Author of the article:

Bruce McCurdy  •  Edmonton Journal

Publishing date:

Nov 18, 2020  •   •  9 minute read

Phil Kemp takes place in the Edmonton Oilers development camp at the Community Rink in Rogers Place on June 24, 2019. Photo by Shaughn Butts /Postmedia, file

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Phil Kemp should be on top of the world right now. The 21-year-old defenceman was set to enter his senior year at prestigious Yale University, where he is a history major in the venerable Ivy League school. Moreover, he’d been named captain of the Yale Bulldogs, the oldest hockey team in NCAA, having played their first games in 1896. As per Wikipedia, “Yale has served as a bedrock of college hockey ever since, playing continually for 125 seasons (as of 2020) including through the Great Depression and two world wars.”

But not the damnable COVID-19. Late last week it was announced that all six Ivy League universities had cancelled their winter sports for the entire season, hockey included, leaving student-athletes like Phil Kemp without an obvious place to play in 2020-21.

Though obviously he’s not the only victim, we mention Kemp specifically because he is a prospect of the local NHL club, having been drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the seventh round of 2017. Despite the lowly selection — #208 overall, for goodness sake — Kemp was a modestly high-profile selection. He’d served as team captain for his age group of the powerful US National Team Development Program for the prior two seasons (U-17 in 2015-16, U-18 a year later). Of a squad that included future first-round draft choices like Brady Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes, and Josh Norris among its full-time players, it was Phil Kemp who was chosen as the club leader. He would win a gold medal in the IIHF U-18 championships that year, and silver in the U-20 event (a.k.a. World Junior) two years later as the steady stay-at-home partner to the mercurial Hughes, now a rising star with Vancouver Canucks.

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While Kemp is not a player with the raw tools of those other players named, reports of his excellent character abound. He graduated straight from that USNTDP to the Yale University Bulldogs, where he has continued to develop his game for the past three seasons. But not, now, a fourth.

Which leaves the young man in something of a predicament. While the school year continues, hockey at Yale is off the board.

So much for Plan A. As Kemp told Postmedia’s Jim Matheson in a June interview:

“I’m just praying for a season. I think they definitely would play games with no fans. That doesn’t matter to me, I’m playing with my teammates. The buses would be the problem. No cross-country trips. Probably take those off the schedule,” said Kemp, who was always going back to school for a fourth year, rather than entertain a possible pro offer from the Oilers after his junior season at Yale.

Under the new paradigm, might a pro offer now receive a different response? Hard to say. Especially with all the uncertainty surrounding minor league hockey in the upcoming season, which has far from a certain future in its own right. Kemp is nowhere near ready for the bigs at this point, but he is primed for the next step, presumably in the AHL.

Having attended three prior Oilers’ Summer Development Camps, he’s certainly aware of the internal competition. In fact he welcomes it, as per that same interview:

“(Evan) Bouchard is very talented, (Philip) Broberg too, (Dmitri) Samorukov is an outstanding young defenceman. They have a great defensive core on the AHL team. Be awesome to be a part of that. I think I could learn a lot and to be competing with them would be awesome.”

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That’s a great attitude, one that served Kemp well with those high-powered USA national teams. Many in his position would consider that competition and succumb to the temptation to simply let the Oilers’ signing rights to him expire next Aug 15, though that’s nine months away and would formalize the loss of a season he badly needs for his development.

Perhaps he might indicate to the team that he’d prefer a trade stateside, as happens all too often with American-born NCAA players drafted by Canadian teams. Case in point: John Marino, drafted by the Oilers in the 6th round in 2015 and attendee of several development camps of his own. Marino was going to let the clock run out and become a free agent, in essence forcing a trade to Pittsburgh for anything the Oilers could salvage (which turned out to be a future 6th round pick). All he did next was make the Penguins right out of camp and go on to an outstanding rookie season, earning Calder votes in the process. Another prominent example is Marino’s Harvard University teammate Adam Fox, drafted by Calgary but now a rising star with New York Rangers.

Not saying that Kemp is of the quality of those guys, but his underlying contract situation is similar. He’s been hanging around inside the top 20 of our Cult of Hockey prospect series the last three years, most recently at #16 in the provisional 2020 rankings. That’s quite a few notches higher than most 7th-round picks wind up, but with reason.

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I took a deeper look at this player, reviewing all of his shifts in his final three games at Yale, a 2 games to 1 series win over Union College that qualified Yale for the second round of the ECAC playoffs (where the 6 Ivy League teams play along with 6 other universities in the northeast). That was when COVID struck for the first time, resulting in the cancellation of NCAA playoffs and the Frozen Four.

Here’s my take on his play in those games in our traditional player grade format:

Game One: Yale 0 vs Union 3

  • Played shifts on both sides of the ice as one of a plethora of righties on Yale’s back end. Sloppy start to the game with a couple of bad passes under pressure, one bad pinch, and a deserved -1 on the first Union goal, in which the drop pass and shot both occurred in his territory, and through his screen. Made one nice rush and pass into the slot for a dangerous shot. A couple of shots of his own without a lot of power on either. Attempted an end-to-end rush but wound up on the seat of his pants after trying to split the defence. Decent work on the penalty kill, strong positioning of both body and stick in the shooting and passing lanes. Outlet passing just so-so on the night.
    Stats: 17: 45 TOi, 0-0-0, -1, 3 shots, 1 hit, 1 block, 2 giveaways, 6 “takeaways” (different from NHL takeaways). Grade=4.

Game Two: Yale 4 vs Union 1

  • A lot of 50/50 battling along the walls, more holding his own than outright dominating one-on-one situations. After first helping to win possession deep in Yale territory, he made a good read to jump into the rink-length rush and served as the decoy on a 2-on-1 as Yale finally scored their first goal of the series after five futile periods to tie the game at 1-1 early in the third. Awarded with a primary assist. Made a tape-to-tape outlet pass that keyed the zone entry on the go-ahead tally just a minute later, earning a secondary assist on the play. Did a nice job keeping the puck in and taking it all the way to the corner. Important shot block on the penalty kill. Broke up a dangerous pass through the slot. Drew a late powerplay when hooked on a rush with under three minutes left. With Yale handing on to a 3-1 lead late, he got a shift on that powerplay and promptly scored by taking advantage of some open ice, then firing a sizzling wrister shot that beat the goalie low blocker to put the game on ice.
    Stats: 18: 38 TOi, 1-2-3, +2, 2 shots, 1 hit, 1 block, 1 giveaway, 7 takeaways. Grade=8.

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Game Three: Yale 2 vs Union 1 (2 OT)

  • Joined the play late to take a pass just inside the offensive blueline and fire a low shot that was tipped on net for a good chance. Coughed the puck up when he tried to stickhandle around a checker in the neutral zone, though alert teammates covered him off. Made a terrific play to keep the puck in at the line, then quickly pass off to help set up a Grade A chance. Made another fine play to block a dangerous shot in tight to his own net. Made a great diagonal seam pass to set up what seemed a sure goal but Kemp’s mate rang it off the crossbar. Weak clearing pass on the PK caused some trouble. Had an excellent chance 15 seconds into the first overtime but his shot from the right circle was turned aside. Beaten on the rush by wide speed for a dangerous chance. Made another chance for himself with a nice drag move and angled shot that created a mad scramble in front. Couldn’t quite handle a hard, off-target pass early in the second OT but made an excellent recovery to tie up his man to prevent a possible jailbreak.
    Stats: 27: 41 TOi, 0-0-0, even, 1 shot, 4 hits, 4 giveaways, 14 takeaways. Grade=7.

Overall assessment

  • Easy to see why his coaches like Kemp: he’s a reliable rearguard who can usually be found in the right places and has the discipline to keep his shifts short and err on the side of the early change. He was not as defensively dominant as I expected, and not particularly physical… he just got in the way a lot, kept his head on his shoulders and his stick and/or skates in the passing lanes. On the other hand in this series he was significantly more of an offensive force than typically reported, scoring 3 points to lead a comeback win in Game Two and contributing to a handful of dangerous chances in Game Three.
    I didn’t see him as a particularly strong technical skater, though he rarely left himself in position to be badly burned. A bit of a plodding stride, though, and not a natural on pivots or transitions.
    That’s an area of his game that will have to come a long way if he harbours the NHL dream. He’s still just 21 and in a best-case scenario still a few years off, so he does have time to learn. But, the clock’s already ticking.
    At 6’3, 209 lbs., the right shot defender has the identical specs as Adam Larsson (or Filip Berglund for that matter), and has some similar attributes though nothing resembling the nasty edge that defines Larsson’s game. If he is to make it he projects as a third-pairing, Steady Eddy type.

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