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Beanpot Semifinal Observations: On Celebrini & Sharks Prospect Smith

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Credit: Boston College

BOSTON — Welcome to Part 2 of my coverage of the first week of the Beanpot!

The Beanpot is an annual men’s and women’s hockey tournament, contested by the four major NCAA programs in the Boston area, BU, BC, Northeastern, and Harvard.

In Part 1, I focused on the first semifinal game, a 3-2 Northeastern OT victory over Harvard, and shared my impressions of San Jose Sharks’ Northeastern prospects Cam Lund and Michael Fisher.

Beanpot Semifinal Observations: On Sharks Prospects Lund, Fisher

Now, let’s talk about the main event, top Sharks prospect Will Smith versus presumed 2024 first-overall pick Macklin Celebrini. Here’s what I saw!

Boston College vs. Boston University (BU wins 4-3)

The main event! This match had a bit of a different feel to it, starting later and featuring two of the best teams in the country. TD Garden was pretty much packed, which was fun to see for a college game. It was the Will Smith and Macklin Celebrini showdown we’ve all been waiting for…again. Who cares if the teams had just met twice before in the previous weeks. Let’s get to San Jose Sharks prospect Will Smith before we talk about possible future teammate Macklin Celebrini.

By the way, as the Sharks’ betting odds fall off the table, that means their odds of getting Celebrini improve. For our betting readers, the apps and mobile sites increasingly like the Sharks’ chances to get that top pick.

Will Smith

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

Will Smith, seen above laying a beautiful pass to Gabe Perreault for his only point of the night, works really, really, really well with Gabe Perreault. Emphasis on the really. They have been on the same line, same shifts, same power play units for years now, and it’s getting ever increasingly hard to discern who is the real play driver here. In fact (this is the elephant in the room bit), multiple people have asked me and many others the question: Who’s actually better? Who’s going to have the better NHL career?

I simply can’t move the elephant right now. He’s too damn heavy.

My brain and my San Jose Sharks fandom tells me Will Smith is better. In my opinion he displays tremendous vision and touch on his passes that I don’t think Perreault really demonstrates all that often. Smith is a wizard of a playmaker, constantly hitting tape-to-tape cross-ice, back-door, seam-passes with ease. I counted nine, yes nine passes this game either in transition or in the offensive zone that made me eyes go big for a second. Compared to Lund’s two in the previous game for me, the sheer volume of Smith’s superior playmaking was readily apparent. He without question is a better distance shooter than Perreault as well, even though he wasn’t much of a threat from range this game.

However. However. Perreault is legitimately good. I think the question at the beginning of this season was really if Perreault is riding the coattails of Smith, and he’s done a tremendous job at basically eliminating that question. He’s got his own brand of playmaking, centering around excellent instinctual hockey. He’s acutely aware at all times where he needs to move the puck to create a chance. He’s more adept at switching roles than Smith. Smith is very much content with hitting players (most often Perreault) with glorious passes and then watching them make plays. Perreault does that, but also can be the middle or the end of a play. His pace is excellent, even if he’s not always moving his feet. His skating is undoubtedly worse than Smith, but I’m not sure if it matters given Perreault’s excellent positioning offensively.

So is Perreault better than Smith? Is Smith better than Perreault?

You know, I still don’t know entirely. I think Smith has tools that Perreault doesn’t with better skating, passing and shooting ability. I think Perreault has a touch higher hockey IQ and adaptability. At this point both need some refinement before they take off in the NHL, but they certainly are on track to be excellent draft picks. People get hung up in the difference in where they were drafted (No. 4 overall vs. No. 23), but that shouldn’t influence the players in isolation. Smith shouldn’t be dragged down because Perreault is doing well and was drafted a half round later, and Perreault shouldn’t be vaulted above Smith because he was drafted later.

I haven’t talked about their linemate Ryan Leonard at all. That’s because I think Leonard is going to be just fine no matter where he goes as a hockey player. He’s so well-rounded that I think he fits like a glove into an NHL lineup regardless of who his linemates are. Perreault and Smith have the real chemistry on this line, but they do use Leonard for tons and tons of heavy lifting on the forecheck and defensively. He’s important, don’t get me wrong, I just think the ceilings are higher for Smith and Perreault.

Anyways, all of this is to say that Smith had a good game in a losing effort. He did his job. He created high-danger chances and kept the cycle alive on multiple occasions with some smart passes. He was more physical on the boards this game than I’ve consistently seen from him. I would like to see some more of that. He’s not huge for a center and he’s definitely going to need to up his physicality while in college before making the pros.

The next offensive refinement I’d like to see from him is actually more of his junior-style hockey. He’s turned into this playmaker in college that is looking for the home run hit, or trying to find Perreault so Perreault can make a play in tight. Smith’s junior-style would carry the puck a ton more and showcase his puck-handling and control. I don’t know if that’s really on display right now for Smith. I think he’s surviving more on his vision, which don’t get me wrong is probably the single best skill in isolation for any prospect in the Sharks system, rather than developing a strong puck-possession game. You need both in the NHL to be a playmaking center though.

Keep in mind although this was just one game from Will Smith, I’ve watched so much Smith this year that some of the above observations are kind of blending together. I’m still not entirely sure if he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL just quite yet, but he might just be ready by the end of the college season given how much he’s improved this season.

Macklin Celebrini

The kid is good. He went out, like a rockstar future first-overall pick, and lasered two goals in the first period on the biggest stage through one of the best college goalies this season.

Celebrini does so much at an NHL level already. Handling, puck-protection, skating, distance shooting, playmaking, coverage defensively. It’s all there and all grades out at a plus level. The crazy thing is, I think there are some inefficiencies in his game that once he rounds out, will make him even better.

His transition game wasn’t that precise. He tends to leave pucks for teammates in dangerous areas in the neutral zone, leading to a few unforced takeaways from the defense. He’s anticipating where he believes his teammate should be, and was sort of surprised when they weren’t there, but still gave the puck away anyways. I think he got pretty well shut down by a combination of Smith’s line and Gauthier’s line after his two big goals.

But. But. He’s 17 and in the NCAA. He’s absolutely killing it for this level, and warts are expected even throughout a game. There’s not a doubt in my mind that by the time October of 2024 rolls around, he’s going to be in an NHL lineup. Hopefully the San Jose Sharks lineup. They could absolutely use someone like him in their prospect pool.

That’s all for now!

I’ll make the Beanpot final next week with some Celebrini vs. Lund and Fisher coverage!

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