An Easter weekend tradition of this blog, sees me ranking the new batch of OHL rookies in order of the impression they left on me. Only the "true" OHL rookies have been included, thus why it's labeled the "Most Impressive 1995 born players." Unfortunately, this also means that Aaron Ekblad won't be included in the list (however, I will talk about him after the list to give him his due credit).
Another thing I always like to note is that this isn't an early ranking for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. This ranking isn't the order in which I believe these players should be ranked for the draft, but an order of which players impressed me most. It's not a draft prognostication, it's an acknowledgment of the significant impact these players have had on their teams this season.
As mentioned, this is a tradition, so here are the previous year's lists. 1994's. 1993's. 1992's.
10. Anthony DeAngelo - Sarnia Sting
What a savvy pick by the Sting in the 2nd round last year. DeAngelo has a bright future in this league and had a pretty seamless transition from the USHL to the OHL this season. I really liked the way he carried the puck up ice with confidence, creating offense from the back end. He's got some good straight ahead speed and can make forecheckers miss thanks to high end stickhandling ability. He's conscientious of his own end too, and always worked hard to get back after rushes. He was Sarnia's best defenseman in a few games I saw this year. That being said, he's definitely needs to work on defending off the rush. I saw him get blown by in the defensive zone a few times this year and needs to work on his lateral and backwards skating. Getting stronger to win more battles in front of the net and in the corners will be a necessity too. Lots of potential here though, especially since Sarnia's defensive unit has a chance to be one of the best in the league next year.
9. Nicholas Baptiste - Sudbury Wolves
While statistically he probably didn't have as good of a season as many Sudbury fans were hoping, I thought he looked very good this season. His lack of production can probably be partially attributed to the fact that he seemed to be all over the place with the club. I think every time I saw Sudbury play this year, he was on a different line. But he's got great size and he has the potential to develop into a really solid all around player. One of the games I saw him play really stuck out, when he was on a line with Michael Sgarbossa. He used his size and speed combination to open up space for linemates, and was a real physical force. He showed good hands too and I think he could be a very good goal scorer in this league. It'll be interesting to see what he turns into next year after an offseason of strength training.
8. Chris Bigras - Owen Sound Attack
Started slow, but by the end of the season he had become the best first year defenseman in the league outside Aaron Ekblad (IMO). Food for thought. In the final 20 regular season games of the year, he had 13 points and was a +8. And then in the playoffs, he had a point per game and was +5. All this from a guy who many people were up in arms about making the Under 17 team. Bigras reminds me a lot of Matt Finn in his rookie season. He's a really solid player at both ends of the ice already and makes very smart decisions with the puck for a rookie. I think there's lots of upside there as he gains confidence in his skill set.
7. Zach Nastasiuk - Owen Sound Attack
This guy just oozes NHL potential IMO. Granted, a few of the games I saw of the Attack he was relatively invisible. But there were other games where he was the best forward on the ice. And for a 16 year old, I think that's an impressive feat. He's got size and protects the puck very well. I saw him take the puck hard to the net a few times this year in ways we often complain certain other older forwards never do. I was very impressed with his overall skill/power package. And while the penalty minutes might not tell the whole story (only 15 on the year), he was relatively physical in the games I saw. I think he's a guy who could REALLY break out next year and become a big name for the 2013 draft. Adding more muscle this offseason will be big for him to start making a more consistent impact on the score sheet.
6. Stephen Harper - Erie Otters
Harper scored the most goals of any 16 year old in the league this year (24) and was generally one of Erie's most consistent forwards on the season. I really liked that the majority of his goals were scored in or around the crease. As a big kid, it's great to see him going hard to the net looking for loose pucks. I really liked his tenacity and energy on the ice. NHL scouts are going to really enjoy watching this guy and the relative simplicity that brings to the ice. Forecheck hard. Go hard to the net. Work the corners. It's not easy to find "grunt" types who have the skill to finish off plays. It's also pretty rare to find these qualities in such a young player. I'll be really curious to see how his offensive game develops next year, whether his play with the puck/playmaking ability is better showcased/takes a step forward.
5. Nick Ritchie - Peterborough Petes
Too bad that NHL teams are going to have to wait until 2014 for this guy, as he has the potential to be one heck of an NHL player. While it sounds a bit harsh, Nick is already everything scouts hoped (and still hope) that his brother Brett would develop into. In comparison with his brother, he's already a more consistently physical player and a pure budding power forward. He's already got a heavy shot and has the ability to create space for himself on the ice. He's definitely got a goal scorer's mentality too, and he seems to have that knack of finding loose pucks or getting himself in position for solid scoring chances. Best of all, I actually was most impressed with his playmaking ability and the use of his teammates. Ritchie has the potential to be a top 5 NHL pick when all is said and done.
4. Jason Dickinson - Guelph Storm
Easily one of the most skilled younger players in the OHL. Dickinson is very crafty with the puck and aggressive in making things happen offensively. He started off very slowly, but finished the season very strong. He had 22 points in the final 26 games of the regular season, and then was Guelph's best player in their first round series against Plymouth averaging nearly a point per game. Best of all, he fits in with the mantra that Scott Walker has the rest of his player's following; the ability to play hard every single shift. He's not afraid to get his nose dirty and will take a hit to make a play, which is not something you see in all "skill" players at his age. I look for him to breakout big time next year.
3. Hunter Garlent - Guelph Storm
You've got to give it up for Garlent. He earned every inch of ice time he got this year, as well as his nod in the coaches poll as one of the hardest working players in the league. In a way, he reminded me a lot of Jeff Skinner when I saw him in his rookie season. Looks like a little toothpick out there, but he's the first one to go into the corners for a loose puck, or to crash the net looking for an easy goal. And while he's a tremendous energy player with a motor that never stops, he's also a very skilled player who can handle the puck and create plays for his linemates with his speed and ability to drive the net. I really hope he grows a bit before next season (at least to the 5'10 mark), so that scouts don't hold his size against him.
2. Max Domi - London Knights
It was really 1a), 1b) for me between Domi and the guy I have rated number one. Domi has the potential to be the complete package. He's got the toughness and physical abilities of his father, but the skill set that his father never possessed. The thing that really impressed me about Domi was his patience with the puck. Quite often in this league, younger centers come into the league and try to force/rush plays. But Domi showed tremendous vision and patience, letting the play come to him. I think that also shows off confidence in his abilities, another thing many younger players don't develop in their first year. Domi also has tremendous hands and is equally adept as a goal scorer. I'm interested to see if his physical game gets taken to the next level in 2012-2013, as we got little teases of it this season.
1. Ryan Kujawinski - Kingston Frontenacs
As mentioned, I could have probably flipped a coin here between Domi and Kujawinski. Both impressed the hell out of me this year. In the end I gave the nod to Kujawinski for his dominance in all areas of the ice. I saw him play a few games at the beginning of the season with Sarnia, and I truthfully never even noticed him on the ice. But once the trade to Kingston happened, he obviously became a different animal. In Kingston I saw a big centerman who had the speed and skill to burn opposing defenses. I saw a guy working hard at both ends of the ice. I saw a physically aggressive player who was punishing the opposition in loose puck battles. I saw a guy with the capability to win big faceoffs. Needless to say, Kujawinski is the total package. One guy immediately jumped to mind the more I watched him, and that's Anaheim center Ryan Getzlaf (even if he's not having the best of years in the NHL). Here's a terrific piece on Kujawinski by blog friend Neate Sager.
Aaron Ekblad - Barrie Colts
As mentioned above, I didn't include Ekblad because he's not a 1995 (thanks to his exceptional status). But I felt it would be a shame not to use this post as a chance to talk about him and the impact he had in the league this year. The recently awarded Rookie of the Year, was easily the most impressive rookie defenseman in the league this year. For him to come in as a 15 year old and play first line minutes for a top 3 team in the Conference is a remarkable feat. The first thing you notice about Ekblad is how monstrously huge he is. I took a friend to a Barrie game a month or so ago and I said to him, "you see #5 on the Colts? He just recently turned 16." My buddy's response. "You've got to be ******* me!" But it isn't just his size that makes you believe he's older than he is. It's his confidence and ability on the ice too. He looks like a seasoned veteran out there already, rushing the puck up ice, pushing around guys in front of his crease, and playing in all situations. Truthfully, it's scary to think about how good this guy could be by the time he's eligible for the NHL Entry Draft (2014).
Brandon Robinson - Brampton Battalion
A real honorable mention, as in a guy who just missed the list, Robinson has had a solid season for the Battalion. He had some injury problems early on, but by the end of the year he was an integral part of Brampton's offense. He's a big guy and he's got a lot of potential as a goal scorer. But he's got to improve his skating to really take his game to that next level.
Josh Sterk - Kitchener Rangers
Sterk impressed me in a similar fashion to that of Hunter Garlent. He's a really high energy guy who's in on every play and plays hard, despite a lack of size (both height and weight). I'm not sure he's got the same skill level of Garlent, but I look forward to seeing where he takes his game next year.