It's been a really interesting season in the OHL so far. The two teams everyone (including me) expected to be leading the pack at this point (Niagara and Plymouth) are hovering around the .500 mark. Meanwhile, the upstart and young London Knights are the best in the league. There have been serious injuries, large suspensions and myriad of surprises and disappointments.
But with a full month of OHL action under our belts, I think it's fair to take an early look ahead to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Over the coming weeks, you'll start to see a lot of scouting lists thrown at you, eventually leading up to the release of the NHL Central Scouting Bureau's Preliminary list in November.
There will be a lot of changes on this list over the course of the season. For instance, Mark Scheifele was 17th on my October list last year. A list like this is simply meant to outline some of the strong contenders to this point.
Here's the list!
1. Nail Yakupov - F - Sarnia Sting
This really should come as no surprise. Yakupov is an electrifying talent and right up there with some of the best the league has produced in recent seasons (Stamkos, Kane, Tavares, Hall, etc). Everyone knows how good of a goal scorer he is, but he's really improved the rest of his offensive game this season. With defenses focusing in on him, it's allowed his passing game to really come to life and it's made him one heck of a complete offensive threat...and his team (the first place Sarnia Sting) that much better.
2. Brendan Gaunce - F - Belleville Bulls
Perhaps a bit of a surprise, I think there is a lot of parity between this number two spot (with Galchenyuk's injury) and the rest of the top 10. At any point this season, 2 through 10 could easily flip upside down. For now, I'm going with a big, strong, power center who was made to play in today's NHL. He's improved his skating a lot from last year and it's made him that much more of a dynamic threat. He plays hard, hits hard, plays both ends of the ice and is slowly becoming quite the load to handle for OHL defenses. Considering how much his brother improved over his OHL career (Cameron), I think you have to assume that things will only continue to get better with Brendan too.
3. Cody Ceci - D - Ottawa 67's
Is Cody Ceci the perfect example of how an extra year of development can really benefit those late birthday guys in the draft. Last year, Ceci probably would have been a borderline first round pick. This year, he's pushing himself into top 10 consideration. He's playing with a lot more confidence this year, especially offensively, and it's showing up on the stat sheet. He's got the size, mobility and strong two way presence that NHL teams look for in their top pairing defenseman. At this point, the only thing holding him back from being a virtual lock for the top end of the draft, is his inconsistency in using his size to push people around.
4. Alex Galchenyuk - F - Sarnia Sting
In terms of talent, I don't think there is any question that Galchenyuk is number 2 on this list. He's a magician with the puck and a bonafide offensive superstar in the making. If he were playing this year, I have no doubts that he'd be right up there with Yakupov in the OHL scoring race. But, as you probably know, he's more than likely lost for the season with a torn ACL. At this point, I just can't possibly put Galchenyuk at number 2 with the likelihood that he never plays a game this season. Not to mention, the recovery to a serious injury looming over him. For me, it'll be really interesting to see just how far he falls (if at all), when some of the other draft eligibles start to turn it on and impress. The NHL Draft is totally all about, "what have you done for me lately."
5. Matt Finn - D - Guelph Storm
Last year, Finn was one of the best rookies in the OHL...despite not really getting a lot of fan fare for it. He was so poised in his own end and looked like a very solid and reliable defensive first kind of guy. This year, he's taken his game to a whole different level. He's been a fixture on the powerplay and he's fifth in defenseman scoring (with 4 goals and 8 assists). While he doesn't have elite size, he's stocky enough and such a smart all around player, that he deserves to be near the top of the fantastic defenseman crop available from the OHL this year.
6. Olli Maatta - D - London Knights
I've been extremely impressed with this Import this season; he's come as advertised. Very solid at both ends of the ice. Very calm and cool. His addition to London's back end has been a big reason as to why they're sitting at the top of the league right now. His offensive statistics have been a little deceiving up to this point, as he can really carry the puck and is aggressive in jumping up in the play.
7. Nick Ebert - D - Windsor Spitfires
Another great two way defenseman you can throw right in there with the above guys. Defensively he's become a rock and he's definitely not afraid to throw his weight around. I've been a little disappointed with his offensive play so far this season, as he does not have his first goal of the season yet (after 11 last year). He's got a lot of pressure on him right now, trying to replace Ryan Ellis on the Windsor powerplay (which has been off to a slow start). But he's a great prospect and someone I expect will get better as the season goes along, and he becomes more comfortable being that go to guy.
8. Slater Koekkoek - D - Peterborough Petes
Unlike the defenseman listed above him, Koekkoek is still a bit of a work in progress. IMO, he's definitely the least refined of the top end defenseman available from the OHL. But he may also have the most potential. To start the season, he's been as inconsistent as the Petes team he plays for. Some nights he looks like a perennial all star, and others he looks like he's out there trying to do too much. But with his skating ability (which may be among the best of this high end group), in combination with his size, aggression and two way potential, he could easily creep up to the top of this list.
9. Gianluca Curcuruto - D - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
While I've definitely been a little disappointed with his offensive production this year, there's no question that Curcuruto's defensive game is garnering him notice. He makes such smart decisions in his own end and is quickly becoming one of the better shut down defenseman in the league. I'd love to see him take more chances offensively, because he does have a lot of talent with the puck.
10. Andreas Athanasiou - F - London Knights
At this point, I think Athanasiou is this high based on his potential to get better. I've been disappointed with his lack of progression this year. He's damn fast and he can really play with the puck on his stick. That combination of speed and puck skill is lethal coming down the wing. But it's his play without the puck and his shot quality that haven't really improved much, making his game still solely based on his speed. Not that, that's a totally bad thing, it's just that he needs to round out his game a bit if he wants to be a first round pick in June.
11. Matia Marcantuoni - F - Kitchener Rangers
Another guy off to a really disappointing start. He's certainly getting his offensive chances (currently playing on arguably Kitchener's top line with Radek Faksa and Tobias Rieder). But things just aren't going his way. He remains a very alluring prospect because of his speed, energy and tenacity. It's the skill level that hasn't really shone through quite yet. At this point, he's a almost a glorified energy forward. At this point, I just can't say that he looks like a future scoring line center at the NHL level. But that's why we play 68 games. He's got a lot of time to turn things around.
12. Adam Pelech - D - Erie Otters
Out with a wrist injury since the beginning of the season, maybe Pelech has been lucky (draft stock wise) that he hasn't been a part of the wretched mess that is the Otters right now. But then again, maybe they're just missing the steady influence he brings to the back end. He's got the size and mobility to become a real quality stay at home defenseman. But he can move the puck too, a quality I really want to see shown this year. Here's hoping that when he returns, the Otters are playing a bit better and he's given a fair shake.
13. Dylan Blujus - D - Brampton Battalion
A very intriguing prospect, is this tall, lanky, Brampton defender. He can look kind of awkward at times, and definitely needs to improve his mobility, but he has a lot of interesting qualities that scouts look for. Raw would be the correct word. As evidenced by his 4 goals and 6 assists so far this season (good for top 10 in defenseman scoring), Blujus can move the puck and can run a powerplay. I'm sure scouts would tell you that they'd like him to use his size more defensively though. An interesting prospect for sure.
14. Jesse Graham - D - Niagara IceDogs
Graham...like the rest of the IceDogs...got off to a very slow start this season. But he's turned things around lately. With 2 goals, 3 assists, and a +6 in his last 7 games, he's starting to show why people like me might have him rated so highly. As as regular readers of this blog know, Graham is one of my favourite prospects from this draft class. He may not be huge (5'11), but he's one of the best skating defenseman in the OHL. He'll have to keep making strides defensively, and begin to turn some of those mesmerizing rushes up ice into legitimate scoring chances to keep draft momentum in his favour.
15. Michael Clarke - F - Windsor Spitfires
I saw a comparison made recently to former Spitfire Adam Henrique. I'm not one for comparisons usually, but I really liked that one. Clarke may not be the flashiest draft prospect available this year, nor is he the quickest, but he's certainly getting the job done. He's playing in all situations for Windsor right now, and looking like a 4 year veteran while leading the team in goal scoring thus far. This, when he's really playing in his first OHL season. Definitely impressive.
16. Daniel Altshuller - G - Oshawa Generals
Oshawa definitely hasn't been as good as many thought they would be, but I don't think that's really been the fault of Altshuller. He's definitely raw, but there is a lot of potential in him. He's quite big so he takes up a lot of the net. But he needs refinement in some of the finer aspects of goaltending, and can be beaten low. Scouts won't forget his performance for Canada at this summer's Ivan Hlinka and he hasn't played bad enough for Oshawa thus far to really condemn him.
17. Radek Faksa - F - Kitchener Rangers
Faksa is off to a solid start in the OHL and there is a lot to like about him. He's quite big (6'3, 200lbs) and he uses every inch of that size. He takes the puck hard to the net, he's a good forechecker and he works the boards well. And he's actually a pretty good skater for a big man, which makes him hard to contain in the offensive zone. Definitely a guy to keep an eye on for the rest of the season.
18. Gemel Smith - F - Owen Sound Attack
I have to admit, I don't really know what to make of Smith as this point. He's a pure energy guy who's hard work, speed, and hockey sense have lead him to a tremendous statistical start to the season (almost a ppg). He's not the biggest, but he doesn't back down from anyone. Perhaps a future potential pest. I'm just not sure how much offensive potential he's got at the NHL level, because he's never really wowed me with his skill level. But if he continues to score and generate scoring chances the way he has, can we not say that he'll continue to do that at the NHL level?
19. Thomas Wilson - F - Plymouth Whalers
It's not too often anymore that you see that "traditional" power forward come through the junior ranks. Wilson is certainly that. He's one of the hardest hitters in the league, and at 6'4, 200lbs, he hits damn hard. He'll drop the mitts too (with 4 already this year). He's creating offense this year with his size, and while you'd like to see the goal total higher, he's got the skill to score.
20. Jarrod Maidens - F - Owen Sound Attack
Just a real meat and potatoes kind of player. He works hard, is smart and he capitalizes on his scoring chances. I've seen him quite high on a lot of lists lately, which I'm not sure I totally get because I'm not sure he has the high end potential of some of the guys I've listed above him. But he's certainly a very solid player who's deserving of consideration in the first two rounds come June.
21. Matt Murray - G - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Like Altshuller, Murray is an absolute behemoth in the net. At 6'4, he's pretty hard to beat when he's got the angles covered. The Hounds are playing some inspiring hockey and a lot of that has to be contributed to the improvements made by this sophomore. At this point, perhaps the only thing separating Murray and Altshuller is exposure.
22. Dane Fox - F - London Knights
Fox doesn't come without his baggage. There was an incident this summer that caused him to be sent home from London, leaving his OHL career in limbo. But he was eventually allowed to rejoin London and looks great this year (this third in the league as a late 1993). He's a physical, energy guy who can do a little bit of everything. He's playing in all situations for London (similar to a guy like Michael Clarke) and playing hard.
23. Malcolm Subban - G - Belleville Bulls
Unfortunately for Subban, so far this season we're left with a bit of a sour taste in our mouths. He started off the season blandly and then injured his ankle and hasn't played in a month. With two bigger and younger goaltenders playing...and playing well, it's hard to argue that Subban should be right up there with him at this point. But he remains an athletic specimen with great potential. We just need him to play to see it.
24 & 25. Ryan Rupert & Matt Rupert - F - London Knights
At this point, it's still hard for me to tell he and his brother apart on the ice. So I've put them together. Both are off to tremendous starts and have tons of offensive talent, to go with an extreme tenacity (which has landed them in the doghouse a few times for undisciplined penalties). But when you're only 5'9, you've got to play with a chip on your shoulder to get noticed by NHL scouts. Hard to imagine that they aren't looking.
26. Scott Laughton - F - Oshawa Generals
Another guy who's kind of earned the benefit of the doubt up to this point, despite his lack of offensive production. He really hasn't taken hold of a scoring line spot as many thought he would, and he should be shouldering some of the blame for the team's cold start. He's a hard nosed center who can play both ends of the ice, but he'll need to step it up offensively soon.
27. Scott Kosmachuk - F - Guelph Storm
Another meat and potatoes kind of guy, Kosmachuk is a hard working, net crashing winger who's off to a great start for Guelph. He currently leads them in goal scoring and is starting to make a name for himself. He probably deserves to be up with the likes of Gemel Smith and Jarrod Maidens, but I'm just not as familiar with him as of yet. Another guy to really look out for.
28. Matthew Campagna - F - Sudbury Wolves
Another guy who's kind of working off his reputation and hype at this point. He hasn't been terrible to start the year, but he hasn't been great either. We're all still waiting for that elite skill level to translate to consistent point production. Sudbury could certainly use the secondary scoring he has the potential to provide. The fact that he's a little undersized won't go in his favor either, if he continues to under produce.
29. Chris Marchese - F - Erie Otters
Forget the fact that he's nearly a league worst -17 to start the year...Marchese is a good player. He has real power forward potential, and despite his -17, he can actually play both ends of the ice. He hits, he'll fight, and he can score goals around the net. Hopefully Erie can start playing a bit better so he doesn't get buried by the "bad team itis" that can plague quality draft eligible players on terrible teams.
30. Patrik Machac - F - Brampton Battalion
There were truly a handful of guys I considered to close out this list. So I went with the one whom I've maybe been the most impressed by...even if I'm not yet convinced NHL scouts are drooling over this guy. He's small (5'9), but he's very quick and elusive. He can handle the puck with the best of them and he's been the main reason Brampton has been off to a great start IMO. Brampton had been lacking a true skilled forward to create scoring chances for some of it's hard working guys (like Carrick, Lane, Watters and Goodrow), and Machac is that guy. This little water bug deserves some attention.
Artur Gavrus - F - Owen Sound Attack
Brady Vail - F - Windsor Spitfires
Chris Tierney - F - London Knights
Erie Locke - F - Barrie Colts
Warren Steele - D - Kingston Frontenacs
Marcus McIvor - D - Brampton Battalion
Troy Donnay - D - London Knights
Kristoff Kontos - F - Sudbury Wolves
Garrett Hooey - F - Belleville Bulls
Special Honorable Mention (for bad luck)
Evan McEneny - D - Kitchener Rangers
One of the most underrated defenseman from this draft crop, I thought McEneny had a real chance to show that he was a potential quality NHL draft pick. Size, smarts, and two way play make him an asset on the blueline. He was off to a great start too, but then he torn his ACL and is now done for the season. Without the high profile attached like Galchenyuk, I doubt someone takes a chance on him in June. A real bummer.
Stay tuned soon for the first Media Poll Draft list of the season. It'll be interesting to see how it compares to my list (which might be unconventional at this point).