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Casey Cizikas: When is he ready? Examining a similar case

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You'll get there, kid. You will.
You'll get there, kid. You will.

With Bridgeport going from December doldrums to a sudden two-week win streak, Islanders fans eyes have turned toward the Sound Tigers prospects, in particular team scoring and +/- leader Casey Cizikas (9-19-28, +14).

He's an interesting piece to watch because, unlike young forwards who are projected as top-six but must grapple with the awkward step to get there at the NHL level, Cizikas already comes packaged with a sort of glorified checker destiny.

If he gets third/fourth-line minutes in the NHL, no one complains (well, fewer do, anyway) that the team is wasting his talents.

"He plays in all situations for us." ... "With Casey, [coaching him] pretty easy. He's a smart hockey player, he's a two-way hockey player, he's a team first guy ... pays attention to the details like blocking shots."

>>Mississauga coach Dave Cameron, 2011 SNY Point Blank TV interview

He was the featured player (and captain) in his final year of juniors, and scouts saw his future value as a smart bottom six player with offensive punch. But despite his impressive half season in Bridgeport in a featured role, how will we know when he's ready for the big time? Could he step right in and replace one of the Islanders' bottom six right now?

That's often the fan plea, as the unknown always looks greener and shiny. But should fans expect that of a 20-year-old?

Since we can't know, and even people who have taken in some Bridgeport games can't be sure, it might be helpful to look at Cizikas' junior teammate Devante Smith-Pelly, another guy who comes with the "ready-made checker" billing after learning under Cameron -- but who was a higher scorer in juniors (at a younger age) and has already logged 26 NHL games.

"A solid camp propelled the 19-year-old directly onto Anaheim's third line, where he began grinding out energy shifts and killing penalties. Though he scored his fair share in junior with the OHL Mississauga-St. Michael's Majors, Smith-Pelly learned responsible hockey from bench boss Dave Cameron.

"I learned a lot on the defensive side from coach Cameron," he said. "He turned me into a good two-way player. Coming into this league as a young guy, you can't be a liability on defense."

>>The Hockey News, Jan. 16, 2012, p. 41

Sounds good. Cizikas and Smith-Pelly were top players for Mississauga, so if Smith-Pelly can do it, then his junior teammate is an example of how players come out of Camp Cameron ready for NHL duty, right?

ANA - Devante Smith-Pelly 26 3 2 5 -10 10 1 0 10:51 -21.1 (13th/14) 32 9.4%

Well, some caution: Pelly's Corsi REL is actually pretty bad -- second-worst on the Ducks (min. 20 games) -- and without him being used in the defensive zone an undue amount either. His quality of competition also appears weakest on the team, so it's not like he's faced other team's top lines and tough assignments to get that team-low figure. Of course it's just a quarter season and none of this is unexpected when considering a young player: There is always a big learning curve when picking up the defensive side of the NHL game, with all of its big savvy bodies and their bags of tricks (and talents) not seen in juniors or even the AHL.

It's also possible that Smith-Pelly's progression has continued from the first game to his 26th, after which he was loaned to Team Canada only to break his foot. Three of his five points, including two goals, were in the final five games before he was released for WJC duty.

Some other context: It's the first post-junior year for both, but Cizikas is a year older than Smith-Pelly. So you'd expect Cizikas might be further along, but then again the younger Smith-Pelly outscored Cizikas at Mississauga last season (36-30-66 vs. 29-35-64 ... it's not significant and differing roles may have played a, well, role). For what it's worth projection-wise, Smith-Pelly was a 2nd-round, 42nd overall pick 2010, whereas Cizikas was a 4th-round, 92nd overall pick in 2009. (Cizikas' draft position and draft year numbers were surely hurt some by his then-ongoing legal situation.)

And still more context: It's possible Pelly's Anaheim numbers are affected by him being there during their worst, sinking stretch of the season before he went away for the WJC, where he was lost for even more time, getting injured doing a gritty thing that gritty players are expected to do and not thinking twice -- and doing the very thing that saw Islanders role player Jay Pandolfo miss several weeks this season, too.

That ethic is consistent with everything said about Smith-Pelly heading into his 2010 draft, and everything people one day expect of Cizikas too.

As much as our prospect-gazing eyes hate to admit it, there is a learning curve whenever these kids step in -- we're seeing it with Nino Niederreiter and we certainly saw it with Josh Bailey. So you have to be careful assuming they can just step into NHL work, even when -- perhaps especially when -- their projection and history is to handle defensive assignments rather than focus solely on offense.

Like Niederreiter, Smith-Pelly doesn't have the benefit of an AHL option yet. Cizikas does, and by all accounts it's serving him well so far. This is the preferred route for a prospect like this, and chances are Cizikas is being better served by this half-season in the AHL than those two are in their no-AHL-allowed internships at the NHL. For all we know, Cizikas could step in today and be a better NHLer than either Niederreiter or Smith-Pelly (again, he's a year older than them), if not better than the aging veterans prospect-gazing fans would like to see him replace.

But don't assume that just because he's leading the way at Bridgeport that it can or should happen today. These kids, they usually take time.