Monday, October 4, 2021

2021/22 OHL Season Preview: Award Predictions

The conclusion to my three part season preview sees me look at potential award candidates for 2019/20.
 
Red Tilson Trophy - Shane Wright (Kingston Frontenacs)
The last draft eligible player to win the Red Tilson was Connor McDavid in 2015, but Shane Wright enters this season as the hands on favourite to win this award. Not only is Wright the best player in the OHL, but Kingston should be among the best teams in the OHL. That combination should be good enough for a Red Tilson victory. In all honesty...I'd be shocked if Wright isn't the winner of this award. But we have to talk about some other candidates. I think Barrie ends up being one of the better teams in the East too and they should have a couple candidates in Brandt Clarke and Ethan Cardwell. Cardwell could be a sneaky pick to end up winning the scoring title, as I'm not sure he ends up making Team Canada at the WJC's (like Wright) and should end up with a handful of more games on a high scoring team. Brett Brochu in London is another long shot for this award, but still someone who could get some votes if he plays London to the top of the Western Conference. Ditto for teammate Luke Evangelista if he is as good as I expect him to be. Francesco Pinelli should have a great year for the Kitchener Rangers, but I think their depth and ability to roll three great lines will limit some of his production. Lastly, I do expect Mason McTavish to be one of the best players in the OHL this year. That puts him in the conversation for this award. However, I think he gets an extended look in Anaheim and then misses time for the WJC's. That likely means he misses over a dozen games this year. Additionally, I think he ends up getting moved by Peterborough at some point this year and mid season trade participants rarely get serious Red Tilson consideration.

Jim Rutherford Goaltender of the Year - Leevi Merilainen (Kingston Frontenacs)
There are so few experienced goaltenders in the league this year due to the year lay-off, so this is a tough award to truly predict. But I really like the odds of Finnish import Leevi Merilainen. He comes to Kingston with a ton of hype and was fantastic at the World Junior Summer Showcase for Finland. He has a great team ahead of him and he should be an immediate impact player. As part of the Red Tilson discussion, I also mentioned Brett Brochu and he is a logical candidate here. The Knights will be good and part of why is Brochu. After those two top contenders, I think the next three candidates are Ben Gaudreau, Pavel Cajan, and Zach Paputsakis. Gaudreau will be a top contender if he can play well enough to get the Sting into the top 5 of the Western Conference. Cajan will be one if he can claim the starting spot on a very strong, veteran Kitchener Rangers team. And Paputsakis should be one of the top OA's in the league, backstopping a strong Oshawa team.

Max Kaminski Trophy - Brandt Clarke (Barrie Colts)
Bold prediction right? Obvious sarcasm as Clarke enters the season as the heavy favourite to be the league's top defender. Not only is he extremely talented, but the Colts will be a good team and his production should be absolutely top notch. Much like Wright above, I would be shocked if Clarke is not the winner of this award. Two other highly drafted players who could be heavy contenders are Sudbury's Jack Thompson (who will likely be among the league's top point producing defenders) and Guelph's Daniil Chayka, who returns to the league after stint in the KHL. OA Soo defender Robert Calisti is the highest scoring returning defenseman and I expect him to have a monster season. Four more unheralded choices could be Windsor's Louka Henault, Erie's Spencer Sova, North Bay's Ty Nelson, and Oshawa's Lleyton Moore. All four will be critical players for their teams and should be big point producers from the back-end. Of course, Ryan O'Rourke could be a candidate here too, but I'm just not sure he puts up enough points to be a serious Max Kaminsky option.

Emms Family Award - Calum Ritchie (Oshawa Generals)
Without question, this will be the deepest group of players ever eligible. Because the league didn't play last year, every 2004 and 2005 born player (except Shane Wright) is eligible for this award. So who the hell wins when we should have multiple point per game players who don't even finish top 3 in voting? I'm going with a bold prediction here that a 2005 actually outshines them all! As we have seen this preseason already, Ritchie has been put in a position to have an absolutely monster year. And I think that if we have an '05 who performs as well statistically as an '04, I think that the voters will be swayed in that direction. If I had to pick a second choice, I would go with Paul Ludwinski in Kingston. Ludwinski could end up playing with Wright and Chromiak this year and the production that would come with that would be insane. Third would be either Spencer Sova or Ty Nelson, two defenders that I expect to be among the leading point producers on the blueline. Others to consider are 05's Ethan Miedema, Quintin Musty and 04's Hunter Haight, Bryce McConnell-Barker, and Pano Fimis. 

Leo Lalande Trophy - Zach Paputsakis
I mentioned Paputsakis as a sneaky candidate for goaltender of the year and as such he is my preseason pick for OA of the year. Again, I think the Generals will be a good team...especially defensively. And I think his stats will be excellent. Robert Calisti and Louka Henault are two guys that I mentioned for the Max Kaminsky and I think both will be in contention here too. A sneaky forward candidate is Kingston's Lucas Edmonds. Technically an OHL rookie in his OA year, he comes to the Fronts from Sweden and has been absolutely fantastic in the preseason. Other forwards I think have big OA years are Brandon Coe, Joe Carroll, Tag Bertuzzi, Brendan Hoffman, and Mike Petizian. A final player worth mentioning is Cody Morgan. One of the highest scoring returning players to the OHL, Morgan could have a real big offensive season with London. 

Matt Leyden Trophy - Mike McKenzie (Kitchener Rangers)
I mentioned previously that I felt that the Kitchener Rangers entered the season as the early favourite to capture the OHL title this year. It seems logical, given that opinion, that I predict Mike McKenzie as the coach of the year. Pretty much every coach in this league has their work cut out for them this year since they have to integrate nearly 10+ rookies into their lineups. I expect Kingston to be among the best team's in the league too and that means Luca Caputi should be heavily considered. Outside of those two, look for Marty Williamson, Jay McKee, Marc Savard, Dale Hunter, and John Dean to be favourites.

Eddie Powers Trophy - Ethan Cardwell (Barrie Colts)
I kind of alluded to this prediction earlier, but I do feel like it has a great chance of happening. I think the Barrie Colts score a ton of goals this year. Their powerplay should be absolutely lights out. Cardwell is going to be among the league's leading scorers. Can he be THE leading scorer though? I think so. Shane Wright is going to miss time for the WJC's. However, he may light the league on fire so much that it doesn't matter. Luke Evangelista and Antonio Stranges should put up some serious points in London. Francesco Pinelli should be among the leading scorers in Kitchener. A real shot in the dark could be Daniil Gushchin in Niagara, as it was announced that he would be loaned to the league by San Jose. Can he replicate the offensive success he had in the USHL? Can he score enough on a somewhat young and retooling Niagara team?

Goal Scoring Leader - Shane Wright (Kingston Frontenacs)
I know, I know...a bit of a contradiction considering that I said Wright could lose his grip on the scoring title due to the WJC's. However, I do think that he ends up leading the league in goal scoring. He's that good. He's also, surprisingly, the league's highest returning goal scorer from two seasons ago. I think Cardwell challenges him. I think James Hardie challenges him (especially if he gets moved to a contender). Mason McTavish, Rory Kerins, Will Cuylle, Brett Harrison, Brennan Othmann, and Martin Chromiak are all serious contenders too. You could also list some of those OA wingers I mentioned earlier in the Leo Lalonde conversation. A darkhorse could be Philadelphia Flyers draft pick and Sudbury Wolves winger Samu Tuomaala if he gets assigned to the league. He can REALLY fire it and he'll be put in a position to score a lot of goals.

1st Team All Stars
LW: Martin Chromiak
C: Shane Wright
RW: Luke Evangelista
D: Brandt Clarke
D: Daniil Chayka
G: Leevi Merilainen
Coach: Mike McKenzie

2nd Team All Stars
LW: James Hardie
C: Ethan Cardwell
RW: Ty Tullio (if he plays RW, which I anticipate he does)
D: Robert Calisti
D: Louka Henault
G: Brett Brochu
Coach: Luca Caputi

3rd Team All Stars
LW: Mike Petizian
C: Mason McTavish
RW: Daniil Gushchin
D: Jack Thompson
D: Ryan O'Rourke
G: Zach Paputsakis
Coach: Marc Savard

All Rookie Team
LW: Quentin Musty
C: Calum Ritchie
RW: Gavin Hayes
D: Ty Nelson
D: Spencer Sova
G: Kyle Downey

 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

2021/22 OHL Season Preview: Western Conference

Part two of my season preview brings us to the Western Conference.
 
Similar to the East, I expect this race to be extremely competitive. Honestly, I wouldn't be shocked at all if any of the eight teams I have in the playoffs ends up winning the Conference. The race is that close on paper. I'll try my best to explain my thinking as to why I have things ranked the way that I do. 

1. Kitchener Rangers (Midwest Division Champs)
The Rangers have a chance to be a really scary team this year. I was shocked that they weren't included in the preseason CHL rankings. In a season where many of the OHL's teams are relying on unproven talent, Kitchener is loaded with 2001 and 2002 talent. And we're not talking about fringe OHL players. We're talking about potential top end players like Reid Valade, Declan McDonnell, Joseph Serpa, Arber Xhekaj (if he returns from Montreal/Laval), Mike Petizian, etc. Then you surround them with other talented players like Pinelli, Roman Schmidt, Andrew Leblanc, Simon Motew, etc. The talent is...like I said, scary. And imagine if Sebrango gets sent back? The real wild card is Pavel Cajan. The Rangers are hoping that the Czech import can come into the league and be among the best goaltenders in the league. The reality is, with all the talent they have, they will only need him to be above average and steady and I think he should definitely be able to do that. Kitchener is my preseason pick to win the OHL title this season.

2. Windsor Spitfires (West Division Champs)
It has been since 2009/10 since the Knights and Spitfires were at the top of the Western Conference and I think that there is a great chance that it happens this season (although I do have London in third in my prediction). Even if Jean Luc Foudy stays in the AHL again (which does seem likely), the Spits have a deep and talented forward group. Will Cuylle will be returning from the AHL and should have a big year. Wyatt Johnston is ready to take that next step. 4th overall pick Ethan Miedema has been fantastic in the preseason. Ryan Abraham is a little ball of fury. This team is so deep down the middle and that is important in this league. Defensively, the team has terrific veteran leadership in Henault and Ladd, and should get great contributions from some of their other depth options like Daniil Sobolev. The real wild card is in net. One of Xavier Medina or Kyle Downey SHOULD be good enough to lead the Spits to a division title given the strength of the team around them. 
 
3. London Knights
I get it...the London Knights are hated by many OHL fan bases. It seems like whenever I predict them near the top of the conference, I get the same type of comments from readers: "typical London bias," "watch other teams," "the Knights are cheaters." But the reality is...this team and organization just gets it done. It all starts in net. Brett Brochu has already proven himself to be one of the best goaltenders in the OHL before the pandemic and he gives them the type of security many teams do not have this season. The team's defense is also a major strength. The depth and talent on the blueline is fantastic. This team is going to be a difficult to score against. Upfront, Luke Evangelista and Antonio Stranges should be offensive game breakers and there is solid depth surrounding them. Once Gazizov reports (it sounds like he will once his VISA situation is sorted out), he adds even more depth. The Cody Morgan add should be a good one too. One of the highest scoring OA's returning. Brochu is definitely the difference maker here though.

4. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
I have no idea how the Greyhounds' goaltending situation plays out. On paper, it looks ugly. But I do know one thing, this team is good enough on paper to overcome it. If the options that SSM starts with (Ivanov and Schenkel) don't get the job done, I don't see Kyle Raftis sitting back idle. The team will make a move to bring in someone with experience who can stop pucks with greater consistency. Ryan O'Rourke was recently announced to be returning (much to the surprise of many) and he will anchor a pretty solid blueline that has great depth and talent. In particular, look for Robert Calisti to be one of the highest scoring defenders in the OHL. Kirill Kudryavstev is a wild card, but I know a few scouts who really like what he brings to the table and he should be an immediate top three defender. Up front, this team is going to score. I would put their top six up against nearly any top six in the league heading into the year; Bryce McConnell-Barker, Rory Kerins, Tanner Dickinson, and two of Joe Carroll, Cole Mackay, and Tye Kartye (because one of the OA's will have to go). 
 
5. Owen Sound Attack
Much like the Kitchener Rangers, the Owen Sound Attack are a veteran laden team that should have success this season. They may lack true star power, but they have great depth and a true team identity (they will not be an easy team to play against). Mack Guzda should have a solid OA year as the team's starting netminder. Two of Wooley, Perrott, and Chibrikov will provide a veteran presence on the blueline. Nolan Seed will need to take that next step as a puck mover and powerplay QB for this team to reach its potential but I like the odds of it. At forward, there is great depth. Again, star power is lacking, but the Attack will roll three lines that can do damage and bring energy shift after shift. I look for Deni Goure and Ethan Burroughs to have great bounce back years. I look for Servac Petrovsky and Cedrick Guindon to have great draft years. And I think Colby Barlow has a chance to be an immediate impact rookie. In a tough Western Conference, I think the Attack's depth and team chemistry shine through.

6. Sarnia Sting
Admittedly, I am predicting the Sting to be this high because I expect Ben Gaudreau to have a fantastic season for them, elevating them above their talent level on paper. The defense in front of Gaudreau should be much better than it was the last time the Sting took the ice too. OA's Cam Supryka and Ashton Reesor lead the way, with Ryan Mast and Import Andrei Malyavin rounding out the top four. At forward, I'm not crazy about the team's depth, but I do think that their top two lines and powerplay units should be solid. Given the lack of size of the team's top end forwards (Voit, Namestnikov, Dann), OA Brayden Guy and Import Alex Geci are going to be critical in terms of creating space for them to operate freely. The game has changed drastically in the last decade, allowing undersized forwards to find success consistently, but I do worry about the consistency of this forward group without greater depth. 

7. Saginaw Spirit
I really like what the Spirit have going defensively. Tristan Lennox should have a strong year in the crease. Pavel Mintyukov and Matthew Jovanovic are exciting additions to the backend. Mitchell Smith should be that veteran anchor and I expect him to have a big year. The Saginaw Spirit should not have trouble keeping pucks out of their net. However, they might have trouble scoring. I'm not worried about Josh Bloom. I'm excited to see Matyas Sapovaliv and Luke McNamara start in the league. However, I'm just not sure that they have a game breaker. The key is in the play of the Spirit's OA's. The last time we left them Dalton Duhart, Nick Wong, and Camaryn Baber were far from top end talents in the OHL. But a lot can change in 18 months. Saginaw's season and placement likely rests on their development. If they prove worthy to be high end top six forwards, Saginaw could push for home ice in round one. If they fall flat, this team could go into rebuild mode (dealing Lennox) and runs the risk of missing the playoffs.

8. Erie Otters
The Otters are the antithesis of the Saginaw Spirit. This team is going to score a boatload of goals. I expect the OA trio of Brendan Sellan, Daniel D'Amato, and Brendan Hoffman (expecting that Sproule is the odd man out in the OA mix) to really light the league on fire. I also expect Connor Lockhart and Colby Saganiuk to have big years. There is serious depth to this forward unit as a whole. But the defense is highly suspect. Spencer Sova is going to be expected to be the team's top defender as a draft eligible player. As much as I really like him, consistency is likely to be an issue. That will likely be a problem for the group overall unless a few players really step up and surprise (like Import Kulakov). That means veteran netminder Aidan Campbell is going to see a ton of rubber. It's not something he is unaccustomed to, but I'm also not sure if he is a good enough goaltender to truly steal games for Erie on a consistent basis. I think a lot of things would have to go right for Erie to end up in the Top 5 of the Conference. However, I do think that a lot of things would have to go wrong for them to end up outside of the playoffs. 

9. Guelph Storm
Admittedly, I do not think that the Storm are a bad team. I expect them to be right in the thick of things nearly all season long. They have quality top end talent like Chayka, Zhilkin, and eventual new arrival Sasha Pastujov. They looked very strong in the preseason. I just don't know if they have the depth to be consistent enough to earn a playoff spot. And if they are a .500 team heading into the trade deadline, I could see them dealing Chayka and perhaps Zhilkin or Pastujov for massive hauls to help them rebuild around their solid group of 2004 and 2005 born players like Poitras and Allen. So this prediction reflects that I do believe Guelph will, at some point this season, re-tool and rebuild as was the plan before the covid pandemic hit.  

10. Flint Firebirds
While there are a few players on this team that I am really excited to see play this season like Othmann, Gavin Hayes, and Dmitri Kuzmin, overall this team is likely to struggle heavily. It's a shame too, because they had rebuilt themselves into a very respectable team prior to the pandemic, but now seem primed to become bottom dwellers yet again. Throw in the fact that we already have rumours of turmoil, dissatisfaction, and trade demands (with Cody Morgan being the first ball to drop) and it likely means a long year for Flint fans. The real wild card here is the team's group of unsung 2002 and 2003 born forwards. The measure of success that Flint has likely resides in their hands (Kressler, Piercey, Giroux, Panwar). With a lack of true depth upfront, this group will need to take a massive step forward to get this team into the playoffs. But right now, Flint is my pick to be dead last in the OHL and picking first (pending a lottery win under the new format) in the 2022 OHL Draft.

 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

2021/22 OHL Season Preview: Eastern Conference

The good news? The OHL is back! The bad news? The year long hiatus has made it even harder than usual (and it is usually already extremely difficult) to offer predictions for the league. There are so many variables at work here; two years of rookie and import crops, uncertainty surrounding OA situations (due to many teams having an abundance), a lack of star goaltending talent, and general unpredictability regarding the usual development of young hockey players.
 
I think most see four teams in the East as preseason contenders; Kingston, Barrie, Hamilton, and Oshawa. Those teams have veteran talent and should be safe bets to perform well. Ottawa, Peterborough, and Mississauga are probably the three teams fighting it out at the bottom. Then the rest fall in the middle. 
 
1. Kingston Frontenacs (East Division Champs)
I'm a little worried about the team's defensive depth and lack of a true top pairing type who can be an anchor. Jake Murray, Lucas Peric, and Braden Hache are good defenders, but I am not convinced any are dynamic minute eaters at this point in their development. The good news? Finnish import netminder (and Ottawa Senators prospect) Leevi Merilainen appears to be for real and he should be one of the best goaltenders in the league this year. Combine that with an offense lead by the exceptional Shane Wright and you have a recipe for success; allowing them to cover up some possible defensive shortcomings. I expect Martin Chromiak to have a monster year playing alongside Wright. Paul Ludwinski and OA rookie Lucas Edmonds have looked fantastic this preseason, proving that they could possibly anchor that secondary scoring group. Quality depth at forward and terrific goaltending can carry you a long way in this league.

2. Barrie Colts (Central Division Champs)
There is no secret that the Colts are aggressively looking to improve their goaltending. This is a very strong team with few weaknesses...except in the crease. The issue is that the only high(er) end goalies available are OA's and the Colts already have a logjam of quality 2001's. They just brought in Mathew Sbrocca, but he's just as inexperienced as others in the fold. Until they figure out what to do in the crease, the team's quality defense (anchored by Brandt Clarke) should help to limit higher end scoring chances. This is going to be a very tough team to win battles against in the Barrie end. Offensively, there is a mix of veteran leadership like Ethan Cardwell, Evan Vierling, and Nicholas Porco (if they keep him), to go with some terrific "rookies" like import Oskar Olausson, Hunter Haight, and Beau Jelsma. This is going to be a really fun team to watch this season. Again, they just need to hang in early in the year.

3. Hamilton Bulldogs 
I think the Bulldogs are possibly the most well rounded team in the Conference on paper. They have depth at all positions and they have one of the strongest OA groups in the OHL this year (anchored by Tag Bertuzzi and Nathan Staios, along with a strong third OA that they will need to figure out). Between one of Costantini and Drobac (assuming Roy is an odd man out), the goaltending should be more than adequate. The forward group competes extremely hard and will bring a lot of physicality, in addition to skill. Expect Jan Mysak, Logan Morrison, and Tag Bertuzzi to have huge years in particular. Of course, Ryan Winterton is also a favourite of mine. The real wild card is Artyom Grushnikov. The Dallas Stars second rounder has been turning heads in Traverse City and he could be an immediate impact player and number one defender for the Bulldogs. If he can elevate this defensive group, they could truly challenge for the top spot in the Conference. Look for preseason breakout star Gavin White to have a big year on the backend too.

4. Oshawa Generals
While the overall depth of the Generals does concern me somewhat, their top end talent should shine through. Tullio, Harrison, and second overall pick Calum Ritchie will lead the way offensively. The club has a lot of options to fill in the gaps around them and if players like Ryan Gagnier or Ryan Stepien can have breakout years, Oshawa will be fine. Defensively, there "shouldn't be" any issues even with Mitchell Brewer stepping away.  Lleyton Moore and David Jesus will be strong veteran presences. OA goaltender Zach Paputsakis has a chance to be a contender for the OHL's top goaltender award (named for Jim Rutherford). This team's powerplay should be absolutely lethal with Moore working the point, Harrison working the net front, and Tullio/Ritchie controlling the half wall. The lack of offensive depth is the weak spot, but in the OHL, star players can carry you a long way and I see that happening with the Generals.

5. North Bay Battalion
I find the make-up of this team to be very interesting. They aren't the Battalion of old under Stan Butler. We're looking at a defense that can really move the puck and a forward group who can really skate. Ty Nelson will be looking to have a monster year in his draft eligible season. But Avery Winslow and Paul Christopoulos are terrific offensive blueliners in their own right and I think all three of these guys will have great seasons. I also think Joe Vrbetic has a good year in the crease, providing stability that allows the defense to take some chances. The question is, who can emerge as a go to playmaker for this Battalion team up front. Can Brandon Coe take that big next step forward? Will Liam Arnsby look better offensively as a now "veteran" player and someone in his draft year (as a late born 2003)? Can Dalyn Wakely, Matvey Petrov, Nic Sima, and Owen Outwater be impact rookies? Unlike some of the other top teams in the East, North Bay just doesn't seem to have that truly impactful forward and I wonder if they causes them to be more of a middle of the pack team.

6. Niagara IceDogs
This is a team that I think has a chance to be very exciting to watch, but because the majority of their top players are on the "younger" side, there are bound to be some growing pains and consistency could end up being an issue. That's why I have them as more of a middle of the pack team. San Jose Sharks pick Daniil Gushchin is a real wild card here though. Recently it was announced that he was being loaned to the OHL. After destroying the USHL the last few years, he could be one of the top offensive players in the OHL and someone who could elevate this team to a higher status. However, one does have to wonder if Niagara intends to use him as a trade chip at some point given their "rebuild" status. While I think we're all excited to see the Fimis, Castle, and Cooke line re-united (from the JRC), Jake Uberti is someone who I think is a key player for Niagara this season. If he takes that next step as a top line center, this team could be better than we think. I am also crazy excited to see Tucker Tynan play a full season in his return to the league following that gruesome leg injury. I love his athleticism and play tracking ability. OA's Mason Howard and Dakota Betts are also keys to the Dogs' success. 

7. Sudbury Wolves
The Sudbury Wolves' forward group excites me. They're young, but they're talented. Scouts are looking for David Goyette, Kocha Delic, and Evan Konyen to be key contributors in their draft eligible seasons. The New Jersey Devils are looking for Chase Stillman to be an offensive leader. Flyers pick Samu Tuomaala seems likely bound for Sudbury. And all eyes are on first overall pick Quentin Musty. This team will have the ability to score goals. But can they keep them out of their net? I not only have concerns over their goaltending, but also their defensive depth behind Jack Thompson and Liam Ross, even if I expect Thompson to be one of the best defenseman in the league this year. I think that there are just too many question marks outside of their strong forward group. If Sudbury struggles to play consistently, I would look for them to move Jack Thompson for a heavy bounty, allowing them to truly build around their terrific 2004 and 2005 groups.

8. Peterborough Petes
Honestly, the Petes should not be a bad team. Mason McTavish will lead a forward group that could be better than it looks on paper. JR Avon could have a big season fresh off signing an ELC with Philadelphia and Tucker Robertson could be a breakout star. They also have Nick Lardis and Sam Alfano ready for bigger roles. But their defense is only average and their goaltending is a bit of a question mark (like much of the league). If the Petes added a high end OA on the blueline heading into the year, I'd feel better about their situation and odds. But Shawn Spearing is the team's veteran presence and I'm not sure he is more than a solid stay at home number four in the league. The Petes have been due for a bit of a rebuild and if the team does struggle, they could likely deal McTavish for a massive haul that could really set this team up well for the future.

9. Ottawa 67's
I believe the obvious question mark regarding the 67's is...who will score? Jack Beck returns as the team's go-to offensive player (because Graeme Clarke will play in the AHL on an exemption) and he may not be ready for that role after being more of a support player previously. There are certainly some talented young forwards who have the potential to be strong OHL players (Tolnai, Sirizzotti, Barlas, Gaidamak, Pinelli, Stonehouse, etc), but there are just so many unknowns. The defense will be rock solid and the goaltending could be good if Will Cranley proves capable of being a starter. But without a ton of veteran leadership and a lot of question marks, the 67's are likely a bubble team. The coaching turnover also doesn't help with Dave Cameron taking over for Andre Tourigny. Cameron is a great coach, but it's just another wild card to throw into the mix.
 
10. Mississauga Steelheads
Someone has to finish last in the Conference. Look, I don't see this season being one where the two teams in the conference that miss the playoffs are absolutely terrible. The competition for those final few playoff spots will be tight and I don't see any team finishing below (or near below) the .400 winning percentage mark (similar to the 2013/14 season). So why Mississauga in last? Of all the teams in the East, their goaltending actually concerns me the most. And while I love the team's push to be as large as possible on the blueline, I'm also not sure if they'll be get things moving in transition as much as they want. Who quarterbacks that top powerplay unit? James Hardie will be hungry to have a big year to prove NHL scouts wrong. And he probably will have one. And there are some really talented young forwards in the group. But I do wonder about the scoring depth...at least consistently...behind Hardie. Is Luke Misa ready to step right in as a second line center (assuming Prueter takes the top line role)? Again though, tough year to make this type of prediction.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Preseason Top 30 for the 2022 NHL Draft

Man...I thought last year's preseason list was difficult to make! This year, it was damn near impossible because these young men haven't even played in the OHL yet due to last season's cancellation. But I do think that this exercise is an important one (for fun, here's the 2021 preseason list).

So how did I make this list? Thankfully I actually saw a lot of this group in their OHL draft year, so I have that to go off of. We also have a few performances from the last few months. The first being the few players who played at the PBHH. The second being the Hockey Canada U18 Summer Camp (with only a few of the scrimmages streamed). The third, for a select few, we have Hlinka/Gretzky Cup performances. That said there are so many variables to consider...that simply can not be considered. Which players worked the hardest to get themselves in the best shape possible the last 18 months to be ready for this season? Which players went through growth spurts? How will players fit into their OHL lineups with two years worth of Priority selections and Import selections vying for roster spots? In most years, my preseason list is actually somewhat similar to my final list (with obvious exceptions who move up and down). This year? I expect it to look completely different in May/June. So many of these young men are going to look like way different hockey players at the end of the year compared to the start because of last year's debacle.

I have already been asked a bunch about the strength of this OHL crop. It's not a question that we can answer right now. Coming out of U16, I felt like this group was only average, with the group's best player (Adam Fantilli, 2023 eligible due to a late birthday) opting to head south of the border. Obviously, that's not including Shane Wright who was granted exceptional status the year prior. How will a lost year of development, essentially, impact that? Again, too many variables to consider to give a truthful and reliable answer to that question. But one thing is for sure, it will be great to have the OHL back! Bring on the 2022 draft season!

Here's my early list: 

1. Shane Wright - Center - Kingston Frontenacs
Honestly, what more can you say about Wright that hasn't already been said? He is going to be the first overall pick in 2022 and you can take that to the bank. He is the most intelligent and polished prospect that I have seen come through the OHL. Yes, that includes Connor McDavid. And no, Wright is not at talented as McDavid from an offensive perspective. But Wright's two-way play and off the puck play is ahead of where McDavid's was at the same age. He is that smart. Wright is a prospect with no flaws. Everything in his toolbox is above average or elite. The one thing I do worry about is that Wright is a little different than your average first overall phenom. He's not flashy. He's not McDavid. He's not Sidney Crosby. He's not Austen Matthews or Alex Ovechkin. He does take a few viewings to truly appreciate. I've already seen some say (when I say seen, I'm talking about social media), "he was really disappointing at the Hockey Canada scrimmages." Shane Wright is the kind of player who can look pretty quiet to the naked eye, but ends up with 2-3 points in the boxscore. There are so many subtle nuances to his approach and it takes a few viewings (especially live) to truly appreciate how good he is. I feel like he could fall victim to "overscouting" (the notion of the scouting community dissecting and nitpicking components of his game) because he lacks that flash. It happened to John Tavares in his draft year. I hope it does not though! Look for Wright to be a top 5 scorer in the OHL this season.
 
2. Bryce McConnell-Barker - Center/Wing - Soo Greyhounds
To me, BMB is the kind of player that has a real chance to be the second OHL player taken behind Shane Wright this year. It is easy to see his game being very adaptable to the NHL, even at a young age. He's a reliable two-way center with high end skating ability and goal scoring ability. Those are the types of players that are always highly coveted at the NHL draft. McConnell-Barker is an aggressive forechecker and the type of player who always seems to keep his feet moving in all three zones. A lack of effort without the puck is not an issue. He also has a great shot. He can shoot from a standstill. He can let it rip flying down the wing. Ultimately, I want to see how he is utilized this year by the Greyhounds. Will they have him play center or will he play the wing to start to take advantage of his speed and forechecking ability? How good are the hands, especially when the pace increases? Can he be an offensive focal point with the puck on his stick? I have a lot of faith in the Soo's development program and I think he is a great fit for how they like to play. 
 
3. Gavin Hayes - Wing - Flint Firebirds
Come on...you had to see this coming. You know that Hayes is exactly the type of player that I love. This is a throwback power forward. He has size. He has skill. His skating can be an asset, especially in terms of his ability to take the puck East/West, an uncommon quality in players of his ilk. The key for him will be finding that balance between his physicality and his offensive responsibilities and production. Young power forwards can have a difficult time blending that when they come into the league. They run around trying to hit everyone and their offensive production suffers as they become more complementary/secondary pieces. The one thing that I am really hoping for is that Flint plays he and Othmann on the same line at times. Talk about chaos. Literally the "Bash Brothers." 

4. Paul Ludwinski - Center - Kingston Frontenacs
My reasoning for ranking Ludwinski here is similar to what I described with McConnell-Barker. I see Ludwinski as the type of strong skating, two-way center that NHL teams covet at the draft. As a U16 player with the Marlboros, I really loved his decision making with the puck in traffic, working give and go's, sliding in and out of coverage. Everything was done with speed and precision. I thought Ludwinski was one of the stronger OHL players in those U20 Hockey Canada scrimmages, again because of his ability to lead or join the attack. I guess my biggest concern is how he slots into the Kingston lineup this year. This team is deep down the middle if they play Arcuri at center behind Shane Wright. Is he the team's third line center? Do they consider sliding him to the wing? Playing second fiddle to Shane Wright is going to be difficult for him; standing out consistently could be tough.

5. Ty Nelson - Defense - North Bay Battalion
I know a lot of people seem to have Nelson ranked second heading into the year, but I'm just not sure its realistic or logical. Look...Ty Nelson is good. But how good...remains to be seen. And given his size (listed at 5'7 on the OHL website), it seems rather improbable that he is the second player taken from the OHL this season. How many defenseman his size get drafted in the first round? The NHL is changing for the better, but the road for smaller blueliners is still a bumpy one. All that said, again...Ty Nelson is going to be a great OHL defender. For one, he's a fiery competitor, which really plays to his advantage given his lack of size. There's a lot of Ryan Ellis in him in that regard. He will lay the body. He never backs down from a physical challenge. He is in incredible shape for a young man his age (the word stocky is most commonly used). If there is an undersized defender to bet on, it's Nelson and that's why he's #5 and not even further down. Offensively, he can be a really dangerous player with his quickness and confidence with the puck. He will go end to end. He will create inside the offensive zone. To hold this draft ranking and to put himself in consideration for the Top 40-50, he is probably going to need to be a near point per game defender this year for North Bay, in addition to being a strong player in the defensive end. Not impossible by any means given his talent level. 

6. Spencer Sova - Defense - Erie Otters
An aggressive ranking for Sova (more aggressive than I have seen), but I am a big fan. I do think that he looked overwhelmed at the Hockey Canada summer camp. But that doesn't really concern me. Few defenders are able to stick out in a situation like that playing against the best U20 forwards, some of whom had pro experience. What I love about Sova is his skating ability. For my money, this is the best skating player from this OHL crop (at any position). He has elite level mobility in all four directions. In a lot of ways, he is going to remind Otters' fans of Jamie Drysdale. How he learns to utilize that to his advantage remains to be seen. I'm not really worried about his offensive game. I think he will be a standout this season, especially on the powerplay. I am slightly concerned with his defensive play. The Otters will have a strong, veteran forward group, but defensively there won't be a lot of experience. He is going to need to play big minutes right away and that could be overwhelming. 

7. Pano Fimis - Center - Niagara IceDogs
You are starting to see a trend here...another well rounded, two-way center. The second overall pick by Niagara in 2020, Fimis competes hard at both ends of the ice. He is another guy who plays with a competitive edge and who really seems to thrive in traffic despite not having a significant size advantage (around that 6'0 mark). Fimis' hands may be the best in this crop outside of Shane Wright and it allows him to create that extra time and space he needs to finish or dish off. The big thing for him will be showing that he can be an elite skater. Personally, I'd rank BMB and Ludwinski ahead in that department coming out of U16 and I think it could make them more immediate impact players. I also want to see him maintain that competitive edge consistently against older players. Can he thrive near the net like he did in the GTHL? 

8. Danny Zhilkin - Center - Guelph Storm
A player that we have seen in the OHL! Oh glorious day. That said, what to expect from Zhilkin is equally a mystery. In his rookie OHL season he really struggled to make a consistent impact. At the U18's, he wasn't much of an offensive factor for Canada, even though he did impress with his work on the penalty kill and in the neutral zone. Zhilkin has a chance to play a key role for a Guelph team that could surprise (even though we left them in a state of rebuild). He is that prototypical power center who can drive the net with speed and potentially dominate through the middle of the ice. If he can carry over his play off the puck from the U18's, while also increasing his offensive production, he could put himself in consideration for the first round.

9. Hunter Haight - Center - Barrie Colts
Earlier I said that Pano Fimis' hands might be the best outside of Shane Wright in this class. The reason I said might is because of Hunter Haight (dope rhyme if his name was pronounced "Height" instead of "Hate"). Billed as one of the most skilled and creative players in this age group, Haight is going to be surrounded by a lot of talent in Barrie this season and that should only help him gain confidence in his ability to play with the puck at this level. He was one of the best (if not the best) Ontario players at the Hockey Canada summer camp and proved that he can make plays away from the puck and finish off chances created for him, just as well as he can create for others. Potentially, he is the complete package as an offensive player. If he performs well at the start of the OHL season, he will move quickly. So why is he 9th? I think we need to see that production first. The other centers I ranked ahead of him have more complete games and bring more to the table when they aren't scoring. 

10. David Goyette - Center - Sudbury Wolves
Simply put, Goyette was an offensive machine playing AAA in the U.S. with South Kent in his OHL Draft year. His speed is a real asset. He is just a really high level athlete who can make plays with pace. Lauded for his playmaking ability around the net, I actually think his shot and scoring ability is underrated. Much like Hunter Haight, Goyette has a chance to be the complete package as an offensive player. However, much like Haight, I want to see how his game translates before committing to having him higher. Can he bring other elements to the ice when he's not putting points on the board? Can he fight through contact and maintain possession to create when the game slows down? 

11. Liam Arnsby - Center - North Bay Battalion
I have a real soft spot for players like Arnsby, so you know that he is going to be ranked pretty aggressively on this list despite an underwhelming first OHL season. The late 2003 born center was a standout with the Don Mills Flyers and an OHL Cup champion, but he seemed to struggle with the puck at the OHL level. He brought energy. He brought physicality. He forechecked hard. He drove the net. But too many plays in the offensive end died on his stick. Given his lack of elite size as a defensive specialist (5'10), he is going to need to produce offensively to get drafted, let alone get drafted high. No doubt Arnsby is going to be a good OHL player. However, he needs to prove that he has improved his finishing ability and his ability to receive passes and maintain possession when playing with pace to maintain this position into the year. That said, I think he can do it and that's why I have him here.

12. Cedrick Guindon - Center/Wing - Owen Sound Attack
One of the top goal scoring options from the OHL this year, Guindon's ability to find soft spots in coverage, in combination with his release and power makes him a consistent weapon in the offensive zone. He also has the kind of quick feet and high end mobility that you want from an undersized offensive player. I guess the concern I have here is...he is undersized and we haven't seen him prove himself at this level yet. Consistency was already an issue at the PBHH tournament, one of the only recent showings we have from him and it was against a lot of the same players he will need to compete against this season. But he probably enters the year as that top "sniper" of this group and needs to be ranked accordingly.

13. Ryan Abraham - Center - Windsor Spitfires
Yes he is on the small side at 5'8. But he possesses all of the attributes that you look for from an undersized forward who you project to be an NHL player. He is quick, utilizing the mohawk stride to build up dynamic speed quite frequently. He is feisty and competitive, rarely backing down from a challenge, especially below the hash marks. He is skilled, especially as a playmaker and passer. He and Gavin Hayes showed great chemistry at the U.S. Hlinka/Gretzky camp and at the Hlinka tournament itself. Like any smaller center, I want to see the production be at an above average level for the Spitfires next season. I do believe that he can be a go-to offensive player at this level, but there's also the chance that he is more of a high energy, change of pace guy. The line is thin for players like Abraham.

14. Matthew Poitras - Center - Guelph Storm
I know Poitras has some real fans in the scouting community and that has admittedly pushed him up my list a bit because I was always a little underwhelmed by him as a U16 player with Whitby. I wasn't certain the upside was incredibly high. However, he was one of the best Ontario players at the Hockey Canada summer camp and apparently really stood out because of his vision and playmaking ability in the strictly U18 portion. That carried over to the mixed U20 portion, which I was able to watch. There's some power to his game. Some finesse as well. The skating ability is good. But what is he at the next level? Tough to say on what we've seen so far. I need to see more. But I also trust the opinion of some others who really like him.

15. Jorian Donovan - Defense - Hamilton Bulldogs
Truthfully, I don't know what to make of Jorian Donovan at this point. However, given his high end skating ability he needs to be ranked this high, perhaps even higher. Watching him as a U16 player, at the PBHH, and at the Hockey Canada summer camp, his performance has been pretty consistently erratic. On one shift, he'll go end to end and look like a star. On the next, he'll make a costly error that results in a scoring chance or goal the other way. The physical tools are electric and as such, the potential is also very high. However, he needs to prove that he can make consistently better decisions at this level...at both ends of the ice. And even if Donovan struggles to start, it will be important to NOT hit the panic button. Let the Hamilton coaching staff work with him and let's see how he looks at season's end. 

16. Beau Jelsma - Wing - Barrie Colts
Truthfully...I wanted to put Jelsma higher. He was one of the best players at the PBHH, of any age. I honestly was shocked with how electric and dynamic he looked. He generates so many chances in transition with his speed coming down the wing, beating defenders wide before cutting back to the middle. He also showed a non stop motor at the event, working hard to retrieve pucks and use his speed to successfully break up plays on the backcheck. But...it was also only one event that had some fairly porous defense and goaltending. I am excited to see him play this year with the Colts and if he gets off to a hot start, I'll be sure to move him up quickly. However, we need to see this in the OHL first. 

17. Sam Alfano - Wing - Peterborough Petes
Honestly, I like almost everything about Alfano's game. Big guy with really soft hands and a penchant for finding soft spots in coverage. He has really good instincts in the offensive zone. He's not a power forward in the traditional sense, at least in the way that you would expect him to be given that he is 6'3 and 200lbs. However, he does use his size well to drive the net and win battles to prolong possession along the wall. His reach can be a real asset on the forecheck too. From what I understand (from talking to a few people), he really stood out positively in the U18 portion of the Hockey Canada camp. However, once it switched to the U20 portion, his skating put him behind the eight ball. Alfano moves alright in a linear fashion. He gets to where he needs to be. However, his dynamic skating qualities are lacking. His balance, pivots, edgework and startups all need work. That will be the key this season. I would be shocked if he is not, at least, a 20 goal scorer for Peterborough and given his size that will put him on the scouting radar. However, improving his overall mobility will be key.

18. Max Namestnikov - Center - Sarnia Sting
The former 3rd overall OHL priority selection, and younger brother of NHL'er Vladislav Namestnikov, Max's offensive potential is sky high. Judging by his listing at the U.S. Hlinka camp, he has also grown a bit, now up to 5'9, 180lbs. A dynamic puck carrier and skater, Namestnikov excels when the pace is high. However, he needs to be more visible when he is not carrying the puck. That means improving his ability to support linemates in the offensive zone. He needs to use that speed to be better at getting to loose pucks and he needs to win battles more consistently in traffic. It was really disappointing to see him not make the U.S. Hlinka/Gretzky Cup roster, however he did not have a strong camp (zero points in four games at the camp). I watched a few of those scrimmages and he definitely struggled to make an impact and offensive zone turnovers were an issue. He is going to get top six ice time on the Sting this season and he has the ability to be a high end point producer. However, he will definitely need to round out his game more to move up (and not down) a list like this.
 
19. Zak Lavoie - Wing - Mississauga Steelheads
I think most people were pretty surprised that Lavoie didn't get an invite to Hockey Canada's U18 summer camp. The 7th overall selection in 2020 is perhaps the best goal scorer in this age group and possesses an elite level shot and scoring instincts. Lavoie also proved to be a pretty reliable two-way forward in the GTHL, who can use his speed to force turnovers in all three zones. With a strong start, he could easily move up this list quickly. However, right now, I want to see how he finds those soft spots in coverage and excels in the slot at the OHL level, given his size (5'10). Can he be as successful near the crease and in the middle against older players? 

20. Evan Konyen - Wing - Sudbury Wolves
Heading into the 2020 OHL Priority Selection, I was very high on Konyen after a strong season with the Pittsburgh Junior Penguins. I felt like the Wolves stole him where they selected him in the fourth round. Konyen is a speedy goal scorer who presumably plays on the wing with Sudbury even though he played both center and wing in U16 action. He's not a huge kid (5'10), but I think his upside as a goal scorer is among the highest of any player listed here. He was excellent at the PBHH, using his speed to carve up ice and he made a few defenders look silly at the event. However, like Namestnikov, he struggled at the U.S. Hlinka camp recently, also going scoreless and looking overwhelmed physically at times. The Wolves do have some solid depth heading into the year, so Konyen will need to play well to earn ice time. I have hopes that he does though.
 
21. Andrew Leblanc - Center - Kitchener Rangers
Even though he is ranked 21st, Leblanc was actually one of my favourites from this OHL group heading into the 2020 priority selection. I think he is a very well rounded and intelligent pivot. One of those players who always keeps his feet moving in the offensive end and has enough puck skill and creativity to excel as a playmaker. He is the personification of the type of center that the Rangers have targeted over the course of the last few decades. So why is he 21st? I think his physical tools are a little behind some of the other centers on this list. As an OHL player, his skating probably grades as average. Same for his strength and finishing ability. Can he create in transition and drive pace like NHL scouts want from their centers? I think he can and I'm sure those physical tools have improved in the last 18 months...but it's a case of him needing to show it first IMO. 

22. Isaiah George - Defense - London Knights
Playing time is probably going to be difficult for him this year. He is going to be competing with some other very talented young defenders for consistent ice time. Don't let his draft position fool you (68th OV), as George was a clear first round talent for the draft but fell due to concerns that he was heading to the USHL and the NCAA. George is the epitome of physical tools. He is a potentially strong two-way defender who can use his mobility, size, and skill to be an impact player. He can lead the attack out of the defensive zone. He can QB a powerplay. He can provide a physical presence. However, the knock on him has been his decision making. Can he step right into the OHL and improve in this area, taking better care of the puck? If he struggles, the leash will be short due to London's depth. The potential is too high for him to be lower than this heading into the season, though.

23. Kocha Delic - Center - Sudbury Wolves
Delic was sort of the talk of the 2020 priority selection, since he was supposed to be a top 8 selection but fell to the mid second round. With the OHL on hiatus last season, Delic did try to go overseas to play in the Swedish U18 league, but that league was suspended too. He did play at the PBHH, though, and performed admirably. I actually really liked Delic's play without the puck at the event. He excelled as a forechecker, penalty killer, and brought a physical element (rare at the event). It was interesting to see that because I found this area of his game to be lacking at times in the GTHL. While I listed Delic as a center, I think he's more likely to play the wing this year in Sudbury (and perhaps beyond). He is a creative offensive catalyst, but similar to what I said about Andrew Leblanc, we need to see how those physical tools have improved.

24. Dalyn Wakely - Center - North Bay Battalion
Seems fair to group Delic and Wakely (and to an extent George) together in these rankings given that they were the biggest "fallers" of the 2020 OHL draft. Wakely is a potential power center with a big shot and a penchant for driving the net and getting under the skin of his opponents. No doubt he is skilled, but scouts will be looking for him to round out his game and improve his vision and awareness in the offensive end. Additionally, will he be able to overpower OHL defenders the way that he did U16 defenders? He's only listed at 5'11, so I know there is some concern that he was a bit of an early bloomer. 

25. Alex Leonard - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
All things considered, the IceDogs actually have a pretty experienced blueline heading into the season compared to some other OHL clubs. You wouldn't have said that a year ago. As such, Leonard probably starts the year in a third pairing role. But I really liked his game in U16 with the Mississauga Reps. He is an intelligent and competitive two-way defender who also happens to own a right shot. Not really a lot of flaws in his game coming out of U16. Ultimately, the question is...does he have significant upside? How well will his offensive skill set play at the OHL level? Conversely, as an average sized defender, will he still be able to have as much success physically to succeed in the defensive end? 

26. Jackson Edward - Defense - London Knights
Leonard and Edward are actually pretty similarly profiled players and that is why I have put them together. Jackson is a little bigger (6'2) and will probably have an easier transition to the defensive side of things because of his combination of size, mobility, and physicality. However, I do think Leonard has a bit more offensive upside, in addition to being that right shot. Edward's path to ice time is also going to be much greater. As mentioned with Isaiah George, the London depth is tremendous on the back-end (what else is new?), and Edward may find himself in a real battle to play consistently.

27. Lucas Ross - Wing - Erie Otters
Yes...Lucas Ross is small. Last listing has him at 5'6 (from the PBHH). He is going to have to produce at an insane clip to keep this position among these OHL draft rankings by season's end. The thing is...he is capable of doing so. Ross is ultra quick. He is ultra skilled. He is also competitive and fearless, with his quick feet making him elusive to check in the middle of the ice. Look, the Otters found success with another smaller player named Alex Debrincat. Can they find that same lightning in a bottle?

28. Teddy Sawyer - Defense - Ottawa 67's
Not a ton of late born 2003's on this list, but Sawyer does deserve a spot as of right now. He showed well as an OHL rookie in 2019/20 with Ottawa, cycling in and out of a deep lineup. He is already a solid player in the defensive end. He competes hard to take away space, can throw the big hit, and has good four way mobility. At times, Sawyer showed that he could make a clean exit pass or even lead the breakout, where as at other times he struggled with the puck. Finding that consistency as a two-way defender will be key for him given that he lacks the size (6'0) to profile as more of a stay at home defender at the next level. He'll be an everyday player for the 67's this season and will get his looks. 

29. Kyle Downey - Goaltender - Windsor Spitfires
The top rated and drafted goaltender from his age group, Downey has a chance to be an OHL starter. Has average size for the position (6'1 at last measurement), but possesses all the other tools. He's athletic. He tracks the play well. He has proven to be a workhorse already in his young career (based on his time in the GTHL). Downey probably enters the season in a platoon role with Xavier Medina, but given where Windsor drafted him, it's clear that they see Downey as the team's future (and perhaps present) in net.

30. Nolan Lalonde - Goaltender - Erie Otters
A bit of a sharp contrast from Downey. Downey is the more technically advanced player, but Lalonde has the size and raw athletic gifts that NHL teams and scouts love. He was measured at 6'3 at the PBHH and has probably already grown another inch since then. Lalonde probably enters the season as the Erie backup behind Aidan Campbell, but I don't think many roles are defined this season given the year off. Lalonde's potential is very high.

Honorable Mentions
 
Brady Stonehouse - Wing - Ottawa 67's
Competitive, but undersized wrecking ball can be a real force in transition. He is always looking to attack.
 
Justin DeZoete - Wing - Peterborough Petes
Potential high end goal scorer who loves to the push the pace with his speed and owns one of the harder shots in the age group.
 
Gavin Bryant - Center - Owen Sound Attack
The typical Owen Sound Attack center. Good playmaker and already a polished two-way player.
 
Connor Toms - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Highly intelligent two-way defender who was excellent in the NOJHL last year (who did play). Hopefully he has upgraded his skating.
 
Nathan Poole - Center - Kingston Frontenacs
My kind of player. Big, physical center who is one of the most physically aggressive players in the age group. How much offensive upside is there at this level?
 
Brody Crane - Wing - London Knights
Top notch goal scorer and skater, but he's undersized so he will need to produce to prove that he should be firmly on the draft radar.
 
Domenic DiVincentiis - Goaltender - North Bay Battalion
Likely Joe Vrbetic's backup this year, but the average sized netminder is highly regarded for his athleticism and quickness. Was the only Ontario goalie at Hockey Canada's U18 summer camp.

Appearing Soon

Pavel Mintyukov - Defense - Saginaw Spirit

Kirill Kudryavtsev - Defense - Soo Greyhounds

Ruslan Gazizov - Center/Wing - London Knights

Matyas Sapovaliv - Center - Saginaw Spirit

Andrei Malyavin - Defense - Sarnia Sting

Servac Petrovsky - Center - Owen Sound Attack



Sunday, August 29, 2021

Top 25 OHL Prospects - Summer of 2021

As has become regular practice now, following the conclusion of my NHL team write ups ('31 Teams in 31 Days'), I give you a list of the top prospects who played in the OHL during the previous season. This year, with no OHL season to speak of, I did not do my annual 31 teams in 31 days write ups. However, I did feel it necessary to continue the tradition of ranking the OHL's top prospects. 
 
The hardest thing was determining eligibility, since the league did not play and so many players were forced to other leagues (the AHL, Europe, etc). Basically, so long as a player performed in the OHL the previous season and did not lose their prospect status (due to NHL games played), I made them eligible for this list. I also capped the age at U20 to include 2001, 2002, and 2003 born players with NHL affiliation. 2000 born potential OA's were not included, because it would have been unclear if they would have played in the league or not (most would not have).
 
As always, the list is capped at 25, with some honorable mentions. 

1. Quinton Byfield - Los Angeles Kings
It is kind of crazy that Byfield continues to have his detractors. The Kings knew that when they selected Byfield that he would take a little longer to develop than the average second overall selection. I have said this a million times and I'll say it again. You don't draft Byfield for the player he is currently, you take him for the player he will be in five years time. A natural athlete, he is still learning how to best utilize his gifts so that he can be a dominant player at the NHL level. His first pro season in the AHL went pretty much how I expected it would have. Byfield struggled a bit at the start. But, I think by the short season's end, he had really learned to use his size more consistently to dominate the higher traffic areas on the ice (net front, behind the net, along the wall). I would still like to see him become more confident in his shooting ability. And I think he still needs to take steps forward to be a more consistent two-way player, especially as a center at the NHL level. However, he is well on his way to becoming an excellent NHL player. Another offseason focused on improvement should have him ready to be a full time NHL player this season. Again, I would expect the performance to be modest. But he should get better a little bit, year after year.

2. Jamie Drysdale - Anaheim Ducks
Truthfully, I thought about ranking Drysdale ahead of Byfield. And it's not the first time I've said that (if you recall my final 2020 draft rankings). But at this point, I think he's still a fraction behind on a list like this. All that said, Drysdale had a fantastic season in 2020/21, making the best of a tough situation. Truthfully, I expected him to be in a little over his head as a defensive player at the AHL level. Boy was I wrong. It is clear that he put in the work in the offseason, because his ability to defend the small areas of the ice improved considerably thanks to improved strength and an increased desire to battle physically. Of course, his high end IQ helped him out there too. Simply put, he was already one of the best defenders in the AHL at the time of his recall to Anaheim. And in Anaheim, it was much the same. His skating ability and on ice awareness are just so good. Those who questioned his upside as a possible top pairing defender should probably re-evaluate their stance. I believe that Drysdale will already be a consistent 20 minute a night defender for the Ducks this coming season and should be firmly in the Calder discussion.

3. Brandt Clarke - Los Angeles Kings
Have to stay true to my draft rankings at this point. I had Clarke at number one from the OHL for 2021 and I stand by that despite McTavish going ahead of him. Everyone knows by now that Clarke has to improve his overall four way mobility and first step quickness (even Clarke). His work in his own end needs to become more consistent too. However, I do think it will get there. He is smart enough and I think that we'll see him develop a greater physical edge too. What he does with the puck and his instincts as an offensive player are innate. If you're willing to work at it, physical tools can be improved. I don't think there's any chance that Clarke makes the Kings this season. He will be back in Barrie and he should be one of the best defenseman in the OHL. We'll be looking for him to become that dominant two-way force he has the potential to be.

4. Mason McTavish - Anaheim Ducks
Again, the positioning of Clarke and McTavish was a close one (just as I said in my 2021 draft rankings). It's a toss up. I could not have been more impressed with the development that McTavish showed last season. Nearly every part of his game took a massive step forward. He is that physical, dominating two-way center that every NHL team is looking for and that is why Anaheim took him 3rd overall. If there is a player from this draft class that I could see making an immediate jump to the NHL, it is McTavish (now that we know Beniers and Power are heading back to Michigan). Do I think he should play another year in Peterborough? Yes. But could I see him coming to the Ducks' camp and really impressing? Also yes. His game is so pro ready and if he has put in the work this offseason to continue to improve his skating, he could play right away. 

5. Marco Rossi - Minnesota Wild
Great to see the young Austrian center back on the ice recently at the Olympic qualifiers, after such a scary bout with COVID. He barely played last season and you know what, that's OK. Marco was already one of the most advanced players in the draft class so it doesn't worry me one bit, so long as he is fully fit and healthy. Minnesota would obviously be smart not to rush him given what happened, but after a half a season in the AHL, I think he'll be ready to make an impact for the Wild. Rossi is just such an intelligent playmaker. His creativity and ability to manipulate traffic and coverage with his feet is so underrated. Even if Marco's high end potential remains that of a quality second line center, he does so many things well that his presence will hold more value than his production. Given this young man's work ethic, it is important not to underestimate him.

6. Cole Perfetti - Winnipeg Jets
Cole got off to an even slower start in the AHL than Quinton Byfield, struggling initially with Manitoba upon returning from the World Juniors. This was certainly not unexpected, given that his lack of strength and quickness would hurt him at even strength playing against men for the first time. On the powerplay he looked great. At five on five, he struggled to find that space he needed. However, as the season went on, you could see him gaining confidence. He is such an intelligent player. Eventually, he was able to adjust to make those quicker decisions with the puck and to find those soft spots in coverage, despite still lacking the strength to consistently fight through contact. He will be granted a special exemption (with others) to play in the AHL again next year and I would expect that to be the case, unfortunately for Saginaw Spirit fans. He still projects as a high end top six forward, but he is probably still another year away from helping the Jets.

7. Nick Robertson - Toronto Maple Leafs
It was a bit of a disappointing year for Robertson, at least if I am being honest based on my own expectations for him. The injury had a lot to do with that. Upon returning, even at the AHL level, I felt like he wasn't playing as aggressive or tenacious as he usually does. And he needs to play that way to be at the top of his game. The talented goal scorer gets a re-set next season and hopefully he can avoid the injury bug. He isn't the biggest guy and he needs to play a certain way. Can he do that at the pro level without getting injured? I truly believe that his development is one of the most critical factors heading into the coming season for the Leafs. Sure Toronto signed a million guys, but none have the potential impact of Robertson as a top nine goal scorer. On his cheap ELC deal, he can be a difference maker on a cap strapped team. I repeat...he just needs to stay healthy.

8. Thomas Harley - Dallas Stars
Really strong first professional season for Harley in the AHL, considering he was playing as an underager. His offensive production from the back-end as a U20 player (over a full season...or part of one) was among the best in this millennium, along with John Carlson, Erik Brannstrom, and others with smaller sample sizes. Needless to say, his ability to generate offense by leading the attack transitioned near seamlessly. His work in the offensive zone improved, in fact, as I felt that he looked more confident using his feet and size to step around attackers to help breakdown coverage. Defensively, the transition was less successful. His decision making still needs work. A common phrased used for defenders making the jump is "they need to have junior coached out of them," and that saying is apt here. I'm not sure I see Harley as a future top pairing guy, but I do think that he becomes a real high end point producer and someone who can be a valuable second pairing guy. With Dallas signing Ryan Suter and Jani Hakanpaa, Harley probably spends at least another half a year in the AHL. He could be the team's first injury call up.

9. Philip Tomasino - Nashville Predators
2020/21 was a tremendous year for Phil Tomasino. He had a great World Juniors. He performed extremely well in the AHL. You really couldn't have asked for more. Given the pace that he likes to play at, Tomasino was right at home at the pro level, where his confidence in transition and with the puck never seemed to waver. The biggest improvement from him that I saw came at the defensive end. He looked really good at both ends, consistently one of the first back for Chicago, hungry for the puck at all times. With Nashville moving on from Arvidsson and losing Jarnkrok in expansion, I fully expect Tomasino to make the Predators out of camp. I think he is ready for the next step and should be an immediate impact player in the middle six.

10. Connor McMichael - Washington Capitals
Like Tomasino, the OHL cancellation may have been a blessing in disguise for McMichael as he was afforded the opportunity to play in the AHL with Hershey. This new challenge seemed to invigorate him. He led the Bears in scoring and looked incredibly impressive in doing so. Still more of an opportunist, McMichael proved that his skill set can play at the pro level because of his anticipation and awareness in the offensive end. I'm still a bit skeptical that he can be a first line player in the NHL. However, I am even more convinced that he can be a great complementary piece on the second line and on the powerplay, where his great release and ability to find soft spots should net him his share of goals. I think he forces his way onto the Capitals roster (for good) at some point this season.

11. Jack Quinn - Buffalo Sabres
I don't think Quinn's first pro season was as bad as some felt it was. But maybe I'm biased because I like him as a player and prospect (and so many don't). It is important to note that Quinn had sports hernia surgery later in the season and there is no doubt that this was something that he was likely dealing with for a long time. I really want to see how Quinn responds to his second pro season this year, now fully healthy. I still believe in his ability to be a strong two-way goal scorer at the NHL level, but his path to the league probably includes another year in the AHL. Remember, Quinn was a late bloomer. He is going to take longer to adjust than others because he just recently became an impact player at the junior level.

12. Arthur Kaliyev - Los Angeles Kings
Probably lower on this list than he would be for others, I want to make it known that I don't dislike Kaliyev. I have defended his playmaking ability and his skating ability for years. It's just that I like the players I ranked ahead of him more because I feel like they have a chance to impact the game in more ways. Kaliyev's second half in the AHL was a hell of a lot better than his first and a lot of that had to do with him finding his confidence. Kaliyev is what he is. He can fire the puck. His offensive instincts are terrific. However, much like Thomas Vanek (his most common comparison), Kaliyev will always be the type who is only as valuable as the offensive production he brings to the table. When he goes through droughts, his game and the team's success could suffer. Where as others above him on this list are likely to be more consistent all around contributors.

13. Brennan Othmann - New York Rangers
I think the Rangers made a great selection this year in Othmann, someone that I ranked pretty highly all season long. He is just my type of player. He competes hard. He hits hard. He can shoot the puck. His hands and puck skill are underrated. His skating is improving. His defensive contributions have the potential to be very good. I see him developing into a very well rounded player. It will be interesting to see him back in the OHL this season with Flint. Anything short of a 35 goal season would be a disappointment IMO. He needs to take that step as a consistently dangerous go-to offensive player, hopefully finding that balance between being a physical pest and being a scoring chance catalyst.

14. Tyson Foerster - Philadelphia Flyers 
If you read my work for McKeen's Hockey (which you should), you'd know that I didn't like how the Phantoms were using Foerster early on in his first pro season. Playing as a U19 player like many others granted that exemption, the Phantoms were trying to make Foerster a net front presence, rather than utilizing his gifts as a stand still shooter on the wing. About half way through the year, that seemed to change and his production took off. He will still need to improve his explosiveness. He will still need to find a way to be more successful driving the middle and playing through traffic. However, I did feel like his game developed more layers as a pro, especially as a two-way player. Philadelphia can send Foerster to the AHL again, as players who played over 20 games last year will continue to be exempt from the AHL/CHL agreement. Would have to assume that the Flyers take advantage of that given the steps forward he has already taken.

15. Francesco Pinelli - Los Angeles Kings
I wasn't really shocked to see Pinelli fall to the second round this year. I don't agree with it, but I wasn't shocked. I had heard that some NHL scouts felt like his skating and lack of consistency away from the puck could hold him back. I feel like both of those areas can and will improve, as early as this coming season with the Rangers. I see a player with a lot of things going for him. Forwards as intelligent as Pinelli almost always grow into strong two-way players as they grow stronger and become better conditioned. His offensive skill set is very well rounded and I think he has the makings of a high end middle six forward at the end of his development arch. The rich get richer in LA.

16. Ryan O'Rourke - Minnesota Wild
Another player eligible to return to the AHL as a U20 player because of fact he played 33 games with the Iowa Wild last year. O'Rourke's play with the puck was inconsistent in his first AHL season, but it did get better as the season went on. That sort of progression is encouraging. O'Rourke is the kind of player who will make his money on his ability in the defensive end, given his physical approach, strong positioning, and defensive instincts. That was already evident with Iowa last year, even though he will still need to improve his mobility further and get stronger. The question is, will Minnesota return O'Rourke to the OHL for a final season or keep him in the AHL? Personally, I'd like to see him back in the OHL where he can get consistent powerplay time and offensive responsibility to improve his confidence with the puck at a slightly slower pace. If Iowa gives him that type of role, then keep him there, otherwise, I feel like his growth as an offensive defender could get stunted.
 
17. Ryan Suzuki - Carolina Hurricanes
Perhaps no player in this grouping won me over more this past year than Ryan Suzuki. I have always been skeptical of his ability to find a role at the NHL level. His playmaking talents have never been questioned. However, his ability to play off the puck and play through traffic has been a weakness. Additionally, he has lacked confidence in his shooting abilities, to a fault. I saw growth in pretty much every area playing as a role player in the AHL. Suzuki was suddenly engaging physically on the backcheck, winning battles in puck pursuit, and even finding his way to the net to try to score. This whole new approach gives me a lot more faith in his ability to develop into a quality NHL player. Next year in the AHL, he should be given a greater offensive role and it will be interesting to see if his production can increase, while maintaining the growth he has shown away from the puck.
 
18. Jacob Perreault - Anaheim Ducks
A late first rounder in 2020, Perreault's strengths lie in his ability to create in transition, in addition to his high end shot and shooting ability, especially when working the half wall area. Playing at the AHL level this year as a 19 year old, Perreault had mixed results. His conditioning looked better as he was able to be more consistent with his speed and pace. He also was making a more concerted effort to be more of a factor off the puck, especially as a forechecker. His speed and ability to generate chances quickly allowed him to draw some penalties for San Diego. However, perhaps surprisingly, he struggled with his finishing ability. Drawing in and out of the lineup, Perreault did seem to lose a bit of confidence in his release. At the pro level, you can't hesitate and he was. Having reached that 20 game mark, Perreault can play in the AHL again this season and that appears to be the likely outcome. I'm still a little skeptical that he can be a consistent NHL player (in the same way I was concerned with Brendan Perlini), but he deserves to be in the Top 20 here.
 
19. Jamieson Rees - Carolina Hurricanes
A bit of a human cannonball, Rees actually really reigned in his physicality this past season as a first year pro. Later in the year, he certainly seemed to gain more confidence in this regard, but in the first half, he was very disciplined. Rees' ability to create in transition and push the pace of play translated extremely well though. He had no trouble fighting through checks playing against men, even as a 19 year old. Playing in all situations, his path to the NHL probably starts in a checking line role before working his way up. I wouldn't be shocked if he got a couple cups of coffee this season as an injury replacement, even with Carolina's depth. Armed with a quality shot and a non stop motor, I think Rees' potential at the NHL level is underrated. 
 
20. Egor Afanasyev - Nashville Predators
The big power winger used the pandemic to return home to Russia for the first time in five years, playing mostly in the KHL. Afanasyev is a top notch goal scoring prospect because of his ability to use his size to drive the net, keep plays alive along the wall, and of course rifle pucks on net. He has a great wrist shot and a one timer from the dot and should be a weapon on the powerplay at the pro level. Would have loved to have seen him play in the OHL again this past season to improve his playmaking touch and two-way play, but it obviously wasn't in the cards. I'll be curious to see how he performs as a first year pro in the AHL this coming season.
 
21. Zayde Wisdom - Philadelphia Flyers
I'm not sure another 2020 draft selection improved their perception and hype more than Wisdom did last season playing in the AHL as a double underager with Lehigh Valley. He was a consistent impact player, transitioning seamlessly to a scoring line role. Everything he did at the OHL level, he did at the AHL level against men. He drove the net. He forced turnovers. And he showed way more skill with the puck than people gave him credit for. I have said all along that it was important not to lock in Wisdom as a future checking line player and no more, because he had improved so much and continues to be a hard worker. He should have never fallen to the fourth round. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury is going to keep him out for the better part of this season. Really sucks considering the momentum that he had built. The only group that this injury could be good news for is the Kingston Frontenacs. Previously they had no chance of getting him back. Now, it seems likely that the Flyers will be cautious with his rehab and that could include having him finish the year in the OHL if he is able to return before season's end.
 
22. Ben Gaudreau - San Jose Sharks
I was pretty shocked to see Gaudreau fall as far as he did in the 2021 draft. Sure, he was the fourth goaltender selected (which is near what I would have expected), but I had him pegged as a second rounder. This is a goaltender who has everything you would look for and he proved that at this year's Under 18's. He is a competitor. He is a work horse. He is already incredibly technically advanced with body control well above what you typically see from a draft eligible netminder. He needs to work on controlling his rebounds and he needs to play games over a full season. However, he's already turning heads in San Jose's development camp. Really excited to see what he does in Sarnia this year.
 
23. Martin Chromiak - Los Angeles Kings
I'll stay high on Chromiak, as I was before heading into the 2020 draft. I still see a highly intelligent offensive player who does so many things well. He truly is the perfect complementary offensive player. Shane Wright and the Fronts must have been ecstatic when he announced he was returning this season. This year I want to see him use his speed to attack more with the puck; to be more assertive with his decision making. He has the potential to be an offensive catalyst for himself and his linemates, rather than just a passenger.
 
24. Jan Mysak - Montreal Canadiens
Not a lot of playing time for Mysak in the AHL this past season with Laval. The stats weren't great. The play wasn't amazing either. Having watched a lot of his action for that aforementioned article for McKeen's, I found him to be too passive. He seemed hesitant to involve himself and really rarely touched the puck on shifts, opting to spend most of his time trying to be a net a front presence or passing option in the slot. His energy as a three zone player was good, and I would have expected it to be. But offensively, outside of a few impressive transitional attacks, Mysak was pretty invisible. But, way too early to write him off and he still needs to be ranked high. I want to see him pick a position in Hamilton this year. Stick him on the wing or at center and be done with it. Also want to see him become more of a focal point in an offensive scheme when he isn't playing with pace. He needs to do a better job of consistently working off his teammates to get puck touches in the cycle and to shed checks to get better looks as a shooter. 
 
25. Jean Luc Foudy - Colorado Avalanche
I could have went in a million different ways with #25 here. I debated almost every player that I have listed as an HM. However, I really liked what I saw from Foudy at the AHL level last season. The production wasn't amazing, but he played way better than stats would indicate. I saw a player with more intention and persistence. He drove the net instead of circling the perimeter. He made quicker decisions with the puck. He used his speed to be a factor in all three zones and without the puck. Really, we saw a lot of the improvements his brother made as a prospect in his draft +1 season. Jean Luc is eligible to return to AHL again this coming season, but I could see Colorado assigning him to Windsor again. I think they really want to see him dominate offensively. Could go either way, but I really did like his progression last year.
 
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically) 
 
Daniil Chayka - Vegas Golden Knights 
Had to return to Russia with the OHL on hold and it really messed up Chayka's year IMO. He is at his best when he can play aggressively with the puck and play deep in the offensive zone and he seemed very hesitant to do that in the KHL and MHL. He returns to Guelph this season and he really should have a monster OHL season. One thing I'm focusing on this year is whether he can improve his footwork with the puck inside the offensive zone.
 
Graeme Clarke - New Jersey Devils 
Early on in his AHL season, Clarke struggled. He seemed behind the pace. He was getting outmuscled in the offensive zone. However, he really improved as the year went on. In a perfect world, he would have had a chance to fully rehab that shoulder by playing in the OHL before making the jump to the pro level. But COVID had other plans. And you know what, he made the best of it and I think it really did help his development. We know Clarke is about as skilled with the puck as you can find. And his shooting ability, both from a stand still and dynamically, is excellent. But playing in the AHL forced him to be a more effective player away from the puck. I'm still not completely confident that his skill set translates effectively, but as he continues to upgrade his explosiveness and strength, he is slowly winning me over.

Ethan Del Mastro - Chicago Blackhawks
I really don't think Del Mastro should have fallen as far as he did at the draft this year. It was shocking to me, if I am being honest. He is a player who has shown a habit of improving over the course of a season. He did it in U16 with the Marlboros. He did it in his rookie season with the Steelheads. And he did it with Canada at the U18's this year. I think he is a very coachable young man with some skills that already can play at the NHL level. I want to see him take that next step as an offensive player this season with Mississauga. That includes improving his four way mobility with the puck to allow him to escape forecheckers better. His straight away speed is impressive for a big man. He carves up open space North/South. But he needs to become more confident on his edges to truly take that next step as an offensive player.
 
Luke Evangelista - Nashville Predators
With Chicago's crazy depth last season at the AHL level, Evangelista's playing time was extremely restricted. It was like he was an OHL rookie again! But you have to hope that Luke took away some positive things from the experience, like improving his strength on the puck and his ability to make quicker decisions in the offensive zone. This year will be about regaining his confidence offensively. He will be a focal point of the London Knights' offense and he should have a big year from a production standpoint. 
 
Wyatt Johnston - Dallas Stars 
I wasn't surprised in the least to see a team step up to take Johnston in the first round, despite having him a little lower in my own rankings. A late bloomer physically, Johnston's growth as a player needs to catch up a bit. I think he's a highly intelligent playmaker, but I'm not sure I see high end offensive upside. Would really like to see his explosiveness and quickness take a step forward this year, in addition to more consistency in his game physically. He has the potential to become one of the best two-way centers in the OHL.
 
Vladislav Kolyachonok - Arizona Coyotes
Recently dealt to Arizona as a sweetener in a cap dump deal, Kolyachonok is still a player that I have a lot of time for. He is the modern day stay at home defender. He has among the best first step quickness in all four directions that I have seen come through the OHL in the last decade and it makes him so difficult to beat in transition and pin in his own zone. Once he gains confidence in his ability to move the puck at the pro level, I think he's a surefire NHL player. Whether that's as a third pairing, PK guy, or higher will depend on how his offensive decision making and confidence grows in the coming years.
 
Mason Millman - Philadelphia Flyers
Millman took a massive step forward in the second half of the 2019/20 season and I was really looking forward to seeing him develop further in 2020/21. I really do think that he could have been a contender for the Max Kaminsky. Instead he was in and out of the lineup for Lehigh Valley. It is going to take some time for his confidence as a puck mover to develop at the pro level as he adjusts to the speed and pace. He looked like he was playing to not make a mistake last season. Additionally, he was not as confident physically. I still believe in his ability to develop into a good two-way blueliner in the NHL, but I think he was really hurt by the lack of an OHL season. 
 
Isaak Phillips - Chicago Blackhawks 
A player who was NOT hurt by the lack of an OHL season was Isaak Phillips. If you had told me that Phillips would look better than Alec Regula (or at the very least on par with) in a 19 year old AHL season, I would have called you crazy. It would not have been shocking to see him play well defensively. His mobility and reach are real assets at any level. However, he looked poised and confident with the puck, leading the charge out of the defensive end and pushing deep through the neutral zone. If Phillips had played this way in the OHL in his draft year, he would have been a much higher draft selection. It has certainly made me (and I know others) re-think his high end potential. Really curious to see how he performs next year; if he can take yet another step forward.
 
Cole Schwindt - Florida Panthers 
Much like Millman, Schwindt was another player that was really hurt by the lack of OHL season IMO. Defensively, his game is and was ready for the pros. He is a polished two-way player. However, I think he needed last season to be the focal point of the Steelheads' offense, to really build confidence in his ability to play with the puck and create in transition. Florida will never do it, but I'd love to see them send Schwindt back for his OA year like San Jose is planning to do with Brandon Coe. If he's not able to become a more effective and confident player in possession of the puck, I worry he could become a Tyler Gaudet clone and a tweener.
 
Donovan Sebrango - Detroit Red Wings  
Truthfully, I didn't think Sebrango was ready for the challenge of the pro game, especially as a 19 year old. But he handled it extremely well. Yes, he kept things simple. Offensively, he was a near non factor. But defensively, he was a real standout at such a young age. His competitiveness transferred well and he made grown men work to beat him to the net or along the wall. Sebrango is eligible to return to the AHL again because of how many games he played, but I'd really like to see Detroit send him back to the OHL for another year. He has offensive talent, but he needs to learn to pick those spots and build confidence working the point. He would get all the ice time he could desire in Kitchener and I think it would be great for his development.
 
Chase Stillman - New Jersey Devils
If you follow my work you would know that I love Stillman (and was also a huge advocate of his brother Riley). But even I was surprised to see him go in the first round. I do see the logic though. His skating has improved a lot and at worst, he's probably a high end third liner who can wreck havoc physically and on the forecheck. At best, he could play higher in the lineup. The big thing for him is to improve his puck skill and finishing ability, especially when playing with pace. Faster without the puck than with it, Stillman should have a good year with Sudbury.
 
Mike Vukojevic - New Jersey Devils 
The production may have been a little deceiving (based on the action I saw), as I think he was a bit lucky to put up the points that he did. However, he did play really well in the third pairing role in the AHL. There were certainly some mistakes made with the puck, but defensively he played well. I'm not entirely sure how much growth he has remaining in his offensive game, but I do think that he can develop into a reliable NHL defender in the future.

Ryan Winterton - Seattle Kraken
Very interested to see how Winterton responds to more ice time in Hamilton this coming season after only playing at the U18's last season. I think he has a lot more to his game than he showed last season. He has the skill set to be a very dangerous goal scorer, but also a strong two-way forward. The key for him is to continue to improve his quickness and the consistency of his physicality.