Prospect Profile: Nikolas Koberstein

Photo: Corina Cowie, Art of All Trades

Photo: Corina Cowie, Art of All Trades

On June 27-28, 2014, many hockey players had their dreams come true. Montreal Canadiens draft pick Nikolas Koberstein was among them. However, when the Canadiens called his name on the second day of the draft, in the fifth round, the collective reaction was that of confusion. Canadiens fans, myself included, had never heard of Koberstein, and understandably so. The Barrhead, Alberta native spent the season in the AJHL, a Junior A league, and was ranked by just one notable scouting service–NHL Central Scouting, placing him 205th among North American skaters.

While Koberstein had a dream that was fulfilled, Habs fans on social media displayed confusion, and even disdain towards the pick. Some outright called the University of Alaska Fairbanks commit a “goon” (which couldn’t be further from the truth), a “wasted pick,” and/or a “bust,” despite knowing nothing about him.

With that behind us, I think it’s time that we took a long overdue look at what type of player Nikolas Koberstein is. Considering how prospect rabid Habs fans are, it’s quite shocking how little information there is on him. The little information that we do have is pretty consistent, all to do with his character and work ethic, but nothing on his style of play or the skill set that he brings to the table. Before delving into that, I think we need to take a look at some context.

Despite Koberstein’s less than impressive point totals, he’s a talented player. He led all Olds Grizzlys defenders in points, as a rookie, playing in a tough league. Sure, it’s not the WHL, but it’s still a difficult place to play, especially for a rookie. This past season, Olds scored just 156 goals in just 60 games–the third lowest amount in the AJHL. Since Brett Hopfe took over partway through the 2011-2012 season, Olds has finished in the bottom four among goals for every single season. That lack of offence has led to a lack of point production among Olds defenders. Casey Rogers led all Olds defenders in scoring with just 29 points in 2011-2012, and Hopfe wasn’t even the coach for the entire season. In 2012-2013, Chris Stachiw led Olds defenders in scoring with a meager 21 points, just three more than Koberstein. Both Rogers and Stachiw were final year players, while Koberstein was a rookie in what was technically his second year of eligibility.

What is the explanation for this lack of blue line scoring? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think a large part of it is coaching. Watching Olds, I was shocked by how uninvolved the defencemen were while in the offensive zone. The team rarely uses the point, instead relying on the cycle and quick passes through the crease. The only time defenders really touched the puck (Koberstein included) was when they gained the zone or headed down low.

Now on to the fun part: What type of player is Koberstein?

The little information we do have on Koberstein was talking about his character. Brett Hopfe, in an interview with the Olds Albertan, described his compete level as “very special.” Hopfe also mentioned that Koberstein’s “an honest player” and a “great leader,” in an interview on Rock 104.5. Those same views were echoed by Koberstein’s teammates, as they voted him as Olds captain for 2014-2015 campaign (before the announcement that he would be heading to the USHL). Montreal Canadiens vice-president of player personnel and director of amateur scouting, Trevor Timmins, also praises his maturity, calling him a “great kid with tons of character,” in an interview immediately following the draft.

When I watched Koberstein play the first thing that stood out to me was his puck-moving ability. There’s a certain confidence and poise that exudes from him while carrying the puck. It’s not uncommon to see him go end-to-end, beating numerous players in the process. He’s certainly not much more than an average skater, but he’s smart. Koberstein’s ability to identify and aggressively exploit open ice is the key reason why he’s so good at moving the puck. The 6’1″, 183-pound defender owns soft hands and a good set of one-on-one moves. His puck protection ability while lugging the puck down the wing is exceptional, and quite often it’s easy to confuse him with a forward. However, that confidence with the puck is a double-edged sword, as Koberstein has a tendency to over-stickhandle and attempt to play above his skill level.

The second aspect of his game that really impressed me was his vision. In Hopfe’s interview with the Olds Albertan, he mentions that “[Koberstein’s] ability to see the ice and make a good first pass is phenomenal.” I certainly can’t disagree with Hopfe. In the first game of Koberstein’s I watched, this is the pass he connected with. And that’s not an uncommon occurrence–he connects with similar outlet passes quite often. The high-end vision is also on display in the offensive zone, especially off the rush, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t translate into points. Koberstein demonstrates creativity and excellent vision with his passes, which could lead to a significant increase in points next season.

The weak link in Koberstein’s offensive game is his shot, specifically his accuracy. A commentator described Koberstein’s slapshot as “NHL-calibre” during a game versus the Calgary Mustangs on October 1, 2013. When given the space, he typically unloads a bomb; however, his shot is extremely erratic. Additionally, he struggles to open up shooting lanes, leading to him having many shots blocked.

Without the puck on his stick, Koberstein’s best asset is his physicality and stick work. He’s not a heavy open-ice hitter, but he’s aggressive along the boards. He hits the puck carrier hard and often down low, using both his body and stick. He makes it an absolute pain for forwards to occupy the front of the net. Koberstein is certainly no goon though, as he had just three fights on the year. He defends his teammates and doesn’t back down from anyone. Additionally, Koberstein owns an active stick, which he uses exceptionally well to tie up forwards around the net. He possesses a good poke check, as well as great anticipation, allowing him to break up plays.

Defensively, Koberstein can be a bit of an adventure. He’s not a particularly impressive skater, especially in terms of lateral agility and backwards mobility. He displays a tendency to hang back, giving forwards too much time and space. Going forward, improving his gap control is an absolute must. He needs to improve his decision-making in regards to pinching. In sustained pressure situations, Koberstein typically chases his man, not showing enough patience or positional awareness. He also can be overly aggressive when clearing the crease, leading to penalties and taking himself out of position. Due to his aggressive puck-moving style, he gets caught quite often in the offensive zone and commits turnovers. Simply put, he has to focus and play a simpler game in his own zone.

Koberstein is the type of player that could very well take five years before turning professional. The WHL’s Regina Pats own his junior rights, but the plan as of August 5, 2014 is to head to the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede before departing for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Koberstein will join a young Sioux Falls team in the fall. Sioux Falls will go without 12 of their top 15 scorers, including all of their top six, as the players will be graduating the program. The blue line is extremely green, too; with just 162 USHL regular season games of experience in the corps. The two most experienced defence men on the team are Chad Duschesne and Jack Stander, both have played just one full season of USHL hockey. I expect that some of the youth will be moved for scoring help up front, as Dakota Joshua (Toronto Draft Pick) is the team’s only major offensive threat. Koberstein should emerge as a top defender on the young team, contributing in all situations.

There are many tools at Koberstein’s disposal–a lot more than I think most realize. His vision, puck-moving ability, and physicality are all tools that could one day make him an NHLer. However, defensive lapses, merely average skating ability, and questionable decision-making in most areas of his game are all major concerns. Koberstein is a project, and a long-term one at that.

Patience is key with all prospects, especially with Nikolas Koberstein.

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