The St. Louis Blues are next and they've got two of the best prospects in the OHL currently.
1. Robert Thomas - Hamilton Bulldogs
Hard to find a prospect who had a more successful year than Thomas, winning an OHL championship and a World Junior Championship. The talented playmaking center was a vital player for both clubs, establishing himself as one of the top prospects in the NHL. I will say that after the World Juniors, his start with Hamilton wasn't terrific. Seemed to have some trouble finding chemistry with anyone in the lineup and I don't think he was nearly aggressive enough with the puck, which is the exact opposite of what we saw in London to start the year. But Thomas was absolutely fantastic in the playoffs helping the Bulldogs defeat the Soo Greyhounds for the OHL Championship. Saw a return to that dominating form at both ends of the ice and really became more aggressive on the attack, looking to create by pushing the pace. In terms of development this year, three key elements improved. First was his skating ability. Way quicker this year. Second was his strength on the puck. Yes, his hands create time and space, but he was able to hold off defenders to make plays and keep pucks alive along the wall in a way that he didn't do consistently last year. Third, was his shot. His wrister was much harder this year and he was way less tentative with the puck, keeping defenders honest by keeping them guessing. All in all, Thomas has to be considered one of the most complete forward prospects around and projects as the type of guy who can play in any situation and be a key offensive player. So what happens next year? I think many are expecting Thomas to make the Blues, even with the depth that they've added this offseason. In fact, I would be downright shocked if he didn't at least get the 9 game look. Problem is, it's not likely he supplants O'Reilly, Schenn, or Bozak for a top 3 spot, barring injury. And I just don't know if he excels as much on the wing, or if the Blues are content with Thomas being stuck on the 4th line all year. Questions, questions, questions. If I'm betting, I say he sticks with St. Louis and finishes the year with about 10 goals, 25 points.
2. Jordan Kyrou - Sarnia Sting
As mentioned, the Blues have two of the better OHL prospects around, with the other being Kyrou. In his own right, Kyrou had a great year too. He took home the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL's most outstanding player and also won gold at the World Juniors with Canada. We saw him improve his points per game average by 50 points. Kyrou can be an electrifying player to watch because of his skating ability and skill with the puck. Keeps it on a string and has really improved his ability to play through traffic the last two seasons in the OHL. Once considered a perimeter player, Kyrou is now aggressive in using his speed to take the puck to the net and has the strength to fight off checks near the wall and in the open ice to play his game. Kyrou's vision with the puck is also terrific, as he is equal parts playmaker and goal scorer. I feel like we do have to mention his poor playoff performance that saw him post only 4 points in 12 games. Part of that was bad luck (lots of posts, great saves). The other part was frustration, as he became a tad turnover prone, looking to do everything himself and likely putting way too much pressure on himself as captain of a team that (IMO) overachieved most of the regular season. It's also worth mentioning that Kyrou's two-way game and play in all three zones never really developed a ton in the OHL. Never really developed into the type who could use his speed to be a factor on the penalty kill or as a forechecker. All that said, I'm a big Kyrou fan and I do think he'll be an NHL scoring line player. I don't think it will be next year as I see him needing at least a half a year in the AHL first. Dylan Strome was over the point per game mark in the AHL as a rookie and I see Kyrou being able to do the same.
3. Alexei Toropchenko - Guelph Storm
Toropchenko was kind of a frustrating player to watch in his first OHL season. You watch him play and he definitely intrigues you with his package of size and skill. Big, powerful stride that sees him be a big factor off the rush as he looks to take the puck hard to the net. Aggressive in looking to shoot too, as he'll try to cut to the middle or fire one coming down the wing. Generates a lot of power in his wrist shot. He seems to make a few plays every game that really make you believe in his potential as an NHL player. But, for as impressive as he may look at times, the production just wasn't there in his first OHL season. Yes, there were some improvements later in the year, but this is a kid who should be hitting the score sheet consistently. So where does the discrepancy come from? His play away from the puck definitely needs to improve. Needs to be more willing to use his size to play near the crease and the middle without the puck. His board work needs to improve for a bigger forward. And shift to shift, the intensity level needs to be greater. I do wonder, just how good is the hockey sense? And I think that's a logical question. It is important to remember that this was his first season in North America, so let's see how he does in year two. Guelph is going to need him to step up and be a point per game player and 30 goal scorer if they want to be a top team in the Conference. And he's certainly skilled enough to do so.
4. Tyler Tucker - Barrie Colts
Tucker is a pure throwback; a player designed to play in a different era. That's not to say that he can't eventually be an effective NHL player, it's just that Tucker plays the game in a way that few do now. For that reason, he was one of my favourite later round gems available from the OHL going into this year's draft. Tucker relishes in any opportunity to play the body. Be it stepping up on attackers in the neutral zone, or putting someone through the wall, his physical intensity level is as high as any defender in the OHL. But Tucker is also very competent with the puck. He quarterbacked the Colts powerplay at different times this year and has a very powerful point shot which he's working on being able to get through traffic. As such, there is potential for him to develop at both ends of the ice. To take that next step as an OHL player and NHL prospect, Tucker's skating ability will have to improve. Be it backwards/lateral mobility, or explosiveness moving forward, improvements need to be made. Can get himself out of position trying to go for the big hit in the defensive end or trying to keep pucks in deep and doesn't have the skating ability to recover. As he gains experience as an OHL player, I do look for him to develop into one of the top defensive players in the league and for a lot of these issues to be ironed out. The question is, just how much can the skating improve? Tucker will return to Barrie and be a top 3 defender again for them. I think they'll be a pretty solid team again and I see Tucker hitting the 35+ point mark, with marked improvements in the goal scoring department. Really glad to see the Blues draft him in 2018 and curious to watch his game develop.
5. Trenton Bourque - Owen Sound Attack
Bourque is a steady eddy for the Owen Sound Attack; one of the more reliable stay at home defenders in the OHL. At 6'2, 200lbs, Bourque is actually very mobile and has a smooth skating stride that allows him to defend well off the rush and beat attackers to loose pucks. But he doesn't chase and is a very poised player in his own zone. Saw him really increase his physical intensity this year, especially when it came to winning battles in the corners and in front of the net. That was definitely the next step for him. As an offensive player, his game is pretty non existent. Even with his mobility, he doesn't take chances with the puck and is quick to differ or chip out. There's a reason why he has gone 215 regular season games without a goal (although did score in this year's playoffs). Bourque will return to the OHL for his overage year and will remain an integral part of Owen Sound's defense. If he wants a contract from the Blues, I'm guessing that they'll want to see a bit more from him offensively. Improving his breakout and gaining the confidence to use his mobility to skate the puck out of trouble himself. If he can hit the 30+ mark and still remain a defensive rock, the Blues may ultimately give him an ELC.