Sunday, February 24, 2013

Midseason Media/Scout Top 10 for 2013

It's time to revisit our media/scout top 10 for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

Interestingly enough, not a ton has changed in the rankings. The big risers are Ryan Hartman and Chris Bigras, while Ryan Kujawinski and Spencer Martin are the fallers. If you wish to compare, here is the preliminary one from December.

I feel fortunate to say that we've got our largest contingent of contributors yet for this version of the list! Basically a who's who of junior hockey experts. Definitely happy to have all of them contributing!

Helping out were:

Ross MacLean - Head scout for ISS Hockey (@rossmaclean)
Scott Campbell - Managing editor for TSR Hockey (@TSRhockey)
Corey Pronman - Hockey Prospectus author (@coreypronman)
Dominic Tiano - Writer for The OHL Writers (@dominictiano)
Matt Burnside - Writer for The Hockey Guys (@MattBTHG)
David Burstyn - Director of Scouting for McKeen's Hockey (@DavidBurstyn)
Sean LaFortune - Scout for McKeen's Hockey/Director of (@SeanLafortune)
Nathan Fournier - Author of The World of Junior Hockey/Contributor to The Hockey News (@jrhockeywriter)
Ryan Kennedy - Associate senior writer for The Hockey News (@THNRyanKennedy)
Dan Stewart - Director of Scouting for Future Considerations (@StewartFC)
Grant Sonier - Author for ESPN's Draft Blog (@GPSHOCKEY)
Todd Cordell - Editor and author for The Hockey Guys (@ToddCordell)
Mark Seidel - Scouting Director for NACS Hockey (@MarkSeidel)
Patrick King - CHL Writer for Sportsnet (@SNPatrickKing)
Steve Clark - Play by Play Announcer for the Niagara IceDogs (@SteveClarkMedia)
Manny Paiva - Play by Play Announcer for the Owen Sound Attack (@paivatheway)
Brendan Ross - Co-Manager of DobberProspects, writer for OHL Writers (@RossyYoungblood)
and of course...myself (@BrockOtten)

Here are the rankings:

10. Justin Bailey - Kitchener Rangers
Received Votes From: 11/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 6th (1x)/Outside the Top 10 (6x)
Comments: An OHL rookie, Bailey has done well to cement himself as a future OHL star. But the season didn't start quite as well as one would have hoped. Ross MacLean says "I think a lot of people brushed him off earlier in the year because every time he tried to play the game you'd expect him to, he got hurt.  I think he's much more dynamic than people give him credit for and always feel like he's been branded unfairly.  I love his work ethic and he's one of very few players from the O for this draft that I truly believe shoots to score every time.  He's got a lot of bulking up to do, but he's going to be a very good professional player." Another contributor agrees about his shot, saying "No question, Bailey has one of the best shots of this draft class. A howitzer." It's that upside that really has people talking. "Upside is through the roof," says one contributor. Another says, "Gets better and better every time I see him and he has an NHL body working in his favor. Skating is better then it looks as he can really get around the ice with hard work. Just get the feeling we will be saying in a few year's time, wow he is a lot better then I thought." But, there are some concerns about the development of his "overall" game and strength. Burstyn and LaFortune from McKeen's say, "Bailey needs to be more physical, he competes and plays an honest game however he also gets pushed off the puck far too easily and doesn't stay in front of the net as long as he should." There appears to be no question that Bailey is a bit of a project with a raw skill set, but the upside is there to warrant a high selection.

9. Chris Bigras - Owen Sound Attack
Received Votes From: 13/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 7th (2x)/Outside the Top 10 (4x)
Comments: Thanks to a strong performance at the Top Prospect's Game, and continued consistent play in Owen Sound, Bigras cracks our top 10 this time around. One contributor sums it up well, saying "Chris Bigras is making noise and it’s because of his astute responsible two-way game. Attack Head Coach Greg Ireland relies heavily on the sophomore in all situations and he has answered the challenge exceptionally." Another contributor agrees. "He has been the team's best offensive blueliner before the acquisition of Cody Ceci. He is rarely caught out of position defensively too." While he may not be incredibly flashy, he is productive, says Dan Stewart. "When I see Bigras play he just comes off as the type of blueliner that will hold a team’s defense together as that essential glue guy. He is a strong defender that does all the right little positional things to make his defending against the rush look easy and then can transition the play ever so smoothly. While he doesn’t have that flashy offensive skill set or the mean physical game others in this draft class do, he is solid overall and looks like a strong #4 or #5 defender at the next level who will play the PK and the last minute of a close game." Ross MacLean agrees, calling him "an unsung hero," and suggesting, "I don't think people realize how well this kid reads the game." But there is some concern about his "tweener" status. One contributor writes, "My main concern is that a lack of any defining skill may see him end up more like Tyler Cuma than an NHL calibre defenseman." Another agrees, "Kind of similar to Stuart Percy last year. I like him, but I'm not entirely sure how much potential he has for the next level. More of a safe selection." Steady can definitely be appealing to NHL scouts though.

8. Ryan Hartman - Plymouth Whalers
Received Votes From: 14/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 5th (2x)/Outside of the Top 10 (3x)
Comments: Like Bigras, the feisty Hartman has exploded into the Top 10, thanks to a strong WJC performance and some terrific play in the new year. Hartman's tenacious forechecking ability and in your face style have certainly drawn the attention of scouts. "Hartman has left a positive impression in each viewing I've had of him this season, which is extremely impressive considering he is a teenager. Hartman has that “will-to-win” attitude that wins games for you and it is becoming a highly sought after attribute. His confidence and poise with the puck as well as his individual puck skills often get overlooked by his snarly style of game but he is certainly capable of fulfilling a scoring role at the next level," says one contributor. Another contributor describes him as a very difficult player to go up against. "I'm tempted to put him higher due to his increased level of play since Vincent Trocheck's arrival. In case his chirps and physical play didn't piss you off enough, now he's bringing the offense to back it up, making him the ultimate pest." But, just how much upside does he possess? Dan Stewart says, "Not 100% sure if he is a pest with some offensive upside at the next level like a Matt Cooke or a top six scoring forward with some pest in him but I am leaning towards the later." Leaning towards being more of a top six forward is certainly appearing to be the trend when it comes to Hartman's projection. David Burstyn and Sean LaFortune explain, "Hartman is a hard working, pugilistic forward who plays chippy but also has the hands and play making ability to tear a defense apart." The only real concern moving forward, like most pests, is being able to play hard without taking penalties. Or as one contributor put it, "With any player that plays his style of game, he needs to make sure he's not always drawing himself into penalties." Hartman is definitely a prospect on the up.

7. Jason Dickinson - Guelph Storm
Received Votes From: 16/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 4th (1x)/Outside of the Top 10 (1x)
Comments: Dickinson is slowly becoming one of the enigma's of this draft class. His play has dropped off of late, and it's causing a real division amongst scouts. Just look at these differing opinions. One contributor says, "Jason needs to improve his consistency on the ice. Sometimes he plays physical and other times, he is passive. In fact, he can be invisible at times and always leaves you wanting more. But he does have good size with above average offensive skill." Another contributor says, "The fact that we're projecting a kid with the skill and understanding of the game that Dickinson possesses as a mid to late first round player almost seems ridiculous.  Like Monahan, he's a very intelligent and safe pick that can fit into a variety of roles.  I like him more every time I see him and I'm sure there be some serious debates in NHL war rooms over just how early to jump on Dickinson." It's all about projection with him. There's obvious offensive skill and some other great tangible skills. As one contributor said, "you can just see the flashes of brilliance." David Burstyn and Sean Lafortune add, "From a skill perspective few players offer the natural abilities that he possess. He has good vision, outstanding feet and can shoot the puck." While there has been some criticism towards his play of late, one contributor disagrees. "Dickinson still plays in all situations and is more than responsible defensively – often the first guy back on the back check. Some question his work ethic. I beg to differ. If anything, he needs to be more consistent but he isn’t lacking on that either. Dickinson is a solid character kid with leadership qualities. You’ll often see him directing traffic and being very vocal on the ice, something you don’t see often from a second year player. He has good size but really needs to fill out his frame. Once he fills out, he could very well become physically dominating but the lack of that bulk sometimes leaves him shying away from it. He has deceptive speed as well as a sneaky shot that has defenders and goaltenders wondering at times. The potential for Dickinson is high." How he finishes out the season will be huge for his draft stock. Otherwise, as one contributor put it, "That sound you're hearing is a first round talent dropping to the second round with a mediocre, at best, second half."

6. Kerby Rychel - Windsor Spitfires
Received Votes From: 17/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 2nd (1x)/9th (1x)
Comments: Overexposure can be a cruel mistress. Sometimes for players with late birthdays, an extra year in the league can cause scouts and the media to focus less on their strengths and more on their weaknesses. Rychel is certainly someone who's had that happen to him this year, his 3rd in the OHL. Look no further than this report, "My draft notes are all over the map when it comes to Kerby Rychel and his play has reflected that. His play has been sporadic all season long but when he is on his game he can become one of the most dominant players in the Ontario Hockey League. The return of Khokhlachev has sparked a late-season surge in Rychel (as expected) but determining whether he should be applauded or knocked for that, remains a big question. Rychel owns great size, a wicked release and the puck tends to follow him around which are all great qualities for a sniping winger. However, Rychel has shown lapses in compete level and often becomes disinterested when times get tough – those are concerning qualities in a prospect." On top of engagement level, there also seems to be some concern about his skating ability. One contributor says, "Rychel has just one question mark about his game, and that is skating at this stage of his development. However, he has everything needed to be a solid two way player. As one scout stated, I see no reason why his skating won't improve to the level that will allow him to play." Not everyone is giving up on him though. He certainly still has his fans. One of whom is Ross MacLean. "I'm very high on Rychel.  He brings a very old school mentality to playing the game and does things and uses skills that a lot of players seem to ignore these days.  He's a powerful and gritty player who doesn't back down from any situation, isn't just not afraid to go to the dirty areas but thrives in them and can be near impossible to contain around the net.  He's a complimentary player and does need someone to help put him in situations where he can be successful but when he gets that he can have a serious impact on the outcome of the game." SO in a nutshell, our contributors seem to have some consensus on Rychel. Skating and a wavering effort need to improve, and he's not going to be a dazzling creative player at the next level, but he can put the puck in the net and play the game hard when he wants to. So, who's going to give him that playmaker? Is this the part where I mention how many "Boston should draft him to pair him with KoKo," jokes I received!?

5. Bo Horvat - London Knights
Received Votes From: 17/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 2nd (1x)/8th (2x)
Comments: Another riser from the previous list, Horvat's all around game is really causing scouts and fans to gravitate towards him. Simply put, "he plays the game the right way," as one contributor put it. While Horvat might not receive the fan fare that Max Domi does, it can be argued that he's been just as important of a player as Domi for London this season. "every time I watch Horvat play, I want to cast a vote for him in the Selke race.  He's such a good team player who competes very well and consistently.  I have rarely seen him take a shift off," says Ross MacLean. Another contributor adds, "He’s one of those players that wants to win at any cost, whether it’s blocking a shot, taking a hit to make a play or making the hit himself. If you’re looking for the definition of versatile in a hockey player, Horvat is it. He’s a solid character guy with leadership qualities. He’d be a top line center on a lot of OHL teams right now." But just how much offensive potential does he have? That seems to be a question many are asking, so insinuates Dan Stewart. "I have been all over the map with this guy since the season started. One month, I am convinced we have a very good third liner who will check the opposition’s top offensive stars but who has limited offensive upside on our hands and the next viewing that we are looking at the next Mike Richards; a gritty two-way forward who can contribute in all aspects." One contributor seems to think that people are underrating his offensive instincts and ability. "He's got way more offensive ability than people think. Horvat is an absolute horse." " A future NHL captain, who has a very underrated offensive ability," says another contributor. Bottom line with Horvat is this; everyone seems to love him. It's just whether they view him as a future 3rd liner or a possible top six two-way guy. I'm starting to wonder if there's an NHL team out there who loves him enough to take him earlier than people are anticipating.

4. Nikita Zadorov - London Knights
Received Votes From: 17/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 2nd (3x)/10th (1x)
Comments: You have to be impressed with the physicality that Zadorov brings to the ice. As one contributor says, "The boards at the Halifax Metro Centre are still shaking from his bonecrushing hit in the Top Prospects Game." His menacing size at 6'5, and 230lbs, projects him as a true shutdown type at the NHL level. But there's also an offensive side to his game that is still blossoming. "He has the wow factor for me and it does not stop at his impressive size. His backwards range of skating covers so much ice he is able to use his size and reach to defend. He has not showed offensive upside playing in London, and I may be on an Island by myself, but I think he has much to give in this area of the game. Learning the game at London's pace is fine for now, but would like to see the reins loosened to see what he can do," says one contributor. David Burstyn and Sean LaFortune continue, " Becoming more acclimatized to Coach Hunter's systems and North America, at 6'5, 230 Zadarov is a physical specimen whose skating and agility are tops amongst this year's draft eligibles. His ability to keep things simple in the defensive zone sets him apart as he plays tough and is able to contain with his size and strength. He currently boasts the highest + rating amongst defenseman in the OHL with an impressive +29." With his size, skating ability, and skill package, Zadorov does appear to have a lot of potential. Ross MacLean says, "The scariest part of Zadorov is not how good he is already, but how good he can be as he still has an absolute ton of development left to do.  He's a kid that will likely take another 4-5 years before we will really have a read on the height of his potential." Despite all the compliments, Zadorov does not come without a bit of criticism. "I want to see more consistent play. I saw him on back to back nights. On the first night, he was strong defensively and made wise decisions pinching in the offensive zone. The next night, players were skating around him," says one contributor. Another adds, "Sometimes I question his defensive hockey sense. Can really take himself out of position looking for the big hit. As he moves up, the puck movement will be faster and he'll have to pick his spots way better." Bottom line is, in today's day and age, 6'5 physical defenseman just don't fall too far at the NHL draft.

3. Max Domi - London Knights
Received Votes From: 17/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 3rd (7x)/6th (2x)
Comments:Domi is the 3rd consecutive London Knights player on this list, and one of three players who has a legitimate shot to go inside the top 15. Domi is also the highest scoring draft eligible player from the OHL. "Love his game.  He's got speed to burn, quick hands and a quick release.  He plays with a bit of an edge, but nothing like his father Tie," says one contributor. True, he is no Tie, but maybe that's a good thing. Or as one contributor put it, "the apple may fall far from the tree, but that's not a bad thing here." While he is small, many believe this will not hold him back at the next level. "Like all small players who make it, an elite level of compete is needed and this diminutive forward has it," says one contributor. Another adds, "his elusiveness and unpredictability keeps defenders on their heels and as a result it opens up more ice for Domi to operate, which is important for an undersized forward." Like any smaller player, his skill level will have to carry him to the next level. Dan Stewart says, "the skilled centre/winger has shown multiple layers of talent with the puck on his stick. Equal parts playmaker and goal scorer, he can play it anyway you want; a finesse game, dump and chase, physical and agitating. His game is well rounded in that regard." David Burstyn and Sean LaFortune add, "Few players in this year's draft class (yet alone the OHL) can produce offensively like Domi can. His offensive skills are finely tuned and he has transformed his game considerably to locate his team mates and use them to his advantage. His low centre of gravity coupled with his impressive core strength makes it impossible for him to get knocked off the puck. Size holds him back slightly as does his medical condition of diabetes however NHL teams looking for an explosive offensive and skilled winger (he can play both sides) will gravitate towards him." While size is something people talk about, his raw two-way game receives more criticism. "Many believe his defensive game isn’t at the level as some of the players available. My thoughts on that is that under the right coach and system, defense can be taught but his offensive abilities cannot. Do you pass up an offensive threat because of that?" says one contributor. And that's a great question; a question NHL teams will have to ask themselves come June 30th.

2. Darnell Nurse - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Received Votes From: 17/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 1st (1x)/6th (1x)
Comments: I think you have to be enamored with the vast amount of potential Nurse has moving forward. His natural athletic gifts give him a real unpredictable projection for the next level. "I love him. He just oozes potential. Effortless skater. Big, and mean. Booming shot. Improving ability to run a powerplay and skate the puck up. He's the complete package," says the contributor who ranked him first. Ross MacLean agrees, "I think Nurse could go as high as 3rd in the draft, possibly even 2nd if the team picking in that spot is set on Seth Jones and doesn't get him.  He's got a very similar package to Dougie Hamilton but could be a little bit more explosive.  He's still so raw, which is something that I think a lot of teams who have strong faith in their development departments will salivate over.  He's a tremendous athlete who is still very much a lump of clay and can be moulded into a very special and dynamic player in a multitude of systems." The fact that he's gotten so much better this year is definitely encouraging too. As one contributor put it, "He's taken quantum leaps forward on a team that's taken quantum leaps forward. The thought of what he can do next year and beyond is tantalizing." Another contributor agrees, "Nurse has answered preseason questions on whether he holds another gear offensively and he has done so while maintaining an elite level of defensive and physical play. His edges, strength and decision making are already savvy and once Nurse can fill out his mammoth frame, opponents won’t be looking forward to facing this potential top-pairing rearguard." David Burstyn and Sean LaFortune are a bit concerned about his body type, saying "his physical stature is a tad concerning as he is rather slender and may not be able to add bulk to his frame." This could obviously limit his ability to physically dominate at the next level. Other contributors are a tad concerned about his hockey sense and decision making ability, suggesting "at times he makes some questionable decisions with and without the puck." Nurse is certainly a work in progress, but as I've tried to outline, the potential is sky high.

1. Sean Monahan - Ottawa 67's
Received Votes From: 17/17
Highest/Lowest Placement: 1st (16x)/2nd (1x)
Comments: Nearly the unanimous top player available from the OHL, Monahan is certainly an impressive player. "It takes a special player to battle through the hardships that the lowly Ottawa 67’s have had to endure this season and Sean Monahan is exactly that – a special player. Monahan is a player you learn to appreciate more with each passing view of him, as his elite hockey sense and heady game become more prevalent as you dissect his game," says one contributor. Hardships is a bit of an understatement, as another contributor adds. "Sometimes you really need to see the character of a player when he faces adversity.   His team is last in the OHL and he was cut from Team Canada, but Monahan continues to produce with 67 points in 48 games.  He is strong in all facets of his game, and he might not realize it, but the substandard year for the 67's likely has made him a better all around player." It's that all around ability which sticks out most about Monahan. He's certainly someone who many feel is ready for the NHL next season, as many contributors pointed out. He's "a safe pick with high potential," as Ross MacLean points out. Skating is a bit of a concern, another thing nearly every contributor pointed out, but his hockey sense should help him make up for that. The real question is, how high does he go at the NHL draft? The contributor who ranked him 2nd had this to say, "I wonder if we might see him fall at the draft, similar to the way Sean Couturier did a bit. He's not going to be playing in the OHL playoffs. He's not going to be at the Under 18's. Does he run the risk of being slightly forgotten?" I guess we'll see.

Honorable Mentions

Spencer Martin - Mississauga Steelheads
Received 9 votes (Highest was 6th)

"The Steelheads have struggled as of late but Martin has still been solid. He is at the top of his game when he’s playing aggressive, calm and composed. Got to love his potential, NHL size, plays his angles well, and very strong lateral movements across the crease. Rebound control is definitely an area that needs improvement. He is subject to pushing the puck right back into the slot which has been getting him into trouble."

"I really like the way this kid plays, I think he has a ton of potential.  I'm not big on drafting goalies high but Martin is the kind of goalie that I wouldn't be too upset about my team drafting in the 2nd round.  Decent size, very good down low with good focus.  I never want to root against any teams I watch but Martin is a kid I think would get a huge boost from the exposure of potentially playing for Canada's U18 team in April, and that will only happen if his squad can't cut it in the first round of the OHL playoffs."

"Speaking of inconsistent, Martin’s game has gone hot and cold and back to hot again this season. I love this kid’s attitude. At games he looks confident and borderline cocky as he tries to get into the heads of the shooters he goes against. His composure, size and agility make him a strong NHL prospect. While he does have areas that need improvement, like rebound control and consistency of focus, he is on the road to becoming a very strong prospect and one goalie prospect that I could see slip into the first round. He is the heart and soul of this Mississauga team and could really develop into something special."

Jimmy Lodge - Saginaw Spirit 
Received 3 votes (Highest was 7th)

"Know consistency was his big knock coming into the season and while that area isn't great I think he's gotten better. Really talented player who can make a lot happen offensively but his physical game and defense still need work."

"It’s amazing how much this player has come on since his MM season with the Toronto Titans a couple of years ago. The lanky forward has added some height but has yet to fill out his build, probably checking in around 170 pounds right now. What makes Lodge so enticing is the unknown factor of what he could become. He’s really developed this season and is emerging into a fairly dynamic forward capable of putting up consistent offense. While other players may be safer picks, Lodge is a bit of a wildcard to consider."

"I have Jimmy Lodge higher than some other scouts because he is now getting more opportunities to play and more responsibility and he is making the most of it. Jimmy has been scoring at a torrid pace for the Spirit. He has very good offensive skill. He can shoot the puck but also distributes to his teammates very well. Jimmy has great speed and size at 6'2. But he needs to get stronger and put on more pounds. I want to see more of him to write a better report."

Ryan Kujawinski - Kingston Frontenacs
Received 3 votes (Highest was 8th)

"All the physical tools, needs to compete harder, development has slowed but is going to figure it out."

"He has been a bit of a let down after some serious glimpses of extreme potential late last year and over the summer.  I thouht he would develop into a Getzlaf type of player but I'm not sold on his vision or decision making with the puck and don't believe he's strong enough to win space consistently at the next levels.  I love the way he skates for his size, he has some fairly impressive hands and he does push pucks to the net well.  I don't think he has really convinced scouts exactly what kind of player he is yet, let alone what kind of player he could be."

"I've still got him ranked in my top 10 even though I've been disappointed with his development this year. He's had a tough time losing ice time to the new Frontenacs stars (Bennett, Watson, Ikonen, etc). That said, I still have faith in his potential to develop into a really complete player at the next level."

That's IT folks. I hope you enjoyed the read. As always, thanks to all of the contributors. Couldn't have made this work without you. Be sure to check out their work and follow them on twitter (listed above).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jimmy Lodge Elevates Saginaw's Spirit

Anytime a team trades their best player, the assumption is made that said team is entering a rebuild. When the Saginaw Spirit traded their captain, Vincent Trocheck, to the Plymouth Whalers on January 10th, many figured that this symbolized the white towel being thrown for the 2012/2013 season. At the time they were a .500 hockey club, battling it out with the Windsor Spitfires for the 8th spot in the Western Conference. In a somewhat miraculous turn of events, the exodus of their captain has sparked the Spirit. 10-5 since the trade, Saginaw has distanced themselves from Windsor (11 points up). They’re playing incredible hockey and are putting themselves in a position to surprise people in the OHL playoffs. Saginaw still has the opportunity to move up as high as 5th in the Conference too. Many would agree; this was not the expected result following the trade.

So what, specifically, has sparked this team? A valid argument could be made that said spark has been the exceptional play of second year forward Jimmy Lodge. “It hurt to lose Trocheck, since he was probably our best player,” says Lodge. “But we needed guys to step up and score goals in his absence.” Lodge, the Pennsylvania native and former 3rd round draft pick of the Spirit, has certainly done that. In the 15 games since the big trade, Lodge has 26 points (11 goals, and 15 assists). He’s vaulted himself into contention for the top 20 in league scoring, and is second to only Max Domi (of the London Knights) in scoring among 1995 born players in the OHL. Considering Lodge started the season with only 2 goals and 2 assists in his first 10 games, this feat tells you how brilliantly he’s been performing of late.

Lodge is being modest when he’s quick to point out that he’s been a product of how well his line has been playing. I’m of course referring to one of the hottest lines in the entire CHL, consisting of Lodge, Eric Locke, and Garret Ross. “They’re fantastic players,” says Lodge. “We’re just really clicking right now. And that’s giving me more confidence to go out and play well.” I’d say that’s an understatement. In February alone (8 games), those three players have combined for a total of 26 goals. That’s more than the Erie Otters have scored as team this month (25).

It’s Lodge’s ability to see the ice and make those around him better that has helped to elevate the abilities of his line and his team, a trait which he considers his best asset as a player. Lodge’s size, speed and skill package allows him to be the perfect compliment to the tenacious Locke, and the feisty Ross. We should expect nothing less from a player who grew up idolizing Peter Forsberg in his time with the Philadelphia Flyers.

I think it’s certainly unfair to suggest that Lodge’s accomplishments this year were expected. However, nor are they surprising. With the losses of Brandon Saad, Josh Shalla, and Michael Fine, it was plainly obvious that the Spirit’s solid collection of young players (like Lodge, Justin Kea, and Nick Moutrey) would have to step up their game. Lodge came into the season given more responsibility and increased ice time after playing a bit role as a 16 year old. He also donned the Stars and Stripes for this summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament, an event which brought together the top ’95 players in the world. Needless to say, the pedigree for success was there. However, Lodge does credit last year’s veteran squad with helping him learn to play at this level. “One of the biggest things that I took away from last year’s rookie season was just seeing guys like Saad and Trocheck. You know, watching them and learning about the game. Things like having proper work ethic, how to workout and how to eat,” says Lodge.
All things considered, there’s no question that the trade of Vincent Trocheck forced Lodge into a role he could have struggled with. It’s not an easy task to take on the offensive responsibilities of your former captain; a player many experts consider a candidate for the Red Tilson this season. Sink or swim; and Lodge swam. So why isn’t he getting more exposure for this year’s draft? Quite frankly, that’s a damn good question.

As mentioned, Lodge is currently the second highest scoring ’95 in the league; and the fourth highest draft eligible player (behind Domi, Kerby Rychel, and Sean Monahan). Yet, he doesn’t even crack TSN expert Craig Button’s latest Top 75 for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Lodge goes up against the opposition’s best every night (at least for the past two months) and he consistently comes out ahead. We’re looking at a 6’2 forward who skates well, can put the puck in the net and who makes others around him better. That’s the definition of a prospect I want come June 30th.

Vince Lombardi once said. “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.” Whether he knows it or not, the trade of Vincent Trocheck forced Jimmy Lodge into a leadership role. But he was put into that role because he had earned it. Along with the likes of Garret Ross and Eric Locke, Lodge has put Saginaw on his back and delivered. Sooner or later, likely sometime soon, NHL scouts are going to realize; Jimmy Lodge has elevated Saginaw’s spirit.

I Want to thank Jimmy Lodge for taking the time to chat with me about his season and the draft. I also want to thank Spirit Director of Communications Leigh Cunningham for making this happen. Photo credit to the Saginaw Spirit hockey club.

Below you can find the transcript of Jimmy and I's conversation...


Brock Otten - Firstly, congrats on the strong season so far. What’s been the biggest difference for you since the start of the year? It seems like every month is better than the next (at least production wise).

Jimmy Lodge - I think one of the biggest things is the line I’ve been on with Ross and Locke. They’re fantastic players. We’re just really clicking right now. And that’s giving me more confidence to go out and play well.

Brock Otten - I hate to say it, but it’s almost like the absence of Vincent Trocheck has allowed you to grow a bit more…Would you agree at all with that statement?

Jimmy Lodge - Definitely. Losing Trocheck was huge. But we needed guys to step up and score goals in his absence. The trade gave me an opportunity to have a bigger role and gave me more ice time. But it hurts to lose Trocheck since he was probably our best player.

Brock Otten - I want to back track a bit to last year and the summer. When it was time to make a decision about what path to take (NCAA or OHL)…what made you choose the OHL?

Jimmy Lodge - Well I played my minor midget year in Toronto (with the Toronto Titans) so I got to see what the OHL was all about. And I sort of became fascinated with the OHL and how big it was. It seemed like the best league to play in. I thought more exposure because there seemed to be more NHL scouts going to watch. If I didn’t go the OHL route, I probably would have played my draft year in the USHL which I don’t think would have been as good.

Brock Otten - What was the biggest thing you took away from your rookie season?

Jimmy Lodge - I think just seeing guys like Saad and Trocheck. You know, watching them and learning about the game. Things like having proper work ethic. How to workout and how to eat. Also just getting used to the travel, and the number of games you play.

Brock Otten - You played for the U.S. at the Under 18 Ivan Hlinka tournament…What was that experience like?

Jimmy Lodge - Well we (as a team) didn’t do as well as we could have but it was still a really cool experience to see all the best players from my age group, especially the Euros. Playing the top guys from Europe was fun. I’m not sure if I played my best or not, I think I was just sort of an average player at the event, but it was still fun.

Brock Otten - Let’s talk about your game. If a scout asked you, what’s the one thing you need to improve on before reaching the next level, what would you say (other than the cliched, got to get stronger, faster, etc)?

Jimmy Lodge - I think they’d say something about being able to make the right choices on the ice. You know, offensively and defensively. Just not trying to do too much, especially with the puck. I think I’m definitely getting better at this, as I play more.

Brock Otten - Conversely, what if they asked you what your biggest strength is? What makes you such an effective player?

Jimmy Lodge - I’d say my playmaking ability. That aspect of finding guys in open areas and getting them the puck. I think I also finish off plays well too, when I get the chance.

Brock Otten - Do you think about the upcoming draft at all, or is it something you try to distance yourself from?

Jimmy Lodge - Not distance myself but I also try not to think about it too much. Just trying not to stress out or get distracted, you know? But it’s definitely always there in the back of your mind. Getting drafted in the first three rounds would definitely be a goal of mine though.

Brock Otten - Being a Philadelphia native, any secret hopes that the Flyers or Penguins call your name in June?

Jimmy Lodge - OH, that’d be nice! The Flyers were my favourite growing up. Peter Forsberg was one of my favourite players. But, really, any NHL team would be great.

Brock Otten - On a related note, is there a player you look at in the NHL and say, “man, that’s a guy I’d like to play like?” In other words, do you feel there is a comparison out there for you?

Jimmy Lodge - I don’t know really. I guess you could say Claude Giroux but I don’t know if I can compare myself to him. He’s such a good player and I just love watching him out there.

Brock Otten - That’s all Jimmy, thanks for the time and best of luck through the rest of the season and the draft!

Jimmy Lodge - Thanks so much for interviewing me. My pleasure.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Top 10 - Most Improved Players of 2012/2013

 The OHL regular season is now 3/4 of the way finished, which means that, I think, it's safe to begin evaluating individual performance and progression. As is the case every year in junior hockey, there are many players who improve from one year to the next. There are many reasons for this. Increased growth/strength. Improved confidence. Another year of experience. An increased role in the lineup. Whatever the case is, you'll find that teenagers seldom get worse as they go along in this league.

With today's list, I intend to highlight some of the players whom I feel have taken the biggest steps forward this year. This was an incredibly hard list to pare down, because so many players got better. That's why I've got several 'Honorable Mentions' today, and quite frankly, could have included many more.

Here's the list; the OHL's most improved players for 2012/2013

10. Josh Anderson - London Knights
While the offensive numbers don't go jumping out at you (19 goals, 39 points thus far), you have to watch him play to truly appreciate what he does for London on a nightly basis. We saw flashes of this last year; that budding power forward approach. But nothing to the extent that we're seeing this year. He's so incredibly difficult to stop with the puck on his stick and he really wears down opposing defenses and creates space for his linemates. Nearly every time I've seen London play, he's stood out for the right reasons. And that includes his play away from the puck too. His shot and ability to score off the rush still needs improvement in order for him to take that next step as a goal scorer, but I think he deserves a place on this list based on what he's been able to accomplish this season.

9. Matthew Mistele - Plymouth Whalers
Mistele barely got any playing time last year on a stacked Plymouth team, but this year he was given a chance at more ice time and he's taken off. Not eligible until 2014 because of an October birthday, Mistele has emerged as one of the league's top 95 talents. He's your typical Mike Vellucci type of player, who gets his nose dirty, but who also has the skill to finish off plays. He's always noticeable on the ice, be it because of a nice hit, a nice goal, or a quality play without the puck. Mistele has turned himself into one of Plymouth's cornerstones moving forward.

8. Scott Sabourin - Oshawa Generals
Came into camp this year having to fight for his spot on the team. Not only did he earn his spot (forcing the trade of Emerson Clark), but he's remained on the team's top line all season long and sits second on the team to Boone Jenner with 25 goals. He's always been a reliable checker with a nose for the net, but it's his ability to create off the rush and score from the slot that have improved tremendously. He's got a ton of confidence carrying the puck now, and has slowly become one of the league's toughest players to stop one on one. Hoping he's earned himself an NHL contract with his play this year.

7. Andreas Athanasiou - Barrie Colts
The jump in numbers hasn't been as great for Athanasiou this year, when compared to some of the other guys on this list (or not even on it for that matter). But if you have watched him play this year, you'd know that AA has become a much better and different player than he was in London. The trade to Barrie has helped him grow as a player. He's become a much more consistent player, and someone willing to pay the price to make a play. He's become more active without the puck and is using his teammates more than he ever did in London. His 8 game winning goals is second to only Reid Boucher (9) in the league. He's been absolutely clutch for Barrie this year and he deserves props for the improvements he's made.

6. Gianluca Curcuruto - Plymouth Whalers
Last year was a disaster for Curcuruto, as harsh as it sounds. He came into the year as a potential first round selection for the NHL draft, and ended up a 7th rounder after a 16 point, -14 year on a roller coaster Greyhound team. That lead to his trade to Plymouth in exchange for Mitchell Dempsey (ask Greyhound fans how they like that deal now). Curcuruto has now re-established himself as one of the top '94 defenseman in the league. He's become Plymouth's top defenseman and is now brimming with confidence. His 9 goals on the year are triple that of his career high, and he's going to (likely) post his first positive +/- in his three year OHL career. His ability to run the powerplay, lead the rush, and defend his zone with urgency have taken massive steps forward. He looks like a new man in the green and blue.

5. Erie Locke - Saginaw Spirit
Locke has always been that player for me, where I've watched him play and asked myself "what's missing?" Lots of skill with the puck, great speed, but just never really to get over that hump of being a secondary player. I've always been a bit critical of his play away from the puck and his intensity level, so I truly believe those deficiencies held him back. This year, it's like I'm watching a different players. Who's that guy who's the first man attacking on the forecheck, hitting guys with authority and winning battles along the boards. Who's that guy playing key minutes on the penalty kill and working hard on the backcheck? It's what Locke has become this year, and it's elevated his offensive game to the point where he's a factor nearly every time he steps on the ice (43 points in his last 20 games).

4. Mitchell Theoret - Niagara IceDogs/Barrie Colts
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I've always believed in Theoret. I had him ranked for the 2011 NHL Draft when no one else did. But last year was not pretty for him. He seemed to lose that fire, and was trying to be something he wasn't. This year, resurgence time. He's returned to doing the things he does well, like working the cycle, being a net presence, and getting active on the forecheck. And because he's gotten bigger and stronger, he's become very difficult for opposing defenses to stop. This is opening up more offensive chances for him...and for the guys he plays with. Good timing too, considering the Isles have to decide whether to sign him this year.

3. Anthony Camara - Barrie Colts
He's going to double his goal and point output from a year ago and has really made himself into a dangerous offensive player this year. Previously, Camara was a simple, hard working checker. His hard work would reward him with the occasional goal, but he was not an offensive leader. This year, his game has taken off. His ability to carry the puck and create offense off the rush is something we never saw consistently from him until this year. He's also greatly improved his shot and is able to score in ways other than crashing the crease. Camara has become a complete player and is making the Bruins happy for using a 3rd rounder on him two years ago.

2. Tyler Graovac - Ottawa 67's/Belleville Bulls
You've got to give it up for a player I figured was a long shot to end up earning an NHL contract from the Minnesota Wild this year. He just hadn't really progressed during his OHL career...until now. Graovac has tripled his previous high in goals ALREADY (with 30) and has emerged as a quality NHL prospect. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he finally started to use his size (likely with increased strength) to his advantage offensively. The speed and hands have always been there. Now the rest of his game has caught up.

1. Jordan Binnington - Owen Sound Attack
IMO, Binnington is the leading candidate for the Red Tilson right now. The Attack have been one of the league's top teams all season long. Despite being only 7th in the Conference in goals for, they have the second best record because they lead the entire OHL in goals against. And that reason has been Binnington. He's posting the best numbers of his career (in a landslide) and has finally been able to play at the top of his game consistently. He's controlling pucks better, challenging shooters with more confidence and winning hockey games. He's only been pulled from two games this year, which means he's giving the Attack a chance to win every night. What a difference a year can make.

Honorable Mentions:

Reid Boucher - Sarnia Sting
I'll probably get lambasted for not including Boucher in my top 10 here, considering his dominance as a goal scorer this year. That's always been his game though, and I just feel some of the guys I've listed have come a bit further than he has. That said, he does deserve credit. He's worked hard on his skating to become more involved off the rush, and he's gotten stronger, allowing him to fight through traffic to get his shot off. 50 goals in this league don't come by accident.

Matthew Campagna - Sudbury Wolves
His skill level has never been questioned. Perhaps after going undrafted last year by the NHL, it opened his eyes a bit. He's still not the league's most complete player, but he's made strides in being a more active player without the puck and has increased his intensity level making him a much more consistent offensive contributor.

Jimmy Lodge - Saginaw Spirit
Similar to a guy like Matthew Mistele, Lodge was a depth player for the Spirit last year, and has emerged as a go to offensive contributor this year. His real improvement didn't really come until after the trade of Vincent Trocheck to Plymouth. With that added responsibility has come terrific results.

Colin Miller - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Miller has always been a dependable defensive player. Sort of that jack of all trades kind of guy. This year, he's made incredible improvements to his offensive game. He's second in goal scoring among defenseman (with 15) to only his teammate Ryan Sproul and has become one of the league's top powerplay quarterbacks. Los Angeles is looking like a genius again with another overage draft selection out of the OHL.

Cody Payne - Plymouth Whalers
Last year Payne had one role, mash bodies and work hard on the forecheck. This year, his offensive game has grown leaps and bounds. He's taking chances with the puck and getting himself into better scoring position. This had lead to him posting career highs in all offensive categories (more than double).

Darnell Nurse - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Probably the player I wanted to most include on this list. Defensively, he looks more confident (especially physically), while offensively he's a changed man. We saw very little offense from Nurse last year as he adjusted to the league. This year, he's leading the rush with authority and picking great spots to unleash his cannon from the point. There's a reason why he's still exploding up the draft charts.

Justin Auger - Guelph Storm
Behemoth of a player. Considerable improvements to his skating, in addition to added strength, have made him a much more effective offensive player. His reach and size makes him very good in the cycle and he's slowly learning how to best use his frame to create offense.

Connor Crisp - Erie Otters
He's come a LONG way from being that kid who got tossed to the wolves in Niagara; forced to act as an emergency netminder. His 20 goals on the year put him 3rd on his team and represent a quadrupling of his previous career high. He's still fighting and working hard as a checker, but he's added that goal scoring element to his game. I think he even earns a look from the NHL at this year's draft.

That's it, and I'm sure I've missed players whom you believe should be on this list. Quite frankly, it could have gone on forever.'s got to stop somewhere.