2009 Top 20 OHL Prospects
by Sean Keogh
I promised Brock that I would submit my own attempt at an OHL-based draft preview, and the fulfillment of such a promise is what follows. However I would like to be clear that that my viewings of some Western conference teams were limited. As a result I have to admit that on a couple of players near the end of my list, part of the basis for my evaluation of them comes from second party information, particularly Brock himself.
To further preface this piece, it is important to note that my approach was to try and offer my perspective on the skills, styles and potential of the players. This blog being the resource that it is already has much of the statistical information about these players, everything from position to vitals to point production. Therefore I felt that in order to allow for more complete and substantive commentary on each player, I did not include much of that. Moreover, my intent was not so much to provide a fixed ranking of players, and certainly not to predict the order in which these players will go, because at points I feel some players are almost interchangeable, and at other points there are drop-offs.
1) John Tavares
I will readily admit that I am in the camp with those who have concerns about John Tavares’ ability to be a true impact player at the next level. His scoring ability and hockey sense need no description or introduction, and there is little reason to doubt he will put up points at the next level. However, I have concerns about his skating, his ability to produce off the rush and his potential to develop an all-round game. Certainly watching Dany Heatley in Ottawa, there are significant similarities between the two, and no team would turn down the kind of production a player like Heatley gives the Senators year after year. However Heatley is not a well-rounded scorer or a true creator and I wonder if Tavares will struggle in that way as well. A question I come back to as well is whether Tavares is better suited to the wing than center as an NHLer. If my evaluation of his skill set and the style of play I think he will play at the next level is fair, that Tavares is more of a natural finisher and less a dominant puck-carrier, he is better suited on the wing. On the other hand, if Tavares sticks as a center, he will need to be more of a distributor and creator to be effective down the middle, which also means being a more assertive player in all three zones. All of that is not to be taken as a criticism of Tavares himself. I personally do not buy a lot into the questions of his character because of a lacklustre playoff performance, rather I simply see his skill set as being limited in some ways, but he is certainly worthy of the high praise and hype he has received.
2) Matt Duchene
Many of those who focus on the flaws of Tavares seem to, almost as an equal and opposite reaction, promote the strengths and assets of Matt Duchene, and there is little doubt that Duchene’s rising stock is at least partially tied to the question marks attaching themselves to Tavares. In my case however, I am not leading the Duchene fan club either, though I certainly like him as a player. I do not doubt he is legitimately worthy of being a top five pick this year. He has a wide range of skills, including impressive all-round skating ability, good offensive ability and a mature awareness in all three zones. That being said, I am not quite as enthusiastic about his top end potential as some. Every two-way OHL center projected to go in the top five of the draft is inevitably compared to Steve Yzerman or perhaps Joe Sakic, and Duchene is no different. For me I see some Stephen Weiss is Duchene though, a good all-round player who was an Yzerman-type player in the OHL, but I never felt was a truly dynamic offensive prospect. I see a lot of Duchene in Weiss, who is a good young NHL player, but not capable of impacting the game the way his more-maligned but also more highly touted 2001 draft-mate Jason Spezza can in the NHL. Obviously I see no reason to doubt that Duchene will be a very good player, nor does anybody else. However, I can not rank him ahead of Tavares without being sold on him as a potential all-star level scorer.
3) Ryan Ellis
To say Ryan Ellis’ last twelve months of hockey have been amazing would still not do his accomplishments justice. Everything he has touched has turned to Gold, both for him and his team. It is also a good time to be a dynamic offensive defenceman, thanks in large part to the Mike Green factor, a most common comparison for and potential justification of the selection of Ellis. One can be nearly certain that Green’s name will come up in TSN’s instant analysis after Ellis is drafted in Montreal. Offensively-speaking, Ellis has almost all of the tools. He is a good skater, outstanding puck-handler, smooth passer and has an impressively lethal shot from the point, perfectly complemented by off the charts instincts. However, the disagreement on Ellis stems from concerns about his size and defensive play. I have to admit I have mixed feelings about such concerns. On the one hand he is a small player, and does not really play much larger than his size. He does not compensate for a lack of size with outstanding lower body strength or a great sense of timing physically. While that could come with time and work, it will be no easy task for Ellis to turn himself in to a well-rounded rearguard. I am not convinced he will ever be more than a powerplay quarterback and offensive specialist; however, it is possible he goes in the top ten if a team is convinced he will be.
4) Calvin de Haan
It is somewhat curious to me that de Haan has not firmly found a place as a project first round pick by this point in the year. After his performance after Tavares and Del Zotto left Oshawa, and particularly his strong turn at the U18s, I see plenty of reason to move him in to the back half of the first round. The natural, inescapable comparison for de Haan as an undersized offensive blueliner is to the aforementioned Ellis, but I see them differently. De Haan is not as dynamic or as pure an offensive player as Ellis, and therefore his impact upside is lesser as well. However I believe strongly in his all-round awareness, patience and poise, and believe that he has better and safer pick to be a complete defenceman. His size is a limiting factor, and no doubt it will take de Haan some time to upgrade his strength, but the big steps he has taken over the last year give me reason to believe he has room to improve in that area. Although de Haan’s upside is not as an impact player, and he is not going to be compared to Mike Green, I do think he has the potential to be a solid puck-moving rearguard for a long time, and with the premium placed on such players, I would have no hesitations selecting him in last third of the first round. If Brock did not also have him at fourth, I might wonder if my Ottawa-area bias was getting in the way of things, but obviously that is not the only reason to be high on de Haan.
5) Peter Holland
My list deviates from Brock’s at this point, and it appears Hockey Canada and I have different views as well on Peter Holland. At mid-season having Holland ahead of Kadri and Kassian would have been an easier sell, but I will do my best to explain my view at this point. It is true that Holland so far OHLer has been something of an enigma in the OHL, at times passive, and other times very impressive, but certainly if nothing else inconsistent. While I do not dispute that Holland had a weak second half and can at times play a quiet perimeter game, I also see a lot in his tool box that I like. For one thing his combination of height and skating is noteworthy, and he moves with and without the puck with coordination and ease. I also like his hands, vision, offensive potential and all-round hockey sense. Where some see passive, indifferent play, I also see an intelligent young player who thinks on the ice. Over-thinking the game can cause inconsistency for many young players, and I suspect that relates well to Holland. I will not go as far as to say he has the kind of upside Jeff Carter has displayed, but I think they have similar skill sets and for that reason have Holland ahead of the next three forwards.
6) Nazem Kadri
It would seem as though ripping on Nazem Kadri has become something of a fad in recent months. Dating back to last season Kadri has been highly touted for this year’s draft, but he has seen his stock fall in the second half for a variety of reasons and in spite of an impressive playoff performance. Personally my concerns about Kadri are not related to his character or perceived selfish play, but rather the same questions Brock has addressed regarding his offensive upside. While Kadri has fancy moves and the occasional electrifying rush, those are not likely to work at the NHL level, and I am not convinced either that his offensive skills, specifically his hockey sense, will make him a consistent scorer at the next level. I actually see a fair bit of grit and effort in his game, and believe he could be a good role player at the next level, even a tweener second/third line type of guy, much like Antoine Vermette. For that reason I would not have him as a top ten pick, and would hesitate to take him over guys with more definite upside, but I would start looking at him around the middle of the first round, even if I can see how some might feel differently.
7) Ethan Werek
Joining de Haan on this list as an OHL rookie is Werek, a well-rounded forward with underrated upside. What I like about Werek is he has a versatile skill set. He can play center or wing, power or finesse, playmaker or finisher, although he is a master of none. In Kingston he performed better on the wing and I think his true potential is as a complete complimentary winger on a scoring line, kind of as a cross between Chris Kunitz and Mike Knuble. Werek’s skating is definitely his weakness, but I like his stride and see room for improvement. He is capable of making plays with the puck and on the rush; he simply needs to work on his acceleration, which is not surprising for a player who is one year removed from Junior A. While he is not flashy like Kadri or powerful like Kassian or smooth like Holland, I like his all-round combination and the fact he has a lot of elements in his game and was productive at the OHL level on a garbage team and at the U18s in a different style of game.
8) Zack Kassian
I appreciate that slotting Kassian here is likely the hardest ranking to justify. To some he is the third best available OHLer after the obvious two, and to those who value power forward prospects highly he is an exciting young player. Part of the reason I rank him here is because I do not fall in to the latter group. There is no doubt that Kassian has NHL size and strength, and that he has the potential to play a power game on more than a fourth line. He goes to the net, cycles the puck well and has some finish. However, I have serious concerns with not only his skating but his ability to create offence with the puck and on the fly. At the U18s, when the pace was quicker, the opponent more talented than the OHL, he seemed to have very little utility offensively other than as a big body down low. In the NHL, this would limit the number of systems where he could really have an impact. Now that is certainly not a useless skill, and Hall of Famers have made careers out of being exceptional in that area, but it is the reason I have Kassian behind the three forwards ahead of him, although any reconfiguration of them can be solidly justified in my opinion.
9) Ryan O’Reilly
It must be said that Ryan O’Reilly won me over at the U18s. Previously I saw a player with average size and talent and below average skating, but his intangibles shone through clearly to me at the tournament. There is little O’Reilly is not able or at least willing to do on the ice. He can score, hit, play defence, win faceoffs, kill penalties and in general play in almost any situation. At the next level, I do not see big offensive potential, but would be surprised if he does not make the NHL in some capacity. The limiting factor with O’Reilly is his skating. Not only is he not that quick, but his stride is technically weak, leaving him without much room to improve his power, acceleration, balance or agility. At the OHL and U18 level he can keep up, but it would take a lot of work to get his skating to the level where he can unlock any greater potential he may have. The natural counter-argument is that a guy like Mike Richards kind of did just that, improving his once average OHL skating and below average mechanics enough to make him a great NHL player with deceptive speed, but that is far, far easier said than done. I would not be shocked if O’Reilly slips in to the first round, but he is best suited as an early second rounder in my opinion.
10) Alex Hutchings
The only other player I firmly believe is worthy of a top two round selecting is Hutchings, the underrated and undersized Barrie forward. My confidence in Hutchings comes from the fact I like his skating for a smaller player. No doubt he is a good offensive player who buzzes around and is willing to go in to the tough areas despite limited size. However, every year there are several undersized forwards available for the draft from all different junior leagues and only a few separate themselves from the rest. What Hutchings has going for him is a good low drive, and a stride and puck-carrying style that allows him to use his lower center of gravity nicely. This kind of allows him to bump off defenders instead of shying away from them, an important asset for an undersized player without elite offensive skills. That does not mean that Hutchings can or will be able to necessarily play that game at the next level, that will require continued focus on adding strength and power to his frame, but I like his chances if he can do that.
11) Edward Pasquale
This is the first player I will have to admit I do not have a well-developed view of, and by extension not a prospect I have a strong opinion on. What I do know is that Pasquale is a big, technical goaltender who makes the saves he needs to but lacks the athleticism to make a lot of saves he should not. He is coming off a very strong year on an average team, and the fact he has already achieved success at the OHL level is an important step for a young goalie. Between his size, maturity and solid technical skills, he is a good goalie prospect in a draft weak at that position, so it is entirely possible he is the first tender taken in Montreal. Whether he has significant upside as a starting goaltender is the question that teams will have in deciding just how high they take him.
12) Taylor Doherty
I noted above that personally I do not have the common preference for power forwards, and the same would be true for jumbo-sized blueliners. Case in point, it already looks like I underestimated Tyler Myers last year. Although Taylor Doherty is not Myers, and he is not a first round prospect at this point, I do actually like him as a prospect. Playing on the same bad team as Werek in Kingston, Doherty had an up and down season, but the tools are unmistakable. He is extremely tall and has room to fill out, and has some good skating ability for a player his size. Laterally he struggles, but straight line he moves fairly well, which suggests that there is room for improvement in his skating in all directions. While he does not handle the puck like a grenade, he really does not have much offensive skill to speak of, which is why I like him to an extent. He projects very simply as a stay-at-home guy at the next level, and he could be a good one with some patience and refinement. I am surprised he is ranked as low as he is by Central Scouting to be honest.
13) Matt Clark
Matt Clark is an interesting case of a player who has simply kept improving since being drafted in to the OHL. A late round pick in to the OHL, and a late birthday in 1990 who narrowly missed being eligible last year, Clark was an 18 year old OHL rookie this year. That his draft stock steadily rose throughout the year is a testament to how well he played for Brampton. What Clark has going for him is size and mobility. At 6’3” and over 200lbs, he can handle big forwards, and his mobility allows him to cope with quicker ones as well. Clark also has some offensive skills and a willingness to jump in to the play at times, which suggests he has some all-round potential. In his own zone though, he needs some work with positioning and general awareness, as he can get caught scrambling at times. I am also not quite sure what kind of blueliner he projects to be at the next level. Although he has some interesting tools, I am not sure exactly what his niche will be because he is not particularly gifted offensively and is not overly refined defensively. Whereas a team picking Doherty knows exactly the kind of prospect they are working with, I am not so sure Clark is the same way.
14) Scott Stajcer
It has become fairly common for a handful of OHL goalies to be taken in the first three rounds each year, and Scott Stajcer is a decent bet to do the same. Unheralded coming in to the season, Stajcer managed to wrestle the starting job away from Tyler Beskowranny, an impressive feat considering the talent level of the Dallas Stars second rounder from 2008. Style-wise Stajcer is a bit more raw than Pasquale, showing similar size and a bit more athleticism, but also more inconsistency, which is a challenge in evaluating goalies. It is certainly not unusual, and perhaps even quite natural, for first or second year junior players to struggle with their consistency. However, what often separates the good goalies from the bad, the Steve Masons from the Craig Hilliers, is improving or outgrowing that consistency. An NHL team who was able to see more of Owen Sound may be convinced it was really simply the predictable ups and downs of a player in his first complete OHL season, and for that reason I would not be surprised in the least if Stajcer went fairly high.
15) Michael Latta
I would say that Michael Latta was a favourite of mine coming in to this year, and to an extent that is still the case. As a 16 year old he flashed nifty dangles and some nice grit, and early this year seemed to take a major step forward offensively. Not knowing the reasons for his surprising trade from Ottawa, I am not docking him on those grounds, but my doubts about Latta have grown as I have focussed increasingly on his skating. While he has nice moves and some offensive potential, he too often has to make extra moves or throw away the puck because his skating does not allow him to gain separation or create space. He cycles well, goes to the net and plays with some grit, but his size does not project as a true banger at the next level. His skating is not doomed by awful technique, so the potential for improved power and acceleration is there, and if he does that his NHL potential increases dramatically. There is some offence and some grit there, and while he will never impose physically, he has a solid stocky build and I would say his size is decent. I would consider him as a late second rounder, and think he would be a good third round pick for any team.
16) Jesse Blacker
I saw Windsor play several times this year, probably the most of any team other than Ottawa, and I still feel I do not have a great sense of what Jesse Blacker is capable of. Part of the reason for that is certainly the fact that after the trade deadline he was probably the sixth blueliner on the eventual Memorial Cup champions. In fact I found myself looking for him at times for just that reason. What I saw was a decently sized blueliner with nice skating ability and solid defensive positioning. Occasionally he showed some puck-rushing ability, but overall his offensive instincts, and in fact his involvement offensively in general, was average. In his own zone Blacker seemed to be fairly solid for a young blueliner, and I thought he improved as the season went along. Perhaps an important question is what role Blacker will play going forward with Windsor. Although Kwiet and Shutron will certainly graduate, with Ellis, Cam Fowler and Mark Cundari in the fold, will his offensive game be allowed to develop. I wonder what his upside is in his own zone as well, but there are some nice tools there, and for that reason he is an intriguing potential third rounder.
17) Jordan Szwarz
I have to admit I wish I saw more of Szwarz because in my limited viewings, I did not get a good read on the offensive skill others like Brock are convinced he has. While he bounced around in the offensive zone and reminded me a bit of Hutchings, in my viewings he did not create a ton. Moreover, I did not see a particularly well-rounded player, nor does his size suggest he has much potential in that regard. Therefore I am limited in what I can offer on Szwarz, and while I have seen hints at his offensive potential, he certainly never showed to me what others believe he is capable of doing. Of course, that seems to also be the knock on him, because he would have scored a fair bit more than he did if consistency was not a concern. I rank him here because I believe the upside of available prospects begins to drop off at this point.
18) Taylor Beck
Taylor Beck is a hard player for me to evaluate. As someone who is very focussed on skating, particularly the technical aspects, Beck is not my favourite prospect available. I have serious concerns that his skating, awkward as it is, and already average at best in the OHL, limits him a fair bit. On the other hand, he does have good size and decent offensive skill, particularly hand-eye-coordination. The question is whether or not Beck will be one of those players who does not look pretty, but nonetheless seems to get to where he needs to be in order to be effective. If I saw more top end offensive skills I would be more inclined towards the latter, but I am not sure that is the case. Although he is a hard working offensive forward, he does not seem particularly well developed as an all-round player. Beck is neither a strong defensive player, nor a bruising physical specimen, despite decent size and some willingness to use it to protect the puck offensively. His skating would be less of an issue if he projected better as a third line player at the next level, but I am not entirely satisfied of that yet. A team will likely draft him in the third round, maybe fourth, and I think will see him as a bit of a project, but it is always easier to be patient with those types of players if the effort level is already there.
19) Marcus Foligno
I have mixed feelings on Marcus Foligno, particularly because it is hard not to compare him to his brother. On the one hand he was generally unimpressive when I saw him this year, no matter the game or venue. He has good size, great height and shows good effort and board work, but he also showed little pure offensive talent and his skating concerned me. His stride is stiff, his agility is below average and he lacks acceleration at this point in time. On the other hand, I also appreciate that he is a very young player, almost a year younger than Nick was when he was drafted, and that he could very well improve in a lot of ways like his brother has. Nick has steadily improved his goal scoring, stickhandling and particularly skating since his rookie season in the OHL, and if Marcus can get on a similar curve, he could be a steal for whoever takes him. I do not really think he has the scoring line upside some believe Nick has, but I do think his bloodlines and raw physical skills make him an intriguing prospect.
20) Kyle Clifford
I think the U18s did a lot for Kyle Clifford’s stock heading in to the draft. At that tournament he thrived as a bang and crash role player, and showed enough to suggest he has the potential to play that role at the NHL level. He has good size, goes to the net, is a strong forechecker and throws his weight around with appreciable enthusiasm. Moreover, he seems to be on an upward development swing. Although his 16 goals this year were not stellar, when compared to his one single goal as a rookie last year, it is more notable. I do not see much in the way of skill or creativity that will translate to the NHL level, but size and grit often goes higher in NHL drafts than one would expect. He could very well go higher than a few players above him, but to me he is simply a good potential role player, a bit like Cody Bass a few years ago.
Phil Varone : I was tempted to include Varone in my top 20, and even considered having him a fair bit higher. His impressive playoff performance should have raised his stock, although Central Scouting dropped him in their final rankings. Varone is a good offensive player who should be a very successful OHLer, but there is fair reason to doubt how he projects at the next level.
Tyler Randell : Part of me thinks Randell could end up being a late round find for some team. He has some offensive skill, decent size and was more productive when given more ice time in Kitchener, so it is entirely possible he breaks out when Kitchener takes off as anticipated next year. That being said, when I saw him he seemed intriguing and frustrating at best, lazy and undisciplined at worst.
William Wallen : Everybody has guys they cheer for a bit more just because they hope their support will help that underdog succeed, and few players fit that mold better than Wallen. Not only did he almost die this year, a near-tragedy detailed on this blog already, but Wallen as an undersized waterbug type of player, already has obstacles to overcome as a hockey player. I like Wallen’s skill level, tenacity, and technically-strong skating stride. With more lower body strength and improved skating he could be a steal.
Michael Zador : Hockey Canada can operate in strange ways, and they seemed to do just that picking Zador as the starter for the U18s and ignoring Stajcer altogether. The result for Zador was mixed, in my opinion. He was praised for putting up good numbers and at times making big stops, but I thought he looked shaky throughout the tournament. Some goals were weak and some of the big stops more impressive than they had to be. Jake Allen he is not, but he could go quite high on draft day because of the U18s regardless.