You may have noticed that the recent selections on our Top 25 Devils Under 25 list have focused on potential bottom six forwards. The first on the actual Top 25 was actually #24 Mike Hoeffel; but three of the last four rankings (this one included) featured this kind of player. Blake Pietila is the latest of the bunch and he came in at #16 on our list, just ahead of Blake Coleman and David Wohlberg. While he's ranked higher, he should be considered in that group where, hopefully, at least one of them turns out to have a NHL future.
#16 - Blake Pietila - LW - Height: 5'11" - Weight: 194 lbs. - Age: 19 - 2012-13 Team: Michigan Tech (WCHA)
When Pietila was drafted, the word on him was straight forward: future defensive forward. What was written about the United States National Team Development Program winger spelled it all out - and I captured as much as I could just after he was drafted. While he isn't big, he was seen as a strong winger who can play physical, forecheck and battle for pucks, and he had the smarts to play well off the puck. He wasn't a scorer for the U.S. U-18 team, he wasn't used as a scorer in the World U-18 tournament, and nothing in his play projected him to become a scorer. He would be a bottom-six player at the highest level at most. That's the word on him then and it remains even now, per Hockey Future's profile on the player.
Pietila went on to Michigan Tech after being drafted and turned out a pleasantly surprising season. He put up 24 points in a solid WCHA conference (four teams won at least 25 games overall) while playing on a below average team (Michigan Tech finished 16-19-4 overall, 11-13-4 in conference). He finished tied for fourth on the team in points and tied for third in goals. While I don't think this means that Pietila suddenly developed some offensive skills, it does suggest that he was used in a significant role. He certainly played well enough to get invited to USA Hockey's junior evaluation camp this past August. Pietila wrote about what he did in camp over at Michigan Tech's official website and he even got in front of the camera to discuss what went on at camp outside of the rink (example - including Reid Boucher and a hat). It's up in the air whether he has a legitimate shot at representing his country at the WJCs, but it's clear that someone in the organization appreciates what he has done both in the USNTDP level and at Michigan Tech so far. Therefore, it's fair to conclude that 2011-12 went pretty well for Pietila.
That all said, the word on Pietila really hasn't changed. That's not at all a bad thing, but it explains why he's in this area of the list and not any higher - and I write that as someone who likes Pietila. As I noted in both the posts on #19 Ben Johnson and #18 David Wohlberg, these kinds of players don't command too much excitement from our outside perspective even if they have some likable skills and traits. For one, it's not easy to tell whether or not they're actually good defensive forwards outside of other people's opinions. Moreover, while a bottom-six spot in the NHL is an achievement, it's not considered to be a high ceiling like a top-six forward would. It's usually easier and cheaper to find bottom-six forwards than top-six forwards, after all. That said, those players do have value since these days were a quality team needs quality players up and down the lineup. Especially for the New Jersey Devils, since they could use all the forward depth they get. So if one of Johnson, Wohlberg, and/or Pietila turns out as such a player, then it should be seen as a positive even if they aren't high on this kind of a list.
As far as why, Pietila just edged ahead of Wohlberg, well, I guess Nate's and my rankings helped out in that regard. Again, Pietila is coming off a good freshman season despite Michigan Tech not being all that good. He's re-established what kind of player he could become with his skills while contributing in some other ways for his team. It was enough to get (or maintain given his participation with the USNTDP) USA Hockey's attention for their U-20 camp, something that I don't believe Pietila was a part of in 2011. That all is quite good. So are his hardworking, hard forechecking traits. We all like that. In my eyes, Pietila does have the advantage of being in a spot where he can continue to grow but has already established what he can do at a minimum. So while Wohlberg's closer to a finished product as a player and Johnson still has upside to build on, Pietila is in a happy medium. Hence, I ranked him as high as I did. The other writers had him in this range anyway so if I'm overrating him, it's not by much. All the same, we all look forward to what Pietila does for the Huskies (and maybe for his country?) in 2012-13. He's found the scoresheet immediately so far, which is never a bad sign.
Now that you know that Blake Pietila was ranked #16 on our list, we'd like to know what you think about that. Do you agree with where he was ranked, or do you think it's too high or too low? Regardless of his ranking, do you think he can take his skillset to the next level? What do you think would be a reasonable set of expectations for his sophomore season at Michigan Tech? What do you think of Pietila's game in general? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the player in the comments. Thank you for reading.