A little bit delayed, but I managed to catch all of the games in the Ottawa 67's/Niagara IceDogs Round 1 series. So I figured, why not write a little review since I haven't put up a game review in a little while.
Ultimately, I'm definitely eating some crow on this one. I thought that the Dogs speed and forechecking ability would create problems for the 67's defense, and I thought their goaltending would become exposed. While the Dogs did do a good job in using their speed to create chances, they ultimately lacked the balanced skill to finish them. However, the 67's goaltending (by Chris Perugini) did become a bit of an issue and it was Petr Mrazek who stole the show in Game 5 and finished off the Dogs. My guess is that Mrazek keeps going the rest of the way, unless he starts to struggle.
As much as I'm eating crow, I think it's safe to say that the 67's will need to play way better to beat the Majors. Still way too many turnovers in the Niagara series, and fortunately for Ottawa, the Dogs lacked the high end skill to finish most of them. You'd think that a series that ended in 5 games was completely one sided, but it really wasn't. The games were very close...for the most part and the series was very hard fought. Ultimately, the combination of the balanced scoring ability from Ottawa and the inexperience of the Niagara defense was too much to overcome and the 67's found themselves getting goals in key moments. Still though, the 67's will need to play way better to beat Mississauga, especially Tyler Cuma whom I felt played a very poor series in Niagara.
As for Niagara, it's the upswing for them. All their key cogs will be returning a year older, wiser, and stronger which usually means good things in this league. On top of that, they'll have some high end draft picks to infuse into the line up. This team could be very good (top of the Conference good) within a couple of seasons.
Let's look at some individual player performances...
Tyler Toffoli (2010)
Tremendous performance in this series by Toffoli. He has really impressed me of late and he's definitely grown on me as a professional prospect. He lead the team in goals and scoring during the series and was an impact player nearly every time he stepped on the ice. He's certainly not the fastest skater (I'd say average), but he's very elusive and does have good overall agility. He turns well and is able to beat defenders by having the ability to make moves at his top speed. He's a very good overall offensive player too. Smart with the puck, good vision, knows where to be and how to create opportunities for his linemates. The key to Toffoli's success moving forward will be his aggression. In this series, Toffoli played harder and tougher than I've ever seen him play before. He was hitting. He was getting his nose dirty in the corners and in front of the net. He was definitely a pest for the Niagara defense. Because he's never going to be the fastest or biggest forward on the ice, the key to his professional development will be his ability to maintain that pesky style of play. In the series, he reminded me a lot of Corey Perry in his OHL days and that's definitely a compliment (even if many OHL fans outside of London despite Perry).
Corey Cowick (OTT)
I really haven't caught a lot of Cowick since he returned from his shoulder injury, but he too was excellent in the series. I don't remember him ever being this physical before. He was a bulldog, hitting everything in sight, driving hard to the net and really getting in the face of Niagara players. While he was no softie before, there is no question he's upped the ante on his physical play and I'd say it's definitely helped solidify his game. It makes him a much more attractive professional prospect. He finished tied with Toffoli for the team lead in goals with 5 and really looked confident in the goal scoring area, establishing himself near the net. His skating has improved too (I think), as he looks to have more of an extra gear which helps him in separation. Every NHL team can use an aggressive forechecker with good hands and I think that if Cowick can continue to play aggressively (much like Toffoli), he'll make a solid 3rd-4th liner.
Anthony Nigro (STL)
Truthfully, I'm not really sure what to make of Nigro. He was solid in the series, his usual self. Nigro is definitely a smart player and he's got good vision. He anticipates the play really well and does a great job of finding his teammates and working the cycle. That being said, I'm not sure he's a good enough offensive player to play a top 6 role in the NHL. Meanwhile, I'd say his defensive and physical abilities have declined since the move to Ottawa. He's still a good all around player, but again does he fit the profile of an NHL bottom line player. I get the feeling it's a bit of an identity crisis for Nigro. In Guelph, he was more of a forechecking, defensive forward. In Ottawa, he's become more of an offensive player. There's nothing wrong with balance, but I feel he's lost his niche (per say). What that means is that a team who's already stacked with prospects and players with contracts, has to make a decision on whether to sign Nigro or not. With 2008 CHL draftees like Phil McRae and Jake Allen already signed, it makes me wonder if the Blues have any intention in signing Nigro. Whalers forward James Livingston is in a similar situation with St. Louis, however, I think if there's only one contract available between the two, my bet is that Livingston gets it because he's the safer professional prospect.
Tyler Cuma (MIN)
I'm really not sure what's going on with Cuma. This year has not been a strong one for him, his first after knee surgery. He looks lost on the ice...truthfully. Before the surgery, he was a budding two way defenseman who looked confident bringing the puck up and running the powerplay, but who was also poised to become one of the best defensive defenseman in the league. Now, he's neither. It's almost as if he doesn't know what he should be either. Offensively, he turned the puck over way too many times and had the most trouble with the Niagara forecheck of any 67's defenseman. He had some really sloppy passes in the series. And on the point on the powerplay, he just doesn't look as comfortable as guys like Julien Demers, Travis Gibbons or even the young Cody Ceci. Defensively, he was good in one on one situations and remains very difficult to beat to the net. But in the zone, he's running around too much. While it's good that he's upped his aggressiveness this season, it's bad that he seems to be reliant on it now to play in the defensive zone. Before, he was much more reliant on anticipation, reading the play, and using his stick. Now he's going around trying to be a bully and it's not working for him. Cuma just needs to simplify his game and get back to the basics that made him such a coveted player in 2008. Here's hoping that the AHL provides this wake up call because he used to be one of my favourite defenseman to watch in the league. Most telling stat. Julien Demers and Travis Gibbons finished the series +17. Cuma and Zanetti finished the series -4.
Julien Demers (SJ)
Originally, I was worried about Demers' prospects of getting signed by San Jose this year. And while I still am worried, I think things look a little more promising now. Demers had an excellent series for Ottawa and was the teams best defenseman by a fairly large margin. He was much more aggressive offensively than he has been during the 2009-10 regular season (see the dip in his point production). By that I mean, he was bringing the puck up ice for the 67's and did a very good job to create plays on offense. Defensively, well he's always a rock. In that aspect, he's not really noticeable because he rarely makes mistakes. That being said, I wish he was as physical as he was two years ago. Then, he was quite the effective body checker, but I don't think I've seen Demers lay a really good check in quite some time. I think his mobility still suffers a bit too and I'm not sure how his game will transfer to the professional level. If he was like 6'3, 6'4, I'd be a lot more confident that he'd get signed. And that's not to say that 6'1, 200lbs is undersized, but for the type of game he plays, it can be. In a way, it reminds me a lot of former Windsor Spitfires defenseman Mitch Maunu. Now granted, Demers is definitely a better skater than Maunu was, but not by a ton. The point being that Maunu was a similarly sized stay at home defenseman and he failed to get signed and is now playing in the CIS for Lakehead. Cross your fingers and hope San Jose has him in their plans.
Dalton Smith (2010)
While he didn't really hit the score sheet hard (only 2 goals and an assist in the series), I thought Smith was quite impressive. It's the things he does away from the puck that make him such a valuable player. He's a real workhorse in the corners and along the wall. He's very strong for his age and he anticipates the play really well, which allows him to trap defenders into turning over the puck. He's quite the physical player and can really throw his weight around too. Best of all, is that he's already a complete player. He kills penalties quite well (again using that strong hockey sense) and is committed to the backcheck. The good bloodlines have definitely helped Smith gain a strong understanding of the game. Offensively, I think he's got a lot more potential than he's currently showing on the score sheet too. He's still learning how to use his size in front of the net, but he's actually got quite good hands and an improving shot. If only his skating and acceleration were better and I think we'd be talking about Smith as a possible late first, early second round player. But, my guess is that he still goes pretty early and inside the first three rounds.
Ryan Martindale (2010)
The announcers on both sides seemed to be very happy with the play of Martindale during the series, never ceasing to stop the hype, but quite frankly I just didn't see it. My guess is the coaching staff didn't either, as he was demoted to the third line towards the end of the series and was receiving considerably less ice time. He finished with only a goal and an assist and was generally snake bitten across the five games (Mark Visentin made quite a few nice saves against him). But as a late 1991 playing in his third OHL playoffs, I expected much more out of Martindale. On some shifts, he looks like a game changer. The size and skill combination is very enticing, especially when the player knows how to use his size offensively. Martindale protects the puck well and is able to fight through traffic for offensive chances. However, it's his play away from the puck that still leaves me wanting more. And his skating isn't as strong as I'd like either, nor has it really improved over the course of his OHL career. He still seems to be heavily favored by NHL scouts, in particular by CSS (who have him inside their top 10 of OHL players on their final list), but he's too much of an enigma for my liking, especially as a late 1991. While he started very strongly, he only had 9 goals in the final 43 games of the regular season. That's not the production of an NHL first rounder IMO.
Cody Ceci (2012)
I'll keep this one relatively short. I think Ceci made tremendous strides this season and turned himself into a very capable OHL defender by the end of the season. Which is remarkable considering Ceci played about half the season as a 15 year old. He's clearly physically immature at this point, but he's smart enough and skilled enough to keep up with the play. He played quite solid in the playoffs and looked very comfortable running the point on the powerplay. And save a few minor mistakes (that happen to the best of OHL defenseman), he looked good defensively too. That being said, I don't think he'll be ready for top pairing status next year, like some Ottawa fans are anticipating. I think that's too much to ask of him, but I definitely see him with an increased role and production next year.
Petr Mrazek (2010)
Depending on how Mrazek plays out the rest of the playoffs, I think I've found my second ranked goaltender from the OHL for 2010. He came in for Perugini in the 4th game and didn't look back. He's very unorthodox in net (what Czech goaltender isn't? Call it the Dominik Hasek syndrome), but he gets the job done. He absolutely won that fifth and deciding game for the 67's, because the Dogs were buzzing all game and he made some really tremendous saves. The one thing that's immediately noticeable about Mrazek is how well he moves in his net. He has excellent agility and covers side to side very well. He's also got good anticipation of the play and has that ability to bade shooters into where to put the puck. He spends a bit too much time on his stomach and knees for my liking at times, but teams don't seem to be able to beat him high with a ton of success so maybe it's moot. It'll be interesting to see if Mrazek gets the start in game one against Mississauga. I'd have to imagine he does, but maybe Byrne goes back to Perugini out of loyalty to give him another shot.
Alex Friesen (2010, but 1991 born)
After his recent accolade as the hardest working player in the Eastern Conference (as voted by OHL coaches), Friesen continued his much improved third season into the OHL playoffs. He was definitely one of Niagara's stand out players and ended up leading the team in playoff scoring with 7 points. It'll be interesting to see if he generates any interest from NHL clubs this June. He's definitely undersized, but he has a lot of redeeming qualities that NHL teams like in their bottom line players. He's quick, he's intelligent, he's solid on the forecheck and along the boards, he's good at creating chances for his linemates, and he's a quality penalty killer/defensive forward. All that and he's shown incredible improvement in his offensive game, which suggests there could be even more room for improvement. I think he's definitely got a chance.
Andrew Agozzino (2010, but 1991 born)
While I think Friesen has a very good chance of being drafted this year, I'm much more skeptical of Agozzino's chances. He's a great player and was Niagara's best player in the series (and probably all season), but he remains the exact same player who went undrafted last year. He's still a feisty little goal scorer who works hard on the ice and leads by example. I think the only hope he has is more exposure. Last year, the scouts didn't seem to be too enamored with the players on Niagara and he may have suffered from a lack of exposure. This year, thanks to Freddie Hamilton and Mark Visentin, he may have gotten a little more attention. Being recognized as one of the most underrated players in the OHL by the coaches definitely says something and I'll be rooting for him, but I anticipate it being a longshot that he gets drafted this year.
Freddie Hamilton (2010)
Considering how well he was playing going into the playoffs, I was really disappointed in the play of Hamilton in the series. In essence...not to sound harsh, but Hamilton and the rest of the Dogs secondary offense was the main reason for the loss in the series. Coach McCourt broke up the Friesen/Aggy/Hamilton line to spread out the offense, hoping that Hamilton could create on his own. If anything, the series proved that Hamilton was not yet ready for that challenge and remains a complimentary offensive player at this level. Whatever the case may be, Hamilton is still a legitimate prospect for the 2010 draft. He's a good two way forward who really doesn't have any glaring weaknesses. He hasn't really developed any above average strengths either though, which may drop him down a bit in the draft. I'll be curious to see if he makes the Canadian Under 18 team (which should be announced later this week).
Matt Petgrave (2010)
I think there was a lot to like from Petgrave during the series. He still makes way too many poor decisions with the puck in his own end. He needs to let the play come more naturally, and that only comes with experience and confidence. There's always the chance that he's just lacking hockey sense, but then I see some of the plays he's able to make in the offensive zone and I don't think that's the case, at least not to the full extent. Petgrave was definitely taking more chances offensively in the series and it was good to see as he made pinches and created chances on offense. Defensively, I really like the way he plays. He has lapses of concentration it seems in zone coverage, but overall he does a pretty good mirroring job. While he's only averaged sized, we're looking at a physical, mobile, potential two way defenseman who made some pretty good strides in his first OHL season. I still think he's a late round pick by an NHL team banking on him really improving.
Mark Visentin (2010)
In his first OHL playoffs, I thought Visentin played pretty well. He wasn't really able to carry over the caliber of play he was at going into the playoffs, but he certainly kept the Dogs in every game in the series. He had a couple bad goals in the early games of the series, but he made some really big saves too and I think he's the type of goaltender who'll come back next year and really improve. Overall, the season has to be considered a huge success for Visentin who showed massive improvements and a great work ethic all season long. I think he's definitely cemented himself as the best goaltending prospect from the OHL for the 2010 draft. Now it'll be interesting to see if he too can get a nod on Team Canada's Under 18 team.
Thoughts from anyone else who saw the series?