Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Preseason Top 30 for the 2019 NHL Draft

With the Ivan Hlinka tournament completed and OHL preseason action around the corner, it's time for the first draft list of the season. I only started doing a preseason list a few years ago, but I enjoy it because it gives you a great perspective on where players have come from (for fun, here's the 2018 preseason list).

This is obviously a very difficult list to make. The progression for draft eligible players can often be a tad unpredictable. The player you see in a sophomore season isn't often the same player you see in a freshman year. Growth spurts occur. Strength is added. Confidence grows. Timid perimeter players can become physical beasts, etc. Or, conversely, you've got players who look great as 17 year olds but just don't progress in their sophomore seasons. Plus, you've got all the players who haven't yet played in the OHL (at least more than a few games), but who are projected to be impact players in their draft year (like Matvei Guskov, Jet Greaves, etc).

If you watched the Hlinka tournament this year, you were able to take in some of the highly talented players available in 2019 (and in 2020 for that matter). You also probably noticed the lack of OHL content at the event, with Team Canada made up of primarily WHL and QMJHL players. I still think that the OHL has some very good players available and I wouldn't call it a down year. But as of right now, the strength in some of the other leagues (and other countries, such as the talent coming out of the U.S. this year), probably means less OHL first round candidates. In fact, we may not even see an OHL player taken in the lottery when all is said and done. However, it's still very early. Plenty of time for player(s) to emerge and steal the spotlight.

Here's my early list:

1. Ryan Suzuki - Forward - Barrie Colts
Originally thought that I would have Kaliyev at number one, but flip flopped them after their Hlinka performances. That's not to say that Kaliyev was bad. It's to say that I thought Suzuki was excellent for Canada and showed that his "overall" game and the way that he impacts it, is perhaps more advanced than Kaliyev right now. Plus, he plays a more premium position as a center. If we're comparing Ryan to his brother Nick, they are pretty comparable players. Ryan is a bit bigger and a better skater, and Nick would have to be considered the more lethal goal scorer. But both are extremely talented playmakers. Really like how Ryan controls the half wall. Always keeps his feet moving and has terrific hands, darting in and out of traffic. Also has fantastic vision, something that made him a lethal weapon on the powerplay for Canada at the Hlinka. As we progress to the 2018/19 season, Suzuki is going to have to be a little more selfish. Want to see him display more confidence in his shot and look to drive the middle to open up lanes to use it. Also want to see him improve his faceoff ability, an area he struggled with as an OHL rookie. If he can round out his game even further, his playmaking ability and physical gifts will be in high demand come June.

2. Arthur Kaliyev - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs
Speaking of physical gifts, that's Kaliyev in a nutshell. A 6'2 power winger with tremendous goal scoring ability. Some stats to throw at you. Kaliyev was the first 30 goal scoring U17 player in the OHL since Alex Galchenyuk. Topping out at 31 on the year, that tied him with the likes of Rick Nash, Nathan Horton, and Galchenyuk for a top 20 season all time (for a U17). Additionally, his 11 playoff points were the 4th most among U17 forwards in the OHL playoffs in the 2000's. Ahead of him? Tavares, McDavid, and Seguin. Not only is his shot powerful, but he has such a quick release and good hands in tight. Can score in a multitude of ways. Not a one trick pony. In the OHL last year, Hamilton often used Kaliyev on the point or as a half wall option. But the U.S. used Kaliyev as a net/slot presence on the powerplay and he looked equally impressive there. Because of his size and deceptive skating strength, Kaliyev is also a very difficult player to stop one on one as he drives the net. He has a lot of confidence with that puck. Where we need to see growth is away from the puck. Being able to use that size to be more of a factor in all three zones. Being a more consistent player along the wall. Also think there's room for improvement as a playmaker. Has shown he can drive the net, but does he possess the vision to make plays for linemates and be a true offensive catalyst instead of an opportunistic scorer?

3. Blake Murray - Forward - Sudbury Wolves
Murray is a power center who possesses tremendous physical gifts. Ended up leading the Wolves in scoring as a 17 year old (after they dealt off Sokolov and Pezzetta). Already plays a complete game and sees action in all situations for Sudbury because his size and skating ability makes him just as good without the puck as he is with it. Loves to drive the net and really is a driving force off the rush, as he looks to back up defenders to create room for him to utilize his terrific wrist shot. Does damage in front of the net without the puck and is a willing combatant already against older and stronger defenders. As we move into this year, I'll be looking for him to elevate his game physically. Just how much "power" is there in his game? Also want to see how much growth he can show as a puck carrier and distributor. He'll have more help this year with Quinton Byfield in the fold and if he can help the Wolves get back to being competitive, Murray will move up draft lists quickly.

4. Michael Vukojevic - Defense - Kitchener Rangers
Started last year with Green Bay before signing with Kitchener and honestly was impressive right from the get go. His poise in the defensive end is that of a four year OHL veteran. By the time the playoffs rolled around, he was Kitchener's second best defender behind Logan Stanley. And this was on a team who advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals. At 6'2, 200lbs, his size is an asset in his own end, especially when you consider how good his defensive positioning is. His anticipation and reads are very mature for his age. Very curious to see how his offensive game develops this coming year. At the Hlinka, I thought he looked good in the o-zone despite not posting a point. Did a very good job keeping pucks in and getting shots through to the net. As a puck carrier, there's room for growth. Ditto on the mobility front. But this is a very solid defensive prospect who plays a mature game with the potential to develop into a two-way beast.

5. Philip Tomasino - Forward - Niagara IceDogs
Tomasino is a dynamic offensive player who loves to play at a high speed. Pushes the pace off the rush and possesses electric skating and puck handling ability, which causes a lot of match up issues for the opposition. Thought he looked very good at the Hlinka camp recently, although didn't make the final cut due to the depth available. As of right now, probably slots into Niagara's terrific top 6 and will get a chance to play alongside the likes of Akil Thomas, Ben Jones, Ivan Lodnia, or Kirill Maksimov. I guess the question for the future is, is he a winger or a center? Can he use his skating ability to become a nuisance without the puck this year? Playing with guys like the four above, he's going to have to operate a lot without the puck on his stick and that will be a great challenge for him. But big time offensive potential here.

6. Nikita Okhotyuk - Defense - Ottawa 67's
Seems like a forgotten man at this point on most draft lists. Not mine. The late 2000 born Russian defender was a big time defensive standout for the 67's last year as a rookie. Keeps a wide base while defending the rush and is just a very difficult guy to get behind. Below the hash marks, he's ultra aggressive and really seemed to gain confidence as a physical player later in the year. Just not a fun guy to match up against and that's why the 67's started using him to close out games and match up against top lines. Offensively, I don't really know what the ceiling is. There's definitely some puck skill in there, it's just that he wasn't aggressive at all in that regard this past season. Does show potential as someone who can skate the puck out of trouble. I expect the 67's to be very good this year and I expect growth for Okhotyuk in all areas as he establishes himself as a terrific two-way defender. If the offensive game doesn't improve, he'll fall but as of right now, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.

7. Graeme Clarke - Forward - Ottawa 67's
Hard not to overreact to a single tournament like the Hlinka, but sometimes you do need to pay attention to the growth that a player has shown. Clarke has always been an extremely skilled player, perhaps one of the best in the age group with the puck on his stick. But at the Hlinka, he showed two things that caused me to move him up. The first was improved skating ability. Don't think he's ever going to be a burner, but he looks much more explosive than he did as an OHL rookie last year and that's going to help him exploit gaps and find scoring lanes that he couldn't consistently before. The second was improved play without the puck. Was completely engaged in the offensive end, working the cycle and even engaging physically to win battles. Clarke's bread and butter is his goal scoring ability and skill, but if he can continue to round out his game and improve his skating (given his average size), that is going to make him a lot more attractive to NHL teams come June. Getting a huge Tyler Toffoli vibe from him.

8. Nick Robertson - Forward - Peterborough Petes
This is 2018 (soon to be 2019) where smaller offensive forwards are no longer punished for their lack of size so long as they are skilled enough. And Robertson is skilled enough. He also grew, listed at 5'9 at the Hlinka, a couple inches more than he was listed as a Pete last year. Important to note that he's one of the younger players available this coming year, so wouldn't be surprised to see him continue to hit a late growth spurt. Brother of Kingston's power winger Jason, Nick plays a different game. A game based on speed, energy, and puck creativity. Very slippery in the offensive end, as he darts in and out of traffic, using quick hands to keep defenders guessing. Robertson is also an effective player without the puck as he uses his speed to chase down loose pucks and is effective in the neutral zone looking to force turnovers. Not sure I expect the Petes to be a terrific team this year, but I do expect Robertson to emerge as an offensive force. On a team with Der-Arguchintsev, Gogolev, Hinz, Gallant, etc, don't be surprised if he's the leading scorer come March.

9. Jamieson Rees - Forward - Sarnia Sting
Well rounded offensive player who had an impressive performance at the most recent Hlinka for Canada. Had a bit of an injury prone rookie season with the Sting that saw him get into only 46 games in 2017/18. And given his lack of size (listed as 5'10, 160lbs on the Hlinka roster), durability is going to be a concern. But this is a kid who can impact the game in a lot of ways. Brings good speed to the table and has great skill with the puck. As a rookie, this was extremely noticeable as it was one of the only ways he could generate scoring chances. But at the Hlinka, we saw him be an extremely effective player in traffic, which bodes well for his development this year. Really liked how he played down low for Canada, getting after loose pucks below the hash marks, and showing good poise and skill to turn those won battles into scoring chances. He looked a lot stronger on the puck and was able to fight off checks to play that scrappy puck hound role. If he stays healthy and continues to evolve as a complete player who can bring energy and skill, Rees' lack of size will be overlooked.

10. Tag Bertuzzi - Forward - Guelph Storm
Not uncommon for 16/17 year old rookies to struggle in their first OHL season. Especially when they deal with the injury issues (concussion, hip, and a few others) like Bertuzzi did. At this point, we need to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the former #2 overall pick will take big steps forward this year. Let's not forget that this is an NHL draft ranking and not a ranking of OHL success to date. Bertuzzi has the size and power game that will tantalize scouts. Already over 6'1, and 200lbs, Tag blends power and skill together to be a big time factor off the rush and the type of player who could be very difficult to contain within 10 feet of the net. He could be that dominant possession driving force that could control the wall and tire out defenses. This is something that was, again, only teased as a rookie but let's see how he looks to start the year before we move him down. On NHL potential alone, he deserves to be this high currently.

11. Connor McMichael - Forward - London Knights
The key piece in the Robert Thomas trade, McMichael is one of the smartest players in the age group. A very well rounded center who projects as someone who can be used in all situations and can eventually develop into an elite two-way player. Solid skater who I thought looked pretty good in a limited role with London to end last year, where his intelligence without the puck and vision as a playmaker were evident. A lack of strength was an issue as it often is for rookies. Will be interesting to see how much ice time he gets in London this coming season. If he moves from center, he could likely be a 3rd liner, but if they want him down the middle, he'll be slow played on the 4th like many top end London players before him. If the strength has improved, he can hopefully use his speed and smarts to be a strong penalty killer and stand out any way he can.

12. Billy Constantinou - Defense - Niagara IceDogs
A favourite of mine last year as an OHL rookie. I think this kid just oozes NHL potential. Constantinou is an explosive offensive defender who can lead the rush and push the pace. An effortless skater, Constantinou generates a ton of power and reaches top speed relatively quickly, allowing him to shoot out of the d-zone and start the breakout. Consistency in decision making was an issue. But I was impressed with his defensive zone commitment level, something that was supposed to be poor coming out of minor midget. Niagara has a pretty deep team heading into next year, but I'm hoping he gets more powerplay time so we can evaluate his ability as a quarterback. But as stated, he might have the highest ceiling of any defender on this list.

13. Nicholas Porco - Forward - Saginaw Spirit
The 4th overall pick in 2017's priority selection, Porco had a bit of a disappointing rookie season in the OHL. But as mentioned with Bertuzzi, this is not uncommon in the OHL. Need to give Porco the benefit of the doubt that he will improve. Porco, with his speed and skill, possesses a lot of offensive potential. He is a dynamic player who I definitely see a bit of Jordan Kyrou in at the same age. As we move into this coming year, I'm looking for his decision making and play away from the puck to improve. If he starts putting up numbers on an improving, young Saginaw team, Porco could climb draft lists quickly.

14. Andrew Perrott - Defense - London Knights
From start to finish, Perrott was one of the rookies who improved the most over the course of last season. That's definitely encouraging as often times 16/17 year olds will hit a wall. Was super impressed with Perrott's physical intensity in the defensive end. Just a fearless player who can physically punish you already and who really seemed to learn how to play with more composure and patience as the season went on. I think there's more to his game offensively too. Later in the year we saw him start to lead the rush and gain confidence in his ability to work the point. Could develop into a real throwback two-way defender. Next year, I think he has a chance to be a top 4 defender for London, perhaps as a partner for Adam Boqvist. Let's see how his skating continues to evolve (as it's only average) and how his game grows, but I'm a big fan.

15. Mitchell Brewer - Defense - Oshawa Generals
Brewer is a defender with good size who already has a great compete level and established himself as a dependable defensive option for Oshawa as a rookie. Blocks shots. Clears the crease. Wins battles in the corner. Is also a good skater who has proven to be extremely mobile. As of yet, that mobility has not translated to offensive success. Brewer seemed content to learn how to play in his own end first and his confidence with the puck wasn't incredibly high. But at the Hlinka camp this summer, I was impressed with Brewer at both ends. If he can carry over that confidence and look to use his skating ability to be a factor offensively to go with his strong defensive acumen, he'll move up this list quickly as a potential two-way defender. Has a lot of qualities that NHL scouts look for.

16. Nathan Allensen - Defense - Barrie Colts
Like the two players ranked ahead of him, Allensen was impressive as a defensive player as an OHL rookie last year. Was always impressed by his mobility, in particular his gap control and ability to defend off the rush. Also thought he did a good job with the puck in his own end, keeping things safe and rarely turning the puck over. Just was a very dependable player for the Colts. The question is, how much offensive potential does he possess? Moves up into the top four likely this year and we'll see what he's capable of and just how much his game can grow. Have to believe one of these strong defensive defenders shows to be a more than competent player offensively too.

17. Grayson Ladd - Defense - Windsor Spitfires
The fourth consecutive defender who showed well in his own zone as an OHL rookie. While Ladd's size and mobility are major pluses, I think his offensive upside is the lowest of the four and that's why I've got him ranked lowest among the four defensive standouts. But Ladd showed a lot of progression last year, especially after a trade to Windsor. Has the potential to develop into a fantastic stay at home defender given that his movement is so fluid and his IQ in the defensive end so high. This was also evident at the Hlinka camp. Seemed like every time I wrote down a number of a defender making a great defensive play, it was Ladd. But, I'm just not sure how much skill with the puck he has and if that part of his game will ever be even above average. If the offensive game stagnates, he's going to have to step it up even more as a defensive player, especially his physical intensity. Currently a stick on puck defender, Ladd will have to step up his physical game to match his defensive IQ and be a harder guy to match up against. Will be a top four defender for the Spits this season.

18. Ethan Keppen - Forward - Flint Firebirds
Big, powerful winger with a goal scorer's touch. Had 10 goals last year, which doesn't jump off the page at you, but he did have 112 shots which was 4th among 01's (behind Kaliyev, Clarke, and Robertson). This kid will be a goal scorer in this league. But his power game is also impressive. Even as a rookie, he stood out at times with his ability to plow through traffic and drive the net. He knows his role on the ice and he really embraces it. Expect the physical component to his game to improve/increase even more this year. I guess the question I have is, can he improve his skating ability and just how good is his skill with the puck? Will need to get quicker so that he can be more of a factor away from the puck. And is he more than just a complimentary/opportunistic scorer? Let's see how he looks this year on what should be an improved Flint team.

19. Mack Guzda - Goaltender - Owen Sound Attack
Huge goaltender (6'4, 220lbs) who has the size and athleticism that NHL scouts are looking for in the position now. Moves well laterally for such a big kid and profiles as a big time stopper. Consistency was an issue last year, especially in his positioning and rebound control. Hard to be that big and in control all the time. But he will head into this year as the starter for an Owen Sound team that will still compete heavily for a playoff spot. Wanted to rank him a bit higher, but I usually like to be conservative when ranking goalies this early as it can be tough to predict their development.

20. Lev Starikov - Defense - Windsor Spitfires
Lanky, behemoth Import defender who is coming into his second year in the OHL. The 6'7, 190lbs blueliner was an Import Draft selection by Windsor in 2017 and just missed the cutoff for the 2018 NHL Draft by a few days. Starikov's athleticism for such a big blueliner is what will draw NHL scouts to him. Moves quite well for a big guy and I actually think he projects a bit more as an offensive blueliner than a strictly stay at home type. Flashes some good puck skill and shows potential as a puck mover who can lead the rush. Defensively, that reach is a major asset. Would like to see him play a little meaner. And at times he looks a little awkward with the puck when pressed for time. But, as much as he remains a project, he has a lot of potential and could move quickly if he shows improvement and growth (hopefully not in height anyway).

21. Daniil Antropov - Forward - Oshawa Generals
The son of former Maple Leaf Nikolai, Daniil is a similar type of player. Long winger who can excel off the rush, driving the net and profiles as a quality playmaker and net presence. He's a late 2000 born, so this will be his 3rd OHL season upcoming. Thought he had a disappointing second season and as such I've ranked him lower than I thought I would have had him, at say, the midpoint of last year. His skating will need to improve, ditto for his play away from the puck and his intensity level in the offensive end. Still possesses a lot of potential, but will have to fight for ice time, yet again, on a quality Oshawa team. 

22. Cody Morgan - Forward - Windsor Spitfires
Another recently acquired Spitfire with Cody Morgan, the center piece of the Vilardi/Day deal to Kingston. Thought Morgan was very impressive as a rookie. Really like how he controls possession already, working the wall and keeping pucks alive. Not blessed with elite size, but already very strong on the puck. Morgan is a kid with a very high hockey IQ who profiles as a well rounded offensive player. I know coming out of MM, he was said to possess a lot of goal scoring potential, so we'll see how that develops. With that hockey IQ and his strength on/off the puck, he profiles as a strong two-way player too. The only thing going against Morgan is his current average skating ability coupled with average size. I'm sure improving that was a focus this offseason so we'll see if he looks more explosive come September.
23. Luke Cavallin - Goaltender - Flint Firebirds
This ranking is based purely on potential as Cavallin struggled on a poor Flint team last year. But that's usually the case for 16/17 year old netminders in this league as they adjust to the speed of the OHL coming out of minor midget. Cavallin is definitely an athletic netminder, but from what I've seen, his positioning needs work. At this year's Hlinka camp, that was evident as he was getting caught out of position while tracking the play, over skating angles and leaving openings too big for top end shooters. Again, projecting goaltenders is difficult and Cavallin has as much potential as anyone on this list. Likely splits time with Emanuel Vella this year and should get more help in front of him which can only help his confidence.

24. Nathan Staios - Defense - Windsor Spitfires
Would be ranked higher if he wasn't 5'8. The game has definitely changed, but 5'8 defenders still face an uphill battle when it comes to drawing NHL draft attention. This is probably even higher than some scouts would have him currently, but I'm a big fan. Staios is very mobile. Really like his edgework and ability to stop, start, change direction. This helps him to be an asset on the point and IMO, eventually a very strong powerplay QB. As he gains confidence, I think we'll see him be a big time factor as a leader of the breakout too. Defensively, he plays way bigger than his size. Engages physically and wins more battles than he should along the wall given his stature and the size of players he's going up against. That competitive nature will do him well moving forward. If he wants to stay ranked this high and draw serious interest from NHL scouts, the offensive production will need to be there this coming year in Windsor. Not outside the realm of possibility for him to start the year as the top powerplay QB and main offensive weapon on the blueline. The pedigree is great, but will probably need to be in the 40 point range to be a potential NHL pick.

25. Joe Carroll - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Athletic power winger who excelled in a depth role with the Greyhounds this past year. The former 4th round pick was a huge surprise, but clearly has the tools to be an impact OHL player. At 6'2, 200lbs, he blends size and skill and I was very impressed with his ability to operate in traffic, especially in close. I think he possesses big time goal scoring potential. Dating back to his MM days, the knock against Carroll was a wavering intensity level, especially without the puck. But the SSM coaching staff (although overhauled) has done a great job getting forwards to buy into playing in all three zones. Carroll is likely going to get a crack at a top 6 role this year, perhaps even playing with Frost or Hayton and if so, he could be a big draft riser given his skill set.

26. Cole Mackay - Forward - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Felt right putting these two guys back to back since both were impressive as bottom six players on a strong SSM team last year. Like Carroll, I think Mackay possesses a ton of offensive potential, especially as a goal scorer. He certainly doesn't possess Carroll's elite physical package, which could be troublesome for NHL scouts. But I love how engaged he is in the offensive zone. Battles for every inch of ice and seems to have really good hands. When he was given a few chances to play up, I thought he fit right in and you can tell that his hockey sense is very good. Again, like Carroll, he's going to get a shot to play a larger role next year and has the ability to put up points. Let's see if his skating and ability to carry the puck look more advanced.

27. Liam Ross - Defense - Sudbury Wolves
If you recall, Ross was one of my favourites to watch as a minor midget player. Needless to say that I'm a fan. And he had a solid rookie year for Sudbury that saw him improve as the year went on. Love his competitive nature and he leaves little to be desired in the defensive end. Definitely projects as a quality shutdown defender at this level, at the very least. I guess the question I have is, just how much room for growth is there in his game? How much better can his skating get? Is there significant offensive upside? The size is certainly nice and as I said, I really like this kid as an OHL player. I just wonder what type of NHL prospect he ends up becoming, even if I'm confident in his ability to develop into a quality OHL defender.

28. Thomas Harley - Defense - Mississauga Steelheads
Not sure he had the best of rookie seasons in the OHL after being a first round priority selection, but the potential remains quite high because of his physical gifts. Big kid who moves extremely well on the back-end. I know many felt that he possessed some of the highest upside of any defender in this age group because of his athleticism. There were certainly flashes of that last year, be it his ability to lead the rush, quarterback the powerplay, or play in his own end. But his play wasn't as consistent as some of his contemporaries and his game would definitely have to be classified as "raw." But if his game really comes together this year, he could end up as a top pairing defender on the Steelheads and would definitely move up draft rankings quickly.

29. Jack York - Defense - Kitchener Rangers
The son of former NHL'er Jason York, Jack was a rookie with the Rangers this year and was used rather sparingly until later in the year. Like Starikov in Windsor, Jack missed the cutoff for the 2018 NHL Draft by just a few days, meaning he's a late 2000 born. But when asked to play a larger role late in the year and into the playoffs, I thought York really impressed at both ends. Really liked his vision operating the point and later in the year, we saw his confidence grow offensively to the point where he was starting to jump up into the play and showcased a quality shot that suggests he could have some scoring potential from the back-end like his father (who scored 56 career OHL goals). Looks to have good potential as a two-way defender. Should get more ice time this year and will look to build off of his playoff performance.

30. Daniel D'Amico - Forward - Windsor Spitfires
Intelligent and slick forward who was a big surprise for Windsor this year as a 6th rounder in the 2017 priority draft. Seems to possess really nice hands and finishing ability as his 12 goals were the 6th highest among 2001 born players last year. Really seems to understand how to play without the puck already in the offensive end. Doesn't possess terrific size at this point, but the offensive potential seems quite high to me. As he gets stronger and is able to be more of a consistent factor with the puck, he could develop into a very well balanced scoring line option. Should see significant ice time in Windsor this season and I know Spitfire fans love him.

Honorable Mentions:

Mason Primeau - Forward - Guelph Storm

Keean Washkurak - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads

Cole Schwindt - Forward - Mississauga Steelheads

Duncan Penman - Defense - Saginaw Spirit

Luke Bignell - Forward - Barrie Colts

Jacob LeGuerrier - Defense - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Keegan Stevenson - Forward - Guelph Storm

Navrin Mutter - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs

Hunter Jones - Goaltender - Peterborough Petes

Mitchell Russell - Forward - Owen Sound Attack

Emmett Sproule - Forward - Erie Otters

Appearing Soon:

Matvei Guskov - Forward - London Knights

Kari Piiroinen - Goaltender - Windsor Spitfires

Tim Fleischer - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs

Jet Greaves - Goaltender - Barrie Colts

Liam Van Loon - Forward - Hamilton Bulldogs

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