Saturday, July 30, 2016

30 Teams in 30 Days - New Jersey Devils

Cabs are here! Time for New Jersey. Definitely a gigantic crop of OHL prospects

1. Pavel Zacha - Sarnia Sting
I thought Zacha had a fantastic season. Every time I saw Sarnia this year, he was the best player on the ice. He was much more determined and confident, with and without the puck this year. With it, he was a load to handle for opposing defenses. He's so strong on the puck and has the ability to absolutely dominate the possession game. I don't know how many times I saw him come off the wall and drive the net without anyone able to stop him. And without the puck, he was much more physical on the defensive side of things. While I wouldn't call him a power forward, he's certainly not afraid to use his size to separate the opposition from the puck. Skating wise, he looked more explosive and has clearly worked on his first few steps, making him more dangerous as an offensive player. Quite frankly, I think he's ready for that next step and I'd be surprised to see him back in the OHL next year as a 19/20 year old. Of course, it's the NHL or back in junior for him, but he was close to making the Devils last year and has improved considerably, to say I see him earning an NHL roster spot. In the NHL, I think he can play a key role as long as he can hold up in terms of durability. A 15/20 season as a rookie is a reasonable expectation.

2. Michael McLeod - Mississauga Steelheads
If you read my blog, you know I'm a fan. He had such a marvelous start to the year, but eventually ran into some injury issues (with his knee) and when he returned, he just didn't look as sharp. And his relatively poor showing at the U18's also left a bad taste in people's mouths going into the draft. But, I'm still a big believer of his potential as a dominant two-way force (ala a Ryan Kesler). McLeod's speed and size down the middle is such an asset for today's NHL game. His ability to gain entry into the offensive zone and lead the rush makes him a very exciting player to watch. At this point, he just needs to learn how to slow the game down a bit. And I think that means learning to use his size more consistently to create in the cycle and do a better job of hitting holes in the defense without the puck (especially with his skating ability). His inability to do that at times this year caused some to question his offensive hockey sense and overall potential, but I see it more as a player who's still learning how good he can be. The hands are there. The shot needs to improve, but he has the hands to make plays. Next year, he's already been announced as the captain of the Steelheads as they will attempt to be the top team in the Eastern Conference. Even without Alex Nylander (seems pretty likely), McLeod should be a good bet to crack the 75 point mark.

3. Mackenzie Blackwood - Barrie Colts
If you're named the OHL goaltender of the year, hard to suggest that you had a bad season. Blackwood earned that trophy as the most consistent goalie in the league, as he was a rock on most nights for the Colts. Big and athletic, Blackwood is the prototype of today's NHL goalie. I think he did a great job improving his rebound control this year, limiting 2nd and 3rd chances and doing a better job of swallowing up shots after they hit his 6'4 frame. Blackwood is definitely at his best when he keeps things calm and composed. Where he still gets into trouble is when he scrambles and gets himself out of position He's still learning how to best utilize his size to make his positioning more consistent so that he doesn't have to scramble. Next year, he'll start his pro career. The Devils have three quality goaltending prospects and only two spots in the AHL. Safe to assume Scott Wedgewood has one of those spots after how well he played last year. So it will come down to Ken Appleby and Blackwood for the 1B) spot. My guess would be that Blackwood outplays Appleby and earns that AHL spot where he splits time with Wedgewood and has a solid first professional season.

4. Blake Speers - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
He was so good for the Hounds this year and has really put himself on the map as a solid pro prospect IMO. One of the big reasons for that is how dedicated he's been to improving his overall game and play without the puck. He's begun to use his speed to be a factor on the forecheck and on the backcheck and he even flashes a desire to get dirty physically. Offensively, he's so deceptively quick and hits open lanes with authority. This makes him incredibly effective off the rush where he can utilize his great puck skill and terrific shot. His playmaking ability as a center also took a step forward this year, as he did a better job (especially on the powerplay) of slowing the game down to play the cycle game and exhibit patience. The Hounds captain also greatly improved his faceoff prowess and had one of the highest winning percentages in the league on the draw. I think he's only going to continue to grow as a player as he continues to add strength and becomes a more difficult player to stop one on one. Next year, Sault Ste. Marie should be one of the better teams in the league and Speers has a chance to have a really big season. Think 85+ points.

5. Nathan Bastian - Mississauga Steelheads
Like McLeod, I'm also a big fan of Bastian. He was easily one of the most improved players in the OHL last year and is a budding power forward. His skating continues to get better as he adds strength to a frame that has been stretched out a lot in the last few years (massive growth spurt). He also improved a ton as a physical presence this year, proving to be a force on the forecheck and along the wall. The question moving forward is, is he a winger or a center? He's largely played wing as an OHL player, but with McLeod out late in the year, Bastian switched to the middle and looked quite good. His playmaking ability and vision off the rush are his best qualities offensively IMO and that profiles well for him to make the permanent switch to center. Next year, the Steelheads could definitely use him down the middle to form a lethal 1/2 combo with McLeod (and then pair them together on the 1st powerplay unit). As mentioned, the Steelheads should be a top 3 team in the East and Bastian will be a big part of that. I think he's at least a point per game player next year.

6. Josh Jacobs - Sarnia Sting
Jacobs had a solid first (and likely only) OHL season where he was a key player on a strong Sarnia team. Offensively, he keeps things very simple, but defensively he's a very effective player. He does a good job of staying ahead of attacking forwards, using strong backwards and lateral mobility. He also does a great job getting the puck out of his own end, showing a strong first pass and rarely committing turnovers. He also does a good job of engaging physically and established himself as a tough player to go up against this year. He's not the type to lower the boom with an open ice hit or lay punishing hits in the corners, but he makes you work for every inch of ice and that in itself represents physicality. I don't think there's a ton of potential offensively, even if he did see some powerplay time this year. I just don't see a ton of natural ability there. But I think he's a safe bet to be an NHL defender. Whether that's as a second pairing or third pairing guy remains to be seen. He'll turn pro this year and skate with Albany where I'd expect him to be a regular in the lineup but not put up a ton of points.

7. Colton White - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
It was a good development year for White. He certainly remains a project as a pro prospect, but he took a lot of steps forward. His skating is definitely an asset and he utilized that to be a major factor leading the rush for the Hounds. He picks his spots well and has good hockey sense overall. The next phase for him is becoming more confident in his abilities. He could stand to extend his rushes further into the offensive zone, trusting his skating ability to help him recover if need be. Would also love to see him use that skating ability to jump up into the rush as the 3rd or 4th guyin, as he actually has a good point shot but just doesn't use it a ton. As a powerplay QB, using his shot more would also help him and it would open up the ice more for his teammates. Defensively, his mobility helps him to be a solid positional defender, but he needs to make himself tougher to play against by being more physical in the corners and in front of the net. He still loses too many one on one battles. Adding strength would definitely help that. But as he gets stronger and gains confidence, White is a potential breakout candidate. He's raw, but the skill set is there for a potential NHL defender. I think that breakout happens next year for him and I will say he can hit the 45+ point mark on a solid Greyhounds team.

8. Evan Cormier - Saginaw Spirit
A tough year for Cormier. He came into the year as a potential top 2 round pick, but he struggled with consistency. He's a big kid, but he gets beat low too much and seems to struggle recovering from weaker goals. Part of that is because of the team he plays for. He saw the 2nd most shots against this year of any goalie in the league and at times he definitely looked tired. But he's got size and when he's on, he can be a very difficult goalie to beat because of that. Saginaw should be better next year and Cormier will aim to have a better year. In two years in the league, he's never had a save percentage close to .900, let along over it. But I think that could change next year and I'd expect him to be around the .905 mark with close to 30 wins. That said, if he's not careful, he could lose his job to Brendan Bonello, a solid goalie prospect for the Spirit (some consider him the top '99 born goalie in Ontario), who will come to camp in hopes of earning serious playing time.

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