When Canada added Riley Heidt to their U-18 World Championship roster ahead of the team’s third game against Slovakia, that meant a shake-up was coming.
The team started the tournament off with an awful 8-0 loss to Sweden, only to reverse the score against the Germans the following night. But Andrew Cristall had an underwhelming start, and found himself bouncing from the top line all the way to the 13th forward spot for the third game.
Cristall didn’t register a shot against Slovakia and was just fine against Czechia, recording an assist. But Cristall was back in the top six for the medal round, and it was like he was a whole other player – the one we became accustomed to in the WHL all season long. He scored twice against Switzerland and recorded assists in the semifinal and bronze games, saving his best hockey for when it mattered the most.
That dismal U-18 performance can be described in one word: underwhelming. Cristall had his moments, especially late. He still showed some dazzling offensive traits. But his poor skating was exposed against quality competition, and his play at the opposite ends looked a bit Jekyll and Hyde-esqe.
And, in a way, it was a two-week TL;DR into Cristall’s season, as a whole.
Cristall’s ability to take over was prevalent with Kelowna this year. After an impressive 69-point rookie season, he upped the game with 39 goals and 95 points with the Rockets during the regular season, good for sixth in the WHL and fourth behind fellow draft eligibles Connor Bedard, Zach Benson and Heidt. Cristall had two five-assist efforts this season, and neither were blowout wins – 8-6 over Prince George back in November and 5-4 over Vancouver in March. He had 13 three-plus point efforts this season, including in a handful of overtime losses. Just from a brief look, whenever the Rockets needed Cristall to stand up, he did.
When Cristall is on his game, he’s the best player on the ice, no matter the competition. His offensive game is as dynamic as a shooter and a set-up man. He puts his teammates in spots to score and always talks with them to get them on the right page. There’s a reason he had 56 assists this year: he knows where he wants the puck, and can slow the game down to a pace that lets him take over.
Cristall’s hands are as close to “elite” as you’ll get in this draft class, easily in the top five (side note: the term elite is overused). He’s willing to get creative under pressure and can deke himself out of a five-man Radko Gudas roadblock. His hand movement is so quick, which is why there was no shortage of Cristall highlights weekly this year.
“Bedard is the gold standard, and then there’s Cristall who isn’t too far down the list, from a skill perspective,” a scout said. “He’s so deceptive. His talent is top-five worthy.”
Cristall likes to model his offensive game around Mitch Marner, and it shows. His deceptiveness with the puck is on full display most nights, and he’s as creative as it comes with some of the passes he pulls off.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: absolutely everything else about Cristall’s game. Where do we start? The brutal skating? The non-existent defensive play? His lack of physicality?
Let’s start with the skating. He’s slow, period. To get a jump on players when starting in his own zone, he has to get a jump on them by a few strides. That can lead to being out of position and carrying over into his defensive play. He doesn’t have the leg strength to start and stop quickly, and it kills his ability to win puck battles. Cristall gets stuck along the perimeter way too often because he can’t blow by defenders to get in close. Some scouts consider him the worst skater in the draft class.
Defensively, he might as well not even be on the ice. He’ll put in the effort from time to time, mainly against tougher competition. But if it looked like Kelowna (or Canada) had the edge in a game, you’d catch Cristall just floating around. And part of that might be due to his lack of muscle: he rarely would go for a hit or try and push anyone along the boards. He’s 5-foot-10, but he looked more like 5-foot-6 out there occasionally.
The risk-reward scenario in drafting Cristall is incredible. Few can create offense in this draft class like Cristall. But away from the puck, too many factors push him far down in the first round – or beyond.
If his head, hands, and feet could all work together, Cristall would be as close to a perfect prospect as possible. But the negatives are way too deep-rooted to outweigh the positives in his game, which concerns some. It’ll take some AHL seasoning a few years down the line for Cristall to get the proper coaching needed to adjust those concerns, and that’s fine. No prospect, beyond maybe Bedard, is perfect. We’re talking about developing teenagers here.
Despite his flaws, a team willing to make a move on Cristall could be getting one of the most exhilarating, talented prospects in the entire draft. Simple as that. But the onus will move to the team’s development system to make the most out of him. There are just as many positive comments about Cristall’s overall makeup as there are negatives.
But if you’re an NHL GM, you have to go with your gut. Because there’s a very possible chance Cristall ends up making you look like a genius.
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