If Connor Hurley was the top forward in Minnesota High School Hockey, Tommy Vannelli would be arguably the most notable defenseman in the Draft. It’s been a whirlwind calender year for the Minnetonka native; he blew scouts away at the Select Festival in Rochester, New York last Summer, earning an invite to play for Team USA at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, and his season just culminated recently again suiting up for the Stars and Stripes and coming home from Sochi, Russia with a Silver Medal in the World U18 Championships.
His development trajectory has been impressive; he anchored the strongest blueline in the Fall Elite League, wore a Captain’s letter for Minnetonka, and was invited to join the USNTDP for the last few weeks of the season (and getting heavy minutes too); like Hurley, he was everywhere this year.
Vannelli may be one of the best skaters in the entire Draft Class- he simply hovers around the ice, effortlessly pivoting and changing directions, and when he digs in lineally, his acceleration is incredibly impressive. I made a note in one of my viewings that the sound his skates make in his first few steps was unlike anyone else on the ice. His mobility basically allows him to play the role of 4th forward; he can join the rush and retreat with no problem, and can simply take the puck and skate it out of trouble in three quick strides. The amount of space in which he can cover is just mind boggling at times; with his mobility and reach it was like an entire faceoff circle worth of coverage. He’s got impressive hockey sense; there is an instinctive manner in which he plays, but he can still be coached up some; his positioning can be just off (although he can cheat a bit because of the ease in which he can recover) and he’s got to learn some of the nuances and details of the defense position, but its not the end of the World. Offensively he’s got slick hands; he can thread passes through traffic and has the presence of mind to shoot not just to score, but also to create rebounds for his teammates.
But like any young player, he struggles with inconsistency. When he’s fully engaged he’s a complete treat to watch, leaving scouts buzzing; however he’s had shifts (and games unfortunately) where he’s looked unfocused and disinterested. He didn’t show much of a physical presence in the viewings I saw; I’m not saying he’s got to be a killer, but he wouldn’t take up those opportunities to rub puck carriers out along the wall, or make his presence felt to players standing in front of his net. His puck rushing could be predictable, often choosing to go up along the walls; and if he ever learned the chip and chase (ala Brent Burns), he could be one man forecheck- there were too many times where I saw him turn over the puck at the offensive blueline trying to dangle through the other team.
He’s got scary good upside, but there are things about his game that will make teams certainly cautious about taking him. Vannelli is going to a good place to continue to develop though; Mike Guentzel, who coaches the D at Minnesota, will do a good job of shaping Vannelli’s game up over the next few years. For what its worth, I think Vannelli is better than Brady Skjei was at this point in Skjei’s draft year, and he has more potential in my opinion as well. The NCAA model of development- lots of practice and weight training- should do him well, and whatever team that drafts him.