Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Top 10 - Under the Radar Draft Eligibles for 2015


We're inching ever closer to the Christmas break and the halfway point to the 2014/2015 season. You've seen draft lists from pretty much every major scouting organization (CSS, ISS, McKeen's, FC, Craig Button at TSN, etc). In about a month's time, NHL Central Scouting will release it's midterm list; their first which amalgamates all leagues in North America. In my opinion, it's a perfect time to highlight some guys who are flying under the radar right now. Guys we're not hearing much about, but who are slowly turning themselves into NHL (some considerable) prospects.

This list is in no particular order of ranking; as I've used alphabetical order. An argument could certainly be made about the criteria used to separate the "under the radar" players. No question it was quite subjective. But I didn't include a guy like Blake Speers based on how much "hype" he's been receiving from the media as of late (deserving of it too).

Jeremiah Addison - Ottawa 67's
The former first rounder of the Spirit is getting a second chance with the 67's and is finally starting to look confident and comfortable. After starting the year very slowly, he's now averaging a point per game over his last 14 games (8 goals, 6 assists). The hard nosed winger is a very versatile player who's skill set allows him to excel in a variety of roles. Lately, he's shown a lot of chemistry playing with Dante Salituro, opening up scoring lanes and finishing off plays near the crease. If he continues to play at this level, he could elevate himself into the top 100.

Anthony Cirelli - Oshawa Generals
Cirelli was a free agent signing by the Generals this offseason and he's proving to be quite the find. He's lined up both down the middle and on the wing this year and is currently doing whatever Oshawa's coaching staff is asking of him. Right now that includes playing with Michael Dal Colle and Josh Sterk on the Generals' top line. Cirelli isn't the biggest, but he's proving to be very capable of working the corners and digging hard in front of the net. There's no doubt that Cirelli's skill and tenacity has caught the attention of NHL scouts.

Johnny Corneil - Niagara IceDogs
With Brendan Perlini out to start the season, Corneil was the recipient of increased ice time. While the points weren't consistently there, the effort always was. At only 5'10, Corneil plays much larger than that. He's very effective in puck pursuit, and had worked very well with Graham Knott to establish a strong Niagara forecheck. I think it still remains to be seen how much skill he has. And with Perlini back, it's unknown how much ice time he'll get. But Corneil's hard working style of play makes him a noticeable presence on the ice.

Adam Craievich - Guelph Storm
I really felt like Craievich was a big time breakout candidate this season, but that has not be the case as of yet. His skating is still in need of improvement and he's still not getting a ton of ice time, but the talent level he possesses is evident. He's starting be much more noticeable, shift in/shift out, and has been creating offence from the 3rd/4th line as of late. If Guelph were to suffer an injury to their top 6, he could be the leading candidate to fill that role. Maybe during the WJC's (when the Storm will likely be missing Fabbri, Suter, and perhaps Dickinson), he'll get his chance.

Travis Dermott - Erie Otters
Just not getting the respect he deserves (in terms of draft rankings). Guys like Mitchell Vande Sompel, Rasmus Andersson, Matt Spencer, and even Thomas Schemitsch have garnered a lot of attention to start the year, and (IMO) Dermott is right there with them in contention for being the top rated OHL defenseman for this year's draft. The stocky rearguard is a real jack of all trades guy who excels in a variety of roles for Erie. He moves the puck well, but is also a staunch defender of his own end. The "not so sexy" selections like Dermott always attract more attention from NHL scouts than they do the armchair ones.

Matt Luff - Belleville Bulls
Luff has been up and down this year, but that can be expected of someone playing in their first OHL season. When looking at the big picture, Luff possesses a lot of qualities that will be deemed attractive to NHL scouts. He's a big kid and he uses his size well to protect the puck. He has a desire to play near the crease and he shows very good hands in close. His skating is something that will need to be worked on, but the size and hands combo is very intriguing. A "project" pick who could elevate his draft status with a more consistent second half.

Hayden McCool - Windsor Spitfires
His development appeared to have stalled in Niagara, but the trade to Windsor (in the Ho-Sang deal) has really done wonders for his game. He's getting consistent power play time now and has gelled well with fellow youngster Logan Brown. At 6'3, McCool is most effective when he's playing physical and going hard to the net, which he's done so far in Windsor. If McCool can continue to produce offensively (7 points in 9 games) and showcase his power game, he's got a chance to really rocket up the draft charts.

Brett McKenzie - North Bay Battalion
McKenzie's value to the Battalion goes further than a contribution offensively. With his size and skating ability, McKenzie has turned into one of Stan Butler's go to defensive players and has found success centring North Bay's energy/checking/shut down line. But, as someone who saw McKenzie play for Oakville in midget, I can tell you that he's got the skill level and potential to be a big time offensive contributor. North Bay (and Brampton) under Butler, has had a lot of draft eligible guys breakout big time in the second half of the year (I think of Brent Burns and Nick Paul). McKenzie could be the next.

Michael McNiven - Owen Sound Attack
"All I do is win, win, win, no matter what." McNiven's strong play forced the the Attack to deal Brandon Hope to Niagara, and since then he's begun to earn more and more starting assignments. In 8 starts this year, McNiven has yet to post a save percentage under .913, and has yet to let in more than 2 goals in a game. Pretty impressive stuff. With great size and athleticism in the crease, it wouldn't shock me at all if by the end of the year, McNiven passes Mackenzie Blackwood as the top OHL goaltender available.

Colton White - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Everyone knew that the Greyhounds would be one of the league's top teams this year. But one of the biggest surprises on the team has been the play of their "3rd pairing" (I say this because it's not really a 3rd pairing) of Colton White and Gustav Bouramman. White is a super athletic defender who's only scratching the surface of what he's capable of. A terrific skater, White is only now gaining the confidence to push things offensively. He's also one of Sault Ste. Marie's most relied upon penalty killers. With Darnell Nurse gone at the WJC's, he's going to get an even larger role. He's poised for big things in the second half.






Sunday, November 23, 2014

Preliminary Media/Scout Top 10 for 2015

It's time for the first media/scout top 10 for 2015. While top of the list seems pretty cut and dry at this point in time, the bottom definitely is not. Twenty different players received consideration (votes) for the Top 10.

For those unfamiliar with how this works, I poll many of the OHL's brightest minds; those who cover the league incredibly well and know their stuff. These contributors supply me with their top 10 available players from the OHL, in addition to some comments. I then put it all together and provide you with a cumulative list. Call it "the consensus."

As always, this list involves contributions from a rather colourful cast of characters. Contributing their rankings and thoughts to this preliminary list for 2015 were:

Corey Pronman - ESPN writer (@coreypronman)
Dominic Tiano - Writer for The OHL Writers (@dominictiano)
Nathan Fournier - Writer for Maine Hockey Journal/Contributor to The Hockey News (@jrhockeywriter)
Dan Stewart - Director of Scouting for Future Considerations (@StewartFC)
Brendan Ross - Co-Manager of DobberProspects, scout for McKeens Hockey & TheScout.ca (@RossyYoungblood)
Peter Kneulman - Writer for the OHL Writers and In the O Radio (@PeterKneulman)
Carl Maloney - OHL correspondent for TheHockeyWriters (@carlTHW)
Brandon Sudeyko - Host/Producer of the In the O Radio Show (@intheoradio)
Matt Grainda - Scout for ISS Hockey (@graindaiv)
Tony Ambrogio - PA Announcer for the Mississauga Steelheads & TSN editor/producer (@Tony_Ambrogio)
Mike Morreale - Staff writer for NHL.com (@mikemorrealeNHL)
Anthony Mauro - Director/Founder of Draft Buzz Hockey (@draftbuzzhockey)
Manny Paiva - Play by Play voice of the Owen Sound Attack (@paivatheway)
Stephen Clark - Play by Play Announcer for the Niagara IceDogs (@SteveClarkMedia)
Ryan Kennedy - Associate senior writer for The Hockey News (@THNRyanKennedy)

and of course...myself (@BrockOtten)

Here's the Top 10 with several honorable mentions:

10. Graham Knott - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Total Votes: 6
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 9th (2x)/Outside of the Top 10 (10x)
Comments:
"When I first watched him he really didn't stand out. But the last few times, he has as he gets more comfortable in his draft year. Best way to describe him is this way: A solid all-around player. There is nothing flashy just consistency. " - Ambrogio

"Uses size effectively, high energy player who does the little things well." - Maloney

"Playing with Josh Ho-Sang will only improve his stock. Showed great chemestry wtih him during his Ice Dogs Debut. Has size to create space and capitilize on scoring chances in close and in tight spaces. What he lacks in foot speed he makes up for him smarts and ability to read the play which gives him a step on his opponents." - Kneulman

"Fairly consistent on a team that has not been that.   Two way player, whose totals should increase with acquisition of Josh Ho Sang, size is enticing." - Clark

"One of those guys you just know is going to make a good pro. He uses his size very well, especially on the forecheck and the backcheck. He's already a very good two way player and penalty killer. As he continues to make improvements to his skating, the offensive game will improve too, as the hands and instincts are there." - Otten

"A clever forward who can back off defenders by shifting speeds with the puck. Has a pretty good shot, too." - Kennedy

9. Mitchell Vande Sompel - Defense - Oshawa Generals
Total Votes: 9
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 5th (1x)/Outside of the Top 10 (7x)
The Scoop:
"Ranking defensemen at the top of the lists is going to be somewhat of a challenge this year. It seems to change daily. Vande Sompel has exceeded expectations so far. He leads all OHL defenders in scoring, but most surprisingly, his defensive game is two steps ahead of a year ago. He’s an excellent skater with excellent speed and can transition the puck with an excellent first pass or use his skating to rush the puck." - Tiano

"Already matching last year’s output in 30 less games puts this puck rushing phenomin 1st round territory. Fitting the Julius Honka profile to a tee, Vande Sompel is even more explosive and dangerous gearing up through the neutral zone. He’s so dangerous, he is flexed as a forward on special teams and doesn’t look out of place. His versatility, which looked suspicious in terms of his defensive ability last year, has now become a persuasive statement on his pure hockey ability this year." - Mauro

"Oshawa Generals sophomore defender, Mitchell Vande Sompel, continues to log impressive minutes and he’s earned every second of them. Heres one of the most intelligent defenders in the draft and with his skating ability and instinctual ability to read the ice, he projects as a an attractive puck-moving offensive defender. He can escape pressure with his high-end skating  ability but also displays smart decision making, choosing when to pick his offensive rushes. In myopinion, he’s hasn’t been getting the recognition he deserves in this draft class but after coming off a strong offensive month where he earned OHL Top Defenseman honours, I am sure the tideswill turn in the scouting world." - Ross

"Have to admit that I've been super impressed by his defensive play this year so far. He's looking more poised and confident and he's making a lot of good reads in his own end. Everyone knows how good the offensive side of his game is, so it's great to see the evolution of his defensive game. That said, you have to question how much size will hurt his draft position. But if Anthony DeAngelo can be a first rounder, so can Vande Sompel." - Otten

8. Matt Spencer - Defense - Peterborough Petes
Total Votes: 13
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 6th (1x)/Outside of the Top 10 (3x)
The Scoop:
"He's used in all situations and has proven to have good mobility; an all-around good skater. He's got good puck movement on the power-play and a good shot." - Morreale

"A strong solid defenceman who does his job and while he and his Petes have had their struggles this year, Spencer is still the best blueliner in the OHL eligible for the NHL draft." - Ambrogio

"It’s all about potential with Spencer as he works his way to being a two-way defender. His defense will define his game at the next level. He has size, very good skating abilities and a very good hitter. He continues to improve offensively. His skating, vision and passing abilities should give him success – but again it’s all about potential." - Tiano

"His game has grown on me the more I have seen him. His physical play has improved throughout the short season and he is contributing more to the offensive play as well. He is making smart plays with the puck and still has the other aspects that I have always liked such as impressive skating ability, defensive awareness and good size." - Stewart

"With Peterborough being so inconsistent this year, it's been relatively tough to get a read on Spencer. How much will scouts criticize him for being part of a pretty disappointing team (thus far anyway). While it might be early to say this, Spencer seems like a good candidate to have a lot riding on his performance at the Under 18's at the end of the year, where his size and mobility on the back end could make him Canada's go to shutdown guy at the event." - Otten 

7. Nikita Korostelev - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Total Votes: 16
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 6th (1x)/10th (1x)
The Scoop:
"Scouts love his outstanding wrist shot. He is a high-energy guy with a great compete level. He has been a fantastic complementary piece on Sarnia's top line with Zacha.  He likes to get involved and makes that line go." - Morreale

"He needs to develop his defensive side more but has improved early on after a full season last year. His shot is top notch. Has it been measured for quickest wrist shot? It has to be up there." - Sudeyko

"As a sniper, Nikita Korostelev needed to bury the puck this season in order to receive first round consideration for the NHL Draft and he’s done that (and more) with 11 goals on the season. He isan opportunistic scorer who has a knack for sliding into scoring areas and unleashing an extremely quick shot. The puck comes off his blade extremely quickly and he can make opponents pay before they realize it. His skating remains a work in progress and might scare away some teams from using a first round selection but his ability to find the net is rare. Korostelev shows flashes of good puck skills but because he isn’t the swiftest skater, his ability to maintain possession is short-lived once pressure closes in on him. As a result, he’s best playing the give-and-go puck rather than attempting individual rushes and then getting himself into position to score. Playing to his strengths (shooting) and improving his top-end speed will help him solidify a first round selection moving forward." - Ross

"Korostelev is a well mannered Russian who relies on quick strikes to make his impact. As soon as you wish he were more consistent and noticeable, he will pull off a jaw dropping deke or rip a laser through a hole no one else could see. His feet are abit heavy, which completely contradicts his one-on-one ability, but he is sneaky elusive with the puck. If he brings back his power game to where it was at the end of last season, he has a shot at being top 5 in the OHL in my book." - Mauro

6. Travis Konecny - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Total Votes: 16
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 4th (3x)/8th (1x)
The Scoop:
"He competes bigger than he is, and is already a natural at puck distribution with a free flowing skating motion that is like melted butter on a frying pan… I am trying to say smooth here." - Sudeyko

"Every year a player doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations set out on his sophomore season and this year, Travis Konecny hasn’t quite had the start that he’s probably envisioned. Battling through a concussion and taking on more responsibility as captain, Konecny may be putting too much pressure on himself. Eventually, the 2014 OHL Rookie of the Year will find his way out of it. Konecny continues to show an unmatched work ethic and drive to succeed and his elite level shooting ability continues to shine but the pucks aren’t finding their way as frequent as last year (three goals vs. 26 last year).  Travis started slowly in the goal department during his freshman season so let’s see if he can replicate his strong second half showing from last year." - Ross

"He's a very interesting prospect for the draft and, I think, a hard guy to peg right now. He plays the game hard and his leadership potential is through the roof. But, hockey is a game of production and Konecny hasn't even been the best player on his team on a lot of nights. He doesn't seem to have that same confidence in his shot that he showed last year as a rookie. You're looking at a 5'10 forward who's on pace for under 20 goals this year. As complete and tantalizing player he is, that type of offensive output just doesn't get you drafted in the first round, especially when you're undersized. That said, I still like him a lot as a prospect and I think he'll turn things around in the second half of the season." - Otten

"Terrific skater with high level skill and compete level, also shows leadership skills…captain of Ottawa and Canada at U-18’s." - Maloney

"Has high-end offensive skills and speed. Can both finish and make plays. Kind of disappointed in his play this season as he looks to be letting the pressure get to him. Looked better, more engaged last year in my opinion. His size was not a factor last year but this year he is getting pushed off puck and giving up on the play, something he did not do last season. Kid needs to get back some of that ‘get back up again’ mojo." - Stewart

"I love Konecny's skill set. Great skater, skill, vision and work ethic. On talent, he seems like a sure top 10 pick, but wow has his production underwhelmed that's it's really tough to justify him in that range especially for a smaller player. I hope it's a sample thing, but it's rare for a player who goes under a PPG over ~ 20 games to just tear the league up in the second half (at like 1.5PPG rate)." - Pronman

"Heart-and-soul kid with some great offensive moves. My only concern is his undersized frame, which has taken a beating so far in his OHL career." - Kennedy

5. Lawson Crouse - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
Total Votes: 16
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 2nd (1x)/10th (1x)
The Scoop:
"He might be one of the toughest forwards in the O to knock off his skates when going to the net; very similar to Jack Eichel in that way. He's a big bodied guy, protects the puck and is solid on his skates. He can see the ice well and is able to move the puck to open areas despite his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame." - Morreale

"Elite size and shows tentalizing skill. Everytime I see him though I am lefting wanting more. Not sure if it is because he is missing something or if I get so excited watching him play that I have unrealistic expectations. Defenitly a player who could move up on my list by the end of the year." - Kneulman

"Crouse is a player I absolutely love. I had a hard time knocking him down to fourth in my rankings because he’s the player that every coach wants on his team because you can throw him out in every situation and know he’s going to make an impact. One of the smartest two-way forwards in the draft, Crouse has the size and strength that makes him a low-risk selection as he can play up and down the lineup. He’s shown impressive gains in his offensive gains and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a top-six winger at the next level. Every time he hits the ice, he does something – whether it’s dominating the cycle game or stripping an attacking player of possession – that makes you go, “wow, he’s going to be good." - Ross

"Intriguing power forward with very good size. He’s a very good skater with a very good burst of speed. He’s hard to contain on the rush, in front of the net or battling along the boards. Positionally smart and knows where to be without the puck. Crouse will probably translate to a secondary scorer but it’s his ability to take over a game physically that is intriguing." - Tiano

"The more I see him play, the more he does to make an impression. A solid skater with good puck skills. Strikes me as a smart player. He rarely is out of position." - Ambrogio

"He’s huge at 6’4 215lbs at 17 years old and skates very well…still raw though, but a hard combination to pass up." - Maloney

"Crouse is one of those players that will be a better pro play than a junior player as a power forward." - Fournier

"I have seen a lot of Lawson Crouse from his minor hockey days and now in the OHL and I think he still has another level to reach. Very high hockey IQ. A big man at 6 foot 3 who has excellent skating ability is not easy to find. He uses his frame well to win battles along the boards and forecheck. Strong on the puck, can take contact and drive the net. Would like to see him finish more." - Paiva

"A big, physical power forward who undoubtedly will get better as the years go on. Scouts loved him at the CHL-Russia Super Series." - Kennedy

4. Pavel Zacha - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Total Votes: 16
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 2nd (1x)/7th (1x)
The Scoop:
"I've definitely been impressed. He's been way more physical and aggressive in attacking the net than I thought he would be. At the beginning of the season, I felt like he was passing up scoring opportunities and not being aggressive enough with the puck. But, he's getting better and better each week and has a ton of potential due to his size, skating ability, skill level, and blossoming power game. Sometimes Import players come in with such high expectations that it can be hard for them to meet or exceed them, but Zacha has been one of the rare ones thus far." - Otten

"The thing with Pavel is the potential he has. Being on a struggling squd he won't put the points up as McDavid and Strome. Instead you just think of what he will becoming in five years down the road." - Fournier

“Scoring just under a PPG on a below .500 team just reinforces the fact that stats need context in Pavel Zacha’s case. A brick house on skates, Zacha has been a pillar down the middle and shown individual explosiveness in open ice. Always dialed in as he supports the play, Zacha is relied on to lug the puck in transition and has a small man’s touch. This thoroughbred power center is about as much of a lock for top ten in the 2015 NHL Draft as there is with 3 S’s.” - Mauro

"It took the big Czech a few games to get comfortable but Pavel Zacha’s pro upside is extremely high and that alone edges out challengers Marner, Crouse, Strome and Konecny (all of whom areworthy candidates for the second spot). The left-shooting pivot owns an intelligent processor and outstanding vision, displaying advanced creativity and the ability to play as a shooter as well.He is capable of playing a power game, shaking off of pressure easily with his first few powerful strides and as he steps into a scoring area, he can unleash an array of deceptive shots. The scary part – Zacha is still finding his way in the OHL and we have yet to see him play the buzzer-to-buzzer dominant game that he’s capable of." - Ross

"The Czech import certainly has been impressive offensively this season but more so as a two-way threat IMO. I love how he uses his size to engage deep in his own zone, stripping the puck and then skating it back up ice. Possesses all the tools you want in a complete player, now just need to sharpen them up. I have really been impressed by his intelligence with the puck as well." - Stewart

"Comes as advertised, but foolish slew foot penalty and 2 game suspension from it, another major for charging shows lack of discipline." - Clark

3. Mitch Marner - Forward - London Knights
Total Votes: 16
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 2nd (5x)/5th (3x)
The Scoop:
"Mitchell Marner can dance on skates. He is tremendously exciting and energetic with the puck. He can make some truly spectacular plays with his creativity and confidence. He’s got excellent mobility and lateral agility. He’s also got some impressive puck skills and a quick shot release. He does need to pack onthe pounds and start drinking more protein shakes. Marner has some of the hottest hands in the league right now with his recent point-scoring barrage." - Grainda

"So have people settled on his nickname… little magician? Marvelous one? Merlin… anything else that starts with M. Sure he is now 5’11” which means a guess turned out to be true a few years ago. His brother is over 6’ so there was a it of a fear that hemay not grow considering he was 5’7.5” as a Minor Midget player. That all aside, takethe puck off him, I dare you. He doesn’t have to be a one man band. He is in a great development system and he has shown that he is ready for that next step. Almost a point per game last year wasn’t a fluke. He had 46 assists! It isn’t as easy as passing to Domi and letting him score ya know. He can skate better than most, great puck control, grew into his frame, or grew his frame and has already passed last years goal totals from last year in a third of the time… If he isn’t in the top 10 at the NHL draft I will be shocked." - Sudeyko

"No doubt he got off to a slow start, but consider this: In their last nine games, Marner has out-produced Connor McDavid. And it’s no surprise that his London Knights have climbed up the standings in that time. As Marner goes, so do the Knights. His hockey smarts and vision set him apart from most others. He can seemingly make a pass that not many can see. He makes everyone around him better and he can create for himself as well. His vision and playmaking ability makes him excellent on either point on the powerplay." - Tiano

"The thing that really resonates for me about Marner is his ability to make his teammates better. He's such a well rounded offensive player who thinks the game on another level. He forces a lot of turnovers off the forecheck because of how well he reads the situation. Whether it's off the rush, coming off the half-wall, or working behind the net, he's able to slow the game down and dictate the pace for his linemates." - Otten

"Playing with a bunch of vets last season, Marner stood out for me. That hasn't changed this year. I'm impressed with his ability to play a 200 foot game." - Ambrogio

2. Dylan Strome - Forward - Erie Otters
Total Votes: 16
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 1st (from the panelist who chose not to rank Connor McDavid in order to highlight other players)/5th (1x)
The Scoop: 
"Dylan Strome has some impressive professional qualities in his game. He’s a very strong player with great size and strength. His hockey intelligence is really good. He makes plays with his quality passing, smart possession game and solid hockey sense. His footwork and skating stride still need some improvements. Right now he has to be the second best prospect because the numbers he is putting up this season are really impressive.” - Grainda

"Speed, shot, creativity, smarts. Dylan Strome certainly has it all and on top of that he has NHL bloodlines as his brother Ryan is showing he belongs in the NHL right now. Equally adept at helping out on D when back checking and starting the break out." - Kneulman

"He was the other Otters star to be last year… and now… he is the star. Again, take McDavid out of the equation and Strome would still lead this team. Would he be leading the league in scoring? Tough to say. However, it wouldn’t take away from his overall package. I didn’t want to look up the pace of his older brother, but if you likedRyan in his draft year, I would say Dylan is better. With a quick pass he is off to the races. Scoring is in his blood. And he knows how to get to open space to either receive the puck or draw defenders away from teammates. If you want a flaw, he can be a one man show a little too much. Although I am sure the same thing was said of some great players before him. Defensively needs to get better but what pure scorer doesn’t need that entering their draft year. I wouldn’t be worried about his growth, but straight talent compared to everyone else not named McDavid… Strome is the best of the bunch. Strome has been around McDavid for many seasons now, going back to the minors. If he needs any help, he not only had a great coaching staff, but a mini mentor who has a wealth of experience… despite being the same age." - Sudeyko

"McDavid’s teammate in Erie, Dylan Strome could’ve easily been ranked second on this list and come draft day, it will come down to personal preference. He plays the game at a high-pace and is always pushing the pace of the game. He is a creative passer with elite level vision and his crafty puck skills allows him to a strong possession game. His skating is improving from what used to be somewhat wild and heavy footed. With an elongated stride, Strome propels himself up the ice with ease erasing any of those previous concerns. Strome is a confident offensive player but at times he tries to do too much and it leads to some unnecessary turnovers but it’s this individual skill that is what makes him a special talent with intriguing upside." - Ross

"Dylan Strome presents the obvious dilemma for scouts: McDavid beneficiary or starin his own right? Signs are pointing him to growing into a budding star who can function on his own. Last year, Strome was a raw product as a gangly, tall guy whose coordination was challenged daily. Add in the fact that Erie boasted Burakovsky, Fox, Brown, and McDavid ahead of him, and his impact was likely blunted. His skating needs some polishing, but Strome is developing into a brilliant two way center with surreal sense of the ice and very soft handle on the puck." - Mauro

"With McDavid on the shelf, the focus is on Dylan Strome and yet he continues to produce. Strome has a great pro shot, love his wrist shot. He knows how to find open space too. Sometimes he holds onto the puck too much, but he can distribute the puck well and when he does, he makes other teammates better. He's got the height at 6 foot 3, and needs to pack on a few more pounds." - Paiva

1. Connor McDavid - Forward - Erie Otters
Total Votes: 15 (one panelist chose to leave him off in order to highlight the accomplishments of others)
Highest Placement/Lowest Placement: 1st (14x)
The Scoop:
"The injury in no way should or will change anyone's opinion of this world class talent. I remember a conversation I had with Windsor Spitfires forward Joshua Ho Sang last spring before he was chosen late in the first round by the New York Islanders. I asked Ho Sang about his time spent with McDavid with the Toronto Marlboros minor midget AAA team in 2011-12. Ho Sang told me that everyone knows how gifted a player he is but no one ever seems to talk about his work ethic. Ho Sang said McDavid didn't drop onto the Earth with all this talent, he truly worked at it. Ho Sang said he's known McDavid since the age of 9 and feels his work ethic is what has gotten him this far and will take him to even greater heights in the future." - Morreale

"Playing under the critical eye of everyone, Connor McDavid has somehow exceeded the impossible expectations created by the hoopla of the draft. Racking up 51 points in just 18 games lauching his Erie Otters to the top of the CHL standings (before getting hurt in a fight), McDavid has the hockey world drooling over his pro future. Poised, professional and humble throughout the process, McDavid continues to stick to playing his game. Elite in every skill, McDavid has proved to be not only “exceptional” but extraordinary in the face of adversity." - Ross

"2015’s #1 has done everything in his power to maintain his lead on the star American, Jack Eichel. After coming up one point shy of 100 in his pre-draft year in the OHL, we all knew McDavid would be this successful. What wasn’t so concrete was how well rounded he would present both on and off ice. An exhausting forward to defend against, he is a star athlete who can pull off amazing movements at seemingly half speed. Scouting McDavid is now about understanding every detail that makes him tick to use him as the gold standard for rating other prospects.” - Mauro

"Kid just has too much talent and intelligence to not be the top pick, not only out of the OHL but hands down overall best talent I have seen in major junior since Crosby. His impressive speed and how he uses it in combination with his slick hands and vision when carrying the puck makes him so intimidating for OHL defenders to face. The way he anticipates his opponents next move as well as what his line mates will do and his creativity with the puck all wrapped up into one neat package are traits that are not common. Prospects like this, they just don't come around very often." - Stewart

"There is nothing more to add than what others have said. I remember a conversation I had with an OHL GM last season who raved about McDavid's skating ability and that explosive first step. That more than anything is the first thing you notice, when he turns it up a notch." - Ambrogio

"The boy genius. One scout told me he has the best hockey IQ he's ever seen, others are saying he's better than Crosby at the same age. An offensive juggernaut who makes insane plays at high speeds." - Kennedy

Others Receiving Consideration (Honorable Mentions):

Thomas Schemitsch - Defense - Owen Sound Attack (4 votes)
Highest Placement: 9th (2x)
Comments:
"I wrote this about his brother Geoffrey in 2010...
 "No player on this list raised his stock as much as Schemitsch. From the major midget land of draft obscurity to the Under 18's and the potential to be selected in the top 100 of the NHL draft. Schemitsch had a very strong rookie season in the OHL for a very disappointing team. In a way, he was one of the few bright spots for the Attack. Schemitsch has OK size, but he's already a very capable two way defender. He played in all situations for the Attack this year and has the mobility to defend off the rush, as well as the intelligence to read and react to situation in the defensive zone. Offensively he runs the point really well and can make a strong first pass. He has good vision on the ice and does a good job of finding his teammates in transition. A few negatives I want to mention though. Whether it was a conditioning thing or something else, Schemitsch's play really slipped towards the end of the season and he was a lot better in the first half of the year in comparison to the second. Also, for a more offensive defenseman, he can be somewhat timid in rushing the puck up ice. At the World Under 18's, I felt like he struggled with this in particular. Teams with a strong forecheck, who don't give him the time to bring the puck up, can often force him into turnovers. But you have to think that Schemitsch will improve and will gain the confidence necessary to take his game to that next level."
...now take all the negatives I mentioned there (size, aggressiveness with the puck, conditioning) and turn them into positives and you've got Thomas. One of the most underrated prospects eligible for this draft IMO." - Otten

"Kid has really turned his game up this season as he looks more comfortable both defending and going on the attack (no pun intended). His decision making and ability to move the puck are traits that have NHL scouts excited for his future." - Stewart

"Probably underrated in some circles, but I make the drive to Owen Sound quite a bit and admit every time I’ve seen him, he has surprised and impressed me. He’s a very good skater, intelligent player, and has very good size which he uses to punish opponents. Add to that his willingness to (intelligently) jump into the offense and you have a well rounded defender. If he can continue that throughout the season, he’ll continue to climb." - Tiano

 10. Blake Speers - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (4 votes)
Highest Placement: 5th (1x)
Comments:
"One of my favorite draft eligibles from the OHL. He's an all-around player and does all the little things right. It will be fun to watch him grow the next few years." - Fournier

"Kid has really blossomed this year as he is getting the minutes and showing what he can do when given the opportunity. The line of Miller, Bunting, and Speers is quickly becoming the Hounds go to line for offence." - Stewart

"There are a lot of slick moving players on this list and in this draft class. You want to talk North South skaters you put Speers at the top of the list. Add in a lightning fast shot and he is a threat if you give him an inch of space. He has filled out but may need a few more pounds. Last season he earned his ice time and unlike a few others on this list, will not be a major go to player on his team. Speers has the benefit of playing behind some talented veterans that will allow him to still develop without the heavy push that some get." - Sudeyko

Rasmus Andersson - Defense - Barrie Colts (3 votes)
Highest Placement: 6th (1x)
Comments:
"Andersson is a player I'm divided on. When he came over from Sweden, I talked to scouts who varied from first rounder to not a prospect, probably due to his wildly inconsistent play at times. Very talented puck mover with high-end upside but lot of holes in his game." - Pronman

Mitchell Stephens - Forward - Saginaw Spirit (3 votes)
Highest Placement: 9th (1x)
Comments:
"He plays a high energy, two way game. He sees the ice well and is able to use his quickness to get himself open. Scouts tell me he has very good hands and good puck-handling ability." - Morreale

Mackenzie Blackwood - Goaltender - Barrie Colts (2 votes)
Highest Placement: 8th (1x)
Comments:
"Tall goaltender at 6 foot 4 and 200 pounds who covers the net very well. Aggressive in the goal. Loves to challenge shooters. Moves well side to side. Barrie missed him when he was injured. Can win hockey games on his own. Coming off an injury, the question is his durability." - Paiva

"At 6’4” he is a big boy in the pipes and it may surprise you to see how acrobatic he can be. Speedy legs and solid positioning makes him appear ready for that jump to the next level. He went from the out house to the penthouse so to speak as he hasn’t been playing the position for as long as his counterparts. Size, speed and strength gives a solid base for further development." - Sudeyko

Travis Dermott - Defense - Erie Otters (1 vote)
Highest Placement: 9th (1x)
Comments:
"Dealing with foot and hand injuries to open the year kept Dermott sidelined for 7 out of the Otters’ first 20GP. With fractured comfort and inability to participate in more than 1/3 of the Otters’ high scoring games leaves him with the tough task of earning 2015 NHL Draft praise. Dermott is an intelligent, enabling puck mover who makes confidently crisp passes across every inch of the ice. He emits no fear with opponents barreling down him showing NHL grade poise, mobility, and vision. Dermott is one of those high IQ players you can’t count out as riser once the meat of the season hits." - Mauro

Dante Salituro - Forward - Ottawa 67's (1 vote)
Highest Placement: 7th (1x)
Comments:
"The third year player benefitted from having a late birthday.  Moves at full speed, all the time, has gotten better and better up the middle as the years has gone on and learned to distribute the puck really well. Works really hard to take the puck away and doesn’t view himself as a small guy, which reminds you that it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the… well I don’t know how it ends, but it ends with Salituro winning the puck battle." - Sudeyko

Matt Luff - Forward - Belleville Bulls (1 vote)
Highest Placement: 7th (1x)
Comments:
"A big wing (6-1, 179) who is starting to earn more ice time. He likes to use his size, fights through checks and has a real good wrist shot with a quick release. He's starting to get some special teams play and he could be a sleeper in the draft." - Morreale

Brett McKenzie - Forward - North Bay Battalion (1 vote)
Highest Placement: 10th (1x)
Comments:
"When you look at what he accomplished in his Minor Midget season and his OHL rookie season, you see that there is still much to be desired. Don’t get me wrong he still possesses strong legs and some great speed, and a decent shot. His overall package has developed playing under Stan Butler and it will continue to shape him over the next few seasons." - Sudeyko

Vince Dunn - Defense - Niagara IceDogs (1 vote)
Highest Placement: 9th (1x)
Comments:
"Undersized D man?   Doesn't apply.  Moves the puck well, QB's a PP that was dynamite last year, but struggling this year." - Clark

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Early Season Top 30 for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

It's time for my first official ranking for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. I say official because I release a preseason ranking in the summer (which can be found here). Now that the 2014/2015 season has started (well under way in fact), updating that list to reflect changes of opinion is a priority. That said, it's important to not over react to hot or cold starts. Some of those currently disappointing, will most definitely pick up their play. And some of those off to blazing starts won't be able to hold that production. At the end of the day, it is a cool exercise to go back and look at my first list of the season. For instance, here's last year's early season draft list.

New this year, I've decided to do a top 50 for every ranking, not just the final one. I'll only write in detail on the top 30, but will include quips on the other 20 as part of my honourable mentions (with ranking).

While compiling this list, it's evident that this is another strong draft year for the OHL. We've got 6 guys currently receiving votes from various scouting agencies for the top 10. And about another 6-7 receiving consideration for the first round. The depth is incredibly strong too. I'm looking at some of these guys I've got rated in the late 20's, early 30's and they could easily be top 100 selections come June.

It's also important to note (for those that aren't familiar with my lists), that I don't include 2nd and 3rd year eligible players on the list (like breakout defenseman Damir Sharipzyanov). I do a year end list for those players.

Without further ado, here's my early season top 30.

1. Connor McDavid - Forward - Erie Otters
Averaging nearly 3 points per game. Quite often players start the season exceptionally hot, but can't maintain their pace. Hard to believe that McDavid won't. Heck, he's playing with a 5'7 rookie (Debrincat) and a guy whose previous career high in goals was 5 (Betz). Those two are certainly playing well, but it pales in comparison to how unstoppable McDavid is right now. He's going to miss time at the WJC's. But it's hard to imagine him not being the first OHL player to break the 150 point mark since Corey Locke. This is especially true once the Otters make a trade to strengthen their roster (imagine how good Nick Baptiste would look alongside McDavid?). So what's been the difference? IMO, two things. First and foremost, McDavid looks considerably stronger. He's not just beating defenders with his speed and smarts anymore. He's now outmuscling them too. And secondly, he's playing with much more conviction without the puck. When it's off his stick, he wants it back. He's engaging physically and digging harder along the boards than he has before. What a player.

2. Dylan Strome - Forward - Erie Otters
I think we all expected Connor McDavid to produce despite not having a ton of proven talent to work with on the wings. But not Dylan Strome. Words can not describe how truly awesome he has been this year. He's playing with two rookies (Taylor Raddysh, and Mason Marchment), and dazzling. Strome uses his size so well to protect the puck, creating extra time for his line mates to get open. Think of how good Ryan was as a puck handler, then add some size to his frame to make him more difficult to knock off the puck. Strome is drawing multiple defenders which is really opening up the ice for others. Strome  also has terrific hockey sense. He uses his creativity and poise to create scoring chances, rather than simply play a "tunnel vision" style game that others with his talent level can get sucked into. Now just imagine when his skating really improves (it's average, not poor). Look out.

3. Pavel Zacha - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Quite often, Import players or big time American commits (from the USHL) tend to need a grace period as they become accustomed to the league. In other words, the expectations placed them can often be hard to live up to. Zacha has been the rare case of a player advertised to be fantastic, who actually has been. I had seen him play internationally before, but he's actually been more impressive than I expected.  That's mainly because he's been surprisingly physical. He plays the game hard and at a very high tempo. Once he gets going, he's so hard to defend off the rush because of his size and ability to carry the puck. But he's also proven to be very effective along the boards and is setting up shop behind the net and winning battles on the forecheck. At the beginning of the year, he looked hesitant to shoot and was playing more of a pass first game. But he's starting to really come around and is taking more chances in shooting the puck. Just a fun player to watch.

4. Travis Konecny - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Thankfully he doesn't have a concussion (apparently) as a result of that nasty hit from Plymouth's Gianluca Curcuruto (who isn't the dirty player people are making him out to be). But he's got to be better offensively than he's been so far this year. Ottawa's new captain (a testament to his leadership ability) just hasn't been able to find a groove so far this year. He's such a dynamic offensive player, that I can't see him staying cold for much longer. His speed is a game breaker, and his release is as good as it gets. What I will say is that I love how physical he's playing this year. As a 5'10 guy, he's got to play that way to increase his draft value.

5. Mitchell Marner - Forward - London Knights
Tough year for London so far (which I predicted would last the entire season). Marner has been right in the thick of that. Even if London continues to struggle (and they go into a rebuild mode), Marner is simply too good to be kept down all year. The great thing is that he's grown from last year and is now sitting close to 6'0. He's got it all as an offensive player. He's able to create in a variety of ways, but is most effective off the forecheck, forcing turnovers. He's also exceptionally smart, and he makes anyone he plays with better.

6. Lawson Crouse - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
Crouse is a throwback. They don't make them like this very often anymore. His game is all power. He's a very exciting north/south guy who'll run you over on the way to the net if he has to. He hits, and he hits hard. But he's starting to improve his ability to handle the puck and he's got great hands in close to the net. Doesn't quite have the offensive potential of some of the other forwards ranked around here, but when you throw in his ability to play the power game, it elevates his value. That said, he does remain primarily a complimentary offensive player, who'll need to learn how to create his own chances more consistently.

7. Nikita Korostelev - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Has developed terrific chemistry with Pavel Zacha on Sarnia's top line. Korostelev has been great so far this year. He's an exceptional puck handler, and with his size, he's able to create so much time and space for himself in the offensive end. His shot also looks much better this year and it's clear that he's worked on that part of his game this offseason. My only real beef is that he hasn't been playing quite as physical as I saw him last year. When you combine his skill set with an ability to engage physically, you've got a pretty special player.

8. Matt Spencer - Defense - Peterborough Petes
Still first among defenseman on this list, but he's feeling the heat. There are several defenders who are having terrific seasons thus far (better than Spencer), and they could all end up rising above him in the draft rankings. Spencer has kept this position sort of by default because he possesses so much potential. Not like he's had a really bad start or anything. Just that others have been so good. Spencer impacts the game in every facet. His offensive game continues to gain confidence. But it's his defensive game that really makes him an exciting prospect. With his size, skating ability, and intensity level (hitting ability), he could develop into one heck of a player in his own end.

9. Thomas Schemitsch - Defense - Owen Sound Attack
Was sooo tempted to put Schemitsch ahead of Spencer. But I didn't (I think Spencer still has the most potential of any defender in this group). In his second year in the league (despite being a late '96), Schemitsch has absolutely exploded and is among the league leaders in defenseman scoring. Basically, think of his brother Geoffrey and his intelligence at both ends of the ice, and smooth skating stride. Then add significant size, a mean streak, and a desire to be more involved offensively (aggressiveness in jumping up in the play), and you've got Thomas. That's a pretty complete player. He's going to rise BIG time if he keeps playing like he has been (which I think he will).

10. Graham Knott - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Started slowly, but has really picked up his game as of late (part of why it's important to not overreact to slow starts). Knott is such a well rounded player. You could certainly classify him as a power forward, but he's also a very strong two-way player and has way better playmaking ability than most stereotypical power forwards. Basically what I'm trying to say is that he's sort of non traditional power forward. His game isn't built around power in the sense that he drives hard to the net, blasting pucks home. It's built around his ability to force turnovers by playing physical on the forecheck. It's built around his ability to win battles along the wall. It's built around his ability to fight off checks and to play through traffic near the crease. And you add to that, that he's already a great penalty killer and dedicated defensive player. Foot speed is lacking, but I don't think it holds him back. His game has too many other layers to it.

11. Mitchell Vande Sompel - Defense - Oshawa Generals
Had him lower than others in my preseason rankings because I was skeptical of how his lack of size would impact the progression of his defensive game. Well he's higher now because his defensive game has been great so far. Oshawa continues to surprise and it's because Vande Sompel has emerged as a legitimate first pairing defender. His speed is so difficult to contain and it's very rare that he gets pinned in his own end because of how well he can escape pressure and transition to the breakout. An interesting tidbit. He's been playing forward on the penalty kill where he's been incredibly effective (Oshawa has the 2nd best PK in the league), using his speed to try to create turnovers.

12. Rasmus Andersson - Defense - Barrie Colts
I'll admit, Andersson is probably 12th (and the 4th rated defender) because of my lack of familiarity with him compared to the guys above him. That said, I've been impressed and he's right there neck and neck with those 4 (and guys like Dermott and Lemcke). Looking like a great year for defenders in the OHL. I've been VERY impressed with Andersson's ability to run the point on the power play. He does a great job of getting shots through to the net and moving the puck. He's also bigger than I thought he'd be, and he does a good job of engaging in the defensive end. In comparison to the four guys ahead of him, I think his foot speed is a notch below and that's why he's 4th (in addition to my comment from the   beginning of the paragraph).

13. Blake Speers - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
I think I've already determined that I like Speers a lot more than scouting services and, perhaps even NHL scouts will this year. He's not a "sexy" player. He's not that big (5'11). He's not yet really an effective player on the forecheck or along the boards. He's not the type of player who dangles through an entire defence on his way to the net. But, he's an incredibly intelligent player who shows a willingness to pay the price to make plays. Speers fills open lanes very well and it's part of why he has so much chemistry with Miller and Bunting, two players who create space with their speed. He makes smart plays with the puck and shows patience in the offensive end. And he's also got a great shot which he requires little space to get off. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Seth Griffith, who just scored his first NHL goal the other day.

14. Mackenzie Blackwood - Goaltender - Barrie Colts
Blackwood is the prototypical NHL goalie for today's game; a 6'4 butterfly net minder who takes away the bottom of the net with quickness, and the top with size. As a late '96, the expectations were high on him for this year and he hasn't really disappointed. He does a great job of squaring to shooters and he's already greatly improving his ability to keep rebounds from the slot. Seems like a candidate to be the top North American goaltender taken in June. Only concern is that he's injured now for a couple weeks with a lower body injury, which hopefully doesn't plague him all season.

15. Travis Dermott - Defense - Erie Otters
There are tons of young defenseman making their mark in the OHL this year, but Dermott can't be forgotten about despite missing most of the year so far with injuries (hand and foot). He's an absolutely terrific two-way defender. He's not tall, but he's very stocky and strong down low. There really aren't many holes in his game. It's scary that Erie has been as good as they have been this year without him. Imagine once he's healthy.

16. Justin Lemcke - Defense - Belleville Bulls
I really like Lemcke's game. He's certainly not a flashy player, but he's cut from the same cloth as guys like Stuart Percy, Chris Bigras, Scott Harrington, etc. Defenders who can play both ends of the ice and who are reliable and consistent. Lemcke's skating ability is definitely an asset on the big ice in Belleville. Defensively, I love his ability to cut off lanes to the net, and his ability to get his stick in passing lanes. He reads plays very well. And he also makes a strong breakout pass. I think it's only a matter of time until he starts using his skating ability to generate scoring chances more consistently.

17. Dante Salituro - Forward - Ottawa 67's
At the beginning of the year, I felt like he was probably more of a candidate for the back half of the draft, given his lack of size. But he's been too good this year to ignore. And while I did rant about overreactions to hot starts at the beginning of this article, Salituro is more than that. We're talking about a near point per game player last year who's continuing to get better. While Travis Konecny was supposed to be the offensive leader of the 67's, it's been the Salituro show thus far. His 10 goals make up nearly 40% of his team's offensive production (both an impressive stat for him, but a depressing one for 67's fans). You have to love the intensity Salituro is playing with this year, attacking the net and fighting for position near the blue paint.

18. David Miller - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
If he were bigger, Miller would definitely be receiving consideration for the top 10. He's easily one of my early favourites of this draft class. Miller is a very well rounded player who plays much larger than his 5'9 frame. His speed and ability to miss checks entering the offensive zone is the immediate thing that sticks out about his game. But he's also active on the forecheck and the back check. And he's a very astute player who makes the players around him (Bunting and Speers) better because of how well he sees the ice and the decisions he makes with the puck. I think he's still a relatively high pick in June despite being undersized.

19. Mitchell Stephens - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
Had such high hopes for Stephens this year after he lit up the Ivan Hlinka tournament and the OHL preseason. But he started the regular season quietly and was recently sidelined with a concussion (hasn't played since October 11). When he returns, I do expect him to live up to this ranking. Stephens' game is built around his speed, which is among the best in this draft class, but he'll need to round out his game and really work to make himself noticeable in other ways than leading play across the blue line.

20. Brett McKenzie - Forward - North Bay Battalion
The offensive numbers haven't been great thus far, but I have to believe that he's going to get better and better as the season goes on. Besides, there's way more to his game than putting up points. He remains one of North Bay's top two way players, using his speed and size to be a presence in all three zones. McKenzie will be appealing because he's that prototypical NHL center for today's game.

21. Kyle Capobianco - Defense - Sudbury Wolves
The Wolves are going to be bad this year. But one of the few bright spots on the team will be former high pick Capobianco. He had a terrific preseason and has carried that over to the regular season. He's going to be one of the youngest available players for the draft this year, which always peaks the curiosity of scouts. As an offensive defenseman, Capobianco is a terrific skater who will likely be one of the league's top offensive blue liners by the time his OHL career is over. His play in his own end continues to need a bit of work (he needs to keep his feet moving in his own end), but he's a puck mover with some size, which is always in demand.

22. Vince Dunn - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
Dunn was one of the league's top rookies last year, emerging as a top 4 defender on an up and coming Niagara team. This year the late '96 is playing on (arguably) the team's top pairing with Blake Siebenaler and seeing ice time in all situations. He's certainly at his best as an offensive defenseman who can lead the rush and jump up in the play. That said, I've been a little disappointed with his decision making in his own end thus far this year. It seems like he's trying to do too much at times (especially true given Niagara's rough start to the year).

23. Gustaf Bouramman - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Super impressed by this smooth skating, puck mover from Sweden. The scouts that I had talked to after the Import Draft all said that he was a high risk, high reward type of defender who had a tendency to ignore his obligations in his own end. While he's not a world beater in his own end, he's been far from a  liability. And he's creating a ton of scoring chances, leading the rush with his great speed and poise with the puck.

24. Sam Harding - Forward - Oshawa Generals
The jack of all trades for the Generals. Harding plays in all situations. He plays hard at both ends of the ice. He wins face-offs. And he's looked way better and more confident offensively this year, even if he hasn't been getting as much ice time as of late. The offensive numbers haven't been great since a hot start, but there's way more to his game than a blank score sheet. That said, given his size, he will need to start producing more consistently if he wants to be a candidate for the first three rounds.

25. Roy Radke - Forward - Barrie Colts
A late '96, but one playing in his first OHL season after signing with Barrie this offseason. Radke has been a great addition to the Colts lineup. He's a big winger who has definite power forward potential. He's already starting to play with more of an edge and looking to create by driving wide, using his size to protect the puck. I think that as the season goes on, we could see his ranking rise as he gains confidence in his ability to create his own scoring chances.

26. Matt Luff - Forward - Belleville Bulls
Really like what I've seen from this big winger. He's already very difficult to move from the crease and he understands his role on a scoring line. The skill level in close is quite high too and I think he's got significant goal scoring potential if he can improve his confidence in his shot. The only drawback I can see is his skating ability. He currently lacks that explosiveness in his stride and it makes him more of a complimentary guy, rather than the focal point of an attack.

27. Gustaf Franzen - Forward - Kitchener Rangers
Has sort of come as advertised. Stocky forward who plays the game hard and is learning how to battle in the corners and come out with the puck. He probably hasn't been as much of a physical presence as was anticipated (there were comparisons to Landeskog), but the effort is there on and off the puck. Offensively, he's developing chemistry playing with Magyar and rookie Adam Mascherin. He's able to get them the puck and looks like he could develop into a player as a guy like Henri Ikonen (former Kington Frontenac).

28. Ethan Szypula - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
Went from not even being in consideration for my preseason list, to on it in a matter of months. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Szypula looks like one of the most improved 97's. He's got 6 goals, and he's been one of Owen Sound's best players in the games that I've seen. Every facet of his game has improved and he's showing a pretty high skill level in open ice, creating scoring chances off the rush and making things happen with the man advantage. He's certainly not the biggest guy (5'11), but he's playing bigger than that and you have to be impressed with his progression.

29. Colton White - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Now that Darnell Nurse has returned, White's role is most likely to decrease a bit, but there's no denying how impressive the 2nd year defender has looked. He's paired with Import Gustaf Bouramman (#23) and been the rock to Bouramman's offensive freedom. He's seeing lots of time on the penalty kill and has impressed with his defensive awareness and ability to read opposing forwards. He's also shown an ability to make a good first pass too and probably has more offensive potential than he's showing right now. Hopefully he continues to get big defensive assignments even with Nurse back.

30. Zachary Senyshen - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
A Hounds 3rd rounder who has really made some noise in his first year in the league. He had a cup of tea last year, which seems to have been very beneficial because he's now playing with confidence and looks to have really added strength to a good frame. He's skating on one of the Soo's scoring lines with Gabe Guertler and overeager Jean Dupuy. He brings great size to the wing, but also skill and he can take advantage of space in the middle of the ice. Big wingers who can drive the net and create/finish off scoring chances are often a hot commodity.

Honorable Mention
31. Garrett McFadden - D/Guelph Storm
Has looked better this year, displaying more confidence with the puck. Skating is terrific and he's playing with jam. Lacks elite size though.
32. Marcus Crawford - D/Saginaw Spirit
Very smart offensive defender who already does a great job on the power play. Will need to continue to prove his capability in his own end.
33. Artem Artemov - F/Saginaw Spirit
Started slowly, but has started to produce in Saginaw. Was one of the top young players in the USHL last year so I figure it's only a matter of time until he plays more consistently.
34. Adam Laishram - F/Belleville Bulls
Wish he was bigger. But does all the little things right. Have seen Belleville a few times this year and I'm not sure I've seen him lose a face-off.
35. Jesse Barwell - F/Mississauga Steelheads
I like him. I think there's more to his game at the OHL than he has shown us thus far. Is starting to create more scoring chances, but needs to bring it every shift.
36. Jeremiah Addison - F/Ottawa 67's
Late '96, Addison is a very hard worker. Still not sure how much offensive upside there is though.
37. Jesse Saban - D/Erie Otters
Stay at home defender who has proven to be quite capable in his own end. Uses his size, but will need to demonstrate more poise with the puck.
38. Tyler MacArthur - D/Owen Sound Attack
Tall, but lanky defender who already plays with an edge. Once his fills out, he could be a real monster in his own end. Needs to cut down on turnovers though.
39. Michael McNiven - G/Owen Sound Attack
It's only a matter of time until McNiven gets more playing time thanks to a trade of one of Brandon Hope or Jack Flinn. Owen Sound can't keep this goaltending carousel going all season. McNiven is an ultra talented youngster who won his first start of the year (although it was against Sudbury)
40. Artem Vladimirov - D/Peterborough Petes
Big Russian defender with a booming shot. Don't have a terrific read on him yet, but could definitely be a riser as the season goes on.
41. Justin Fazio - G/Sarnia Sting
Started the season very poorly, but has picked up his play of late. Sarnia will likely be up and down all season, but Fazio will need to be the consistent anchor if they want to make the playoffs.
42. Hayden McCool - F/Niagara IceDogs
Currently holding down a spot on Niagara's 3rd line (with veterans Cody Payne and Jordan Maletta), but hasn't been overly noticeable despite having great potential.
43. Mike Davies - F/Kitchener Rangers
Former first rounder has started slowly like most of Kitchener. Big winger who needs to step up and play with more of an edge consistently.
44. Johnny Corneil - F/Niagara IceDogs
Not the biggest guy on the ice, but plays the game hard. Has shown some chemistry playing with Graham Knott and he really gets his nose dirty on the forecheck.
45. Petrus Palmu - F/Owen Sound Attack
Pint sized forward who oozes skill. Been very impressed with his play, but I don't really see him as a serious NHL draft prospect.
46. Riley Bruce - D/North Bay Battalion
Real big kid, but can still struggle with the offensive side of things at this level. Big potential and could explode up the list if he improves and gains confidence.
47. Zach Wilkie - D/Niagara IceDogs
Caught in a numbers game on a deep Niagara blue line. Wilkie is a talented player. If an injury occurs, he stands to get more playing time and hopefully takes advantage of it.
48. Doug Blaisdell - D/Kitchener Rangers
Thus far, doesn't seem to have improved much from last year, but does have potential as a two-way defender.
49. Adam Craievich - F/Guelph Storm
Been incredibly disappointed in his play so far this year. Seems to still be missing that extra gear. Shot and offensive skill is undeniable though.
50. Noah Bushnell - F/Sarnia Sting
Suspended power forward who I'm curious to see play this year, to see if his skating and offensive game have developed. When he finally gets to play at the end of October, he'll be rusty.





Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday Top 10 - Players to Watch in 2014


The new OHL season is well underway now. I've been inspired by some of the other lists I've seen put out recently, chronicling players to watch in respective junior leagues (like Ryan Kennedy's NCAA players to watch). I see this as an opportunity to highlight some of the players I see "breaking out" this year. You won't find the likes of Connor McDavid, or Michael Dal Colle on this list. Everyone knows them and what they're capable of. I'm writing about players who haven't yet reached the provincial or national spotlight, but who have the chance to this year.

These are my OHL players to watch in 2014 (in alphabetical order of their OHL team).

Joseph Blandisi - Barrie Colts
Blandisi has never really had the chance to be the go to offensive guy on an OHL team thus far in his career. He's been a key member of some good teams, playing the "character guy" role. He's been the support guy on scoring lines. He's killed penalties. He's been a dressing room influence. And well, now he's been fuelled by the fact that an NHL team chose to not sign him (Colorado). He's come into this OHL season in great shape, brimming with confidence. And he's finally got the opportunity to be one of the key offensive guys on his team. Right now the offence is Barrie is running through him and the early results have been astounding. His 14 points in 5 games leads the OHL in scoring and he seems to be on pace to be this year's "Dane Fox."

Remi Elie - Belleville Bulls
In reality, Elie broke out last year. He WAS the Belleville Bulls last year. He jumped from 7 goals in his rookie year (and draft year) with London, to 29 last year with Belleville. Problem is...Belleville was so bad that no one noticed. This year Belleville is, and will be better. I expect them to battle for home ice in the first round and Elie will be the catalyst. His tenacity, physical bravado, and underrated offensive skill make him an ideal NHL player in today's day and age. Elie may even be a surprise candidate for this year's WJC team IMO.

Dylan Strome - Erie Otters
In his draft year, brother Ryan had to climb the charts and prove that he was a top 10 candidate. Dylan is starting the year already in most top 10's. But that doesn't mean that he can't climb further. At this point, he's looking like a serious candidate to be number 4 behind the "big 3" (McDavid, Eichel, Hanifin). Teammate McDavid is going to steal a lot of the spotlight, but if Strome continues to keep pace with Connor offensively, he's going to be a hot commodity. The Erie Otters have been nearly unstoppable so far this season because of the 1-2 punch they possess down the middle. Who cares about depth on the wing when you've got these two guys feeding you the puck. Strome is incredible.

Pius Suter - Guelph Storm
No Fabbri? No problem. Through training camp, and the preseason, Suter's development as a player was one of the main stories coming out of Guelph. The team lost some important pieces from last year's Championship squad. But they've still got a ton of talent, as evidenced by their performance so far. Suter was stashed away in a 4th line role, killing penalties last year. But if you saw Guelph a lot, you saw he was capable of significantly more. Suter is going to be a critical player for the Storm this year, even when (likely) Fabbri returns.

Sean Day - Mississauga Steelheads
Remember how much better Aaron Ekblad was in his second year? Well, that's happening with Sean Day right now. Day has been sensational for the Steelheads thus far, and at the ripe age of 16 is looking like one of the best defenders in the league. He now possesses the confidence to match his skating ability, and he looks way more determined in his own end. Truthfully, I didn't expect him to be quite at this level just yet, but it's looking like he is. Day is a special player and is really putting the critics (of his exceptional status) to shame.

Blake Siebenaler - Niagara IceDogs
OK, so Niagara is one of the only winless teams in the league thus far. Don't panic Niagara fans. I still expect this team to end up near the top of the Conference. And I expect Siebenaler to experience a big time breakout, leading this team's talented defensive unit. Vince Dunn and him have picked up where they left off and are playing great. Now the rest of the team needs to follow suit. His offensive talents are undeniable (especially his skating ability), but it's his defensive awareness and ability that has really grown to the point where he's becoming one of the league's top two-way players.

Nick Paul - North Bay Battalion
Not everyone gets to be a key piece of a Jason Spezza deal. That's a lot of pressure on a young kid, replacing Jason Spezza in Ottawa. But I think Paul can handle it and I think he's REALLY going to take off this year and establish himself as a terrific NHL prospect. He was great towards the end of last year. He was great at the Team Canada summer camp. And now he's been great so far this year. Paul will lead the Battalion another solid year and I think he's a big time candidate for Team Canada at the WJC's.

Jack Flinn - Owen Sound Attack
The big guy from Halifax has thus far emerged as the starter for Owen Sound (a trade has to be imminent there with Flinn, Hope, and the very talented Michael McNiven around). Now matter where he plays this year, I expect him to play well. Flinn has taken his experience at an NHL camp and turned it into a confidence level yet to be displayed in his CHL (QMJHL and OHL) career. He takes up so much of the net and is learning to control his rebounds and better position himself. Maybe the Q should send us some more huge net minders after the success of Trudeau and now Flinn.

Dylan Wells - Peterborough Petes
Man, who says the Petes need a net minder (OK I did)? The first goalie taken in this year's priority draft, Wells has been a revelation for Peterborough. It's not common for 16 year old goaltenders to lead their team into the playoffs, but it's not unheard of (cough, Alex Nedeljkovic, cough). I still expect Peterborough to make a deal (whether it's one of Owen Sound's guys, Jake Paterson, etc), but Wells has certainly put himself on the map and looks like the next great Canadian net minder to play in the OHL.

David Miller - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Loved this guy last year. Plays the game at such a high tempo. With Jared McCann out (mono), Miller has been the go to guy so far and he's playing lights out. He's undersized, so it remains to be seen how much NHL attention he'll generate, but he's a future OHL star and a potential Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy winner over the next couple of years. He may finish in the top 10 of OHL scoring this year, let alone in future years.


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.