Here's another team that is heavily invested in the OHL.
1. Gabriel Vilardi - Kingston Frontenacs
Was great to see Vilardi finally return to the OHL in January after his back injury. Following a trade from Windsor to Kingston, Vilardi didn't miss a step. Immediately returned to being an impact player. When all was said and done, Vilardi posted the 2nd highest points per game average (1.80) in the league next to Jordan Kyrou. Continue to love how Vilardi controls the pace of the game. He's such a smart player in the offensive end and he uses his size so effectively to extend possession. He is a very difficult player to separate from the puck and his vision is fantastic. This year, we saw him be way more aggressive in using his shot, which really rounded out his game. He's always had a good shot and goal scoring potential, but was more of a pass first player. While I'd still label him that, he was more aggressive in going hard to the net and looking to use his size to gain leverage for shot attempts and way more aggressive in letting it rip. Vilardi also remains a terrific two-way forward whose effort is consistent through all zones. I guess the million dollar question is, did his skating ability look improved? I've never felt his skating was that bad in the first place, so it's tough for me to say that it did look improved. I think status quo in that department. I don't think he'll ever be an above average skater, but he has so many other strengths that it should overcome an "average" skating ability and explosiveness. The second million dollar question is, is Vilardi ready for the NHL? So long as he is healthy, I would say that the answer is yes, especially given the fact that Los Angeles has some open forward spots up for grabs heading into next season. I see him playing a 3rd line center role to start (similar to the way Sean Couturier was eased in), and likely in the 30 point range this year. Tough to see him coming back to the OHL (my apologies Fronts fans).
2. Akil Thomas - Niagara IceDogs
Fantastic pick by LA this year where they got him in the 2nd round. Wasn't surprised to see him fall out of the first, but did expect that he would be one of the first selections of the second round. Thomas is an extremely talented offensive player who also plays with an edge. He can really use his speed to get after it on the forecheck, and shows a budding physical game which could develop further should he decide to take it there. As a play creator, Thomas has a ton of potential. He's a creative player thanks to his great stickhandling ability and vision on the ice. He completely controls the play at times. Thomas also wears a letter in Niagara and is seen as a potential captain down the line. Consistency is an issue at this point. I think a lot of that stems from conditioning/lack of strength. As he gets stronger, he'll be able to win more of those battles that he initiates and he'll be better at protecting the puck and working the boards. Also needs to upgrade his shot and look to shoot the puck more. Lastly, we need to get a better read on what position Thomas plays moving forward. Is he a center or is he a winger? He has played both thus far. Thomas will return to Niagara where I expect the IceDogs to be among the East's elite. I see Thomas being right up near the leaderboard in scoring and he should crack the 90+ point mark.
3. Aidan Dudas - Owen Sound Attack
Given his size and relatively average skating ability, it was no shock to me that Dudas fell in this year's draft. But, I remain a big fan of his. Dudas has a non stop motor and his conditioning in that regard is fantastic (a former cross country star). He also possesses one of the best shots and releases of his age group in the OHL. He could win a scoring championship by the time his OHL career is over. Dudas also demonstrates terrific hockey sense in all three zones. Combine that with his work ethic, and you've got a great two-way player who can excel in any situation and play any role you ask of him. That said, there are things that need to be improved upon and it's why he was drafted later. His explosiveness is currently only average and for a small player, that can be troublesome. He'll need to really improve that if he wants to be a goal scorer at the next level. I'd also like to see Dudas' physical intensity be more consistent. Look to attack the middle more often and be a little more ferocious in loose puck battles. To be honest though, a lot of the same things I'm writing right now are the same ones we said about Alex Debrincat when he was drafted. So let's see how Dudas develops. He'll return to Owen Sound next year and be their go to offensive player; something I think he's ready for. I see him as a 40 goal scorer as early as next year.
4. Jacob Moverare - Mississauga Steelheads
Tough year for Moverare on the injury front. Held to only 32 games thanks to a knee injury suffered at the World Juniors. He was having a pretty good year too, especially offensively where we saw his game take a step forward (quarterbacking the powerplay, leading the rush). Thought Moverare's mobility looked improved. But his bread and butter and ticket to the NHL will be his defensive ability. He's at his best in the defensive end as a terrific stick on puck defender. He's not a physical type, instead using positioning and intelligence to match up against the opposition's best. Plays a very reserved game and doesn't take unnecessary chances. His play with the puck really improved this year too; way less turnovers and we even saw him explore the ability to skate the puck out of trouble. My stance on him has not really changed, even with some improvements this year. I don't think there is a ton of NHL potential here. An NHL defenseman? Absolutely, but more likely a solid #4-5 who can anchor your penalty kill and play key defensive minutes. But I don't see the offensive game translating. And as he returns from that knee injury next year, it will be interesting to see if it impacts his mobility and the steps forward he took in that department. At the pro level, he should definitely be an AHL regular next year, just don't expect a ton offensively.
5. Drake Rymsha - Sarnia Sting
Another solid year for Rymsha with Sarnia. He's an easy player to pick up on the ice and an easy player to cheer for because of his effort level. This guy battles for every inch of ice and is such a well rounded player. Call him a jack of all trades. Need a big faceoff won? Rymsha. Need a penalty killed? Rymsha. Need someone to score a big goal? Rymsha. The speed is there. The hockey sense is there. The only thing that I'm left wondering still is just how well will his offensive game translate to the next level? The hands are good, but is he creative enough and good enough with the puck to stay down the middle, despite that fantastic faceoff ability? Rymsha definitely plays a basic game in that regard. Dump and chase. Win loose puck battles. Work the wall. Go to the net. He can play off the rush when needed, but he's not the type who can create consistently in this regard. Without a contract (because he was an older draft selection), the Kings have some choices with Rymsha. They can send him back to Sarnia for his overage year. Or they can have him sign an AHL deal to get a look at him at the pro level before signing him to an NHL deal (something that this organization has done several times before). I'd like to see Rymsha back in the OHL though. I think playing in the league as a 20/21 year old would be very beneficial. Give him the opportunity to really explore his offensive game and gain confidence in his ability to create as a go-to offensive player. With a strength advantage, he could have a very good year, perhaps even hitting the 40 goal and 85 point mark.
6. Markus Phillips - Owen Sound Attack
Bit of a step backward for Phillips this year offensively, but I think that was by design to some degree. He was most definitely not as aggressive in leading the rush or jumping up into the rush this year compared to his draft year, and that appeared to be so that he could focus on improving his play in the defensive end. And I think Phillips did that. A stocky defender, Phillips has good mobility and a very wide base, making him a very difficult player to beat one on one. His intensity level in his own end was much better and more consistent this year too. Saw him win way more battles in the corners, using that wide base to gain leverage and keep it. And he's a valuable player because of his vision with the puck and ability to start the breakout once he gains possession. Without question, we saw Phillips transform himself into a solid two-way defender this year, something he was rewarded for by Hockey Canada, as he was an injury replacement at the summer WJC camp/series. Next year, it will be about getting those offensive numbers back up, while maintaining the defensive improvements that he made. Would love to see Phillips up near the top of the leaderboard among defenseman scoring, in the 50+ point range.
7. Matthew Villalta - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Villalta remains a difficult player for me to get a read on. The size and athleticism in the net are definite pluses. He moves very well post to post and has excellent recovery ability. As the starting netminder for one of the OHL's elite, he was given a pretty good opportunity to shine this year. However, when it came time for the playoffs, I thought Villalta struggled. He has a tendency to get himself out of position and as such, can give up some weaker goals low as pucks find a way between his pads. Rebound control can also be an issue as he's a bit more of a stopper right now. Next year, he'll return to the OHL and the Greyhounds will need him to have a big year. I think we'll learn a lot more about Villalta and his NHL potential then. Sault Ste. Marie will be a good team, but don't have quite as good a team on paper as they did the last two seasons. That means that if they want to be an elite team yet again, they'll need Villalta to really step up and steal games for them. I'm not going to make a prediction here because I could see it going one of two ways. One, Villalta struggles with being that go to guy, or he excels and gets the Hounds home ice advantage in the first round.
8. Jacob Ingham - Mississauga Steelheads
Despite being a much lower draft pick, I actually think Ingham possesses a bit more potential than Villalta does. He's just not as likely to reach it and thus I have him ranked below. Coming into this year Ingham was considered to be a possible top 60 selection and, arguably, the top ranked goalie from the CHL. But his season was a disaster that saw him nearly lose his starter's role for the Steelheads. His confidence appeared to be very low for most of the year as even the most routine saves were an adventure at times. Like Villalta, Ingham is a big kid with great athleticism. But major refinements are needed in his positioning. And his mental toughness and resiliency; the ability to bounce back from a bad goal or bad defensive play in front of him, need to improve. But, there was the odd game where Ingham just flat out dominated and showed that he has the capability to steal games and be an elite netminder in this league. This coming year is a big one for Ingham because he's going to be challenged equally thanks to the fact that Mississauga will likely have a weaker club as they go through a bit of a rebuild. He's going to face a ton of adversity. Will he be up to the challenge?