Sunday, July 22, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Chicago Blackhawks

One of my favourite cities in the U.S., it's time for Chicago.

1. Mackenzie Entwistle - Hamilton Bulldogs
Recent acquisition by the Hawks in the Hossa deal. I really like Entwistle, if you recall from his draft year. His size, skating ability, and tenacity through all three zones makes him an ideal 3rd liner at the NHL level today. Reminds me a ton of Austin Watson from his OHL days. Injuries were a bit of an issue this year, as Entwistle missed time with rib and hand injuries. But he saved his best for last with 10 goals in the OHL playoffs, helping the Bulldogs reach the Memorial Cup. In the playoffs, I think we really saw him gain confidence in his ability to carry the puck and be a go to offensive player at this level, and hopefully that carries into next season. One thing that really needs to improve is his faceoff ability. The Bulldogs are going to need Entwistle to be a center next year in their top 6, but his faceoff percentages have been quite poor through his OHL career thus far. If he wants to be that guy out there in the last minute of a game protecting a lead, he needs to be more reliable on the dot. Overall, I'm very excited to see what he can do next season, especially with powerplay time. I think he hits the point per game mark for the first time in his career.

*Adam Boqvist - London Knights
The 8th overall pick this year, Boqvist was a 2017 Import Draft selection by London and it has since been announced that he will be playing for the Knights next year. He will receive a ton of ice time and will get terrific coaching from a London staff who has improved the defensive play of many offensive blueliners who have come through their system in recent years. Boqvist will play a prime role, but just how much he's relied upon will depend on whether Evan Bouchard makes Edmonton or not. I don't want to set the bar too high, but I would expect Boqvist to be at least a 55 point player next year with a strong supporting cast and a solid powerplay group.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Carolina Hurricanes

Without question, Carolina has the top prospect playing in the OHL.

1. Andrei Svechnikov - Barrie Colts
The 2nd overall pick in 2018, Svechnikov came exactly as advertised this year in the OHL. His 40 goals in 44 games, including 31 at even strength, put him in some elite company (like Connor McDavid) in terms of draft eligible production at the CHL level. I've seen a lot of OHL hockey over the years, but I don't think I've seen a player able to put defenders on his back off the rush like Svechnikov can. With his size, skating ability, and skill level, he is able to gain inside position on defenders with ease and is just so hard to stop because of it. Svechnikov also has a terrific shot release, so defenders have to try to take that away from him too, so giving him a large gap isn't ideal either. Unfortunately (or fortunately for Canes' fans), this is the last we've seen of Andrei in the OHL. He is extremely pro ready. He's such a complete player and should transition effortlessly to the NHL level next year. Gabe Landeskog had 52 points in his rookie year, and I think Svechnikov is ahead of where he was as an offensive player coming out of junior. I can see Svechnikov being a 30 goal scorer as early as next season.

2. Jeremy Helvig - Kingston Frontenacs
Really smart decision for the Hurricanes to send Helvig back to the OHL for his overage season. Was only his second season as Kingston's starter and he had a terrific year, leading the Frontenacs to the Eastern Conference finals and finishing near the top in every goaltending category. He was a consistently steady presence who could be relied upon to make the big saves when needed. Thought his agility looked better this year, allowing him to challenge shooters more aggressively. This really helped him to fight through traffic to make saves. His rebound control continues to improve too, as previously he had some difficulty preventing shots from being kicked back out into the slot. Sometimes it can be tough to be in full control when you're 6'4, 210lbs like Helvig is. Moving forward to the pro level next year, continuing to improve his lateral quickness will be key to his development into an NHL netminder. Former OHL star Alex Nedeljkovic will be the starter in Charlotte, so Helvig will battle Callum Booth for the back-up job, with the loser ending up in the ECHL (where Booth spent most of last year). 

Friday, July 20, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Calgary Flames

First Canadian team to be reviewed is Calgary. Only one OHL prospect for the Flames.

1. Adam Ruzicka - Sarnia Sting
A very good season for the Flames' lone OHL prospect. Ruzicka saw a significant uptick in production as he garnered more responsibility for a solid Sarnia Sting team. Last year I spoke of his wavering intensity level being the thing holding him back, and this year his effort level was significantly more consistent. He's really starting to embrace the style of play that he needs to employ here in North America, using his size to dominate in possession and below the hash marks. His board play and ability to keep plays alive improved a lot, as he now has the confidence to remain patient and wait for openings to create scoring chances. Ruzicka was a lot more engaged without the puck too, looking to find the front of the net, using his size to gain inside position for rebounds, tips, etc. Another thing worth noting was his improved percentage on the faceoff dot. Massive improvement there which is huge if he wants to stay down the middle moving forward. Next year, Sarnia will lose a lot of key players so they'll need Ruzicka to step up even more and be a dominant player. I'd like to see him continue to work on his skating. Off the rush, his decision making still is a question mark for me, as when the pace increases, he can still be turnover prone. And defensively, improvements could still be made to utilize his size on the backcheck and in his own end. If Ruzicka can be a 40/40 player next year and really take charge of the Sting in Jordan Kyrou's absence, I would consider that to be a very successful season.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Buffalo Sabres

4th on the list are the Buffalo Sabres.

1. Cliff Pu - Kingston Frontenacs
Pu started the year with London, but was dealt to Kingston near the trade deadline to help them with their playoff run. Overall, Pu had a solid year and was excellent in the playoffs for the Frontenacs, even though they came up short against the Bulldogs. This was an improvement from the year prior where Pu had a very disappointing playoffs with London. Pu remains at his best off the rush, dictating pace with his size and speed combination. He accelerates to top speed very quickly, especially as he cuts through the neutral zone, picking up speed to gain entry to the offensive zone. Is willing to drive the net and puts defenders on his back. Pu's two-way game has improved a lot over his OHL career too, making him more prepared for the pro game. I found that his vision and playmaking ability off the rush took a step forward this year. Didn't see as many turnovers from him trying to force things; that classic tunnel vision issue. Moving forward, there are things that he will need to continue to work on. His play in the offensive zone when the game slows down, is still slightly erratic. The hockey sense and vision can sometimes be lacking here. Being able to prolong possession through the cycle, and be the first man in on the forecheck to gain possession are areas that never really hit that elite level in his time in the OHL. His shot will need to continue to improve too. But he's a solid prospect with a shot at developing into a solid #2 or #3 center for Buffalo. He'll start his pro career next year. Former teammate Janne Kuokkanen put up 40 points this year in the AHL as a rookie and I would expect Pu to be around that same mark.

*Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen - Sudbury Wolves
One of the first picks of this year's CHL Import Draft, Luukkonen has a chance to be the starting netminder for an upstart Sudbury franchise looking to restore itself to glory on the back of much hyped first overall pick Quinton Byfield. Signed by Buffalo, one would wonder if this is a serious option and could be a smart move to get him some confidence and playing time for a year before turning pro in North America. If he's in the OHL, I would expect him to have a good season. Sudbury won't be amazing, but if he could post an above .900 save percentage and get them to the playoffs, that would be huge.

**Matej Pekar - Barrie Colts
A 4th rounder by Buffalo in 2018, Pekar played last year in the USHL and has a commitment to Miami University next year. But Barrie rolled the dice by taking him in this year's Import Draft. If they can convince him to join the Colts and forgo his scholarship, he could be a solid top 6 forward for Barrie. The Colts will likely be a middle of the pack team and he would get playing time in all situations. A point per game season would not be out of the question.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Boston Bruins

Boston is up next.

1. Jack Studnicka - Oshawa Generals
Definitely a breakout season for Studnicka, who emerged as one of the OHL's best two-way centers. He led the Generals in scoring and +/-. Really felt like his skating looked improved this year. He'll never be confused for Connor McDavid, but Studnicka did clearly improve his leg strength and stride to become more powerful. This really helped him to dictate pace off the rush and quickly turn play up ice after forcing turnovers in the neutral or defensive zone. Also loved how he ratcheted up the physical intensity level, making him a very difficult player to match up against. I continue to be impressed with Studnicka's hockey sense and vision as a playmaker. He makes his linemates better with his patience and poise in the offensive end. Next year, I expect even bigger things. Hopefully his skating continues to improve. And I'd like to see him be more aggressive in attacking the net and shooting the puck, looking to create his own scoring chances, and not just for his linemates. But he's a serious candidate for the Canadian WJC team and could very well be a 90+ point player on a very solid Oshawa Generals team.  

2. Kyle Keyser - Oshawa Generals
Solid year for Keyser after the Bruins signed him to contract after he attended their training camp as an invitee. He solidified his role as Oshawa's number one and emerged as one of the better goaltenders in the OHL. Keyser moves well in the crease and really worked to shore up deficiencies technically. Saw his rebound control get better, and his positioning improve, as he over-committed much less. Next year, Oshawa should be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference and Keyser is a candidate to be the OHL goaltender of the year IMO. I think we'll see his save percentage climb into the .915 rate with a potentially solid defense in front of him. One thing I'd really like to see him improve upon is his aggressiveness in challenging shooters and fighting through traffic to make saves. Can still get caught deep in his crease. But he's trending in the right direction to becoming a quality pro prospect.

*Axel Andersson - Kitchener Rangers
A 2nd round pick of the Bruins this year, Andersson was an import selection of the Kitchener Rangers this year. Sounds like he'll be coming over to play and he should make an immediate impact in the OHL. Kitchener needs someone to run their powerplay and I would expect that he has a good offensive season surrounded by some talent. A 40+ point season is definitely a reachable target.

** Daniel Bukac - Niagara IceDogs
Bukac has played the last two years in the WHL, but had his rights released by Brandon after an injury plagued year. The towering defender had his rights picked up by Niagara where he will suit up for a quality young team looking to add size to a smaller blueline. He'll likely be looked at to be a stay at home type who can play a safe, physical game while paired with one of Niagara's smaller offensive blueliners. He'll play out his contract year in the OHL, but I probably wouldn't expect a ton from him offensively. The 25+ point mark would be good, as long as his defense is reliable.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Arizona Coyotes

Second stop on the tour, the Arizona Coyotes have half of the OHL's prospects in their farm system.

1. Barrett Hayton - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
The 5th overall pick in 2018, Hayton is coming off of a breakout sophomore season in the OHL where he was a key part on a fantastic Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds team. Hayton is already one of the more well rounded centers in the OHL; a guy who can make an impact in all three zones. He's such an effective player without the puck and his hockey sense is terrific. Hayton also has great goal scoring potential because of his quick release. Next year, Hayton will continue to form a dynamic one/two punch with Morgan Frost down the middle. This summer, I'd like to see him work on his skating, to make himself a little more explosive. He's certainly not a poor skater, but there's room for improvement and it would help him be a more dynamic player in the offensive end. Next year, I also want to see him taking over play more; being that guy who can lead the rush and dominate time of possession in the offensive zone. His hands are good, but this year he had a tendency to defer to his teammates in favor of being a guy who could create room and drive the net. But the Hounds are going to need him to be a focal point and a guy who makes his linemates better. I think he'll be up to the challenge. A realistic expectation would be a 30+ goal, and 75+ point season in his draft +1.

2. Cam Dineen - Sarnia Sting
Fantastic season for Dineen, as he returned from a knee injury. Set career highs in nearly every offensive category and ended up finishing 4th in defenseman scoring with 64 points between North Bay and Sarnia. Most encouraging sign for me was that Dineen's mobility on the back-end didn't appear to be hampered. In fact, I thought the opposite. I thought his first few steps looked quicker and more explosive, something that he needed to work on. Also saw him take more chances offensively, by extending his rushes deeper into the offensive zone and looking to jump up into the play. However, the most encouraging thing for me was his improved play in the defensive end. I remember seeing North Bay play Barrie early on in the season, and Dineen went head to head with Andrei Svechnikov. Svechnikov is one of the hardest players to stop one on one in the OHL, and the two went head to head on a one on one rush. Dineen, kept Svechnikov to the outside, angled him to the corner and actually put him on his ass. That's not something we would have seen in previous years. Now, that's not to say Dineen is a physical defender. It's just that we saw him really engage more and be a tougher player to go up against. Positioning wise, his coverage has always been pretty good, it's just that he lacked strength and the will to win one on one battles consistently. We saw that improve this year. Dineen will be turning pro this year and will head to the AHL. He'll have less time to operate, and because of that he'll have to continue to improve his skating if he wants to create time and space for himself to make plays offensively. And he'll have to continue to get stronger to win battles against larger men. I think Dineen is ahead of where Kyle Capobianco and Kyle Wood were upon graduating from the OHL and both had solid first seasons in the AHL for the Coyotes organization. While I think Dineen is a few years away from being an NHL player, I do see him having a 35+ point season in the AHL next year.

3. Kevin Bahl - Ottawa 67's
Loved the selection of Bahl in the late second round this year. Great value at that spot for the Coyotes. The tower of power is definitely a potential NHL defender. He's a terrific skater for a big man. If you combine that with his great reach and physical intensity level, you have a potential shut down defender. But Bahl is capable of more offensively. He played things relatively safe in the OHL this year, electing to defer to others to make plays with the puck. But Bahl has quick hands, a good shot, good instincts and the potential to be an offensive contributor from the back-end. We saw that this year when Bahl played against his peers in larger scale atmospheres, like the Top Prospect's Game and both U18 events (Hlinka and WC's). He'll return to the OHL next year and be a part of a terrific young Ottawa 67's team that could win the Eastern Conference. Bahl will likely be counted on in all situations and could be the team's number one defender when all is said and done. I see him around the 30 point next year, with the potential to be even higher if he can squeak out more powerplay time.

4. Nate Schnarr - Guelph Storm
It was a tough year for Schnarr, who failed to improve upon his production from his draft year. Guelph, as a whole, was an inconsistent team and Schnarr was not different. Perhaps part of it was the fact that he switched back and forth between center and the wing. That type of lack of continuity can be tough to adjust to. Ultimately though, Schnarr still gets pushed off the puck too easily and seems to lack that killer instinct in the offensive end. He works hard, plays a relatively fearless game and will look to drive the net. But he's not able to prolong possession the way that you'd like to see from a 6'3 forward. I was also disappointed with the fact that Schnarr received very little time on the penalty kill. He was used on the powerplay, but others were used ahead of him for the PK. Now, I still have him ranked 5th because I believe in his talents and ability to progress this year. 5 on 5, he needs to be better and I think he will be. I would like to see him stick on the wing, where he can learn to use his size and speed to drive the net, forecheck, and be a better player without the puck. The talent is there. Realistically, I would imagine that Schnarr will have to get himself close to the point per game mark (or over it) to earn a contract from Arizona. A 25 goal, 35 assist season would be great for him and a solid goal.  

5. Jalen Smereck - Flint Firebirds
After starting the year at the professional level, the Coyotes decided to send Smereck back to the OHL for his overage season. He made the best of it playing for last place Flint, sticking it out past the deadline and embracing a leadership role as part of a young defense. Did Smereck improve much? I don't really think so. He's still a solid two-way defense prospect who is very well rounded. His mobility is a major asset. He can quarterback the powerplay. He plays a smart game in the defensive end and engages physically. He makes generally good decisions with the puck. These are all the same things that I said last year. I do think that Smereck has a chance to be a solid third pairing defender at the NHL level, but he's probably a guy who will have to chip away at it for a few years. Arizona's prospect depth is quite strong and Smereck will be competing with several quality defenders for ice time in the AHL next year. Wouldn't surprise me if he spends most of the year in the ECHL to get his feet wet. 

6. Noel Hoefenmayer - Ottawa 67's
A tough transitional year for Hoefenmayer. He saw his offensive production drop as he was asked to tutor a young 67's defense. Hoefenmayer went the entire regular season without scoring a powerplay goal and the 67's had one of the worst powerplays in the OHL. Hoefenmayer also took way less chances in terms of jumping up in the rush, or looking to push the pace, than he did the year previous. That appeared to be by design, limiting his risks so that he could focus more on the defensive side of the puck. I guess the question you have to ask is, how much did his defensive game improve? I definitely think some, but I'd still love to see him be more aggressive without the puck. Next year, Hoefenmayer returns to Ottawa and will look to really improve his offensive production again. That will be his meal ticket to earning an NHL contract and he needs to show that he can QB a powerplay effectively and create off the rush consistently. Ottawa will aim to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and they will need Hoefenmayer to step up his game as a veteran. Anything less than a 50 point season would be a disappointment IMO and may cost him an NHL deal.

7. Dennis Busby - Flint Firebirds
Loved this pick by the Coyotes. Sure, he only played a couple games last year because of a collarbone injury, but the potential is massive. He's consistently been one of the better defenders in his age group for Ontario and will look to prove that next year, fully healthy. His skating is his best attribute and he'll look to be a big time offensive contributor for an improved Flint team. Staying healthy and looking to engage physically in the defensive end will also be areas that he'll look to achieve. This 8th ranking is pretty conservative given his injury, but with a good year, he could leap frog everyone and be the Yotes best prospect in the OHL behind Barrett Hayton. I am going to predict a 35+ point season as he gets himself back on track.

*Jan Jenik - Flint Firebirds
A 3rd rounder by Arizona this year, Jenik was taken extremely early by Flint in this year's Import draft. Given Arizona's connection to the Flint organization, I would be surprised if he does not report. I've read some great things about him and would expect that he could be a possible linemate of Ty Dellandrea's on the Firebird's first line. If that's the case, a 30/30 season could be a real possibility.

**Ivan Prosvetov - Saginaw Spirit
A hulking netminder and 4th rounder by Arizona in 2018, Prosvetov suited up in the USHL last year. Saginaw has made some terrific adds this offseason and will look to be extremely competitive in the Western Conference. And Prosvetov will be their starting netminder and back-bone. Excited to see what he can do and I would expect him to be close to the top 5 in most goaltending categories next year.

***Liam Kirk - Peterborough Petes 
The pride of Great Britain, Kirk was taken by Peterborough in this year's import draft and will be coming over to play for the Petes. Very excited to see what he can do, given he played against men the last two years and has had a fair amount of hype attached to him (despite only being a 7th rounder). Peterborough might not be terrific next year, but Kirk should receive top 6 ice time. I would expect him to at least be a 25/25 guy in his first OHL season with the chance to build off of that in his draft +2 year.

Monday, July 16, 2018

31 Teams in 31 Days - Anaheim Ducks

We start at the beginning of the alphabet again this year which means that the Anaheim Ducks are the first team with a write-up.

1. Max Jones - London Knights/Kingston Frontenacs
The good news? Max Jones went the year without getting suspended once! The bad news, he had another injury shortened season. Thanks to a broken finger injury and a trip to Buffalo for the WJC's, Jones was limited to 31 games in the OHL regular season, his lowest total to date. He also posted his lowest points per game average in his three year OHL career (lower than his draft season). The goals were there in London, but after a trade to Kingston the finger injury happened and he never really found chemistry in that line-up and struggled in the playoffs. In the playoffs, he also struggled to control his temper and maintain discipline; epitomized by a Game 4 freakout in the Eastern Conference finals that saw him earn a game misconduct (ironically the only game of the series that Kingston would win). I think you could also say that Jones didn't really improve a ton as a player this year. Skill wise, what you see is what you get. He's a powerful skater who can drive the net, has a good shot release and can dictate the physicality of a game. But I'm not sure he has the hockey sense and playmaking ability to be a consistent top 6 forward. That part of his game just never really developed in his three years in the OHL. Next year he'll turn pro and will likely suit up in the AHL, as playing a top 9 role with some powerplay time would be better for his development than playing an energy role on Anaheim's 4th line. I would expect him to be around the 20 goal mark in his rookie AHL year.

2. Jack Kopacka - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
A very good season for Kopacka. Nice uptick in production as he inched closer to the point per game mark and had a terrific postseason, finishing 2nd in goals for the Greyhounds in the playoffs. Kopacka continued to round out his game, improving his play without the puck, using his speed to be a factor in pursuit. Not just a North/South player now, Kopacka showed an ability to slow the game down a bit, working the wall and really improving his ability to work in the offensive zone, through give and go's, the cycle, and overall puck protection. He's still not a very physical player, given his size at 6'3, 200lbs. But he has a nice skill set and has really progressed to become a solid, well rounded player. Kopacka will also turn pro this coming year. The question I have is, where does Kopacka fit in as a pro? The skill set is nice, but not elite. Perhaps not quite at the level needed for a top 6 winger at the NHL level. The size, speed, and improved three zone play are pluses, but his physical intensity level may not be high enough to make him an ideal bottom 6 player. But he improved every year in the OHL and if Anaheim is patient, they could have a Zach Hyman kind of player on their hands. A 15/15 first pro season is a realistic expectation.