It’s no mystery, we talk about it enough around here, that the Flyers have one of the deepest prospect pools in hockey. And while much attention is being given to the Phantoms this season, with how loaded they are with prospect talent, there are still ample exciting prospects playing outside of the AHL this season who deserve a bit of love too. Like, as you may have already guessed, Ronnie Attard.
Attard quickly went from a low risk but intriguing, overage, pick in the third round of the 2019 draft to one of the best defensemen in the NCAA, earning NCHC Conference honors as the best offensive defenseman, and being named to the first All-American team, while also being named to the NCAA (West) first All-American team last season. His success was pretty remarkable, as he put up eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 25 games in the most difficult conference in the NCAA, while also driving play at a stellar level, putting up a 63.30 CF% and 72 HDCF% (relative to the team’s 51.38 CF% and 51.38 HDCF% in a seven games tracked sample). He’s off to a torrid start to this season too, with four goals and five assists for nine points in his first eight games. To echo the words of his head coach Pat Ferschweiler, he’s good at college hockey.
But how did he get to that point, and just what makes him so good? Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss. So let’s take a deep dive into some of his most recent games, in Western Michigan’s two game series against the University of Michigan and Colgate University. Time to get granular!
Since his draft season and his final year in the USHL, Attard’s offensive game has been the one thing that’s really popped (more on that later), and the area that was going to need to continue to develop if he was going to find success at the next levels was his play in his own zone, on the defensive side. And the good news here is that he’s made real leaps and bounds in polishing out that defensive game, and that’s a big reason why he’s gotten himself to the level of being a premier defenseman in college hockey.
One area where we see him standing out is in his ability to clear out in front of the net. We saw this suggested in his on-ice numbers from last season, how his team dominated in the share of high danger chances when he was on the ice, but dipping into the tape we see that this was not just him being propped up by team effects, but rather his individual work driving that success. Take for example this bit of work done by him on the penalty kill, working against Michigan’s positively lethal power play. The Wolverines are cycling the puck towards the net, and Attard breaks up a dangerous chance, first by winning the physical battle and clearing out Matty Beniers from in front of the net, and then dropping down to play a bit of goalie, blocking a shot and kicking it into the corner with his skate, forcing Michigan to need to reset.
It’s an ability we would hope to see in a defenseman Attard’s size (6’4”, 210 pounds), but we know that this doesn’t always translate as easily as we would like. But Attard’s shown a real strength (no pun intended) in leveraging his size to enhance his defensive game.
But his disruptive ability isn’t just limited to defending at the front of the net. Perhaps even more valuable is his ability to anticipate plays and break them up before they even get the chance to turn into a high danger chance against.
Like in our first clip, he does well to disrupt Michigan’s cycle before it really gets going, pushing the Wolverine puck carrier all the way to the boards, loosening up the puck a bit, so he’s forced to make a pass back to the point, and then gets a stick in the lane of the attempted pass back, to send the puck skittering to the other side of the ice, where his teammates will follow to battle for it along the boards. Danger mitigated.
Or it can manifest in a clean disruption of an attempted zone entry. The Broncos let Luke Hughes skate through the neutral zone and over the blue line, but Attard is there to step up, and he gaps up well, sweeping the puck away to his teammate to clear it out, and then finishes off his check for good measure.
This has been perhaps the greatest positive growth in his game, how he continues to work out how to play smarter. He’s still eager to make an aggressive play, but the subtleties are coming along nicely as well.
But back to checking for a moment. Attard certainly plays with a bit of snarl, and who doesn’t love that? But he does it cleanly and effectively—like here we've got a good and clean body check that also does well to force a change in possession, in this case preventing a breakout and extending his team’s offensive zone time. The platonic ideal, if you will.
Keep it moving
If there’s one thing you'll learn pretty quickly in watching Attard for really any amount of time, it’s that he loves an end to end rush. It was a big hallmark of his game last season, and while we haven't seen quite as much of it so far this season, it’s still a skillset he has in the back pocket, and which he loves to break out when he has the space for it.
Between his size, his vision, and his strength on and elusiveness with the puck once he has possession, Attard can be a real force in transition, and he’s difficult to stop once he gets moving. There’s a composure to his play, even as he’s able to draw three Michigan defenders to him. He’s able to use that draw well, and with a quick cut back to create more space, he feeds the puck to his teammate that’s been left open, and suddenly their chances in the offensive zone are alive.
Attard’s skating is still a work in progress, but he’s put a lot of good work in to improve it, and it’s really flashing at times. He has a long stride, which is quite smooth once he’s able to get moving, and he’s able to pick up speed almost sneaky remarkably well. That’s Garrett Van Whye who he catches flat-footed and is able to create some separation from, and that’s pretty impressive, as Van Whye is, pound for pound, close to if not comfortably Michigan’s fastest skater. We’re not sure that we’d go as far as to call Attard positively a burner, and you won't see him winning absolutely every footrace that he gets into, but there’s still functional speed enough here to really impress.
It’s still not perfect, but his stride continues to improve in smaller areas. His crossovers are getting smoother and he’s maintained enough quickness to serve him well in protecting the puck against defenders.
All of that offense
But we’ve teased it enough, now let’s get into that offensive game of his. It’s a pretty robust skillset that he possesses, and that makes him a pretty near constant threat offensively.
Attard loves to play like something of a rover in the offensive zone, and his instincts are strong enough to make him dangerous in both setting up and finishing off scoring chances. We see him using some of that strength in transition in our first clip, surveying his own chances for a moment, and when a clean lane doesn’t open up, promptly skates behind the net for a quick pass out into the slot to set up a relatively open teammate, because he had drawn that defenders attention.
We see him flexing a good bit of skill when he activates in the offensive zone and goes looking for scoring chances, but he also does it without any cheat in his game. (Okay, maybe he's cheating a little bit, that’s a sneaky little trips, clipping the Colgate skater’s skate to knock him down and take him out of the play, that he gets away with in the second clip). But the point remains that we’re seeing a lot of hard working plays from Attard. It’s a bit rare to see a one and done chance for him in the offensive zone, he doesn’t give up on a play.
Like in our second clip, he follows the Colgate player behind the net as he goes to collect the puck, and Attard makes a hit to loosen the puck up, while boxing the player out long enough that he can't make a play to get it back. Then, once his teammate has possession, he jumps out to the net-front to receive the quick-up pass and gets a shot off. Then in the second clip we see him starting at the point then dipping lower in the zone, creating a bit of chaos in the cross-ice passing lane, which allows for the pass to make its way through for a teammate, then parks himself in front of the net to pick up the pass back and try for a deflection. But when it doesn't go for him, he’s right back after the puck. There’s no quit here.
But he can do damage from the outside too, that’s not to be overlooked. His one-timer is flat out lethal. With a quick release and enough power to beat goalies clean, defenders have to be aware of him whenever and wherever he is on the ice, because he can score from just about anywhere, and he doesn’t need much time to do it.
All of that offense (power play edition)
Attard does remarkably well at manufacturing offense at 5-on-5, but we also see him serving as a distinct and quite multifaceted threat on the power play, to boot.
But that roving in the offensive zone isn’t exclusive to 5-on-5, and we see Attard using his nose for the on the power play too. Here against Michigan we see him try for a tough angle shot from just above the goal line, but when it is blocked and doesn't work out, he collects his own rebound, circles to the other side and slides the puck out into the crease to set up his teammate for a chance right in front (a closer quarters version of the play we saw a few clips back).
But we see Attard playing kind of all over the place on the power play. He does get a bit of work in distributing from the point, as is the somewhat traditional role for defensemen on the power play, but more often we see him working from the left half-wall like a forward. From that he’s something of a dual threat, he can hit passing seams and distribute the puck well from that spot, but he can also break out that one timer, and that’s something he's found a lot of success in.
Indeed, when offense was a bit harder to come by for the Broncos last season, this was a tried and true play that they often defaulted back to—just feed pucks to Attard in the left circle and let him do the rest with the one-timer. And while the Broncos are getting more offense from more places this season, hey, if it ain’t broke, don't fix it.
One piece that stood out in our viewings from this season is that, despite all of the positives, we didn’t see as many flashy individual efforts on plays from Attard, as compared to last year. And really, that’s probably a good thing. Last season, we saw Attard stepping up and taking over games to drive offense for his team because he had to, there were stretches where the team was struggling to generate much in the way of offense, and much of what they were able to do had to run through him. Those on-ice numbers that we mentioned in the introduction paint that picture pretty clearly.
This year, though, he’s gotten some reinforcements, and their new coach has the team playing really sharp and cohesive hockey. Attard has more space to be a bit more deferential, getting the chance to share the puck a bit more. As we saw, he certainly hasn’t lost any of the elements of his game that pop so distinctly, and still has that game breaking ability to tap into when needed, but the upside of the team being more successful right out of the gate is that they simply don’t need those individual efforts as frequently.
Last season we saw Attard loudly dominating the NCAA level, with quite a bit of flash and bang, but this year we’re seeing a bit more subtlety. He’s continuing to work on the finer points of his game, and that’s going to go a long way to make his transition to the professional ranks all the more seamless once he gets there. We’re seeing his game continuing to round out, and that’s something to be excited about, he’s poised to be an impact player in the organization, so long as the team is able to lock him up, as he’s eligible to declare free agency this summer. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.