Why Phil Varone Should Be a 2009 First-Round Draft Pick

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Why Phil Varone Should Be a 2009 First-Round Draft Pick

After not having written anything here for the last few months, I’ve decided to come back. I won’t bore you with the details of my absence, but suffice to say there was a contract dispute that was settled when Mr. Zander told me that I could take my then-current rate, multiply it by a trillion, and that would be my new rate per article. 

Of course, my former current rate was Zero, however the fact that he used such a big number made the five-year-old inside me feel good, and here we are.

Ninetieth overall.

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Not listed in the top-30.

Not a shock, their rankings are usually a joke anyway.

*Shakes his head.*

I’m not gonna lie, it was gonna take something I was really, really passionate about to bring me back to the keyboard—well, that & a desire to write while listening to club music. So here we are, and I’m here to tell you one thing, and one thing only:

Phil Varone should be a first-round draft pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

“Phil Varone you say? You must be rusty guy.” 

“Varone’s not even a first liner on his Jr. team, how can you possibly justify drafting him in the first round of the NHL Draft?”

Simple: He’s a playoff player.

In all sincerity, when it comes to top players, my caring about regular season statistics consists of “Did he play well and score enough points for his team to win more than they lost?” Because ultimately, your regular season stats don’t matter if you don’t produce in the playoffs.

Remember what they used to say about Pavel Datsyuk until he won a Stanley Cup last year? Exactly.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch Varone play countless times since he was a 15 year old kid. Fresh out of Vaughan, ON, playing for the Jr. B Kitchener Dutchmen, the OHL Rangers’ farm team.

Not only was he a point-a-game player in Jr. B as a 15-year-old on an offensively-challenged team, but he also dominated at times, even though his leg strength at that point wasn’t even close to paralleling his foot speed. 

I remember one shift in particular, he was on the first penalty kill unit against a rather physical team (likely Brantford or Waterloo).

He picked off a breakout pass at the opposition blue line, took the puck wide and circled all the way around the boards, behind the net, along the other boards, and right out of the zone.

Still holding onto the puck, he did the exact same thing again. He must’ve fought off six checks to hold onto that puck, and it was only after circling behind the net a second time that it took a hit from behind into the boards (which separated his shoulder) and two players to strip the puck from him.

It may have been the regular season, but that was playoff hockey. 

Fast-forward a couple of years. He was a key player in the package the London Knights received for Steve Mason last year, and scored 36 points in 31 games with London in '07-'08 (along with 25 in 36 games for a much deeper Rangers squad that he didn’t see much power play time with). 

His playoffs last year, along with London’s, were short. Five games, two points, -3 on a team that wasn’t made to win. However he had only been 17 for a few months; it wasn’t his time yet.

Patrice Bergeron.

This past regular season, on a much deeper Knights team, Varone scored 19 goals & had 52 points in 58 games, to go along with 32 PIM and an impressive +13.

I only had the opportunity to see him play one regular season game, and I’ll tell you, for all the talk of John Tavares & Nazem Kadri, Varone was one of the top-two players on the ice that night. 

It was Tavares’ second home game as a Knight, and he scored a hat trick in a 6-5 SO loss to Guelph.  While Tavares was a monster who was a threat to score on every shift, Varone was far and away the second best player on the ice, for either team.

On one hand, you had Kadri, who was obsessed with beating guys one-on-one, and while he made one mind-blowing play, he made countless bad plays, probably stopping the Knights from having 3-4 scoring opportunities by holding onto the puck far too long and for challenging defensemen in spots that he should have passed it. 

He of course played 20-22 minutes that night.

You also had Daniel Erlich, the Knights’ 5’6”, 155 lbs mighty-mite, whose only goal in the game seemed to be to go from end-to-end with the puck and see how many times he could be stripped.

He of course played 19+ minutes and was usually sent onto the ice in key situations ahead of Varone.

On the other hand, you had Varone. When the Knights were down 4-2, he was one of only two players who kept their intensity up, and had say, four more of the guys done the same, they might not have lost the game, seeing as Tavares was on a mission that night. 

When the game got tight in the third period, Varone again picked up his level of play, forechecking like a mad man, using his speed on the backcheck to stop Guelph rushes.  The 5’10", 187 lbs Varone played like a 6’2”, 215 lbs speed demon, doing everything he could to disrupt Guelph’s transitional and offensive game.

Oh, and he personally created several scoring chances, both for himself and for his teammates, with his playmaking and his ability to create turnovers.

I remember going home that night & being disgusted with the rankings lists that I’d read to that point.  Kadri being ranked so high, Varone being shown no love whatsoever. Am I even watching the same games as the rest of these guys? 

Because it was a regular season game, which aren’t as tight as a playoff game, Kadri (of course playing w/Tavares) got three assists and second star to Tavares.

But if that had been a playoff game, Kadri probably would’ve been knocked out cold by a star headhunter by the middle of the second period, and Varone would’ve been the one to have the three points.

Milan Lucic.

Fast-forward again to the two round of the '08-'09 OHL Playoffs: London vs Saginaw. I would sincerely hope that you won’t be shocked to know that one Phil Varone led the Knights in scoring in the first round of the playoffs, with five goals and 10 points in the Knights’ five game victory over a game Erie squad. 

You could tell during the first 10 minutes of this game that Varone was pressing – over-thinking.  He was feeling the pressure of his first round successes, and was skating in quicksand as a result. 

But while most guys would blow a whole period, or even a full game getting caught up in the mind game that follows such pressure, Varone came out for his third shift, half-way through the first period, and had obviously had enough. 

Along the left wing boards and with the Saginaw defenseman pinching in, Varone took what can only be described as a garbage breakout pass that left him prone to getting smoked, spun around, and banked the puck off the boards and between the skates of the pinching D. 

This quick-thinking play left the light-scoring Jared Knight in a race for the puck with the other Saginaw defensemen. Knight shocked him with his speed, stripping the D-man of the puck the second he took possession of it, and beat an obviously caught-off-guard Saginaw goalie Ed Pasquale glove side, half-way up the net. 

The goal personified playoff-hockey: Varone makes a clever-as-hell play and takes a hit to make a play, and Knight out-skates and out-battles a defensemen to score a goal. 

Varone played the exact same kind of stellar game that I saw him play in mid-January, and ended up with a goal and two (first) assists, the other one another head-shaker. I almost felt bad for the guy I was there with, as I couldn’t stop singing Varone’s praises. 

Kadri, who had two goals and two assists (he somehow got credit for the back-end assist on the Knights’ first goal, even though it was a defenseman who passed it to Varone), was named first star. 

Varone was named third star. 

And I would have LOVED to have talked with every scout in attendance at that game about who played better. Because while Kadri’s game was much, much-improved over his January outing, anyone forgetting the names and looking solely at both players’ individual performances could not say that Kadri out-played Varone. 

If anything, they were equals. 

While Kadri showed he could finish plays under the bright lights, Varone showed that he could create plays, play tight defense, provide a strong forecheck, finish his checks, be strong on the puck, and finish plays. 

After scoring in the third period, Varone drifted over to the glass, pumped both of his arms, and turned to the crowd, looking at my section with the biggest look of pure joy you could ever imagine.

Varone currently leads the Knights in playoff scoring, with eight goals and 16 points in nine games, along with 15 PIM (almost doubling his regular season pace as the play gets more physical), and is running away with the +/- lead with a tremendous +13.

The Boston Bruins have made a killing at the NHL Entry Draft in recent years, coming away with second-round draft picks who were capable of stepping into the NHL with little or no seasoning, and immediately playing at a high level. This in and of itself is proof that the rankings are wrought with mistakes.

In a few years from now, whichever team drafts Varone, likely in the second round after his dominant playoff performance thus far, will dress him for his first NHL game.  Then his 10th.

Then his first playoff game. And after that game, the rest of the hockey world will find out what Varone’s team has known for a long time:

Phil Varone should’ve been a first-round draft pick.

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