Suffice to say that Denny Lambert should know a good hockey player when he sees one.
Afterall, not only did the 44-year old Lambert play in more than 500 National Hockey League games as a journeyman left winger, he coached in the Ontario Hockey League with the Soo Greyhounds for eight seasons — five as a top assistant and three more as the headmaster.
Thus, when Lambert — who now coaches the Batchewana Attack of the Canadian International Hockey League in addition to working full-time as an emergency response officer at Essar Steel — says a certain player can play at a higher level, we should take his word for it.
The Attack, which sits atop the standings of the new, four-team CIHL, features a number of younger players with 1998 and 1997 birth dates.
One of the 1998s, big defenceman Adam Baggs, has already been drafted into the OHL as a 10th-round pick of the Niagara Ice Dogs in 2014.
Lambert is of the notion that not only does Baggs have what it takes to play in the OHL but that he would be a good prospect should he decide to pursue a Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association commitment.
Two other 16-year olds on the Attack who were born in 1998 are twin-brother forwards Darian Pilon and Drake Pilon.
Lambert had startling words to say when asked about the high-scoring, high-energy Pilon brothers.
“They could play in the OHL right now as 16-year olds,” Lambert said evenly. “They would be fourth-line, in-and-out-of-the-lineup guys but there is no doubt in my mind that they can play in the OHL right now — and a couple of years down the road as 18-or-19-year olds they would be top three-line players in the O.”
The Pilon brothers played at the AA midget level in Sault Ste. Marie last season and were not rated or selected at the 2014 OHL draft.
“I would like to know how the OHL scouts missed the Pilon boys,” added Lambert. “I guess the scouts don’t bother checking out kids who don’t play AAA.”
Lambert himself knows what it’s like to not be drafted. He was never drafted into the OHL but played three full seasons with the Greyhounds and he was never drafted into the NHL but played 500-plus games at hockey’s highest level.
Another member of the Attack who Lambert refers to as a “next-level player” is 1997 birth-year forward Jacob Palmerio.
Like the Pilons, Palmerio is on the smaller side though all three players are good, strong skaters with skill who are — in the words of Lambert — “hard to play against.”
Palmerio, according to Lambert, has the skill set and ability to play at the Division 1, NCAA level.
“I would like to see Jake have the opportunity to move up and play for a higher-level junior team like the Soo Eagles (of the North American Hockey League),” Lambert said of Palmerio. “This is a kid that the (Lake Superior State University) Lakers should be taking a very-close look at, in my opinion.
“Looking ahead, I hope to see someone from the Lakers coaching staff at our games,” said Lambert. “I really believe they would like what they see.”
As for the level of play in the first-year CIHL, Lambert opined that “it is a lot better now that some of the weaker teams have decided to leave and play on their own.
“You look at our games now, especially against Espanola and Kalkaska. The level of play has really improved. As a coach, it’s made me have to make more in-game adjustments and with better competition on a nightly basis, the players have had to elevate their game,” Lambert opined. “Our practices have become even-more intense than they were before.”
Interestingly, like Batchewana, Espanola and Kalkaska are also coached by long-time former NHL players.
Tommy McCarthy coaches the Rivermen and Krzysztof Oliwa is the Rhinos bench boss.
Between Lambert, McCarthy and Oliwa, the trio played in close to 1,500 NHL games.