Wednesday, September 24, 2014

2014/2015 Season Preview - Award Predictions

Season kicks off today! My awards predictions conclude my 2014/2015 season preview. Oddly enough most of my picks are from the West.

Red Tilson Trophy (MVP) - Connor McDavid
I predicted McDavid to win this last year too, but it was Connor Brown who led the way for the Otters instead (although McDavid did finish 4th in OHL scoring). I'm going back to him this year too. Here's the way I see it. If the Otters are going to be a respectable team this year, McDavid is going to have to be a scoring machine, and the type of player who can elevate his unproven or inexperienced linemates to above and beyond what they would otherwise be capable of. He's going to miss some time at the WJC's, we all know that. But he nearly cracked the 100 point plateau last year despite that. A 120-130 point season (in around 55 games) is completely possible IMO. So who else could be in the running. I've got five other names I'm going to toss out (although I do truly believe there are tons of candidates this year). If Oshawa is (again) better than people believe they will be, Michael Dal Colle is an obvious choice. If Plymouth is as good as everyone thinks they will be, Alex Nedeljkovic could be a contender. Then Sam Bennett, Robby Fabbri, and Sergei Tolchinsky are all likely to lead their teams to top 3 finishes in the Conference.

OHL Goaltender of the Year - Alex Nedeljkovic
Only one goalie has ever won this award in back to back years and that's Mike Murphy (2008, 2009). Nedeljkovic is my choice to be the second. There's no doubt in my mind that Plymouth will be one of the top teams in the league this year. He won the award last year after posting great numbers, and that was with a vastly inferior team in front of him compared to this year's edition of the Whalers. In all honesty, my back up pick would be Barrie's Mackenzie Blackwood, making it two straight years that a draft eligible goaltender would have won the award. 3rd choice is probably Justin Nichols in Guelph, although you never know what to expect from Brent Moran and Brandon Halverson, considering how good I think their teams will be. A darkhorse candidate could be Brandon Hope in Owen Sound as an overager.

Max Kaminski Trophy (Top Defenseman) - Anthony DeAngelo
Tough choice for this award really. I'm certainly not a fan of DeAngelo's defensive game, but there's no denying his offensive talent. I think he has an honest chance of cracking 100 points this year and if he does that, he'll be a shoe in for the award, even if his defensive game doesn't round into form. I wanted to say Darnell Nurse, but I just don't think he's going to get enough games in between getting a brief look see with the Oilers and the WJC's. Next in line would be either Zac Leslie (assuming he returns) or Roland McKeown.

Emms Family Award (ROY) - Pavel Zacha
I'm definitely a believer in Zacha based on what I've seen from him already internationally, and what he accomplished this preseason. He's going to have some talented offensive players to work with in Sarnia and he should be able to put up a 70 point season. Truth is though, this should be an absolutely fantastic rookie crop this year. So many guys with the opportunity to play a large role for their club. Here are some other guys I think are serious contenders. Jakob Chychrun is an obvious choice in Sarnia, although I'm not sure he'll be able to put up the type of offensive numbers necessary to win. I think Jeremy Helvig probably ends up Kingston's starter and has a great year. Import Artur Tyanulin is an explosive offensive player despite his lack of size. Ditto for Erie's Alex Debrincat (who could be playing with McDavid). And '98's Victor Mete, Mike McLeod, and Brandon Saigeon will also be a big part of their team (amongst many others).

Leo Lalande Trophy (Overager of the Year) - Mathew Campagna
In Plymouth, Campagna is going to put up some huge numbers playing with some very talented (and bigger) wingers. I think he's a pretty safe bet to be the highest scoring overager and could even be a candidate to lead the league in scoring. I think Zac Leslie is probably the 2nd runner up, as I expect him to contend for defenseman of the year. I also think Brandon Hope is a possibility as I expect him to contend for goaltender of the year. Owen Sound's Holden Cook is one of the league's highest scoring returning overagers. Brady Vail could also be a contender if he returns to the OHL. I'm a big fan of Bryan Moore in the Soo too and I think he could hit the 75-80 point mark this year.

Matt Leyden Trophy (Coach of the Year) - Marty Williamson
As I mentioned in my Eastern Conference preview, I think the Dogs will take the Conference and as a result, Williamson will be named coach of the year. There's no question that he has one of the most well rounded squads in the league. If the Greyhounds can overthrow the Whalers, then Sheldon Keefe is going to get his share of the votes this year. I think two new coaches have a chance too. Don Elland, taking over for Vellucci in Plymouth. And Jeff Brown in Ottawa, if the 67's can surprise people and climb the East.

Eddie Powers Trophy (Scoring Leader) - Connor McDavid
As I said, I think this is McDavid's to lose this year. And even though he's going to miss time at the WJC's, I still see him sitting around the 120-130 point mark. I actually think Sergei Tolchinsky and McDavid will have a good battle for this though. I see him as the top combatant. After that, I already mentioned Mathew Campagna as an overager. Guelph's Robby Fabbri, Kingston's Sam Bennett, and Oshawa's Michael Dal Colle will all be up there too.

Goal Scoring Leader - Michael Dal Colle
Truly had a hard time deciding between Dal Colle and Fabbri for this one. Went with Dal Colle because I felt like he would be more of a focal point in the offense. I expect both to be 50 goal scorers this year though. Thought about Nick Baptiste here too, but I feel like the dire situation in Sudbury will hurt his stat line (at least until he's dealt). Nick Ritchie and Brendan Perlini could also very easily capture this too.

All Star Teams

1st Team All Stars
C - Connor McDavid
LW - Michael Dal Colle
RW - Sergei Tolchinsky
D - Anthony DeAngelo
D - Roland McKeown
G - Alex Nedeljkovic
Coach - Marty Williamson

2nd Team All Stars
C - Mathew Campagna
LW - Nick Ritchie
RW - Nick Baptise
D - Zac Leslie
D - Darnell Nurse
G - Mackenzie Blackwood
Coach - Sheldon Keefe

3rd Team All Stars
C - Robby Fabbri
LW - Brendan Perlini
RW - Spencer Watson
D - Blake Siebenaler
D - Travis Dermott
G - Justin Nichols
Coach - Don Elland

All Rookie Team
C - Pavel Zacha
LW - Luke Kirwan
RW - Alex Debrincat
D - Jakob Chychrun
D - Victor Mete
G - Jeremy Helvig

Would love to hear your predictions in the comments!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014/2015 Season Preview - Western Conference

The last time the Western Conference didn't have a team under the 50 point mark was 2010/2011 (Sarnia and SSM finished with 57 and 56 points at 9th and 10 place). In 2001/2002, nearly every team in the Western Conference had at least 60 points (the 10th place Battalion had only 59). I see this year's Western Conference battle shaking down quite similarly. Quite honestly, I could see any team I've got ranked 4 through 10, being one of the two who misses the playoffs. They're all quite close to each other, with all having strengths, but also potentially significant weaknesses. For that reason the Western Conference is not as strong as the East this year (even if they've got likely the two best teams in the league in Plymouth and Sault Ste. Marie).

The interesting thing (or what will jump out at you) is the fact that I've got the Spitfires and the Knights finishing out of the playoffs. That's certainly not a common occurrence and I'll try to explain why I think this happens below.

1. Plymouth Whalers (West Division Champs)
What a difference a year makes. Last year, the stellar Alex Nedeljkovic kept the Whalers in the playoffs, something the team would not have sniffed had he not stood on his head. This year, the team returns many of those same players. So why the change? It's more than just the acquisition of Mathew Campagna and Sonny Milano (although that certainly is a part of it). The Whalers now have a very experienced forward group, with many of their key players being 19 year olds. Guys like Matthew Mistele, Connor Chatham, and Victor Crus Rydberg will all be better this year after struggling with consistency issues last year. This is especially true because Campagna and Milano will be there. One of the main reasons that the Whalers struggled offensively last year was that they had no one to get their wingers the puck. Too many players with similar skill sets. Milano and Campagna are those playmakers. Of course Milano is out until late October with facial fractures, but that shouldn't affect things too much. And of course, the strength of this team will be preventing goals. Nedeljkovic needs no explanation, but the defence in front of him is big, mean, and mobile. In particular, I look for Alex Peters to have a fantastic year. The one wild card is how much the loss of Mike Vellucci affects this club, but I don't anticipate it being much of an issue.

2. Guelph Storm (Midwest Division Champs)
While this team won't be as good as last year's model, they'll still be pretty good, and in a weaker Midwest division, I think that will be enough to get them the division. Even though many veterans of the 2013/14 squad have moved on to the professional ranks (Rychel, Kosmachuk, McGinn, etc), the Storm had such remarkable depth last year that they've got more than enough players ready to flourish in expanded roles. One of those guys is Jason Dickinson, who along with Robby Fabbri, will be counted on to be the go to offensive guy. Based on what I saw from him last year, playing in more of grinding role, I think he's ready for that. And Pius Suter, who steps into the second line center role, is a vastly underrated player. Defensively, Zac Leslie returns and he'll be an anchor. And Ben Harpur and Phil Baltisberger are ready to be more than the third pairing guys that they were last year. In goal, you've got Nichols and Mancina, possibly the best tandem in the league (even if I expect Mancina to be dealt by the end of September). Bottom line, this team is still good enough to compete for the Conference title for another year behind several veteran workhorses leftover from the previous year.

3. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Second best team in the Conference. They could easily end up the best team instead of Plymouth. The key? Brandon Halverson. This team will have no trouble scoring goals. They will have little trouble defensively. But what can we expect from Halverson? I know the Hounds have a lot of faith in him, but the reality is that he's got 19 games of OHL experience thus far. How he responds to the starter's role remains a bit of a mystery. Of course, another mystery is what comes of Darnell Nurse. I'd be VERY surprised if he doesn't get some NHL games this year, but I do expect him to be back (which contributes to this ranking). He'll anchor a very big and physical defensive unit that closely resembles the group that Plymouth will be sending out this year. As I previously mentioned, the forward group of the Hounds is probably the best in the West. New addition Gabe Guertler looks like an OHL star in the making and his addition will help to ease Jared McCann back into the line up following his bout with mono. Guys like Bryan Moore, Michael Bunting, and David Miller all bring a balance of skill and tenacity and should be in for big seasons. And of course there's Sergei Tolchinsky, who IMO, is the second most likely candidate to lead the league in scoring this year behind Connor McDavid.

4. Owen Sound Attack
I see this year's Attack team closely resembling last year's North Bay team. Not a ton of difference makers, or elite level talents. BUT, they'll work you hard and win the majority of those one goal games, especially since they'll get good goaltending from Brandon Hope. Zach Nastasiuk returns as captain and I think he really puts his stamp on this team, leading by example while having a breakout offensive season. Owen Sound's two overage forwards are better than people give them credit for too (Holden Cook and Daniel Milne). Like Nastasiuk, they bring both a skill and grit element to the ice. See the pattern? Up and down this line up, you've got guys who will push your buttons to grind out victories. There's been some talk of Chris Bigras having a chance to making the Avalanche, but I don't see it happening. He anchors the defence, a defence that plays as hard as the forwards, but is considerably bigger. And as I mentioned, Brandon Hope is a great netminder. As an overeager, he's going to be motivated to try and earn a professional contract. I think they'll use Jack Flinn has trade bait to make the team better (or to get picks which can be used to make the team better). When you've got a team which buys into the team concept as much as Owen Sound is likely to, it usually bodes well (see every Stan Butler coached team in history).

5. Erie Otters
I see a lot of people picking the Otters to finish towards the bottom of the Conference, but I just don't see it. I've said it many times, but it's pretty uncommon to see a team struggle when they've got two fantastic centres and a solid goaltender. As you saw in the preseason this year, when you're as talented as Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome, you're going to make your wingers better (see Nick Betz and Alex Debrincat). There won't be much depth offensively, but there won't need to be for this team to creep up into the middle of the Conference. In particular, I'd be surprised if McDavid and Strome didn't play on the power play together, and that will be a VERY dangerous thing for the opposition. And since Erie knows it's McDavid's final year, I'd be surprised if they don't go out and add a forward or two over the course of the season (they'll have Import spots open). On top of an explosive top two lines, Devin Williams should be a rock in net, as he proved last year when stealing the starting gig away from Oscar Dansk. The big question mark remains a young defence. But, we're not talking about absolute scrubs here. Cole Mayo, Jesse Saban, and T.J. Fergus all have the potential to be quality OHL players. AND I still think Troy Donnay comes back at some point. And did I mention that Travis Dermott is a stud? Honestly, teams with this much top end talent don't miss the playoffs, even with some holes on their roster.

6. Saginaw Spirit
A young team that I have faith in. I think they end up being better than they look on paper. All that said, defence and goaltending are potential issues. Part of me is afraid of ranking them this high because they remind me of Belleville last year. If their young forwards don't progress, and their goaltending and defence struggles, it'll be a long year. For that reason, I could see the Spirit anywhere from 5 through 10. So why have them 6th? For one, I think their younger players are better than Belleville's were last year. Mitchell Stephens showed at the Ivan Hlinka and in the preseason that he's ready for a breakout season. Blake Clarke is just too talented to repeat last year's disaster. Tye Felhaber might be the most talented '98 in the league. The most important piece of the puzzle might actually be Jimmy Lodge and his ability to stay healthy. This brings us to the goaltending. It's Nikita Serebryakov's show and he's got to be better and more consistent than he's been in his OHL career thus far. He has tons of talent, as he's proven in stretches, but playing 50 or so games is a different story. But, since I've got them 6th, I obviously think he'll be good enough to help out a younger defence.

7. Sarnia Sting
As they probably proved this preseason, the Sting are likely to be a better team than people think they will be. Depth wise, they aren't a top team. But they've got great high end talent at forward and on defence. Pavel Zacha looks like the real deal at forward after a tremendous preseason performance. He's going to make whoever he plays with a lot better. I think Nikita Korostelev is in for a big year too. And this without factoring in Nikolai Goldobin (who is said to be either on the trade block or likely to get an audition with San Jose). Defensively, Anthony DeAngelo is a near shoe in to lead the league in defensive scoring. The question is, how will his defensive game grow in his 4th and final OHL year? Jakob Chychrun will go through his growing pains, but he's too talented to not be a difference maker on many nights. Throw in some underrated guys like Chapman, Spinozzi, and Schllichting and the Sting could actually have a half a decent blue line. In goal, overeager Taylor Dupuis won't be remarkable, but he'll get the job done, at least to the extent that's required to get the Sting into the playoffs.

8. Kitchener Rangers
On paper, this team should probably be better than I have them ranked. It's more than just a feeling or a hunch though. I truly worry about the team's goaltending. I don't think Jordan DeKort or Matthew Greenfield are starting netminders in this league. And with how close the battle will be for the playoffs, that could really hurt their ability to put up 'W's consistently. This is especially true because I don't think  that the Rangers defence is tremendous. Max Iafrate is the workhorse, but that was the case last year when the Rangers finished out of the playoffs. While it's likely a few of their younger defenseman take steps forward, it's also highly unlikely that all of them do and that still would leave Kitchener with some gaps on the back end. Now, I've still got the Rangers in the playoffs and there's a reason for that; their offence should be fairly solid. Kitchener will roll out three strong scoring lines. But, this hedges on guys like Ryan MacInnis, Justin Bailey, Brandon Robinson, Brent Pedersen, being significantly better than last year. This is no sure bet. I do think they'll struggle with consistency, but will be good enough to win games.

9. Windsor Spitfires
I do expect to take some heat from the passionate fan bases of Windsor and London for the next two predictions, but the reality is...someone has to finish out of the playoffs. I absolutely love the make up of this young Windsor team moving forward. They've rebuilt and done it the right way. Kids like Luke Kirwan, Logan Brown, Logan Stanley, Ryan Moore, Andrew Burns (etc) are extremely talented. This Windsor team will definitely be able to score goals. I expect Josh Ho-Sang to have a big year offensively as he looks to prove the naysayers wrong. And there's definitely scoring depth. However, I think this team will really struggle defensively. Trevor Murphy and Patrick Sanvido probably enter the season as the team's top pairing. Again, there's talent on the blueline, but the West has some teams with serious offensive firepower (especially in their division) and I don't know if they'll be able to keep up consistently. And Alex Fotinos is a decent goaltender, but I don't think he's the type of top flight starter that can steal them games the way others in the conference can. As I did say at the beginning of this article, I think any team near the bottom could easily be up near the top. If Windsor's defenders get better and better as the season goes on, then they'll be able to really compete with the strength of their offense. They could easily be up near 5 or 6 if everything goes perfectly.

10. London Knights
And that brings us to the London Knights. This was a tough prediction. They've got three top flight talents who are possibly going to be NHL'ers (Max Domi, Bo Horvat, and Nikita Zadorov). If they all come back, there's no question that this London team will be better. At this point, I'm not expecting that though. And I also think that if one of these guys come back (especially Zadorov), I could see them being dealt. London has spent the last few years in true contender mode and because of that, the young talent on the roster doesn't have the experience of some of the other teams in the league. They need to spend this year recouping some draft picks and acquiring young talent (Victor Mete was a great start). It's a perfect year to rebuild because they must know that their defense and goaltending won't be good enough to compete for home ice in the first round. That said, I've heard great things about Tyler Parsons and his future potential in the league. In 2015/2016, this team could be really good again if they do things properly this year and retool. Again though, like Windsor, this team could easily be much higher and much better than I'm predicting. Even without Domi and Horvat, this team has some weapons up front (Marner, Rupert, Welychka, McCarron). And if Victor Mete proves ready for the second pairing already, the defense could be better than we think. The goaltending will still be a sore spot, but that won't prevent them from finishing in the 5-6 range if everything else falls into place. What a tough year to predict the OHL standings.

Monday, September 22, 2014

2014/2015 Season Preview - Eastern Conference

The 2014/2015 OHL season starts up next week and that means it's prediction time. As always, predicting the OHL can be a bit of a crapshoot. NHL teams may choose to keep certain players on their roster and that can negatively impact an OHL team. Would I have the Fronts and Generals as high as I do if Sam Bennett and Michael Dal Colle crack the NHL? Definitely not. But I'm operating under assumptions with these rankings. Assumptions that certain players will return. Assumptions that certain players will take massive steps forward in their development. And even, assumptions that certain players could be, and will be traded.

I honestly believe that the Eastern Conference is better than the West this year. It's completely wide open with many of the teams in the Conference having a chance to finish first. It will be a real dog fight for the playoffs this year and realistically, one pretty decent team is going to just miss. Many of the East teams are much improved, including Niagara, Belleville, Ottawa, and Mississauga. And the teams that got worse, didn't do so by a whole lot. As someone who sees a lot of action in Mississauga and Niagara, I'm excited to see it all shake down.

1. Niagara IceDogs (Central Division Champs)
By far the strength of this Niagara team is on the defensive side of things. They've got the deepest defensive unit in the league and perhaps the most talented. They return their top two pairings last year (Mercer/Haydon & Dunn/Siebenaler), all of whom will be a year stronger and more confident. In particular, I look for the Dunn and Siebenaler pairing to really blossom and become one of the league's premier two-way pairings. Then you throw a recent 4th rounder in Ryan Mantha into the mix with one of Alex Mikulovich or Zach Wilkie, and you've got the makings of a pretty solid team. While we don't really know what we'll get from Brent Moran in net, this defensive unit should play well enough in front of him to limit scoring chances and elevate his confidence. On the offensive side of things, they're a much deeper team than last year. The acquisition of Cody Payne helps a lot, when combined with the improvements that guys like Graham Knott, Jordan Maletta, Hayden McCool, and others are sure to make. And don't forget, they're returning one of the league's top lines from last year in Perlini/Verhaeghe/DiFruscia. Even with Brendan Perlini missing time with a broken hand, a guy like Knott or Payne should be able to step on to that first line and produce for the first 6-8 weeks. While the East is certainly wide open, I think Niagara is the most well balanced team in the conference and I like the mix of veteran leadership and improving youth on the roster. Perfect timing for a strong year with their new arena (the Meridian Center) opening in October.

2. Peterborough Petes (East Division Champs)
Let me preface this by saying that I fully expect the Petes to acquire a starting netminder by the start of the OHL season (someone like Matthew Mancina or Jack Flinn). This team is too good in every other area, and has too many veteran players to waste the opportunity to capture the division crown. They've got a great group of overagers (that probably sees Brandon Devlin as the man out) which really helps in this league. Michael Clarke and Josh MacDonald will provide secondary scoring and help this team to rolling out three very competent offensive lines. I like the Nick Ritchie and Hunter Garlent to continue to explore their chemistry together and they should both have monster seasons that have them up near the top of league scoring. Defensively, the acquisition of Dominik Masin was huge and I think he'll really solidify things on the backend. I also expect Matt Spencer to have a great year and establish himself as a NHL first round talent. While they won't be the best at creating offense from the back end, they should at least work hard to keep the puck out. And I should add that I have a lot of confidence in Jody Hull as a coach to get the most out of this squad.

3. Kingston Frontenacs
Kingston comes into the season as the top ranked club in the OHL, according to the preseason CHL top 10. Can't say I agree with that. Sure the Fronts have probably the most explosive offensive unit in the league, but they also have a ton of question marks surrounding the team. Firstly, will Sam Bennett return? I'd be surprised if he didn't, but stranger things have happened. Secondly, how will their goaltending be? It'll either be the relatively unproven Lucas Peressini, or the rookie Jeremy Helvig in net. Pretty hard to say how they'll react to being the starter. Thirdly, how will their defense shape up? Roland McKeown and Warren Steele are the only players returning who played an important role for the team last year. Having a relatively rebuilt defense, combined with unproven goaltending can be a very risky move in this league. All that said, I expect the Fronts to be a pretty strong team. I think Bennett returns and really leads this team. I also expect Ryan Kujawinski to finally stay healthy and be the leader of the second offensive unit. I also expect the goaltending to be decent as I have faith that Jeremy Helvig will be good and eventually emerge as the starter. And I think the defense will be as good as it has to be, considering that the Fronts hope to play an up tempo style that keeps the puck in the opposing end for the majority of the time. They should get home ice in the first round, but I don't agree with them being the best team in the OHL right now.

4. Barrie Colts
No Aaron Ekblad, no problem. I still think this Barrie team is going to have a good year. It all starts in net where Mackenzie Blackwood is going to emerge as a star in this league. He was already great last year and will be motivated to try and be the top netminder selected in the 2015 Draft, something he has a chance of being. His size and composure in the net are true assets. Offensively, this team will be better than some are giving them credit for. Veteran overagers Garrett Hooey and Joseph Blandisi are the types of hard working players who often explode offensively in their final years in the league. When you mix in gritty, yet skilled guys like Brendan Lemieux, Andrew Mangiapane, and Kevin Lebanc, you've got a recipe for success. Also look for rookie Roy Radke to have a big year (think Mark Scheifele), as he's been dynamite in the preseason. Defensively, the acqusition of Rasmus Andersson will help to replace Ekblad. He's a potential first round talent for 2015 and should step right on to the team's top pairing. Guys like Michael Webster, CJ Garcia, and Josh Carrick will really have to step up after playing more minor roles previously. I really like the make up of this team and I think that they could surprise people.

5. North Bay Battalion
As is the case with any Stan Butler team, defense is the strength of this year's Battalion squad. They return 3 of their top 4 in McIvor, Miller, and Wood, and they've got enough talented youngsters to fill in the gaps (Bruce, Locke), in addition to a hungry Miles Liberati. The team also has a forward group that's committed and talented on the backcheck. Team defense is the name of the game and they play it well. Coming off a strong season, Jake Smith returns with a lot of confidence and an equally talented defensive unit in front of him. No reason to believe that he won't have as good of a season. The real question mark for this team, as is usually the case, is on the offensive side of things. Mike Amadio and Brett McKenzie had good preseasons and look poised to be more consistent this year. But the real key will be the development of Nick Paul. He was such a monster in the playoffs alongside Goodrow and Thomson, but he won't have them this year. It will be all him and the team is going to need him to be their dynamic offensive leader. And I do think that will be the case. I think he'll have a big year, and really establish himself as the key piece of the Jason Spezza deal. In the end though, a lack of secondary scoring will prevent this team from being as effective as they were last year.

6. Belleville Bulls
I definitely did not expect the Bulls to be as bad as they were last year. Bottom line is that they were a younger team whose younger players did not take the necessary steps forward in their development. They just weren't ready yet. This year, those same players are another year older and hopefully have learned from the mistakes they made last year. That's definitely true of the forward group. Remi Elie was THE team on offense last year, but he's going to need some help this year in order for the Bulls to earn wins. I think some of the new players they've brought into the fold (Gustavsen, Saigeon, Luff) will really help to push the likes of Petti, Tomasek, and Cramarossa to be better. And I'm a big fan of new captain Jake Marchment. In goal, Charlie Graham is a better netminder than he showed last year. Consistently exposed to high end scoring chances, Graham should get more help in front of him this year. That said, he still needs to be better too...and I think he will be. On defense, I'm interested to see how a full year (if it lasts) of Stephen Harper on defense looks. Paired with Jordan Subban, the two could be a real force on the back end. I also look for Justin Lemcke to be a big time player for the club and solidify the second pairing (he was the club's most consistent defender last year as a rookie IMO). Like the majority of the teams I've got listed towards the bottom of the conference, the Bulls do have some holes, but I don't see them disappointing two years straight.

7. Oshawa Generals
Yup...I'm the guy who picked the Generals to finish 9th in the Conference last year. I thought Scott Laughton would be in the NHL, and I didn't have enough faith in their younger players doing things on their own. Boy was I wrong. This year, I'm not picking them 9th, but I'm also not putting them as high as I've seen others in their preseason predictions (division champs). Offensively, this team should be fine. Michael Dal Colle proved at the beginning of last year that he's capable of leading this team and they've got enough quality role players to roll out several hard working lines capable of putting the puck in the net. The only concern I might have is Cole Cassels and his mono. That can really wreck havoc on a junior player's season and he might not be at his most effective until midseason. The concern I have with this club is with keeping pucks out of the net. Ken Appleby is a veteran of the league but he's never been a starter before. And while the Generals defense does have some undervalued players (like Will Petschenig for example), they lack a true leader. Mitchell Vande Sompel is a solid prospect but I don't think he's ready to be his team's number one defenseman. The Generals will win some games and they'll play the game the right way (hard), but I don't think they've got enough difference makes in their line up to be a consistent force.

8. Ottawa 67's
Honestly, I've got a feeling about this year's 67's team, that they'll be better than I'm predicting them to be. I could actually see them up as high as 4th or 5th. BUT, a lot of things will need to happen in order for the 67's to find that kind of success and I'm just not sure they're at that level yet. However, I did feel it necessary to at least state that I think this team scares me the most about making me look bad about my predictions (ala Oshawa last year). At forward, I love the make up of this team and I'm going to try and get out to see them several times this year. They're incredibly well balanced up front. Smaller skilled players (Konecny, Salituro, Tyanulin), combined with big wingers to do the dirty work (Bell, Hill, Todd, Addison, etc). And all of their forwards play hard, with vigor. They'll be a difficult team to match up against because of their speed and forechecking ability. It's the defensive side of things where it gets murky. Ottawa was not good defensively last year. No question about it. Those same players are back this year and they're being asked to take major steps forward. Will Jacob Middleton and Alex Lintuniemi be the defensive leaders they're capable of being? Will Troy Henley emerge as the top talent he was touted to be? Will Zack Pittman fit right in? So many questions, and the reality is that not all of them are likely to be answered in a positive way. When you combine that with the fact that Ottawa will be going with an unproven starter (either Herbst or Lazarev), it screams potential disaster (Trudeau was a saving grace last year for Ottawa). All that said, if everything goes right for this team and everyone takes the steps forward that they should, this team could be very scary. Definitely a boom or bust type year depending on how the defense develops.

9. Mississauga Steelheads
I really do think that this year's Steelheads team is better than last year's. That's why it's tough for me to have them ranked where I do. But the East, in general, is much better and I just don't think they're quite at that level where they'll be able to compete consistently enough with the big guns. I love the young talent that they've assembled. With a core of Sean Day, Mike McLeod, Jesse Barwell, Austin Gerhart, Jared Walsh, Stefan Leblanc, etc, this team will be able to compete for the top of the Conference as early as 2015/2016. But they're still exceptionally young at forward, which often results in a poor standing in this league. If your forward group isn't lead by a strong group of overagers and 19 year olds, you'll usually struggle with consistency and look overmatched (think Niagara and Belleville last year). Defensively, while this team is talented, is also young. At this point, it's not fair to ask Sean Day to be a number one defenseman (even if it's something we asked Aaron Ekblad to do at the same age). The real saving grace for this club will be Spencer Martin. He wasn't good last year, and he'll need to be this year. As I said, this club will go through slumps. One game they're going to look great and the next they'll be bad. And in order for the Steelheads to win, they're going to need Martin to be at his best when the rest of the team is not. Likely playing in his last OHL season, he finally needs to live up to the hype that's surrounded him thus far. I do think he'll be better.

10. Sudbury Wolves
The trading of Mathew Campagna was only the beginning this year IMO. The Wolves are clearly the worst team in the Eastern Conference, and probably the entire OHL this year. But they've got a couple of terrific talents which will really garner attention on the open market (Baptiste, Pancel). If the Wolves are smart, they'll pick up some assets for them and try to start over. Offensively, this team just doesn't have elite talent down the middle and that's a huge driving force for success in the OHL. If you've got good wingers, but no one to get them the puck, what's the point? Defensively, the often injured Jeff Corbett leads the way, but even he is likely to be a trade chip. Kyle Capobianco has looked good this preseason, but he's not ready to shoulder the load yet. And in net, Troy Timpano (not yet ready), and Samuel Tanguay (and undrafted FA acquisition) will shoulder the load. Needless to say, things could get very messy in Sudbury this year, especially with the quality of talent being so high in the Eastern Conference.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Top 10 - Performers of the 2014 Preseason

The 2014 preseason is over and the regular season is just around the corner. It's time to take a look at some of the top performances of this year's exhibition action.

As always, this list is populated by players without NHL affiliations (first or second year players, and undrafted veterans), because they get into more games.

Here were the preseason standings:

EASTERN CONFERENCE
1. Ottawa 67's - 3-0 - 1.00%
2. Peterborough Petes - 4-1-1 - .750%
3. Barrie Colts - 4-2-1 - .643%
4. Niagara IceDogs - 2-1-1 - .625%
5. Oshawa Generals - 3-3 - .500%
6. Kingston Frontenacs - 1-1-1 - .500%
7. Sudbury Wolves - 3-4 - .429%
8. Mississauga Steelheads - 2-3-1 - .417%
9. North Bay Battalion - 2-3-1 - .417%
10. Belleville Bulls - 1-2-1 - .375%

WESTERN CONFERENCE
1. Guelph Storm - 4-0-1 - .900%
2. Saginaw Spirit - 3-0-2 - .800%
3. Sarnia Sting - 4-1 - .800%
4. Erie Otters - 3-1-2 - .667%
5. Kitchener Rangers - 2-1-1 - .625%
6. Windsor Spitfires - 2-2-1 - .500%
7. London Knights - 2-2 - .500%
8. Owen Sound Attack - 2-2 - .500%
9. Plymouth Whalers - 2-3 - .400%
10. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds - 1-3 - .250%

Here's the list (with several honorable mentions). As I always warn, these preseason statistics are very unofficial. They were accumulated by spending a significant amount of time combing game reports and twitter accounts.

10. Nick Betz - Erie Otters
This whole offseason, one of the many questions surrounding the Erie Otters has been "who is going to play wing alongside Connor McDavid?" Well, Nick Betz proved that he's capable of keeping up with the talented center, potting 6 goals (and adding a couple of assists) this preseason. Betz is an absolutely behemoth winger whose forechecking prowess and physical abilities should help to create more room for either McDavid or Strome on one of the scoring lines this year.

9. Pius Suter - Guelph Storm
Pius is going to have to fill a much larger role this year after being primarily a 4th line center and penalty kill expert on last year's deep Guelph team. His play this exhibition season certainly eased the minds of the Guelph coaching staff as he was consistently one of Guelph's top players, potting 3 goals and adding at least 2 assists. His speed and tenacity fit right in with Scott Walker's uptempo system.

8. Adam Timleck - Peterborough Petes
An undersized 4th rounder from the OHL Cup finalist Toronto Jr. Canadiens, Timleck would have likely been a long shot to make the Petes if not for a tremendous preseason. He had already signed on to play for the Oakville Blades (OJHL), but seems to have cemented his place on Peterborough's 4th line for now. Adding 3 goals and 3 assists, Timleck was consistently dangerous as an offensive sparkplug, channeling the likes of fellow teammate Hunter Garlent.

7. Kris Bennett - Saginaw Spirit
Like Timleck, Saginaw's Kris Bennett is another rookie who has been absolutely dynamite this preseason. However, the difference is that Bennett is playing in his 3rd camp for Saginaw. The former 3rd rounder finally appears ready to take on a significant role for the Spirit, coming off a very good season with Oakville (OJHL). Bennett brought speed, energy, and physicality to whatever line he was on, and contributed 2 goals and 4 assists, helping Saginaw remain perfect during the exhibition season.

6. Alex Debrincat - Erie Otters
We mentioned Nick Betz's strong preseason, but he wasn't the only potential "McDavid wing candidate" to play with conviction this exhibition season. Let me introduce you to the little engine that could, Alex Debrincat. The diminutive rookie was an offensive dynamo, putting up 7 goals and adding at least 2 assists. His speed and confidence with the puck, makes him an obvious candidate to play with McDavid, which also means he's a candidate to put up some serious offensive numbers this year (which is what some Erie fans wrote to me about after I didn't include Debrincat in an offseason article looking at the top U.S. transfers).

5. Pavel Zacha - Sarnia Sting
The top pick in this year's Import Draft came 100% completely as advertised this preseason, sparking Sarnia to 4 preseason victories. While he did not tickle the twine, he did make every player he played with better and was consistently the best player on the ice, earning 5 assists. The potential top 10 pick in 2015 looks to be well on his way to cementing his status as an NHL lottery selection.

4. Gabe Guertler - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
One of this season's prized offseason acquisitions, Guertler was phenomenal in the preseason with 4 goals and 2 assists. The transfer from the University of Minnesota closely resembles some of the Soo's former top scorers in Nick Cousins and Dan Catenacci, in that he plays bigger than his size and pushes the pace of play. He's going to be a huge part of their offense this season, especially at the beginning of the year while Jared McCann recovers from mono.

3. Garrett Hooey - Barrie Colts
Garrett Hooey is exactly the type of overage player you want in your line-up. Over the course of the last three seasons, he's played 67, 68, and 68 games. Talk about a workhorse. He's developed into a very complete player, and this year he seems poised to have an offensive breakout. With 5 goals this preseason, Hooey paced the Colts to 4 victories and they will need him to continue to be an offensive leader. I'd be very surprised if he doesn't surpass his previous career high of 25 goals this season.

2. Mitchell Stephens - Saginaw Spirit
Fresh off his breakout performance at the Ivan Hlinka, Stephens carried over his strong play to the OHL preseason where he netted 5 goals. Saginaw is going to need their former first rounder to be their offensive leader this year, and the speedy center seems poised for a very big year in his draft season. At this point, he seems like candidate to move very quickly up draft lists.

1. Connor McDavid - Erie Otters
Second year in a row that McDavid finishes first on this list (here's last year's). Last year he led the OHL in preseason scoring with 2 goals and 9 assists. This year it was 5 goals and 7 assists (in only a few games). Even without a ton of offensive support, McDavid is going to put up some serious offensive numbers this year...his last in the OHL.

Honorable Mentions 

Anthony DeAngelo - Sarnia Sting
Played in only two games (I believe) and ended up with 2 goals and 5 assists, before heading off to Tampa Bay's rookie camp. I'd say that's pretty indicative of the type of season DeAngelo could have this year (think Ryan Ellis in 2011).

Kyle Capobianco - Sudbury Wolves
The draft eligible defender and former 7th overall pick went all of last year without scoring a goal from the blueline. Doubt that happens this year as he looks way more confident distributing the puck and running the powerplay. His 1 goal and 5 assists were probably worthy of putting him in the top 10.

Matt Luff - Belleville Bulls
A former 7th rounder and '97 rookie, Luff was probably Belleville's best player this preseason, notching 4 goals. The Oakville native looks to be a legit OHL player and a diamond in the rough for the Bulls.

Mike Amadio - North Bay Battalion
Amadio, the LA Kings 3rd rounder, had a great preseason, notching 4 goals and adding at least one assist. North Bay needs him to be way more consistent this year, providing depth behind Nick Paul as the team's 2nd line center.

Matt Mistele - Plymouth Whalers
Got off to a blazing start this preseason, then eventually took off for Kings camp. Mistele ended up with 4 goals and 2 assists and should be poised to rectify last year's disappointing season as he likely suits up alongside playmaking machine Mathew Campagna.

Tobias Lindberg - Oshawa Generals
The Ottawa Senators draft pick and import selection came as advertised this preseason, notching 4 goals. The big winger is going to be counted on to continue that production in support of Michael Dal Colle.

Lucas Venuto - Mississauga Steelheads
Not too often you find an overager with under a season's worth of experience in the OHL, but that's what you'll get in Venuto who has bounced around between the QMJHL, the OJHL, and Mississauga the last couple of seasons. He was probably a long shot to make the Mississauga roster this year, but with an inspired 3 goal, 3 assist performance in the preseason, he's locked up his place in the lineup and should be a key contributor for the Steelheads.

Blake Siebenaler - Niagara IceDogs
Have very high expectations for Siebenaler this year and he was fantastic in the couple of games he played in before heading off to NHL camp. He notched 3 goals in those couple of games. This is obviously very impressive considering his shot and aggressiveness offensively was one of the things holding him back from contributing more last year.

Jacob Harris - Sudbury Wolves
The former high pick of the Wolves, Harris finally appears ready to establish himself as a scoring line player in the OHL. With 4 goals and 3 assists, he lead the Wolves in preseason scoring.

Other Top Performers (organized by team)

Barrie
Matthew Kreis - 3G, 1A
Joseph Blandisi - 3G
Roy Radke - 2G

Belleville
Brett Gustavsen - 1G, 3A
Brandon Saigeon - 2G

Erie
Dylan Strome - 4G
Joel Wigle - 3G, 1A

Guelph
Justin Auger - 3G
Stephen Pierog - 2G, 3A
Phil Baltisberger - 3A

Kingston
Ryan Kujawinski - 2G, 2A
Lawson Crouse - 1G, 3A

Kitchener
Nick Magyar - 3A
Dmitri Sergeev - 2G

London
Owen McDonald - 4G
Brett Welychka - 2G

Mississauga
Josh Burnside - 2G, 2A
Bryson Cianfrone - 2G, 4A

Niagara
Johnny Corneil - 3G
Graham Knott - 4A

North Bay
Brett McKenzie - 2G, 3A
Zach Poirier - 1G, 2A

Oshawa
Cliff Pu - 1G, 3A
Chris Carlisle - 1G, 4A
Bradley Latour - 2G, 2A

Ottawa
Travis Konecny - 2G, 2A
Sam Studnicka - 2G, 1A
Artur Tyanulin - 2G (plus a few goals in the shootout)

Owen Sound
Thomas Schemitsch - 1G, 2A
Keenan Reynolds - 2G

Peterborough
Hunter Garlent - 3G, 3A
Michael Clarke - 2G, 3A
Anthony Stefano - 3G
Brandon Devlin - 1G, 3A

Plymouth
Alex Peters - 4A
Bryce Yetman - 3G

Saginaw
Artem Artemov - 3G
Marcus Crawford - 1G, 2A

Sarnia
Davis Brown - 4G, 1A
Jakob Chychrun - 4A
Alex Renaud - 3G, 1A
Nikita Korostelev - 2G, 3A
Ryan Vendramin - 3G

Sault Ste. Marie
David Miller - 1G, 3A
Blake Speers - 2G, 2A

Sudbury
Ivan Kashtanov - 3G
Nathan Pancel - 2G, 3A

Windsor
Logan Brown - 2G, 2A
Cristiano DiGiacinto - 1G, 3A
Trevor Murphy - 2G, 1A

Saturday, September 13, 2014

List of NHL Free Agent Invites for 2014

It's that time of year where many of the OHL's best are off attending NHL rookie and (eventually) main camps. Most players going are common sense because they're attending the camp of the team that drafted them. However, a large amount of players have received free agent invites to camps. Therefore, here's a list of those players, broken down by OHL team. I've also included graduated OA's from last last year, because I figured fans might want to know what they're up to.

Barrie Colts
Andrew Mangiapane - Arizona
Joseph Blandisi - Buffalo
Zach Hall - Toronto
Cordell James - Vancouver

Belleville Bulls
Stephen Harper - Los Angeles

Erie Otters
Darren Raddysh - Los Angeles
Devin Williams - Nashville

Guelph Storm
Matthew Mancina - Calgary
Chadd Bauman - Chicago
Ryan Horvat - Los Angeles
Steven Trojanovic - San Jose

Kingston Frontenacs
Lucas Peressini - Detroit
Connor McGlynn - Los Angeles

Kitchener Rangers
Max Iafrate - Colorado
Darby Llewellyn - Detroit
Brandon Robinson - Detroit
Paxton Leroux - New York Rangers
Dmitri Sergeev - St. Louis

London Knights
Dakota Mermis - Arizona
Brett Welychka - Chicago
Matt Rupert - Toronto
Zach Bell - Winnipeg

Mississauga Steelheads
Jared Walsh - Buffalo
Stefan Leblanc - Ottawa

Niagara IceDogs
Cody Caron - Chicago
Cody Payne - Florida
Anthony DiFruscia - San Jose
Luke Mercer - St. Louis

North Bay Battalion
Marcus McIvor - Columbus
Zach Bratina - Toronto

Oshawa Generals
Jacob Busch - Arizona
Collin Suellentrop - Arizona
Ken Appleby - Chicago
Alex Lepkowski - Ottawa

Ottawa 67's
Brendan Bell - Calgary
Ryan Van Stralen - Chicago
Tyler Hill - Montreal
Connor Graham - New York Islanders
Phillipe Trudeau - New York Islanders

Owen Sound Attack
Kyle Hope - Columbus
Holden Cook - Los Angeles

Peterborough Petes
Connor Boland - Edmonton
Clark Seymour - Pittsburgh
Greg Betzold - St. Louis

Plymouth Whalers
Mathew Campagna - Carolina
Gianluca Curcuruto - Montreal
Mitch Jones - Ottawa

Saginaw Spirit
Blake Clarke - Detroit

Sarnia Sting
Hayden Hodgson - Detroit
Nick Latta - New York Rangers

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Charley Graaskamp - Anaheim
Alex Gudbranson - Minnesota
Bryan Moore - New York Rangers
Patrick Watling - Toronto
Jean Dupuy - Winnipeg

Sudbury Wolves
Kevin Raine - Los Angeles
Matt Schmalz - Montreal

Windsor Spitfires
Brady Vail - Carolina
Ty Bilcke - Toronto

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Preseason Top 30 for the 2015 Entry Draft

The last few years I've been coming out with a draft list at the end of the summer, and not just the ones during the season. This is a cool exercise because it allows us to look back and see the improvements (or regressions) that certain players have made.

Of course, changes will occur because so many of these players are going to hit massive growth spurts in their game this year. Some expected, others unexpected. The jump from the 16 year old to the 17 year old season is huge. Many of the things I'm currently saying about these players could be moot come October. Timid, perimeter rookies become physically aggressive sophomores (just as one example). Not to mention all the other players who'll make this list come next June, who haven't even played a minute in the OHL yet (such as Pavel Zacha).

This is another strong group for the OHL, which seems to have only been bolstered by a strong Import Draft. Lots of high end talent available, including players at different positions. It'll be interesting to see how these players jockey for position this year.

30. Garrett McFadden - Defense - Guelph Storm
Because of Guelph's depth last year, McFadden saw limited ice time. But with significant graduations, McFadden has a chance to crack the top 4 and get powerplay time. McFadden is currently undersized as a defender, but he possesses great offensive potential. He has good speed and skill with the puck but is still learning how to play the pmd role at the OHL level. Confidence is required for this type of role. His defensive game will need to continue to evolve, especially his understanding of how to play a more structured and patient game. 

29. Noah Bushnell - Forward - Sarnia Sting
A big physical, north/south winger who should slowly start to develop more of an offensive game. Bushnell already excels on the forecheck and plays a fearless, in your face tempo. He's not afraid to drive the net and he crashes the crease looking for scoring opportunities. With great size and physical qualities, whether he gets drafted this year will depend on the development of his skating and offensive abilities. He'll need to continue to improve his acceleration to make him a more effective offensive player. And he needs to work on his ability to handle the puck at full speed and finish off scoring chances with more consistency. Potential power forward though.

28. Doug Blaisdell - Defense - Kitchener Rangers
Hard to say what type of OHL player he's going to develop into. But the size and mobility are there. During the OHL preseason (last year), he looked like he could definitely develop into a strong two-way guy and a potential puck mover. But once the regular season started, he struggled to find the confidence to involve himself offensively. His decision making and ability to evade the forecheck were sore spots. But, he's got a serious shot at top 4 ice time this year and powerplay time. He's going to get a shot to live up to his potential. We'll see how he responds. He was a part of the bronze medal winning U.S. effort at the recent Ivan Hlinka tournament.

27. Zach Wilkie - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Like Blaisdell, Wilkie was a part of the 3rd place U.S. finish at the recent Ivan Hlinka tournament. The difference was that (from what I've heard and read), Wilkie was one of the team's top defenseman. Ice time in Niagara was an issue last year, and could be again this year too, but Wilkie is a potentially very strong two-way defender. He's not overly big (~6'0), but he plays with a lot of jam in his own end and he shows good puck moving potential/can jump up in the play to create scoring chances. 

26. Andrew Burns - Defense - Windsor Spitfires
Hasn't seen a ton of OHL action, but I feel confidence placing him here based on what I have seen of him. Strong two-way defender who is a fantastic skater. His skating ability allows him to jump up or lead the rush and he makes good decisions with the puck. As a defender, he lacks elite size, and he needs to get stronger, but he's intelligent and makes good reads. Windsor's defense is in near full rebuild mode and I expect him to be one of the team's top defenseman by the end of the upcoming season. 

25. Jesse Barwell - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads
Barwell is a high energy playmaker. Not the biggest guy (pushing 6'0), but he's got terrific speed and he's aggressive in heading to the net. Consistency was a bit of an issue last year, but hard not to go through invisible stretches on a weak team. He'll need to continue to round out the rest of his game and hopefully he's able to show more of the offensive skill he showed as a midget player on that strong Oakville Rangers OHL Cup winning team. Likely enters the season as Mississauga's second line center. 

24. Sam Harding - Forward - Oshawa Generals
Harding has untapped offensive potential that we haven't yet seen displayed at the OHL level. Coming out of midget, I had read and heard a lot about a very quick, talented puckhandler, but one who struggled away from the puck. What I like is that those are the areas that stood out on most nights in Oshawa, when he wasn't getting much playing time. He used his speed to help him develop into a quality two-way/role player. Now let's see what he can do with increased ice time and offensive responsibility this upcoming season. An offseason spent on strength training should make him a better playmaker at this level.

23. Adam Craievich - Forward - Guelph Storm
A massive breakout candidate this coming season if he's improved his skating this offseason. Despite getting little ice time, there were nights that Craievich really stood out on a deep, and talented Guelph team. The first thing you notice is his fantastic shot. With his release, he's going to score his share of goals in the OHL. What really improved as the season went on, was his ability to play the boards and away from the puck. Only thing holding him back is the laboring stride. Could be a 30 goal scorer as early as this coming season.

22. Riley Bruce - Defense - North Bay Battalion
Bruce really improved as the OHL season went on, and ended up being a reasonably important cog on the 3rd pairing for Stan Butler's Battalion. The size (6'6) is obviously the most tantalizing thing about his game at this point in time, but he has terrific defensive potential. He already shows an ability to use his reach to force forwards outside and he's not afraid to mix things up. As he gets stronger, I'm sure his game will get increasingly meaner. His mobility is a bit awkward looking, so he'll need to improve that, and he'll need to gain some confidence in his ability to make a good first pass, but he's someone who is going to be on the radar of NHL scouts this coming season.

21. David Miller - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Undersized (~5'10), but I really liked his game as an OHL rookie last year. Tons of speed. The late '96 creates exceptionally well off the rush and is a threat to take the puck down the middle, beating defenders with his first few steps. He's aggressive in attacking the net too. He and Michael Bunting seemed to have some good chemistry last year and I'm hoping the Hounds explore that further this coming year. Really like his offensive potential as his confidence grows.

20. Hayden McCool - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
This ranking is based on potential and not necessarily what we saw last year. As an OHL rookie, McCool looked physically overmatched on a lot of nights. And he wasn't getting a ton of ice time because he wasn't making an impact. Coming out of midget, he was being touted as one of the top goal scorers available, but that just wasn't the case in his rookie year. But he's still a 6'3 forward who shows a willingness to engage physically, and who does have offensive potential once he figures things out. If he comes into camp with more confidence and strength, he could play a big role on a strong Niagara team.

19. Dante Salituro - Forward - Ottawa 67's
I always find it hard to pinpoint draft rankings for late birthdays this early in the process. Salituro is probably ranked a bit lower than you'd expect given his OHL success thus far. But...he hasn't grown since his midget days and is still 5'8-5'9. He's got great speed, skill, and plays with the tenacity that you like to see in smaller players. This is a big year for him IMO. The 67's have a chance to be a middle of the pack playoff team in the East, but they'll need an even bigger and more consistent performance from Salituro. If he can manage to steal some of the thunder from Konecny, I think he's got a chance to move up despite his lack of size.

18. Kyle Capobianco - Defense - Sudbury Wolves
Was an under sized offensive defender at the midget level, but he continues to grow and will probably measure in the 6'2 range to start this year. He wasn't overly noticeable as an OHL rookie and he seemed to struggle with the size of opposing forwards. But, his skating ability remains top notch and he's already good at evading the forecheck and starting the breakout. His shot will need to improve a lot if he wants to excel as a PP QB, and he'll need to continue to work on the defensive side of things. But he's going to get all the ice time he can handle this coming season and should improve. 

17. Mitchell Vande Sompel - Defense - Oshawa Generals
This is probably a bit lower than you would have expected him. And I should preface this by saying that I really liked what Vande Sompel brought to the table as a rookie last year. He's an exceptionally talented puck mover, whose skating ability and confidence with the puck is greater than most his age. He's already a capable powerplay QB and he understands the game offensively. Defensively, he shows spunk and works hard to try to overcome his lack of size. But, he remains an undersized defender who could have some issues defensively moving forward. His transition to forward at times last year, was evident of that. That said, he's going to be counted on by the Generals to be one of their top defenders this year and we'll get a good chance to see what he's made of.

16. Justin Lemcke - Defense - Belleville Bulls
One of the OHL's most underrated rookies last year. Belleville didn't have a strong team and struggled with consistency, but I thought Lemcke might have been their best and most consistent defender. At this point, he's not flashy, but he has a lot of qualities that could make him an attractive NHL draft pick. He's got good size, but is also a good skater. He covers a lot of ground on the big rink in Belleville. Lemcke also makes a good first pass and shows signs of developing into a very sturdy (and perhaps physical) player in his own end. As he matures, I'm interested to see just how much his game grows.

15. Thomas Schemitsch - Defense - Owen Sound Attack
Brother of former NHL draft pick Geoffrey, Thomas is a late '96 who is coming off a very strong rookie season in the OHL. In a lot of ways, he resembles his brother, with a good head for the game offensively and defensively, in addition to being a good skater. But, the big difference is that he's significantly bigger at 6'3, 200lbs. Schemitsch is just scratching the surface of what he's capable of at both ends and he's going to get even more playing time this year as a sophomore. 

14. Vince Dunn - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Pairing with Blake Siebenaler, Dunn was one of the integral components to Niagara's playoff bound season, scoring 33 points and playing very solid hockey for an OHL rookie. By season's end, Dunn and Siebenaler were Niagara's top pairing IMO. A late '96, Dunn has seemingly come out of nowhere to become one of the OHL's top young offensive blueliners. He's very aggressive in jumping up in the play and he's a good enough skater to start and lead the breakout. As a defender, he's not intimidated in the corners or in front of the net. Niagara will have an even better team this year and I'm excited to see where Dunn's game goes to.

13. Mitchell Stephens - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
Stephens is an exceptionally talented offensive center who had a very inconsistent rookie season in the OHL. I don't think he was ready physically to really make a significant impact. But, if his Ivan Hlinka performance is any indication (6 points in 5 games), he could be in for a big year with Saginaw, where he'll have the opportunity to earn tons of ice time. Stephens doesn't have terrific size (pushing 6'0), but he's lightning quick and has great ability to drive the net to create scoring chances. Improved confidence and the ability to round out his game will make him jump up draft lists.

12. Graham Knott - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Love this kid's game. Already a very mature player who has an understanding of how to play with and without the puck. Knott is already a great defensive player and penalty killer, in addition to a solid forechecker and boards player. He knows how to drive the net and has underrated hands in close. With his 6'3 frame and his growing physical confidence, he has power forward potential. Only thing lacking in his game right now is quickness, which he'll have to continue to work on. After a solid Ivan Hlinka, he could be poised for a very solid year in Niagara (think 20/30).

11. Mackenzie Blackwood - Goaltender - Barrie Colts
A late '96, Blackwood was everything and more for the Colts last year in his rookie season. The 6'4 netminder emerged as the team's starter, leading them to the playoffs and earning OHL all first rookie team honours in the process. Blackwood is the prototypical NHL goaltender that scouts are now looking for. He takes up a ton of the net, even when he drops to the butterfly. He's agile and has the ability to make second and third saves. He also shows mental composure and confidence in his ability to improve. It's tough ranking goaltenders this far in advance, but it seems safe to assume that Blackwood is one of the top available guys that the CHL has to offer for 2015. 

10. Blake Speers - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Speers continues to grow, which is a great sign for the highly talented offensive forward. He grew two inches from his midget year to last year and should probably be over 6'0 by the time the NHL draft rolls around. Size (in terms of height) isn't an issue. Strength, on the other hand, is something he'll need to continue to add, as he looks to make a more consistent impact in the offensive end. Right now, he's a terrific complimentary offensive player who uses great speed and a high hockey IQ to get himself behind defenses and into scoring lanes. He reads plays very well, and despite not being massive, does a great job finishing off plays near the crease. An opportunistic scorer. I really like his offensive potential and I think he'll have a big year surrounded by some great offensive players.

9. Brett McKenzie - Forward - North Bay Battalion
The perfect Stan Butler center and someone who had a very solid, if not understated rookie season in the OHL. I say he's the perfect Butler player because he's a very complete player who is already fully adept at playing in Butler's defensive system. He takes care of the puck at both ends of the ice, wins faceoffs, engages physically and does all the little things that Butler demands. Within all that, hides a terrific offensive player who could really explode offensively this year. His speed, skill with the puck and hockey IQ are all excellent and weren't shown off in the role he was asked to play last year. A year stronger and more confident, I expect McKenzie to have a big year.

8. Travis Dermott - Defense - Erie Otters
Neck and neck right now between Dermott and Spencer for the top defenseman available from the 'O' IMO. Slight nod to Spencer because he's got more size and has a higher ceiling IMO. But we'll see how the season plays out. Dermott, a late '96, was not only one of the top rookies in the OHL this year, but was in fact one of the better two-way defenders in the league IMO (and was a first team all rookie member). Dermott has few flaws in his game. He takes care of the puck, he moves well, he makes good decisions defensively, he blocks shots, and he engages physically. If we're nitpicking, he'll need to improve his shot to become a better powerplay QB. And he doesn't have elite size (5'11), but everything else is there. 

7. Matt Spencer - Defense - Peterborough Petes
As mentioned, Spencer and Dermott are neck and neck. I gave the nod to Spencer based what I think he's capable of becoming this year. He got better and better as the season went on last year and I think he's just scratching the surface of what he's capable of becoming. With size, skill, and tenacity, Spencer can impact the game at both ends of the ice. I think we'll really see him become a defensive beast next year, with the offensive game (and confidence in it) a bit of a step behind. But with his size, mobility, and tool set, he's bound to be a high pick in 2015. 

6. Nikita Korostelev - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Korostelev is a massively talented player who can be quite electrifying to watch. His ability to handle the puck and maintain possession is a sight to behold. One of those guys you can say "can stickhandle in a phonebooth." Offensively, his game revolves around his own ability to create with the puck on his stick, whether it's for a shooting attempt, a drive to the net, or a a good pass to a streaking teammate. It's his game without the puck and finding scoring lanes that is still a work in progress. But he's not just a one dimensional offensive player. Korostelev plays with an edge and has the size at 6'2 to continue to explore that physical part of his game. Sarnia will be a very exciting, young team to watch next year. Their goaltending and defense could be iffy, but offensively, they could have some real game breakers. This could lead to some big stats for Korostelev.

5. Lawson Crouse - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
Man, I wanted to put Crouse ahead of Strome. They're so close for me at the moment and I really like both players. Ultimately I felt like Strome being a center with size gave him a bit more value. But that shouldn't devalue Crouse. At 6'4, 210lbs, he's a throwback power forward who plays the game with a mix of skill and brawn. Last year he was very noticeable as a north/south winger who could impact the game with a big hit, or a good drive to the net. Even as a rookie, he demonstrated confidence in his ability to play in transition. He has great speed and I look for him to really start to use that to become a dominant forechecker. He also had good hands in close and I think he could score 30 goals this year. He's coming off a terrific Ivan Hlinka tournament where he led the tournament with 6 goals. Depending on how Crouse's offensive game develops, he could end up a lottery selection.

4. Dylan Strome - Forward - Erie Otters
As mentioned, Strome is just a smidge ahead of Crouse for me. At this point, you have to give the advantage to a 6'3 center who can do the things offensively that Strome can do. In a lot of ways, he's like his brother Ryan, but bigger. Strome was very inconsistent last year as a rookie in Erie, but with all the other talent, it was tough for him to really stand out without the puck on his stick. He was stuck playing more of a complimentary role, something he definitely had to adjust to. But he's going to get stronger. He's going to get quicker. And he's going to gain confidence. He's entering this OHL season after a very strong performance at the Ivan Hlinka and looks poised for a breakout. He's going to be in tough this year though. There's no doubt that he'll center the second line behind Connor McDavid. The question is, who will be his wingers? The Otters depth isn't nearly as good as it was last year and Strome is going to have way more pressure on him to perform. I look at his situation being very similar to Michael Dal Colle's last year. If he can really elevate his game the way Dal Colle did (making others around him better), he'll cement himself as a top 10 prospect.

3. Mitchell Marner - Forward - London Knights
Love this kid. Has that rare mix of undeniable skill with the puck and a high hockey IQ/vision. He's also got a terrific motor that never stops working. He's going to have the same impact on London's lineup this year as Robby Fabbri did on Guelph's this past year. Not only can he make things happen with the puck and prolong posession in the offensive end, but he also demonstrates the patience and vision to find open teammates for scoring chances. Such a terrific playmaker. Previously, the only thing that was really missing from his game was size, but he's hit a major growth spurt over the last year and a bit. As a midget player, he was playing around 5'9. But now he's playing close to 6'0, and is probably already there already when the Knights do their preseason vitals. Without the "size flaw" working against him, he's going to rocket up draft charts. London might be re-tooling a bit this year, but if anything, that could give him the chance to put his stamp on the team and make it his own in his draft season.

2. Travis Konecny - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Such an electric player. His speed makes him a weapon every time he's on the ice. And he has such confidence with the puck. Even as an OHL rookie, he had no issue entering the zone, cutting into the slot, and firing off a wrister. His release is pro caliber and, in combination with his skating ability, will get him a lot of goals as he catches goaltenders and defenders flat footed. Konecny also uses his teammates well and shows the ability to slow the game down in the offensive end, on top of playing the transition game. Perhaps the most underrated part of Konecny's game is his leadership capability/potential. He was the captain of his minor midget team, Elgin Middlesex, leading them to a bronze at the OHL cup. He captained team Ontario at last year's U-17's. And, most recently, he captained Canada to gold at the Ivan Hlinka. The only real knock against him at this point, is size. He's around 5'10, but could still grow. If he doesn't, it'll be interesting to see how the scouts view him (Robby Fabbri certainly deserved to be drafted higher this past year).

1. Connor McDavid - Forward - Erie Otters
Do I really have to write something here? I think we all know about McDavid and his talent by now. Nearly everything he brings to the table offensively is off the charts good. Skating. Hockey sense. Puck handling. Shot. He's just an incredible talent. Obviously, we'll look for him to continue to evolve as a two-way player, and for him to get stronger along the boards. But with his hockey sense and work ethic, that will come. The real question will be, what's in store for him this year in Erie? If Burakovsky doesn't return, McDavid is going to have to make 30 goal scorers out of the likes of Nick Betz and Joel Wigle. There's going to be a ton of pressure on him this year, with it being his draft year. If he's not getting the offensive support, yet still performs well, it will be a testament to his talent. Of course, the Otters could obviously cash in and deal him too. Let's not forget, John Tavares was dealt in his draft year.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical order):

Jeremiah Addison - Forward - Ottawa 67's 
A former first round pick of Saginaw, Addison (a late '96) hasn't improved a ton over his two seasons in the OHL thus far. He plays a relatively aggressive game and can be a factor away from the puck, but he has yet to develop any sort of offensive consistency. He has blazing speed, but still hasn't learned how to use it best to create offensive chances at this level. The confidence in handling the puck and finishing off plays isn't there either. With an offseason trade to Ottawa, he'll have a chance at a fresh start. He'll get his share of playing time in Ottawa, with a chance of moving up into the top 6. Hopefully he can turn things around.

Mike Davies - Forward - Kitchener Rangers 
Kitchener's first rounder in 2013, Davies looked largely overmatched in his first OHL season. He didn't appear to have the strength to fight through traffic for scoring chances, and scoring goals is the biggest part of his game. But, he's got some good things going for him. He's got size. He's very quick. And he does have the hands and the potential to develop into a more aggressive player. We'll see how things go this year when he gets a shot at a larger role in Kitchener.

Austin Gerhart - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads
Hard working, role player who is part of a young forward group in Mississauga. Gerhart works hard without the puck, demonstrating potential as a strong forechecker and boards player. Not sure about the high end offensive upside, but he's an interesting prospect. An offseason spent on getting quicker and stronger could really help his energy based game.

Troy Henley - Defense - Ottawa 67's
Probably number 31 on this list right now based on what he's capable of becoming and not where he currently is (or was last year). The 67's were not good last year because their defense was quite poor, and Henley was a part of that. He went through the growing pains of a 16/17 year old defenseman. That said, things could get much better for him this year as he has the chance to take on a top 4 role. As a terrific skater and a potential two-way defender, he's one to keep an eye on.

Matthew Kreis - Forward - Barrie Colts
Super quick, slightly undersized forward who had a decent rookie year with Barrie. Kreis brings a lot of energy to the ice, and even though he had some issues in puck possession because of lack of strength, he wasn't discouraged or kept to the outside. Once he learns to use his speed and simplifies the game a bit, he could be a great playmaker at the OHL level.

Tyler MacArthur - Defense - Owen Sound Attack
MacArthur oozes potential. At 6'4, he moves quite well and developed as a solid stay at home guy last year as a rookie. As the season went on, he really started to assert himself physically. The offensive game was pretty much non existent last year, but coming out of midget, he was billed as a potential puck mover which suggests that there could be potential in that part of his game once he gains confidence. He'll get a chance this year as he'll probably be playing in a top 4 role on a younger club.

Ryan Moore - Forward - Windsor Spitfires
A very hard working, high energy forward. Moore may be undersized (around 5'9/5''10), but his quickness and his work ethic elevate him above some of his peers. Moore showed great flashes of developing into a quality scorer last year, but ultimately just wasn't strong enough to compete consistently. He'll get more ice time this year and be a fan favourite in Windsor.

Ryan Orban - Defense - Saginaw Spirit
Orban is a big, physical, potential shut down defender. At 6'3, 215lbs already, he has pro size. He makes good reads in the defensive end and has the potential to be a physical behemoth. The skating is not bad either for a player of his ilk. There will be lots of younger defenseman vying for larger roles in Saginaw this year, so we'll see where he fits in.

Ethan Szypula - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
Sort of a different mold than the players Owen Sound has been drafting over the last few years. Szypula is more of an undersized scoring prospect than the burly power forwards they've been developing lately. In a lot of ways, he looked overmatched last year and he'll need to show way more with & without the puck this year to gain the trust of scouts. He'll get his shot though, with Owen Sound likely set to give him more responsibility and powerplay time next year.

Will be Appearing Soon (Yet to play in the OHL)

Pavel Zacha - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Rasmus Andersson - Defense - Barrie Colts
Gustaf Franzen - Forward - Kitchener Rangers
Artem Artemov - Forward - Saginaw Spirit

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Top 10 - Unheralded Rookies Who Could Make an Impact in 2014-15

I mention this every time that I write this piece, but it truly is one of my favourites to write and look back on. This annual article looks at some of the rookies who could make an impact in the OHL next year. And by that I mean players not selected in the Import Draft or the recent priority draft. I'm talking about 1997 (possibly even '96) born players who should finally crack their respective teams this year. The list of successful players of this ilk is long (see Mark Scheifele, Remi Elie, Matt Clark, Trevor Carrick, Travis Dermott, etc).

Here are 10 guys (in alphabetical order) that you should keep an eye on, plus a few honorable mentions.

For full lists for each team (of their top prospects), be sure to head on over to www.thescout.ca to read Sean LaFortune's awesome team write ups (Prospect Watch series). Here's the London Knights as an example.

Andrew Burns - Defense - Windsor Spitfires
Big fan of his after seeing him play a bit in the OHL Cup. The Windsor 3rd rounder had an excellent season for Lasalle last year, even earning some playing time later in the season with Windsor where he looked good. Burns seems like the type of kid who can impact the game at either end of the ice and I think when all is said and done, he'll end up as Windsor's top defenseman this year.

Josh Coyle - Forward - Peterborough Petes
Coyle is a big, rangy, playmaking forward who is coming off a very good year with St. Thomas. The former 3rd rounder is now set to join the Petes' lineup full time this coming season where he has a chance to make an impact in the top 9. A natural center, it seems likely that he'll start on the wing because of Peterborough's depth down the middle. 

Marcus Crawford - Defense - Saginaw Spirit 
While slightly undersized, Crawford seems like he has a chance to be an important player for the Saginaw Spirit this year. The offensively talented blueliner is a candidate to fill the skates of Jesse Graham as Saginaw's primary powerplay QB. He's coming off a strong season in the Junior A where he was named to the second all prospect team. 

T.J. Fergus - Defense - Erie Otters
If Erie returns some of their bubble pro guys (Donnay, Macdermid), there might not be a ton of room on the blueline for talented newcomers (like Fergus and Saban), but somewhere down the line, room will be made for them. Fergus is a potentially solid two-way guy who could impact the game similar to the way Travis Dermott does. As an 8th round pick, Fergus seems to be progressing incredibly well, coming off a season where he was named as a member of the second all prospect team in Junior A.

Jeremy Helvig - Goaltender - Kingston Frontenacs
A 3rd rounder in 2013, Helvig is poised to make his OHL debut this coming year after playing last year with Toronto Lakeshore of the OJHL. Helvig is a big, athletic netminder who has a lot of potential in the league. And Kingston is definitely counting on him hitting that potential, as they've long needed a homegrown talented starter. He'll get his chance as early as this season when he battles Lucas Peressini for the starter's gig.

Leo Lazerev - Goaltender - Ottawa 67's
I think his story is an awesome one. A Russian player, Lazerev came to play in the GOJHL with Waterloo this year to circumvent the CHL's new import goalie ban. It was rather genius and I'm sure it's going to be something that others try to emulate. Lazerev had a terrific year in Junior B where he was amongst the league leaders in all categories (and was also one of the youngest goalies in the league). He's going to come into Ottawa 67's camp with a terrific chance to be their starting netminder. He'll battle Liam Herbst for the job. 

Aaron Luchuk - Forward - Windsor Spitfires 
A slightly undersized, but very talented offensive forward, Luchuk has a chance to be a big contributor in Windsor this coming season. He could certainly work his way up to their top 6 by season's end. He's got a great compete level  and will battle hard to make plays, even if he still needs to add strength. He's coming off a very good year with LaSalle and will battle the likes of Ryan Foss and Ryan Moore to get significant playing time down the middle.

Michael McNiven - Goaltender - Owen Sound Attack
After a fantastic season in the OJHL last year (was named as part of the first all prospect team), the Attack will need to try to find some playing time for the potential starter this coming year. It's no secret that Brandon Hope is looking to get a pro contract next year, and if he's successful, McNiven will battle Jack Flinn for the starter's job. If Hope returns for his overage year, I could see the Attack trading Hope or Flinn to make room for McNiven, as he's the goaltender of the future for the club.

Ted Nichol - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs 
Nichol is an undersized, offensive center who got a cup of tea with Kingston last year and certainly did not look out of place. Coming off a great year with Listowel, Nichol will battle for a depth spot on Kingston this year. He's not likely to get a ton of ice time because of Kingston's depth up front, but he could develop into a quality contributor over time.

Jesse Saban - Defense - Erie Otters
Saban has the distinction of being the highest drafted player (outside of the uncommitted Jordan Greenway) who did not suit up in the OHL last year (21st overall). Instead, the big, physical rearguard had a solid year with Newmarket and is now poised to make an impact with Erie. Like Fergus (and the not mentioned Cole Mayo), Saban could struggle to find consistent ice time as there could be a bit of a logjam on Erie's defense. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out and whether certain players are used as trade chips.

Honorable Mentions

Nathan Bastien - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads
Bastien has improved a lot since being a 7th round pick by the Steelheads. He actually played in 19 games this past year. But he also played for Brantford (Junior B) where he performed quite well and is poised to have a larger role for the upcoming year. 

Kris Bennett - Forward - Saginaw Spirit 
A former high draft pick of the Spirit (3rd rounder, 2012), Bennett had yet been able to crack Saginaw's lineup full time. But this could certainly be his year with a lot of roster spots open. He's coming off a great year in Junior A, where he led Oakville in goals despite playing in only 37 games.

Tyler Boston - Forward - Guelph Storm
Boston might be undersized, but he plays the game the way Scott Walker likes it played. His speed and energy level should endear him to his coach and allow Boston to get playing time on the team's 4th line this coming year.

Evan Cormier - Goaltender - North Bay Battalion 
North Bay's goaltender of the future, Cormier will be the team's back up this coming year behind Jake Smith. He was excellent in limited action last year after a solid season in the NOJHL and it should be an easy choice to have him be the back-up instead of bringing back Brendan O'Neill for an overage year. 

Trent Fox - Forward - Erie Otters
One Fox out, another in. After Dane graduates to the pro ranks this year, his younger brother Trent seems like a good bet to make Erie's roster this coming season. After a good year with Ridley College, Fox could certainly slide into a top 9 role with the Otters this year if he can prove his scoring ability resembles that of his brother. 

Austin Hall - Defense - Guelph Storm 
The Storm will have a slew of graduations from their defense going into this coming season and Hall is one of a few players with a great chance of holding down a regular roster spot. He's a solid offensive blueliner whose stats from this past year were very similar to the impressive Andrew Burns (see above) on LaSalle.

Steven Harland - Forward - North Bay Battalion
The Greyhounds did it last year with Michael Bunting, and the Battalion are hoping to strike gold this year with Harland. A 2014 draft pick (but a '96), Harland was one of the top major midget players in Ontario last year and had a very strong Telus Cup. He could definitely surprise and earn a spot on North Bay's roster.

Connor Hicks - Goaltender - Belleville Bulls
After the trade of Michael Giugovaz, the Bulls seem pretty content to hand Hicks the back-up job behind Charlie Graham. The Kanata, Ontario native played this past year in the EOJHL.

Mark Manchurek - Forward - Windsor Spitfires
The second of the Manchurek triplets to be able to reach the OHL (after brother Joe secured a spot with Oshawa last year), Mark seems poised to do that with Windsor this coming season. While he's not under contract yet, he is on their protected list and I'm sure will be attending training camp. He's coming off a great year with LaSalle and should be able to eventually develop into a quality OHL player.

Nathan Todd - Forward - Ottawa 67's 
While it remains to be seen about Todd's intentions, the 67's did select the talented forward in this year's priority draft. A '95, and one of the leading scorers in the CCHL, Todd tried to make the Peterborough Petes last year but failed. After another strong year, he could certainly try again with Ottawa and if successful, could end up being a solid offensive contributor for the 67's.