negative16 rating in 2008-2009 season moving to a plus 11 in the 2009-2010 season.

2009-2010 Month-By-Month Scoring Breakdown

2009-2010 GP G A PTS Plus/Minus
October 11 3 2 5 4
November 8 2 8 10 4
December 12 1 7 8 5
January 9 2 2 4 2
February 10 0 0 0 -4
March 6 0 1 1 -1
April 5 0 3 3 1

 

One quote by MacLean leads me to believe that Eckford may get a shot at making the Devils' roster this year:

His shot is the biggest thing -- he has a really good shot and gets his one-timer off," MacLean said. "The key is getting that shot off and getting it through, and you get the points from either rebounds, deflections, or scoring on your own."

Sounds like a possible 2nd unit power play quarterback to me, doesn't it?

MacLean also said:

"It's tough for young guys as defensemen to go from offense to defense, but he's learning how to position and post people off a little bit better," MacLean said of Eckford. "And I think as his strength improves, his overall game will improve."

With the improvement Eckford has shown on the defensive end of the ice added to his offensive abilities he might just be what the new Devils coach needs in New Jersey.

Curious about his ‘shot' I looked at the 8 goals that Eckford scored last year, linked below. I was curious to see how his shot got through considering he had 97 shots last year.  Since that total was dwarfed by Matt Taormina's 190 shots I wanted to see the ones that got through.  Please note that there are no individual goal videos that I can locate so I added the time you should turn to on the clip to see Eckford's goals.   Please note the AHL site wasn't cooperating with a few of the videos so I left those links out.

Goal # Type Note Video Link Time on Clip
1 PP One timer from point View Goal Here 1:15
2 EV One timer from point View Goal Here 1:30
3 PP cheated up wing, jumped on rebound View Goal Here 1:55
4 PP N/A  N/A N/A
5 PP N/A  N/A N/A
6 EV N/A  N/A N/A
7 EV Down low, rebound View Goal Here 0:10
8 PP One timer from top of circle View Goal Here 1:30

 

Just from these clips it surprises me that Taormina got over 100 more shots on net than Eckford.  As you can see from the clips, when Eckford gets his shot on net, good things can happen.  He also distributes the puck very well, and as shown in his assist when he was with the Devils, he doesn't panic at the blue line when pressured.

 

OK, so what does all this information tell us about Eckford?  Clearly he is an offensive-minded defenseman, one that can clearly move the puck up into the offensive zone and is defensively responsible enough and more importantly willing/able to improve his defensive game so that he can contribute at the NHL level.   The point breakdown below shows he is also very proficient on the power play:

 

2009 Scoring Breakdown G A PTS
Totals 8 23 31
Power Play 5 15 20
Short-Handed 0 1 1
Even Strength 3 7 10

 

His size, offensive abilities,  skating abilities and shot have been lauded by his coaches -past and present- and he is clearly cognizant of the fact that he has to provide defensive value.   From looking through the game statistics you can see as the season went on that he was one of the preferred defensemen used on the penalty kill in Lowell, a great step in his defensive development. 

While all the analyses out there says he should have an NHL impact in the near future, Tom Gulitti tempers expectations writing that slotting him in as a top 4 defenseman next year is unrealistic.  That would be too much to expect of any rookie, let alone one still developing the defensive side of his game.

Additionally, Eckford may be best served by another quarter or half year in the AHL, and then in two to three years of full-time play we should have a firmer grasp of his potential.  I think he has the potential to be as offensively valuable as Andy Greene but with less value on the defensive end of the ice.   As MacLean states, he has to work on positioning and using his body a bit more.   He has good size and once he does reach the NHL level, he will have two good teachers in Larry Robinson and Scott Stevens who will help him develop more facets of his defensive game.

Also, don't forget that Eckford was a 7th round pick.  To have a potential two-way defenseman that could top out as a second pairing guy is something that David Conte should be proud of, as Eckford is at the top end of the depth chart for defensemen in the Devils system.

I hope this provided some good background information on Eckford for everyone to look through.   My personal prediction is that he starts the season in Albany and is brought up in December or January if there is a roster spot and he has shown additional improvement.

So what does the community think?  Will Eckford make the team this year? Does anything in his history jump out at you as a huge positive or negative?  Will he make the roster by default because of the salary cap crunch the team will be in should we still sign Ilya Kovalchuk?  Any other Prospect Profile requests?  Sound off below!

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