Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Top 10 - Most Impressive 1996 Born Players

 One of the many annual traditions I have on this blog is to rank the new batch of OHL rookies in order of the impression they left on me. Only the "true" OHL rookies have been included, thus why it's labeled the "Most Impressive 1996 born players." However, with the whole exceptional status thing, this means that Aaron Ekblad is going to be included in this group (because he was born in 1996). It also means that Connor McDavid is not going to be included in this list. I will describe the impression he left on me though.

I always like to note is that this isn't an early ranking for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. This ranking isn't the order in which I believe these players should be ranked for the draft, but an order of which players impressed me most. It's not a draft prognostication, it's an acknowledgment of the significant impact these players have had on their teams this season.

As mentioned, this is a tradition, so here are the previous year's lists. 1995's. 1994's. 1993's. 1992's.

10. Josh Ho-Sang - Windsor Spitfires
Ho-Sang certainly flashed moments of brilliance this year. He has an incredibly high skill level, which was apparent to anyone who watched him play in junior. Skating and ability to handle the puck are above average. At times this year, he was the best player on the ice, but he just wasn't able to keep up that consistency. There are definitely some things he needs to work on moving forward. I felt like he had trouble fighting through checks to get himself into good scoring position. I also felt like he overhandled the puck at times and was turnover prone. But he certainly showed enough offensive potential this season to make this list. It will be interesting to see what an offseason dedicated to strength training will do to make him a better player in his sophomore campaign.

9. Dante Salituro - Ottawa 67's
Salituro is like the little engine who could. He's little but he works his butt off. It was certainly hard to stick out in a positive way in Ottawa this year, but Salituro often did that. Regardless of the score, he was in there on the forecheck or trying to fight through checks with the puck. I was particularly impressed with his vision and ability to create scoring chances for his linemates. He looks like he's going to be a very good OHL player and a great running mate for Travis Konecny next season. Even though he's little, Salituro is already pretty solidly built, kind of similar to Max Domi, so I'm not really worried about stature preventing him from making a larger impact.

8. Roland McKeown - Kingston Frontenacs
I think most people will be surprised to see McKeown as low as he is on this list. First the positive. McKeown played massive minutes for a 16 year old this year and was a massive part of Kingston's half decent season. I really liked his decision making ability with the puck and he's clearly a very intelligent player. Now the negative. Every time I saw Kingston play this year, he made a few critical defensive mistakes. In particular, I noticed he was quite susceptible to getting beat off the rush, with players being able to take him to the outside. He had some trouble winning battles in the corners and tying up men in front of the net too. But, I think it's important to remember that McKeown was a rookie playing a lot of minutes, so he was bound to get overmatched at times. He's definitely got a ton of potential and is looking like a potential lottery selection next year. It's just that I had several other 16 year olds make a more profound impact on me this year.

7. Alex Nedeljkovic - Plymouth Whalers
The first goalie to crack this list since JP Anderson. It's pretty damn rare to have a 16 year old goalie have the type of impact Nedeljkovic has had. He stole the starter's job away from NHL draft pick, and 19 year old Matt Mahalak and never looked back. Sure, the Whalers are a great team. But it wasn't really until Nedeljkovic took over that the team really started to play well. His consistency in the crease gave Plymouth a new found confidence. He's not perfect, but he does a great job of squaring to shooters and reacting to the play. I can't seem to recall the last rookie goaltender to lead his team to a Memorial Cup victory, which is something Nedeljkovic has a chance to do.

6. Spencer Watson - Kingston Frontenacs
The trigger man on one of the most underrated lines in the OHL this year with fellow rookie (and another guy on this list) Sam Bennett and import Henri Ikonen. Watson impressed with his pure ability to create offense. Without the puck, he did well to get himself in scoring position and has a terrific shot already. With the puck, he's very elusive and has the stickhandling ability to create off the rush. It's clear he needs to get stronger, which is no surprise. Too often was he pushed off the puck in the offensive end this year. And he relied on Bennett and Ikonen to do most of the grunt work in the corners. But his skill level and production this year was very impressive.

5. Michael Dal Colle - Oshawa Generals
Big powerful forward who looks to have some power forward potential in the league. I understand that he's a natural center who played the wing this year. It'll be interesting to see if he goes back to center next year, especially with Jenner gone and Scott Laughton potentially in the NHL. I was really impressed with Dal Colle's ability to protect the puck and create scoring chances off the wall. He definitely did not look like a rookie this year. I think the one thing I'm interested in seeing next year, is just how much his nasty side takes off. He was occasionally physical this year and I think that growth in that area of his game will be key to his development.

4. Jared McCann - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Got better and better as the season went on. Heck, he finished out the year with 16 points in his last 9 games, before being knocked out of the OHL playoffs from a hit by Cameron Brace. Hopefully there aren't any lingering concussion issues at play here. A couple of things really impressed me with McCann. The first was his strong two-way play and ability to excel on the penalty kill (especially later in the season). He's going to be a very strong two-way player at the next level. Another thing was his skating ability. A terrific skater who can really get himself up the ice quickly on the breakout. McCann has the potential be the complete package.

3. Sam Bennett - Kingston Frontenacs
Bennett is an incredibly entertaining player to watch. He's one of those high energy guys who always seems to be involved in the play. He's actually got some real pest like qualities to him. He's quite physical and is very involved on the forecheck and in the corners. He and Henri Ikonen did great to work the cycle this year. He may not be big, but Bennett is very slippery and OHL defenseman had a tough time containing him on most nights. I also really liked the way Bennett created offense off the rush. He's got really underrated skill with the puck and made many a defenseman whiff this season. With added strength this offseason, I can't wait to see him play next year (and I hope he sticks with the Under 18 team currently).

2. Blake Clarke - Brampton Battalion
I was so impressed with Clarke this year. Big guy, but massive offensive potential. He's got terrific hands and can really carry the puck. Is definitely most dangerous off the rush where his size, skating ability, and skill with the puck make him incredibly difficult to contain. I actually was really impressed with his vision and ability to create for his linemates. Not just a, "put the head down and drive to the net" kind of forward. He uses that size to get close and the playmaking ability to find open teammates. Could be a real total package offensive player. Best of all, as the season went on, Clarke became more confident in throwing the body around and showed signs of becoming a physical player. I hope that continues to grow.

1. Aaron Ekblad - Barrie Colts
A beast, plain and simple. Ekblad was the best defenseman on one of the top teams in the league this year. He's also been fantastic so far in the playoffs, especially since Barrie has been missing captain Ryan O'Connor due to suspension. He took massive steps forward this year as a defensive player. Most of that was due to the fact that he became more physical and much more difficult to play against. Because of his size, reach, physicality, and agility, Ekblad is one of the toughest defenders to beat one on one in the league. Offensively, I felt like his breakout pass and ability to start the rush improved this year, as did his confidence on the point on the powerplay. The sky is the limit for this young man.

Honorable Mentions

Brandon Prophet - Saginaw Spirit
Prophet looks to have the makings of a really solid two-way defenseman. Was sheltered a bit in Saginaw this year, but in the ice time he did see, I was impressed with his composure with the puck and ability to start the breakout. I also liked his positioning defensively and occasional glimpses of physical play. Definitely a keeper.

Aaron Haydon - Niagara IceDogs
Was really starting to play well before he suffered that broken jaw in February. When Dougie Hamilton left the Niagara line up, Haydon started to gain more confidence offensively and began to take chances leading the rush. He even started to see some time with the man advantage. For a bigger defender, he seems to move quite well and his skill with the puck and ability to generate off the rush are areas with a lot of potential. And at his size, he's obviously got a lot of potential in his own end too, when he learns to play more physical and use his size.

Jacob Middleton - Ottawa 67's
I was actually most impressed by Middleton at the Under 17's, where I felt he was Ontario's best defenseman (even more so than Aaron Ekblad). In the OHL, he had some injury issues this year and at times looked a bit overmatched. In particular, his positioning defensively is something that stuck out for the wrong reasons at times. But he showed enough at both ends of the ice to suggest he could be a very good defender at this level. In particular, I liked how willing he was to engage physically.

Ben Hughes - Niagara IceDogs
Scored his only goal of the year in the playoffs, but I felt like every time I saw Niagara play, he made the most of his limited ice time. Hughes was one of the youngest players in the league, but he didn't show it. I liked his ability to play both ends of the ice and work hard without the puck. He seems to have some good instincts and I think that if he gets increased ice time next year, he could be someone who really impresses.

Joe Manchurek - Oshawa Generals
Only played 5 games in the OHL this year, but he made his mark in those 5 games. I saw him play two of those, one live and he showed a lot of promise. Was in there on the forecheck, winning battles along the boards and flashed some skill with the puck. I think he could be a big part of Oshawa's offense next season.

Special Honorable Mention

Connor McDavid - Erie Otters
I'm not including McDavid on this list, just as I didn't include Ekblad on last year's list. If I did include McDavid, he'd be number one over Ekblad, I was THAT impressed with him this year. His skating ability and stickhandling ability are electrifying. He was making 4 year OHL veteran defenseman look like pylons at times. His vision and ability to create for linemates is also incredible. Yes, he faded towards the end of the season. I think that was to be expected. It was also due to the fact that Erie significantly cut his icetime to prevent fatigue related injury. Next season, he'll be back stronger and better. Can he challenge for the scoring race next year? I guess we'll find out!


Anonymous said...

Hey Brock,

Very good list. I would only quibble over placement and perhaps want to see Lindo actually on it instead of HM, however this is only quibbling.

I have 1 comment and 1 question:

Q: If McDavid makes the IH tourney U18 team, would they actually bring him back down for another U17 stint?

I know that Eckblad played on the U17 twice however that was after he didn't make the U18 cut. On the flipside JT only played once on the U17 since he made the U18 team then eventually the U20 as a 17 year old UA.

I know there is more convention than rule surrounding these rare situations. Just wondering on your take on this if CMD does infact make the U18 team this summer.

Lastly, my comment is that IMHO you should have included AE with the 95's, and CMD with the 96's.

I guess this is just quibbling again, however if CMD makes the U18 team then it begins to make more sense to include EPS players with 16 year old UA's as they entered the league at the same time.

Another perspective would be that you not include late birth dates for comparison (for the same reason that you are not counting EPS players) as they will not be drafted together.

Finally, I am glad that you analyze and propose an "Impressive 16 year old" list since this is an area that the league falls short. It recognizes the best OA and best 'rookie', however there is a world of difference between 16 and 17 year olds. I guess this goes back to the discussion above on whether you should include 15 year olds as UA's. However given that it this is only a 1 player per year EPS (for now! :), and that part of the decision criteria is that they are both physically and mentally in line with 16 year olds, this is much less messy than the "rookie" vs "underage" distinction. The bottom line is that the league should recognize the best UA too.

Apologies for the long winded message.

Thank you for your excellent insight, reports and interviews over the years!

Brock Otten said...

Appreciate the comments. Always enjoy feedback/discussion.

RE: Lindo

At the beginning of the season, I thought he'd be a shoe in for this list. In the opening month, I thought he was among the best 1996's in the league. But he slowed significantly in the second half (a single goal) and really wasn't much of a factor at all during my viewings of the Attack post Xmas. Lots of potential though and I look forward to seeing him play next year.

RE: McDavid and the Ivan Hlinka/U17's

I would be VERY surprised if McDavid plays at the Under 17's next year. I'd give it a very small chance. My guess, is he'll be at the U20 camp in December with the opportunity to make that team in a depth role (similar to the way Sidney Crosby was brought along slowly). So it'll be U20 or nothing for him, barring some major sophomore slump (at least IMO).

As for the Ivan Hlinka. Tough one. Canada never sends 17 year olds to this event, regardless of how good they are. As amazing as McDavid is, I'd be surprised if he's there. But, I'd also be surprised if he's not invited to the U20 summer camp.

RE; Including the exceptional status players on these lists...

You're probably right. It would make more sense to include them since the OHL and Hockey Canada has deemed them to be equal to their year older draftmates.

At the same time, I decided to do it this way to draw a line for the list. Not including 17 year old rookies. And not including underage exemptions.

If anything, including Ekblad on this list gives terrific perspective at just how good he is in comparison to his peers.

But, maybe I'll rethink my stance next year with Sean Day.

Thanks again for the comments and compliments.

Anonymous said...

Surprised Fabbri was left off the list and especially the Honorable Mentions, had a strong under the radar season and excelled in the playoff series vs Kitch.