The conclusion to my Top 50 for this year's NHL Entry Draft.
Here is my top 10.
1. Gabe Vilardi - Forward - Windsor Spitfires
It certainly hasn't been an easy year for Vilardi. Missed the Hlinka with a knee injury that caused him to miss the start of the OHL regular season too. Then, just as he was finding a groove, he had to have an emergency appendectomy. Through it all, he still finished with 61 points in 49 games, which was good for the third best ppg average of any '99 in the OHL (behind #2 and #3 on this list, Tippett and Suzuki). He's the prototypical center for today's NHL game which lives in the Corsi age and thrives on possession time. Vilardi might be the best player in the entire OHL below the hash marks. He has an unreal ability to extend possession in the offensive end by controlling the wall and tiring out opposing defenses. This not only draws countless penalties, but it opens up the ice for his linemates. And Vilardi's second best attribute would be his hockey sense and vision, so he consistently finds those open teammates from the wall or behind the net. In a lot of ways, Vilardi's ability to slow down the play and control the wall reminds me of Joe Thornton in his prime. In addition to having great puck control, Vilardi is also a solid two-way player who has the potential to develop into an elite two-way forward. The only real flaw in his game is his lack of explosive skating ability. To a certain degree, I think these concerns have been overblown. He's not an awful skater, just not an above average one. I'd compare him to Sean Monahan as a skater when he was drafted and that certainly hasn't limited his effectiveness in the NHL. Vilardi is too smart and too skilled to not be an impact player at the NHL level IMO and I think he deserves to be the 3rd player off the board behind Patrick and Hischier come June. Heck, if he has a dominating performance in the Memorial Cup, can he even enter the conversation with those two?
2. Owen Tippett - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads
In a lot of ways, Tippett is the antithesis of Vilardi, the player he's gone head to head with all year for the top spot in these OHL rankings. He's a pure goal scorer who possesses speed and skill as a North/South player, but lacks the cerebral component that drives Vilardi's effectiveness. Tippett has the best shot of any player in the OHL, no offense meant to Debrincat, Mascherin, or Sokolov. Everything about it is elite. Lightning quick release that consistently catches defenders and goalies off guard, even though they know his reputation for shooting at any time. Great velocity on his wrist shot. Tremendous ability to protect the puck and use defenders as screens coming down the wing. And the utmost confidence to shoot from anywhere and everywhere. Tippett also possesses great speed. Once he gets going down the wing, he's very hard to stop, especially because you're also trying to take away space from him so that he can't get off his shot. I think his first few steps looked a bit slower this year as he added some weight, but I expect that as he continues to become better conditioned, he will develop into a terrific skater at the pro level. So you've got an explosive sniper with size. In a lot of ways, I see Tippett possessing a Peter Bondra esque type of ability and potential at the NHL level. The negatives have been much discussed. His defensive awareness and overall play without the puck needs to improve. But, I do think that it has improved already from his rookie year and from the start of this season. He has even flashed a desire to engage physically this year and throw his weight around. I think his play without the puck will continue to improve. I think the real area of concern is his hockey sense and ability to utilize his teammates. Too often the play dies on his stick and he's not able to extend possession in the offensive zone because he fails to find an open teammate and loses poise/patience with the puck. I think this is especially evident on the powerplay, as I find him to be a more effective 5 on 5 player right now. Is this something that will develop? That remains to be seen. Harnessing this will also make him a better goal scorer. Let's be real, the goals he scores by catching defenders and goalies off guard in the OHL, won't be goals at the next level. He's going to have to work harder to find the dirty areas and work the middle of the ice better to be a consistent goal scorer at the NHL level. But in a draft year that lacks true star potential, Tippett has to remain a top 10 pick because of the goal scoring potential he possesses and ultimately, that's what wins hockey games. You can listen to Tippett's segment on The Pipeline Show, here.
3. Nick Suzuki - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
SO glad to see him finally getting the recognition he deserves late in the season. Reminds me of Robby Fabbri in his draft year, where it wasn't until later in the season that he finally started to be considered a serious candidate for a selection in the lottery (although he did ultimately fall). The key to Suzuki's game is his combination of amazing hockey sense and non stop motor. I saw NHL.com's Mike Morreale recently say, "Suzuki plays the game like he's got red bull flowing through his veins," and I think that's a very accurate statement. Suzuki isn't the world's quickest skater, but he has great agility and it allows him to really whirl around the offensive zone like a Tasmanian devil. Plus, he's always one step ahead of his competition, which means he's outworking you and out-thinking you. His playmaking ability is top notch and it's no fluke that he was able to be one of the league's leading scorers in the regular season and post season. But his goal scoring ability is something that is underrated. He has a deceptively quick release and he's so adept at getting himself scoring chances. This is a well rounded offensive player. Suzuki also uses his motor to play defensively and on the PK, where he's developed into one of the league's premier penalty killers. One of the comparisons that is thrown around a lot is Joe Pavelski and Suzuki projects as the type of player who can excel in all situations like Pavelski does for the Sharks. Another thing that's not mentioned a lot is Suzuki's late birthday that makes him one of the younger players available. He still has some physical maturity to undergo, so it's scary to think of how good he could be if he gets stronger. To sum it up, with Nick Suzuki, you're getting one of the more complete players in the draft, who if he were a bit bigger and a bit quicker, would probably be competing with Patrick and Hischier for first overall. You can check out Nick's segment on the Pipe-Cast here.
4. Robert Thomas - Forward - London Knights
Thomas is an extremely talented playmaker who is coming off a terrific second year with an ultra talented London Knights squad. For much of this year, Thomas was the team's most effective and consistent forward and he deserves major props for that. He's deceptively quick and extremely effective off the rush, where his elusiveness is combined with his vision and creativity. He's far from a perimeter player who thrives in traffic areas despite not possessing elite size or strength. He especially excels on the powerplay, where his vision and passing ability is put on full display. Just makes great decisions with the puck in the offensive end. The only real criticism is that he needs to shoot more. I think Thomas will always be a playmaker, first and foremost, but he needs to keep teams honest by improving his shot and by being more aggressive in using it. Teams overplay him for the pass and he won't take that next step as OHL scoring leader and offensive dynamo until his shot improves and his confidence in using it improves. And while he's a pretty heady two-way player, I'd love to see him play with more consistency away from the puck, similar to the way Nick Suzuki does. As he fills out, Thomas is a guy who possesses a lot of offensive potential and I think he deserves to be considered a candidate for the Top 20 at the draft in June.
5. Nic Hague - Defense - Mississauga Steelheads
Originally had Timmins as the top defender available from the OHL this year, but it's incredibly close. With Hague's tremendous performance in the postseason, I think he's done enough to vault ahead. If you saw Hague in the playoffs, you've seen him at his absolute best; the best hockey he's played as an OHL'er thus far. And I think that's going to resonate pretty heavily with NHL scouts. There were times during the regular season where watching Hague play was extremely frustrating. He had become prone to defensive zone turnovers and was having a real tough time with the forecheck, as he wasn't keeping his feet moving and his decision making was a tad too slow. But he's really cleaned that up this postseason. I think it's still an area of concern for the future, but his improvement late in the year is encouraging. As an offensive player, Hague is certainly not typical. He's not the type to consistently lead an explosive rush up ice or appear dynamic in nature. But once the Steelheads gain entry into the offensive zone, he's a very, very efficient player. He's got one heck of a point shot, but he's also very good at sliding down into scoring lanes, catching opposing forwards puck watching. Hague is also not afraid to pinch in deep to maintain puck possession, similar to a 4th forward. He uses his size and strength exceptionally well along the wall to extend plays. This is similar to the way Brent Burns has become so effective as an offensive player in the NHL today. Defensively, Hague has really developed quite the mean streak and it's made him very difficult to play against. He uses his reach and mobility very well to defend the rush, but uses his size and strength to defend the corners and the front of the net. Again, this postseason, he's been absolutely hammering anyone who dares try to go to the net when he's on the ice. While I'm not entirely sure how much his offensive game translates to the NHL level, and I do think the turnovers and decision making are a concern, there's enough there to suggest that he could develop into a quality top 4 defender at the NHL level. You can listen to Hague's segment on The Pipe-Cast, here.
6. Connor Timmins - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
The true definition of a jack of all trades defender. Timmins excels at both ends of the ice. Defensively, he plays much bigger than his 6'1 frame. He's ultra aggressive in the corners and in front of the net, and while he's not the type to lower the boom with a huge open ice hit, he's adept at engaging physically to win one on one battles. He also makes very good decisions with the puck in his own end, utilizing a great first pass or good mobility to get the puck out of trouble. Offensively, he has great vision and has really grown as a powerplay QB. While I don't think his point shot will ever be a massive weapon, he shows enough as a puck mover to suggest that his offensive abilities could translate to point production at the NHL level. I think really adding an extra gear to his skating ability could help him with that production as he moves forward. When it comes to Hague versus Timmins, I think Hague gets the advantage because of his size and unorthodox offensive contributions. But don't be surprised if Timmins goes first because he's a right shot defender who just screams pro defender because of his all around abilities.
7. Michael Dipietro - Goaltender - Windsor Spitfires
No question, Dipietro is one of the better goaltending prospects to come out of the OHL in recent years. About the only thing he doesn't have going for him is size. At 6'0, Dipietro lacks the height and length NHL scouts desire at the position these days. What he lacks in physical stature, he makes up for with elite athleticism, quickness, and intelligence in the crease. Dipietro is easily one of the quickest goalies post to post that I've seen play in the OHL. He gets excellent push offs and he does such a good job reading and anticipating plays that he makes highlight reel saves on a nightly basis. Dipietro also does a great job of controlling his rebounds, limiting second and third chances. You also have to applaud his mental make-up. Since coming into the league, he hasn't missed a beat. As a rookie last year he was already one of the better netminders in the league and has continued that this year, where he was a stabilizing force for an injury prone and inconsistent Windsor team. It'll be exciting to see how he elevates his game for this year's Memorial Cup. The one thing that I will say is that as a "smaller" goalie, he needs to do a better job challenging shooters more consistently. He can't get caught deep in his net, where he's susceptible to being beaten high. There were times this year where that was happening and it's really the only flaw to his game. But he's more than deserving of being a top 45 pick come June. Just a matter of whether NHL scouts can look past his lack of size.
8. Jason Robertson - Forward - Kingston Frontenacs
As the year went on, Robertson just kept getting better, and better. The Frontenacs were far from an offensive juggernaut, but Robertson was one of the league's premier performers in the second half of the year and the playoffs. In his final 25 games of the year (including the playoffs), he had 18 goals and 27 assists for 45 points or very nearly two points per game. Overall on the year, if you combine the regular season and playoffs, Robertson was in on nearly 48% of his teams goals this year. That's just insane. Even with the top defensive players of the opposition keying in on him, he managed to remain consistently productive. Robertson is extremely difficult to separate from the puck and that's one of the things that makes him so effective. He's aggressive in driving the net and despite lacking elite speed or acceleration, manages to find his way there with, and without the puck. He's also very intelligent. The puck just seems to find him in the offensive end, especially in the slot and near the crease. His excellent release and hands makes him a great goal scoring prospect, but also his ability to control the cycle makes him a terrific playmaker. While he's far from a pest, his offensive game (the way he contributes offensively) reminds me a lot of Corey Perry. They have similar body types, similar skating strides and found success at the OHL level the same way. Outside of improving his skating, adding that consistent physical element and intensity level (like Perry possesses) is the key to his development. While he's a determined player with the puck, I find that his engagement without the puck lacks consistency. Would love to see him use his size to dominate in puck retrieval and on the backcheck, but he has a tendency to float in the offensive zone, hanging out in the slot. You simply can not ignore his production this year though, even with a few warts.
9. Jonah Gadjovich - Forward - Owen Sound Attack
A '98 October birth date who was one of the OHL's most improved players in his 3rd year in the league. Went from 14 goals to 46 this year. Gadjovich is a really big kid who plays a throw back style of game. It's built on power and he's most effective within 5 feet of the net. He's an absolute bull to deal with in front of the net because he's as strong as an ox, but also smart. Does a really good job shielding off defenders and keeping them on his back. He's also got sensational hands in close. Adept at tip ins, but also has a very good shot that exhibits power and accuracy. Gadjovich is also a very good two-way player who is just as effective without the puck as he is with it. He plays the game hard and relishes in the opportunity to throw his body around. His skating has gotten better every year he's been in the league, and I would actually say he skates reasonably well for a big man now. He'll never be a burner, but he definitely exhibits more power than a guy like Jason Robertson. His overall puck skill, creativity, and playmaking ability are still works in progress. His offensive potential at the NHL level will depend on the continued development of his shot, and the development of his play with the puck. His production dipped a bit in the OHL playoffs, and I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you that he could have done more to try and get Owen Sound to the West finals. But he had a pretty damn good year overall. Best case scenario you're looking at a guy like James Neal, and at worst a guy like Joel Ward. I feel like Gadjovich is a pretty safe bet to be an NHL player.
10. Isaac Ratcliffe - Forward - Guelph Storm
Ratcliffe is a very interesting prospect that is available this year. I could see him being drafted anywhere from 15 to 50. He has some extremely alluring qualities to NHL scouts. First thing you notice is his size at 6'6. And he skates very well, with good speed and acceleration. But he's also not even 200lbs yet. As he fills out, I don't think we truly know how good he could be. Ratcliffe's other best quality is his shot. He has an absolute rocket of a wrist shot and I think he's got big time scoring potential. Once he's able to add that aforementioned strength, he'll be able to generate more scoring chances for himself as he can protect the puck better and look to be aggressive in driving the middle of the ice. His physical game is inconsistent and that's another area of his game that will need to improve. Ditto for discipline. Anyone who watched the U18's can tell you that he struggled with some lazy stick penalties and it was the same in Guelph too. He has the potential to be an excellent defensive player though with his size and skating ability. Playing for Guelph is a wild card all in itself. Because of how bad Guelph was at times this year, he had a propensity to disappear at times. He went an entire month without scoring a goal later in the year. And when he's not scoring, that's when the physical game and the cycle game really need to activate to make him more noticeable. Bottom line, the key word with Ratcliffe is potential, which I've already used several times to describe him. Huge kid who could develop as a scoring power forward under the right tutelage and with improvements to his conditioning. You can listen to Ratcliffe's segment on The Pipe-Cast, here.