April 30, 2012

With injury woes behind him, scouts still crazy for Koekkoek

By Kirk Luedeke

Even though he hasn’t played hockey since late November, Slater Koekkoek’s stock isn’t expected to take too much of a hit at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh June 22. 

Slater Koekkoek had 18 points in 26 games for the Petes before being sidelined. (Photo by Ken Andersen/Peterborough Petes)

The Peterborough Petes defenseman whose last name is pronounced “Koo-koo” suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and caused him to miss the remaining 40 games in the 2011-12 regular season.  However, a successful procedure performed in Jan. and diligent rehab has put the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder in prime position to make a strong return to action for 2012-13.

“I had my surgery in January and I was working hard to get ready for the Under-18s,” Koekkoek told New England Hockey Journal this week from his home in the Ottawa suburb of Manotick, Ontario. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready. My doctor thought it was too early for me to return even though I wanted to represent Canada there. If the tournament had been a month later, I probably could have gone, but I’m 100 percent now.”

Koekkoek, whose grandparents came to Canada from the Netherlands, is described as a mobile, puck-moving two-way player who can impact the game in all zones. In 26 games, he scored five goals and 18 points before going down with the injury.

“From a hockey standpoint I’m a two-way ‘D’ who likes to take care of the D-zone first and join in the offense if I can,” he said. “As a person, I am very determined. I’m the kind of guy who never lets things get to my head. As a teammate I like to bring leadership to the team, say things when they need to be said and lead by example.”

A first-round pick of the Petes in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection, Koekkoek is also a graduate of the storied Notre Dames Hounds program in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. Like other hockey players of note who preceded him there, Koekkoek gained a great deal from the experience.

“Notre Dame was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Koekkoek. “I loved it out there, and I think it prepared me a lot for what was going to come next for me in hockey. Moving away from my parents in Grade 9 was a big thing, but it helped me with the transition I went through in the OHL.”

Koekkoek added that playing against the older, bigger and stronger competition in the consolidated midget program there gave him a head start on similar challenges when he joined the Petes in 2010.

Even with the extended time on the shelf, scouts are still bullish on Koekkoek’s potential, and he’ll get a full evaluation at the NHL’s scouting and draft combine in Mississauga in early June. As has been the case in the past with players like Brett Connolly, who missed most of his draft year only to be a top-10 selection by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, Koekkoek’s wait in the Consol Energy Center stands should not be all that long.

“(Koekkoek) brings the right mix of size, mobility, skill and character,” said an NHL scout recently. “It’s a shame about the injury, but given his performance in his rookie season and the viewings before Christmas, I think most have a solid read on him. Obviously, you wonder about the shoulder going forward, but we’ve seen guys come back from strong from draft year injuries to play well. I don’t think it hurts him too much.”

If there is one thing Koekoekk wants to accomplish while a member of the Petes organization, it’s helping his club reach the postseason. Peterborough missed the playoffs in his rookie campaign and did so again, though he gets a mulligan for having missed so much time this time around.

“I think we could have been in the postseason if myself and Matt Puempel hadn’t missed so much time,” said Koekkoek. “If our team had stayed healthy all season, then maybe we wouldn’t be talking about Peterborough missing the playoffs in back-to-back years.”

That kind of confidence, combined with playing for a storied OHL franchise has been an enjoyable experience for Koekkoek. After so much time on the outside with the opportunity to watch his team’s season from the stands, he wants to play a more prominent role in helping the Petes return to contention. For him, that means playing to his natural talents.

“Skating is a major strength in my game,” he said. “I worked on that a lot growing up and it allows me to join the rush or get back on ‘D’. My shot is something I see as a strength as well, with the ability to get it through from the point.”

Koekkoek is looking to add more strength and muscle to his lean frame, knowing that in order to excel at the next level, he’ll need to be able to handle the stronger power forwards permeating the game.

“He’s on the lean side, but a lot of kids his age are,” the scout said. “With his work ethic and attitude, you know he’ll fill out eventually. I just think when you take his complete body of work into account, he’s going to be a solid NHL defenseman for a long time, and I like his offensive upside, too.”

For now, Koekkoek’s focus is on the rapidly approaching combine and draft.  He’s working out and anticipates that he’ll be ready to do the physical tests that will help set him up for what is next on June 22. For most kids who grow up playing hockey, the chance to walk on stage and put on an NHL jersey is a dream achievement, even if it is only a tentative first step to a possible professional hockey future.

“Obviously, I’m excited,” he said.  “It was hard to watch for the second half of the year and seeing my draft fall down from where it could have been. But, growing up and playing hockey, it was a dream to be drafted by an NHL team, so when it happens, it will be a great experience.”

His draft wait is nearly over, but Koekkoek knows that the real work is only beginning.

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kluedeke29.