Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Top 10 - Under the Radar Draft Eligibles for 2018

We're over a third of the way into the current OHL season. We've seen a lot of very strong performances from draft eligible players thus far, and we're likely to see many more as we approach the second half. The Preliminary Media/Scout Poll was recently released and that should give everyone a good idea of the top players that the OHL has to offer for 2018. But what about those who are flying under the radar thus far? The amount of depth that the OHL has to offer for this year remains to be seen. The amount of talent available from across the CHL does seem to be down this year. But that won't mean that the OHL won't see their share of players taken in the first three rounds. This list aims to highlight a few of the guys who are bound to see their stock rise should they continue their high level of play.

Here are 10 guys (plus some HM's) that you should be keeping your eye on through the 2nd half (in alphabetical order):

Kody Clark - Ottawa 67's
Clark, the son of former Leafs' great Wendel, is this year's Jonah Gadjovich among the draft crop. He's a late '99 born forward who has improved nearly every facet of his game. Kody has been extremely clutch for Ottawa this year, with 4 game winning goals already. And his 10 goals are third on the team and put him on pace for nearly 30 on the year. The 6'1, 180lbs winger plays a hard nosed, North/South game and he's got great hands in close and improving goal scoring instincts. With his bloodlines, don't be surprised if he ends up a top 75 pick come June, especially if he keeps scoring.

Riley Damiani - Kitchener Rangers
Production for this undersized (at 5'10) second year forward has been inconsistent this year, but there's no question the potential Damiani possesses to be an NHL player. With great speed and a big heart, he excels in all situations for the Rangers and is arguably their top penalty killer. He started the year off exceptionally well but will likely continue to slide down the depth chart 5 on 5 as Kitchener adds for a playoff run. As Damiani adds strength, he'll be an even more effective all around player in the future. He's the type of guy that gets drafted in the mid rounds and then upon reflection, we all say, "how did this guy go so late?"

Aidan Dudas - Owen Sound Attack
Speaking of undersized spark plugs, meet Owen Sound's Aidan Dudas. The 5'8 forward is often a force to be reckoned with because of how hard he works at both ends of the ice. He's been really the only consistent source of secondary offense for the Attack this year (behind the Suzuki/Gadjovich/Hancock line) and currently sits second on the team with 14 goals. The question is, how far has the NHL scouting community come when debating the potential of drafting a 5'8 forward who plays a high energy over pure skill, kind of game? That's not to say that Dudas is void of skill. Far from it. But he's not Alex Debrincat.

Nathan Dunkley - Kingston Frontenacs
Ultra-competitive center who plays the game hard at both ends of the ice. He battled some injury issues to start the year but has been on fire of late with 22 points in his last 14 games since the start of November. Dunkley is a multi-faceted player as he uses his speed to push the pace off the rush, but is also a terrific player along the wall. Certainly not common to refer to a player under 6'0 as a power forward, but Dunkley definitely is IMO. His physical game continues to grow too. Kind of reminds of Scott Laughton, but with slightly better wheels. If the production continues at this pace, he'll start to draw consideration for the late first/early second.

Caleb Everett - Saginaw Spirit
Saginaw has been one of the hottest teams in the league of late and Everett is playing a key role as an OHL rookie. Everett has potential as a two-way defender at the next level with size (6'2, 185lbs) and mobility. He's producing offensively 5 on 5 (seeing limited powerplay action), by looking to be aggressive off the rush and is showing more offensive skill than I had heard he possessed. Defensively, he's still a bit raw (can chase the play, get caught flat footed), but I think with more experience, he'll greatly improve at this level. Was billed as a top notch shut down defender at the midget level, so you have to like the potential he shows at both ends. 

Cam Hillis - Guelph Storm
Hillis, one of the most hyped rookies coming into the OHL season, started quite slowly as he adjusted from playing Prep hockey. But he's been on fire lately (17 points in his last 14) and has been the best forward on Guelph this year; a team that has several high NHL draft picks. Hillis' speed and overall skating ability is extremely noticeable in the offensive end. He buzzes around, constantly working to create plays and he's aggressive despite being undersized (5'11, 165lbs). This guy has outstanding offensive potential for the next level with top notch hands and instincts to go with that speed. If only Guelph could find some consistency as a team. Another guy who could be a late first/early 2nd round candidate come June.

Blade Jenkins - Saginaw Spirit
As mentioned, the Spirit are on fire lately and outside of Mason Kohn, the one guy most directly responsible might be Blade Jenkins. Took him 9 games to score his first OHL goal, but since then he hasn't stopped scoring (with 9 goals in November and already a three point night in December). Part of that comes with a shift to wing, IMO, which has helped to simplify the game for Jenkins. Drive the net hard, put the puck on net, work the wall. Does a great job protecting the puck as he pushes towards the goal. While his skating might only be average, his size and goal scoring potential make him a candidate to be pick in the first couple of rounds in 2018.

Alec Regula - London Knights
Regula is an OHL rookie who is really gaining steam in the scouting community. He played a depth role for a really strong USHL team last year in Chicago (who won the Clark Cup) and is really starting to look comfortable in the OHL the last month or so. He's now playing a ton for the Knights, suiting up alongside Evan Bouchard on the top pairing. Regula has a lot going for him. He's 6'4 and moves very well. He's got excellent acceleration and is gaining confidence in using this to lead the rush. There have a been a couple times lately where I mistook him for Bouchard. Regula also shows well defensively and is a solid stick defender who seems to really process the game well. His positioning and reads are really improving. Lastly, he's one of the youngest players available this year. Don't be surprised if this guy is one of the top 5 OHL defenders taken in June. Great potential at both ends.

Carter Robertson - Ottawa 67's
Since returning from a lower body injury, the offensive production hasn't really been there for Robertson. But that's not to say he hasn't been playing well. In fact, I've been impressed with the improvement to his defensive game. Plus/Minus isn't a stat I put a ton of weight behind, but you can't ignore the fact that Robertson is the only 67 defender with a positive +/-. And he's +7 to boot. His skating ability and hockey sense make him a potential great player in his own end, especially if he continues to show progression in his physical intensity. He's making way better decisions with the puck this year too. Is only now starting to see regular ice time (instead of as a rotating 7th) and I suspect that as the season goes on, we'll see him become more comfortable taking risks offensively.

Tyler Tucker - Barrie Colts
Love this player and I'm just waiting for the rest of the scouting community to join the club. At least he finally got a grade from NHL Central Scouting. The Barrie Colts have been the surprise of the OHL this year and Tucker has been a big reason for that. This guy is tough as nails to play against. Easily one of the hardest hitting players in the OHL. And for a throwback, physical type, his puck management and offensive skill set is actually quite decent. His skating will need to continue to evolve and he's still a bit raw overall. But he's a legit NHL prospect IMO and as long as Barrie keeps up their strong play, he should only increase his draft stock.

Honorable Mentions:

Sam Bitten - Ottawa 67's
The younger brother of Hamilton's Will Bitten, Sam is a similar player in that he relies on his speed and skating ability to be a factor offensively. He's been getting better and better as the season has gone on. Not quite sure he has the creativity and puck skill that Will does, but he's also a few inches bigger. As we advance past the halfway mark, Bitten looks like a prospect about to really breakout.

Damien Giroux - Saginaw Spirit
Undersized at 5'10 and lacking dynamic skating ability, it's no surprise that Damien Giroux hasn't received a ton of respect for this year's draft. But you can't argue with the fact that this guy has been Saginaw's most consistent offensive performer this year. Watch him play and you can see how smart he is and that's what drives his production. Worth consideration for sure from the mid rounds on.

Mitchell Hoelscher - Ottawa 67's
Super hard working forward who is excelling in a depth role for the 67's. The offensive numbers don't jump out at you, but he's always noticeable because of his play away from the puck and on the penalty kill. Will he earn more ice time eventually and become more of a factor on the score sheet? A potential late round candidate who could surprise.

Merrick Rippon - Mississauga Steelheads
Highly touted defender who the Steelheads paid a heavy price for this offseason (from Kitchener). Started slowly but has really started to look good the last few weeks. Starting to take charge at both ends and is showing an aggressiveness that he lacked early on (as he was adjusting from the CCHL). Interested to see how his offensive game continues to evolve as I've been more impressed with him defensively so far.

Bonus - Five Re-Entry Candidates to Watch (in alphabetical order):

Jakob Brahaney- Kingston Frontenacs
Was a highly touted defensive prospect who really struggled last year in his first full OHL year. Brahaney suited up at the World Under 17's and was invited to the Ivan Hlinka camp last year, but we never saw his talent blossom in his draft year. But this year he looks like a totally different player. Showing a ton of confidence at both ends and his +23 is one of the league's best.

Sean Durzi - Owen Sound Attack
An obvious inclusion, even if his lead on the defenseman scoring race is losing ground to Merkley and Bouchard. Once a player used as a forward by the Attack, Durzi has now developed into one of the OHL's elite puck movers. The talent around him obviously helps, but he's looked great running the point of the powerplay and his mobility will help him at the next level.

Joey Keane - Barrie Colts
The top rated re-entry this year, if you ask me (yes over Durzi). This guy is a legit defensive prospect for the next level. Size, mobility, physicality and offensive skill. Keane's emergence as a legit top pairing defender has to be considered one of the main reasons for Barrie's success so far. I wouldn't hesitate to look at him as a potential draft pick starting in the 2nd or 3rd round.

Hugo Leufvenius - Sarnia Sting
Hulking Import from Sweden who is having an excellent rookie season for the Sting. Plays a simple North/South game and his skating will need to improve, but you can't underestimate the impact that a 6'3, 225lbs winger with an offensive touch can have. Looks completely comfortable on the smaller ice and he's been producing without playing with the likes of Kyrou or Ruzicka.

Albert Michnac - Mississauga Steelheads
If you recall, I had Michnac ranked pretty highly for the draft last year after he started strong in Guelph. But he really fizzled down the stretch and fell out of favor with the Storm. The Steelheads came calling and Michnac has been a godsend. Kept them afloat while some of their bigger names were out or away in the NHL. Michnac brings a ton of energy and offensive talent to the ice. Just needs to keep playing well right through to the end of the year to stay in the spotlight.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Justin Brazeau - North Bay Battalion
Cole Coskey - Saginaw Spirit
Kevin Hancock - Owen Sound Attack
Brady Lyle - Owen Sound Attack
Anthony Popovich - Guelph Storm
Joseph Raaymakers - London Knights
Jason Willms - Barrie Colts

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