A year and a half ago, Bill La Forge and Matt O’Dette, the general manager and head coach of the Seattle Thunderbirds, didn’t see this coming for Kevin Korchinski.
They liked him, obviously. You have to when you take a kid with the No. 10 pick in the WHL’s Bantam Draft. They thought he’d likely be a first-rounder by the time the 2022 NHL Draft rolled around, even.
But he was a skinny, 5-foot-10 defenceman and there was some worry throughout the organization about his skating, which knocked at his knees.
Then two things happened, almost as if in sequence. He hit a big growth spurt, sprouting quickly from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2. And the pandemic hit.
By the time he’d gone from an awkward but ultra-talented 16-year-old who’d posted 10 assists and a minus-8 rating in 23 games in his COVID-19-shortened rookie season, to the 17-year-old who returned for his draft year and exploded for 84 points in a combined 92 regular season and playoff games, the growth spurt had done what it almost never does for other players who’ve gone through one. Instead of making his stride more awkward and ultimately worse, it had done the opposite.
“It (the growth spurt) actually improved his skating,” O’Dette said. “It straightened everything up and got everything in line again. And now he’s known for his skating. He’s an elite skater, there’s no question about it. It’s still mindboggling to me that he’s this good of a skater in a short amount of time. He has put on all this height in a short amount of time and the rate his skating has improved is kind of remarkable.”
At year’s end, Korchinski’s game had made such fast progress that he’d climbed from a “B” rating on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary players to watch list (indicating him as a second- or third-round candidate) to No. 20 among North American skaters on their midseason ranking and then all the way up to No. 7 on their final list.
— Canadian Hockey League (@CHLHockey) June 7, 2022
But according to O’Dette and La Forge, he’s just scratching the surface.
“I think the upside with this kid is unparalleled to the guys I’ve seen, for sure,” La Forge said.
When that 5-foot-10 Korchinski arrived at his first spring camp with the Thunderbirds, O’Dette felt he was “very raw and physically immature” and was struck right away by his squeaky voice.
Then he got him on the ice and his perception changed.
“You could just tell there was something about him and he was special. We see a lot of good players but something about him from a young age, he just had that hockey sense and vision with the puck that you don’t see very often. He was just kind of toying with the kids in his age group,” O’Dette said. “We’d be doing small ice games and he’d be making plays that were elite. We’d be doing one-on-one drills and he’d be taking the puck off of the forwards effortlessly without having to use his body at all. We hadn’t seen a guy like that since Shea Theodore.”
O’Dette tells a story about how, in one of those battle drills at that camp, the tiny hot shot Korchinski, fresh off posting 56 points in 36 games as a defenceman and captain with the Saskatoon Generals to earn that first-round selection by Thunderbirds, was lined up against the 6-foot-6 Luke Bateman when his new head coach had switched the order in the line to give him a more equal matchup.
But instead of sliding back into his newly-assigned place in the order, that squeaky voice rang out in protest.
“No! No! I want it, I want!”
“Well all right, go ahead then,” O’Dette told him.
After chipping the puck into the corner, Korchinski raced after it, cut into Bateman’s body, and won the battle, spinning away from the contact he initiated to make a play with ease.
“You’re trying to keep a straight face as a coach but inside you’re smiling ear to ear,” O’Dette said, recalling that moment. “To have that type of compete and attitude for an elite skill player, that was my first impression of him and it was certainly a strong one.”
La Forge had a similar experience when Korchinski returned to Seattle this season for his draft year. The player who’d left at 16 was nothing like the one who’d returned at 17. La Forge expected Korchisnki to run their top power-play unit and take a big step offensively on a talented team, and the rest of his staff had been big believers in him dating back to their scouting in his Bantam draft year, but he couldn’t believe the transformation in his look and his skating. When he’d left, it was “a little rough.” When he returned, his stride was fluid and his transitions looked effortless.
“In all honesty, during our training camp this year I said to a number of people ‘this guy is going to go way higher than anyone thinks right now’ just seeing the development he made over the summer and the ability to see the ice the way he does, skate, and the size,” La Forge said. “I mean, he’s just growing every day.”
Some of it, both La Forge and O’Dette chalked up to a bit of a developmental miracle for a June-birthday kid who is one of the younger players in the draft and played catch-up a little faster than his peers as a result. But some of it, they also quickly realized, was a kid who’d used the extended time off to his advantage.
When they’d show up to the rink, Korchinski would already be there, arriving daily at 7:30 a.m. to get his work in. When they’d leave, they’d have to push him out with them.
“You know what, a day off is probably better for you right now,” La Forge often found himself telling Korchinski.
“He came in here with a mindset that he’s not going to leave any stone unturned,” La Forge added. “He was on the ice extra, he was in the weight room extra, and he was doing everything he could to help himself down the road. The runway is only good if you use it and he actually put himself to work on it. He’s a great kid. He’s a lot of fun to be around. He’s very motivated but not in a me-first way. And it’s not a job for him, he loves it. He enjoys coming to the rink, he’s great with his teammates, and he has been a captain at lower levels for a reason.”
As the season progressed, the Thunderbirds, with a young team, found themselves turning into a bit of a surprise contender (or at least an earlier one than they maybe anticipated) in no small part due to Korchinski’s emergence.
O’Dette quickly found himself playing the 17-year-old 20-to-25 minutes per game when the team was fully healthy. Come playoffs, when the team’s blue line began to thin out (which included defenceman and team captain Tyrel Bauer getting suspended for two games in their WHL championship series loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings), that became 25-to-30 minutes.
On the ice, Korchinski developed from an all-offence player into a more polished two-way defender without sacrificing his production. After posting 65 points in 67 regular-season games (first among all under-18 WHL defencemen), he posted an additional 19 points in 25 playoff games.
“He only had 23 games of experience under his belt before this season. So, to have the season that he did and carry it through the playoffs, it’s, uh, it’s something. If you got to know him off the ice, he’s still a kid. So the ceiling is still very high,” O’Dette said. “He has come a long way in a short amount of time for sure.”
Now, as the NHL Draft looms and Korchinski prepares for his next chapter, La Forge believes the blueliner has all of the tools required to excel at the next level.
“His strengths are exactly what we’re seeing NHL defencemen have success with right now. He makes the best first pass. He sees things that most guys don’t see. Sometimes with risk there’s reward and he does take risks at times, but you can live with that when he’s hitting at the percentage he is,” La Forge said. “And I thought his defending came along very well this year. At the start of this year, at times it felt like we had four forwards on the ice. But in the playoffs and later in the season, he really took pride in defending and made significant improvements in that area. He uses his long stick very well for defending. So because he can turn so quickly, he always knocks pucks off guys’ sticks. His stick is so good defensively.”
Above and beyond his natural gifts, O’Dette grew fondest of how committed Korchinski was to get back to pucks and win battles, just like he’d been two years earlier with Bateman.
“The one thing about him is for an elite offensive defenceman, he’s got a level of fearlessness and durability that you don’t see at that age. With other offensive defencemen, sometimes they can be timid going back for pucks and things like that. He just does not have that. And it leads to him taking a lot of big hits but he’s got some grit and some toughness that kind of gets overlooked sometimes. He took some big hits against Edmonton and never missed a shift and just came back,” O’Dette said. “He puts himself in somewhat dangerous spots, and it doesn’t faze him. And we’ve seen it with the Shea Theodores and the Ty Smiths where there was some hesitation for top WHL D at a young age. And he doesn’t have that timidness. He wants the puck and he wants to go get it. That’s a nice trait for him to have at this age.”
Because of his summer birthday, both O’Dette and La Forge are excited about the kind of progress Korchinski still has ahead of him.
“I actually expect him to get even better as a skater, to get even quicker and more elusive. He’s going to get even taller probably too. He might be a 6-foot-4, 210-pound player when it’s all said and done (Korchinski is currently listed at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds). He’s just going to get stronger and faster. That part is exciting,” O’Dette said.
Added La Forge: “If you’d have told me 24 months ago that he’d go in the top half of the first round, I might have been a little surprised. But upon seeing him this year, I’m not surprised. So what might be next, right?”
Note: Korchinski wears No. 14 in all clips.
The potential and upside that La Forge and O’Dette rave about is clear as day in a review of Korchinski’s game.
There are the fundamentals that every good puck-moving defenceman has.
He’s got that first pass that they talked about and regularly executes both leading outlets like this one:
And, impressive stretch passes through the middle of the ice like this one:
He’s got the instincts and confidence that every good puck mover now possesses, too.
That displays itself in an extremely active game off the offensive-zone blue line — and, increasingly, in the right decisions on when to activate.
He’s eager to slide off the line and make something happen.
Watch how he recognized that Sam Oremba was circled to his side of the ice below the goal line here and slid off the line to relieve him of the pressure he was under from the Americans’ forward (great vision to find the backdoor guy as quickly as he did too, but I’ll get to that later):
He’s also eager to activate off the line into a planned move into a high-slot opportunity, and regularly takes passes on his forehand and cuts left into a pattern that he has perfected off the point.
Just like this:
Or this (great, balanced shot here too):
Above and beyond the things you expect out of most point-producing defencemen, though, he’s also got tools that distinguish great offensive defencemen from good ones.
That includes the uncanny vision that his head coach and general manager both highlighted.
It shows up in how quickly he identifies passing options. While some playmaking defenders take their time to pick apart opposing structures, and Korchinski can certainly hang onto the puck and make the long play too (I’ll get that), his ability to read and execute to available teammates in a split second is extremely high end.
Watch how fast he hit the cross-ice seam below. Most players, even on the power play, aren’t making that play that quickly and by the time they wait that extra second it’s usually gone.
Watch how fast he went high-to-low here (most players are catching this puck and looking to the net for a shot through or looking to switch sides again before they’re making the play he did):
Then, when those early, up-tempo plays into a dangerous area aren’t there, Korchinski also has the ability to slow the game down, seldom panic under pressure, and create with the puck on his stick using his feet.
Below is that no panic threshold at the offensive-zone blue line, where he turned back against the forechecker and contact:
Here’s more of what that looks like, only this time he walked past the pressure into a shot:
Same mentality and execution here. He evaded the high defender to use his feet to create into the middle:
When the aforementioned stretch passes/outlets aren’t there, he’s also perfectly comfortable transporting the puck, which made him a prolific transition player this year.
When you combine all of those things (the vision, the carrying ability, and the confident approach), you get sequences that are uncommon from 6-foot-2 defencemen and look like this:
Throughout this year, Korchinski also made important progress on his shot. It really began to pop more and he clearly developed more confidence in it as the season went along (after scoring four regular-season goals, he scored six times in the playoffs).
I’d like to see him look to use it even more next year. His 143 shots on goal this season (2.1 per game) were 23rd among WHL defencemen and though they began to fall more in the playoffs, his rates stayed the same (53 shots in 25 games, or 2.1 per game). He’s capable of being in the top 10 next year without sacrificing his unique passing game.
He’s got a solid slapshot that he does a good job keeping low. He can also shoot it while moving:
His wrister has developed some balance through his shooting motion and some strong leverage into decent power, now that he’s found his body:
His one-timer has become a bit of a weapon (though he could benefit from a lower grip in it):
On the back of all of that, it’s hard not to get excited.
(Top photo: Chris Tanouye / Getty Images)