If you remember last year around this time, a Sunday Top 10 article (here) focused on those 2008 NHL drafted players who needed to step up their game in order to gain an NHL contract. I really enjoyed writing the piece so I've decided to recycle the idea for this season.
In 2009-10, nine OHL players from the 2008 draft failed to earn a contract and subsequently became NHL free agents. Of those nine, five appeared on my preseason list. While those five failed to take their game to the next level, five others did enough to earn a contract. Patrick Killeen had a tremendous year for Brampton (keeping them in the thick of the playoff race when Cody Hodgson wasn't around). Chris Carrozzi was part of one of the league's premier defenses. Tyler Beskorowany helped Kingston to a solid season, even if Fronts fans seemed to be a little underwhelmed with his performance. A.J. Jenks posted over a point per game numbers for the first time in his OHL career and had a tremendous playoff performance for Plymouth. Last, but not least, Jared Staal had his worst season since his 16 year old year, yet managed to get a contract from the Carolina Hurricanes (after Phoenix decided they didn't want him).
This upcoming season, many other OHL players will have NHL contracts riding on their performance. The players on this list didn't have the post draft breakouts that players in their situations usually have. Does that mean they've hit their peak and they're unlikely to generate NHL interest? If last year's list is any indication, the answer is probably yes. But, if we go off last year's list, we're told that some of these players will finally take that next step forward and demonstrate an ability to be a potential NHL hockey player.
The list is ranked according to their potential impact in the NHL, their potential impact in the OHL this season, but also by the hype they've created as NHL prospects.
Here is the list:
10. Barron Smith - Peterborough Petes
Drafted By: Toronto Maple Leafs
The son of former three time Stanley Cup Champion Steve Smith, Barron had a very difficult 2009-2010. A physical, stay at home defenseman, Smith was unable to crack the Petes line up on a consistent basis and as a result had very little impact on Peterborough's playoff season. This season, the Petes defense will be equally as crowded. This means that Smith is going to have to shown marked improvement in his game to start making an impact. He came over from the USHL with a lot of hype two seasons ago. Maybe this is the season he puts it together.
9. Tyler Randell - Kitchener Rangers
Drafted By: Boston Bruins
Randell had fairly high expectations going into last season. He had 24 goals in his draft season, including 14 in 37 games with Kitchener after a mid season trade. But last year was a huge disappointment as he battled injury problems and found himself buried in Kitchener's forward depth. This lead to a 9 goal season. This season, Kitchener's forward depth isn't likely to take much of a huge hit (unless Skinner and Morin stick in the NHL), which means Randell is going to have to earn his ice time. He has mid 20-30 goal potential in this league, if he can be more consistent with his performance game in and game out.
8. Andy Bathgate - Belleville Bulls
Drafted By: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins have let OHL players walk the past two seasons (Jacob Muzzin in 2008/09, Nathan Moon in 2009/10), so they've got a history of giving up on their CHL selections. Bathgate actually had a pretty decent 2009-10, which was overshadowed by the Bulls' anemic season. He had the best point per game average of any forward who spent the entire season with Belleville. But he still battled a few minor injuries. The grandson of former Hart Trophy winner Andy Bathgate, Andy Bathgate (did I confuse you?) is going to have to show the Penguins he can continue to grow as a player and continue to work towards staying healthy. The Bulls have a young squad which could possibly make some noise and Bathgate could do wonders for his NHL stock by helping to lead this team back to the playoffs.
7. Phil Varone - London Knights
Drafted By: San Jose Sharks
After such a tremendous playoff performance during the 2009 run by London, big things were expected of Varone last year. But his season was plagued by two shoulder injuries which really limited his effectiveness and he finished the season with a paltry 9 goals in 31 games. The Sharks have yet to provide Varone with a contract which would definitely suggest he's headed back to London for an overage season (A December 1990 birthdate who was drafted in 2009). The Knights are going to need some forwards to step up this season and I'm sure they'd love to see a healthy Varone back and contributing big time.
6. Brett Flemming - Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
Drafted By: Washington Capitals
It's not that Flemming had a bad season last year. He was a huge part of the Majors defensive success and as a result was actually named in the OHL coaches poll as one of the best defensive defenseman in the league. However, the alarming thing was that his offensive game failed to reach the next level, in fact his point totals decreased. The question is, with his only average size, will he generate NHL interest from the Capitals if he's not able to show an increased ability to generate offense. How many stay at home defenders in the NHL check in at about 5'11, 180lbs? With Cameron Gaunce likely in the AHL, the Majors are going to need a new powerplay presence and the experienced Flemming needs to step up and be that guy.
5. Scott Stajcer - Owen Sound Attack
Drafted By: New York Rangers
The Owen Sound Attack had just an awful season last year. Injury plagued and wildly inconsistent, the Attack missed the playoffs after preseason expectations had them in the thick of the Western Conference playoffs. Stajcer may not be completely to blame for that, but he certainly didn't have a great season and was as hot and cold as the rest of his teammates. But the Attack have reason to be optimistic about this season again. Everyone is healthy and everyone is a year older. If the Attack are going to right their ship, Stajcer is going to have to take his game to the next level and show everyone he's capable of being a starting netminder in this league (after previously splitting time with Tyler Beskorowany in his draft year).
4. Jordan Szwarz - Saginaw Spirit
Drafted By: Phoenix Coyotes
It's not that Szwarz had a terrible 2009/10 season, it's just that he was slightly underwhelming. While his goal totals jumped into the mid 20's, the rest of his game stagnated and he remained as inconsistent offensively as he was in his draft year. The Spirit will be without their two most reliable offensive players from a year ago (Jordan Skellett and Tyler Murovich), which means that if they are going to continue to be successful, they're going to need a veteran player like Szwarz to take his game to the next level. As a slightly undersized, energy oriented player, the Yotes are probably going to look to Szwarz to deliver a point per game season for the first time in his OHL career.
3. Marcus Foligno - Sudbury Wolves
Drafted By: Buffalo Sabres
Foligno didn't have a brutal season, if you face it in the context of how big of a disappointment the Wolves were last year. He did manage to improve his offensive numbers. But I think we'd be fooling ourselves if we didn't expect more from him considering his bloodlines (father Mike and brother Nick). The Wolves are headed for likely another troubled season, but if Marcus can get close to a point per game and become a more disciplined player, it won't matter if the Wolves struggle again. Foligno will get his contract from the Sabres. But if he really wants to make an impression on the scouting world, he can help take an undervalued team and make them a contender for the playoffs.
2. Michael Zador - Oshawa Generals
Drafted By: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Oshawa Generals could be a surprise team in the Eastern Conference this season. Younger players should get better and some incoming talent could be really promising. Yet, the key to the Generals success may actually be this man, Lightning draft pick Michael Zador. In his first full season as an OHL starting netminder, Zador struggled. But the former highly touted London Knights prospect has the potential to be good and has shown glimpses of brilliance. A consistently solid season would go a long way to earning Zador a contract with Tampa, and to leading Oshawa deep into the playoffs.
1. Zack Kassian - Windsor Spitfires
Drafted By: Buffalo Sabres
Let me get this straight, I'm not insinuating that the Sabres may not sign Kassian and instead take the second round compensation (as the Habs did this offseason with David Fischer). What I'm suggesting is that Kassian is a player who really needs to step up his game this season to get back in the good books of the NHL team that drafted him. After a season mired by suspension and a slow start, the offseason hasn't been kind to Kassian either after a brush up with the law and an incident at the World Junior Summer camp that left coach Dave Cameron scratching his head. The Spits are going to have a bit of a new look offense this season and if they want to successfully three-peat as Memorial Cup Champions, they are going to need Kassian focused and determined. They will need him to play as well as he did during the 2010 playoffs, where his size and skill made him a force to be reckoned with. There's no co-incidence with him being the only CHL player (out of 16) from the 2009 NHL Draft, YET to be signed to an NHL contract. Kassian needs to step it up!
Anyone care to make a prediction? Who gets a contract and who doesn't?