New Jersey certainly has one of the NHL's best crops of OHL prospects.
1. Michael McLeod - Mississauga Steelheads
Tale of two seasons for McLeod really (and the Steelheads in general). Struggled mightily the first half of the season. But after returning from the World Juniors (where I thought he was criminally under utilized), he played like a man possessed. Used his speed to drive the middle of the ice with a ferociousness that we had yet to see from him consistently in the OHL. Everything about his game improved. Increased consistency physically as he really started to throw his weight around. Showed more poise and patience in the offensive end with the puck (showcasing an ability to slow the game down and not play at 100mph constantly). And even his shot looked a bit better (although comes from him getting more chances in close by attacking the crease and slot). Of course, his two-way game and ability as a penalty killer remained on point. Now the main question is, what happens to McLeod next year? Lots of talk among Devils fans and the organization that he might be looked at for a 3rd or 4th line center role next year. While I do think he's 100% ready for the NHL in a lot of way and wouldn't look out of place, I also don't think he's the type of prospect you can rush at risk of limiting his offensive growth at the NHL level. Last year the Devils had Pavel Zacha make the team as a 19 year old in a similar situation. I had no issue with that because Zacha's issues in the OHL were directly correlated to consistency and intensity level IMO. Skill set and IQ were never in question. AND he was also coming off a year where he was a dominant force any time I saw him. McLeod is coming off a good year, but one that still leaves room for growth. A full year dominating at the OHL level, learning to improve his shot, learning how to fully utilize his speed as a weapon, improving his vision further with the puck. The NHL will provide a challenge to him in other areas, and I worry that the above could be neglected in favor of learning systems. If he's back in the OHL, I would expect him to be a 90+ point player as the Steelheads could end up as the cream of the crop in the East. BUT, I also wouldn't be shocked at all if he was in the NHL, where I'd expect him to be a 7/8 goal/15 or so assist guy.
2. Blake Speers - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Delayed start (due to an NHL appearance) and wrist injury aside (upon returning from the NHL), Speers had a good year IMO. Biggest difference for me was in strength and confidence in carrying the puck. Saw him play much more of a power game this year, looking to put defenders on his back when driving the net. His speed and skating ability is an asset that he looks to exploit and now that he's gotten stronger, he's able to be a much more consistent offensive force. Speers also remains an extremely intelligent player who displays great vision in the offensive end, something that makes me believe he could stick at center as he moves on to the pro game next year. With his brief appearance in the NHL this year, one would think he has a good shot to make the Devils out of camp this coming season. I think spending a year in the AHL would be good for him though. Let him adjust to the speed and strength of the pro game. Let him play down the middle and see if it works. If he's in the NHL next year, would have to imagine that it's at wing and not center. If he's in the AHL, I'd expect him to be a 20/25 guy and one of the better rookies in the league, but if he's in the NHL, I'd expect him to hover around that 10/15 mark.
3. Nathan Bastian - Mississauga Steelheads
While the majority of his Mississauga teammates picked it up in the 2nd half of the season, Bastian's struggles continued throughout the entire season IMO. He was one of the most disappointing players in the OHL this year, for me. Mississauga continued to shift him between wing and center (wing to start, center to finish the year) to try and get him going. A lack of dynamic skating ability really still seems to hinder him from being a consistent offensive contributor. But with his size, he should be dominating in front of the net and he has yet to figure out how to do that. His play in the corners remains strong and he works the cycle well, but there's no chance a guy with his skill set and size should have only 16 goals this year. I think we also saw his physical game decline a bit, although I wonder if that was in favour of trying to do more offensively? Bastian does remain an excellent two-way player who is an effective penalty killer (really does a great job getting his stick in passing lanes). I just think more needs to be expected of him offensively. Next year, the Devils have an option. They've already signed him. But he can play in the AHL or return to the OHL for his overage season. If I were them, I'd return him for his OA year where he can be a big part of a good team and really try to dominate his own age level before moving on. Trying to get to that point per game mark and the 20 goal mark for the first time in his OHL career, two things that would be a necessity for his overage season to be considered a success.
4. Colton White - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Was a pretty solid year for him. I would say that his offensive game probably didn’t develop as well as many thought it would. I’d even say that he took a bit of a step backward offensively this year. But I think that was by design so that he could really focus on improving in his own end. And he definitely did that. White’s mobility has always been an asset, but his defensive positioning and reads have really improved, and he played with a lot more physical bravado this year, engaging way more without the puck. Offensively, he can still be prone to some turnovers, so I think he’ll need to really simplify his game at the next level, but major steps forward were taken defensively to the point where I’d call him one of the better defensive defenders in the OHL. He'll likely move on to the AHL next year where he'll try to be a solid third pairing guy, while getting his feet wet in the pro game. Don't expect much offensively, but hopefully he can play well in his own end and see some PK time.
5. Evan Cormier - Saginaw Spirit
Cormier is a big goalie who had a pretty decent season for a weak Spirit team. Kept them in a lot of games that they didn't deserve to be in. Big goalie who relies on positioning and his size to make saves. Takes away the top part of the net well and has worked hard to improve his rebound control. Still needs to get quicker side to side to take away the bottom of net and work to shake off some bad goals. Consistency remains an issue. We’re looking at a goaltending prospect who has yet to produce a save percentage above .900 in a season. Needs to take a step forward for New Jersey to offer him a contract next year IMO. He'll return to Saginaw for his overage season where I think he needs to turn into one of the better goalies in the league, especially if Saginaw wants to make the playoffs. This is a kid who’s seen a lot of rubber over his OHL career and now is the time to take that next step.
6. Marian Studenic - Hamilton Bulldogs
Studenic had an up and down first season in the OHL. Some games I saw of Hamilton, he was completely invisible. Other games (especially later in the year), he was terrific. He did see only 3rd line ice time mostly, with little powerplay time, but that has a chance to improve next year. Studenic is a slick skating, offensive winger with goal scoring potential. He’s got very good hands in transition and can make defenders miss. Needs to be more aggressive in attacking the middle of the ice though and get stronger to be able to use his speed and hands, as he’s too easily pushed off the puck right now. As a late ‘98, he’ll need to take a massive step forward next year as a prospect to really give himself a shot at an NHL career, IMO. I see him as a top 6 winger for the Bulldogs next year and would love to see him hit the 30 goal mark.
*Jesper Bratt - London Knights
Worth noting that Bratt was taken in the 1st round of the Import Draft by London this year. Considering he has an NHL contract, it seems likely that New Jersey will send him to the OHL this year, rather than play him in the AHL as a 19 year old (considering he didn't exactly light up the Allsvenskan). In London, he'll get ice time on one of the first three lines and should see time on special teams as well. He could easily be a 25/35, point per game player for the Knights next year.