Traveling down the I-90 to Buffalo today.
Daniel Catenacci - Owen Sound Attack
It was more of the same from Catenacci this year, continuing to build off of the improvements he made in Owen Sound during the 2011/2012 season. He had his best offensive season to date and continued to be a well rounded player. His speed and tenaciousness are definitely his best assets. He can create scoring chances a bevy of different ways (driving hard to the net, off the rush, off the wall, off the forecheck) and was a very consistent offensive player this year. He's also continued to improve his defensive game and play without the puck and is now a dedicated two-way player. Really these are just the same things that I said about him last year, following his first season in Owen Sound. Needless to say, he's ready for a new challenge in the AHL. He got a small taste of that at the end of last year and performed very well for Rochester. I'd expect much of the same from him this coming season. I think with his speed, skill, and determination, his game is well built for the pros and I think he'll be among the leading rookie scorers next year in the AHL.
Justin Kea - Saginaw Spirit
Kea had a terrific year for Saginaw, greatly improving his offensive totals from his draft year. As I mentioned in last year's article, this was heavily expected. Kea is a big guy, but he's got pretty soft hands and is a pretty solid playmaker when it comes to creating chances for his linemates. He's also a great skater for a big guy and is often able to beat defenders to spots, in addition to out muscling them. Defensively, he's a very effective and smart player on the backcheck. He works hard in the corners and is a fantastic penalty killer. Kea is also very solid on face-offs. Has the makings of becoming a very complete player at this level. Moving forward, it'll be about gaining more confidence with the puck. With his size and skating combination, it'd be nice to see him start to take over games by being aggressive with the puck in drives to the net and by taking over plays along the wall. He'll likely see increased powerplay time next year and the Spirit should be one of the better teams in the Western Conference. A 60 point season isn't out of the question IMO.
Brady Austin - Belleville Bulls
If I'm being honest, I had greater expectations for Austin this year. I thought he was a very savvy pick by the Sabres last year, but didn't progress much this year (his 4th in the OHL). His offensive production actually went down in comparison to his previous season. I wanted to see him start to take more chances with the puck and become more involved with the transition game. He's got a big shot from the point, but he's still learning how to jump up into the play to use it. Offensively, he remains rather tentative. Defensively, he's solid positionally and he uses his long reach well to keep forwards to the outside off the rush. But he didn't really make strides in being more physically aggressive this year. I'd like to see him play with more conviction (physically) in front of the net and in the corners. He has the potential to be the type of defender who takes over the game in all facets at this level, but hasn't taken that step yet. I don't think he's ready for the pro game yet, and I'd be very surprised if he's not back in Belleville for his overage year next season. As an overager, he'll have an opportunity to really gain confidence at both ends of the ice and in the areas I outlined.
Nikita Zadorov - London Knights
A very smart selection where Buffalo nabbed him this year (16th). Tons of potential as a strong-way defender. He improved greatly over the course of this OHL year, in particular offensively. He was a physical and demonstrative shutdown defender from day one, but as the season went on, he began to take more chances with the puck. By the time the Memorial Cup came around, Zadorov was aggressive in jumping up or leading the attack. The question is, is he NHL ready? I don't think so. I realize that Buffalo (without any significant free agent signings) might have a hole or two on the back-end, but I don't think it'd be wise to plug it with Zadorov at this time. I think he still has some things to learn in the defensive end. He can still have some difficulty with zone coverage (chasing the puck, taking himself out of position for the big hit, losing his man) and needs more time and coaching in order to be a prime-time shutdown defender. With the quicker pace of the NHL, I think he'd get eaten alive a bit. And offensively, I think his growth would be stunted as he's still gaining confidence in that area. In particular, I'd love to see him improve on his ability to use his shot to generate offensive chances from the point. Another year in London would do wonders for his development.
Justin Bailey - Kitchener Rangers
Another great pick by Buffalo this year, Bailey has a lot of potential as a big offensive forward (wouldn't call him a power forward). He skates well and has an absolute laser of a shot. He's definitely still raw and had a lot of ups and downs this year in Kitchener. He also didn't see as much ice time as he probably would have liked. Next year Kitchener will be losing Matt Puempel, Tobias Rieder, and Josh Leivo (among their top 6 forwards). That will give Bailey the opportunity to jump up and make a greater offensive contribution. In order to do that, he'll have to focus on getting stronger this offseason. A lot of the inconsistencies he had this year stemmed from the fact that he just wasn't strong enough to make an impact. He got pushed off the puck too easily, and wasn't able to fight through traffic to get himself in good position to unleash his big shot. I'd look for all of those things to improve this upcoming year. I expect a big jump in his numbers, especially in the goal scoring department, where he could crack 30 goals. Lots of room to grow here.
Nicholas Baptiste - Sudbury Wolves
Baptiste was a solid pick-up by Buffalo in the 3rd round. He had a very good 2nd year in Sudbury and will look to build off of that next year, when the Wolves return practically all of their critical offensive cogs. He's one of the best and faster skaters in the OHL and currently generates a lot of his scoring chances by beating defenders to loose pucks or open space. Moving forward, it'll be about rounding out his offensive repertoire. Would love to see him improve his ability to create with the puck on his stick and become more than just a north/south player. With his speed (and decent size), he should be able to take defenseman wide with consistency and look to drive hard to the net. I'd also like to see his physical game develop more consistency. He has the ability to be a real impact player in all facets of the game. Next year in Sudbury, I'd expect a modest offensive increase. A 60 point season is well within reasonable expectation.
Eric Locke - Saginaw Spirit
Did I mention that I liked Buffalo's draft this year? Nabbing Eric Locke with a 7th was a coup. I thought he'd go way earlier (as did many other people in the OHL circle of trust). You'd be hard pressed to find an OHL player who improved more this season than Locke. He went from being an undersized, tentative, perimeter, speedy scorer, to a tenacious, complete, offensive dynamo this year. There were many games that he completely took over in the 2nd half of the season, especially after Saginaw traded Vincent Trocheck. He can control the wall, win loose puck battles, get under the skin of the opposition, but also find open teammates, demonstrate poise with the puck and finish off plays with a terrific and quick release. Obviously, all of this was done at the OHL level this year. Can he continue to play that aggressive style at the professional level? Not sure if he can, but he'll need to. He simply can't revert to the type of player he was previously, a strict finesse type player. The key to his success moving forward will be the continued development of his aggressive/in your face offensive style. The Sabres will have the decision of whether to send him back to the OHL for his overage year, or play him in Rochester. Quite frankly, I think it's a toss up. On one hand, if he goes into camp and demonstrates a desire to play hard every shift, and is creating offensive chances, I think he's proven enough in the OHL to make the jump. On the other hand, sending him back to Saginaw for his overage year would give him the opportunity to win a division title (which I think Saginaw will have a chance to do) and continue to improve his confidence at both ends of the ice. If I was a betting man...I'd say he'll be in the AHL.
*of note, the Sabres did not sign Barrie defenseman Alex Lepkowski, making him a free agent. However, interestingly enough he did sign an AHL deal with Rochester (their affiliate). Perhaps they're still keeping tabs on him.