The Carolina Hurricanes are next.
Ryan Murphy - Kitchener Rangers
It's players like Murphy who make me wish there was some type of exemption for playing in the AHL (in certain circumstances). When players aren't challenged offensively, they can fall into bad habits and get a tad comfortable. And that's what happened to Murphy this year, at least through the first two thirds of the season. When Murphy is on his game, his puck rushing ability makes him nearly unstoppable offensively. His skating ability and puck carrying skill allow him to enter the offensive zone with relative ease. When Murphy was sent back this year, I felt like he struggled a little bit. He was taking too many chances and really neglecting the defensive side of things. Rangers fans were all over him through most of the year for his penchant for committing mistakes out of trying to force plays. I mean, in terms of a statistical analysis, Murphy had another great year. But when you consider what he's done in his OHL career so far, I felt like he stagnated this season and really didn't improve much. It wasn't until he was slighted by Hockey Canada (yet again), that his play really took off post WJC, but he was slighted for the very reason Rangers fans were all over him. This year, he'll be back in the OHL yet again, barring him making the Hurricanes roster to start the season. Upon returning to Kitchener, he's going to need to really focus on improving his defensive game, and picking his spots better offensively. I thought this same thing happened to Ryan Ellis in his 3rd year in the league, and he came back to have his best season yet in his 4th year. So hopefully Murphy is able to channel his energy in the right direction in 2012-2013.
Austin Levi - Plymouth Whalers
I felt like Levi really grew a lot in his four years in the OHL. He was drafted as a huge project, as a big guy who could skate and push people around, but couldn't do a whole lot else. But his offensive game and his defensive game grew tremendously since being drafted. This season, everything took a step forward yet again. Defensively, his in zone coverage really improved and he stopped looking for big hits, allowing the game to come to him and his long reach. He also was more effective in clearing the crease. Offensively, I felt like he handled the forecheck better (something he had trouble doing in previous seasons) and was able to move the puck quicker and more efficiently to start the breakout. He definitely cut down on the turnovers in his own end. Moving forward, he still remains a project though. While all of these things improved at the OHL level, he'll have to continue to work on them in the AHL where decisions need to be made quicker. For a big guy who's a fluid skater, he can be prone to getting beat to the outside because he seems indifferent on whether to take the body or use the stick check. These types of things only come with increased confidence and comfort. It seems like the Canes have a lot of guys on defense at the AHL level, so he might have to play part of this season in the ECHL if the learning curve proves too steep for him to start.
Matt Mahalak - Plymouth Whalers
Mahalak had an absolutely terrific season, even if he spent it splitting time with Scott Wedgewood. In fact, in the games I saw Plymouth play, Mahalak was the better goaltender. He looked much more comfortable in the crease and was able to string together a very consistent season . I felt like he was able to use his size in his crease more effectively this year, but was also able to control his rebounds more. He transformed himself from being purely a puck stopper, to a guy who controls his rebounds and anticipates the play better. He's very athletic too and can make the highlight reel save to keep his team in the game. He stopped 14 of 16 shootout attempts this year, a testament to his agility and ability to stay with shooters. This coming season is the big one for him. Plymouth is set to return a lot of their major players and should have a terrific team. A team that will belong to him as the starter. He could easily be one of the breakout stars of the OHL this coming year.
Beau Schmitz - Plymouth Whalers
With their connection to the Whalers organization, it came as no surprise to me when the Canes signed Schmitz after his overage year. After all, they did invite him to their prospect camp last year. He had an absolutely terrific overage year and really took his game to the next level in every aspect. He looked way more confident at both ends of the ice. While he's always been a solid OHL defenseman, he was on another wave length this year. Offensively, he was way more aggressive in joining the rush and looking for scoring opportunities. In particular, his work on the powerplay looked much comfortable. Defensively, he was way more physically aggressive, which resulted in him winning more battles in the corners and in front of the net. He's not a big guy, but this year he started playing much bigger than he is. My guess is he'll start in the ECHL next year and gain some confidence at the pro level. I'm still not really sure what type of defenseman he'll be at the next level, but his progression in his overage season was definitely very encouraging for his long term potential.
Brock McGinn - Guelph Storm
After battling some injuries this year, McGinn was still drafted in the 2nd round for his combination of energy, tenacity and goal scoring ability. This season, McGinn will look to stay healthy and establish himself in the top 6 of the Storm. Guelph will be returning its entire group of forwards for this year, many of whom have a ton of potential. Needless to say, competition for ice time will be very fierce in Guelph. It'll be interesting to see where McGinn ends up slotting in.
Daniel Altshuller - Oshawa Generals
The Gennies had a brutal year (considering the expectations surrounding them), and Altshuller was definitely part of that. He had huge expectations (perhaps unfairly) coming into his first season in the league after leading Canada to Gold at the Ivan Hlinka. His play was widely erratic, to say the least. But he's a big goaltender with a lot of potential (as evidenced by his high draft selection by Carolina). The good news is that the starting job in Oshawa will be his to lose. Kevin Baillie isn't likely to return as an OA, so Altshuller will be the main man. Oshawa is losing some key talent up front, but they should still remain a competitive team. If he can turn in a solid performance, the Gennies could secure a top four standing in the Conference. And quite frankly, I do expect him to be a lot better this season.
Trevor Carrick - Mississauga Steelheads
I'd expect big things from Carrick this year in Mississauga. He really came into his own during the 2nd half of the season, especially offensively. By the playoffs, his confidence with the puck had hit a real high point. By this time, he had also formed a pretty good partnership with Toronto first rounder Stuart Percy on the team's top pairing. This union should continue this year where the two should play in all situations together. Percy's strong defensive play could also allow Carrick to take more chances offensively and really put up some nice numbers.