Sunday, June 3, 2012

My Final Top 50 OHL Players for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft - Part 4: 10-1

I bring you the epic conclusion to my Top 50; the top 10! Hope you've enjoyed the ride.

10. Daniil Zharkov - F - Belleville Bulls
Zharkov has the chance to become a very special prospect. His size, skating, and skill package is going to be very alluring to NHL clubs. At 6'3 and 200lbs, he skates exceptionally well and looks great on the big ice in Belleville where he has lots of room to move. His first few steps are particularly explosive and this allows him to be a very difficult player to defend against as he drives to the net. Zharkov is also blessed with exceptional hands and offensive creativity. He makes defenders miss constantly in the offensive zone and keeps plays alive by keeping the puck on a string. Zharkov also has a terrific shot, especially on the one timer. He gets it off quickly and accurately. The problem is that he's still trying to figure things out offensively. This could point to a lack of hockey sense, or simply a lack of experience playing at a high level. He can float at times in the offensive zone, waiting for teammates to set him up for the one timer, rather than getting his nose dirty in the corners or making things happen himself. And at times when he has the puck, he can commit turnovers by making one move to many, or by skating with his head down. He needs to learn how to play aggressively every shift and really use his size to his advantage. His overall intensity level is wavering, as at times he'll be engaged physically, and other times not so much. I felt like his defensive zone play improved over the course of the season, and by the end of the year he had actually become a pretty good shot blocker and a guy not afraid to take a hit to make a play in his own end. As I said, if he figure out things in the offensive zone and learn to play better away from the puck, he could be a real force. He probably has the most potential of any forward not named Yakupov or Galchenyuk. Be sure to check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, check out Daniil in action courtesy of HPTV.

9. Scott Laughton - F - Oshawa Generals
No forward in this crop did more for their draft stock in the final few months of the season than Scott Laughton. While several of the team's top players were away during December, Laughton really took off offensively with the increased ice time. It was from then on that he became a two way beast, playing in all situations for the Generals. Laughton is a jack of all trades center who does pretty much everything well. What makes him so effective is how aggressive he is at all times. He is a very difficult player to play against at both ends of the ice. He's not incredibly big, but he's a bull on the puck and very hard to separate from it. He's aggressive in driving to the net and has surprisingly good hands which allows him to be deceptively dynamic. He catches defenders by surprise at times by how well he can carry the puck. Laughton is also excellent along the boards. He's a very effective forechecker who can force turnovers and work the cycle to wear down opposing defenses. It was his forechecking ability and hard work along the wall which made him so effective at the Under 18's, where I felt like he was one of Canada's top players. Laughton was also one of the top face-off men at the tourney, a very valuable skill for a strong two way centerman. The real stickler among scouts appears to be what his high end potential is; can he be a top 2 line center, or is he more likely a solid 3rd line guy (which means there is little separation between Laughton and a guy like Brady Vail).? I remember scouts having this same debate about a guy in 2003 named Mike Richards, and he turned out alright. I see Laughton as a very comparable player at the same age. Check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, check out Scott in action courtesy HPTV.

8. Malcolm Subban - G - Belleville Bulls
Like his brother P.K., Malcolm is an incredible athlete. He makes highlight reel saves look easy because he's such a terrific skater and is so agile. He takes away the bottom of the net so well and has terrific reaction time. He anticipates the play very well and goes crease to crease with ease. It's remarkable that he's only been playing goaltender since he was 12. But because of that inexperience in the crease, he's very raw and can rely too much on his athleticism. Because a lot of his saves are reactionary, his rebound control can suffer, kicking juicy opportunities into the slot. He also needs to be more aggressive in challenging shooters and requires more coaching to perfect his angles. His glove hand is a work in progress too, and is clearly an area targeted by other teams. I watched a few games this year where it was obvious teams were targeting the upper part of the net and his glove hand. Some teams probably absolutely love how raw he is in the net though, because he hasn't developed any bad habits yet and they can have their goaltending coach reform his game to their liking. The only other thing that might concern teams is the nagging groin injury he had this year. Due to the nature of his playing style, he could be one of those guys who is injury plagued at the position. While I think Subban is definitely the top goalie available from the OHL, players like Matt Murray and Jake Paterson closed the gap significantly as the season went on. You can listen to Malcolm chat about the draft on The Pipeline Show. For more info, check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager.

7. Matt Finn - D - Guelph Storm
Finn can be classified as a steady Eddie, a very reliable two way defenseman. In his rookie season, he played more of a stay at home game and became a very solid defensive player. However, this year his offensive game exploded and he became a valuable asset at both ends of the ice. Finn's best quality is his ability to see the ice and make smart decisions. Defensively, he's very solid positionally and does a great job of anticipating plays in the defensive zone. He can be physical too, if he needs to be. But he's usually the type to angle off forwards and use his stick to get possession of the puck. His skating is only average, which might scare some teams off because he's also not the biggest, but he competes hard. I think his skating could be improved with added strength. While you'd think his lack of elite speed or acceleration would hinder his ability to rush the puck, he's actually quite effective at it because he's got a lot of confidence with the puck on his stick and remains calm and cool under pressure. Without that added speed element, he might not be able to be a strong puck rusher at the next level, but it's doing the trick for the OHL right now. Finn also makes a terrific first pass out of the zone and generally moves the puck very well. While running the point on the powerplay, he's got a good, hard, low shot which he does well to get through to the net. He's also very sneaky on the point and he looks for opportunities to jump into the slot. But he's generally very smart about his pinches. I love how much he improved this year, which the coaching staff in Guelph apparently attributes to better conditioning. Bottom line is that Finn is a terrific two way defenseman who looks like a very coachable player. He just needs to continue to get stronger and improve his mobility to make him even that more effective. Be sure to check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, check out Matt in game action courtesy HPTV. Finally, listen to Matt chat about the draft on The Pipeline Show.

6. Brendan Gaunce - F - Belleville Bulls
Is he a top 6 two way center, or a 3rd line checking center? That seems to be the question most scouts are asking themselves. The answer, of course, lies in the future. But right now I'm definitely in the camp that believes in his offensive potential. I think he could easily develop into a bona fide top 6 forward. Insert the common Brock Otten rant about an already solid two-way forward being drafted and pigeon held as a 3rd line center lacking potential (see Ryan O'Reilly, Mike Richards, etc). I think his skating is less of a worry than people make it out to be. His top end speed isn't poor. Once he gets going, he's got a good motor and can be a leader of the rush. It's his first few steps and ability to carry/receive the puck at full speed that hurt him. Gaunce is a guy who's currently most effective when the game slows down a bit, as opposed to working off the rush. So sometimes it looks like he's going slowly, but in reality he's just setting the pace he likes to work at. He's an incredibly patient playmaker who's one of the finest passers in the OHL already. He sees the ice very well and is great at working down low and finding open teammates quickly in the slot. He's got an absolute cannon of a shot, both wrister and slapper, but he'll need to work on his release to get it off quicker. While Gaunce isn't a huge factor on the forecheck, he is a big factor along the boards and he uses his size very well to win battles down low. He's physical and uses that size to create room for his teammates offensively or to push the opposition off the puck defensively. He's already a very solid player in all three zones and is a good penalty killer. Bottom line is that I feel his potential as a puck possession player, in addition to his ability to set up plays for his linemates makes him a definite top 6 candidate in the future. You don't have to be a dynamic player to be an effective top 6 forward. Check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, check out Brendan in game action courtesy HPTV. A must read is Brendan's blog over at Coming Down the Pipe. You can also listen to him chat on The Pipeline Show.

5. Radek Faksa - F - Kitchener Rangers
It's damn close for me between Faksa and Brendan Gaunce as the 3rd best forward available from the OHL. I gave the nod to Faksa because I think he has a bit higher upside due to his edge in skating ability and skill with the puck off the rush. The thing about Faksa is that he's big, but he's also got an explosive first few steps and is surprisingly agile for a big man. He plays off the rush very effectively and is a terrific puck handler. He's just a solid all around offensive player. He's got a great shot which is very accurate, but can also find teammates at top speed. At times I've found him to be a little drive happy and predictable, but his ability to use his teammates is something I expect to develop with time. Faksa is an aggressive player away from the puck and is tenacious along the boards at both ends of the ice. He's particularly very intelligent defensively in his own end and reads the play exceptionally well. His defensive anticipation is terrific and the best of any OHL forward available for this draft. He had some injury issues down the stretch and into the playoffs and didn't look great, which could be a bit concerning. It's possible that he just got worn down in his first OHL season though. The key for Faksa will probably be the development of his physical game. It can be inconsistent. That isn't to say his effort is inconsistent; just his physical aggressiveness with and without the puck. I'd like to see him develop more of a mean streak to match his size, skating and skill combination. It would make him just that much more of an effective player at both ends of the ice at the next level. People always ask me how Faksa and Landeskog compare as players. And that's the big thing that separates them; physicality. Check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, catch Radek in game action courtesy HPTV.

4. Cody Ceci - D - Ottawa 67's
Ceci should be the poster child as to why the NHL should keep the late birthday cut off (in September) for the draft. Those late year kids truly do need more development, and mature at a different rate. I think back to how Ceci looked as a fresh faced 15 year old, to now, and marvel at the progression he's undergone. The biggest improvements have been in his skating and overall mobility. The improvements in overall foot speed have been absolutely crucial to his improvements offensively this year. He's always had that big shot from the point which generates offense, but now he's a factor in rushing the puck and has become increasingly aggressive in doing so. As the old adage goes, 6'3, 200lbs puck rushing defenseman don't grow on trees. The improved mobility has also helped him take his defensive game to the next level. He's incredibly difficult to beat off the rush now, probably one of the hardest in the league actually. His focus in the defensive zone has also improved, as he's chasing less and letting the play unfold, trusting his instincts and smarts. If I'm nitpicking, the lack of development in his physical game has disappointed me a bit. It's always a little bit depressing to see a guy with Ceci's size not using it to his full potential. He'll absolutely need to become meaner in the corners and in front of the net if he wants to be a terrific defensive player at the NHL level too. But if I'm an NHL scout, I love the fact that he's improved so drastically every year he's been in the league. Check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, check out some clips of Cody at HPTV. Listen to Cody chat about the draft on The Pipeline Show.

3. Olli Maatta - D - London Knights
For me, spots 3 through 6 (Maatta, Ceci, Faksa, and Gaunce) are all pretty interchangeable. In fact, I had Maatta at number 6 not too long ago. But he impressed the hell out of me in this year's OHL playoffs and I just had to give him the nod over the other three for that reason. Every time I saw him play this season, I kept asking myself, "How is this guy not putting up more points?" While he wasn't a huge factor in leading the rush, he was aggressive in jumping up in the play as the trailer, and looked great quarterbacking the powerplay. As the year went on, those points slowly crept onto the board, until his big explosion in the playoffs. He finished with 23 points in 19 games and really took his game to the next level. He was oozing confidence offensively, and I think that's all he really needed. Let's not forget that Maatta is one of the youngest players available for the draft (late August birthday), and a guy playing his first season in North America. Who's to say that his offensive production in the playoffs isn't what he's truly capable of? Speaking of offense, I love how well he starts the breakout. While he's not terrifically effective in rushing the puck into the zone (because his top end speed isn't great), he is calm and cool with the puck in his own end. He has no problem making quick and smart first passes out of his own end. He's also a very fluid skater and has great agility, which allows him to avoid the forecheck and skate the puck out passed his blueline with great efficiency. This is important because Maatta's bread and butter is his strong defensive game. Having a terrific stay at home guy who can calmly pass or skate the puck out of your own end does wonders for starting the breakout. Speaking of that agility, his effortless skating ability allows him to stay with defenders off the rush, and he has a really smart stick which he gets in passing lanes. He's also more physical than his penalty minutes would indicate. While there's more room to grow, he's not afraid to rub a guy out along the boards or put a stick into the back in front of the net. Maatta is also a terrific defender in coverage, as he reads and reacts to the play well, and remains confident in letting the play come to him. The way I see it is, we're looking at a guy just hitting the tip of the iceberg in his development, and not the other way around as some scouts have described him. Check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. You can listen to Olli chat about the draft at The Pipeline Show.

2. Alex Galchenyuk - F - Sarnia Sting
What a roller coaster of a season. Tearing his ACL in the preseason, but fighting hard all season to come back in time for Sarnia's brief stint in the playoffs. A pretty remarkable turn around and it showed an extremely high level of character and determination. It certainly doesn't erase the injury concerns moving forward, but being a quick healer and hard worker should help to partially leave a positive taste in scouts' mouths. When Alex returned to play, you could see how high his talent level was, even if his skating strength hadn't returned. He was also tentative without the puck and hesitant to engage physically.. But what can you expect? The fact that he was able to put some points up on the board shows you how much skill he truly has. It's only fair to evaluate him based on his game last year. It's funny how quickly people forget the type of player you are. Alex isn't just a one dimensional offensive player. He's got a mean streak, is aggressive with and without the puck, attacks the net hard, and plays both ends of the ice very effectively. People forget that because he didn't do that in his brief return this year, but when he's healthy, I fully expect him to return to that form. And that form made him so effective because it combined with his great skating ability, size, and absolute dynamic offensively ability to form a player who flat out dominated shifts in many occasions. He's got unbelievable hands and can make moves at high speed. This, in combination with his size, balance and ability to protect the puck, made him very, very difficult to stop on drives to the net. He's got a good wrist shot, but his bread and butter lies in his playmaking ability and vision. He's an absolutely terrific passer. If Alex was healthy this year and able to follow his natural progression path, I truly think he could have given Yakupov a run for his money. Instead we're talking about whether a GM is willing to take a chance on him early, despite a serious injury and missing development year. My money is on yes. Be sure to read Alex's blog over at Check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, check out the clips HPTV has accumulated of Alex. Finally, listen to Alex chat about the draft at The Pipeline Show.

1. Nail Yakupov - F - Sarnia Sting
Does this really come as any surprise? Once Galchenyuk went down with an injury, Yakupov took the first overall ranking and ran with it all the way to the bank. He's as dynamic of a player as you'll find and probably the most explosive player I've seen in the OHL in some time. His first few steps are absolutely incredible. He forces a ton of turnovers because he's so quick on the forecheck. He especially loves to close in on rushing defenseman as they cross the blueline. His shot is top notch and 100% NHL caliber. He can fire a laser from pretty much anywhere inside the blueline and hit a corner of the net. His puck carrying ability is outstanding, and in combination with his speed and agility, this makes him a load to stop coming down the wing. His defensive game still needs work to be truly NHL caliber, but it improved a lot this year. He was much more active in the backcheck and along the boards in his own end. He also took a massive step forward in the way he uses his linemates and showed another quality to his game. Anybody that played with him instantly became better. I'm sure there's not much more to tell you about him other than what you already know. The only thing I will mention is his health. After taking that hit from Mike Halmo, he was never really the same player and had a pretty brutal playoff series against Saginaw. A lot of people I've talked to tend to think he was battling post concussion syndrome. Like Alex Ovechkin, the key to his success lies in his aggressive nature. If an injury forces him to refine his game, he'll still have the skill but he won't be as effective. The only question remaining is, do the Edmonton Oilers draft him? Check out his Draft Tracker segment with Yahoo's Neate Sager. Also, check out some clips of Nail in action at HPTV. You can listen to Nail chat about the draft thanks to the Pipeline Show.

Well, that's it folks! Another year's Top 50 down. Time to get ready for the Draft on June 22.

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